Why I Believe What I Do
By: Donna Lynn Matthews, October 2006
And if someone goes through fire for his teaching – what does that prove? Truly, it is more when one’s own teaching comes out of one’s own burning! – Nietzsche
“But the principals you accept (consciously or subconsciously) may clash with or contradict one another: they, too, have to be integrated. What integrates them? Philosophy. A philosophic system is an integrated view of existence. As a human being, you have no choice about the fact that you need a philosophy. Your only choice is whether you define your philosophy by a conscious, rational, disciplined process of thought and scrupulously logical deliberation – or let your subconscious accumulate a junk heap of unwarranted conclusions, false generalizations, undefined contradictions, undigested slogans, unidentified wishes, doubts and fears, thrown together by chance, but integrated by your subconscious into a kind of mongrel philosophy and fused into a single, solid weight: self-doubt, like a ball and chain in the place where your mind’s wings should have grown.” 1
The question: “For what do I need philosophy?”
Ayn Rand’s answer: “in order to be able to live on the earth.”
Everyone has a philosophy – most people just don’t realize it. For them, their philosophy is as described above: an accumulation, thrown together by chance. Few ever question why they think what they do and view the world as they do. They are largely ignorant of the rules by which they live their lives.
I had no choice: the ‘philosophy’ by which I had been living my life was wholly inadequate and had broken down. I needed a new ‘philosophy’. For me, it was a matter of survival
What I’ve Learned and How
When I set out on my new journey of self-discovery and understanding, one thing of which I was sure was that I did not have the proper toolset to work all this out. All I knew about any of this ‘gender stuff’ was from personal experience and online discussions. And while these were useful as a starting point, I felt I needed to add a bit more colour to the somewhat limited pallet from which I was working. I also realized that I had fallen into the category described by Ayn Rand in that I was allowing my life philosophy merely to ‘accumulate’ rather than develop. It was clear that I had some homework to do.
I began to educate myself about the wonderful world of gender and transgender. I read almost anything I could find on the subject: some good, some not so good – and I sifted and sorted through it all to find what resonated for me. I also revisited my studies of the social sciences: psychology, anthropology, philosophy, etc. – drawing connections and integrating it all together. Over the course of two years, I worked my way through the confusion of it all, and my peers online watched firsthand as I sorted out my life. Using the newsgroups as a sounding board for my ideas and theories, what would become my own personal ‘philosophy’ regarding gender, society and life in general slowly coalesced.
The Cisgender Ideal
The first serious piece writing I encountered was courtesy of Laura. Laura is a transgenderist, which means that although she was born male, Laura lives her life as a woman, but has not had GRS (genital reassignment surgery – a.k.a. a sex change.) She has spent a good part of her life as an activist in Canada working for transgender rights. Her article is titled About Sex and Gender and in it she challenges the cisgender ideal with the notion that ‘sex’ (body parts) and ‘gender’ (identity) are not inexorably linked. Breaking the link between sex and gender allows ‘men’ and ‘women’ (gender) to be either ‘male’ or ‘female’ (sex). It took a couple of reads to absorb all of it, but it made sense to me – probably because at that point, I already felt a disconnect between my ‘gender’ and my body.
The construct of the Cisgender Ideal, or rather the refutation thereof, would become the cornerstone of my own personal views on gender. As such, it deserves some examination.
The Cisgender Ideal is rooted in the notion that gender is a binary system: meaning that there are two fairly rigid categories – ‘men’ and ‘women’ – and anything else is unthinkable. It mandates that sex and gender align themselves such that all ‘men’ are male and all ‘women’ are female, thereby invalidating the construct of transgender. It serves to support and enforce the notion that the transgendered are mentally ill. By categorizing us as sick, the transgendered are accounted for in such a way so as to not challenge the binary gender system: we really are ‘men’ and ‘women’ – we’re just sick or confused (or some other marginalizing label.) In short, we’re explained away.
