Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Looks Like I'll Have To Flex My Creative Writing Muscle...

I used to love creative writing. In high school I had two talents, two loves in my life: Biology and English. It ended up being a toss up between the two, but Biology won out and it is what I pursued in the end. However, that does not mean that I am not writing a couple of books in my spare time, nor that I have foresaken my mistress that is English Lit (You know I love you baby. No really, I do. But I just can't get a divorce right now, you know? Bio pays my bills, how else can I support my fancy underwear addiction? Come on, you know I love you. See you Saturday?). So when I saw this call for creative writing pieces featuring tentacle erotica posted on Pharyngula, one that will be for a good cause no less, I'm thinking I'm just going to have to submit a juicy story of my own. The problem is going to be sorting through the ideas! Do I go full-blown romanticy erotica, scary and sensual, or firmly tongue-in-cheek parody of silly erotica novels? Hm.... might have to submit more than one in the end.... damn my tight schedule! Damn youu!! Well, once/if I have submitted my attempts and they are promptly rejected I'll be sure to post them here as well. You all can tell me what you think of them!

And if any of you want to join in, the proceeds go to Oceana. Deadline is June 30th so get writing!

Sunday, January 29, 2012

The $100 Challenge - Part II

So, we've gone through Question 1, now let's take a little look at Question 2:

The Renaissance Culture was made of Catholic Heresies, persecuted by the Catholic Inquisition, starting from the Freedom of Conscience to have a personal opinion, in Philosophy, Cosmology, Science, Arts. I want to know, how did the Catholic Heresies turned up to be Catholic Legacy? How did the Catholic Heresies turned up to be intellectual legacy of the most Catholic civilization in the world? Starting from the Democratic Values. Starting from the Freedom of Conscience to have a personal opinion, in philosophy, Cosmology, Science, Arts ...

I'm sorry, but I am going to need a little clarification as to how this is a different question from question 1, just worded slightly differently. The only difference is that there is more emphasis on the freedom to have a personal opinion.

Once again, I feel the most important distinction here is that there there is an unfair equation between Italian culture and official Catholic doctrine. The fact that Italian culture is progressively inching away from the church every year is a wonderful thing, the two cultures need not be related. Italy existed before the existence of the Church and hopefully it will exists after Catholicism has fallen, there is no reason to tie together two things that are consistently moving apart.

When it comes to the Vatican, free will has always been a core value of the Christian faith. You have the personal choice to accept Jesus as your savior and to worship God or not. It is simply the consequences of that choice and personal opinion that have changed throughout time. Once upon a time it meant exile. After that you got torture and possibly execution. Now, all you get is excommunication and Hell after you die, but in life you are always "free" to do whatever you want. These rules change with the times and they always have, depending on how bloodthirsty or nutty the guy in charge happens to be. I still fail to understand how any of this is inexplicable, let alone a surprise. I might have failed to understand the question, in which case I sincerely hope that they will be better explained to me so that I may be able to give a more adequate response.

And now, for question 3:

The Renaissance Culture was a Revolt, a Rebellion against the Catholic tradition, against the practice of Corruption and Simony, against the practice of the Indulgences, and especially against the Saints Above the Law, in the name of the "Cultural Primacy". (Like The Indignados do Today) So I conclude, just answer this question, and I'm paying you $ 100. Tell me how did the Catholic Heresies turned up to be Catholic Legacy? Starting from the Democratic values. Starting from the Freedom of Conscience to have a personal opinion, in Philosophy, Cosmology, Sciences, Arts... 

Now this question is undoubtedly the exact same as question 2. The only additional thing that I could say is that I do not fully agree that the Renaissance was a full-out "revolt". The fact that it was a time of such enlightenment after so many years of darkness may make it seem like that in retrospect, but I do not think that the majority of the people that contributed to the Renaissance set out to defy the Church. A select few of them, particularly the philosophers surely had more contempt for the institution, but most of them were not factoring the Church into their artistic process. That in itself was revolutionary at the time, to not consider what they were creating or discovering in terms of what it meant to Catholic doctrine, but that is a far cry from joining arms and actively rebelling against the Holy See. Most of them were too busy discovering science, inventing flying machines and creating art to be bothered telling the Church to go fuck itself.

Once again I concede that I may have misunderstood these questions, especially since to me they seem to be very very similar. This is my first attempt, and while I admit it is fairly basic but it answers the questions insofar as I have understood them. If there is more to this debate than what meets the eye I will be happy to revisit it. However, for now, this is where I stand:

1. Italian culture is not interchangeable with the Catholic faith
2. It is perfectly logical to consider the Renaissance culture as a fascinating and inspiring part of Italian history since these people were in fact Italian
3. Catholicism, along with other major religious institutions, absorbs foreign things into their doctrine and morph their morality all the time. It is what makes them successful and prevents them from dying out. The fact that the Vatican does this with the men that they once persecuted is nothing new nor is it at all surprising.

If there were aspects of these questions that I did not address, feel free to point them out as I have obviously not understood them.

If not, I'll be taking my $100 now thanks!

Saturday, January 28, 2012

The $100 Challenge - Part I

So a while ago I got sent this video from youtube user modernitaly inviting me to take his 100 dollar challenge
 His terms are very simple: answer the three questions in the description using whatever sources or help you need. If you are able to answer the questions he will give you 100 dollars. The only catch is that you cannot use the answers that he lays out in his other videos, which I think is fair. Now I don't know how serious this guy is, or if he'll creationsist-style plug his ears and refuse to concede that any opinion other than his own has merit, and I highly doubt I'll ever get paid, but why not give it a shot anyway. Also it should be noted that I have not watched his videos because I wanted to approach these questions from a fresh, nonbiased (apart from my own personal bias) perspective. If I do wind up repeating some of the things that he has said in his videos then I apologize and be assured it was done accidentally.

So, without further ado, let's take a look at question number 1:

At the time of the Renaissance in Italy was the Catholic Inquisition and the Counter Reformation. All the representatives of the Renaissance Culture, in Italy, have been persecuted and censored, including those survivors of Michelangelo and Galileo. Maybe the Renaissance Culture was Contemporary to the Catholic Inquisition, and to the Catholic Counter-Reformation, but have nothing in common. What I want to know is how the Renaissance Culture turned up to be glory and pride of the most Catholic Civilization of the Planet? How did the Renaissance culture turned up to be intellectual legacy of the persecutors of the Renaissance Culture?

Hmm.. well, first of all I really have to be annoying and point out the error of referring to Italy as being "the most Catholic Civilization of the Planet". It is a common misconception, seeing as the Pope lives in Italy (well, he lives in a tiny independent state that is surrounded by Italy), but in fact Italy is far from being the most Catholic country there is. Brazil has the world's largest Catholic population, followed by Mexico. While Italy has a very high percentage of people that define themselves as Catholic, only one third of them (36.8%) say they are active members. Compared to other Catholic countries, Italy is not on the top of the list when it comes to Catholicism.

That covered the question is really divided into two questions: how did the Renaissance culture turn out to be the glory and pride of the (quite catholic, though not most catholic) Italy, and how did it become the intellectual legacy of the persecutors of the Renaissance culture (by which I think he means the Vatican itself)?

Tiny overview: The Renaissance (in Italian "Rinascimento" meaning "reborn") was a cultural movement that most agree was born in Florence and later spread throughout Europe. It is when Europe slowly and painstakingly pulled itself out of the Dark Ages, and is characterized by a surge in everything from literature, art and music to philosophy and science. Of course the Catholic Church did not like that. People thinking for themselves? Trying to figure stuff out objectively instead of blindly following and believing everything that the Vatican officials claim is truth? Fuck that. Although the Catholic Inquisition was born some time before, it suddenly found it had a whole lot to do.

Now the Vatican has never been anything but cunning. When you see the times changing you have to change along with them without ever losing control. That is what brings me to the second factual error that I feel obligated to point out. It is not correct to state that every single person representative of the Renaissance was persecuted by the Vatican. Michelangelo, one of the men that most represents the Renaissance period, was commissioned repeatedly by various Popes for everything from Basilicas to the freaking Sistine Chapel. If you ask people "name a Renaissance man" they say Leonardo da Vinci, and he was entirely left alone by the Vatican.

The Vatican left you alone so long as you didn't rock the boat all too much. So long as you didn't come up with any discovery or philosophical argument that was contrary to the teachings of the Church you were pretty much alright. This is why it was the scientists and the philosophers that really got the brunt of the Church's wrath during the Renaissance period. Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake for his scientific and philosophical pursuits, while Galileo had to renounce his findings and spend the rest of his life under house arrest to avoid the same fate. So back to the question, why is the Renaissance the cultural pride of Italy?

Well, because these people were Italian. Some were dissenters, others were not, but there none of that makes them or their contributions to humanity any less Italian. It is not fair to equate Italian culture with the Institution of the Vatican. What about us atheists, or Catholics by name but not in practice? How can you say that Italian history has to agree with Catholic doctrine to be a source of pride for all Italians?

The second part of the question is how it became the intellectual legacy of the Vatican. Well, is it? Let's just assume for the sake of argument that it is, is that really all that surprising? Religious institutions are wonderful at stealing things created or invented by others and incorporating them into their doctrine. The 25th of December, the Christmas tree, most of the story of Jesus' life, all stolen from other religions and incorporated into Christianity to make the religion more palatable to people wanting to convert. In the 19th century the Bible was used by many Americans to morally justify the use of slavery, but nowadays they would be crazy to suggest that slavery is moral because the Bible says so. It is the same with the Vatican and they've been doing it for centuries. At first they fight change, but when they see that the battle is lost and there is no longer any possible way to logically deny them they change their mind and declare that now everyone can believe in it and it doesn't actually go against the Vatican doctrine at all. They did it with Galileo's findings, evolution, anything that became demonstrable fact. Of course such an important part of Italian history would follow suit. Since when is hypocrisy something that the Catholic Church avoids? That shit is their bread and butter!

Friday, January 27, 2012

Tough Questions: Are You Allowed To Be Insensitive?

I feel like weighing in on this Jesus and Mo debate, because I think that it is indicative of a larger question that I would like to discuss. While I've seen the cartoon and have decided that I don't think it's inflammatory, racist or insensitive at all, that is my personal opinion and I understand that there are some people that may disagree. I thought it was funny, others might think it was in poor taste, but whatever. Compounded with the fact that the cartoon itself was on the London School of Economics Student Union Atheist, Secularist and Humanist Society's Facebook page, not even tacked up all around the university (so if you don't like it, don't go on their facebook page right?) it seems a little ridiculous that the Uni's Student Union would call an emergency meeting over it or have any case to call it "bullying".

But let's put all that aside. Let's say the cartoon was a little more insensitive and racist. Let's say the cartoon was tacked up on campus and not displayed on some Facebook page that many of the people it would be likely to offend would never visit anyway. The issue that is worth discussing is whether or not such things should be allowed. Are you allowed to offend people based on their race, nationality, gender, sexual orientation, religion or political opinion? If the answer is no, where do you draw the line between good natured satire and banned offensive language?

I'll give you an example from my own college years. I started college in Dublin in 2005, and as I've told you before I was a bit of a stranger in a strange land, considered by most to be an annoying American girl and didn't really have that many friends. Also remember that Hurricane Katrina had hit only a month before, I had friends there for the cleanup efforts and what happened was just settling in. My first week in college I, along with all the other First Years, got a free copy of the student-run magazine. On the cover was a picture of the University, almost completely under water, and the title was "Fuck America. We're Fucked Here". Wow. Bad fucking taste, not to mention the fact that it made me feel even more self conscious about my accent, and it made me think that people were going to be even more hostile towards me because of it than they turned out to be. I thought it was insensitive, not to mention completely misdirected. If you're upset with the US government's actions why are you making jokes about the poor peoples lives that were lost in a natural disaster, people that were also foresaken by the US government? I thought it was stupid and they should have picked a better cover, especially for the very first issue given out free to the new students.

