By John Rolfe / Red Hook, N.Y.
Is there any subject that makes humans freak out more than this one?
Since the dawn of recorded history, the power, behaviors and mechanics of physical attraction and procreation have been viewed as taboo, evil, to be kept under strict wraps and tightly controlled. While the sexual revolution of the 1960s certainly led to more openness and acceptance, we are in the midst of a backlash.
The so-called “dirty deed” is still fraught with cultural baggage and potential emotional and physical consequences. In our mainstream forms of news and entertainment (TV shows, movies, video games), explicit acts of harmful violence are more acceptable for viewing than sexual pleasure. Heck, we’re still so hung up on the idea that the human body is shameful that mothers who breastfeed (nature’s way for humans to feed their infants) in public are often harassed, as if what they are doing is somehow harmful to others if seen.
Sex education, so necessary for informing responsible behavior, is still a battleground, with conservatives seeking to limit it strongly or keep it out of schools altogether. The emergence of the LGBTQ+ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or questioning) community during the past 50 years has kept the issue boiling, especially in politics.
It’s telling that a majority in the House of Representatives feels it’s necessary to pass bills to protect the right of same sex couples to marry. It boggles my mind that these things remain matters of legality and are in possible jeopardy from the Supreme Court and the Republican Party.
One particularly contentious argument is that the subjects of sex and gender preference should be left to parents, many of whom are woefully uninformed or too squirrely to discuss them with their kids. I know how that feels. As the father of four, I always dreaded “the talk” and tried my absolute level best to punt it to my wife. Our kids, in turn, were profoundly uncomfortable talking about sexual topics with either of us.
Given all this deeply ingrained unease, it’s no wonder that relatively little is known about what makes people tick sexually and why. The study of human sexuality didn’t begin in earnest until 1886, and progress has been slow with prominent researchers such as Bill Masters and Virginia Johnson accused by many of being mere perverts.
LGBTQ+ issues in particular are shrouded in thick clouds of ignorance and fear of “the other.” Few things feel more “other” to a majority than a minority of people who are attracted to the same sex and active about it physically, socially and politically.
One common, persistent myth is that LGBTQ+ people are recruited and converted from the ranks of heterosexuals. Another is that they are inherently molesters. The right-wing extremist group The Proud Boys recently crashed an event at a library in San Lorenzo, Calif. where men in drag were reading stories to children in an effort to promote acceptance. One of the Proud Boys wore a shirt declaring “Kill Your Local Pedophile.” So-called “drag queens” are unsettling in the way they challenge gender norms, but they are not always gay men or merely seeking recruits.
Yet another myth is that the LGBTQ+ ranks are much larger than they actually are. Gallup Polls in 2011, 2013 and 2019 found that a majority of Americans consistently believe that nearly a quarter of the country’s population is gay or lesbian. The actual number is around five percent. Transsexuals make up .6 percent (or 1.6 million).
Given those actual percentages, the reaction to and legislative action against same-sex marriage and transgender use of public restrooms and participation in sports has been blown way out of proportion. The threats that so many people perceive in those areas are based far more on assumption than actual evidence.
It is feared that allowing LGBTQ+ couples to marry will cause heterosexual unions to dissolve. The overall divorce rate in the U.S. (2.9 per 1,000) has actually been falling since gay marriage was legalized in 2015, though fewer couples are choosing to marry. And there is such a strong, prevalent discomfort with transsexuals, especially with regard to public restrooms, that the expectation of perversion fills the void left by the lack of actual understanding In fact, transsexuals are much more likely to be victims of harassment and sexual assault that commit those crimes.
One especially murky subject is transsexuals in high school and college sports. About 10 to 14 percent of the transsexual community’s young population is estimated to be participating. Yet the sample of such athletes is so small that no definitive studies exist on how transition affects performance on the field. Such an athlete will not have an automatic physical advantage if any cisgender female competitors are bigger and stronger, which they easily can be.
Nonetheless, some states have scurried to legally prevent crossover athletes from competing against the gender into which they were born. My initial inclination was to believe the solution was to have transgender athletes compete against each other, but their numbers are too small and I can understand their feelings of isolation from the sporting community.
The storm of misinformation and misunderstanding has been intensified by often confusing terms such as “cisgender” (a person whose sense of identity and gender corresponds with their birth sex) and “non-binary” (gender identity that doesn’t fall neatly into “man” or “woman”) that have entered the popular vernacular. Many assume they were recently invented by the LGBTQ+ movement, but the Latin prefix “cis” (on this side) has been used with regard to gender for decades.