The Cisgender Ideal is a philosophy – a belief system ingrained in our society – and for this reason, it is dangerous. It is dangerous not just to transpeople (for the reasons mentioned above) but to everyone. ‘Gender transgressions’ are swiftly dealt with not by some authority (e.g.: the gender police) but by our peers – usually via shame and ridicule. We are all constantly reminded – by nearly everyone around us – how we are supposed to be in order to fit into the category to which we were assigned. Being called a ‘sissy’ by the older boys on my block was their way of shaming me into conforming to the ideal of what a ‘boy’ should be. Girls who are ‘tomboys’ are reminded that their activities are not ‘ladylike’. Boys are not supposed to play with dolls. They are supposed to be tough, strong, and active. Girls are not supposed to play rough. They are supposed to be sweet, gentile, caring. As a rule, there is no middle ground.
Like most people, I never questioned the construct of gender; there were boys and girls – that’s it. While I felt I had more in common with girls and even wanted to be more like them, I was a boy – end of story. By acknowledging my ‘feelings’ as that ‘kinky’ part of me, I was able to rationalize their existence while still maintaining an identity as a ‘man’. And the stronger those feelings grew, the more I rationalized – to the point where I would be out in full dress while still maintaining that I was a ‘man’.
Ultimately, the rationalizations would fall short and while I did not have a name for it, it was the Cisgender Ideal that was at the root of my angst. Having been assigned my role, I spent my life trying to live up to the expectations thereof – and it simply was not working. Once I realized that there was something deeper motivating my behavior, I came to the conclusion that I needed to ‘realign’ my body and my ‘deviant’ gender feelings so both were ‘in sync’. I was still trapped in the Cisgender Ideal and did not know it.
Laura’s paper was my introduction into a whole other way of looking at ‘men’ and ‘women’ – showing me that there was something more than just two ways to be.
Anyone who identifies as transgender knows of the DSM-IV and the section on Gender Identity Disorder (GID) contained therein. For some, it is the answer to the ‘why’ question that has plagued them all their lives. They can now say, “I have a medical condition” – end of story. For others, like myself, GID is a tool for maintaining the status quo and marginalizing those who do not fit. It makes sure that there are only men and women by stigmatizing anyone who does not fit with a ‘mental disorder’.
The DSM-IV – the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition – is the standard classification in the United States of mental disorders and is used by mental health professionals for the diagnosis of mental health related illnesses. As mentioned, the DSM-IV lists a ‘condition’ known as Gender Identity Disorder and persons are ‘diagnosed’ with GID if they exhibit what is characterized as “a strong and persistent cross-gender identification” as well as a “persistent discomfort with his or her sex or a sense of inappropriateness in the gender role of that sex.” GID can be diagnosed as GID of Childhood (Diagnostic code 302.6), Adolescence, or Adulthood (302.85) and GID Not Otherwise Specified (GIDNOS) (302.6). GIDNOS is the catchall category, covering just about anything and everything ‘gender variant’.
To read the main diagnostic features of GID is to read nearly every stereotype for boys & girls / men & women. Some of the key identifiers are:2
- For boys: a ‘preoccupation’ with traditionally feminine activities, having a preference for dressing in girls’ clothes, preferring pastimes stereotypical of girls while having a lack of interest in rough-and-tumble play and other stereotypical boy’s activities and wanting to be a girl.
- For girls: a rebellion against the parents desire for them to be ‘feminine’: not wanting to wear a dress or have long hair, liking rough-and-tumble play, preferring traditionally boy’s activities and boys as playmates.
- For adults: a ‘preoccupation’ to live as the other sex, accompanied with the desire to change their appearance by crossdressing and/or hormones and/or surgery. Many will crossdress in private – perfecting their ability to pass as the other sex and even go out in public.
Reading this did not sit well with me. As I mentioned, the ‘features’ of this disorder are little more than a regurgitation of stereotypes. Boys playing with dolls, girls not wanting to wear dresses… This is the criteria used to make this ‘diagnosis’? It seems so… arbitrary.
