Wednesday, 23 February 2011

Lea T: You are NOT Mentally Ill!

It was with mixed emotions that I watched the video of trans supermodel Lea T on Oprah last week. What was most positive is that she is able to be an openly trans model and make her way in her chosen career without the discrimination from which most other trans people suffer at work. She will hopefully be an example to young trans people all over the world that there are other people like them, they are not the only one and they can change their lives. They will not always have to live in fear.

But what made me, and indeed many other trans people around the world feel uncomfortable, was how she appeared, prompted by Oprah Winfrey, to define being transgender as a ‘pathology’. This is something many trans people are currently fighting against and passionately disagree with. Indeed it is something trans people of all types around the world increasingly agree about, there is now an increasingly vocal worldwide campaign to stop trans pathologization.

The problem is that, when someone like Lea T becomes famous, she is suddenly everywhere in the media and her view of herself, that she is suffering from some kind of illness, is likely to become widespread amongst the millions of people who have never knowingly met a trans person.

Yet is it important to recognise where her view of herself comes from. Like most trans people she has probably grown up in a world in which she has been told, or has felt, from a very young age, that her perceptions of herself as female rather than male, are abnormal, and constitute a problem. From the video it would appear that she influenced by the, now outdated psychiatric definition Gender Identity Disorder, a diagnosis which is often required to obtain the kind of surgery she needs to align her body with her own gender identity.

Yet the idea that trans people are mentally ill is increasingly being challenged. It is important to remember that homosexuality was considered a mental illness by the psychiatric profession until the 1980s. Now, only the fruitcake far right think it is.
Joan Roughgarden, professor of Biology at Stanford University has shown that transgender behaviour and physical manifestation in common in nature, identifying huge numbers of species which change sex and species in which cross-gender behaviour is common. In fact, it may well turn out that, once most animal species have been investigated for their social interactions that the heterosexual, cisgender, nuclear family made up of an alpha male and a coy but choosy female which is culturally dominant in human society is very much in a minority in nature.

The main sources of the problem of transgender pathologization are social and cultural. As Prof. Milton Diamond so concisely put it; “Nature loves diversity, society hates it.” There is a tendency for society to blame the individual when they don’t fit in when it is actually society, which needs to change to accommodate the range of individual diversity. The problem in Western society has been the over dominance of materialism. You are considered to be a woman if you have a vagina and a man if you have a penis. Other, less materially-obsessed societies have been able to recognise that a person’s gender is more to do with their spirit than with the material manifestation of their body.

Given the diversity of gender expression, even just among cisgender people from different societies around the world, it becomes clear that in essence gender is simply a culture (usually with an accompanying caste system) taught from a very young age to the extent that it appears to be natural. Yet it is no more natural for girls to like pink and boys to like blue than it is for the English to like cricket and Americans to like baseball. We have to come to understand that there is a greater diversity amongst the human race than our narrow view of gender would have us believe, and that the culturally-imposed gender norms of male and female based solely on material criteria have never been adequate.

As such the fact that Lea T feels that there is something mentally wrong with her is understandable. She has been brought up to believe that there are only two immutable genders. She appears to have taken to heart the view of society that it is she who is the problem not the cultural system which has brought her up to believe she is wrong. This needs to change.