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The No-Debate Gender Debate: Passion Trumps Reason At A Local School Board Meeting

Because I have been reflecting on the issues surrounding transgenderism [1] over the past two years, when my local school board [2] moved to add “gender identity” to its non-discrimination policy I was interested to hear the debate.  My clinical contact with children and adolescents who are confused by their gender is not frequent, reflective of the rarity—something less than one tenth of one percent of the population—of what I will call “the condition.”  (Estimating the prevalence [3] of such a condition is extremely difficult, in part because of its typically-private nature, but also because of the fluidity with which it is experienced, as people who are dysphoric about their gender at one point in time may be satisfied with it at another.)  And yet, the common clinical theme that emerges in my consultations is one of torment and confusion for the parents, who greatly love their children and do not want them to suffer, but who also know intuitively that there is something desperately wrong when their little boy says he’s a girl, or vice versa.

Not surprisingly, the agenda item caught the attention of many parents in the school district who were concerned about the implications such a change might have for their children, particularly because it would apply to all students (pre-K—12th grade), as well as teachers and staff.  As expected, people on both sides of the issue came out in force, though the vast majority (roughly 10-to-1) were parents who were concerned about the impact the policy revision would have on their non-gender-confused children.

A Surprising Process

Being unfamiliar with any of the school board members, what I was expecting was to observe democracy in action, constituents being heard (Board regulations allow for only 10 speakers, at three minutes apiece), and robust discussion of substantive issues.  What I heard, in fact, was thinly-veiled contempt for the public from the majority of board members who already had made a decision on the issue.  (Two brave board members did take pains to lay out the political and legal implications, as well as the social and psychological issues which should be the focus.)  To be fair, all of these are elected officials, competent and accomplished, and it is conceivable that they might have formed an educated opinion through research and study on the issues at hand.  However, if their opinions had been so formed, the vast majority of them chose not to share this during the opportunity given them to explain their vote.

Instead, what was shared were some confused rationales about how the change in policy would not actually change policy (my words, not theirs) because the school district was already dealing with gender-confused teachers and children in a sensitive, compassionate and effective manner.  This was followed by some statements about transgenderism which they called “facts” (and at one point a “true fact,” which makes one wonder about the veracity of the other “facts”), which actually stand in contradiction to the research that has been reviewed here [4] previously.

So what was the basis for the vote of these board members?  From the narratives they chose to share, it was primarily anecdotal, not scientific.  The anecdotes—some personal, some third-party—related poignant, painful, tragic stories of lives that are sad and difficult.  I assume these stories were, in fact, true.  But, shadowing these presumed truthful stories is the great untruth: that all of this sadness and pain is caused by discrimination.  Thus, as the feeling goes, by tackling discrimination, this policy revision will relieve all the pain and suffering.  The majority of the school board was operating not from truth but from passion, which they mistook as compassion, but which, like all misguided (or unguided) passion, harms.

What Might Have Been Said

I later wondered if I had been given a chance at the microphone what I might have said.  With time and reflection, I think the point that was not made very clearly throughout the whole “debate,” was that the people at issue here, the gender confused, are wrestling with a profound challenge, fighting to understand the most fundamental aspect of self: who they are—something 99%+ of us take for granted.  Will bullying and discrimination against them help in their journey?  Certainly not.  But nor will placing a label on them and reducing their humanity to a potentially-transient feeling or experience.

Make no mistake, this is an intense issue for our society—not because of numbers, as they are tiny—but because it hits at the core of what it means to be human.  To be truly a source of hope to those confused at such a deep level, we must all quell our passions and use our reason to determine how best to provide real compassion.   This is a battle for hearts and souls, which can only be won with dialogue and the truth spoken in love.  And speaking that truth will most often have a meaningful impact when it is done person-to-person, one-on-one, with fact in hand but also with an understanding of how no one wants a person to suffer, and certainly not to suffer alone.