Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Sexuality & Evolutionary Non-Mysteries

The BBC has a lengthy magazine article entitled The Evolutionary Puzzle of Homosexuality. Of course, it is useful for science to investigate sexuality, genetics, conditioning and so forth in order to better understand ourselves and the way we all tick. But something is amiss:
"This is a paradox from an evolutionary perspective," says Paul Vasey from the University of Lethbridge in Canada. "How can a trait like male homosexuality, which has a genetic component, persist over evolutionary time if the individuals that carry the genes associated with that trait are not reproducing?"
In other words, there is an argument that goes:
  • Men whose sexual behaviour is largely or exclusively homosexual are less likely to have children.
  • If traits are genetic, they are passed down by people having children. 
  • Therefore, homosexuality cannot have a genetic element.
And yet there is strong evidence that sexual orientation is largely innate, homosexuality is evident even in societies where there is deadly pressure to conform and homosexual behaviour is seen throughout nature. What can it all mean?!

It benefits scientists and universities, who really ought to know better, to keep talking about, giving interviews and publishing papers on this alleged paradox, because it is a controversial and salacious subject. Oooh, sex!  Oooh, controversy! Oooh, mystery!

And thus you get nonsense like the Gay Uncle Hypothesis - the idea that the presence of childless adult men* in the extended family was of evolutionary advantage to that family's genes. In other words, gay men exist to babysit and mentor the children of their straight brothers (though not their sisters, particularly). Some (usually straight) people like this theory, because it justifies the existence of gay folk and renders their difference a practical advantage to the normals. It's perhaps one step up from the argument gay men exist because musical theatre was crucial to keeping warm and cheerful throughout the the last Ice Age (some may scoff - my gut says it was).

But there is no paradox. Let's frame our syllogism with a slightly different example:
  • People with Down Syndrome are less likely to have children. They are less likely to survive far into adulthood and, on average, they have some disadvantage when it comes to sexual selection and child-raising. 
  • If traits are genetic, they are passed down by people having children.
  • Therefore, Down Syndrome cannot have a genetic element.
Down Syndrome, as we know, is straightforwardly genetic, caused by an extra copy of chromosome 21. Yet it is rarely asked why people with Down Syndrome should still be being born after millions of years of human evolution. Why? The subject is not sexy and, although there's no shortage of discrimination against people with Down Syndrome, nobody suggests it involves choice on the part of the individual (their mother, maybe, but not them).

Of course, as with many genetic disorders and human traits that we don't happen to call "disorders", this mutation usually occurs spontaneously or else trickles down in families where the vast majority of people don't have this trait. It happens because it happens, because DNA must mutate in order for organisms to adapt and evolve.

Mutation is a good thing in terms of species survival, but it is entirely random. The fact that one mutation can create a dynastic dead-end for one individual in one set of circumstances doesn't stop this kind of mutation from occurring. Virus strains can - and often do - mutate to become less contagious.

People with Down Syndrome are much less vulnerable to some sorts of cancers. Maybe that means the condition plays or has played some sort of as yet unseen beneficial role within families?

Neither homosexuality or bisexuality appear to be entirely genetic; these traits are undoubtedly a special combination of genes (probably multiple genes), in utero hormonal events and other environmental influences. But maybe something about sexualities which make having children less likely (and in this we must include heterosexual trans people, asexual people, bisexuals in same gender partnerships and anyone disinclined towards PIV sex) has some overarching benefit on a family's chances of survival? Or maybe not.

And so what if it doesn't? Does this justify homophobia? Would or should it even matter if these were conscious choices that individuals made about the life they wanted to live?

There are far more questions than answers about evolution and the vast range of sexual behaviour in humans and other animals. The framing of one harmless, relatively common and naturally-occurring deviation as a mystery is unhelpful, both in terms of the public understanding of science and our ongoing struggle towards social justice.

* Lesbians and bisexual women are still largely side-lined in research into sexual orientation. We know all kinds of strange trivia about gay men's fingers and how their hair typically whorls clockwise (or is it anti-clockwise? I think it matters enough to forget). but nearly nothing about lesbian eyebrows, for example. I may apply for a grant. 

Sunday, February 09, 2014

What it means to be Cisgender.

Obviously, everything to do with human identity is socially constructed. When we use labels to identify ourselves, we're sometimes talking about things we feel very deeply, sometimes about things we see purely politically and sometimes, it's really more about the way other people see us.

So for example, my sexuality is integral to who I am, far more than my gender: I cannot conceive a version of myself with a different sexuality, whereas in almost all dreams where I am not myself, I am a man. Being disabled is very important to many experiences I have had and I strongly identify with other disabled people fighting discrimination, but I am perceived as and therefore feel more or less disabled in different contexts - it is even conceivable, though very unlikely, that one day I won't be disabled any more. Being white is something I am aware of in many different contexts - probably mostly in terms of consuming fiction, where this one aspect of my identity is treated as not only normal but best (stories have to be about white people!).

