I spent several wonderful days with my friend Paul’s family and friends as he celebrated his 80th birthday. There was plenty of good food, great outdoor exercise, and a brewery tour tossed in for good measure. There were several opportunities for rich, vigorous conversations with various combinations of opinionated, tolerant people.

After the traditional rich cake and ice cream party was over and the guests had left for home, Paul and I were discussing how nice it was to have youngsters, teens and adults together having a good time. The conversation drifted to how well the married lesbian couple, his wife’s close friends, fit into the group.  

Continuing in the general vein of changing socially accepted patterns of love and commitment, I confessed my ignorance about some terms that were relatively new to me, like “transgender” and “transsexual.” He knew a little more than I, but as I found out later, not much more.

The long plane ride home gave me time to brood over my ignorance in the midst of an important social issue. My curiosity once again took over and, without wanting to be pedantic, here are some things I’ve learned.

At birth we’re assigned a gender identity as male or female. Later, complex genetic and environmental factors determine how we develop physically, physiologically and psychologically. During puberty the genetic factors and the chemicals they produce determine secondary sex characteristics, like body shape and contour, voice and hair distribution.

Regardless of external, physical characteristics, as we mature we develop a personal sense of gender identity, whether we “feel” more or less male or female. Thus a transgender male feels like a female trapped in a male body, and vice versa.

Sexual orientation is the object of our enduring emotional, spiritual and physical attraction. Many, perhaps the majority of gender-identified males are attracted sexually solely to females; many, perhaps the majority of gender-identified females, are attracted solely to males. A significant number of gender-identified males are attracted solely to males; a significant number of gender-identified females are attracted solely to females. And regardless of their sexual orientation, an unknowable number of both sexes are capable of being attracted to and forging close emotional, spiritual, physical and sexual bonds with both genders.  

Bisexual activist Robyn Ochs describes humans as living in a world that cannot accommodate sharp definitions like race, skin color, male and female that are assigned at birth. The spiritual and psychological bases of attraction between humans and their feelings of liking, loving and sexual desiring cannot currently be accounted for.  

With our rapidly developing understanding of genetics, biology and physiology, no wonder our understanding of what we’ve been recognizing as changing patterns of love and sex among and between the sexes is confused.

Our confusion is traceable back to a naive time before present-day socioeconomic development and modern medical interventions were available; a time when straight laced Victorian social mores held more sway over personal freedoms and public policy in Great Britain; a time when the Women’s Christian Temperance Union in the U.S., focused primarily on demon rum, never the less imported England’s mores regarding non-marital sexual behavior. It remains steadfastly opposed to marriage for same-sex partners.

Our confusion has brought persecution, suffering and personal angst to millions of Americans. The singularly most spectacular perpetrator was J. Edgar Hoover.

Director of the FBI from 1924 until he died in 1972,  Hoover is credited with professionalizing American law enforcement.

In the 1960s and 70s his bureau became sinister by using illegal methods including burglaries, wiretaps and planted evidence to harass law abiding political dissenters and activists. It also kept secret files on political leaders to intimidate them.

Hoover collected personal information on others to protect his widely known but unacknowledged secret that he was gay. His long-time “clandestine” partner was the FBI’s second in command. His personal life must have been a nightmare of unremitting torment. By the end of his career he wreaked unimaginable anguish and suffering on millions of his fellow citizens while damaging our social fabric.  

Communities are strengthened by celebrating, not quashing inherent diversity. The lesbian couple’s love and connectedness with others strengthens their community.  It’s heartwarming to be able to learn new things and being alive in the midst of positive social change. 

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