The Research Validation Trap

There’s a perspective on being trans that is beginning to gain traction in activist circles—this idea that gender is visible in the brain, that there are “female” brains and “male” brains. It’s been popular because it seems to offer credence to trans people’s experience. Researchers are studying the brain functioning of trans people to try to prove that trans women, though assigned as men at birth, have brains that function more like women’s brains than men’s, and vice versa.

I’ve struggled with this perspective—or any perspective that implies gender essentialism through the argument that women’s and men’s brains function differently. It seems antithetical to so much of the work that feminists have tried to accomplish over the years to claim equality and access. So much of that fight has been targeting the stereotypes and rigid gender roles assigned to women to keep them suppressed, and I’m suspicious of the possibility of this research to reinforce oppressive structures rather than dismantle them.

But I only recently began thinking about another aspect of this argument that grates against me, perhaps one that is more important—and it’s an angst that I’ve carried for a long time as a bisexual person. I have never felt comfortable with the idea that a person’s stated experience of their attraction or identity needs to be corroborated by genetics or biological function.

Researchers have long used research as a means of erasing or denying the existence of bisexuality, usually by deliberately ignoring people’s expressed attraction to multiple genders in favor of an “objective” measurement of their sexual arousal. There was the infamous “gay, straight, or lying” study that perpetuated the myth that men are being deceptive if they claim to be attracted to multiple genders. More recently there was the reverse, in which women were universally declared to be bi regardless of how they identify.

I’ve written about my frustration with this attitude and these kinds of studies before over here, but the basic idea is that I find the attitude that the researcher rather than the individual is the most important thing in determining the existence and validity of someone’s identity horribly off-balance.

Now, though, I see it happening in a different way. While the female/male brain argument seems to validate trans people, it’s a validation with strings attached. It’s a validation that says, “I will acknowledge your internal experience, not because I respect and trust you to know yourself, but because it aligns with my current hypothesis and means of measuring.”

Similarly to the gay gene search, the male/female brain studies (or the reliance on them as “proof” of the existence of transgender people) seem to imply that the only reason why trans people should be respected and accepted in society is because they have a biological imperative.

But do we really want societal acceptance to be based on “well, they can’t help it”?

Do we want the autonomy to define one’s identity and gender expression to be taken away from individuals and handed to someone else who is evaluating whether or not they are legitimate?

Do we really want trans acceptance to be rooted in reinforcing gender binaries and biological essentialism? (And where do all the non-binary folks fit in with this model?!)

Or do we want to work towards a world where people are treated with dignity and respect, where they have the choice of how to express themselves, the freedom to explore their identity, and the access to civil and human rights because they are human?

I don’t know about others, but I want to live in a world where I can say, “This is who I am attracted to and this is who I am” without someone else saying, “Well, okay, we’ll see if your genitals respond a certain way or if your brain functions a certain way. If it does, then I’ll accept what you say about yourself and grant you the right to exist in my society.”

Because underneath that response is the implication that it’s okay to erase me, co-opt my voice, discriminate against me, or harass me for failing to comply with that other person’s boxes and expectations of who I should be in society.

Looking to research to justify one’s dignity or validate one’s existence is a trap of asking for permission to be. Choice or Imperative. Nature or nurture. People deserve equality, respect, and freedom regardless.

Note: I haven’t read the actual studies that have been referenced in this way, so I am primarily speaking to the way they are being referenced and used in society (for example, in the recent Katie Couric documentary “Gender Revolution.”) I would eventually like to find the actual research to do a more thorough critique of methodology, application, and interpretation of results, but that is beyond the scope of this post. 

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Releasing the Old as I Head into the New

I’m starting out this new year with a lot of re-evaluation and releasing. Yesterday, while I stayed home from my usual responsibilities with a cold and laryngitis, I sorted through a bunch of stuff in storage, finding things that I’d forgotten to return to others and weeding out what I no longer needed to keep for myself.

I suppose it’s sort of like a New Year’s resolution—I’ve set the intention of only taking with me that which still serves me, beginning with the physical but not stopping there.