And then it hits me.
“A strong and persistent cross-gender identification…” This is how the Cisgender Ideal accounts for us. Judith Butler notes, “Indeed, precisely because certain kinds “gender identities” fail to conform to those norms of cultural intelligibility, they appear only as developmental failures or logical impossibilities from within that domain.”3 This same notion is echoed by anthropologist Ruth Benedict almost sixty years earlier,”For a valid comparative psychiatry, these disoriented persons who have failed to adapt themselves adequately to their cultures are of first importance. The issue in psychiatry has been too often confused by starting from a fixed list of symptoms instead of a study of those whose characteristic reactions are denied validity in their society.”4
I found it all too reasonable that if one has “A strong and persistent cross-gender identification…”, then crossdressing would be a logical way of expressing that identification. However, if one is diagnosed with GID, then the psychiatric community sees things a bit differently.
Another ‘condition’ found in the DSM-IV is Transvestic Fetishism (diagnostic code 302.3)5 Diagnosed only in heterosexual males exclusively during the course of GID, Transvestic Fetishism is basically crossdressing: the collection and wearing of female clothing. It is classified as a paraphilia if one gets sexual aroused and gratified by this activity. The ‘diagnosis’ goes on to mention the possible involvement in the transvestic subculture, and interest in sexual masochism as well. Interestingly, the ‘diagnosis’ does recognize that the sexual aspect of crossdressing can wane and that crossdressing can becomes a therapeutic activity to mitigate anxiety. But in general, the most reasonable and harmless activity one could engage in to help alleviate the ‘dysphoric’ effects of GID is classified as a sexual perversion. I find this quite sad, especially in light of the fact that most crossdressing individuals will tell you that they crossdress not for sexual satisfaction, but to feel closer to how they identify gender-wise. Crossdressing just makes us feel right.
While it was clear early on that transgender individuals were seen as having some problem that needed to be cured, it was now becoming clear why: we upset the system. One cannot maintain that there are only ‘men’ and ‘women’ when someone like me walks up and challenges that assumption. Having been diagnosed with a mental disorder, we are now accounted for by the fact that we have a problem. We’re not ‘different’, we’re sick!
We are denied validity and rendered as culturally intelligible.
Balance is restored and we are marginalized in the process.
Postmodernism: Judith Butler
If there is an accepted tool for the analysis of gender and society, it is definitely Postmodernism. Most gender theory and queer theory are firmly rooted in Postmodern Deconstructionism.
I have read some but not a lot of postmodern theory if for no other reason than I find it difficult to work through. One needs to learn a new vocabulary in order to really be able to study it. That said, I have read some primers on the postmodern theories of Derrida and Foucault – enough to get the jist of the ideas behind their philosophies and to confirm some ‘conclusions’ I’ve reached on my own, albeit not as deeply thought out. What I did read – several times in fact – was Gender Trouble by Judith Butler. I found that Butler echoed (again, in a much more deeply explored presentation) much of what I had come to believe.
A key point I took away from Butler is how elusive this thing we call ‘gender’ really is. She points out, “As a shifting and contextual phenomenon, gender does not denote a substantive being, but a relative point of convergence among culturally and historically specific sets of acts.”6 We can find and define many instances of ‘men’ and ‘women’ in the world. Each (instance of) ‘woman’, for example, is a unique adaptation of what that individual perceives a woman to be, based on how other women present themselves as women. These other women, in turn, present their own unique adaptation of what they perceive a woman to be, based on how other women present themselves… Et cetera ad infinitum.7 There is no ‘woman’ as a construct a priori.8 All women are adaptations of other women – there is no actual original woman. As a gender, ‘woman’ is in a constant state of flux – changing throughout history and culture.
