Resembling a third-place finisher in a Rene Russo lookalike contest — and I’m honestly confused about whether I mean that as a compliment — the celebrity formerly known as Bruce Jenner graced the cover of Vanity Fair this month in his new personage: Caitlyn, the female soul Jenner told Diane Sawyer he’s always had.
Jenner is probably the most famous person to come out as a lady, but not the first professional athlete. That distinction, you’ll remember, belongs to Renée Richards, née Richard Raskind, the former captain of the Yale men’s tennis team who successfully sued to join the women’s tour in 1977. Richards peaked at No. 19 in the world and endured bitter public protests and death threats for the trouble.
Contrast Jenner, whose transition has taken the form of a publicity tour in support of a reality show. All but our crustiest mandarins dare not voice anything but effusive Attagirls, and the locus of the cultural fight among the social-justice warriors, led by the likes of Salon and fellow cover-trans Laverne Cox, is whether the first wave of compliments on Jenner’s appearance reified noxious conceptions of “cisgender” beauty.
Jenner has already had breast augmentation and one or more “facial feminization” procedures — not to mention the pending matter of a castration — as part of her transition.
If you were into such morbid thoughts, you might reflect on the possibility that “gender-identity disorder,” as the psychiatric community calls it, is really a special case of a broader dysmorphia called “body-integrity-identity disorder.” What’s BIID, you ask?
“We define [BIID] as the desire or the need for a person identified as able-bodied by other people to transform his or her body to obtain a physical impairment,” said Alexandre Baril, a researcher in “critical disability studies” at Wesleyan University. The ranks of the so-called trans-able, described in a recent National Post article for which Baril provided his comments, include individuals who have voluntarily amputated their hands, crushed their legs with large stones, or sought out operations to blind them, deafen them, and, yes, destroy their genitals.
As human beings and sinners, we are by nature in the business of self-destruction. But if you ever wanted a litmus test of whether you’re more of a conserva- than a -tarian, in Charlie Cooke’s formulation, ask yourself whether surgically induced paraplegia falls under the aegis of “Live and let live.”
It’s interesting to note that even as the trans-able are petitioning to have BIID moved from an appendix into the main body of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, many in the transgendered community are petitioning to remove gender-identity disorder from the DSM altogether. Perhaps this is to be expected, given that the former community views the lopping off of a penis as obtaining a physical impairment and the latter as realizing an identity.
This dialectical two-step, from medicalization as legitimization to de-medicalization as redemption, has its roots in a revolt of homosexual psychiatrists during the formulation of an earlier draft of the DSM in the 1970s. For three straight years these insurgents demanded that the American Psychiatric Association remove homosexuality as a disorder. After the third year, not only did the APA relent, it voted to add “sexual-orientation disorder,” describing a person who cannot accept his or her homosexuality due to social stigma, as a disease of its own.
As journalist Gary Greenberg described the event in the pages of Mother Jones: “It may be the first time in history that a disease was eliminated by the stroke of a pen. It was certainly the first time that psychiatrists determined that the cause of a mental illness was an intolerant society.”
Of course, the reality of the mainstreaming of homosexuality was not so pat, and though that fight is all but over, the fights surrounding other identity dysmorphias are just beginning.
I — we all, no doubt — have had more occasion to think about this front in the culture war of late. That’s because, I’m convinced, we’re living in an interregnum between master cultural narratives, the punctuation of a punctuated equilibrium, and I don’t think any of us really has any idea what the next epoch will look like. Some slopes are slippery and others are not, which is why they named a logical fallacy after them.
Look, I have no interest in what anyone does in the boudoir, and I will call Caitlyn Jenner by whatever noun, pro- or proper, she likes. But what I do know is this: Like all evolutionary processes, this interregnum is producing grotesqueries, neither fish nor fowl, that cannot coherently endure — from the schizophrenia, if you’ll forgive the term, over the medicalization of identity, to a sexual culture whiplashing from the libertinism of “free love” to the new Victorianism of “affirmative consent.”
Functional liberal societies can tolerate just about anything. But they can’t tolerate absurdities — not forever, and maybe not for long. I don’t know what the new regime will look like. But the revolution keeps getting weirder.
– Mr. Foster is a political consultant and a former news editor of National Review Online.