Sunday, September 27, 2009

National Geographic Explorer does good job on gender

As a young law student and lawyer in the 1970’s, John Money was one of my heroes. John Money was a Johns Hopkins University psychologist who researched gender and sexuality. He concluded that sexual orientation was fixed at a young age and that a lesbian mother could not “make” her child gay. He was willing to testify for gay parents when their custody or visitation rights were challenged by their heterosexual ex-spouses. When you remember that Anita Bryant was getting gay rights ordinances repealed by arguing the need to “save the children” from “recruitment” into homosexuality, you can see how important it was that a respected expert would say that custody with a gay parent would not make a child gay.

Dr. Money also articulated the difference between sexual orientation and gender identity; and concluded that nothing about gay and lesbian parents would make their girl children identify as boys or their boy children identify as girls. This, too, was an important part of debunking the myths and stereotypes that cost so many parents who came out after heterosexual marriages access to their children.

Unfortunately, Dr. Money also believed that gender identity itself could be molded through upbringing if started at an early age. And this was his downfall. In what may his most famous case, he persuaded the parents of a boy whose circumcision had gone wildly wrong and resulted in destruction of the penis that their son could be turned into a daughter through surgery to create female-appearing genitalia, through hormones, and through consistent upbringing as a girl. The life story – and ultimate suicide- of Money’s victim, David Reimer, was told in As Nature Made Him.

I thought of Money while watching an excellent National Geographic Explorer episode, Sex, Lies, and Gender. The show highlights three distinct situations: intersexed individuals, focusing on a soldier whose MRI well into adulthood reveals that he has ovaries; transgender children, focusing on one family whose son identified immediately as a girl and how his parents came to allow the child to be fully herself; and the hijra in India, focusing on one person who balked at an arranged marriage to a woman, was ejected from his family, and went on to become an advocate for hijra, also known as the “third sex.”

I highly recommend this program. Among other things, it rightly criticizes Dr. Money for the damage he and his theories caused. That I remember the contribution he once made towards educating judges and the public about gay and lesbian parents in no way excuses the harms he caused by believing that gender was malleable at birth.

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