October 10, 2009
One day in grade six, Teacher asked us all to say aloud what we wanted to be when we grew up. “I’m going to be a doctor,” one boy announced as we all sat cross-legged in a circle. “I’m going to be a teacher!” a ponytailed girl called out with a raised hand. Another boy with red hair and freckles said he wanted to be a fire engine: a big, loud, red, fire engine. Teacher, a kind, grey-haired woman who always wore a blue, pleated skirt and held a piece of new, white chalk, corrected him by saying, “Don’t you mean you want to be a fireman?” “No,” the boy said, shaking his head. “I want to be a fire engine. A big, loud, red, fire engine.” Everyone laughed, but secretly I was scared that Teacher would ask me what I wanted to be. I was scared because I didn’t know what I wanted to be. There was no profession I could imagine myself becoming when I grew up. Would I even grow up? That was like imagining myself outside a forest when all around me it was dark and I was alone and really, if I’d been honest, although I already knew well enough not to be, all I wanted was to be at peace. Not a doctor or a priest or a football player—at peace.
The impact of growing up “different,” more stereotypically feminine than masculine but unmistakably male, was dissonant, and divisive. I was, throughout my childhood, “at war” within: wanting to be like the other little boys, but knowing, or at least thinking, I was not. In what way I was different, I could never have articulated, but my “otherness” was isolating. While the “real boys” played sports, talked about guns, cars, and were generally aggressive, I was more interested in singing, drawing, painting, writing poetry, playing with dolls and baking with my mother in the kitchen. Crying came easy, I never understood cruelty, and was teased, both by my schoolmates and my two older brothers, for being “too sensitive.” Once, in grade six, I pretended to like guns so that the schoolboys would like me. It worked: For a week I was included in their fold. The sense of belonging, of finally being “normal,” filled me with joy. But it was only a matter of time before my true self shone through; and shone through it did: Like pentimento beneath the painting of myself, my “femininity” eventually surfaced, as did my dislike of sports, and I was once again excluded, banished, from all their activities.
There were other signs of my “differentness.” My older sister, once while we were watching television in the living room, noticed me sitting with my legs crossed at the knees and, in a frenzy, told me never to sit “like that.” Her look of horror made me panic. “You need to sit like a real boy,” she said. My body had deceived me; in a moment of forgetfulness, my inner self had again revealed itself in ways I didn’t like, or seem to be able to control. Long before I’d heard of words like “gay” or “homosexual,” all I knew was my internal compass of desire was directing itself toward boys, and not, as I’d been taught was normal, girls.
My own body could not be trusted; it was the enemy, and I questioned it repeatedly. Sometimes, during puberty, while lying naked in the bathtub after dinner, I prayed for God to make my penis into a vagina, and my flat chest into breasts. I’d stand and look at myself in the mirror, pushing my penis between my legs so that my body looked more like a body that was supposed to like boy-bodies. My prayers, however, went unanswered, and I remained out of synch, discordant to what was normal. I remained, to my bewilderment, a boy-body.
A team of researchers, headed by Selcuk R. Sirin of Montclair State University (2004), have helped explain people’s negative reactions to male gender role transgressions. They found that “. . . men are punished more harshly than women for deviating from traditional gender role norms. This phenomenon, called male gender role rigidity, leads many boys and men to avoid developing or engaging in what society has prescribed to be feminine-typed gender role characteristics and stereotypically feminine behaviors . . . Other researchers have suggested that, for men, gender role rigidity might be a defense mechanism against experiencing anxiety associated with gender role violations” (“Differential Reaction to Men and Women’s Gender Role Transgression: Perceptions of Social Status, Sexual Orientation, and Value Dissimilarity,” The Journal of Men’s Studies, Vol. 12, No. 2, Winter 2004, pp.129). This was certainly true for me. The anxiety that my own gender role violations might reveal the fact of my “differentness” is what, for years, kept me acting the part of a heterosexual—a “real man.”
Finally, at the age of 24, I came out to my parents as gay. “I am a homosexual,” I wrote in a letter that I left on their bed. The next day my mother, while we were alone at their house, told me that I wasn’t born gay, that I’d been “made into a pervert from some old man”—a reference to when I’d been sexually abused as a child, an event that we had never, in 15 years, discussed. In an instant I felt buried beneath the shame, and the heteronormativity, of her words.
