by H.B. Koplowitz
As soon as I heard about Rachel Dolezal, the white woman who was passing as black, I asked my Facebook friends if Bruce Jenner can decide to be female, why can’t Dolezal decide to be black?
One friend’s response was succinct, if politically incorrect: “Because she isn’t, and neither is he.” Another friend noted it should actually be easier, since there is “less genetic distance between black and white than between the sexes.”
Others have raised the same question, and those who applaud Jenner but condemn Dolezal have been tying themselves in knots trying to explain the difference. From a common sense point of view, Dolezal is white because her parents are white, and Jenner is male because he has sperm, among other things. Yet Jenner has been treated like a hero for trying to become a female, while Dolezal has been treated like a black woman caught trying to pass as white — she’s been called a scam artist and liar and shunned by both races. But people with mental disorders should be neither praised nor vilified, and both may have psychological issues.
Dolezal may have a variation of Munchausen syndrome. WebMD describes Munchausen as a “factitious disorder, a mental disorder in which a person repeatedly and deliberately acts as if he or she has a physical or mental illness when he or she is not really sick. Munchausen syndrome is considered a mental illness because it is associated with severe emotional difficulties.” I don’t mean to infer that being black is a disease, but rather, that the motives of someone who pretends to have cancer or be black are similar — a pathological desire to gain attention and sympathy, i.e., to be perceived as a victim.
Most people have no problem accepting that Dolezal may be a little kooky, but to make the same assertion about Jenner risks severe blowback from the LGBT community and their supporters. However, Jenner may have gender dysphoria, which WebMD describes as a condition in which people “feel strongly that they are not the gender they physically appear to be.” Notice how gingerly WebMD deals with this subject, saying “physically appear to be” rather than “are.” The website also goes out of its way to state that “the mismatch between body and internal sense of gender is not a mental illness,” although it is also associated with severe emotional difficulties, including stress, anxiety and depression. And like those with Munchausen, people with gender dysphoria can be very insistent and persuasive that their feelings are real.
One of those who has called gender dysphoria a mental illness is Dr. Paul McHugh, the former chair of the Department of Psychiatry at Johns Hopkins Hospital, which in the 1960s became the first American medical center to do “sex-reassignment surgery.” In a 2014 commentary in the Wall Street Journal, McHugh said the hospital stopped the practice after studies found that patients who underwent the procedure had as many problems with “psycho-social adjustments” as those who didn’t have the surgery.
McHugh noted other studies have found that about 40 percent of those who had reassignment surgery attempted suicide, which is 20 times higher than the rate among the general population, and that 70 percent to 80 percent of children who expressed transgender feelings “spontaneously lost those feelings” as they grew up. (A significant number of people who “transition” to the opposite sex later regret the decision and try to reverse the process, which is called detransitioning or retransitioning.) McHugh asserted that “policy makers and the media are doing no favors either to the public or the transgendered by treating their confusions as a right in need of defending rather than as a mental disorder that deserves understanding, treatment and prevention.”
However, there is another way to view what Dolezal and Jenner are doing that makes them seem no more crazy than women with breast implants or men with hair plugs. After Dolezal got outed by her parents, given the gotcha treatment by the media and the blogosphere, made the butt of comedians’ jokes, resigned as the Spokane, Washington, NAACP chapter head and lost her teaching job, she explained that whether or not she is biologically African American, she simply “identifies” as black. She also said she empathizes with Caitlyn Jenner, raising intriguing questions regarding sexual as well as racial identities. But she mostly fell off the radar after the racist massacre of nine people at a black church in Charleston, South Carolina, and the ensuing furor over the Confederate battle flag.
As Dr. McHugh noted, “‘Sex change’ is biologically impossible. People who undergo sex-reassignment surgery do not change from men to women or vice versa. Rather, they become feminized men or masculinized women.” Although Jenner can’t biologically become a female, many say he has a civil right to live his life as a woman — to change his appearance and social identity. Dolezal can’t change her parentage, but why doesn’t she have the same right to look, act and live life as a black person without being ridiculed or discriminated against?
A third Facebook friend, who is not a fan of gays, blacks, the president or the chosen people, answered my query facetiously: “And why can’t Obama decide he’s a Jew?” But he has a point. Once genetics is separated from gender or race, what is left is mostly cultural.
As former basketball star and sometime social commentator Kareem Abdul-Jabbar noted in a recent essay for Time magazine, many anthropologists, geneticists, sociologists and psychologists agree that race is “not a scientific entity but a myth.” In the essay, titled “Let Rachel Dolezal Be as Black as She Wants to Be,” Jabbar went on the say, “What we use to determine race is really nothing more than some haphazard physical characteristics, cultural histories, and social conventions that distinguish one group from another … As far as Dolezal is concerned, technically, since there is no such thing as race, she’s merely selected a cultural preference of which cultural group she most identifies with.”
Those who break cultural boundaries often become outcasts. But over time, boundaries change. Gays can now get married, so who knows, maybe transracialism will become the next civil rights frontier.