Being a cis woman is not an integral part of my identity - I rarely think about being cis at all - but it is a privilege I have and am aware of. Meanwhile, Glosswitch has been wrestling with what it means to be cis:
"To break the stranglehold gender stereotypes have over human experience – distorting and restricting our experience of ourselves – should not involve telling whole swathes of humankind that they “match” their gender. [...] Matching cis maleness – the identity most closely associated with “being human” – must feel like winning the gender lottery. It’s not the same if you inhabit a female body. Who’d want the values associated with that? Yet that is what cis women are told they are stuck with."
This isn't how I see it at all.

Being cis gender means I am not transgender. It certainly doesn't mean that I, as a woman, am everything that a woman is supposed to be within my culture - or even any of those things. It doesn't say very much about the clothes I wear, the way I think, my hobbies and interests or my sexuality. This doesn't even attempt to say anything about my genes, genitals or reproductive potential (Most cis women, most of the time, cannot get pregnant. A significant minority of cis women can never get pregnant.)

All my being cis means is that (a) the word woman is the best way I have of describing my gender and (b) this coincides with the way that other people always have described me. Thus cis, on the side of, as opposed to trans, across. This doesn't mean that a trans person and I can't have a very great deal in common - including shared experiences of gender non-conformity and sexuality, psychological dysmorphia issues as well as some crossover between trans and disabled experiences, especially while transgender remains heavily pathologised. But I am not trans and perhaps crucially, I have never received the negative treatment a trans person receives.

It is quite ludicrous to imagine that human beings might be divided between those people who feel comfortable in their assigned gender - along with all the accompanying cultural baggage - and those who belong to another gender altogether (presumably, embracing the accompanying cultural baggage of their true gender). There's perhaps genderqueer in between, and here, the definitions are looser - many cis folk might well identify as genderqueer given greater personal freedom and knowledge of this possibility. However, this still doesn't mean that everyone - or anyone - left in the cis category would match their assigned gender. Gender is a social construct. Human beings use social constructs and are very heavily influenced by social constructs, but we also strain against them, constantly, because they don't bloody fit.

There are obvious parallels with straight folk feeling uncomfortable with the idea of being straight. There are reasons why they might, besides the old "The word for what I am is normal." nonsense (the usual objection to cis, along with "I've never heard that word before so I'm determined to be insulted by it"). A woman may be exclusively attracted to men, but completely reject the norms of heterosexual relationships that her culture presents to her. She may watch romantic movies and not recognise the role assigned to her within relationships; she may reject monogamy or marriage, she may not be attracted to small, quiet, bookish men in a culture that tells her to fancy macho hunks.

But straight is still the most likely way of describing her sexuality. You can still be straight and not fit into a world where the dynamics, depth and even timing of heterosexual relationships is strictly prescribed.  You can still be straight and experience discrimination based on your deviance from hetronormative roles, just as almost all cis women, at one time or another, have been made to feel that we are not living up to expectations of womanhood.

Thursday, February 06, 2014

Why I don't answer The Question

During one recent week, I was heartened to read three different articles by disabled people writing about disability in a mainstream context. Woohoo! Or woohooish. Each one began with two or three paragraphs dedicated to answering The Question. One was an article about being asked The Question, and how infuriating that is, yet the author still made sure she had answered it before she made her case.

The question is
What's wrong with you?
or sometimes, What's your condition? What's that scar from? What's wrong with your legs? Why do you use a cane? Why are you in a wheelchair? Why don't you have a job? and many variations on the theme.

I don't answer this question, not unless I have to or on the very very rare occasion I am asked by an established friend. Here's why:

It's a personal question, it may not have an answer and it tells you very little about me.

The Question is about my medical history, my body, my physical and mental health. For some disabled people, the answer may involve trauma, violence, shame, personal tragedy - it could be a fresh tragedy or it could be something someone's worked hard to leave in the past. It could involve deeply personal matters such as infertility or a dramatically shortened life expectancy. There may not even be a medical diagnosis - those things can take years, diagnoses can be revised two or three times and sometimes, someone has a combination of symptoms which medical science is yet to stick a name on.

The Question is not relevant.