Here's the thing though, should they have been allowed to publish it? I vote yes. Sure it affected me in some way or another, but I understand that while I reserve the right to be offended, others reserve the right to offend. I don't think that any club should not be allowed to display or say anything about anyone, even if it is racist or whatever. Let public opinion tear them down and let the racists declare themselves. I never bought a copy of that magazine throught my entire college career. If I was part of a club that displayed something that I thought was racist or homophobic I would no longer be a member, and neither would other students such as myself, until the club would only contain other racist people. If that number is large enough for the club to continue at least everyone knows that they are a racist bunch. If it is not the club is cancelled, but not because they were not allowed to express their racist thoughts.

What I am saying is that, even though I don't think the Jesus and Mo cartoon is racist, or bullying, or insensitive, or anything like that, even if it was I would tell the London School of Economics Student Union to grow the fuck up. You're in college now, get rid of the baby blanket and get ready to step into the real world. There are people that you're not going to agree with, and there are people that are going to be extremely vocal about what it is they are not agreeing with you on. Deal with it.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

What If You're Wrong?

If, like myself, you make no apologies for your atheism and are quite open, if not eager to discuss it with others, you will have definitely heard this question from the religously affiliated at least once in your life. It came to me over the weekend, and I could not have been more delighted. Why? Well, I had had a couple of beers and I was pleased to get such an easy one to respond to.

This question, at least in my experience, almost always comes from a genuinely nice and engaging religious person, and frequently from Christians. The Bible-bashing crowd tend to go for either the angry "you're going to Hell! Repent!" or the even more annoying condescending "I feel so bad for you, you're so brainwashed, you poor soul". Because of the uncharacteristic friendliness and openness to discussion from this other breed, some atheists can be slightly taken aback from this seemingly innocuous question, and instead of responding logically simply revert to a "well let's just agree to disagree shall we? You're nice, I don't want to be insulting and tell you I know you're full of shit, cause I get very annoyed at the bible-bashers who do the same to me". I am not advocating for getting arrogant or condescending with your questioner, but I feel that there is a perfectly civil and rational way to respond nonetheless.

The question essentially bolis down to this: What if you are wrong about your beliefs? If you're right and there is no heaven or hell then nothing bad happens to me when I die, I just cease to exist. But if I'm right and you're wrong, you miss out on heaven and have to spend the rest of eternity in torment and hellfire. I have nothing to lose, but you have heaven to lose.

There are two aspects of this question that make it a poorly thought out question. The first part is the one that we have seen from Bill Maher in Religulous, for example. It can be viewed as a slight deflection of the question, but it makes a valid point nonetheless. The gist of it is that fear of a God and hell is not a good reason to become a Christian. Plus, if God is all-knowing and all-powerful, wouldn't he be able to call your bluff? Wouldn't he know that I think you're religion is stupid and that I'm only joining just in case he exists, without truly believing that he does? If I think it's silly it's just silly, joining your church wont save my soul

A good point, true, but missing the central core of the problem with this question.  Richard Dawkins did adress this second part somewhat, although the heated way in which he responded and the words he chose made some people miss the point he was making.He mentions that the only reason said person believed what they did was because of the time in history and geographical location they were born in, and that is true, but he hits the nail on the head when he turns it around and says: what if you're wrong?

The central fallacy that this question is based on is the idea that there are only two possibilities to chose from: the religion that the person happens to believe in, or atheism. If that were the case then yes, they'd have a slightly better point to make with this question. However, that is obviously not the case. There are thousands of denominations of Christianity alone, never mind all the other religions out there, and many of them believe that their religion is the one true religion and that everyone else is going to hell for being mislead and worshipping in the wrong church. What if you picked the wrong denomination? You'd be on a fast train to hell same as I am, except at least I would have enjoyed my life in the process. Worse, you probably have converted others to your faith, and therefore are responsible for their souls eternal torment as well. So, what if you're wrong?

This is generally followed by a split second of wide-eyedness, then a condescending smile, then something along the lines of "well, I don't really believe that only my specific church is going to heaven. If you accept Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior, and you lead a good and honest Christian life, then it really doesn't matter what specific denomination of Christianity you adhere to.

And this is where you press your advantage, not shrug your shoulders and agree to disagree. It doesn't matter what you believe, what matters is that there are many denominations that do believe that their version is the only true version and that everyone else is going to hell, regardless of whether or not they are just "a different kind of Christian", Muslim or Atheists. So, what if you're wrong? If you're right, and you all get in to heaven, then great, everybody wins. But if you're wrong you go to hell and the Mormons/Westboro Baptists/whomever was lucky enough to get it right will be laughing at your burning tortured soul from heaven. So what is stopping you from joining a much more extreme version of Christianity? I mean, you have nothing to lose right? What if they're right and gay bashing and abortion-clinic protesting and evolution-denying is the only way to get your ticket into heaven?

Is it perhaps because you think they can't be right, because their version of religion is a little ridiculous? Is it because you think they have been brainwashed at a young age? Is it because you just like your version better? Since when does what is real and what is true depend on what we like or want to be true? I would want and like a world with no wars, torture or rape, but I'm not going to delude myself into thinking that none of those things exist because that is what I would like reality to be. Is it that you think that if these people just reasoned with themselves, really thought about what they were saying, then maybe they would fall into your category of Christianity?

So, when is the last time you applied the same logic and reasoning to your own beliefs?

Monday, January 23, 2012

Explain Your Bigotry Please

So I'm late to the party, as usually happens when something like this happens over the weekend, but I wanted to express my own distaste at the open displays of bigotry that are becoming ever more evident.

So remember Jessica Ahlquist? The girl that won her court case against prayer in public schools, who was called some terrible, condescending names in the media, but who held strong and saw her cause through to the end? Well, the Freedon from Religion Foundation wanted to send her flowers as a sign of encouragement, and lo and behold, the florists in Cranston, RI refused. PZ has given the links to the four florists' websites in hopes we might all voice our displeasure (civilly), and while one link is only a google-maps reference (which now has some hilarious comments to its name), only one had an email address to contact them by. I, living far far away, did what I could to be scathingly civil in the following email I sent to Floral Express:

To whom it may concern,

I am writing you because I have a question regarding your delivery policies. It has come to my attention that your floral shop has refused to deliver roses to a teenager in Cranston, RI because she is an atheist. While I am perfectly aware that, as a private organization you are fully within your rights to discriminate against whomever you choose, I simply wanted some clarification. Reading the "About Us" section of your website I found no reference to your business being religiously affiliated in any way. If it is a Christian business I wanted to know why it was not more clearly stated, and whether or not your delivery policy extended to other groups as well. For example, do you also have a policy not to deliver to Muslim or Jewish families? Openly homosexual couples?
Some clarification from you would be greatly appreciated, as well as a more detailed policy to be published on your website to avoid customer confusion in the future when making online orders and having them refused.

Thank you for your time


Ever one to want to hear both sides of the story, I am very curious what response I will get, though I think it doubtful I will get any. For those of you that live there and therefore with more direct means of contacting these businesses, here's the link again where you can find their phone numbers. Discrimination is something that should be shunned and abhorred, not tolerated to the point that this 16 year old girl becomes a social paraiah for exercising her constitutional rights.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Thoughts On: Bad Sex Advice

Well we haven't talked about sex in a long time have we? Time for a little Pervocracy style post I wanted to share with you all.

As you might have gathered, I can be quite candid when speaking to people, especially my friends. What you might not know is that I have always been more of a guy-friend type of girl, and all of my close female friends are just as guy-ly candid and blush-free as I am. It is because of this that I tend to talk to my male friends about sex, and it has come to my attention that a lot of them have received some terrible sex advice. Worse, this horrendous advice passed by unnoticed of its terrible qualities why? Because it was given to them by women.

This is why I feel that there needs to be a bit of a public service announcement in this regard. There are two things that you really need to know when it comes to the advice you receive, especially advice from women:

1. There is no "what women want". Guess what, women actually have their own personalities. Shocking right? They're different. If you want relationship advice from a female friend, make sure you are asking a female friend that has the same type of personality as the girl you are looking to go out with. If not disregard it, or at least take into consideration that it may not be accurate or apply to all women.

Case in point: My male cousin was once told, at a young impressionable age by an older female cousin of his, that when women say no it means try harder, because if a woman goes out with you she totally wants to bed you but she has to be coy to save face, so keep being insistent. I hope I don't sound too antifeminist myself when I respond BITCH YOU CRAZY?! Luckily, my cousin is not the aggressive type so he never actually took this terrible advice, particularly lucky because he is a minority living in the US and is in to white girls (that could have gone terribly terribly wrong).

2. Do not think you know a woman's vagina better than she does. I cannot stress this enough.

In the same vein as before, you have to understand that every woman's vagina is different. Some are more sensitive, others less so, and women are just in to different things, so something that makes one woman scream with pleasure could seriously hurt another. If you propose something and that woman says no that will hurt me I don't like it, don't think you know better than she does. You might suggest she try it if she hasn't before, talk her through it, but if she says no then drop it.

Case in point: I once had a guy that was in to using his teeth, and when bragging about his cunnilingus prowess (isn't that the most disgusting yet oddly hilarious word you've ever heard? cunnilingus I mean, not prowess) he mentioned a part of his routine involved teeth. I said FUCK NO. No teeth. Not happening. I am particularly sensitive down there. I once plucked a hair and I got those up-the-nose tears that you get as an automatic reaction to getting punched in the nose. So he, being the arrogant I-am-a-master prick that he was, completely disregarded what I said and when he got all up in my business he took out the teeth and scratched. Let's just say he deserved a much harder kick in the face than the one he got out of pure unexpected shock. Point being: I have a vagina. You don't. Even if you do have one, or your advice came from someone that does, you still don't have my vagina, so if I tell you I don't like something or that it hurts I mean it.

I have always been an advocate of critical thinking and not taking anything you hear at face value. I think that men need to know that this also goes for sex advice, even advice that comes from a woman. Sure there are some things that are more widely appreciated by the female sex, and sure advice from a woman has a higher chance of being accurate as you know she's not pretending to have expertise to save face, however this does not mean that everything that women have to say about women is golden. Otherwise it would be too easy, am-I-rite?!

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Tough Questions: Will You Lie To Your Kids?

This one is tougher than it seems. My initial gut reaction is no! Of course not! My mother lied to me about drugs/sex/her past and it was stupid and it drove a wedge in our relationship and I want to have an open and honest full disclosure relationship with my future kids and and and...... Then I stop and think wait, what age exactly are we talking about when we say "kids"? And about what exactly?

I think everyone's answer to this question will be different and especially swayed by their own personal experiences growing up. While I am personally convinced that lying is not the way to go when it comes to relating to your teenagers, especially when it comes to things you did yourself that you don't want them to do (as if teenagers want to emulate their parents right? That'll work far better than them being well informed about the drugs/sex/whatever in question I'm sure). However, there is another part of a kid's childhood that is actually filled with far more lies than teenagerdom, so much so that many don't even consider them to be real lies. Will you tell your child that Santa exists? Will you tell your child that there is a God, or heaven, even if you don't believe in it yourself?

