Saturday, March 12, 2016

Let's talk about the Wachowskis

I'm about to tiptoe into a minefield of political correctness, and I'm not sure I'm ready for it.

Whoops! Here I go.

A couple months ago it occurred to me that it must be highly unusual for there to be more than one gay child in any given family. If we are to accept the notion that homosexuals constitute ten percent of the population, which is pretty much agreed upon at this point, and that homosexuality is a biologically determined rather than socially determined predisposition, which is pretty much agreed upon at this point, then every family with ten children would have one gay child. That also means that there would only be one gay child out of every five families with two children. As usual you have to pick "the right five families" to get those results, since it would be easy to inadvertently select two families with gay children and feel like your statistics weren't bearing out the conventional wisdom. Of course, that's not how statistics work and I am now belaboring a point for no reason.

The point is, most families do not have ten children. In fact, few even have five. So if you're looking at the typical family that has no more than three children, having two of them come out of the closet as gay would seem to be highly unlikely. In fact, depending on their political leanings and personal prejudices, those parents might have long, dark nights of the soul trying to figure out what they "did wrong" or how they contributed to an environment in which their kids might "become gay."

So it would seem even stranger, wouldn't it, for two children in the same family to extend gender and sexual identity norms outward to an even further degree and declare themselves both to be transgender.

Yet that's what we have gotten this week from the former Larry and Andy Wachowski, who now go by the names Lana and Lilly. They're film directors, which is why we're talking about this subject at all on a blog devoted to movies. (And it's now officially time to change the name of the label I apply to posts when I discuss these two, which had been "the wachowski brothers.")

Lana Wachowski has been with us for some years now. Various rumors seeped out at various different times, but by 2008 she had transitioned, and by 2010, the former Larry had started to become widely acknowledged and credited as Lana.

This past week we were introduced to Lilly, who, unlike her sister, decided to ditch the first initial of her birth name and make a full transition of moniker as well as gender. Well, "decided" may be an inaccurate term for what the former Andy Wachowski did. If you read her angry confirmation of being transgender, Lilly was forced to come out to the world by prying journalists, trying to grab hold of the last vestiges of it being on her own terms.

Through one rather startling piece of news, the Wachowskis have managed to throw all our notions of nature vs. nurture completely out of whack.

I call the news "startling" because I can count the number of famous transgender people on basically one hand. In fact, if I want to go beyond Lana and Caitlin Jenner, I have to really think about it. And no, the stars of Tangerine don't count as "famous."

So to get both former brothers, now sisters, of a famous directing pair saying they prefer to be referred to with pronouns that are different from the ones they were born with, is unusual indeed.

Here's where it gets really thorny from the standpoint of political correctness.

Is it really possible for this to be a biologically defined rather than a socially defined choice?

They say that no one decides to be gay, and of course that's true. But it's a bit of a grayer area when it comes to gender. Surely transgender people say, and I believe them, that they always felt like they should have been the other gender, and their transition to the other gender is only a means of correcting biology's mistake.

But could biology really have made the same mistake with both brothers in the same family? Is there no nurture factor at play whatsoever?

I have to wonder.

I don't know how may quizzical opinion pieces like the one I am writing now have been published, simply because this is a very "dangerous" issue -- it's one where if you say the wrong thing, you will be shouted down on the internet and both your sensitivity and your basic humanity will be questioned.

So don't get me wrong. I don't care that the Wachowskis are now sisters instead of brothers. I just wonder how it happened.

The way to approach talking about this is of course from the perspective I have chosen -- the matter of biological likelihood. Whereas extensive research tells us that one in ten are gay, research about people self-identifying as transgender tends to relate more to responses to surveys. And Google tells me that only .3 % of the population identifies themselves as transgender.

So that would mean that in a family that had 300 children, one would be transgender. Or at least, that would be the one that was willing to admit it.

And maybe it's the second part that has more to do with it. Lana was willing to admit it. Lilly wasn't. Or not yet, anyway. Or not to us, anyway. Maybe the number of transgender people who are unwilling to acknowledge their true nature to themselves -- or more to the point, to a society ready to judge them -- is a lot higher.

But still ... two in one family? At least they have two natural-born sisters, Julie and Laura, meaning that "only" 50% of the children of Lynne and Ron Wachowski are transgender. Though 100% of them are now women.

Lilly addressed the apparent unlikelihood of it all in an acidic joke that gets at the larger tone of the letter in which she came out as transgender. She wrote that "my father ... injected praying mantis blood into his paternal ball-sac before conceiving each of his children to produce a brood of super women, hellbent on female domination." I sure hope the aforementioned Ron Wachowski is not one of those aforementioned parents with their aforementioned long, dark nights of the souls.

I don't really know what to conclude. But I also find it laughable to suggest that the former Andy saw what his former brother, now sister, had decided to do with her life and thought that it "seemed like a fun thing to do." I mean, there's loving and admiring a person, and then there's undertaking a radical life change that will put you at odds with a large percentage of the people you meet, and make some of them actually want to kill you.

So the conclusion is: Biology is sometimes a funny thing.

But it also makes you wonder: If we are saying that people have no choice about being transgender, and that means that there is a biological component to it, doesn't that also mean that it's something that could be in a person's genes, and therefore inherited by one generation from the previous one?

It's certainly a question the Wachowskis and their unusual circumstances prompt us to ask. But I also think it's one scientists have looked into and rejected, at least when it comes to homosexuality. Or at least that if it's a gene, it's massively recessive, which is why it doesn't often manifest in the actual sexuality of offspring. (Or the fact that gay people often don't procreate, so they can't pass it on.) If there is an inherited biological aspect to a person's sexuality, I haven't heard about it -- though that could also be because it would just cause too much hysteria among people who blame themselves for "making their child gay."

Okay, I think I better quit before my carefully chosen words start to betray me and I say something that someone interprets as insensitive. Because believe me, I've got nothing but love on the topic of changing genders. I have a good friend whose child is transgender and Tangerine was one of my favorite movies of last year, which I've already seen twice. (And yes, I know this sounds like the "I'm not racist, I have a black friend" argument. But really, I'm not.)

What I do wonder is whether this will have any impact on the Wachowskis' future as directors -- or whether we will be able to distinguish the impact on their careers from the impact of continuing to make expensive movies that don't perform well. Although we really like Sense8, one could argue that the Wachowskis have been failing, at least on the big screen, ever since the first Matrix. While the two Matrix sequels made their money, they were critically lambasted. Some of their releases since then have received slightly warmer reviews (Cloud Atlas), but some of them have been both critical and commercial failures (Speed Racer and Jupiter Ascending). By Andy Wachowski coming out as transgender at the same time as Hollywood having good financial reasons for withdrawing creative control from the siblings, a perfect storm has been created where it will be impossible to distinguish people's moral judgments about them from people's financial judgments.

Well, here's hoping they get to make more seasons of Sense8 (it's been renewed) and that their next movie marries their undeniable vision with something that sort of makes sense and has a lot more box office appeal. Then Hollywood will have every reason to keep betting on them and we can all be happy.

I also hope Lilly Wachowski can be personally happy, given the way she was thrust out into the cold light of day, against her will, into a world that suddenly became much harder for her.

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