How would you respond to these three different scenarios?
Scenario #1: A troubled teenage girl says to you, “Since I was like, 12 . . . I know this is going to be crazy, but I believe that I’m a vampire. Part of a vampire and part of a werewolf.”
What would you say to her? Probably something like: “Vampires and werewolves do not exist.”
In case she didn’t realize, you would also tell her that the Twilight books are novels and HBO’s True Blood is not a reality TV show. (Unfortunately, the story here is all too real. This vampire-werewolf confession was made by 18 year-old Stephanie Pistey in the aftermath of the grisly murder of a 16 year-old boy.)
What if this teenager was diagnosed with clinical lycanthropy, “a mental illness (specifically, a psychiatric syndrome) that involves a strong delusional belief in the afflicted person that they have transformed into an animal, often a wolf.” (This is the definition from Werewolves.com. I kid you not.) You would probably say to her, “You really are delusional and in need of help.”
What if she filed her teeth and drank blood? Your answer would presumably be the same: “You’re a human being, a girl, not a werewolf or a vampire.”
I assume we’re in sync?
Scenario #2: A man is convinced that there is something terribly wrong with his body and he wants to amputate one of his limbs. What do you tell him? Perhaps, “I understand you’re tormented by this, but you don’t amputate a perfectly healthy part of your body.”
What if this person was diagnosed with BIID, Body Identity Integrity Disorder? This is a condition that, according to BIID.org, “is commonly manifested by a desire to have an amputation of a specific body part” – and we’re talking about a perfectly healthy limb.
Once again, I assume your answer would be the same: “You have a psychiatric condition, and you should not try to amputate your limb, regardless of what your mind tells you.”
Not surprisingly, in January, 2000, when Scottish surgeon Robert Smith amputated the legs of two healthy men suffering with BIDD, there was widespread outrage and his hospital put a stop to his actions before he could accommodate a third patient.
It’s true that the men were reported to be much happier after their surgery, but I imagine we would agree that it would have been far better to deal with their mental condition rather than amputate their limbs.
Scenario #3: A man comes to you and says, “I’m convinced that I’m a woman trapped in a man’s body and I want to have sex-change surgery and go on female hormones for the rest of my life.” What would you say?
Not that long ago, the answer to this question would have been just as simple: “I know that you really believe that you’re a woman, but the fact is you’re a man, biologically and anatomically, and you can’t just change from male to female.”
Today, such an answer is often considered highly insensitive, if not intolerant and bigoted. After all, don’t we know that some people really are born in the wrong body?
Actually, we don’t. As expressed by Dr. Paul McHugh, University Distinguished Service Professor of Psychiatry and chairman of the Johns Hopkins psychiatric department, “We psychiatrists . . . would do better to concentrate on trying to fix their minds and not their genitalia.”
What about people diagnosed with gender dysphoria (or Gender Identity Disorder, GID)? Well, is this markedly different than people diagnosed with BIID?
As expressed by Selwin Duke, “Sure, it strikes us as the most horrid malpractice when a doctor amputates healthy body parts, such as a pair of legs. But, then, should we call it something else just because those healthy body parts are between the legs?” (Note that neurological differences in the brains of transgenders are most likely the result of their gender identity struggles rather than the cause of them.)
So, just as people who identify as transgender are convinced that they are trapped inside the wrong body, people with BIID “see themselves, and have always seen themselves, as amputees” (Dr. Christopher Ryan, a University of Sydney psychiatrist).
The fact is, we know that our minds don’t always tell us the truth, and they are far more malleable than our body. So, if our mind tells us something that biology clearly says is wrong, it’s likely our minds are misleading us. Somehow, this simple observation often escapes the GID debate.
Unfortunately, rather than focusing more of our attention on trying to help transgenders from the inside out, sex-change surgery is now glamorized and gender is viewed as something subjective and malleable. In fact, the Los Angeles Unified School District Reference Guide goes as far as to say, “‘Gender identity’ refers to one’s understanding, interests, outlook, and feelings about whether one is female or male, or both, or neither, regardless of one’s biological sex.”
A biologically normal child who is female, male, both, or neither? Is this much stranger than a girl claiming to be part werewolf and part vampire?
Michael Brown holds a Ph.D. in Near Eastern Languages and Literatures from New York University. He is the author of 25 books, includingLine of Fire. Follow him at AskDrBrown on Facebook or @drmichaellbrown on Twitter.