Out of chaos, a new gender paradigm?

I am currently half way through writing a new novel in the Boy & Girl Saga entitled Girl, Boy or Whatever. The following article inspired by Chaos Theory takes a different look at gender and healing as part of the reflection behind the new book.

From waking to sleep

Let’s begin with sleeping and waking. It is relatively easy to wake a sleeping person. Moving the other way is less easy. How do you fall asleep? If you are wide awake, sleep seems almost unattainable. If you are tired or drowsy, sleep is much easier to reach. In fact it calls to you and the closer you get the more irresistible it becomes. Till finally you have to fight not to drift off. It is almost as if sleep were like a magnet. So you have two very different but related states, both anchored in tangible bodily reactions, which draw you all the more strongly the closer you get. If you get too close, you are pulled in and held captive by that state until something happens to jolt you out of it. Looking at the phenomenon in more abstract terms, you are continually in a delicate state of equilibrium (whether awake or asleep) that could swing to the other state but doesn’t immediately do so because the current state exerts an attraction holding you in place. However that attraction rapidly diminishes the further you move away.

Multiple forms of gender?

Now here’s the major question. Given the licence that fiction allows, what if gender as laid out in the blueprint of each cell and expressed in the form of our bodies and the perceptions we have of ourselves were a similar phenomenon? What if the current binary gender set-up were only one of many possible forms? What if, given the right conditions, we could switch from one gender form to another, without the aid of drugs or the surgeon’s scalpel? Admittedly it would seem that the attraction of the rigid binary form we are familiar with is particularly strong, giving the impression it is the (only) natural state of affairs.  However, in an increasing number of cases the human body has adopted more flexible forms. This variation is all the more pronounced if we consider only people’s perceptions of their gender rather than their physical attributes.

Mind over matter

Why does our current dominant form of binary gender seem ineluctable? It is tempting to reply, because it is inscribed in the blueprint of our cells and consequently in the physical form we take. But if we examine the question more closely, this argument hinges on the primacy we grant to matter over mind. What if mind could shape matter? What if our perception of gender, seen as a far more fluid way of being, could have an influence on the blueprint itself and bring about changes in our bodies to align them to the way we perceive ourselves?

Switching forms of gender

In my series of novels Boy & Girl, the whole system of healing developed by the young protagonists is founded on the premise that mind can influence matter, that a healer can intervene to encourage the body to return to a healthy equilibrium by favouring the natural harmony and balance reflected in the cell’s blueprint rather than intervening from the outside, as modern medicine does, with drugs, rays and a scalpel. In other words, healing is achieved by strengthening the attraction of a natural healthy state as expressed in that underlying blueprint. Having ventured so far, the inevitable next step is to ask if mind can shift the body from one blueprint to another, from one relatively stable state of gender to a different one? Although such a move also relies on the primacy of mind over mater, doing so is not at all identical to the young people’s healing method. It requires changing the blueprint rather than strengthening it. Being able to do so would solve Peter’s dilemma of how to hold on to the apparent androgyny of prepubescence without suffering the long-term undesirable effects of blocking puberty or needing a surgical intervention. It could potentially do much more. It could enable his body to align with that wished-for, in-between state by being both boy and girl.

Gender as a social phenomenon

By concentrating on the cell’s blueprint and implicitly the primacy of matter over mind, we fail to take into consideration a major factor. Gender is very much a social phenomenon. The binary gender system we are familiar with is firmly anchored not just in a biological reality, but also in a web of social interactions and shared perceptions. If Peter were to manage to shift to a different gender configuration by changing the form of his body, growing breasts for example while retaining his penis, he would find himself at odds with the dominant social perception of gender as a rigid binary division. He would likely be the target of violent rejection if not outright attempts at eliminating him as an aberration. Attempts to modify the underlying blueprint for gender and its impact on the body would have to go hand-in-hand with efforts to transform the social perception of gender. The novels are set in 1960 when ideas of sex and gender were even more rigid than today. Nowadays, considerable advances have been made in a number of countries towards a more fluid vision of gender.

Pandora’s box?

Whatever the outcome of Peter’s fictional endeavours, a major ethical and practical preoccupation remains. His strivings are centred on the transformation of gender by intervening on the body’s blueprint. But there is nothing to stop those discoveries being used to modify other bodily features, opening the way to eugenics. That spectre alone and society’s likely abhorrence might well put an end to experiments like those of Peter and like-minded people, if ever they became known. Of course, aware that these different ‘sets’ of instructions dictating the form of life in a human body are the result of a delicate equilibrium, it is possible that many of the nightmares that fans of eugenics might dream up would not be stable and their corresponding life-forms unviable. Such a reliance on a higher force, embedded as it were in a ‘code’ of life that rules out aberrations, although appealing, is probably over-naive.

The Boy & Girl Saga

  1. Boy & Girl Dressing like a girl and being in a girl’s head are not the same challenge, as Peter finds out.
  2. In Search of Lost Girls – Abruptly severed from his soulmate, Peter goes in search of Kate and finds much more.
  3. Girl. Boy, or Whatever – In their quest to develop a new paradigm for healing and a radical approach to gender, Peter and Kate face violent opposition.