I have thought about it a lot, but I feel that my answer does need a rationalization because I don't think it should be an automatic "yes", especially for free-thinking, atheist parents. I remember when I found out that Santa was not real the hurt did not come from finding out that the magic I believed in wasn't there. I felt fooled, I felt stupid, I felt like adults had laughingly played this elaborate prank on me and I fell for it and it make me sick to think about it. A friend of mine told me that when her little brother found out there was no Santa, he looked his mother dead in the eye and said "you know, I never really believed in Santa. The only reason I believed is because you told me he was real, and you told me that you would never lie to me". The idea that I would ever fray my child's trust like that terrifies me.

But then I remember how much fun believing in Santa was. I remember the anticipation of going down the stairs on Christmas morning and finding presents that had magically appeared under the tree. I remember being older and fully aware that there was no Santa, but asking my mother to hide the presents and act like I still did, just to recreate a fraction of that thrill. I remember trying to cope with my Grandfather's death when I was six, and peppering my mother with questions about heaven and what happened when you die. I remember the pit of emptiness in my stomach trying to fathom such a loss, and I don't know how I would have coped with it if heaven had not been there to soften the blow.

So this is my decision: Yes, I will tell my child there is a Santa. Yes, I will tell my child that their pet hamster went to hamster heaven. Yes if, Zeus forbid my child has to cope with the loss of a person at such a young age, I will tell them that that person is in heaven with their family just waiting for us to join the party. However the day my child looks me in the eye and asks "Really? Is it real?" I will give them the honest answer, because whatever age my child is when they begin questioning the word of adults is the age at which they are old enough to know the truth. If they get upset, accuse me of being a liar, I will hug them and say that phrase that all kids detest but all parents must pull out at some time or another: "One day, when the hurt is gone and you are older, you will understand".

So what do you think? At what age will you stop lying to your children? Or will you take the bold route, and raise a child that never believes in magic or fairy tales at all?

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Let's Stay On Topic People

This discussion came up when I was chatting with a cousin of mine about atheism and religion. While I have been an open and out atheist for quite a few years now, he still strongly identifies himself as a catholic. That's not to say he ever goes to church (outside the occasional family funeral), he doesn't adhere to any of the rules and doesn't even celebrate the vast majority of the holidays, but he still clings to a very private undiscussed belief in a god and considers his catholic upbringing an identifier of his culture and family values. He went to catholic school as a little boy and while he does not have particularly fond memories of the place he still gets quite defensive if you just outright insult his religious institution.

He was telling me about a friend of his who is also, as he likes to put it "a huge atheist". He was telling me that said friend absolutely despises religous institutions and everything that they stand for, believes that its followers or either evil or stupid or both and that religion is solely responsible for all the horrible things that have happened in the world. To this my cousin bristled defensively, and automatically responded that his catholic upbringing was where he learned his morality. I told him to stop right there. I've heard this old tune before, and I'm not buying it. Here's the thing though: I'm not buying either argument.

Yes, I concede, more bad and immoral things have been done in the name of religion than good things have. However this does not mean that all bad things have religion at their core, and that if we were to obliterate religiosity from the face of the Earth we would all live in a wonderful Utopia of rainbows and sunshine. Sometimes religion is the cause. Sometimes religion acts as a perfect excuse. And sometimes, believe it or not, terrible things are done in the name of no religion at all.

On the other hand, don't even try to tell me that your religion is the source of your morality, cause you know that's bullshit as well as I do. It's not your holy book that is the source of the morals you were taught in catholic school, but the morals of the guy that just happened to be in charge of your religious institution at the time. The bible, let us not forget, contains some pretty ridiculous to outright gruesome excuses for morality. Don't forget the bible was used as an excuse to deem slavery moral in the southern US states, whereas now no one would dream of arguing that slavery is a moral thing because the bible says so. No one is protesting clothing factories for making cotton and polyester blends, cause technically you're not allowed to wear those either. Let's face it, Christian morality does not come from the bible, it comes from the guy that interprets it for you and tells you what to believe in.

And therein lies my real problem with the istitution of religion. Religion encourages and values blind faith and acceptance of whatever the guy in charge tells you. It disencourages or outright condemns critical thinking and people making up their own minds. It creates masses of sheep people which not only hinders the advancement of society at large, but it also makes for very gullible people that an evil person, once gaining power, can easily control and manipulate into doing whatever atrocious thing they have in mind. I think this is the core value of religion that let it be a breeding ground for sociopaths and a vector for doing terrible things, not the belief in a supernatural being itself. My hypothesis fits in to what happened in communist Russia, where one of the core values was rejecting religion, yet they took a page right out of the religious handbook by creating masses of brainwashed propaganda-fed people who were not allowed to dissent or discuss or think for themselves and manipulated them into doing some truly unspeakable things, no religion necessary. I think this friend of my cousin's might objectively agree with me, but either he has a bone to pick with a certain religous institution for personal reasons or perhaps he just angrily expressed this same opinon in a slightly warped and confrontational way.  

My cousin also agreed with my opinion, and told me that he would not have been so oddly offended if this same message was delivered in this objective, not insult-filled way. Of course someone that was in the throes of the catholic lifestyle would undoubtedly take offence to what I have just described, but I think it is important for atheists to remember that not every person that defines themselves as religious are brainwashed fundies. While I still do not agree with my cousin's now patheistic-type belief, I'm not going to begrudge him his non-interfering-yet-still-there god because honestly I don't see a problem with it, and I have bigger fish to fry. Some many accuse me of being a "soft atheist" but I don't care, that's part of the beauty of atheism, none of us have to agree with each other or any institution and when stating our beliefs we represent no one but ourselves. I see my cousin is one step away from being the catholic version of a secular jew, and if he never takes the final step I don't think it matters all that much. 

I love debate, and if there is something I have discussed here that was either not clear or a point of disagreement please point it out and I'll explain further. I just want both sides to stay away from faux arguments that do nothing other than to annoy the opposite party, which degenerates into huffing and hurt pride as opposed to reasonable debate and opening each others minds to new possibilities. If the other party is offended by the truth then that really can't be helped, but don't set out to annoy or offend without providing a sound argument unless, of course, you're not looking for a debate at all, just trying to legitimize your confrontational rant.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Taking Down God's German Shepherd: Part II

I realized that there was a part of Mr. Jerrymanda101's response to me that I missed talking about, mostly because I was unsure what he was referring to and why it was relevant to what we were discussing:

 Secondly. you're clearly clueless as to the Church's teaching on Papal Infallibility:

What does Papal Infallibility have to do with Ratzinger's involvement in the cover-up of the pedophilia scandal? I then realized that this part of his response to me was referring to a seperate conversation I was having with another youtuber in the comments section of his video. My comment was this:

But the Pope himself doesn't refute the evidence of his involvement, so either Jerry admits that the Pope was in fact involved in the coverup or say the Pope is wrong, which doesn't work cause he's supposed to be infallible, so that's a little twisty.

Evidently this is a seperate issue, but what the hell, let's address this one too.

Admittedly I was not very clear as to what I meant, danged 500 character limit. When I say that the Pope does not refute the claims, I really should have said that the Pope didn't, at least to my knowledge, not only deny covering it up, but condemn the coverup. He half acknowledged that the Catholic Church caused pain to the victims who were abused (no shit Sherlock), but there was no apology for it, no saying we should not have created an environment in which these abusers thrived. We were wrong, I am sorry. The question becomes this, do you side with Ratzinger, and not think that covering up and moving around kiddie rapists is a big deal (I mean, I'm sure they repented in confession before getting shipped to a different parish, yeesh what more do you want), or do you think the Pope himself is wrong? I'm going with he's wrong (and a motherfucker), but then again I'm not constrained by papal infallibility.

So let's take a look shall we? Let's look at Jerry's  own link and see what it says:

Papal infallibility is a dogma of the Catholic Church which states that, by action of the Holy Spirit, the pope is preserved from even the possibility of error[1] when in his official capacity he solemnly declares or promulgates to the universal Church a dogmatic teaching on faith or morals. It is also taught that the Holy Spirit works in the body of the Church, as sensus fidelium, to ensure that dogmatic teachings proclaimed to be infallible will be received by all Catholics. This dogma, however, does not state either that the pope cannot sin in his own personal life or that he is necessarily free of error, even when speaking in his official capacity, outside the specific contexts in which the dogma applies.

Woo, convoluted much? How can you, in the same definition, declare that by the action of the Holy Spirit the guy is "preserved from even the possibility of error", while at the same time say that this "does not [mean] that the pope (...) is necessarily free of error, even when speaking in his official capacity"?! Either he's preserved from error or not.

Clearly it's an ass-covering and I get that. They have to make sure that if the Pope makes a slip of the tongue, like says that the capital of Australia is Sydney or something stupid like that, his Catholic followers don't have to believe it to be true for the rest of time just because the infallible pope misspoke. Crafty little maneuvoring there, but OK, I'll give them that one. However, this has nothing to do with what I perceived to be part of papal infallibility in my comment there.

Nor does my comment have anything to do with sin. I am fully aware that the pope is capable of sinning, popes have been responsible for some terrible stuff throughout history, and really so long as you confess and repent catholics have no problem with sin anyway (who hears the pope's confession by the way? Someone further down in the priesthood than himself, or does he confess directly to God?), so sin has nothing to do with this. What I am referring to is that papal infallibility should be covering what the pope believes about morality.

I am saying that if the current pope has no moral objection to covering up a sex abuse scandal within the church and not allowing victims to go to the authorities, then you have to agree with that morally if you are to believe in papal infallibility. Am I wrong? Does papal infallibilty not cover at least that?

If I am wrong, and Papal Infallibility does prevent the pope from
A) Sinning
B) Making a factual error
C) Believing an immoral act to be moral

then the Holy Spirit is not doing a very good job of preserving the man from even the possibility of error now is he?

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Taking Down God's German Shepherd

 Strangely, this all started over a comment I posted on an annotated version of the Pope Song, which you might remember is brought to us by the newest comedian to make my love list. In the annotations, the poster accuses Tim Minchin of lying about the fact that the current Pope was involved in the sex abuse cover-up in the Catholic Church. As it is common knowledge that this is so, I posted the following comment:

There's documentation that proves that Ratzinger was instrumental in the coverup, he just didn't do it while he was Pope. John Paul II was pope at the time, but it was still the guy who is pope now who did it and there is evidence the Vatican does not deny is there. Sure he could have been more specific and state that the current pope covered up a major pedophilia scandal while he was still a cardinal, but it is a comedy song, artistic liberty and that, a stretch to call it a lie

I was then met with this very simple response from the poster himself:

And yet you provide no credible evidence to support what you say. Why is that?

Well, because it's the youtube comments and not a college paper on the subject, and there's a 500character limit? But OK, here's me assuming he's just misinformed again, so I go ahead and respond:

The document that generally outlines how to cover up a sex abuse scandal in the vatican is called Crimen Sollicitationis, which has been made available so I am sure you can get yourself a copy to read. Ratzinger enforced this as cardinal and was granted immunity in 2005 by George Bush for his involvement in the coverup in the US, matter of public record. There is an internal document from Ratzinger to priests that was found too further showing he was enforcing it
Also, the document itself is named and shown in a BBC documentary called Sex Crimes and The Vatican, I'm sure you can find it online to watch. I know youll say it's biased and whatnot but when you get to the part with the documentation demonstrating Ratzinger's involvement in the coverup pause it, write down the name of the document, find a copy online and see for yourself if it is sufficient proof.

