I remember my younger self, brought up in a conservative household, showing up for a philosophy class thinking that there are just two genders. My professor, bless him, blew my mind by saying, “not necessarily.” He didn’t humiliate me in front of the class. Rather, by this simple statement, he forced me to re-examine what I thought I knew. I was doing a lot of that through my teenage and into my early adult years.
So it is without surprise that I regularly watch Fox News hosts, like Doocy, and so-called “analysts” and “experts” and so forth, regularly hold court on all matters gender, and fail to realize that there is no “either” heterosexual “or” homosexual any more than there is a choice between being “male” or “female.” Rather, there is and has always been more of a sliding scale.
Watch, courtesy of Media Matters for America, as Fox News’ Steve Doocy and Keith Ablow try to wrap their tiny minds Wednesday morning around the idea of gender fluidity, a concept understood even in the ancient world, where having a penis wasn’t enough to make you a man.
STEVE DOOCY (CO-HOST): A lot of people are up in arms over this because it is just a fact when you talk physiology men are stronger than women. So even though this woman was born a man, identifies now as a woman, she still has a man’s body.
KEITH ABLOW: Well yes, that person does have a man’s body. And you know what, Steve? Identity is not necessarily a reality. What a person identifies as, doesn’t make it a fact. And I would say, it is my medical opinion, other psychiatrists have different opinions, the folks who identify as a gender other than their own born gender, their maleness or femaleness at birth, they haven’t found themselves, they’ve lost themselves. It isn’t true.
DOOCY: What do you mean?
ABLOW: What I mean is that if your DNA says you’re female and if your anatomy say you’re female, you’re female. Your identity may be something different, that of a male, but it’s an open question whether that’s actually an illness, not something to celebrate. And what we see is that because these identities, which I would say are false identities, because they are being celebrated they are creeping into our culture and they’re exploding the truth about many things we value. In other words physiology. It’s true, male athletes can often perform much more substantially than female athletes, but this identity, irrational as it can be, explodes our truth as a culture. It changes our bathrooms, where we know for a fact that people with male anatomy should go to the men’s room. People with female anatomy, the ladies’ room. But these few people who I think have lost their true identity, are breaking up the truth for the rest of us. It’s a very big threat to our culture.
I have written in previous columns about the idea of sexuality and gender in the ancient worlds of polytheism, where being a man meant more than having a penis; it means acting like a man. An ancient Roman (or a Norseman out of the Heathen past) would completely understand a man acting like a woman. He wouldn’t respect him, because men were superior in their eyes, but they’d look askance at Doocy and Ablow as they spout their nonsense.
A man could “become” a woman by acting like a woman, and a woman could become more of man by acting like a man. As we find Valerius Maximus saying of a woman (Memorable Deeds and Sayings 8.3.1), “because she exhibited a male spirit in the outward form of a woman.” We find Vikings saying much the same thing about women in their world, as in Laxdaela Saga when Snorri of Helgafell says of Gudrun the Fair, “Now you can see what a man Gudrun is, when she gets the better of both of us.”
Those who study such matters (and it is clear Doocy and Ablow do not), can speak of “the social performance of being a man.” Historian Maud Gleason writes (“Elite Male Identity in the Roman Empire” 1999) that “male and female bodies were considered not so much different in kind as in degree,” though we must understand that “the perfect body was [of course] male.”
The ancient Romans even had manuals on such things, full of do’s and don’ts. It was perfectly permissible to put your penis into another man; it was not, however, permissible to let somebody put their penis into you. That made you less a man and more a woman. There were lesser matters: hand gestures, movement of the eyes and hands, how you stood, and so forth, that made you more or less manly. All Roman males had to be aware of these social performances.
As Gleason tells us, “If there are masculine and feminine ‘types’ that do not necessarily correspond to anatomical sex, then it should be possible to ‘slide’ between genders.”
And she asks a question that is clearly too complex for the Fox News crew: “given that mixed gender signs are possible, how are we to know who is a real man?” Doocy and Ablow say if you have a penis, you are obviously a man: it’s all physiology. The Romans, who, unlike so-called medical expert Ablow, lacked modern scientific knowledge, so they payed a lot of attention to physiognomy, which is the art of determining somebody’s character by studying their expressions and mannerisms. You might know somebody has either a penis or a vagina, but that isn’t enough to tell you if they are a man or a woman.
The Romans had many gender stereotypes, just as we do; they were simply different stereotypes. Why all this is important is that it informs us that the monolithic reality to which Doocy and Ablow appeal is a mirage. These terms we use are rigid definitions imposed on a much more nuanced reality.
Reality is always going to be a problem for conservatives, who insist on cramming a square peg into a round hole, and they will always come a cropper when expectations fail to match up with reality. The knowledge is there to save them from flaccid exercises like this mornings; they would just prefer to ignore it and sound stupid instead. It makes the viewers happy, after all, affirming their own distorted view of reality.
It is a vicious circle that might to a ways toward explaining the vicious rhetoric of the Republican Party. Hardly a surprise from a party as hung up on penises – and full of them – as the GOP.
Hrafnkell Haraldsson, a social liberal with leanings toward centrist politics has degrees in history and philosophy. His interests include, besides history and philosophy, human rights issues, freedom of choice, religion, and the precarious dichotomy of freedom of speech and intolerance. He brings a slightly different perspective to his writing, being that he is neither a follower of an Abrahamic faith nor an atheist but a polytheist, a modern-day Heathen who follows the customs and traditions of his Norse ancestors. He maintains his own blog, A Heathen’s Day, which deals with Heathen and Pagan matters, and Mos Maiorum Foundation www.mosmaiorum.org, dedicated to ethnic religion. He has also contributed to NewsJunkiePost, GodsOwnParty and Pagan+Politics.