Some things are super easy to get rid of because they hold little significance outside of their physical use. Old coats with torn linings, broken picture frames, dried up markers.

Others are harder because they’re not just objects. They hold a psychological and emotional significance. I can feel the readiness to release them from my life, but I have a harder time actually letting go.

Yesterday, perhaps for the first time in a decade, I decided to recycle some of the therapeutic projects I’d done earlier in my healing journey with my therapist. Dioramas and collages that had helped me process and grow–projects that had been sitting around for 5 or more years.

In some ways, I felt guilty. I had put so much energy into creating these that it seemed downright sacrilegious to get rid of them, yet I realized that in many ways I had already released what they represented. I no longer returned to them or wanted to pull them out to look at them. I didn’t struggle with remembering the truths expressed because I had internalized those truths. I no longer needed them to help me process.

By that point, they had lost the magic of holding for me what I was unable to hold within myself—be it grief or anger or hope or remembrance. They were a tool that had served its purpose and now were ready to be let go.

Once I had worked through the guilt, I realized that tools like these that have finished their purpose actually take on another purpose.

Their new purpose becomes helping me learn to release.

My journey has taken me to new places psychologically, emotionally, and spiritually. I will never lose what has been involved in creating me, but I also no longer need to “stay” there energetically. It’s okay for me to reach a point where I can say, “This has been important to me, but it’s time to make room for something new.”

I think I’m reaching that point with other things in my life as well. I’m re-evaluating what role I want my blog to play in 2018.

It has been such an important platform for me to have a voice, but I no longer feel that weekly posts either feed my growth or replenish my zeal for life.

Perhaps I will move to a monthly schedule or just post as the mood fits. I’m craving less and less online activity and more privacy for personal reflection, so I’ll have to see what balance I can strike to continue allowing this tool to play a role in my life without needing to try to keep it in the same role that it’s been in for the last five or more years.

It’s a new year…it’s time for new adventures! (Or at least new approaches to familiar adventures to make room for renewed creativity!)

 

 

Solstice Thoughts and Hopes

“Hope whispers, ‘And I will follow till you love me too.’”

This line from Linda Ronstadt’s song “Winter Light” stood out to me yesterday as I was celebrating the winter solstice. It’s such a poignant thought to me…that Hope stalks me, waiting for me to open my heart to it.

It reminds me that hope is something I often have to choose.

I speak of this time of the year as a season for hope and resurrection…the rebirth of the sun! But actually, there’s not a lot of evidence of that initially. Following the longest night of the year, I don’t instantly become aware of the lengthening days.

Most of the stories that I find about the winter solstice involve some sort of tragedy—someone kills the sun or steals/hoards the light or the light goes into mourning or descends into the underworld. In short, the winter comes because of death, loss, and destruction. As with Pandora’s box, Hope is what follows, not what starts the whole process.  Rebirth cannot happen without first a death.

But the solstice somehow becomes a celebration of the return of light in spite of the fact that it’s still dark as fuck out there. And that’s the significance!

The solstice and all the myths associated with it remind me that I can trust that brighter days are coming, even when I don’t see the evidence of it yet, because I know brighter days have always followed the longest nights in the past. So I celebrate not just at the height of summer, but also at the darkest point of the year because I know that the darkness cannot last forever.

In fact, seasonal myths are one of the most beautiful ways that my global ancestors remind me that nothing in life is static. Everything is transitory.

Even chronic pain, when tuned into, has an ebb and flow to it.

Even depression, anger, and sadness change and morph as I grant them much-needed compassionate attention.

What feels permanent and unchanging is made up of constantly shifting moments if I can only allow myself to pay attention to those moments.

Yesterday, I embraced the darkness and rekindled my love affair with Hope.

Happy Solstice, dear readers!

 

The Nervous System: The Most Important Ally Social Justice Needs

Reading Stephen Porges on the Polyvagal Theory has strangely converged on some critical thinking I’ve been doing regarding social justice, difficult conversations, and change.

I like to question.

I like to think.

I like to grow.

It’s just part of who I am.

In each of my classes, my professors had to face the realization that I was going to pick things apart. Rarely was there a day when I didn’t have my hand high up in the air like a grad-school Hermione Granger.

