Chaz Bono’s appearance on Dancing with the Stars has led to substantial commentary, for and against. Some of this is leading to discussion of really important, but neglected issues. For example, one common but myopic response in opposition, and to other lesbian or gay visibility on our television screens and in our streets, is that children could be “confused” by seeing these non-conformist images, and so might grow up confused about their own identity.
The obvious problem with this assessment, is that it is only relevant to those children who happen to be born with an innate orientation, biological sex and gender identity which conform squarely with the extreme positions of the relevant sexual, biological or gender continuum. Biological and social sciences have shown conclusively that life is not so simple. If Kinsey is to be believed, most of us are not all exclusively heterosexual or homosexual. We also know that a small but surprisingly significant minority of people are born who are neither wholly male nor wholly female, but one variety or another of intersexed – and for many others, their gender identity (the way their mental state sees themselves) differs from their biological sex.
There are tragic tales of babies born with intermediate external genitals being submitted to surgery to conform with male or female stereotypes, only to discover later that the imposed external condition does not conform to internal biology. In other cases, apparently “normal” genitals differ from internal sexual biology, leading to a disjunction between the gender in which the child has been raised, and the child’s biology. Many gay men and lesbians will know from bitter personal experience the problems they have endured from bullying, verbal abuse or serious physical violence, simply for not conforming to perceptions of “normality”. Even 100% heterosexual men and women are often subjected to the same kinds of bullying, if in their demeanour or interests they present as effeminate men or masculine women – in the mistaken but common belief that these traits equate with a same-sex attraction.
There is a claim made that children’s sexual identities are not formed until late adolescence or early adulthood – and so we should shield them from knowledge of any non-conformist sexualities or gender expression until they are old enough to have made up their own minds. The claim is in fact false – the findings of science are that sexual orientation is fixed remarkably early in childhood (I have seen one research report that identifies it as settled even in the womb). But even if the claim were correct, the conclusion would be dangerous. If we accept that it is wrong to confuse a child by presenting her/him with possibilities for orientation or gender identity that differ from her/his own, how much more dangerous is it to present that child exclusively with such images?
Imagine, for example, how confusing it would be to children if every character in books, on film and TV, in sitcoms, dramas, news and documentary programs, were to be a gay man or lesbian, or if every one of them were to be seen as transgendered or cross-dressers. That would most certainly be confusing to young people whose natural orientation was to the opposite sex, and whose gender identity perfectly matched internal and external genital biology. But that is precisely the effect that we create for naturally same-sex attracted or intersex children, and those whole mental and biological genders are out of sync.
The danger to our children is not in presenting them with a range of sexual or gender models, but in perpetuating the myth that we all fit neatly into a simple binary divide, of exclusively heterosexual and biologically simple males and females. To protect the mental health of children (and shield them from prejudice and physical violence), we should be encouraging more, not less, diversity on our screens, and in public life.
“For many viewers of ABC’s mega-hit series Dancing With the Stars, the announcement that this season’s roster of contestants would include Chaz Bono, the son of Cher and the late Sonny Bono, marked a historic decision and a milestone for transgender people. To some, it made a less than welcome addition to the fall television line-up.
One viewer comment online stood out for me, given my work with gender non-conforming and transgender children and their families: “YOUR choice to bring Chaz Bono into the mix goes too far. I am not about to risk the potential for on screen dialogue about sex changes and gender confusion while my 7 and 9 year old are watching.”
-read more at Huffington Post