“There are TWO genders: MALE & FEMALE. Trust science! ‘”
These are the words written in large letters on the sign that Georgia representative Marjorie Taylor Greene hung outside her office door in the Capitol.
As has since been widely reported, Greene posted the sign in response to Illinois Representative Marie Newman hanging an LGBTQ Pride flag outside her office across from Greene after Greene posted a video of Newman’s support speech on her Twitter account of the Equality Act, followed by their own opposition response.
The Equal Opportunities Act would expand protection in the Civil Rights Act so that people in employment, housing and other areas cannot be discriminated against based on their sexual orientation or gender identity. Newman’s advocacy, as she mentioned in her speech, was inspired in part by the care and support any mother would show for her child since Newman is the parent of a transgender daughter.
Greene later shared the video of Newman’s speech on her own Twitter account and wrote, “As mothers, we all love and support our children. But your birth son does NOT belong in my daughters’ bathrooms, locker rooms, and sports teams. “
This verbal sparring, which takes place in the deeply intimate and charged context of parental love, obviously underscores the high level of commitment of this large and consistent political debate not only for how we imagine and implement a social world that values and practices equality, but also for how we are able to practice parental love, which leads to attempts to create a welcoming world for our children that empowers, respects and values who they are.
As I pondered this subject from both a parental and a political perspective, as a professor of literature I actually sought to ponder the language of these exchanges, ponder poetry, ponder science, and ponder the poetry of science.
I remembered the words of the poet Christian Wiman, who reminded us: “[T]We end up going to poetry for a reason so that we may more fully inhabit our lives and the world we live in, and when we inhabit these things more fully we may be less apt to destroy both. “
Science can probably fulfill the same function. It helps us understand ourselves, our bodies, our world, our relationship with and our place in our physical and natural world, in the vast universe itself. If we have an adequate scientific understanding of the world, we will probably know how best to act to serve our own health, protect and care for our environment, so that we can preserve the ecological basis of human life and the energies and Use resources to maintain the world and our lives.
In this sense, Wiman’s description of poetry can easily be applied to science as well. Both are ways to better understand our lives and our world, so that we better inhabit them and thus “less tend to destroy both”.
However, poetry can often serve as a correction for science practice, if not science itself, when embroiled, informed, or infected with the cultural values and prejudices of its time and place.
Indeed, Greene’s mandate to “trust science” requires that an encounter with poetry and reality be placed on a firmer scientific basis.
First, Greene seems to be confusing gender with biological gender. Gender is now viewed as a category of identity, not a biology. For example, people can socioculturally identify as male, female, non-binary, transgender and maybe more, regardless of their biology. In this sense, gender identity is the place or province of poetic creation, a cultural endeavor for the individual.
Second, if we assume that Greene means talking about biological sex, Greene has no science behind him here either, although her claim forces us to face the ways in which sociocultural prejudices can affect scientific practice.
For example, medical practice has been slow to recognize that reality shows that there are more than the two biological sexes. Almost two percent of children are actually born intersex, which means that they are born with a reproductive or sexual anatomy that does not fit the standard categories of men or women. In most states, doctors must choose a legal category, male or female, to issue the birth certificate. In the past, medical practice has recommended surgery or hormone therapy to adapt the body to the socio-culturally and legally constructed “gender identity”.
Of course, real scientific practice would not deny or reject all the forms of life that we see in nature, record and acknowledge. It is culturally detrimental norms that mark intersex children as deviant or abnormal. Here we need poetry in order to alienate ourselves and to move beyond the imprisonment of linguistic and cultural norms, what exactly its function is.
Sherwood Anderson’s story “Hands” from his classic work of American literature from 1919 in Winesburg, Ohio, with the character Wing Biddlebaum. Wing, once called Adolph Myers, lives in exile on his previous life as a teacher. Part of his skills as a teacher was his ability to communicate with his hands through touch and words: “Here and there his hands went, caressing boys’ shoulders and playing with disheveled heads.”
Anderson also describes Wing in ambiguous or multiplicative gender-specific terms. He is one of those “gentle” and “little understood men”: “In their feeling for the boys under their care,” writes Anderson, “such men are not dissimilar to the finer kind of women in their love for men.”
And then Anderson stops and corrects: “And yet that’s only roughly said. The poet is needed there. “
Anderson recognizes the inadequacy of standard language, especially when it comes to gender, to understand the complexities of Wing’s identity, being, and nature. We need poetry to move us beyond narrow cultural norms and closer to understanding the complexities of our world and ourselves.
Wing is later brutally fisted by men, falsely accused of improperly touching boys, and exiled.
These beatings contrast the violent and destructive use of hands with Wing’s educational, loving, and uplifting use of hands.
Anderson tells us we have a choice between destroying ourselves and our world or learning how to humanely and lovingly inhabit it.
Poetry can help us in this, as can science supported by a poetic sensitivity that seeks to bring us closer and closer to the creative truth of ourselves and our world.
This is the science we can trust.
Tim Libretti is a professor of American literature and culture at a state university in Chicago. A longtime progressive voice, he has published many academic and journalistic articles on culture, class, race, gender, and politics, for which he has received awards from the Working Class Studies Association, the International Labor Communications Association, and the National Federation of Press Women and the Illinois Woman’s Press Association.