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Elisabeth Roudinesco: ‘We have a triple identity – biological, psychological and social’

Clément Petitjean19 February 2014

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Over the past few years, a very vocal conservative movement has been hitting the French headlines and creating media hype around reactionary watchwords. After demonstrating against gay marriage in 2012 and 2013, supposedly a major threat that will undermine the traditional family structure and its values, the righteous crusaders are now waging another battle against “gender theory” in primary schools for allegedly trying to turn boys into girls and girls into boys. In a 
Libération interview, Elisabeth Roudinesco steps back and reflects upon this conservative backlash.

It’s quite a stir. We’ve seen the marriage of a poorly understood concept (gender), an outburst of madness, and irrational fears. Why has a programme oriented toward equality, rolled out in schools, led to the idea that girls are going to be turned into boys and boys into girls ? How come, in the wake of the advent of marriage rights for all, does part of the population take every bill concerning the family to be some sort of threat to children and a dismantling of the family structure ? The historian and psychoanalyst Elisabeth Roudinesco answers these questions.

Are you surprised by these demonstrations in the name of the endangered family ?

No, I’m not surprised. A year ago, at the time of the vote on marriage for same-sex couples, we saw the emergence of this form of hostility – which is, in fact, the symptom of something else. What is being expressed, here, against the backdrop of the crisis and widespread social malaise, is the fear of the loss of the nation – and more particularly the feeling of a loss of sovereignty, including in terms of the father-child relationship. When the economy is flourishing, transformations affecting the family are accepted more readily. Conversely, economic instability engenders fears and tensions. Already in the nineteenth century, industrialisation and its attendant social transformations provoked a terror over ‘feminisation’, connected to the rise of women in the workplace. Each time, the culprits are the same : Jews, foreigners, homosexuals. In each period, the arguments are the same : the family is dying, the nation is besmirched, lack of sexual differentiation threatens, abortion is becoming widespread, children won’t be born any more. It is a great fear : a fear of the future, the fear of no longer existing at all.

Should we take this conservative backlash seriously ?

Yes and no. We ought to take seriously the strong unease which it expresses, namely that of not having a salary, a retirement, a future. But on questions of principle we have to hold firm. We can in no way accept anti-gay slogans, just as there can be no tolerance for anti-semitic views. I entirely approve of Manuel Valls’s decision to ban Dieudonné’s anti-semitic show. This is not a question of freedom of expression, but rather a case of incitement to racial hatred. But I do not think it was necessary to postpone sine die the family bill, given that the most contested two points, concerning PMA (medically assisted procreation) and GPA (surrogate pregnancy), had already been taken out of it. I can understand that these two points might have been put on hold for political reasons, temporarily. But it is illusory to oppose scientific progress, rather than regulating it. In ten years, like it or not, left or right, PMA will be authorised for lesbians and GPA for infertile couples. This will take place in any case by way of the neighbouring countries where it is already practiced, and recognition of the parentage of the children thus conceived.

The recurring argument of the ‘Manif pour tous’ [‘Demo for all’] is the defence of children’s interests, their need to have a mum and dad. What do you think of that ?

The worst depravity is found in the families which seem most normal. In reality, the first ill faced by any child is that of economic poverty. What destroys a family is, above all, unemployment, poverty, alcoholism, violence, and inequality : what Victor Hugo said in Les Misérables is still true today. A child’s other fundamental need is to have a personal, affective attachment to someone else. This is typically attributed to the mother but could be fulfilled by another person. This strong attachment, giving structure to the child, is what we call love.  A child’s well-being thus demands that she is adopted as soon as possible, if she is in an orphanage, and that she is neither ill-treated nor considered an object, but rather treated as a subject.

Why has the notion of gender created such a polemic, such confusion ?

We must defend all the research on this theme, which is essential. Gender is a hypothesis which allows us to show that not everything flows from nature. But gender is a notion referring back to a ‘feeling of identity’, and it ought not be sweepingly applied to everyday life. To do so would be senseless. A concept, a notion, cannot take to the streets : the concept ‘dog’ never barks. It is extraordinary to see how one of the most sophisticated of theories can engender such a stupid hubbub. One of the great spectres going round is the idea that we will no longer be able to produce children by natural means. The proportion of homosexuals among the population is estimated to be around 7 percent. They do not all want to have children. Almost all children will still be conceived by the same-old copulation – you can be sure enough, it’s so much simpler that way, including among male and female homosexuals. It is fantasy, delirous, to imagine that our society is putting in question sex difference, coupling and the birth of children.

So what is the breeding ground for this crazy outcry ?

This outcry is linked to the question of same-sex marriage. Quite mistakenly, homosexuals are imagined to be a sort of third sex : indeed, this term has a long history. The idea that boys will be changed into girls, and girls into boys, has been grafted onto this idea. Here we are in the realm of delirium. Homosexuality is a sexual orientation, not a third sex. It is not an identitarian construct linked to gender, and homosexuals just like bisexuals are men and women. Transsexualism (the conviction that one belongs to another sex) has nothing to do with homosexuality, and is a tiny minority. There exist two sexes, male and female. Hermaphrodism is an anatomical anomaly, known since the dawn of time, and androgyny a myth : there is an immense literature on this question. But sexual identity is also a social and psychological construct, as Simone de Beauvoir and others after her demonstrated. ‘One is not born a woman, but rather becomes one’, as de Beauvoir put it. Our identity is a triple one : biological, psychological and social. A person is a man or a woman – an inescapable biological-anatomical reality – and gender, as a construct, is a different reality pertaining to ‘the lived’, the existential.

How can we explain the noisy propagation of such unreal claims ?

Since 2001 and the attack on the World Trade Center, the denial of historical reality has constantly reappeared theme. Denying the Nazi gas chambers is everywhere either illegal or condemned, but other forms of denial proliferate. We see the advance of baseless hearsay, amplified by the Internet and by media reductionism. For example : Freud is presented as a Nazi, Marx as responsible for the Gulags and Einstein for the atom bomb – three murderers, then. These counter-truths are here to stay, and must constantly be challenged. These attacks also target complex thinkers. They affect intellectuals like Derrida, Foucault and Bourdieu, among the most widely-read French authors in the United States, all of whom studied these questions. There is a striking anti-intellectualism in these movements, feeding the idea that any opinion, however delirious or repugnant, is worth as much as the truth, reason or the different hypotheses of the most serious and innovative work. But none of it is of any value at all, contrary to the claims of a crazy media who want to put everything (and no matter what) face-to-face in order to boost ratings or create rows : Jews against anti-semites, racists against anti-racists, evolutionists against creationists, the partisans of baseless hearsay against those who pull it apart, etc. We ought to say no, and no again, to all this nonsense, and fight our battles clearly.

Cécile Daumas, Libération, 9 February 2014. 

Translated by David Broder