This has the effect of rendering gender an abstract construct as opposed to something concrete. Butler notes that “Gender is the repeated stylization of the body, a set of repeated acts within a highly rigid regulatory frame that congeal over time to produce the appearance of substance, of a natural sort of being.”9 Gender is no longer something that one is; gender becomes something that one does. One is a man or woman only to the extent that one adopts the prescribed socially defined traits thereof and is successful in their presentation. It is by the act of doing ‘man or ‘woman ‘that one is a ‘man’ or ‘woman’.
This supported my feeling vis-à-vis lacking a specific or intelligible gender. For Butler, “‘Intelligible’ genders are those which in some sense institute and maintain relations of coherence and continuity among sex, gender, sexual practice and desire.”10 It was only within the context of needing to have (i.e. to do) a gender that I would be cognoscente of it. Given this, it also supported my feelings that I do not know (and cannot know) what it means to feel like a woman – or a man for that matter. I can only know what it feels like to be me.
Another key construct is that of cultural intelligibility. Butler notes that “Inasmuch as ‘identity’ is assured through the stabilizing concepts of sex, gender, and sexuality, the very notion of ‘the person’ is called into question by the cultural emergence of those ‘incoherent’ or ‘discontinuous’ gendered beings who appear to be persons but who fail to conform to the gendered norms of cultural intelligibility by which persons are defined.”11
Sex, gender and sexuality should be stabilizing constructs – and they seem to be so long as you are a male man attracted to female women or you are a female woman attracted to male men. With sex and gender forming what amounts to the core of our identity, the ‘gendered norms of cultural intelligibility’ only permit one acceptable unified core identity: Heterosexual – as defined in the strictest sense. To identify an anything else is to render you as culturally intelligible – unable to establish a firm identity to society as a whole.
In this context, Heterosexual goes beyond the compatibility of body parts. It sums up in one very potent cultural signifier everything that we are expected to be. It makes no allowances for variation or diversity – it is quite specific. One is recognized as ‘intelligible’ – i.e. valid – only insofar as one adheres to the definition.
An immediate argument to this might be the apparent ‘acceptance’ of homosexuality in society today. While it is true that the social climate seems to be more favorable now than in the past, is it really one of acceptance? Butler comments:
“What remains ‘unthinkable’ and ‘unsayable’ within the terms of an existing cultural form is not necessarily what is excluded from the matrix of intelligibility within that form; on the contrary, it is the marginalized, not the excluded, the culturally possibility that calls for dread or, minimally, the loss of sanctions. Not to have social recognition as an effective heterosexual is to lose one possible social identity and perhaps gain one that is radically less sanctioned. The ‘unthinkable’ is thus fully within culture, but fully excluded from dominant culture.”12
Butler’s point is an interesting one. It is not that ‘incoherent’ or ‘discontinuous’ gendered beings are excluded so much as they are marginalized. Anyone who is non-conforming is still “fully within culture, but fully excluded from dominant culture” – they are a part of and yet separate from society as a whole. Continuing my example, homosexuals do not have true ‘equality’ in society – if they did, there would be no reason to differentiate them as ‘homosexual’. They enjoy a marginalized status in society – not as bad as some – but marginalized nonetheless.
For me, cultural intelligibility is key to something for which I have been looking all my life: acceptance. What is it we want when we want acceptance? We want to move from a marginalized position in society into the dominant sphere – what we want is to ‘fit in.’ With self-acceptance, our goal is to stop self-marginalization – to stop treating ourselves as second-class citizens. Having internalized the construct of the ‘Heterosexual’ as the social archetype, we recognize ourselves as ‘incoherent’ by comparison and subsequently declare (marginalize) ourselves as something less that those who ‘make the cut’.
Acceptance by others is nearly the same with the additional twist that acceptance by another of someone ‘discontinuously’ gendered can call into question that other person’s identity and being. A possible consequence of this could be the loss of their current social identity – guilt by association if you will. The impetus to our acceptance by others could be a fear of reclassification into a ‘radically less sanctioned social identity’ by their peers – manifested as homophobia and transphobia.
