Ayatollah Miss Thing
Sometime ago, I had the, um... privilege, I guess... perhaps "honor" would be the better word... to be the first person on the face of the planet to whom a friend of mine revealed what he considered to be a terrible secret.
I'd known him for years. One night we were sitting around and he mentioned -- in passing, really, or so he tried to make it seem -- that he had a terrible secret. I asked him what secret could be so terrible as all that. Naturally, as I was reassuring him that no secret could be all that terrible, I was running through the various possibilities in my mind. Hmm... I thought, if his secret is that, or maybe even this, that would be a pretty effing terrible secret, all right.
But I didn't honestly think his secret could be anything remotely like either that or this, so I figured I was pretty safe in assuring him his secret couldn't be all that terrible. After a bit more dancing around the subject, he finally told me that for as long as he could remember, he'd always felt he was a woman born into the body of a man.
Okay, well, I have to be honest here. I wasn't shocked by what he'd told me, but, whoa, was I surprised, or what? I had no idea. Absolutely none. But the funny thing was... as soon as he told me this thing I knew it was true.
I didn't know much about transsexuality before that moment. Never really gave it much thought. I know a lot more about it now, of course, based on research I've done in the meantime. My consciousness done been raised. I pay attention to the subject more now than I used to, and so listening to the BBC World Service this morning, I was especially interested to hear a story about the lot of transsexuals living inside the Islamic Republic of Iran.
You may not be surprised to learn how it would go for you in Tehran if you were born into a body that had the wrong plumbing -- after I heard the BBC story this morning I did a little looking around on the web and I discovered this wasn't such a secret -- but it sure as hell was, as they say, News To Me. It turns out that the notion of sex-change surgery is just fine by the fundamentalist clerics of Iran, starting with the one Iranian cleric best known to all Americans of a certain age, the Ayatollah Khomeini himself.
According to an article at the BBC "Newsnight" site, an article which closely mirrors the BBC report I heard this morning, "41 years ago, Ayatollah Khomeini wrote about new medical issues like transsexuality." Says one current Islamic scholar, Hojatulislam Kariminia, "I believe he was the first Islamic scientist in the world of Islam who raised the issue of sex change." Not only that, according to the article, "The Ayatollah's ruling that sex-change operations were allowed has been reconfirmed by Iran's current spiritual leader."
Well. You could have knocked me over with a feather boa.
The cognitive dissonance here is due of course to my notion of what life in the Islamic Republic is like. I don't know if clerical approval of sex-change operations would have been precisely the last thing on the list of allowed activities I might have previously imagined, but I think it would have been pretty damned close. So how do I explain this thing to myself? Do I readjust my thinking to now regard the Islamic Republic as a compassionate society? Clearly not. Homosexuality in Iran still gets you the death penalty. No, it seems about the only thing that I can conclude about this is that it's okay by the clerics to have a sex-change operation in Iran.
Which got me to thinking about whether it is even possible to describe a particular society as compassionate. The culture I live in permits sex-change operations, but it doesn't (for the most part) permit members of the same sex to marry. Until relatively recently, in some states you still could be sent to jail for having gay sex. I haven't researched this, but I'll bet there were even places here in the U.S.A. where you could get jail time if you were discovered to be a man dressed as a woman. I'll just bet that was the case at some point somewhere in the land of the free. And yet I think if someone from overseas asked a typical American whether his or her culture was compassionate, he or she would probably answer "yes, generally, overall".
Are we? We have the death penalty in most states. A huge number of private citizens gave a great deal of money to help relief efforts following the recent tsunami in Asia. We send a great many of our children to bed cold and hungry. Most of us get pissed off when we see somebody kicking a helpless dog.
Okay, so maybe you can only talk about the mix. Some cultures, some societies are more compassionate than others, according to the relevant local mix of compassionate acts? But what does that mean, exactly? If you live in a place where it's considered compassionate to let people of the same sex marry for various legal purposes, and someone else lives in a place where it's considered compassionate to do whatever is necessary to prevent somebody (specifically, by punishing them severely for engaging in gay sex) from ruining themselves in the eyes of God, who lives in the more compassionate society?
