Girls to Men

Seminary in the 1980s was a time of endless debate. Some of my classmates at Boston University School of Theology thought me too conservative—I’d made progress from my Fundamentalist days, but these things wear off slowly. Part of the issue, however, was that I look at things in terms of history. (That’s how I ended up teaching Hebrew Bible although my work is generally history of religions.) I remember an argument over changing a text from reading “man” to “human.” The latter, of course, still has the offensive root, but language is only so flexible. My thought at the time (which has changed since then) was that English “man” derives from German “Man.” In German the noun is masculine since all nouns have gender, but it can refer to either a female or a male. “Man,” in origin, is gender-neutral on the human side of the equation. Mark Twain once famously wrote an essay on the barbarities of the German language where he highlights this.

I’d studied German seriously in high school. After four years of the language I felt that I could understand it in a way that comes when you begin the think of certain expressions and wonder how you say that in English. I had come from strongly Teutonic stock on my mother’s side, and German felt quite natural to me. Of course, in college I had little opportunity to use it. Even less so at seminary, so the details had begun to slip considerably. If “Man” could mean “woman” what was the problem, I wondered. Then I started to think of it from a woman’s perspective. As English speakers, “man” is an exclusive term. It refers to males. Over time it has come to refer to males only. Retaining it in hymns or Bible translations makes them exclusive. We need language to meet new ways of thinking.

The other day I was consulting an Oxford dictionary for something. My eye fell on the word “girl.” To my surprise, I read that “girl” originally referred to a small child of either gender in its germanic roots. This is an archaic usage to be sure, but it helped to explain old photographs where toddler boys were dressed as girls and had long, flowing hair. The young were girls, the adults were men. Gender, I have come to see over the years, is a concept that doesn’t conform to simple binaries. Intersex individuals don’t fit into the either/or paradigm. Language struggles to keep up with reality. Traditionally we all started out as girls and ended up as men. And those would be fighting words these days, whether in seminary or out.

Galileo’s Tool

GalileoMiddleEarly in my academic career I got into trouble not because a Harvard professor hadn’t adequately checked his data, but because I had pointed out that a Harvard professor hadn’t adequately checked his data. You see, I was a naive realist. I believed academics were objective, factual sorts who looked for the truth no matter how uncomfortable it was. My honesty didn’t earn me many friends, and I still can’t mention this professor by name because I have seen grown men melt into tears at his name, due to their overwhelming loyalty. By contrast, a fellow Edinburgh student once told me that he disagreed with our mutual dissertation adviser, “on principle.” As the old saying goes, nullius in verba, take nobody’s word for it. Reading Alice Dreger’s Galileo’s Middle Finger: Heretics, Activists, and the Search for Justice in Science drove home a number of important points, one of the most memorable being that academics take real risks when they won’t fudge the facts to fit the establishment’s expectations.

Although this autobiographically revealing book is about as honest as a writer can be, it deals largely with issues of social justice in the context of those who “don’t fit.” Intersex individuals, especially, are treated before they can give consent and live their lives based on other people’s expectations of what their gender “should be.” Like most people I was raised thinking there were only two genders. Science has consistently demonstrated that “gender” is a construct that occurs along a continuum. Some species change gender in their lives. Some have such complicated reproductive techniques that far more than two genders are postulated to make sense of it all. And yet, when it comes to humans, we suppose that we’re either female or male. And religions consistently claim that any sex outside those parameters is evil. We are so naive.

Dreger focuses her attention much more widely in this important book. She shows how universities, constantly becoming more corporate, often don’t support research that challenges their investments, or “branding.” She demonstrates first-hand the character-assassination that academic snipers use so well on those who follow the evidence. She is living proof that education and activism should go together. Intricate and with bizarre loops and twists thrown in, her account of what some people will do to silence others, and get it peer reviewed, saddens me. I’ve always believed that education is the surest way to solve social ills. Education, however, is increasingly being purchased by special-interest groups that protect the establishment. The establishment may no longer be the church, but we need another Galileo, and soon.