Existentialism: Camus, Sartre and Nietzsche
Who am I? What am I? Why am I? Questions I have been grappling with all my life could be summed up in what was the primary question for Kierkegaard, the ‘founder’ of Existentialism:
What does it mean to be?
It was not until college that I was formally introduced to Existentialism. I did manage, however, to stumble upon it the summer before starting college. My recognition and acknowledgment of the absurdity of life, my contemplation of suicide and my subsequent realization that I could not know absolutely that suicide was a solution would be examined in depth by the first existentialist I would study.
What follows here is not intended as a complete overview of these philosophers. It is what I took from them – borrowed if you will – in formulating my own views of the world.
Albert Camus (1913 – 1960): The Absurd
Is life worth living?
Is there a reason to go through the all suffering and heartache? Is there a reason to go through the illness, death and tragedy? Most people live their lives in quiet desperation, hoping that one day things will get better. They fail to acknowledge that hope is nothing but a delusion. Is there a point to it at all?
As a rationalist, Camus wanted to make sense of the world. He was in search of absolutes: truth, certainty, clarity. What the world offered him were opinions, uncertainty and vagueness. The more reason demanded of the world, the less the world yielded. One cannot ‘know’ anything with absolute certainty. Camus calls this paradox The Absurd.
For Camus, neither man alone nor the world alone is absurd: it is the clash between the two that is absurd. It is the disproportion between reason and reality that is absurd. We want so much and the world yields nothing. We live in a world of tension and frustration where our hopes are crushed again and again. We are in a hopeless position from which there is no exit.
Camus then asks, “How do I live in an absurd world? What other alternative is there if I do not want to live in this world? Is suicide an alternative?”
Heidegger noted that death is our immediate possibility – it is the one thing we can always do next. But for the absurdist, is suicide a logically legitimate position? Camus concludes that it is not because by killing yourself, you have concluded absolutely that is better to not be than to be. For the absurdist, this is a contradiction, as the absurd man cannot know anything absolutely.
Which brings us back to the question, “How do I live in an absurd world?”
One lives in an absurd world absurdly.
You cannot accept absurdity as an answer – you must reject the absurdity of the world. Paradoxically, the rejection of absurdity only serves to increase it. To live absurdly, you must be willing to be an accomplice to your frustration with the world. You must be willing to intensify the clash between reason’s desire for absolute knowledge and the world’s refusal to yield.
Living absurdly amounts to picking oneself up after being knocked down, over and over again.
Camus used the myth of Sisyphus to illustrate living absurdly. Sisyphus was condemned by the gods to spend eternity rolling a huge rock up a hill. Once at the top, the rock would roll back down to the bottom of the hill, and Sisyphus would start over again. While he recognized the futility of this exercise, Sisyphus refused to be defeated by this. By not letting it get the better of him, Sisyphus got the best of the very gods who condemned him.
To live absurdly, one must defy life and all that it throws at you. To live absurdly, one must have the courage to be! In essence, one must live much like a condemned man – sentenced to die and awaiting execution. As we have only this one life, we must live it with indifference to the future. We must live for the now! We will be disappointed and hurt again and again and again. However, we must not allow ourselves to be knocked down permanently. No matter what, we must get back up and want to do it all over again!
In Camus, I recognized much of my own experiences. I found no satisfactory explanation for my feelings – no answers to my questions. I tried to deny and ignore how I felt which only made things worse. I had to accept that, much like Sisyphus, there was only me, the world and the absurdity that was the relationship between the two. And no matter how many times the rock rolled down the hill, knocking for a loop, I had to continue to press onward – pushing the rock back up again. In an absurd world, what else can one do?
Jean Paul Sartre (1905 – 1980): Being and Nothingness
Sartre asks a seemingly simple question: Who am I?
The question is seemingly simple because we have all asked ourselves (or been asked) at some point and we usually come up with an answer. We can rattle off a laundry list ‘facts’ about ourselves, but is that who we are?