When disabled people point out that their medical conditions are nobody's business, there are usually three objections from our interrogators:
1: "People are just being friendly."
No, they're not. Sometimes social interaction is hard, but do unto other as you would be done to is fairly basic. If you wouldn't like to be asked a personal question relating to your appearance, your own or your family's medical history, don't ask one.
2: "It is our business! People like me let you park in convenient parking spaces and pay taxes so you can have grab-rails in your bathroom, so we should have the right to interrogate you until we're satisfied you really deserve it."
There is a tremendous sense that disabled people are public property - something that's massively increased, along with full-on hate crime, in the last few years. This is such a bizarre reduction of how society works, akin to my demanding of random children I meet that they tell me (a) how they're doing at school, honestly and (b) what they intend to do when they grow up. After all, I let children exist, my taxes go on everything from maternity care to subsidised school dinners. I pay for the little buggers' crayons, for crying out loud!
3: "It is our business! If you have access needs, then I want to decide what you need or don't need based on a medical diagnosis I've never heard of before, rather than listening to your requests."
There's little my diagnoses - or any diagnosis - could tell a lay person about actual limitation and access needs. With chronic illness especially (though with many other impairments too) there is so much variation between individuals, the different symptoms we have and their severity, to say nothing of how these things shift over time, sometimes from one day to the next. The main reason for demanding such background information is personal curiosity. Or you know, nosiness.

Here are some similar Questions.

"Where do you come from?"
"Have you ever tried having sex with a man?"
"So, what gender were you born as?"
"When did you decide that you were that way?"

All these questions amount to the same thing: "I'm normal. You're different. Justify yourself!"

I think disabled people are much more likely to answer this question - not because we are most oppressed, but because of the nature of that oppression. I don't see anyone explaining where they or their antecedents came from before discussing the black experience of university life. I don't see anyone talking about how many girlfriends and boyfriends they've had before discussing queer representation in film.

So why do disabled people feel the need to justify our difference before we even begin to speak about anything that affects disabled people?

Some people are happy to answer The Question for good reasons.

Some disabled people don't find it rude. Some people are very open about their conditions and tell people up-front, before the question is asked. Some people have really interesting conditions. Others have conditions they really want to talk about - I had a phase of this myself in the months following diagnosis. Some conditions are better known, easier to explain and be clear about (although I know at least one person who cheerfully informs strangers of his personality disorder diagnosis - I don't know if that's brave or naive). Some people strongly identify with other people in the same boat and have condition-specific pride; deaf pride, autistic pride, etc..

All this is cool. Absolutely cool. But there are less cool reasons people answer The Question:

Some people believe the answer to The Question is the most interesting thing about them.

Our conditions are often what people talk about when talking about us; we become Bipolar Charlie or Nadia, who has MS *.  Often, it can feel that a medical condition has replaced an education or career in terms of what a person does with their day. I'm fairly sure that, when my mother talks about her daughters, she talks about her eldest who is a teacher and her youngest who can't work because she has the Dreaded Lurgy - although she will then go on to talk about what I actually do with my time. One day I will persuade her to skip the Dreaded Lurgy bit altogether.

People join illness-specific support groups which, given enough isolation, can emphasise this idea of a diagnosis as a fundamental difference between ourselves and the rest of the world; something other people don't and won't understand. We spend a lot of time with doctors, in hospitals, filling out forms, administering treatment and then simply being ill (a terrifically time-consuming business). So there are periods - sometimes years - when illness is a huge part of what we think about, as opposed to something we unconsciously work around. Thus, I think there are circumstances where the close psychological identity with a medical diagnosis is inevitable. It's just a shame that happens.

* I took a break from writing this post to read an article someone had recommended. It is in several parts but the first consists of several paragraphs about two disabled people affected by the benefits cuts. It does mention a few facts about their lives and interests, but most of the wordage was taken up with an explanation of their medical conditions and symptoms. The second half of the article opens
"Too often, the disabled are referred to as whatever illness they have, rather than as who they are."
Well, yeah.

Some people answer The Question because they think they need to justify themselves.

Disabled people do have to answer The Question on a fairly regular basis. Need medical help, certain kinds of assistance or accommodation, grants, benefits, protection from discrimination within a workplace, then there's often an insistence on answering The Question, whether or not it's entirely pertinent in the circumstances. Not just The Question, but often other questions about what a dreadful complex range of life-limiting impairments we have. And we live in the knowledge that these questions might not be enough - that while we're dealing with things that we're entitled to, rights protected by law, there's still a strong sense that we're begging to be considered deserving enough.

Disabled people are often made to feel like we are a burden on others, that we exist only thanks to the kindness and compassion of non-disabled people. So when a stranger asks, it can be easy to slip into answering mode - supplication mode - as if this conversation is just another loop we need to jump through in order to get on with our lives in peace.

Related to this:

Some people answer The Question in order to differentiate themselves from other, less acceptable kinds of disabled people.

Is your impairment heroically, or at least honestly, come by? Are you able to work and play sport? Are you in perfect mental health? Maybe you're often spoken to like an idiot when, in fact, your impairment has no effect on your IQ - perhaps you're actually smarter than average? You must be so proud! You might also want to let others know that you are not short of a good impairment storyare a slim non-smoker, have a respectable diagnosis, are physically fit and independent and, of course, are not some decrepit old biddy.