The inseparable pair

woman-man

“When I look at a girl, all the girl’s in the choir, for example, what strikes me is that being a girl comes natural to them. They don’t have to think about it. It’s what they are. If I were a girl like them there would be nothing special in dressing or acting as one. But for me there is something special about being a boy who dresses as a girl. I’m attracted to girls, I identify as a girl, I feel like a girl, especially when I’m dressed as one, but I am not prepared to go the whole road and become a girl. In a strange way, that ambivalence is an important part of who I am.” – Peter talking to Kate in the first chapter of Girl, Boy, Whatever!

As I embark on a third book in the Boy & Girl series, Girl, Boy, Whatever! I cannot help but revisit the way the ineluctable pair boy-girl or male-female necessarily orients all questions of gender, even for those who refuse the division. I hesitated a long time about writing a follow-up to In Search of Lost Girls. Why? Because the older Peter gets, the greater the pressure on him to chose between girl or boy when in fact he would prefer to put off that choice for ever. Unlike his namesake, Peter Pan, he has no NeverNever Land to fly away to, outside time, where he can remain eternally young, basking in the gender ambiguity that pre-adolescence affords. He has bought some time by living with the Lost Girls in Lucern and by the use of experimental hormones, like magical fairy dust that spares him from becoming a man. But that borrowed time cannot last. Especially as other forces conspire to oblige him to return to England, to cease using hormones and to conform to the male body he was born with. In 1960, when the story takes place, people were even less tolerant than today. A boy became a man. That was that. A boy who dressed as a girl was not only an ‘aberration’, but a threat to the unchallenged certitude of every man about his gender.

A brief detour via China

The left hand is cupped, palm upwards. At a casual glance it appears empty, neglected, insignificant even, yet, rather like the silence that whispers all secrets, it is full to the brim, pregnant with energy. The right hand is raised, in motion, slicing through the air, powerful, dynamic, determined, the fruit of intention. It attracts attention. It makes a statement that forces admiration. Yet, paradoxically, in that assertion it is spent and in need of replenishment. In Chinese lore, the former is yin, the latter yang. Female and male. Neither can exist separately. Without the overflowing energy of stillness, the arrow of movement cannot fly. Returning to the Western world, the vision is different. Male and female lead no such inseparable coexistence. On the contrary, they are distinct if not antagonistic.

The words we use

Female and male. The two permeate our way of seeing the world. They underlie our language, our thoughts, our being. In Western thinking, we see them as separate, distinct. She or he. Certain religions make a doctrine of what they see as the god-given distinction between the two. They even go so far as to use brute force or torture to ‘rectify’ any confusion or ambiguity.

Language gives us only ‘he’ or ‘she’ or ‘it’. However, the word ‘it’ conjures up not so much the ‘in between’ or ‘indeterminate’, an alternate, multiple gender, rather the inanimate, the neutral, the neuter, the genderless. Various recent linguistic constructs seek to propose alternatives, but they lack the adhesion and ease of use of the existing personal pronouns. Like water, language invariably flows in beds born out of long use and as such work against change and transformation. In addition, the paths followed often depend on the language spoken.

The other side of the Channel

In French, every object, every noun is either masculine or feminine. A dress is feminine, ‘sa robe’, whether it is worn by a boy or a girl. The gender of the object masks the gender of the wearer. In English, the word dress is associated with the gender of the wearer, ‘his dress’ or ‘her dress’. However, the word ‘dress’, despite the absence of an article to flag the gender, is associated with girls and women. This is also the case in French, although the gender ascribed to words is often arbitrary.

Contrary to what one crossdresser said, many clothes have gender. It is the inherent feminine nature, culturally speaking, of certain clothes that makes them attractive to the crossdresser. ‘His dress’, as Peter calls it in Boy & Girl when he dons his sister’s clothes, immediately signifies a transgression which if translated into French would require a circumlocution to express. To what extent do these differences in language colour our attitude and understanding of gender? More generally, how does the deep-seated division perceived between what it means to be a man or a woman influence our perception of the world? Does it not engender an either-or, black-white logic that carves a hard and fast line through a world that, in reality, is a multitude of shades of grey or rather a rainbow of brilliant colours? Much of the confusion lies in mistakenly thinking that gender is synonymous with sex as defined by genitalia.

A binary strike

I can’t help feeling uneasy about the idea of a women’s strike, like the one that took place recently in Switzerland. Not that I question the need for political action to redress the balance between women and men. There is an absurdity if not a violence in the feeling of superiority that many men bask in and the advantages they take for granted. Yet all those for whom the clear-cut division between male and female is problematic must necessarily feel uncomfortable with a women’s movement that gets its identity from that very division. One of the participants at the demonstration had put on his best dress, high heels and makeup to support the cause. What better way to show your solidarity than by dressing to celebrate your womanhood? Yet, in reality, her presence was frowned upon by a number of women present, or at best ignored as an unfortunate embarrassment. Why? Because that ambiguity is seen to challenge the clear-cut division between man and woman on which the movement is founded. When you are trying to make a point, as the women’s strike was seeking to do, clear-cut arguments and easily identified divisions are more readily communicated and defended. Nuance and ambiguity are necessarily weaknesses in a polarised political landscape. The would-be woman completely misjudged the situation. What she saw as an occasion to proclaim her attachment to femininity, was in fact a political movement opposing men and women in a struggle for domination which had no time and place for expressions of gender ambiguity.