Relatively concise and to the point I thought, but then I received the following three comments that just blew me away:

You seem to confuse petty gossip with fact. Crimen Sollicitationis deals primary with the "Church Crime" of priests soliciting for sex during confession, but also briefly mentions priests having sex with children. Paragraphs 15 to 21 of the document demands (under threat of excommunication) that anyone solicited for sex by a priest is to denounce that priest. That hardly sounds like a cover-up.
The document here: vatican.va/resources/resources_crimen-sollicitationis-1962_e­n.htm

And yet Fr Doyle, long time critic of the Vatican, and consultant to the "documentary" says this of the documentary: “Although I was a consultant to the producers of the documentary I am afraid that some of the distinctions I have made about the 1962 document have been lost. I do not believe now nor have I ever believed it to be proof of an explicit conspiracy, in the conventional sense, engineered by top Vatican officials, to cover up cases of clergy sexual abuse....

Firstly, Pope's are not in the habit of responding to Petty Gossip, so don't expect a public response to defend himself. Secondly. you're clearly clueless as to the Church's teaching on Papal Infallibility:

WHAT?! Wow, this is the kind of ear-plugging that creationists would be extremely proud of. Of course I knew he was going to claim that the documentary I mentioned was biased, which is why I told him to use it only to get the name of the document that demonstrates Ratzinger's involvement, to read it and see for himself. Surprise surprise he didn't, but instead went on to strike "uninformed" off my list and leaving me with two options regarding his mental state: brainwashed, or lying. Whatever I don't really care either way, but to lay this matter to rest, let's look at what the evidence actually says shall we? You all can decide for yourselves whether or not you think it is sufficient to bring Ratzinger's involvement out of the realm of "petty gossip" and into the "pretty fucking likely" or indeed "yup, absolutely involved".

 Step 1 - What does Crimen Sollicitationis actually say?

True,  the document is not a 50 page how-to manual on child molestation cover-up conspiracies. It is a document that talks about many different aspects of crimes against the faith. Child molestation is in there too, though, so what does it have to say?

Sources please: here's the vatican's own English translation. Don't trust it? Go ahead and have the original latin version. OK now let's dig in.

Preliminaries 11. Since, however, in dealing with these causes, more than usual care and concern must be shown that they be treated with the utmost confidentiality, and that, once decided and the decision executed, they are covered by permanent silence (Instruction of the Holy Office, 20 February 1867, No. 14), all those persons in any way associated with the tribunal, or knowledgeable of these matters by reason of their office, are bound to observe inviolably the strictest confidentiality, commonly known as the secret of the Holy Office, in all things and with all persons, under pain of incurring automatic excommunication, ipso facto and undeclared, reserved to the sole person of the Supreme Pontiff, excluding even the Sacred Penitentiary.

(bold my own). So OK, confidentiality, got it. Must be confidential. But maybe this doesn't cover the victims right? Surely they're allowed to tell somebody? Nope.

Preliminaries 13: The oath to maintain confidentiality must always be taken in these causes, also by the accusers or complainants and the witnesses.

Ouch. Sounds pretty clear to me. So what are these paragraphs that Jerry refers to? Do they make a special provision for underage victims of sexual abuse? Let's take a look:

15. The crime of solicitation is ordinarily committed in the absence of any witnesses; consequently, lest it remain almost always hidden and unpunished with inestimable detriment to souls, it has been necessary to compel the one person usually aware of the crime, namely the penitent solicited, to reveal it by a denunciation imposed by positive law. Therefore:

16. “In accordance with the Apostolic Constitutions and specifically the Constitution of Benedict XIV Sacramentum Poenitentiae of 1 June 1741, the penitent must denounce a priest guilty of the crime of solicitation in confession to the local Ordinary or to the Sacred Congregation of the Holy Office within one month; and the confessor must, by an obligation gravely binding in conscience, warn the penitent of this duty.” (Canon 904).

(bold my own). So yes, you are supposed to denounce the priest, to another priest, not to the cops! There is a slight yet freaking HUGE difference between the two.

So where does it actually talk about sexually abusing children?

73. Equated with the crimen pessimum, with regard to penal effects, is any external obscene act, gravely sinful, perpetrated or attempted by a cleric in any way with pre-adolescent children [impuberes] of either sex or with brute animals (bestialitas).
74. Against clerics guilty of these crimes, if they are exempt religious – and unless the crime of solicitation takes place at the same time – Religious Superiors also can proceed, according to the sacred Canons and their proper Constitutions, either administratively or judicially. However, they must always communicate a sentence rendered, or an administrative decision in those cases which are more grave, to the Supreme Congregation of the Holy Office.

Nowhere does the document say anything about calling the authorities. Nowhere does it say when and how to help the victims of these heinous crimes. All it says is that the crimes that are outlined in the document are to be treated with the utmost secrecy and confidentiality, and the sexual abuse of children is included in that list.

Step 2 - What evidence is there that Ratzinger had anything to do with this?

Ok, so even though Crimen Solicitationis was not a document that focused solely on child abuse, it still very clearly states how to handle a priest involved in a sexual abuse case. OK, but that document was published in 1962. Catholic bloggers tell us it was obscure right? No one really even knew about it, right? And even if they did, what does any of this have to do with the current Pope Josef Ratzinger?
Well, it has to do with a letter he wrote in 2001, in which he specifically states the enforcement of Crimen Solicitationis, with a few changes. The original letter in Latin can be viewed here, just in case you want to double check this English translation for yourself, and it is pretty clear how he believes the sex abuse scandals were to be handled.

"[T]he Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, through an ad hoc commission established (...) because the instruction Crimen Sollicitationis, issued by the supreme sacred Congregation of the Holy Office on March 16, 1962,(3) in force until now, was to be reviewed when the new canonical codes were promulgated."
So what, pray tell, were these changes made to the ruling of Crimen Sollicitationis, which in case you haven't noticed is stated to have been in force until now? Well, the first four crimes involve the Eucharist, which is not what we are here to talk about, so let's move on to the part where they describe:

"A delict against morals, namely: the delict committed by a cleric against the Sixth Commandment of the Decalogue with a minor below the age of 18 years."

"Only these delicts, which are indicated above with their definition, are reserved to the apostolic tribunal of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith."

Now we're getting to the heart of it. It is now, in 2001, that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is assigned cases of sexual abuse against a minor, not previously under its jurisdiction. So why is this important? Because:

 "Cases of this kind are subject to the pontifical secret".
What is the pontifical secret, do you ask? Well, it's quite simple really, it's a super special kind of secret:

"Business of the Roman Curia at the service of the universal Church is officially covered by ordinary secrecy, the moral obligation of which is to be gauged in accordance with the instructions given by a superior or the nature and importance of the question. But some matters of major importance require a particular secrecy, called 'pontifical secrecy', and must be observed as a grave obligation."

But wait, there's more. There is a "statute of limitations" of sorts, even for cases regarding the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. At some point it does run out, and therefore one could assume that once this prescrpition no longer applies one could theoretically break pontifical secrecy and go to the police. Surprisingly this sort of statute of limitations was one of the things that was revised by Ratzinger, and he lays out what that is quite clearly:

 It must be noted that the criminal action on delicts reserved to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is extinguished by a prescription of 10 years. The prescription runs according to the universal and common law; however, in the delict perpetrated with a minor by a cleric, the prescription begins to run from the day when the minor has completed the 18th year of age.

So Ratzinger has extended the statute of limitations on cases of pedophilia. Do you understand what that means? It means that no one, under pain of excommunication, could talk about these proceedings to anyone until the victim turned 28. Why is this convenient? Let's look at statute of limitation laws for sexual abuse of a minor in some places where these sex abuse scandals were prevalent:
US - New York: until the victim turned 23 at the time, but there have been recent efforts to change that
US - Massachussetts: 15 years at the time, though it has been extended to 27 years as of 2006
US - California: 10 years, although there is also another law (which is being challenged repeatedly until it is overturned) that says child molestation can be prosecuted also one year after the crime is reported, regardless of whether the 10 year limitation is up.
Ireland: No official statute of limitations, but a judge can decide not to hear the case if enough time has passed that the victim does not have a clear recollection of the event

Full disclosure here: in 2005 a Vatican official stated that, as of 2002, pontifical secrecy was officially not extended to speaking to law enforcement with regards to the sexual abuse of minors. Of course he didn't really say it like that, what he implied was that pontifical secrecy never intended to include talking to the police, but since the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People was approved by the Pope in 2002 that's when it really became official. However, there are two reasons why that is partially bullshit and partially has nothing to do with what we are talking about here:

1. That official was Joseph Fiorenza, not Ratzinger, the Pope that approved the Act was John Paul II, not Ratzinger, and therefore that is not evidence that Ratzinger himself does not think that pontifical secret applies to talking to the police, and

2. If it's true that the general idea was that pontifical secret does not apply to speaking to authorities about priests sexually abusing children, then no one was excommunicated from the church for doing so even before 2002 right?

Oops, wrong. And wrong again.

Also strange that Archbishop Tarcisio Bertone, who cosigned the letter, doesn't agree that they should be obligated to contact the authorities over sex abuse cases

Some youtubers have told me that I was basically wasting my time with this guy, and one of them told me that he preferred to ask Jerry if he had any evidence for what he claimed, which was far more amusing. However, I cannot fully agree with that line of reasoning. It is logically impossible to prove that someone didn't do something. You would have to account for every single second of that person's life in order to prove they didn't do something. It is the person that makes the claim that needs to bring the evidence, and I think I did just that. So Jerry, the ball is in your court now. Do you claim that the evidence I have provided is insufficient, fake or both? Prove it. Show me. Don't quote some guy ranting on a Catholic blog as if that was fact, notice I didn't quote Chirstopher Hitchens or Richard Dawkins in what they have to say about the Pope. Get your documentation, your evidence, and you tell me why you claim this evidence does not stand. I do this in the effort to get you to truly research what you believe, subject your assertions on this point to the same scrutiny that you would anything else. If you don't, ask yourself this:

What exactly are you afraid you'll find?

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Repost: A Boy's Life

It is no secret that the homosexual community gets a lot of shit, backlash and unacceptance from a whole lot of bigotted people. However, it is important to note that there is another group that, because of their fewer numbers with respect to homosexuals, they get even less acceptance of their identity, and it is trans-gendered people. I remember a conversation I had with a friend of mine on the subject a few years back. While he was fully accepting of the homosexuals in his life and was perfectly aware that their sexuality is who they are and not something they chose or a terrible genetic disease to have, he was not feeling the same way about the trasgendered community. It seemed too alien, too strange, too wrong for him to understand them, what they were going through or what led them to thinking they were born the wrong gender. Despite this, he also knew that he was simply uninformed on the subject. "Please explain it to me", he asked me, "make me understand what this transgender thing is all about biologically". Being 20 and having read relatively little on the subject I did the very best I could. However it is important to note that, despite the LGBT community is all grouped in to one with a little handy acronym, it does not mean that they are in the same place with regards to acceptance or rights. This is why, while on Camels with Hammers I saw this link to a great and informative article over on The Atlantic, I thought it was exactly what this friend of mine needed to read.

I have always wanted everyone to form and have their own opinions, whether or not I tend to agree with them. However, as I've said before, those opinions need to be formed with all the information available, and not from a gut feeling or an incomplete understanding. The article is quite long, but I think well worth the read.

A Boy's Life

Since he could speak, Brandon, now 8, has insisted that he was meant to be a girl. This summer, his parents decided to let him grow up as one. His case, and a rising number of others like it, illuminates a heated scientific debate about the nature of gender—and raises troubling questions about whether the limits of child indulgence have stretched too far.