Of course, there's no reason for any disabled person to be looked down upon, treated like an idiot, doubted or dismissed. We don't solve that sort of thing by making sure that bigots know that we, as individuals, don't deserve this. Nobody, anywhere, deserves that.

Some people answer The Question because of Awareness

We can change the world by telling our stories. Tell your stories! However, we live in a culture where Awareness - a word which is mostly used to increase the profiles of charities, provide cheap and tragic human interest stories for the news media and make ordinary, well-meaning people feel like they are making a difference - is seen as a straightforward, unquestionable good.

Information about a person does not equate to respect for them, especially when
  1. It's the first piece of verbal information a person has about them and
  2. Our cultural responses to disability tend to range across sympathy, suspicion and fear.
The fact that someone who hardly knows me is asking this personal question suggests that their respect for me is already in doubt. I'm not going to increase their awareness by giving a clear and comprehensive answer. I am only going to confirm their privilege.

(Another day, if you're good, you'll get an epic rant on Why Awareness Campaigns Do Far More Harm Than Good To Folks Affected By An Issue Whilst Making Other People Feel Better).

Related to this, read Sarah's On Not Explaining Yourself or Your Children To Strangers

The Question is part of a whole conversation I don't want to have.

This can be heart-sinking stuff, the point where you're suddenly being told that your doctors are mistaken, you can't have the condition you've been told you have and what you have could be cured with homeopathy. Or the conversation can descend into an interrogation about your medical history, tests carried out, treatments received and so forth.  And here's this person, who hardly knew you a few minutes ago, and now they know all about one small but deeply personal aspect of your life and nothing about who you are.

This is not going to be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

Most people don't ask The Question.

They really don't. It's not normal. It's a power thing*. Not an evil sadistic power thing, but one that goes,
Here is a rare opportunity where I'm allowed to ask a really personal question to a stranger and pretend it's because I care or somehow need to know for their own good. Let's go for it! 
The more confident I have become, the less I am asked. I am more likely to be asked while in certain company; around people who respect me completely, and don't make any issue of my impairments or access needs, other people won't ask.

This is no advice for people who don't want to be asked - I think younger people (like under 25) get it worse than anybody, anyway - but it proves the point; this is a power game, microscopic and unthinking, but it is perfectly okay not to play along.

* Children ask but they have different expectations - what they really want to know tends to be, for example, why anybody might use a wheelchair. They don't want to hear about diseases. They ask "Why are you sitting in that chair?" and consider "Because my legs don't work very well." a sufficient and informative answer. Coincidentally, it's the same answer I give the grown-ups.

Monday, February 03, 2014

A rag rug to a bull

A rag rug: A squarish rough-textured rug with a four-petaled
flower pattern in blues, greens, purples and pinks.
Craft is one of the most universal and least manageable symptoms of chronic illness. Stephen and I have been quite unwell throughout much of January and thus have had enough time when we weren't able to do anything more useful, in which to produce a rag rug.

There were many scraps of nice fabric left over from my wedding dress and other sewing projects, plus I had a small collection of old clothes which were too worn out for selling or donating - jersey tops which were stretched, had holes in or splodges of paint on them. Naturally, we had to accept that any rug we made was coloured in the the same palette as my wardrobe. 

The back of the rug: hessian with
loops of fabric sticking through.
To make a rag rug, you need some hessian sacking (£2.50 a metre, including postage) and a load of waste fabric, cut into small strips. You force the strips through the weave of the hessian, then back up again, and secure with a knot. Granny says the knots are unnecessary, but I imagine she may have done a neater job in wartime than we could manage.  

Close up of the rug texture.
I bought a cheap wooden tool called a proddy from eBay but we gave it up pretty quickly for an ordinary pencil. A pencil does just fine and if you're sat in bed and lose it until the covers, you can always find another pencil. Our bed is generally full of pens and pencils.

Rag-rugging uses a lot of fabric; there are six jersey tops in this, as well as significant remnants of similar fabric. Jersey, or t-shirt fabric, is particularly good for rag-rugging because (a) most of us wear a lot of it and these garments do wear out and (b) there's stretch in the fabric, so while it can be a bugger to sew with, it's easy to pull about and tie knots in. There are all kinds of fabrics in this rug, including stretch velvet, flannel from some old pyjamas and silk from some of the ties, but most of it is cotton jersey. 

There's absolutely no skill to rag-rugging at all and the only point you need to concentrate is to avoid cutting off your fingers when using scissors. It is, however, a very compelling activity, so anyone has to be careful with doing too much of it in one stretch, especially while listening to a really good audiobook (mostly Under The Dome by Stephen King).

It's not really going to live in front of my folks'
woodburner, but it does look nice there...