Sunday, July 18, 2010

Brave New World Revisited: Reflections on Uppity Women, Reframing the Concept of Homosexuality as a Disorder

Pandora by Martha Dahlig

I've had some very interesting conversations with readers, friends and family since I first blogged about Dr. Maria New in Brave New World and started my Uppity Women series. While the consensus of responses about the Uppity Women series has been overwhelmingly positive,  it seems as if for a few, the sense of sarcasm with which I call these women "Uppity" has been lost in the rhetoric. When my fellow uppity woman TL questions it, clearly I'm missing the mark. So I thought I'd mention the backstory for the Uppity Women concept, and revisit some of the serious issues that Dr. New is convolving with what she terms as "masculinized" behavior in women.

My concept of Uppity Women is, of course, borne from the series of books, by author Vicki Leon, that came out in the 1990's. Leon recounts various historical women who were going against the grain of subservience or gender expectations (and sometimes very cleverly so) in their era. As an amusing aside, in my Guardian ad Litem work, the first time I had one of my GAL kids talk with their judge in her chambers, I was delighted to see that she had several Uppity Women books, just like me. It, almost irrationally, set me totally at ease to think that she liked the idea of uppity women throughout history. But then, she's pretty uppity, herself, so I guess it shouldn't be a surprise. Leon's titles include Uppity Women of Ancient Times, Uppity Women of Medieval Times, Uppity Women of the Renaissance, Uppity Women of Shakespearian Times, and Uppity Women of the New World.

When I look at the meaning of uppity in my lovely Apple New Oxford American Dictionary, I see:

uppity |ˈəpətē|adjective informalself-important; arrogant an uppity sister-in-law.ORIGIN late 19th cent.: a fanciful formation from up .

Whence I can definitely relate to TL's unhappiness with the term. She thinks the whole idea that accomplished and enterprising women would be called uppity is just like a form of racism. But that's also my  entire point. Are women who seek to pursue careers or lifestyles more traditionally associated with men being arrogant or self-important? Well, of course they aren't. At least not in my mind. They are seeking to make personal choices about self-fulfilment, self-actualization, or the pursuit of happiness. Whatever you want to call it, they are finding themselves and last I checked, since we're not in a country run by the Taliban or certain mullahs or ayatollahs with an interest in keeping women subservient, we thankfully get to make such choices and not have them, or so I thought, labeled disordered. We can have jobs that are usually associated with men. (Just like Dr. New who was Chief of Pediatric Endocrinology from 1964 through 2002 at Cornell's Weill Medical College and Chairman of the Pediatric Department from 1980 through 2002, as well.) We can skip having children. We can skip having a male significant other or in fact, any significant other at all. Short of some fundamentalist (and that could be Christian just as easily as many other faiths*) agenda in keeping women at home, having and raising children, it's really hard to see what's wrong with a woman exhibiting these purportedly "masculine" behaviors. I actually went back to Dr. New's foundation website, The Maria New Children's Hormone Foundation, and have found that they have altered some of their text and even removed some items, no doubt in response to the massive 'feminist' (I'd rather think of it as humanist) outcry about her treatment of fetuses with off-label dexamethasone in an attempt to remove the risks of Congenital Adrenal Hyperplasia and specifically as had been mentioned on her website, non-traditional feminine behaviors. I find it fascinating that they have removed all reference to the behavioral aspects of androgenized women. But they can't remove (short of withdrawing the publications) the studies in the literature that point in the direction of Dr. New's evident interest in preventing lesbianism:

[Abstract Reproduced for Educational Purposes, emphasis mine]

Arch Sex Behav. 2008 Feb;37(1):85-99.

Sexual orientation in women with classical or non-classical congenital adrenal hyperplasia as a function of degree of prenatal androgen excess.
New York State Psychiatric Institute & Department of Psychiatry, Columbia University, 1051 Riverside Drive, New York, NY 10032, USA.
46,XX individuals with classical congenital adrenal hyperplasia (CAH) due to deficiency of the enzyme, 21-hydroxylase, show variable degrees of masculinization of body and behavior due to excess adrenal androgen production. Increased bisexuality and homosexuality have also been reported. This article provides a review of existing reports of the latter and presents a new study aimed at replicating the previous findings with detailed assessments of sexual orientation on relatively large samples, and at extending the investigation to the mildest form, non-classical (NC) CAH. Also, this is the first study to relate sexual orientation to the specific molecular genotypes of CAH. In the present study, 40 salt-wasters (SW), 21 SV (simple-virilizing), 82 NC, and 24 non-CAH control women (sisters and female cousins of CAH women) were blindly administered the Sexual Behavior Assessment Schedule (SEBAS-A, 1983 ed.; H. F. L. Meyer-Bahlburg & A. A. Ehrhardt, Privately printed). Most women were heterosexual, but the rates of bisexual and homosexual orientation were increased above controls not only in women with classical CAH, but also in NC women, and correlated with the degree of prenatal androgenization. Classifying women by molecular genotypes did not further increase the correlation. Diverse aspects of sexual orientation were highly intercorrelated, and principal components analysis yielded one general factor. Bisexual/homosexual orientation was (modestly) correlated with global measures of masculinization of non-sexual behavior and predicted independently by the degree of both prenatal androgenization and masculinization of childhood behavior. We conclude that the findings support a sexual-differentiation perspective involving prenatal androgens on the development of sexual orientation.
PMID: 18157628 [PubMed - indexed for MEDLINE]

