On Gender, Sexuality, Identity, Mental Health
If you ever get the chance to sit on the bench at the top of Pump Hill in Loughton, Essex, you’re going to see something interesting: you’re going to see humanity spread out over miles running from forest through hamlet through town, finishing up in the bright lights and tall towers of London, the spires of Crystal Palace, the dome we now call the O2. Human society is a surprisingly complicated mesh of contrasting attitudes and cultures, and that’s what you’ll see looking out over the spread from Essex into London. So many different details all acting more or less coherently as part of one societal web. It’s mad good.
I went to a chat last night about John Perceval, son of the only assassinated British Prime Minister. John was notable for ending up in a lunatic asylum claiming he was a prophet from God. After he was eventually released from the asylum, he campaigned to improve conditions for all like patients across the country. This was a time when women could be declared mad for thinking, anyone could be declared mad for talking about democracy, and the equivalent of psychiatry was conducted by sadistic quacks more mentally deranged than many of their patients. It was a time of radicalism and unrest across Britain, some would say reaching a peak in the death of Spencer Perceval, PM. Anyway the author holding the chat was Robin Holton, and he had this pretty perceptive comment to make on mental health: that it’s not so much a problem within one individual as it is a problem between individuals. The common theme among many mentally ill people is a form of loneliness or isolation, either literally, or in their lack of empathy, even despite a kind of gregariousness or charisma.
And that just seemed to link up mental illness to identity generally – the sense that it’s something defined by relationships with others. I mention it because so much of what is now largely termed “identity politics” is actually a fundamental element of our existence: interactions with others. That’s the simplistic core often deliberately ignored by critics and pundits. I don’t know about you reader, but I find that a great deal of commentary on issues of mental health, sexual orientation, gender orientation, is unselved. It’s taken away from people, from society, and turned into specific phenomena applied only when certain terms are invoked, when certain “appropriate” rituals are performed.
Oh yeah – if you’ve not already tuned out in anger – why am I linking mental illness and gender/sex? They’re all about identity. Personhood. Society. Being human. The all-uniting theme. That’s the point I want to make here before you hear the polemic incoming. That’s why a guy whose prime was around 1830 (ACE, not PM) is relevant to this. John Perceval lived in a world where much of “mental derangement” was defined quite explicitly by how other people viewed you. Today we live in a world where the basic “how other people view you” is filtered through advanced layers of supposed professionalism and entrenched political filibuster. Try to ignore all the layers of politics and assumption for a moment. Try to just think of the core person.
Here’s just my opinion on the titular topics.
Gender: your chosen take on your biology. Because, all you people who say you either have a penis or a vagina – biology also applies to the feelings and desires that lead people to homosexuality, becoming transgender or anything else. All of that is biological. It’s now commonly accepted that our understanding of the body through science is not limited to the appendages that appear on our skin. Not to try and cut you out, but, get over it. Biology is everything, not just your genitalia.
Implicit here is that there is no absolute heterosexuality or homosexuality – it’s all choice. It’s all a kind of bi or pan or whatever. You can always be your best you.
Sexuality: a social construct built from thousands of years of sex. The backdrop is early humans not having much culture beyond “good to receive penis in vagina/good to put penis in vagina”. That’s the root of modern sexuality for sure. But today we have all sorts of nuanced approaches to those basic desires rooted in chemistry and biology. I think of masculinity as sexual feelings and identification based in the old “my penis goes into your vagina” whereas femininity would be sexual feelings and identification based in “your penis goes into my vagina”. So, male or female or anything else, a person chooses which of those best suits them. Or no particular sexuality at all. You don’t need to have a penis or vagina to subscribe to one or the other. We now have, and really have always had, useable equivalents. Mouths, tongues, fingers, fists, oily sticks made of various materials, anuses. Options, basically. The option of nothing too.
But now more than ever we are aware of our options and capable of expanding them. I’m going to be straight with you, I have more of a feminine sexual identity. I think that’s fine, I don’t think it means all women have to get fucked, I don’t think it means all women have to fuck. I don’t think it means all men have to get fucked. I don’t think it means all men have to fuck. I think every individual person chooses who they are. Influenced by what happens to them sure, but they make the final decision, have the final veto. That’s sexuality. A person chooses and acts on who they want to be.
Identity: a terrifying mix of how you see yourself and how other people see you. Everything you remember as being a prominent part of yourself, and, to a large extent, everything you are seen doing, or understood to have done. It’s your professed values, your internal values, something of the values other people think you have. Your emotional composition, the things you sometimes do to change that. Your favourite clothes, music, movies. Your physical health, what you feel about your physical health. It’s all that stuff to do with you. But really, when you think about you, how can you think without considering the world around you, the people around you, and your place in it.
I guess I’m saying identity is the changing nature of the place in which you put yourself, or find yourself in the world. You and your surroundings are separate and yet inseparable. Different parts of the same connected scheme. A big flowing interconnected entity. And that’s not even getting spiritual.
Mental Health: the extent to which you are publicly viewed as being normal or sane. Mass and community reactions to your behaviours and tendencies. Basically responses to your identity that my go on to form part of your identity.
Your own sense of emotional composition, stability, your ability to express or restrain yourself. The feelings that force themselves into your perception, the thoughts that repeat in your head. The sounds, smells, sights, textures you encounter through your own particular means to engage with them. It’s everything your mind does in response to what you physically, biologically, chemically encounter. And it’s the way you reason through all that, or don’t.
And, in a slightly different context, the biological integrity of your brain and sensory functions. Fewer people will have a substantially damaged brain, whereas all people have physically different brains, biologically, scientifically different brains and minds. That includes different sensory capacities, emotional tendencies. Difference on its own isn’t grounds for disability. Difference rejected by society will cause disability.
That’s one of the major misunderstandings about mental health. Depression and like disorders are built from experiences, encouraged by genetic predispositions. They aren’t mysterious imbalances of the humours (cheers Galen) they are built from profound trauma or joy or endless streams of emotional demands. And they can become accidentally entrenched in the way someone thinks about themselves in relation to the world, self-propagating, remaking beyond the point at which they’re at all healthy.
This is what I think anyway. I’m certainly no great source of knowledge on the matter. Just someone who thinks about stuff a lot. You decide whether any of this thinking helps you. And check out that bench in Loughton if you can, the view really is special. The Gardeners’ is fine too.