Discussions of “sex” (determined by reproductive function) and “gender” (either sex according to social and cultural rather than biological differences) and how gender can be fluid are met with ridicule by those who fail to understand the actual definitions of those words.
To give you an example, on July 13, nationally syndicated columnist Froma Harrop wrote a snarky piece called “‘Women’ shall not be erased” in which she declared, “I'm not going to refer to myself as ‘cisgender,’ a reference to people whose gender identity aligns with the sex they were assigned at birth.” Harrop was refusing to use a scientific term to describe what she actually is, but she sees the word as a mere slogan of the LGBTQ+ movement, which she accuses of bullying others into seeing people its way.
I want to be clear than I am not advocating for “anything goes anytime.” I don’t believe that one’s sexuality should be an “in your face” matter and that consideration of others’ feelings and sensibilities with any subject you care to cite is always called for. I simply believe that people should be free to safely live as they are and those who have reached the age of consent, which in states ranges from 16 to 18, should be free to express love or share physical pleasure with whomever they wish in ways that are not meant to be harmful.
I plead guilty to not knowing enough about transgenderism–no one knows yet what causes gender dysphoria–to make an informed decision about where I stand on the solutions to hot button issues and the wisdom of giving kids medical treatments that will affect and possibly permanently change their bodies before they can change their minds about the whole thing.
Based on the research I’ve done so far, I can see that the decision to transition from one sex/gender to another is a very complicated, nuanced thing that is sure to be ground up in the ham-handed, starkly either-or arenas of culture and politics.
Gender identity confusion often starts in childhood, but can be a form of obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) or genuine gender dysphoria (a deep sense of unease and distress when your biological sex does not match your perceived gender identity). Either way, the child and the parents are confronted by serious, life-altering if not life-threatening matters.
I understand the concern behind the new Texas state law that enables law enforcement to investigate the parents of transgender kids for potential child abuse, but the specter of prosecution for seeking care is absolutely the wrong way to prevent a potentially irrevocable and highly consequential act. Treatments such as using puberty blockers to delay the onset of sex-specific physical changes (breasts, pubic and facial hair, etc.) can buy time to sort things out, but competent care from physicians and mental health professionals is crucial.
As it is, transgender as well as gay and lesbian people are at great risk for depression, substance and abuse and suicide due mainly to society’s hostile attitudes toward them. They are not acknowledged for who they are. They are treated as second-class citizens by those who would deny them the right to form a marriage contract, and they are assaulted by people who believe they are abnormal, dangerous and deranged.
Why anyone would actually choose to live with that kind of rejection, discrimination and harassment is beyond me. Yet many people still insist that being gay, lesbian or transgender is a matter of “grooming” and conscious choice. There is a world of difference between being taught to understand and being indoctrinated (taught to uncritically accept a set of beliefs).
Homosexuality was considered a mental disorder until 1975. Researchers are still trying to find the specific biological factors that determine the gender with which one identifies and to which one is attracted. While the search for a distinct “gay gene” has come up empty, recent studies strongly suggest that sexual orientation and behavior are determined by levels of exposure to hormones such as testosterone while in the womb.
There is reasonable certainty that being gay or lesbian, or wanting to actually be one’s opposite sex, are not simple choices that a person consciously makes with cold calculation. I know I never “decided” to be heterosexual — when I hit puberty I was reflexively attracted to girls — nor have I ever met anyone of any orientation who says they made such a “chicken or beef” choice with any degree of deliberation. I have met more than a few people who are more open to same-sex experience than others, which only bears out what researcher Alfred Kinsey found: There is a spectrum that ranges, on a scale of 1 to 7, from strictly heterosexual to strictly homosexual.
Until we know and understand more about the factors that influence human sexuality in all its variety, I’d really prefer to hear a lot more from experts (physiologists, biologists, psychologists and psychiatrists) and a lot less from fear mongering politicians, misinformed media personalities, and self-righteous social warriors.
I just wish we all could proceed carefully and compassionately. Live and let live. Do no harm. These are fellow human beings after all.
John Rolfe is a former senior editor for Sports Illustrated for Kids, a longtime columnist for the Poughkeepsie Journal/USA Today Network, and author of The Goose in the Bathroom: Stirring Tales of Family Life. His school bus drivin’ blog “Hellions, Mayhem and Brake Failure” is parked on his website Celestialchuckle.com (https://celestialchuckle.com) with the meter running.