The Union for Reform Judaism’s new transgender rights policy is making headlines, as well it should. In the New York Times, the Human Rights Campaign’s Religion and Faith Program manager, Michael Toumayan, is quoted as saying: “I don’t think we’ve seen anything as comprehensive as this from any other faith communities.”
The Reform movement is big. Reform Judaism magazine estimates that the denomination had about 670,000 members in 860 congregations as of 2013. So this policy announcement really matters, and I’m proud of the URJ. Its timing is auspicious in light of Houston’s recent, widely publicized rejection of an LGBT rights measure. New York magazine correctly noted that such clear wins for opponents of LGBT rights have become increasingly rare. This year’s Supreme Court ruling in favor of same-sex marriage was a sound blow against institutionalized homophobia. In addition, it arguably helped to put transgender rights, at long last, in the mainstream political spotlight.
And yet. Several bursts of exposure to both conservative and liberal media in the last week have demonstrated clearly that homophobia and transphobia are far from vanquished. Moody Radio’s “In the Market with Janet Parshall” spent a chunk of a recent broadcast trying to address issues of sexuality and gender identity. Callers learned such valuable tidbits as: 1) Being a “hermaphrodite” (the outdated term for intersex) is biological and has nothing to do, per se, with sexual orientation; 2) When kids are being raised by a single mom, who is forced to play the roles of both father and mother, it can be direly confusing when their female teacher wears a pantsuit; and 3) In the preschool classroom, it’s vitally important to save tasks that require physical strength for the boys, so they can develop a healthy masculine identity and feel like musclebound heroes.
Then, during the NPR program “On Point,” I heard attorney Ed Whelan, president of the conservative Ethics and Public Policy Center, make dismissive remarks about transgender identity. Whelan seemed to view transgender identity as a delusion on the part of the person who identifies as trans. When I looked into his views a bit further, I realized that his comments on NPR shouldn’t have surprised me. After all, in a recent National Review article, Whelan advocated “sensible and compassionate help for those who suffer from a transgender identity.” I think Whelan wants to take us back to 1980, when the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, one of the world’s primary psychiatric diagnostic tools, still pathologized transgender identity.
In her 2013 book “Transgender Emergence: Therapeutic Guidelines for Working with Gender-Variant People and Their Families,” Arlene Istar Lev suggested that the addition of “gender identity disorder” to the DSM decades ago may have been a political move. In the present day, some people are still trying to stigmatize transgender identity. This fact makes me all the more grateful that URJ has taken a needed stand against such forces of division and discrimination.
My whirlwind tour of infuriating media stances ended with an essay by Dennis Prager, entitled “Feminization of America Is Bad for the World,” which another FAVS contributor posted in our Facebook writers group to spark discussion. First, Prager reproduces a quote from an executive at the Mattel toy company, originally printed in the New York Times:
“Mattel’s research showed some differences in what girls and boys wanted in their action figures, Ms. Missad said. ‘For boys it’s very much about telling a story of the good guy killing the villain. . . .’ [Girls] would tell us: ‘Why does the good girl have to kill the villain? Can’t they be friends in the end?’”
Then Prager makes a bold statement of his own:
Very little academic research on sex differences is likely to be as accurate as research conducted by businesses and advertising agencies. The reason is simple: Businesses and advertising agencies have no social or political agenda; their agenda is profit. Their assessments must be accurate or they lose money; and those providing wrong assessments are fired.
My parents steered me away from violent toys, war games, and the like when I was a child. My father was an avowed pacifist, and my mother is the daughter of a Holocaust survivor. I embody (or at least express) a larger number of stereotypically “feminine” traits than the hypothetical “average American man.” American culture heavily socializes boys and men to match Missad’s, and presumably Prager’s, idea of what male humans are “really like.” Consequently, Prager dismisses academic research on the subject of “sex differences” as hopelessly biased:
When [academics] publish studies that purport to show that boys and girls want the same types of toys, they lose nothing for asserting something so patently false. … Among academics, there is no price – certainly not their reputations, because other academics want to believe the same nonsense.
Prager doesn’t seem to consider that research conducted by businesses might have its own biases. If I, like Missad, were the “director of global consumer insights” at Mattel, and I had observed the boycott threats that Target underwent after moving away from gendered signage, I might want to spare my company the same fate. I might also have no interest in determining how much of children’s toy preferences is inborn rather than the product of environment, including both parenting and the endless onslaught of restrictive gender roles in advertising.
Young kids, from a developmental standpoint, are impressionable. If you refuse to label toys based on gender, they may see more options and room for exploration. If your research determines that boys like war and girls like peace, then that’s what you’ll offer kids, and that’s what most of them will want. Business, unlike academics, isn’t especially interested in making the world a better, freer place, especially for people who don’t fit into long-established demographic boxes.
In his essay, Prager works toward a veritable aria of heteronormative gender politics-as-usual. He provides a bit of anecdotal evidence to supposedly strengthen his point: “Whenever I see the liberal bumper sticker, ‘War Is not the Answer,’ on a car, I look to see who is driving. In years of looking, I have seen one male driver.” My father was a male driver. I am a male driver. Countless male pacifists in the U.S. may operate vehicles on a regular basis.
Prager wants Mattel to be David, not Goliath, in America’s culture war over gender and sexuality. “Mattel’s research has told a truth that America and the world need to pay attention to,” he concludes. But Mattel isn’t speaking truth to power. Mattel has power — to influence children’s earliest explorations of what it means to be male, female, neither, or some of both. When self-identified protectors of “traditional values” resort to blaming pantsuits for gender confusion and using toys as weapons in the battle for gender normativity, they’re already losing the war.
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