In May of 2015, after double digits of a nominally conservative dynastic rule here in Alberta, the provincial New Democrats came to power. Many analysts saw this as protest against a party that had come to see itself as destined to rule. In Canadian politics the centre-right is less dexterous than south of the 49th parallel, and the left more sinister.
Few were surprised when the new minister of education, building on sandy legislative footing from the departing Tories, issued the so-called Guidelines for Best Practice in January of last year. This document sets forth a vision of how schools should work with “individuals whose gender identity and gender expression differ in some way from the sex they were assigned at birth.”
Maybe the personal influenced the political in this development. As the governing party was changing, media attention found a cause célèbre in the provincial capital. The family of a seven year old boy-identifying-as-a-girl filed a complaint with the Alberta Human Rights Commission that he was denied use of the girls’ washroom at his school. The child was quoted as saying, “When I have to use the everybody washroom it makes me sad.” Bureaucracy and its insidious cousin, fear-of-liability, overtook common sense and the managers of this Catholic school caved to pressures real, perceived, and feared.
Amongst the Guideline’s suggestions (recognizing that nothing from the government ever remains merely suggestive) are the following:
- Self-identification is the “sole measure” of one’s biological sex;
- No one should be referred to any professional who “purports” to fix incongruence between mental and physical identities;
- Sex-separated sports participation and washroom and change room use reflect self-identification rather than biology;
- We pre-emptively use “non-gendered” language in referring to parents and students.
The soil in which this plant sprouted had for years been layered with nutrient-deficient manure: policy development in the abstract, and in some cases without connection to real people; those in authority managing rather than leading; and mature adults constrained by their public image and stuck in an emotional bog. The whole situation was ripe for manipulation by special interest groups that were uncooperative in the reasoned debate required by liberal democracy.
A word on sex and gender
The dynamic nature of language plays a part. While the term “gender” can refer to the sexes (i.e., male, female), it is better used to discuss how the sexes present themselves. Being male or female is categorical; using contemporary terminology, they are binary. Aside from rare conditions involving ambiguous genitalia, the physical differences that manifest sexual identity are apparent from birth. Sexual identity is recognized at birth, rather than assigned.
The manner in which we recognize an individual’s sexual identity is much more fluid; so much so that it is probably fair to say that no two people display precisely the same level of masculinity or femininity (that is, gender). These are not disconnected from one another. Chromosomes determine hormonal levels. In turn, hormones direct biological development. Physical structures, as bodies designed to continue the species through sexual reproduction, differentiate individual practice. And the cumulative expression of these practices over time are reflected in cultural norms. Not absolute nor static, but neither disconnected.
How the political became personal
The Roman Catholic bishop of Calgary (since retired) published a series of open letters to the minister, protesting the Guidelines as subversive of religious freedom in denominational schools. With such leadership, individuals and groups entered into the fray with some confidence.
My wife became active in promoting opportunities to learn more about the potential impact of these directives. I made some informal presentations to small groups myself. In my role as a school guidance counsellor, I shared Paul McHugh’s article about Johns Hopkins University’s cessation of sex re-assignment surgery. My supervisors replied that such views betray an agenda and did not forward it onto my associates at other sites. The political was clearly also professional.
And cultural winds quickly carried these political seeds back to the personal, in our own lives and on multiple fronts. A colleague with another school, where the parents had purposely been under-informed about the event, took a personal day of conscience off to avoid being part of an advocacy assembly there; her like-minded colleagues did not feel able to act with the same conviction. A daughter in high school made reference to a nice girl she had met there, and was told by her older sister that she was he. Most dramatically, but with smaller direct effect on our own family, a close relative underwent surgical re-assignment, at public expense, without parental involvement and while still in her formative years.