In text now removed from her website, Dr. New offers treatment for fetuses in families "at risk" of having the dread anomaly, a lesbian daughter or even just a daughter who doesn't like dolls, want babies or to embody the gender stereotypical Stepford Wife female behavior. (Ironic, coming from you, Dr. New, so ironic that I continue to ponder you and the reason you left Cornell...) 

I had an interesting discussion with my father, a retired academic physician, about Dr. New's work, my take on it, her take on homosexuality and my take on her take. My father is of the mind that clearly since CAH is correlated with homosexuality in women, it proves that homosexuality is a disorder that is potentially treatable and that Dr. New is just trying to treat. Make no mistake- CAH can be an extremely serious (especially in males) in its classical form. But as the Time magazine article states, many women are offered Dr. New's treatment (by other physicians) even when they don't know the gender of their fetus. What kind of scary crap shoot is that? 

In its milder manifestations, I'm still considering the scoping problem of this concept of disordered behavior. Is wanting to do a conventionally man's job and not have children disordered? Why? Says who? Who got to be the arbiter of what was normal for a woman? Dr. New? Ayatollah Khameni? Pope Benedict? Me? (Talking about giving people a wide berth!) You? 

Evolution is all about reproduction. In theory, anyway. [groan] ;) Genetic changes typically occur by mutation and selective pressure (meaning whether a particular mutation or variation is either more or less successful) usually determines whether or not a mutation will be passed on. Clearly you're less likely to reproduce if you are homosexual (although I know an awful lot of gays and lesbians who have had biological children...) so that would disfavor propagation of any "gay" genes. But I have still a lot of questions about when something ceases to be a disorder and just becomes a normal variation. I can go back to the blue eyes versus brown eyes business, for instance. Or light skin versus dark skin, or short versus tall, or any number of things that are genetic. I'm betting the first relatively tall, relatively white, blue-eyed human was probably considered aberrant in their culture of shorter, darker, brown eyed humans. Can selective pressure start to disfavor reproduction on an overcrowded planet, I wonder? Shades of Children of Men, for sure, right? 

Anyway, from the perspective of the whole evolution and genetics argument, I look at all the gay and lesbian friends I've had and I could never pigeonhole them, saying they were all creative or all somehow gifted in other ways that made the reason for them to be here evolutionarily obvious to me. But what I can say, as the person who can always be counted upon to be fascinated by the new, the different, the foreign, the elusive, and to be more curious than threatened by people who are not just like me, is that I like them just as they are. I might want Brian to be more punctual or Bobby to have been less verbally caustic, but the very last thing I'd change about any of them would be their sexual orientation. If they don't care, I don't care. Maybe it's the perspective of a liberal, atheist, middle age person, but I really just don't think that who you're having sex with is that all important in the scheme of things, as long as it's consensual and you're kind to your partner. 

Likewise, I really just don't think that whether a little girl plays with dolls and wants babies defines female normalcy.  

* To be honest, I used to say I was a fundamentalist Buddhist. I was extremely tolerant of other peoples beliefs and ways of being because I figured sometimes it's so hard being here in the first place, I'd best not be judging how other people get by unless they do something very obviously (to me) immoral. (You know, cruelty to animals, abusing children, rape, murder, that kind of stuff). This drove my spouse to the edge of insanity. He thought I was way too tolerant, especially of cultures that end up using their beliefs to justify abuse of women. (Though I already had plenty of bad words to say about things like honor killings, child marriage, female circumcision, purdah and such.) I just... tried to accept that other people had the right to do things another way, or differently. Now, in my pre-50's dotage,  I've decided he's totally spot on. A bit of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, some Mukhtar Mai, a dash of Somaly Mam and Nujood Ali, and even just reflecting on the fact that I was raised in a pro-civil rights home in Georgia and Florida in the 1960's, and hey, basic decency to living creatures trumps human rights, women's rights, and civil rights. Because it comprises all of them.

I know my Won Buddhist teacher would say it's definitely sattva to say that, maybe just maybe, people ought to be more tolerant. Step back and realize that so few of other people's personal choices really affect us or our own choices. With a nod in his direction, I honor him, his principles and the remembrance of the hardest concept I've ever (including superposition and the particle/wavelike duality) pondered. 

Detached Compassion, if you're interested.

Maybe all these people who think that females should all be girly girls should give it a spin? 

When they're not busy being in awe of what all these uppity women out there are doing or have done, that is.

© Bright Nepenthe, 2010

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