I sometimes think that our culture is like the Church in the days of Galileo. We will not see, and we will silence and mock, even banish and punish, those who say that what is, is. In one well-designed study, only a third of all "normal" women (for the purposes of this particular study, that would be heterosexual women physically and mentally healthy by self-report and clinical observers' reports) achieved a rating of "classically" feminine. This study described how people actually are- not what they wish to be, not what they imagine themselves to be, but simply how they are- and the results make clear that few of us are what we have nonetheless agreed to believe our gender is. Our cultural standard of gender doesn't resemble gender as normal people experience it. The knife of normalcy cuts sharp and crazy in our culture, and like most trends and fancies, the craziness is only apparent in retrospect. Today we are appalled or amused by medieval or colonial or Victorian nonsense: surgeries for the sexually healthy woman, to make her less so; boarding school sodomy to make little boys into leaders of men; women forbidden to vote or wear pants or practice law; white men forbidden fear and tears; and black people forbidden most everything. I expect my grandchildren will look back on our ideas abut gender and sexuality with much the same disbelief.
It's hard to dislodge cultural norms and myths when they provide such reassuring bulwarks in the face of such deep anxiety: the vote will make women barren, the sun moves around the earth. People did not conclude that the sun moves around the earth because they were stupid or narrow-minded; they believed it because it seemed reasonable in light of everything they had heard, or even seen, thus far; then it no longer seemed so evident, and by the time people faced that is was not so, the belief itself had come to seem necessary.
A great many people, sick of news from the margins, worn out by the sand shifting beneath their assumptions, like to imagine Nature as a sweet, simple voice: tulips in spring, Vermont's leaves falling in autumn. There are, of course, occasion mistakes—a leaf that doesn't fall, a clubfoot; our mistake is in thinking that the wide range of humanity represents aberration when in fact it represents just what it is: range. Nature is not two little notes on a child's flute; Nature is more like Aretha Franklin: vast, magnificent, capricious—occasionally hilarious--- and infinitely varied. The platypus is not a mistake. The sec-changing animals, coral reef fish and Chinook salmon among them, are not mistakes. The cactus and the blue potato are not mistakes. These plants and animals may not be as reassuring a sight as tulips are, but that doesn't make them deformities.
The hot winters of Australia are not errors. They are just not the cold winters of northern Europe, which typify what winter is, or what it should be, for many Westerners. Surfing at Christmas is not a mistake, not "unnatural," and certainly not proof of the immutable and fundamental superiority of the white Christmas.
After several centuries of confusion, preceded by some early centuries of clarity (at least for Greek gentlemen), we seem to have gotten the difference between gender and sexuality reasonably clear: men are not defined primarily as creatures who only desire women, and sexual desire for men is not the thing that makes a person female. But in our post-Freudian, even post-Lacanian sophistication, in which we wink at the spinsters' "Boston marriage," sure that is must have been a sexual relationship, however unacknowledged, and chuckle knowingly at the "man's man," aware that he is often just that, we seem baffled by the difference between sexuality and temperament, between one's sexual nature and one's personality. There is a whole history of fops and cowgirls, dandies with marcelled waves and tough, wisecracking broads, and where we once understood that one might be male, effeminate, and heterosexual (most of Spencer Tracy's screen rivals for Katharine Hepburn come to mind), or female, masculine, and heterosexual (Rosalind Russell and Thelma Ritter), we seem to have now forgotten. The high-heeled, Chanel-clad lesbian and the football-playing, beer-swigging gay man perplex us, as if surely some norm is violated when a woman who doesn't have sex with men likes lacy lingerie anyway, and a man who doesn't sleep with women enjoys televised sports, cars, and sweatpants. In our collective cultural wish not to be out of it or old-fashioned, we've chosen to be simpleminded. We pretend that sexual orientation and personal style are one and the same and that those who suggest otherwise are trying to make fools of us or hide their shameful preference. Presented with Nature's bouquet of possibilities, a wild assortment of gender and erotic preference and a vast array of personalities, we throw it to the ground.
No one knows why the loss of the mother early in life leads some men to have extramarital affairs and others to cross dress. No one knows whether transsexuality is a biological result or a mix of the biological, the psychological, and the cultural. (To me, these things seem difficult to unravel- as we are all born into a culture of one kind or another, I'm never quite clear how we strain culture to of our assessments.) No one knows how well most transsexual people do ten or fifteen years after surgery, and no one knows how many transgendered people live happily, and syntonically, at ease with their gender and their sexuality, without ever going near a surgeon, and endocrinologist, or a psychiatrist.
The men and women who devote themselves to these and other questions, to the ins and out of our private selves, our visions of self, our presentations of self, our hidden histories and baffling, communiqués, are psychiatrists, psychologists, sexologists, and academics; they are joined on the field by political activists, surgeons, endocrinologists, entrepreneurs, and lawyers. I am indebted to all of these people, and I, like they, have been taught by the thousands of men and women who live their lives, tranquilly or in distress, with confidence or with trepidation, as cactus and platypus, bearded lady and girly boy, and push all the rest of us to see that Nature contains multitudes. Although she makes mistakes, these black tulips, these examples of Nature's range, human creativity, and gender's mutability, are not necessarily among them.