Hitting closest to home, a younger daughter confessed to feeling “guilty” because she didn’t want to use the girls’ washroom at her junior high school when one of the boys is in it. In discussing this tremendously valid concern with the principal, my wife was initially told that the best solution might be for our daughter to use the “transgender washroom”. The principal, whether by sincere conviction or sensing a need to be thus convicted, explained that all the students at the school are comfortable with the young man’s assumed identity (though this principal-manager was careful to reference him as “her”). Another daughter, having friends at that same school, informed us that the students are not in fact comfortable, but neither do they feel able to share this openly.
Power, not enduring standards, determines what is acceptable
The situation does not inspire optimism. Thanks to intellectual laziness that thinks in soundbites, most members of the prevailing culture have adopted a postmodern viewpoint without sufficient attention to important nuances. Not tied to enduring standards, power determines what is acceptable. In the West, social power is predominantly exercised by a progressive elite very comfortable dictating their own prescriptive and proscriptive norms.
Such power is fickle; those under its control can never be sure what will provoke it, nor to what end. In the shadow of this fear, corporate bodies that could stand with their members instead leave them shivering and alone, whether actively or by tacitly encouraging resignation whenever a supposed misstep has been made. Threats of liability are enough to drive faint hearts into silence and complicity. And that great agent of power, the State, sets the rules of the game, and compels participation.
Reasons for hope
There is reason to hope. Objective realities like sexual identity can only be denied for so long before the mirage fades and the sand castle collapses. Eventually, the amount of effort required to sustain illusions is no longer feasible. Here in Canada voices like Jordan Peterson and Rex Murphy speak truth to the petty powers. Amongst the online plebs, there appears to be a growing refusal to play the game of multiplying “genders”.
The pretenders are naked; the dragonlings lack teeth; the puppies have no bite. Though differing in articulation, Confucius, Goethe, and Havel give wise counsel to engage with individuals and reality as they are and should be. Lest anyone worry that those who authentically suffer with gender dysphoria will be left on the margins, the work of Mark Yarhouse and colleagues offers compassionate and competent support.
It seems to me that the resolution to this troubling problem of intentional disconnect from what is objectively real — and let us be clear that there will be a resolution — first requires recognizing the challenge clearly.
The culprits are not surprising: weakness and selfishness, with selfishness manifesting itself primarily through attachments to hedonism and radical autonomy. These are not phantom adversaries; they have substance and vigour. But they also lack roots of any depth. If we find ourselves losing ground, it is often because we surrender too easily.
Engaging the culture with charity, truth and fortitude
In tending our own patches of soil the most effective tool is confident courage – exercised in relationships that educate hearts and minds. This is the antithesis of withdrawal from culture. This is to enter into the messiness of human living and encounter dissimilar others, with charity and truth harnessed together.
Fortitude is required to speak in spite of the anticipated consequences. It needs to be exercised primarily by individuals, but with the explicit and public support of their leaders. While we mightn’t expect heroism, we can demand integrity. And we must create the leaders we need and support the leaders we get. For too long we have been weak and lazy ourselves, fertilizing the thistles that have popped up in our common garden.
In this cultural conflict, those with whom we disagree are not all heartless fanatics. Some are ideologically-driven; others have not sufficiently engaged with the issues; most have simply floated along on the winds (or are they merely breezes) in society. Sharing concern about my daughter’s toileting discomfort with a friend on Canada’s left coast, I received his reply that he trusted we will all be able to “sort out where we pee.” Dismissive and a bit rude, sure. Combative? I don’t think so.
A colleague highly placed with the school district who became aware of the washroom situation apologized to me sotto voce. He commented that it is expected that the untenable situation the government has created will eventually end up in court. No principal wants to be that test case. It will take courage from many to stand, feeling alone, and do this necessary labour.
Wayne J. Ottenbreit is a school district guidance counsellor and a marriage and family therapist in Calgary, Alberta. He and his wife Jodean have nine daughters whom they “seek to raise to be women of growing virtue.” In November he will take office as president of the Catholic Psychotherapy Association of Canada.