It’s how I learn.

I take the idea presented to me, break it down, challenge it according to previous knowledge and experience, and figure out how to integrate it. Even when I’m not taking classes, I will seek out books, articles, and videos that challenge my thinking and stretch my comfort zone.

Those professors who could appreciate and embrace my need to question found me an engaged and enthusiastic student.

But even as someone who values critical thinking and open-mindedness, I have limits. If I feel trapped into a conversation and unable to exit, if I’m not free to question all sides of the issue, or if I feel demeaned or forced to change, one of two things will happen.

I will shut down and refuse to engage.

OR

I will become actively suspicious, defensive, and potentially hostile.

Polyvagal Theory helps me understand why that happens. It’s not a function of being stubborn or hard-headed or unwilling to consider someone else’s perspective—it’s a function of a nervous system designed for survival.

When learning about the autonomic nervous system in the past, I got the impression that arousal meant fight/flight (the sympathetic nervous system engaged) whereas the opposite was the parasympathetic nervous system promoting rest and peace.

What Porges brings out is that safety isn’t about the lack of arousal. Rather, arousal also happens within the context of social engagement, balanced by the parasympathetic nervous system.

Creativity, exploration, and play all require a certain amount of arousal…but the arousal doesn’t signal the body to danger when the social engagement system is on and tuned into the smiles, melodic vocals, and eye contact of others that tells our nervous system that they aren’t a threat.

In other words, the difference between a playful wrestling match and an actual fight has to do with cues that our nervous system receives from others and sends  to others that “this is play, not war.”

If our nervous system receives cues of aggression or doesn’t receive cues of safety from the person with whom we are engaging, it is likely to switch into a fight/flight or shut-down mode without our conscious choice or control.

Which means that our creativity, open-mindedness, and willingness to explore will suddenly dramatically reduce or cease altogether.

Woah! Right?!

I mean, it makes sense when I think about my own experience. I can’t consider alternative points of view or think about creative solutions to a problem if I’m high into my mobilization energy or have disconnected from my myself because I’ve been overwhelmed.

But how often do we think about that when we approach a difficult conversation with someone else?

Reading about the nervous system has led me to completely reconsider certain concepts that seem taken for granted in social justice circles. Not that I hadn’t been rethinking those on my own. I’ve been considering the toxicity of the shame-culture and call-out culture with which I’ve become deeply disillusioned for quite some time.

But learning about the nervous system takes this thinking to a whole new level. I’ve gone from wondering if there’s a better approach to realizing that in many ways we have set ourselves up for failure as advocates if we aren’t paying attention to how the nervous system works.

Our conversations with those with whom we disagree are often riddled with tension, aggression, anger, and distrust…yet we want people to be willing to critically think, empathically engage with us, and be open to change—things which neither we nor they are probably capable of given the physiological state induced by the cues present in the conversation!

It makes me curious. What would social justice look like if we approached it from a neurophysiological standpoint?

Stay tuned for more thoughts on this topic!

 

Shifting in the Darkness: From Fear to Hope

There’s a beautiful magic that happens shortly after Halloween ends. I’m always a little sad to see November begin, knowing that the spider webs and skeletons will come down, the costumes will be put into storage, and the jack’o’lanterns tossed into the compost.

But then I see the first lit trees in my local park…and I feel a visceral shift in my body. My psyche, satiated on darkness, suddenly craves light and the magic of hope.

The world is still steeped in its own darkness. The days will continue to get shorter for a while. But this is the darkness that beckons for comforting things like blankets and books, hot chocolate, and toasty fires. I’m ready for stories replete with impossibly happy endings.

Soon I’ll be changing my death altar to a winter one, and I know that my ability to revel in the solstice season stems from having allowed myself to step into the darkness of the previous one.  And it reminds me of how intimately connected hope is to darkness.

I’ve mentioned before that hope is one of the funny little positive emotions that doesn’t show up generally when things are going well. It shows up when things are hard–dark, and it’s the positive emotion that helps us pull through the dark times, working towards an uncertain future.

