Monthly Archives: March 2013

Quoting Joyce Maynard on motherhood and memoirs

I came upon this statement in my notes and thought I had written it. In fact it is a quote from writer Joyce Maynard, from her memoir, At Home in the World:

“No marriage that created our three children could be called a failure. That our family has also known its struggles and pain will not come as news to anyone who inhabits it. I pray what my children take from my telling of this story is freedom from the kind of shame I experienced as a young person, and the lesson that every child, woman, and man should possess license to speak or sing in his or her true voice.”

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Fabulous Stories

Can I opt for some forms of censorship and not others? 

Do I get to pick and choose?

A high school in Western Massachusetts is feeling the heat for its decision to stage a production of “The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told,” a satiric play by Paul Rudnick that retells the creation story of Genesis with gay and lesbian characters. According to school officials, pressure to cancel the production is coming mainly from out-of-state religious groups who are offended by a gay and lesbian slant on the sacred text. The school argues that the play is not anti-religion and is actually a serious exploration of faith.

I don’t know the play. If it makes a mockery of the Torah, my sacred book, or of Judaism, then, as a religious person, I would be offended by it. If it delves rather than mocks, if it sincerely re-imagines the story in a gay and lesbian context, then, as a Jew, I would call it midrash: a creative retelling, an extrapolation that spins out from the original words to expand and deepen our understanding and experience of the text.

I don’t know which of these the play is. When it comes to censorship, it doesn’t matter. As a writer whose work has recently been the target of a campaign of suppression, I understand only too well that even if the play offends me, even if I might question the school’s choice of this play (would they choose to mount a satire of Islam? Of Tibetan Buddhism?) since they have chosen to mount it, I must support it.

Of course I’m not unaware of the irony: in the Valley of the Politically Correct, some of the people who will support the school and the play will probably be the very same who call for suppressing my freedom of speech. My memoir, Sex Changes, tells a very personal story about the painful experiences my children and I endured with a transgendered former husband and father. For some, that is by definition a story that must not be told. Just as, for others, a gay version of a sacred religious text is by definition an offense. 

Sometimes the fabulous stories are the ones we’d rather not hear.

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The Bathroom Question

Gender is in the air.

Over dinner recently with friends, a question arose: Do women have a right to women-only space?

We happened upon the subject when one friend spoke favorably of efforts by some schools to desegregate bathrooms by gender. Her argument was that gender-specific restrooms were offensive and inconvenient to people whose gender identity contradicts their anatomy. To women or girls who are afraid of having male-bodied people in their restrooms, my friend would say: trans people are not dangerous by virtue of being trans. There’s nothing to be afraid of.

My friend spoke passionately on this subject. As the mother of a female-to-male transsexual, she has been front row and center to the frustrations, misunderstandings and agonies that permeate the day to day life of a person in transition from one gender to another.

As the mother of a daughter who has been emotionally and psychologically damaged by a man, who carries a legacy of trauma into all her dealings with men, and who would be disturbed to find herself sharing a restroom with someone she knew to be male-bodied, my perspective is inevitably different. I found it striking that my friend, a feminist, was unhesitating in saying that women and girls have no right to space that is defined as female-bodied only.

In the week or so since that conversation, I’ve come across no less than three different articles in widely different publications on what I now think of as the bathroom question, though it could by implication affect all spaces, institutions, activities and endeavors whose access or membership is defined by identity – gender identity, ethnic, national or religious identity, and so on.

In the latest of these articles, a lawyer named James Ehrhard, writing in the Wall Street Journal yesterday, discussed the Massachusetts ban of last July on gender identity discrimination, and the state’s recent educational guidelines in response to that ban, directing schools to permit students to use the restrooms (and locker rooms, showers, and so on) of their choice, based upon their internal sense of gender, and also to provide gender neutral restrooms. Ehrhard noted that proponents of the law claim that people with gender identity issues make up approximately half of one percent of the population of Massachusetts. He went on to say that the law specifies that a male-bodied person’s desire to use a girls’ restroom trumps the possible discomfort some girls may feel with this situation.

This discussion emerges at a time when we are daily reminded of the vulnerability of women and girls, when reports of violence and sexual violence against women seem omnipresent, from the rape culture of college campuses to the brutally misogynist online harassment of girls by their male peers. It’s within this context that I struggle to understand how and why the needs of half of one percent of the population trump the needs of fifty percent of the population.

My friend’s point that trans people are not, as a group, dangerous to girls and women, is true. Unfortunately, the same can’t so easily be said of men. Some children go in and out of gender identities as they grow. I’ve known several who passed through periods of identifying as the opposite gender only to settle comfortably into the gender indicated by their bodies in adolescence. Shifting, fluid identities could be more easily accommodated in an ungendered world. But we don’t live in an ungendered world. Many of us don’t believe an ungendered world is possible, whether we wish it or not. In my experience with a transgendered ex-husband, “gender neutral” were dirty words. I was told quite forcibly and repeatedly that gender is in fact the most important, most elemental and immutable aspect of being human.

For women under siege, subject to violence, violation, economic, social and religious oppression based upon our female bodies, gender identity and its consequences indeed appear elemental and immutable.   

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