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Panel examines gender and psychoanalysis
by Liz Baudler
2016-06-19

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While the panel at the American Psychoanalytic Association ( APsaA ) was titled "What is Gender Anyway", Orlando still occupied space in the minds of many on the morning of June 17.

Speaking to the crowd at the Palmer House Hilton, both newly elected APsaA President Harriet Wolfe and panel moderator Ethan Grumbach commented on the shooting's effect and the anxieties it unearthed.

"I have felt extremely unmoored, myself," said Grumbach, a noted psychoanalyst. "It felt impossible to be present today." He reminded the crowd to be present with their patients and not to forget the experiences of LGBTQ people in the days to come, both positive and negative.

Grumbach introduced the panel, laid out the presentation format, and discussed historical perspectives on gender, sexuality and psychology. "Forty years ago we'd be discussing whether homosexuals were psychotic," he commented. He also went into Transparent creator Jill Soloway's biography, calling the show an elaboration of her own struggle of gender identity and personal history.

After viewing the Transparent episode in which Maura, the main character, and her daughters visit a mall, get makeovers and find themselves attacked in a bathroom, the first panelist, Connecticut doctor Susan McNamara discussed both hate crimes against LGBTQ people and why bathrooms in particular seem to be such a flashpoint.

"Few places in our society are labeled by gender," McNamara said, as she outlined bathrooms' symbolic psychological nature. Calling the Transparent scene "brilliantly prescient", and highlighting the recent emergence of "bathroom bills", McNamara concluded, "there's nothing rational about gender-bathroom panic."

McNamara mentioned research about subjects reacting less positively to gender-ambiguous faces. "When we struggle to categorize something, we like it less," she said. She closed with a radical proposal: removing APsaA's gendered training requirements. Originally those requirements existed to ensure analysts got well-rounded training, but McNamara argued that such requirements discriminate against queer and trans patients.

The University of Chicago's Robert Galatzer-Levy centered his comments around the Transparent episode, saying trans people are often the subject of other people's reactions. He dissected the narrative present in the episode and its effect on the family members. "Disorientation is the major theme," he stated, concluding that while the show is revolutionary in a number of ways, the trans character Maura remains an agent of disorder.

This narrative seemed tired and harmful to Galatzer-Levy. "I would like to suggest that there are other possible fantasies," he said and, to much delight, played a clip of the Kinks' song "Lola"—a narrative in which he felt the trans character restored order to the world.

He then moved on to discussions how to view gender boundaries. "Geopolitical boundaries work so well," Galatzer-Levy said over a slide of the Korean Peninsula. Instead, he brought up an image of fractals, calling them, "literally infinitely complex."

"The closer you get to the boundary, the richer it becomes," Galatzer-Levy explained.

Many audience members found Galatzer-Levy's fractal theory intriguing. After small group discussions, participants were invited to share their table's insights, and many commented on how the fractal metaphor triggered other connections to their work.

"It's so interesting to see how different pieces resonate with different people," Grumbach said, listening to audience reactions.

Diana Moga, from Columbia University, spoke about her psychoanalytic training and how it failed her on the topic of gender. "Gender was biology," she said, and quoted Freud's comments on women being comparable to the average child and needing to be led by a "clever seducer".

"Freud disappointed on women," she said.

Moga mentioned taking a speciality gender course in her second year and being exposed to far broader viewpoints. "I never knew there were so many female psychoanalytic writers," she remembered. She pointed out that rigid dominance of one viewpoint leads to harmful analytic practices like conversion therapy, and called for better training standards and education.

"It is time to make our thinking more integrated," Moga said.


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