At what point do we start to be? For Sartre, our being starts with our mother. Our being comes from her being – we are a part of her – we are one with her. We derive our being – not just from our mother, but from both our parents. Without the ‘being’ we have borrowed from our parents, what being of our own do we have? If we exclude all the influences from our lives, who are we? What do we have that is ours?
Sartre finds that our identity – all those ‘facts’ – can be found in being (the world) outside ourselves. We have no identity of our own. Our identity is borrowed – derived – from the world. We are empty inside, a lack, a nothingness. As all of our being is borrowed, we can only state that which we are not:
We are not our parents
We are not our siblings
We are not our teachers
We are not our friends
We are not all of those things that influence us.
If this is the case, then what is consciousness? Can we describe consciousness without describing its contents? If all the contents of consciousness are removed, what do we have left? Nothing. Consciousness is that which is not. It is nothing, a lack, an emptiness, a hole. It is only that which it borrows – it must borrow being on order to be!
Because consciousness must borrow its being, consciousness itself is not all of those things it borrows. This amounts to defining reality in the negative. By listing all of the things consciousness is not, consciousness now becomes something which is. Sartre sees this as an impossible synthesis of Being and Nothingness. It is as abortive duality: to both be and not be at the same time.
If all being is borrowed, then that includes one’s gender as well. As mentioned above, Butler noted that one is a woman to the extent that one does woman successfully: that they adapt – borrow – the attributes of ‘woman’. We all ‘borrow’ our gender to varying degrees, shaping it to fit the situation at hand. And yet, by the very act of this borrowing, we are not that borrowed gender. We have no gender – no being that is truly our own: we have only the nothingness of our consciousness which we continually fill – and empty – only to refill it with new ‘being’ as needed.
My answer to the question “Are you a man or a woman?” is “Neither” – or possibly “Both.” I am not a man, nor am I a woman. By Sartre’s reasoning, though, I am at the same time both a man and a woman: an abortive duality. How can I exist? I shouldn’t exist. And yet I do exist.
Friedrich Nietzsche (1844 – 1900): The Twilight of the Idols
I graduated from college, with a minor in philosophy. And while having never read Nietzsche for any of my courses, I wound up getting many of his works and attempting to get through them. I read the words, but the meaning was lost on me – it just didn’t click. Nietzsche saw himself as an ‘untimely man’, considering his contemporaries as not yet ready to hear what he had to say and he wasn’t too far off. With his unconventional ideas – and a style of writing to match – Nietzsche’s books went largely unread during his lifetime. And so, like many others in the past had done, I put him up on the bookshelf and forgot about him. I was not ready to hear what he was saying.
My life went on, I had my meltdown and I started to educate myself about all this ‘gender stuff’. For some reason, I decided to pull Nietzsche down off the shelf and give him another shot.
And something happened…
It just clicked. I got him.
Specifically, it was Nietzsche’s Twilight of the Idols – a short but powerful book written in 1888 – that had the most impact. Twilight is a brilliant summary of Nietzsche’s whole philosophy and has become my ‘bible’ – as it were. While there is so much I could cover from just this one book, I’ll stick to the key theme that affected me most.
“There are no moral facts whatever. … Morality is only an interpretation of certain phenomena, more precisely a misinterpretation. … To this extent, moral judgment is never to be taken literally: as such it never contains anything but nonsense. … Morality is merely sign-language, merely symptomatology: one must already know what it is about to derive profit from it.”13
We view morality – i.e.: the rules by which we exist our existence – to be something transcendent – a set of universal values applying to all persons. But from whence did these values originate?
“All supreme values are of the first rank, all the supreme concepts – that which is, the unconditional, the good, the true, the perfect – all that cannot have become, must therefore be causa sui.”14 15
Rationally, our morality is a product mankind itself. It is an interpretation of our experiences in the world and a codification of those thoughts and actions that seem to support our existence in a positive way. Having been under development – and revision – since mankind achieved consciousness, these values have the appearance of being something innate to us. It is almost as if they were somehow something more than we are – existing somehow outside of and above ourselves.