In 1989, following a year of familial conflict, I left my hometown “to start over.” Soon alone, confused and depressed in an unfamiliar city, I sought treatment with Dr. Alfonzo, a psychiatrist referred to me by my then-general practitioner. “I feel like a crippled heterosexual,” I told him during my initial consultation. “How do I come to terms with who I am when who I am seems to cause so much pain and suffering to everyone I know?” Alfonzo explained the process of his treatment—a form of primal therapy—and I began therapy several weeks later.
During one of my early sessions, however, Alfonzo began presenting me with various causation theories, and said that he was sure I wasn’t gay because I didn’t have “any of the characteristics of a homosexual.” I asked him what he meant.
“Effeminacy, passivity, desperation to get a man, a drug addict, an alcoholic. You aren’t any of these things. The fact is, Peter, most gays learn their behavior. Therefore, it can be unlearned, though with great difficulty.” My greatest fear had always been that the sexual abuse had “created” my sexual orientation. Like my mother before him, I could not object.
Therapy intended to help me “feel better,” quickly morphed into treatment geared at changing my sexual orientation from homosexual to heterosexual. Not only did the practice, a form of reparative therapy, not work, it also resulted, three years into treatment, in my near fatal breakdown precipitated by prolonged, excessive overmedication—one of the many ways Alfonzo’s tried to “flip me over to the other side.” The medications, some used specifically to deaden my sex drive, made me feel numb, lifeless and passive. Any light that had remained alive in me was switched off: erections were eliminated, fantasy and arousal eradicated.
If Alfonzo, or psychiatry, became my oppressor, then I was like the written word and the eraser erasing itself. Yet despite both our efforts, and over five years of several concurrent psychotropics, I still clocked in at a six on Alfonzo’s revised “Kinsey scale” of one to seven: men, not women, remained the object of my affection. Finally, when it was clear my same-sex attraction could not be changed, Alfonzo attacked my gender: the ways in which I’d been masculinised or feminized. Hiking, construction work, ditch-digging: all were encouraged, as if in doing them I’d become a “real man.” His methods weren’t that uncommon. Clinical counselor Alice Christianson (2005) noted that in some reparative therapies, “. . . the solution is to more strongly identify with one’s gender. Men therefore should learn to change oil as part of their therapy, while women should get makeovers” (“A Re-emergence of Reparative Therapy,” Contemporary Sexuality, Vol. 39, No. 10, October 2005, pp.14).
In 1974, The American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders II; twenty years later, Jordan and Deluty (1995) found that 12.9% of therapists surveyed still believed that “. . . such a lifestyle [of the homosexual] is a ‘psychosexual disorder,’ and 5% claimed that it is a ‘personality disorder’” (“Clinical Interventions by Psychologists with Lesbians and Gay Men,” Journal of Clinical Psychology, 51, pp.451). Christianson (2005) found that “Some reparative therapists have diagnosed homosexuals as having Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or obsessive-compulsive disorder, and then attempted treatment of the homosexuality as a symptom of one of these disorders” (ibid, pp.13). More recently, Eubanks-Carter and Goldfried (2006) noted that “. . . individuals who are having difficulty coming out as gay or bisexual may be misdiagnosed with borderline personality disorder. . . [because the] problems that resembled borderline symptoms . . . were also consistent with a sexual identity crisis” (“The Impact of Client Sexual Orientation and Gender on Clinical Judgments and Diagnoses of Borderline Personality Disorder,” Journal of Clinical Psychology, Vol. 62(6), pp.751).