By Hanna Rosin

transgender child
Brandon Simms at age 5 in a Disney princess costume
(Courtesy of the family)

The local newspaper recorded that Brandon Simms was the first millennium baby born in his tiny southern town, at 12:50 a.m. He weighed eight pounds, two ounces and, as his mother, Tina, later wrote to him in his baby book, “had a darlin’ little face that told me right away you were innocent.” Tina saved the white knit hat with the powder-blue ribbon that hospitals routinely give to new baby boys. But after that, the milestones took an unusual turn. As a toddler, Brandon would scour the house for something to drape over his head—a towel, a doily, a moons-and-stars bandanna he’d snatch from his mother’s drawer. “I figure he wanted something that felt like hair,” his mother later guessed. He spoke his first full sentence at a local Italian restaurant: “I like your high heels,” he told a woman in a fancy red dress. At home, he would rip off his clothes as soon as Tina put them on him, and instead try on something from her closet—a purple undershirt, lingerie, shoes. “He ruined all my heels in the sandbox,” she recalls.
At the toy store, Brandon would head straight for the aisles with the Barbies or the pink and purple dollhouses. Tina wouldn’t buy them, instead steering him to neutral toys: puzzles or building blocks or cool neon markers. One weekend, when Brandon was 2½, she took him to visit her 10-year-old cousin. When Brandon took to one of the many dolls in her huge collection—a blonde Barbie in a pink sparkly dress—Tina let him bring it home. He carried it everywhere, “even slept with it, like a teddy bear.”
For his third Christmas, Tina bought Brandon a first-rate Army set—complete with a Kevlar hat, walkie-talkies, and a hand grenade. Both Tina and Brandon’s father had served in the Army, and she thought their son might identify with the toys. A photo from that day shows him wearing a towel around his head, a bandanna around his waist, and a glum expression. The Army set sits unopened at his feet. Tina recalls his joy, by contrast, on a day later that year. One afternoon, while Tina was on the phone, Brandon climbed out of the bathtub. When she found him, he was dancing in front of the mirror with his penis tucked between his legs. “Look, Mom, I’m a girl,” he told her. “Happy as can be,” she recalls.
“Brandon, God made you a boy for a special reason,” she told him before they said prayers one night when he was 5, the first part of a speech she’d prepared. But he cut her off: “God made a mistake,” he said.
Tina had no easy explanation for where Brandon’s behavior came from. Gender roles are not very fluid in their no-stoplight town, where Confederate flags line the main street. Boys ride dirt bikes through the woods starting at age 5; local county fairs feature muscle cars for boys and beauty pageants for girls of all ages. In the Army, Tina operated heavy machinery, but she is no tomboy. When she was younger, she wore long flowing dresses to match her long, wavy blond hair; now she wears it in a cute, RenĂ©e Zellweger–style bob. Her husband, Bill (Brandon’s stepfather), lays wood floors and builds houses for a living. At a recent meeting with Brandon’s school principal about how to handle the boy, Bill aptly summed up the town philosophy: “The way I was brought up, a boy’s a boy and a girl’s a girl.”
School had always complicated Brandon’s life. When teachers divided the class into boys’ and girls’ teams, Brandon would stand with the girls. In all of his kindergarten and first-grade self-portraits—“I have a pet,” “I love my cat,” “I love to play outside”—the “I” was a girl, often with big red lips, high heels, and a princess dress. Just as often, he drew himself as a mermaid with a sparkly purple tail, or a tail cut out from black velvet. Late in second grade, his older stepbrother, Travis, told his fourth-grade friends about Brandon’s “secret”—that he dressed up at home and wanted to be a girl. After school, the boys cornered and bullied him. Brandon went home crying and begged Tina to let him skip the last week.
Since he was 4, Tina had been taking Brandon to a succession of therapists. The first told her he was just going through a phase; but the phase never passed. Another suggested that Brandon’s chaotic early childhood might have contributed to his behavior. Tina had never married Brandon’s father, whom she’d met when they were both stationed in Germany. Twice, she had briefly stayed with him, when Brandon was 5 months old and then when he was 3. Both times, she’d suspected his father of being too rough with the boy and had broken off the relationship. The therapist suggested that perhaps Brandon overidentified with his mother as the protector in the family, and for a while, this theory seemed plausible to Tina. In play therapy, the therapist tried to get Brandon to discuss his feelings about his father. She advised Tina to try a reward system at home. Brandon could earn up to $21 a week for doing three things: looking in the mirror and saying “I’m a boy”; not dressing up; and not wearing anything on his head. It worked for a couple of weeks, but then Brandon lost interest.
Tina recounted much of this history to me in June at her kitchen table, where Brandon, now 8, had just laid out some lemon pound cake he’d baked from a mix. She, Bill, Brandon, his half sister, Madison, and Travis live in a comfortable double-wide trailer that Bill set up himself on their half acre of woods. I’d met Tina a month earlier, and she’d agreed to let me follow Brandon’s development over what turned out to be a critical few months of his life, on the condition that I change their names and disguise where they live. While we were at the table talking, Brandon was conducting a kind of nervous fashion show; over the course of several hours, he came in and out of his room wearing eight or nine different outfits, constructed from his costume collection, his mom’s shoes and scarves, and his little sister’s bodysuits and tights. Brandon is a gymnast and likes to show off splits and back bends. On the whole, he is quiet and a little somber, but every once in a while—after a great split, say—he shares a shy, crooked smile.
About a year and a half ago, Tina’s mom showed her a Barbara Walters 20/20 special she’d taped. The show featured a 6-year-old boy named “Jazz” who, since he was a toddler, had liked to dress as a girl. Everything about Jazz was familiar to Tina: the obsession with girls’ clothes, the Barbies, wishing his penis away, even the fixation on mermaids. At the age of 3, Jazz had been diagnosed with “gender-identity disorder” and was considered “transgender,” Walters explained. The show mentioned a “hormone imbalance,” but his parents had concluded that there was basically nothing wrong with him. He “didn’t ask to be born this way,” his mother explained. By kindergarten, his parents were letting him go to school with shoulder-length hair and a pink skirt on.
Tina had never heard the word transgender; she’d figured no other little boy on Earth was like Brandon. The show prompted her to buy a computer and Google “transgender children.” Eventually, she made her way to a subculture of parents who live all across the country; they write in to listservs with grammar ranging from sixth-grade-level to professorial, but all have family stories much like hers. In May, she and Bill finally met some of them at the Trans-Health Conference in Philadelphia, the larger of two annual gatherings in the U.S. that many parents attend. Four years ago, only a handful of kids had come to the conference. This year, about 50 showed up, along with their siblings—enough to require a staff dedicated to full-time children’s entertainment, including Jack the Balloon Man, Sue’s Sand Art, a pool-and-pizza party, and a treasure hunt.
Diagnoses of gender-identity disorder among adults have tripled in Western countries since the 1960s; for men, the estimates now range from one in 7,400 to one in 42,000 (for women, the frequency of diagnosis is lower). Since 1952, when Army veteran George Jorgensen’s sex-change operation hit the front page of the New York Daily News, national resistance has softened a bit, too. Former NASCAR driver J.T. Hayes recently talked to Newsweek about having had a sex-change operation. Women’s colleges have had to adjust to the presence of “trans-men,” and the president-elect of the Gay and Lesbian Medical Association is a trans-woman and a successful cardiologist. But nothing can do more to normalize the face of transgender America than the sight of a 7-year-old (boy or girl?) with pink cheeks and a red balloon puppy in hand saying to Brandon, as one did at the conference:
“Are you transgender?”
“What’s that?” Brandon asked.
“A boy who wants to be a girl.”
“Yeah. Can I see your balloon?”
Around the world, clinics that specialize in gender-identity disorder in children report an explosion in referrals over the past few years. Dr. Kenneth Zucker, who runs the most comprehensive gender-identity clinic for youth in Toronto, has seen his waiting list quadruple in the past four years, to about 80 kids—an increase he attributes to media coverage and the proliferation of new sites on the Internet. Dr. Peggy Cohen-Kettenis, who runs the main clinic in the Netherlands, has seen the average age of her patients plummet since 2002. “We used to get calls mostly from parents who were concerned about their children being gay,” says Catherine Tuerk, who since 1998 has run a support network for parents of children with gender-variant behavior, out of Children’s National Medical Center in Washington, D.C. “Now about 90 percent of our calls are from parents with some concern that their child may be transgender.”
In breakout sessions at the conference, transgender men and women in their 50s and 60s described lives of heartache and rejection: years of hiding makeup under the mattress, estranged parents, suicide attempts. Those in their 20s and 30s conveyed a dedicated militancy: they wore nose rings and Mohawks, ate strictly vegan, and conducted heated debates about the definitions of queer and he-she and drag queen. But the kids treated the conference like a family trip to Disneyland. They ran around with parents chasing after them, fussing over twisted bathing-suit straps or wiping crumbs from their lips. They looked effortlessly androgynous, and years away from sex, politics, or any form of rebellion. For Tina, the sight of them suggested a future she’d never considered for Brandon: a normal life as a girl. “She could end up being a mommy if she wants, just like me,” one adoring mother leaned over and whispered about her 5-year-old (natal) son.
It took the gay-rights movement 30 years to shift from the Stonewall riots to gay marriage; now its transgender wing, long considered the most subversive, is striving for suburban normalcy too. The change is fuel‑ed mostly by a community of parents who, like many parents of this generation, are open to letting even preschool children define their own needs. Faced with skeptical neighbors and school officials, parents at the conference discussed how to use the kind of quasi-therapeutic language that, these days, inspires deference: tell the school the child has a “medical condition” or a “hormonal imbalance” that can be treated later, suggested a conference speaker, Kim Pearson; using terms like gender-­identity disorder or birth defect would be going too far, she advised. The point was to take the situation out of the realm of deep pathology or mental illness, while at the same time separating it from voluntary behavior, and to put it into the idiom of garden-variety “challenge.” As one father told me, “Between all the kids with language problems and learning disabilities and peanut allergies, the school doesn’t know who to worry about first.”
A recent medical innovation holds out the promise that this might be the first generation of transsexuals who can live inconspicuously. About three years ago, physicians in the U.S. started treating transgender children with puberty blockers, drugs originally intended to halt precocious puberty. The blockers put teens in a state of suspended development. They prevent boys from growing facial and body hair and an Adam’s apple, or developing a deep voice or any of the other physical characteristics that a male-to-female transsexual would later spend tens of thousands of dollars to reverse. They allow girls to grow taller, and prevent them from getting breasts or a period.
At the conference, blockers were the hot topic. One mother who’d found out about them too late cried, “The guilt I feel is overwhelming.” The preteens sized each other up for signs of the magic drug, the way other teens might look for hip, expensive jeans: a 16-year-old (natal) girl, shirtless, with no sign of breasts; a 17-year-old (natal) boy with a face as smooth as Brandon’s. “Is there anybody out there,” asked Dr. Nick Gorton, a physician and trans-man from California, addressing a room full of older transsexuals, “who would not have taken the shot if it had been offered?” No one raised a hand.