These abstract (and seemingly higher) constructs have been interpreted – or rather misinterpreted – in such a way as to declare that they could not have evolved from something lower: in fact, they cannot have evolved at all! We have succeeded in turning our interpretations of the world into facts governing the world. We have taken a moral view that was decided upon – in fact created – by other men, and dehistoricized it, turning into a universal Truth.
We have all been told – by people who can make no claim whatsoever to some higher understanding – how we ought to be. On this point, Nietzsche comments:
“For a condemnation of life by the living is after all no more than the symptom of a certain kind of life … One would have to be situated outside life, and on the other hand to know it as thoroughly as any, as many, as all who have experienced it, to be permitted to touch on the value of life at all …”16
“Let us consider finally what naïvety it is to say ‘man ought to be thus and thus!’ Reality shows us an enchanting wealth of types, the luxuriance of a prodigal play and change of forms: and does some pitiful journeyman moralist say at the sight of it: ‘No! man ought to be different‘? … He even knows how man ought to be, this bigoted wretch; he paints himself on the wall and says ‘ecce homo‘!17 … But even when the moralist merely turns to the individual and says to him: ‘You ought to be thus and thus’ he does not cease to make himself ridiculous. The individual is, in his future and in his past, a piece of fate, one law more, one necessity more for everything that is and everything that will be. To say to him ‘change yourself’ means to demand that everything should change, even the past. … And there have indeed been consistent moralists who wanted him in their own likeness, namely that of a bigot: to that end they denied the world! No mean madness! No modest presumption! … In so far as morality condemns as morality and not with regard to the aims and objects of life, it is a specific error with which one should show no sympathy, an idiosyncrasy of the degenerate which has caused an unspeakable amount of harm! … We others, we immoralists, have on the contrary opened wide our hearts to every kind of understanding, comprehension, approval.”18
In a nutshell: there is no universal morality. All of the guilt, shame and self-deprecation have come from an internalized morality created by people who are in no position to know any better that you or I. No one can know the world sub specie aeterni19 and yet we have allowed what is merely one possible interpretation of the world to govern our existence.
Pulling it all Together: Accepting Myself
So, what good is a philosophy if one does not put it into practice?
I had been searching for answers and peace in my life ever since high school – hell, even before that. However, it was my contemplation of suicide in my senior year of high school where I started my search in earnest.
I have already discussed Camus and the Absurd and why I decided that suicide was not a viable solution to my problems. Recognition and acceptance of the disproportion between reason and reality helped to ease some of the pressure I had always felt. This did not mean I would stop questioning and looking for answers – it meant that in all likelihood, I might never get the ‘absolute’ answers for which I was looking. At the very least, my expectations would be more reasonable – a small step in the right direction.
My epiphany in 1997 forced me to take a critical look back over the past fourteen-odd years of my life at that time. In doing so, I realized that I had been trying to convince everyone, including myself, that I was a man, no matter what. If I could just be that, then I would be ‘normal’ and for a long time I identified as a ‘regular guy’ with a kinky side. Unfortunately, that just didn’t hold up to closer scrutiny. At this point, I didn’t know who or what I was – all I did know was that I was not who I thought I was. Emotionally painful as this was, acceptance of this set the stage for deeper introspection and evaluation.
Laura’s paper, About Sex and Gender, was a real turning point for me. Having never before considered that there was more to man and woman, the door to ‘other possibilities’ was opened for me and there was no closing it. For the first time in my life, there was an ‘explanation’ that seemed to make some sense. There was now a context for the feelings I had always had.
And so I took another small step.
With my recognition and acceptance of these ‘other’ feelings I had, I ‘gave birth’ to Donna. Donna was now the embodiment of all these ‘other’ feelings I had – she was my ‘femme’ side, and I looked at her as this other persona – a part of me and yet somehow separate. At least now, I had acknowledged the existence of these feelings, which is more than I had done in the past. However, as I considered this ‘other self’ – Donna’s feelings and such – I found that they had been there all my life. There was no Donna as a separate persona – I was her and she was me. From a purely rational standpoint, none of what I felt or thought was that of some ‘other’ persona: it was all just me – it was always me.