I know what I would answer, of course, and what most of my friends would answer, but what we would answer doesn't particularly matter. Our answer is nothing more than our (correct, of course) judgment about how to define compassion. And from this I realize that you can't talk about any particular culture in terms of whether it is compassionate. What you can talk about is whether your culture allows someone to have a sex-change operation if they feel like they need one. What you can talk about is whether your culture allows consenting adults to engage in whatever sort of physical relationships they want to engage in. What you can talk about is whether your culture approves of people kicking dogs. Any conclusion you draw from what your culture allows or doesn't allow regarding the compassionate nature of your culture is nothing more than an inherently biased judgment call.
I can look at you and decide you are compassionate because you sent that young kid away to be "cured" of his homosexuality. Or I might decide you are an ignorant and cold-hearted son-of-a-bitch for doing that. Does it help -- in arguments over whether same-sex couples should be allowed to marry -- if we identify one side as being more compassionate than the other? I don't see how. You can't tell somebody their impulse to "save" somebody from their homosexuality is not compassionate. Well, you can tell them that but your telling them that won't convince them of it. Likewise, you can't convince someone, simply by telling them that it is so, that same-sex unions should be legal because it's the compassionate thing to do.
I don't know. I guess I always used to think the whole compassion argument would work on people, but now I don't think it can. But maybe that's a good thing. Maybe if certain arguments can be framed such that the question of compassion is left out of it, maybe those arguments can be rendered somehow more convincing.
In the case of the ayatollahs... do we actually think we could argue them out of the death penalty for homosexuality on the basis of compassion? And yet sex-change operations are just fine with them. Or in the case of those Americans who oppose same-sex unions... do we actually think we can convince them they should be more compassionate when they already feel they are doing the compassionate thing? You want to keep in mind here, while answering that last question, that their concern is their overriding compassion "for the children", their concern is their deep compassion for "the family". No matter how you feel about what they feel, they know they are doing the compassionate thing.
It's kind of a live-by-the-sword, die-by-the-sword thing. The minute you drag compassion into it, you give as much ammunition to them as you feel you've given to yourself. The problem, of course, is that there's no reciprocity in abstaining, here. Just because you withhold your arguments for compassion doesn't mean they will withhold theirs.
And yet I believe most Americans think same sex couples should have just about the same legal rights as heterosexual couples. And so why are we having this cultural war over it? Well, that's a long and complex question, of course, and maybe it's that very complexity that is the problem.
When I look at the ayatollahs in Iran and see them perfectly happy to allow sex-change operations, and perfectly happy to execute you for having gay sex, the thing that jumps out at me is not any question of compassion. The thing that jumps out at me is the utter arbitrariness of it all. And where does that arbitrariness come from? From our point of view, it comes from the ayatollahs themselves. Naturally, from their point of view there's nothing arbitrary going on here. It all makes perfect sense.
The burden of proof of who is the more compassionate is an impossible standard to meet and so I think we ought to drop it. The argument has to be formulated in some other way. I don't think the arbitrariness angle helps much. You can point out the arbitrariness of the ayatollahs to people in American culture and they will see it immediately. What silly people these Iranians are. And yet if you point out the arbitrariness of denying to same sex couples the rights that heterosexual couples have in this country, all that clarity disappears. In Iran's case, they are being stupid. In our case, we are being perfectly reasonable.
The arguments on our side are too complex. Too unfocussed. The simple and straightforward arguments of the other side boil down to "don't change" and that's pretty powerful stuff in a conservative society like ours. The only viable counter-argument is "we have no choice but to change" and that's the argument we've as yet failed to make. Frankly, I don't even know how to formulate it. "We have to change so we can be a more compassionate people" hasn't worked. I don't think it can work. At least not within our lifetimes.
Why do we have to change? What's the most compelling answer to that question, if you are forced to leave compassion out of it?