After a day of sessions, Tina’s mind was moving fast. “These kids look happier,” she told me. “This is nothing we can fix. In his brain, in his mind, Brandon’s a girl.” With Bill, she started to test out the new language. “What’s it they say? It’s nothing wrong. It’s just a medical condition, like diabetes or something. Just a variation on human behavior.” She made an unlikely friend, a lesbian mom from Seattle named Jill who took Tina under her wing. Jill had a 5-year-old girl living as a boy and a future already mapped out. “He’ll just basically be living life,” Jill explained about her (natal) daughter. “I already legally changed his name and called all the parents at the school. Then, when he’s in eighth grade, we’ll take him to the [endocrinologist] and get the blockers, and no one will ever know. He’ll just sail right through.”
“I live in a small town,” Tina pleaded with Jill. “This is all just really new. I never even heard the word transgender until recently, and the shrinks just kept telling me this is fixable.”
In my few months of meeting transgender children, I talked to parents from many different backgrounds, who had made very different decisions about how to handle their children. Many accepted the “new normalcy” line, and some did not. But they all had one thing in common: in such a loaded situation, with their children’s future at stake, doubt about their choices did not serve them well. In Brandon’s case, for example, doubt would force Tina to consider that if she began letting him dress as a girl, she would be defying the conventions of her small town, and the majority of psychiatric experts, who advise strongly against the practice. It would force her to consider that she would have to begin making serious medical decisions for Brandon in only a couple of years, and that even with the blockers, he would face a lifetime of hormone injections and possibly major surgery. At the conference, Tina struggled with these doubts. But her new friends had already moved past them.
“Yeah, it is fixable,” piped up another mom, who’d been on the 20/20 special. “We call it the disorder we cured with a skirt.”
In 1967, Dr. John Money launched an experiment that he thought might confirm some of the more radical ideas emerging in feminist thought. Throughout the ’60s, writers such as Betty Friedan were challenging the notion that women should be limited to their prescribed roles as wives, housekeepers, and mothers. But other feminists pushed further, arguing that the whole notion of gender was a social construction, and easy to manipulate. In a 1955 paper, Money had written: “Sexual behavior and orientation as male or female does not have an innate, instinctive basis.” We learn whether we are male or female “in the course of the various experiences of growing up.” By the ’60s, he was well-known for having established the first American clinic to perform voluntary sex-change operations, at the Johns Hopkins Hospital, in Baltimore. One day, he got a letter from the parents of infant twin boys, one of whom had suffered a botched circumcision that had burned off most of his penis.
Money saw the case as a perfect test for his theory. He encouraged the parents to have the boy, David Reimer, fully castrated and then to raise him as a girl. When the child reached puberty, Money told them, doctors could construct a vagina and give him feminizing hormones. Above all, he told them, they must not waver in their decision and must not tell the boy about the accident.
In paper after paper, Money reported on Reimer’s fabulous progress, writing that “she” showed an avid interest in dolls and dollhouses, that she preferred dresses, hair ribbons, and frilly blouses. Money’s description of the child in his book Sexual Signatures prompted one reviewer to describe her as “sailing contentedly through childhood as a genuine girl.” Time magazine concluded that the Reimer case cast doubt on the belief that sex differences are “immutably set by the genes at conception.”
The reality was quite different, as Rolling Stone reporter John Colapinto brilliantly documented in the 2000 best seller As Nature Made Him. Reimer had never adjusted to being a girl at all. He wanted only to build forts and play with his brother’s dump trucks, and insisted that he should pee standing up. He was a social disaster at school, beating up other kids and misbehaving in class. At 14, Reimer became so alienated and depressed that his parents finally told him the truth about his birth, at which point he felt mostly relief, he reported. He eventually underwent phalloplasty, and he married a woman. Then four years ago, at age 38, Reimer shot himself dead in a grocery-store parking lot.
Today, the notion that gender is purely a social construction seems nearly as outmoded as bra-burning or free love. Feminist theory is pivoting with the rest of the culture, and is locating the key to identity in genetics and the workings of the brain. In the new conventional wisdom, we are all pre-wired for many things previously thought to be in the realm of upbringing, choice, or subjective experience: happiness, religious awakening, cheating, a love of chocolate. Behaviors are fundamental unless we are chemically altered. Louann Brizendine, in her 2006 best-selling book, The Female Brain, claims that everything from empathy to chattiness to poor spatial reasoning is “hardwired into the brains of women.” Dr. Milton Diamond, an expert on human sexuality at the University of Hawaii and long the intellectual nemesis of Money, encapsulated this view in an interview on the BBC in 1980, when it was becoming clear that Money’s experiment was failing: “Maybe we really have to think … that we don’t come to this world neutral; that we come to this world with some degree of maleness and femaleness which will transcend whatever the society wants to put into [us].”
Diamond now spends his time collecting case studies of transsexuals who have a twin, to see how often both twins have transitioned to the opposite sex. To him, these cases are a “confirmation” that “the biggest sex organ is not between the legs but between the ears.” For many gender biologists like Diamond, transgender children now serve the same allegorical purpose that David Reimer once did, but they support the opposite conclusion: they are seen as living proof that “gender identity is influenced by some innate or immutable factors,” writes Melissa Hines, the author of Brain Gender.
This is the strange place in which transsexuals have found themselves. For years, they’ve been at the extreme edges of transgressive sexual politics. But now children like Brandon are being used to paint a more conventional picture: before they have much time to be shaped by experience, before they know their sexual orientation, even in defiance of their bodies, children can know their gender, from the firings of neurons deep within their brains. What better rebuke to the Our Bodies, Ourselves era of feminism than the notion that even the body is dispensable, that the hard nugget of difference lies even deeper?
In most major institutes for gender-identity disorder in children worldwide, a psychologist is the central figure. In the United States, the person intending to found “the first major academic research center,” as he calls it, is Dr. Norman Spack, an endocrinologist who teaches at Harvard Medical School and is committed to a hormonal fix. Spack works out of a cramped office at Children’s Hospital in Boston, where the walls are covered with diplomas and notes of gratitude scrawled in crayons or bright markers (“Thanks, Dr. Spack!!!”). Spack is bald, with a trim beard, and often wears his Harvard tie under his lab coat. He is not confrontational by nature, but he can hold his own with his critics: “To those who say I am interrupting God’s work, I point to Leviticus, which says, ‘Thou shalt not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor’”—an injunction, as he sees it, to prevent needless suffering.
Spack has treated young-adult transsexuals since the 1980s, and until recently he could never get past one problem: “They are never going to fail to draw attention to themselves.” Over the years, he’d seen patients rejected by families, friends, and employers after a sex-change operation. Four years ago, he heard about the innovative use of hormone blockers on transgender youths in the Netherlands; to him, the drugs seemed like the missing piece of the puzzle.
The problem with blockers is that parents have to begin making medical decisions for their children when the children are quite young. From the earliest signs of puberty, doctors have about 18 months to start the blockers for ideal results. For girls, that’s usually between ages 10 and 12; for boys, between 12 and 14. If the patients follow through with cross-sex hormones and sex-change surgery, they will be permanently sterile, something Spack always discusses with them. “When you’re talking to a 12-year-old, that’s a heavy-duty conversation,” he said in a recent interview. “Does a kid that age really think about fertility? But if you don’t start treatment, they will always have trouble fitting in.”
When Beth was 11, she told her mother, Susanna, that she’d “rather be dead” than go to school anymore as a girl. (The names of all the children and parents used as case studies in this story are pseudonyms.) For a long time, she had refused to shower except in a bathing suit, and had skipped out of health class every Thursday, when the standard puberty videos were shown. In March 2006, when Beth, now Matt, was 12, they went to see Spack. He told Matt that if he went down this road, he would never biologically have children.
“I’ll adopt!” Matt said.
“What is most important to him is that he’s comfortable in who he is,” says Susanna. They left with a prescription—a “godsend,” she calls it.
Now, at 15 and on testosterone, Matt is tall, with a broad chest and hairy legs. Susanna figures he’s the first trans-man in America to go shirtless without having had any chest surgery. His mother describes him as “happy” and “totally at home in his masculine body.” Matt has a girlfriend; he met her at the amusement park where Susanna works. Susanna is pretty sure he’s said something to the girl about his situation, but knows he hasn’t talked to her parents.
Susanna imagines few limitations in Matt’s future. Only a minority of trans-men get what they call “bottom” surgery, because phalloplasty is still more cosmetic than functional, and the procedure is risky. But otherwise? Married? “Oh, yeah. And his career prospects will be good because he gets very good grades. We envision a kind of family life, maybe in the suburbs, with a good job.” They have “no fears” about the future, and “zero doubts” about the path they’ve chosen.
Blockers are entirely reversible; should a child change his or her mind about becoming the other gender, a doctor can stop the drugs and normal puberty will begin. The Dutch clinic has given them to about 70 children since it started the treatment, in 2000; clinics in the United States and Canada have given them to dozens more. According to Dr. Peggy Cohen-Kettenis, the psychologist who heads the Dutch clinic, no case of a child stopping the blockers and changing course has yet been reported.
This suggests one of two things: either the screening is excellent, or once a child begins, he or she is set firmly on the path to medical intervention. “Adolescents may consider this step a guarantee of sex reassignment,” wrote Cohen-Kettenis, “and it could make them therefore less rather than more inclined to engage in introspection.” In the Netherlands, clinicians try to guard against this with an extensive diagnostic protocol, including testing and many sessions “to confirm that the desire for treatment is very persistent,” before starting the blockers.
Spack’s clinic isn’t so comprehensive. A part-time psychologist, Dr. Laura Edwards-Leeper, conducts four-hour family screenings by appointment. (When I visited during the summer, she was doing only one or two a month.) But often she has to field emergency cases directly with Spack, which sometimes means skipping the screening altogether. “We get these calls from parents who are just frantic,” she says. “They need to get in immediately, because their child is about to hit puberty and is having serious mental-health issues, and we really want to accommodate that. It’s like they’ve been waiting their whole lives for this and they are just desperate, and when they finally get in to see us … it’s like a rebirth.”
Spack’s own conception of the psychology involved is uncomplicated: “If a girl starts to experience breast budding and feels like cutting herself, then she’s probably transgendered. If she feels immediate relief on the [puberty-blocking] drugs, that confirms the diagnosis,” he told The Boston Globe. He thinks of the blockers not as an addendum to years of therapy but as “preventative” because they forestall the trauma that comes from social rejection. Clinically, men who become women are usually described as “male-to-female,” but Spack, using the parlance of activist parents, refers to them as “affirmed females”—“because how can you be a male-to-female if really you were always a female in your brain?”
transgender child
"Me and My Pets,"
a self-portrait drawn by Brandon
in kindergarten
(Courtesy of the family)