In 1997, two years after leaving the therapy, I filed a five-page letter of complaint with British Columbia’s College of Physicians and Surgeons, detailing Alfonzo’s treatment of my homosexuality as a disease. His 500-page rejoinder, received by the College two years later, discredited my complaint by qualifying me as suffering from “borderline personality disorder.” In 2001 I sued him for medication malpractice, once again citing his treatment of my homosexuality. Prior to our Examination for Discovery, in late 2002, defence counsel’s “expert witness”—another psychiatrist—interviewed me in order to write an “expert opinion” about my psychiatric history. Once again I was diagnosed with “borderline personality disorder, in which disillusionment with caregivers could be a feature.” That I had also, throughout my therapy with Alfonzo, expressed “intense anger and negative views” about both my parents—that I had experienced distress at their lack of acceptance of my homosexuality—seemed to further reinforce his diagnosis. I couldn’t help but surmise, after reading his “expert opinion,” that virtually all men and women whose families had rejected them for being gay—or, for that matter, any other reason—and who’d then expressed “intense anger” towards and “negative views” about their parents, would also be labelled as suffering from some sort of personality disorder. Psychiatry, it seemed to me, had become the science of drawing maps, and not the exploration of the territories they signified.
Coincidentally, following in the footsteps of the removal of homosexuality from the DSM II, Gender Identity Disorder (GID) reared its disordered head in the American Psychiatric Association’s third edition of the DSM (1980). According to the current DSM IV (1994),
There are two components of Gender Identity Disorder . . . There must be evidence of a strong and persistent cross-gender identification . . . manifested [in boys] by a marked preoccupation with traditionally feminine activities. They may have a preference for dressing in girls’ or women’s clothes . . . Towels, aprons, and scarves are often used to represent long hair or skirts . . . They particularly enjoy playing house, drawing pictures of beautiful girls and princesses, and watching television or videos of their favorite female-type dolls, such as Barbie, are often their favorite toys, and girls are their preferred playmates. When playing “house,” these boys role-play female figures . . . They avoid rough-and-tumble play and competitive sports and have little interest in cars and trucks or other non-aggressive but stereotypical boy’s toys. They may express a wish to be a girl and assert that they will grow up to be a woman. They may insist on sitting to urinate and pretend not to have a penis by pushing it in between their legs. More rarely, boys with Gender Identity Disorder may state that they find their penis or testes disgusting, that they want to remove them, or that they have, or wish to have, a vagina (532-533).
The DSM IV goes on to describe GID in adults, which, it explains, most commonly manifests as a preoccupation “to live as a member of the other sex.” Considering my own cross-gender behavior as a child, and the fact that I developed into a gay man who’s accepting of the body he was assigned at birth—I have no desire “to live as a member of the other sex”—I can’t help but wonder if GID is the new euphemism for homosexual. Maybe the best way for psychiatry to diagnose and then treat the homosexual today is to diagnose and then treat the Gender Identity Disorder in children.
Kenneth J. Zucker, M.D., of Toronto’s Center for Addiction and Mental Health, and Robert L. Spitzer, M.D., of New York’s State Psychiatric Institute (2005), have argued against any type of “‘backdoor maneuver’ in replacing homosexuality” with GID, and yet they readily admit that some therapists continue to treat children with GID “in part, to prevent homosexuality” (“Was the Gender Identity Disorder of Childhood Diagnoses Introduced into DSM III as a Backdoor Maneuver to Replace Homosexuality? A Historical Note,” Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy, Brunner-Routledge, 31, pp.36). The American Psychiatric Association, meanwhile, is set to release its fifth edition of the DSM in 2012, with Zucker and Ray Blanchard, M.D., a psychiatry professor at the University of Toronto, leading the committee for Sexual and Gender Identity Disorders. The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, which was instrumental in having homosexuality removed from the DSM, has opposed their involvement with the committee, citing both as advocates for reparative therapies in gender-variant children.
If I am a house with many rooms, all doors to each of those rooms open up into me, my gender and I: one person. In other words, were I, as the 10-year-old boy I once was, to walk into a psychiatrist’s office today, without a doubt I’d be diagnosed with GID. Almost all of its symptoms I displayed as a pre-pubescent child, and yet I’m convinced my “preoccupation with traditionally feminine activities” was nothing more than an early indicator of my homosexuality.
But maybe that’s the point.
As long as we live in a heteronormative culture that by its very nature, its “thought reform,” teaches children to see themselves as heterosexual and “gender-appropriate,” those children who are not—and there will always be children who are not—will continue to experience their bodies as discordant to who they’re told they should be. I could not, as a child, imagine myself a grown up because I could not envisage a life beyond the normative boundaries imposed on me as an atypical boy. In the binary world of gender-appropriate children, I didn’t exist.