I become ridiculously…childlike, I guess, during the solstice season. I write letters to Santa, leave cookies and milk out, watch all the feel-good movies, freak out over the excitement of wrapped gifts, and desperately hope that there’s at least one toy in my stocking. I love the snow, the lights, and the bustle of the season. I adore the carols and songs.

Yet I know that it’s partly because of how dark I allow myself to get in October that I can really delve into fostering the child-like wonder and belief in December…er, November (let’s face it, Thanksgiving is a toss-away holiday on the way to the next). In my mind, the sugar-sweet hope is only as good as the awareness of how it could be absent.

Otherwise, it’s just denial.

Darkness can be a symbol of grief, death, and fear—all of what I just immersed myself in—but it’s also a symbol of nurturing, gestation, and rest. So in the coming weeks, I will release the finished energy of the summer and look to what I will begin to birth in the spring.

But first, it’s time to snuggle in and get cozy.

Finding My Ancestors at Samhain

This week, I’m shifting gears slightly from the more titillating parts of Halloween to a more somber, spiritual focus (and it’s rare for “somber” and “spiritual” to go together for me at all, so enjoy this anomoly!)

One of the traditional meanings of Samhain has been a time to honor ancestors. Not really knowing much about my ancestors and not being in a position where I can ask my family about our history has made that less appealing in the past. This is probably the first time I have my own dead to remember.

My relationship with my grandmother was complicated after I left the cult and got married; I never felt entirely accepted or loved afterwards. In fact, there was a particularly painful incident in which she opposed my father passing down an heirloom ring to me and my partner, declaring that it “stayed in the family!”

Yet with her death has come the freedom to remember our relationship in a different light. The more recent eight years of frigidity, chastising, and judgment have eroded slightly, allowing the previous 20 years to shine through more.

I can safely re-access the memories of going over to her house as a child to play. I can remember her house being a safe haven in my pre-teens where I could fall head over heals for ‘NSync.

And of course, the mortifying day I got my first period. She was there. She wasn’t the one that explained it to me, perhaps because she was embarrassed, but she arranged for a cousin to come and tell me what was happening to my body since my mother hadn’t adequately prepared me before going out of town. And she taught me how to place a pad (a hard concept for a 10 year old to figure out).

These memories return once the barriers of boundaries and pain are no longer necessary, and in some ways I feel as though our relationship is beginning to heal—that now that she’s dead, we can begin…or resume…something better than what we had in the end.

I don’t necessarily believe that all my biological relatives will be like this in the end—where their death becomes an opportunity for the relationship to heal. There are some, I’m sure, that when they die they will cease to have much tie to me at all because I’ve come to see ancestry as a somewhat separate concept from family history or biological lineage.

I’ve often found myself in strange imaginal relationships with fictional and/or dead people—mostly book characters or writers who became particularly influential in my life. After I read J. R. R. Tolkien’s biography in high school, I spent a good several months having make-believe conversations with him; the same happened with Emily Bronte, Edgar Allan Poe, and more recently Carl Jung.

Characters like Sirius Black, Edmond Dantes, and Morozko (the Russian Jack Frost, whom you can fall in love with in The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden) travel with me as unseen companions. Their stories infuse my life with wisdom and courage—and a little magic.

Often, if I am out on a walk, sitting in a waiting room, or riding in the car, I’ll be off in my own little world with a cast of fanciful spirits that I’ve collected over the years. These are the people I admire and learn from, the people I try to emulate, the ones whose lives have touched me most deeply, whether they lived 200 years ago or never literally lived at all (or only lived literarily).

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter whether Queen Christina was part of my family’s heritage; I can still choose her as an ancestor because of how she inspires me–a rebel woman who rejected the religious and societal mores of the day in pursuit of her own sense of authenticity.

It’s not about what blood flows through my veins. Rarely has biology been the most important part of heritage (maybe when trying to figure out the strange DNA that contributes to my body’s affinity for iron). Rather, it’s about what has contributed to my character and mind.

Thus, the ancestry I choose to honor at this time of year is the connection with those who have helped create me–the ones who gave me the building blocks with which to build myself up from the limitations and challenges of my past.