Pretty much anyone who has lived in an English speaking nation is somewhat familiar with Shakespeare. Whether you played Bottom in a high school production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, wrote your doctoral thesis on ageism and dementia in King Lear or if you simply watched the Bugs Bunny cartoon where he mocks the graveyard scene in Hamlet, most people have had some exposure to Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets. Perhaps the most culturally renowned scene in the entire canon is the balcony scene in Romeo & Juliet, where our young and hormone-crazed protagonist sneaks into the courtyard of young Juliet at night and professes his undying, “what light from yonder window breaks”-ing love to her, despite the fact that they just met earlier that evening.
While it may seem remarkably rash of them to exchange vows of marriage about three hours after first meeting, you have to remember that they were kids. In the play, Romeo is eighteen while Juliet is only thirteen, an age differential that may make us squeamish today, but was par for the course in late 16th century Britain. For anyone who has a teenage child or was once a teenager themselves, declaring eternal devotion for a night in a pretty young thing’s bedchamber doesn’t sound too beyond the pale. This was the scene that was presented to audiences at The Globe and at theaters throughout Elizabethan & Jacobean England. However, there was one key difference between the play then and the play now: in those days, it turns out that Juliet was actually a Julius when he stepped off stage. The greatest love story in the English language, and all plays back then for that matter, was performed by two men
You see, back when Shakespeare was writing, women weren’t trusted to do much beyond giving birth and keeping a tidy house (except for Elizabeth I, but when you’re Queen you can do pretty much anything you want). It was considered extremely vulgar and unbecoming of a young lady to be on stage with men, so all of the female roles in productions of that time were played by boys who had been specially trained in the ways and mannerisms of women. No one at the time found this the least bit odd and, while there were no official laws banning women from participating in the theater, the subject was rarely broached until the middled of the 17th century. As a matter of fact, it was the style of the day for upper-class men to don expensive, lavish wigs and wear billowy, ornate clothing that would be seen as decidedly feminine today.
We as a society tend to forget how transient a thing gender is and how one’s conception of gender differs greatly by time and place. I bring this up because it upset me a great deal recently when the Psychopathology course I’m in reviewed the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual IV-TR’s section on “Sexual and Gender Identity Disorders” (The DSM-IV-TR is a big gray book psychiatrists use to tell people what’s wrong with them). As you can see from the heading to the section, the learned kings of psychiatric wisdom think that questioning one’s gender is a disorder and thus, something to be treated. And, in case you think that perhaps I’m immediately assuming the worst of the American Psychiatric Association, I give you this direct quote from the DSM-IV-TR regarding Gender Identity Disorder:
“In boys, the cross-gender identification is manifested by a marked preoccupation with traditionally feminine activities. They may have a preference for dressing in girls’ or women’s clothes or may improvise such items from available materials when genuine articles are unavailable. Towels, aprons, and scarves are often used to represent long hair or skirts. There is a strong attraction for the stereotypical games and pastimes of girls. They particularly enjoy playing house, drawing pictures of beautiful girls and princesses, and watching television or videos of their favorite female characters.”
Quite literally, liking Barbies, playing house and drawing pictures of Belle from Beauty and the Beast are signs of potential sexual and gender identity issues later in life. And just in case you thought you were out of the woods if your bouncing baby boy doesn’t actually want to be a woman, but enjoys wearing women’s clothing, you’d be wrong on that count too. Transvestic Fetishism is listed as a Paraphilia in the DSM, as are sexual masochism, sexual sadism and good old fashioned regular fetishism. The DSM is beginning to sound a lot like Pat Robertson or my great aunt and uncle who think a lady showing her calves in public is indecent.
The argument that I imagine the psychiatric community would make to such charges is that the diagnoses only apply when they produce significant distress in a person’s life. But, when you live in a society where the mental health profession is pathologizing any sexual or gendered behavior that deviates from societal norms, then you would probably be experiencing clinically significant distress too. How do you expect LGBT people to disclose to HIV providers and mental health professionals when they are being told by both society and “science” that their behavior is deviant? How can a profession pretend to adjudicate on sexual behavior in a society where the “normal” approach to sexuality is one of apprehension and secrecy? I implore everyone reading this to consider your own sexuality and gender identity. You are a product of biology, society and time. In a different century, in a different country or in a different body, how you see yourself and how you see gender would be altered. Gender is largely a social construct and all of us are constructed in a billion different ways. It would be pretty dull if all of the architecture looked the same.