Published in: July-August 2012 issue.


Every Kind of People The profusion of letters needed to encompass the GLBT-etc. community has been noted here—for example, when lgbttiqq2s began to appear in some newspapers—and now we may have to add one more. A small subset of homo sapiens has been identified whose gender identity can switch involuntarily, in some cases several times a day. Discovered by a student of famed neuroscientist Vilayanur Ramachandran, “alternating gender incongruity,” or AGI—the proposed neuropsychiatric label—is often accompanied by the sensation of phantom breasts or genitals. The syndrome correlates highly with bipolar disorder as well as ambidexterity, suggesting that it has a genetic basis. The caveat “more research is needed” undoubtedly applies here, but the initial study of 32 subjects (eleven anatomically female and 21 male), published in Medical Hypotheses, produced a body of intriguing personal anecdotes that vividly describe what it’s like to wake up with a (phantom) penis or to witness someone crying as a woman and as a man. Researchers think their work has implications for the formation of gender identity in general. Meanwhile, a new identity movement could be in the making, so pick a letter!

Chevalier D'EonAprès Moi…  It took an art restorer’s equivalent of a chemical peel to reveal the long-hidden subject in an 18th-century portrait called Chevalier D’Eon, recently sold to a British gallery as “a woman in a feathered hat.” While the ensemble is clearly that of a woman—even by the flamboyant standards of the time—the manly features are unmistakable. Noting the “muscularity of his face” and the “suggestion of stubble,” the art dealer declared it the first portrait of a transvestite. The back story of D’Eon, a prominent French aristocrat, has been learned, and quite a story it is. Starting out in King Louis XV’s secret service in 1755, he served as plenipotentiary minister in London, tangled with his predecessor, wound up in prison, escaped, and resurfaced as a female around 1770. Whether the new raiment was a disguise or a genuine change of gender is hard to say, but D’Eon played the role full-time and was accepted as a woman. When a medical exam revealed his true gender on his death in 1810, his housekeeper didn’t “recover from the shock for many hours.” All this was without the benefit of hormone therapy or surgery—leading one to conclude that back then you could do a lot more with feathers and ruffles than you can today.

Reversal on Conversion  It was a 2001 study that revived the “ex-gay” movement, and it has been Exhibit A for its “reparative therapy” gambits ever since. Conducted by renowned psychiatrist Robert Spitzer, the study purported to show that sexual orientation can be changed under some circumstances, so that a motivated gay person can be turned into a functioning heterosexual. Now Dr. Spitzer has repudiated his study in toto, admitting that it was junk science and reversing his position on the possibility of conversion. “In retrospect, I have to admit I think the critiques are largely correct,” stated Dr. Spitzer in an interview in The American Prospect, acknowledging that his evidence for conversion was based entirely on self-reports from people who wanted to believe (or convince others) that they had changed. He also conceded that attempting to change one’s sexual orientation “can be quite harmful.” He’s planning a formal retraction in Archives of Sexual Behavior, which is where the original paper appeared. The 2001 study was so useful to ex-gay groups because of Spitzer’s stellar reputation—and the fact that he was instrumental in the APA’s declassification of homosexuality as a mental illness in 1973. Now the question is whether they’ll continue to base their practice on this study or take his retraction to heart (and self-destruct).

You’re Telling Us?  A series of psychological studies has found that negative attitudes toward homosexuality are highly pronounced among those who harbor unacknowledged same-sex attractions. The study used a subliminal technique in which the word “me” or “other” was briefly flashed on a screen along with pictures of same- or opposite-sex couples, which subjects had to classify as gay or straight as quickly as possible. Past research has shown that people make the match more quickly when the word “me” or “other” is congruent with their own sexual orientation than when it’s not, making it a reliable indicator of one’s underlying sexual identity. Subjects were also asked about their sexual orientation and given a set of questions to determine their level of homophobia. Around twenty percent showed a discrepancy between their self-perception as hetero and their “actual” (gay) orientation as measured by the flash test—and these individuals turned out to be highly homophobic compared to other groups. This may be a convoluted way to verify something that seemed obvious to Freud—and us—but it’s oddly reassuring to know that our worst enemies could one day be our friends.

Two Political Notes in This Election Year:

•  Mitt Romney hired and then fired an openly gay man, Richard Grennell, to serve as his foreign policy spokesman amid charges from the far right of his party (i.e., his party) that hiring any openly gay person was unacceptable, regardless of his experience (which was never impugned). The whiplash reversal served to highlight the increasingly squirmy position of the Republican Party as the American mainstream moves toward greater acceptance while the hard right grows ever more homophobic. Even the old “some of my best friends” ploy isn’t good enough for today’s GOP, as this trial balloon revealed.

•  The jig was up for the National Organization for Marriage (NOM), the major backer of anti-gay marriage initiatives across the USA, when a secret internal document surfaced that began: “The strategic goal of this project is to drive a wedge between gays and blacks.” On it went to outline a grandiose media campaign featuring articulate black spokesmodels and celebrities to carry the anti-gay message. (They also had a plan for Hispanics.) This was before President Obama came out in favor of marriage equality, and before this document was exposed, both of which could throw a small wrench into the plan.