For the transgender community, born in the wrong body is the catchphrase that best captures this moment. It implies that the anatomy deceives where the brain tells the truth; that gender destiny is set before a baby takes its first breath. But the empirical evidence does not fit this argument so neatly. Milton Diamond says his study of identical transgender twins shows the same genetic predisposition that has been found for homosexuality: if one twin has switched to the opposite sex, there is a 50 percent chance that the other will as well. But his survey has not yet been published, and no one else has found nearly that degree of correlation. Eric Vilain, a geneticist at UCLA who specializes in sexual development and sex differences in the brain, says the studies on twins are mixed and that, on the whole, “there is no evidence of a biological influence on transsexualism yet.”
In 1995, a study published in Nature looked at the brains of six adult male-to-female transsexuals and showed that certain regions of their brains were closer in size to those of women than of men. This study seemed to echo a famous 1991 study about gay men, published in Science by the neuroscientist Simon LeVay. LeVay had studied a portion of the hypothalamus that governs sexual behavior, and he discovered that in gay men, its size was much closer to women’s than to straight men’s; his findings helped legitimize the notion that homosexuality is hardwired. But in the transsexual study, the sample size was small, and the subjects had already received significant feminizing hormone treatments, which can affect brain structure.
Transsexualism is far less common than homo­sexuality, and the research is in its infancy. Scattered studies have looked at brain activity, finger size, familial recurrence, and birth order. One hypothesis involves hormonal imbalances during pregnancy. In 1988, researchers injected hormones into pregnant rhesus monkeys; the hormones seemed to masculinize the brains but not the bodies of their female babies. “Are we expecting to find some biological component [to gender identity]?” asks Vilain. “Certainly I am. But my hunch is, it’s going to be mild. My hunch is that sexual orientation is probably much more hardwired than gender identity. I’m not saying [gender identity is] entirely determined by the social environment. I’m just saying that it’s much more malleable.”
Vilain has spent his career working with intersex patients, who are born with the anatomy of both sexes. He says his hardest job is to persuade the parents to leave the genitals ambiguous and wait until the child has grown up, and can choose his or her own course. This experience has influenced his views on parents with young transgender kids. “I’m torn here. I’m very ambivalent. I know [the parents] are saying the children are born this way. But I’m still on the fence. I consider the child my patient, not the parents, and I don’t want to alleviate the anxiety of the parents by surgically fixing the child. We don’t know the long-term effects of making these decisions for the child. We’re playing God here, a little bit.”
Even some supporters of hormone blockers worry that the availability of the drugs will encourage parents to make definitive decisions about younger and younger kids. This is one reason why doctors at the clinic in the Netherlands ask parents not to let young children live as the other gender until they are about to go on blockers. “We discourage it because the chances are very high that your child will not be a transsexual,” says Cohen-Kettenis. The Dutch studies of their own patients show that among young children who have gender-identity disorder, only 20 to 25 percent still want to switch gender at adolescence; other studies show similar or even lower rates of persistence.
The most extensive study on transgender boys was published in 1987 as The “Sissy Boy Syndrome” and the Development of Homosexuality. For 15 years, Dr. Richard Green followed 44 boys who exhibited extreme feminine behaviors, and a control group of boys who did not. The boys in the feminine group all played with dolls, preferred the company of girls to boys, and avoided “rough-and-tumble play.” Reports from their parents sound very much like the testimonies one reads on the listservs today. “He started … cross-dressing when he was about 3,” reported one mother. “[He stood] in front of the mirror and he took his penis and he folded it under, and he said, ‘Look, Mommy, I’m a girl,’” said another.
Green expected most of the boys in the study to end up as transsexuals, but nothing like that happened. Three-fourths of the 44 boys turned out to be gay or bisexual (Green says a few more have since contacted him and told him they too were gay). Only one became a transsexual. “We can’t tell a pre-gay from a pre-transsexual at 8,” says Green, who recently retired from running the adult gender-identity clinic in England. “Are you helping or hurting a kid by allowing them to live as the other gender? If everyone is caught up in facilitating the thing, then there may be a hell of a lot of pressure to remain that way, regardless of how strongly the kid still feels gender-dysphoric. Who knows? That’s a study that hasn’t found its investigator yet.”
Out on the sidewalk in Philadelphia, Tina was going through Marl­boro after Marl­boro, stubbing them out half-smoked against city buildings. The conference’s first day had just ended, with Tina asking another mom, “So how do you know if one of these kids stays that way or if he changes?” and the mom suggesting she could wait awhile and see.
“Wait? Wait for what?” Tina suddenly said to Bill. “He’s already waited six years, and now I don’t care about any of that no more.” Bill looked worried, but she threw an Army phrase at him: “Suck it up and drive on, soldier.”
The organizers had planned a pool party for that night, and Tina had come to a decision: Brandon would wear exactly the kind of bathing suit he’d always wanted. She had spotted a Macy’s a couple of blocks away. I walked with her and Bill and Brandon into the hush and glow, the headless mannequins sporting golf shorts with $80 price tags. They quietly took the escalator one floor up, to the girls’ bathing-suit department. Brandon leaped off at the top and ran to the first suit that caught his eye: a teal Hannah Montana bikini studded with jewels and glitter. “Oh, I love this one,” he said.
“So that’s the one you want?” asked Tina.
Brandon hesitated. He was used to doing his cross-dressing somewhat furtively. Normally he would just grab the shiniest thing he saw, for fear his chance would evaporate. But as he came to understand that both Tina and Bill were on board, he slowed down a bit. He carefully looked through all the racks. Bill, calm now, was helping him. “You want a one-piece or two-piece?” Bill asked. Tina, meanwhile, was having a harder time. “I’ll get used to it,” she said. She had tried twice to call Brandon “she,” Tina suddenly confessed, but “it just don’t sound right,” she said, her eyes tearing.
Brandon decided to try on an orange one-piece with polka dots, a sky-blue-and-pink two-piece, and a Hawaiian-print tank­ini with a brown background and pink hibiscus flowers. He went into a dressing room and stayed there a long, long time. Finally, he called in the adults. Brandon had settled on the least showy of the three: the Hawaiian print with the brown background. He had it on and was shyly looking in the mirror. He wasn’t doing backflips or grinning from ear to ear; he was still and at peace, gently fingering the price tag. He mentioned that he didn’t want to wear the suit again until he’d had a chance to wash his feet.
At the pool party, Brandon immediately ran into a friend he’d made earlier, the transgender boy who’d shared his balloon puppy. The pool was in a small room in the corner of a hotel basement, with low ceilings and no windows. The echoes of 70 giddy children filled the space. Siblings were there, too, so it was impossible to know who had been born a boy and who a girl. They were all just smooth limbs and wet hair and an occasional slip that sent one crying to his or her mother.
Bill sat next to me on a bench and spilled his concerns. He was worried about Tina’s stepfather, who would never accept this. He was worried that Brandon’s father might find out and demand custody. He was worried about Brandon’s best friend, whose parents were strict evangelical Christians. He was worried about their own pastor, who had sternly advised them to take away all of Brandon’s girl-toys and girl-clothes. “Maybe if we just pray hard enough,” Bill had told Tina.
Brandon raced by, arm in arm with his new friend, giggling. Tina and Bill didn’t know this yet, but Brandon had already started telling the other kids that his name was Bridget, after the pet mouse he’d recently buried (“My beloved Bridget. Rest With the Lord,” the memorial in his room read). The comment of an older transsexual from Brooklyn who’d sat behind Tina in a session earlier that day echoed in my head. He’d had his sex-change operation when he was in his 50s, and in his wild, wispy wig, he looked like a biblical prophet, with breasts. “You think you have troubles now,” he’d yelled out to Tina. “Wait until next week. Once you let the genie out of the bottle, she’s not going back in!”
Dr. Kenneth Zucker has been seeing children with gender-identity disorder in Toronto since the mid-’70s, and has published more on the subject than any other researcher. But lately he has become a pariah to the most-vocal activists in the American transgender community. In 2012, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders—the bible for psychiatric professionals—will be updated. Many in the transgender community see this as their opportunity to remove gender-identity disorder from the book, much the same way homosexuality was delisted in 1973. Zucker is in charge of the committee that will make the recommendation. He seems unlikely to bless the condition as psychologically healthy, especially in young children.
I met Zucker in his office at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, where piles of books alternate with the Barbies and superheroes that he uses for play therapy. Zucker has a white mustache and beard, and his manner is somewhat Talmudic. He responds to every question with a methodical three-part answer, often ending by climbing a chair to pull down a research paper he’s written. On one of his file cabinets, he’s tacked up a flyer from a British parents’ advocacy group that reads: “Gender dysphoria is increasingly understood … as having biological origins,” and describes “small parts of the brain” as “progressing along different pathways.” During the interview, he took it down to make a point: “In terms of empirical data, this is not true. It’s just dogma, and I’ve never liked dogma. Biology is not destiny.”
In his case studies and descriptions of patients, Zucker usually explains gender dysphoria in terms of what he calls “family noise”: neglectful parents who caused a boy to over­identify with his domineering older sisters; a mother who expected a daughter and delayed naming her newborn son for eight weeks. Zucker’s belief is that with enough therapy, such children can be made to feel comfortable in their birth sex. Zucker has compared young children who believe they are meant to live as the other sex to people who want to amputate healthy limbs, or who believe they are cats, or those with something called ethnic-identity disorder. “If a 5-year-old black kid came into the clinic and said he wanted to be white, would we endorse that?” he told me. “I don’t think so. What we would want to do is say, ‘What’s going on with this kid that’s making him feel that it would be better to be white?’”
Young children, he explains, have very concrete reasoning; they may believe that if they want to wear dresses, they are girls. But he sees it as his job—and the parents’—to help them think in more-flexible ways. “If a kid has massive separation anxiety and does not want to go to school, one solution would be to let them stay home. That would solve the problem at one level, but not at another. So it is with gender identity.” Allowing a child to switch genders, in other words, would probably not get to the root of the psychological problem, but only offer a superficial fix.
Zucker calls his approach “developmental,” which means that the most important factor is the age of the child. Younger children are more malleable, he believes, and can learn to “be comfortable in their own skin.” Zucker says that in 25 years, not one of the patients who started seeing him by age 6 has switched gender. Adolescents are more fixed in their identity. If a parent brings in, say, a 13-year-old who has never been treated and who has severe gender dysphoria, Zucker will generally recommend hormonal treatment. But he considers that a fraught choice. “One has to think about the long-term developmental path. This kid will go through lifelong hormonal treatment to approximate the phenotype of a male and may require some kind of surgery and then will have to deal with the fact that he doesn’t have a phallus; it’s a tough road, with a lot of pain involved.”
Zucker put me in touch with two of his success stories, a boy and a girl, now both living in the suburbs of Toronto. Meeting them was like moving into a parallel world where every story began the same way as those of the American families I’d met, but then ran in the opposite direction.
When he was 4, the boy, John, had tested at the top of the gender-dysphoria scale. Zucker recalls him as “one of the most anxious kids I ever saw.” He had bins full of Barbies and Disney princess movies, and he dressed in homemade costumes. Once, at a hardware store, he stared up at the glittery chandeliers and wept, “I don’t want to be a daddy! I want to be a mommy!”
His parents, well-educated urbanites, let John grow his hair long and play with whatever toys he preferred. But then a close friend led them to Zucker, and soon they began to see themselves as “in denial,” recalls his mother, Caroline. “Once we came to see his behavior for what it was, it became painfully sad.” Zucker believed John’s behavior resulted from early-childhood medical trauma—he was born with tumors on his kidneys and had had invasive treatments every three months—and from his dependence during that time on his mother, who has a dominant personality.
When they reversed course, they dedicated themselves to the project with a thoroughness most parents would find exhausting and off-putting. They boxed up all of John’s girl-toys and videos and replaced them with neutral ones. Whenever John cried for his girl-toys, they would ask him, “Do you think playing with those would make you feel better about being a boy?” and then would distract him with an offer to ride bikes or take a walk. They turned their house into a 1950s kitchen-sink drama, intended to inculcate respect for patriarchy, in the crudest and simplest terms: “Boys don’t wear pink, they wear blue,” they would tell him, or “Daddy is smarter than Mommy—ask him.” If John called for Mommy in the middle of the night, Daddy went, every time.
When I visited the family, John was lazing around with his older brother, idly watching TV and playing video games, dressed in a polo shirt and Abercrombie & Fitch shorts. He said he was glad he’d been through the therapy, “because it made me feel happy,” but that’s about all he would say; for the most part, his mother spoke for him. Recently, John was in the basement watching the Grammys. When Caroline walked downstairs to say good night, she found him draped in a blanket, vamping. He looked up at her, mortified. She held his face and said, “You never have to be embarrassed of the things you say or do around me.” Her position now is that the treatment is “not a cure; this will always be with him”—but also that he has nothing to be ashamed of. About a year ago, John carefully broke the news to his parents that he is gay. “You’d have to carefully break the news to me that you were straight,” his dad told him. “He’ll be a man who loves men,” says his mother. “But I want him to be a happy man who loves men.”
The girl’s case was even more extreme in some ways. She insisted on peeing standing up and playing only with boys. When her mother bought her Barbies, she’d pop their heads off. Once, when she was 6, her father, Mike, said out of the blue: “Chris, you’re a girl.” In response, he recalls, she “started screaming and freaking out,” closing her hand into a fist and punching herself between the legs, over and over. After that, her parents took her to see Zucker. He connected Chris’s behavior to the early years of her parents’ marriage; her mother had gotten pregnant and Mike had been resentful of having to marry her, and verbally abusive. Chris, Zucker told them, saw her mother as weak and couldn’t identify with her. For four years, they saw no progress. When Chris turned 11 and other girls in school started getting their periods, her mother found her on the bed one night, weeping. She “said she wanted to kill herself,” her mother told me. “She said, ‘In my head, I’ve always been a boy.’”
But about a month after that, everything began to change. Chris had joined a softball team and made some female friends; her mother figured she had cottoned to the idea that girls could be tough and competitive. Then one day, Chris went to her mother and said, “Mom, I need to talk to you. We need to go shopping.” She bought clothes that were tighter and had her ears pierced. She let her hair grow out. Eventually she gave her boys’ clothes away.
Now Chris wears her hair in a ponytail, walks like a girl, and spends hours on the phone, talking to girlfriends about boys. Her mother recently watched her through a bedroom window as she was jumping on their trampoline, looking slyly at her own reflection and tossing her hair around. At her parents’ insistence, Chris has never been to a support group or a conference, never talked to another girl who wanted to be a boy. For all she knew, she was the only person in the world who felt as she once had felt.
The week before I arrived in Toronto, the Barbara Walters special about Jazz had been re-aired, and both sets of parents had seen it. “I was aghast,” said John’s mother. “It really affected us to see this poor little peanut, and her parents just going to the teacher and saying ‘He is a “she” now.’ Why would you assume a 4-year-old would understand the ramifications of that?”
“We were shocked,” Chris’s father said. “They gave up on their kid too early. Regardless of our beliefs and our values, you look at Chris, and you look at these kids, and they have to go through a sex-change operation and they’ll never look right and they’ll never have a normal life. Look at Chris’s chance for a happy, decent life, and look at theirs. Seeing those kids, it just broke our hearts.”
transgender child
Brandon on Christmas Day 2002, wearing
his mother's bandanna around his waist
and a towel around his head
(Courtesy of the family)