That was a big step – and a frightening one. The implications thereof were that I could never be normal – with normal being defined as a man in the sense that I had always viewed it – in the sense that society as whole viewed it. Having longed to fit in, I now realized that I never would. Once again I was face to face with the Absurd and it took great delight in mocking my situation.
What ultimately tied all of this together for me was Nietzsche. Understanding his unique perspective on mankind as a species caused so much of my life experience to click into place. And while the whole of his philosophy had a profound effect on me, it was his examination of the arbitrary nature of morality that would be pivotal to my self-acceptance.
That there are no moral facts, only moral interpretations was an idea I seemed to grasp immediately. Echoed by Camus, facts for Nietzsche were the same as absolutes for Camus – and both recognized that there were no absolutes. At best, all knowledge amounted to an interpretation of the world – and something as lofty as morality would be the grandest of interpretations.
As I saw it, gender conformity – i.e. the rules of gender – were nothing more that a part of that arbitrary morality. They were nothing more than one possible interpretation of how we ought to be – not the only interpretation. There was no absolute definition of man or woman – any definition was but another interpretation.
I had spent my life trying to be who I thought I ought to be based on an internalized ideal derived from one possible interpretation of the world. I had allowed myself to be convinced that what I had felt my whole life was wrong – that what I felt and knew deep down to be true was somehow false. I had allowed powers outside of myself to dictate my identity.
It was the recognition and acceptance of this is what finally did it for me. I am real – I exist – I am as valid as anyone else – my life has value. And there is nobody who can tell me otherwise with any authority whatsoever.
Having accepted who I am and being comfortable with it – that should be it, right?
Well… not really.
I need to keep searching and questioning. I am not content to sit back and allow existence to just happen to me. In short, I cannot allow life to get the better of me. Acceptance of the absurdity that is existence – the lack of absolutes in the world – has made me realize that any ‘answers’ I might find are subject to revision at any point in time. I have rolled my rock to the summit of my hill where it sits, precariously balanced.
Foucault said, “Nothing in man – not even his body – is sufficiently stable to serve as the basis for self-recognition or for the understanding of other men.” At some future time, I may very well find myself going through this all over again. I will not be the person then that I am today and my rock will have rolled back down the hill.
And much like Sisyphus, I will push it right back up.
After all, what other choice do I have?
|1||Ayn Rand, Philosophy: Who Needs It (Bobbs-Merrill, 1982)|
|2||American Psychiatric Association, Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition, (Washington D.C.: American Psychiatric Association, 1994), pp. 533-534.|
|3||Judith Butler, Gender Trouble, Feminism and the Subversion of Gender (New York: Routledge, 1990), p. 17.|
|4||Ruth Benedict, Patterns of Culture (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1934), p. 258.|
|5||DSM-IV, pp. 530-531.|
|6||Butler, Gender Trouble, p. 10.|
|7||Et cetera ad infinitum: and so on to infinity|
|8||a priori: knowable independently of experience|
|9||Ibid., p. 33.|
|10||Ibid., p. 17.|
|11||Ibid., p. 17.|
|12||Ibid., p. 77.|
|13||Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols, R. J. Hollingdale, trans. (London: Penguin Books Ltd, 1968), The ‘Improvers’ of Mankind, #1.|
|14||causa sui: the cause of itself – i.e. not something created by man.|
|15||Ibid., ‘Reason’ in Philosophy, # 4 .|
|16||Ibid., Morality as Anti-Nature, # 5.|
|17||ecce homo: behold the man!|
|18||Ibid., Morality as Anti-Nature, # 6.|
|19||sub specie aeterni: from the viewpoint of eternity. To be able to know all possible outcomes for all possible choices.|
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