Catherine Tuerk, who runs the support group for parents in Washington, D.C., started out as an advocate for gay rights after her son came out, in his 20s. She has a theory about why some parents have become so comfortable with the transgender label: “Parents have told me it’s almost easier to tell others, ‘My kid was born in the wrong body,’ rather than explaining that he might be gay, which is in the back of everyone’s mind. When people think about being gay, they think about sex—and thinking about sex and kids is taboo.”
Tuerk believes lingering homophobia is partly responsible for this, and in some cases, she may be right. When Bill saw two men kissing at the conference, he said, “That just don’t sit right with me.” In one of Zucker’s case studies, a 17-year-old girl requesting cross-sex hormones tells him, “Doc, to be honest, lesbians make me sick … I want to be normal.” In Iran, homosexuality is punishable by death, but sex-change operations are legal—a way of normalizing aberrant attractions.
Overall, though, Tuerk’s explanation touches on something deeper than latent homophobia: a subconscious strain in American conceptions of childhood. You see it in the hyper-­vigilance about “good touch” and “bad touch.” Or in the banishing of Freud to the realm of the perverse. The culture seems invested in an almost Victorian notion of childhood innocence, leaving no room for sexual volition, even in the far future.
When Tuerk was raising her son, in the ’70s, she and her husband, a psychiatrist, both fell prey to the idea that their son’s gayness was somehow their fault, and that they could change it. These were the years when the child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim blamed cold, distant “refrigerator mothers” for everything from autism to schizophrenia in their children. Children, to Bettelheim, were messy, unhappy creatures, warped by the sins of their parents. Today’s children are nothing like that, at least not in their parents’ eyes. They are pure vessels, channeling biological impulses beyond their control—or their parents’. Their requests are innocent, unsullied by baggage or desire. Which makes it much easier to say yes to them.
Tuerk was thrilled when the pendulum swung from nurture toward nature; “I can tell you the exact spot where I was, in Chevy Chase Circle, when someone said the words to me: ‘There’s a guy in Baltimore, and he thinks people are born gay.’” But she now thinks the pendulum may have swung too far. For the minority who are truly transgender, “the sooner they get into the right clothes, the less they’re going to suffer. But for the rest? I’m not sure if we’re helping or hurting them by pushing them in this direction.”
It’s not impossible to imagine Brandon’s life going in another direction. His early life fits neatly into a Zucker case study about family noise. Tina describes Brandon as “never leaving my side” during his early years. The diagnosis writes itself: father, distant and threatening; mother, protector; child overidentifies with strong maternal figure. If Tina had lived in Toronto, if she’d had the patience for six years of Dr. Zucker’s therapy, if the therapy had been free, then who knows?
Yet Zucker’s approach has its own disturbing elements. It’s easy to imagine that his methods—steering parents toward removing pink crayons from the box, extolling a patriarchy no one believes in—could instill in some children a sense of shame and a double life. A 2008 study of 25 girls who had been seen in Zucker’s clinic showed positive results; 22 were no longer gender-dysphoric, meaning they were comfortable living as girls. But that doesn’t mean they were happy. I spoke to the mother of one Zucker patient in her late 20s, who said her daughter was repulsed by the thought of a sex change but was still suffering—she’d become an alcoholic, and was cutting herself. “I’d be surprised if she outlived me,” her mother said.
When I was reporting this story, I was visibly pregnant with my third child. My pregnancy brought up a certain nostalgia for the parents I met, because it reminded them of a time when life was simpler, when a stranger could ask them whether their baby was a boy or a girl and they could answer straightforwardly. Many parents shared journals with me that were filled with anguish. If they had decided to let their child live as the other gender, that meant cutting off ties with family and friends who weren’t supportive, putting away baby pictures, mourning the loss of the child they thought they had. It meant sending their child out alone into a possibly hostile world. If they chose the other route, it meant denying their child the things he or she most wanted, day after day, in the uncertain hope that one day, it would all pay off. In either case, it meant choosing a course on the basis of hazy evidence, and resolving to believe in it.
About two months after the conference, I visited Brandon again. On Father’s Day, Tina had made up her mind to just let it happen. She’d started calling him “Bridget” and, except for a few slipups, “she.” She’d packed up all the boy-clothes and given them to a neighbor, and had taken Bridget to JC Penney for a new wardrobe. When I saw her, her ears were pierced and her hair was just beginning to tickle her earlobes. “If it doesn’t move any faster, I’ll have to get extensions!” Tina said.
That morning, Tina was meeting with Bridget’s principal, and the principal of a nearby school, to see if she could transfer. “I want her to be known as Bridget, not Bridget-who-used-to-be-Brandon.” Tina had memorized lots of lines she’d heard at the conference, and she delivered them well, if a little too fast. She told the principals that she had “pictures and medical documentation.” She showed them a book called The Transgender Child. “I thought we could fix it,” she said, “but gender’s in your brain.” Brandon’s old principal looked a little shell-shocked. But the one from the nearby school, a young woman with a sweet face and cropped curly hair, seemed more open. “This is all new to me,” she said. “It’s a lot to learn.”
The week before, Tina had gone to her mother’s house, taking Bridget along. Bridget often helps care for her grandmother, who has lupus; the two are close. After lunch, Bridget went outside in a pair of high heels she’d found in the closet. Tina’s stepfather saw the child and lost it: “Get them damned shoes off!” he yelled.
“Make me,” Bridget answered.
Then the stepfather turned to Tina and said, “You’re ruining his fucking life,” loud enough for Bridget to hear.
Tina’s talk with Karen, the mother of Bridget’s best friend, Abby, hadn’t gone too smoothly, either. Karen is an evangelical Christian, with an anti-gay-marriage bumper sticker on her white van. For two years, she’d picked up Brandon nearly every day after school, and brought him over to play with Abby. But that wasn’t going to happen anymore. Karen told Tina she didn’t want her children “exposed to that kind of thing.” “God doesn’t make mistakes,” she added.
Bridget, meanwhile, was trying to figure it all out—what she could and couldn’t do, where the limits were. She’d always been a compliant child, but now she was misbehaving. Her cross-dressing had amped up; she was trying on makeup, and demanding higher heels and sexier clothes. When I was over, she came out of the house dressed in a cellophane getup, four-inch heels, and lip gloss. “It’s like I have to teach her what’s appropriate for a girl her age,” says Tina.
Thursdays, the family spends the afternoon at a local community center, where both Bridget and her little sister, Madison, take gymnastics. She’d normally see Abby there; the two of them are in the same class and usually do their warm-up together, giggling and going over their day. On the car ride over, Bridget was trying to navigate that new relationship, too.
“Abby’s not my best friend anymore. She hits me. But she’s really good at drawing.”
“Well, don’t you go hitting nobody,” Tina said. “Remember, sticks and stones.”
When they arrived at the center and opened the door, Abby was standing right there. She looked at Bridget/Brandon. And froze. She turned and ran away. Madison, oblivious, followed her, yelling, “Wait for us!”
Bridget sat down on a bench next to Tina. Although they were miles from home, she’d just seen a fourth-grade friend of her stepbrother’s at the pool table, and she was nervous.
“Hey, we need to work on this,” said Tina. “If anybody says anything, you say, ‘I’m not Brandon. I’m Bridget, his cousin from California. You want to try it?’”
“No. I don’t want to.”
“Well, if someone keeps it up, you just say, ‘You’re crazy.’”
Tina had told me over the phone that Brandon was easily passing as a girl, but that wasn’t really true, not yet. With his hair still short, he looked like a boy wearing tight pink pants and earrings. This meant that for the moment, everywhere in this small town was a potential land mine. At the McDonald’s, the cashier eyed him suspiciously: “Is that Happy Meal for a boy or a girl?” At the playground, a group of teenage boys with tattoos and their pants pulled low down did a double take. By the evening, Tina was a nervous wreck. “Gosh darn it! I left the keys in the car,” she said. But she hadn’t. She was holding them in her hand.
After gymnastics, the kids wanted to stop at the Dairy Queen, but Tina couldn’t take being stared at in one more place. “Drive-thru!” she yelled. “And I don’t want to hear any more whining from you.”
On the quiet, wooded road leading home, she could finally relax. It was cool enough to roll down the windows and get some mountain air. After high school, Tina had studied to be a travel agent; she had always wanted to just “work on a cruise ship or something, just go, go, go.” Now she wanted things to be easy for Brandon, for him to disappear and pop back as Bridget, a new kid from California, new to this town, knowing nobody. But in a small town, it’s hard to erase yourself and come back as your opposite.
Maybe one day they would move, she said. But thinking about that made her head hurt. Instead of the future, she drifted to the past, when things were easier.
“Remember that camping trip we took once, Brandon?” she asked, and he did. And together, they started singing one of the old camp songs she’d taught him.
Smokey the Bear, Smokey the Bear,
Howlin’ and a-prowlin’ and a-sniffin’ the air.
He can find a fire before it starts to flame.
That’s why they call him Smokey,
That’s how he got his name.
“You remember that, Brandon?” she asked again. And for the first time all day, they seemed happy.