Thursday, 25 September 2008

Gender bender

Controversy is raging over the beautiful model Isis Tsunami who appears in the TV reality series America’s Next Top Model. Not because she swore or criticised the Pope. But because she’s a transsexual.

Some of the other contestants say she's merely a drag queen who shouldn’t be on the show. One TV presenter openly laughed at her and discussed her genitalia. Others have talked about an audience-grabbing publicity stunt. But many are lauding her inclusion on the show as a sign of enlightened attitudes.

Many years after the first transsexuals appeared, they're still the subject of heated debate and have never been totally accepted as ordinary men or women. They're regarded by many as a strange mixture of the two.

I must admit to being politically incorrect on this issue. While I have no problem with men adopting a female identity and behaviour (or vice versa), or even becoming buxom supermodels, I’m bemused by someone wanting to be treated as a genuine woman on the same basis as a person actually born a woman.

The fact is that a man is always anatomically and biologically a man however much his body has been changed to resemble the opposite sex. He may look like a totally convincing woman but he is not. Which is why a lot of women have trouble accepting a transsexual as one of them, or are even overtly hostile*.

I’m even more bemused by the increasing legal recognition of a new sexual identity, with the issuing of new birth certificates, passports, marriage certificates etc. Of course it makes life easier for the person concerned but at the end of the day it’s a denial of physical facts.

Don’t get me wrong. I totally accept the reality of transsexual feelings, the conviction that despite your physical sex you’ve always felt yourself to be the opposite sex and as the cliché has it, you’re trapped in the wrong body. That fundamental sense of mis-identity seems undeniable. But it’s another thing entirely to want the world to accept that you ARE the opposite sex.

I don’t see any obvious answer to this dilemma. A transsexual doesn’t want to be seen as a drag queen or a mock-female, she wants to be taken as the real thing. But if she ISN’T the real thing, then what?

And now I expect a hail of criticism to rain down on me….

* See in particular “The Transsexual Empire” by Janice Raymond


  1. I need to think about this one, Nick.

    If no one ever knew that she was a transsexual, then she would be judged on her own merits.

    You say that you are totally understanding of the reasons why people would change their gender. Howver, I am not sure that anyone can be, if they haven't been in that situation themselves.

    I do think it makes sense to change a passport, but not a birth certificate. That states the gender
    at birth. Perhaps a Transgender Certificate could be appended to the birth certificate.

    In my view, this raises wider issues of acceptance and integration. It wouldn't be Ok to talk about the genitilia of other participants, so why her?

  2. Hulla - it's a very tangled subject, and it's difficult to voice opinions outside the current orthodoxy.

    A Transgender Certificate sounds sensible to me, but I think transsexuals would be dead against it because it still singles them out as different. Absolutely right, the genitalia of the other contestants wouldn't be discussable, so why is Isis an exception?

  3. No criticism from me. It's a thorny one. I accept the concept, but have an issue with surgery. Just because one can do something doesn't mean one should. I'm not even sure that many of the individuals concerned end up a whole lot happier, I'm sure some do, but do they all? Do the majority?

    To take it a step further, what about those people that are convinced that their leg or arm ot ear is not really a part of them and insist on having it surgically removed?

  4. Thrifty - Research says the majority of transsexuals ARE happier with their new identity, with only a small minority regretting the change. Those individuals who seek limb amputation are strange indeed - I certainly can't get my head round that. But I think that's very different from being unhappy with your physical sex.

  5. That's fair enough. Dunno Nick, it could be possible to argue that they are different manifestations of the same thing (this isn't my body, its the body of someone of a different gender), but one has been marketed to the public conciousness in a more acceptable way. Then again it may not. The difficulty here is a lack of an objective reality, it's all shades of grey and largely not my business I guess :-)

  6. Thrifty - I think that's roughly what Janice Raymond argued, that transsexuality has been marketed and legitimised by the health professionals who organise it all and stand to gain money and career advancement. But you could say that about many areas of personal aspiration, particularly the whole beauty business.

  7. I knew a transgendered male, (male-female) very well, Nick. Like you say, it is a very complex issue. Surgical genital re-assignment is a completely different ball of wax though. My friend had that done when she was twenty-one. I've also known transexuals who are akin to transvestites in my book. I could be completely wrong? These are people living as the opposite sex without the surgical re-assignment. The transvestites I've known cross-dress periodically but not all the time.
    Again, as we've discussed before Nick, it boils down to this absolute obsession with the naughty bits. Why is it so important to gender-assign? I would love to see the day when there is a 'h' for human on all our i.d. papers, including passports.
    As to the fuss, it is so insane to me.
    I often feel very alone in this. One of my children is gay and is adamant that all of us need to embrace all facets of our sexuality (she likens it to a gauge) to become fully human.
    As an aside - did you or Jenny ever read "Middlesex" - I highly recommend it.

  8. www - As you say, why is it so important to gender-assign? Of course if we were all able to express ourselves freely, dress freely etc without such slavish attention to 'appropriate' gender behaviour, the desire to change sex might diminish. But there again some people just feel so totally alienated from their allotted sex, nothing will stop them changing their body accordingly.

    Yes, I've read Middlesex and it's terrific. A great story of a gender-ambiguous girl who asserts her own identity and refuses the identity that's being forced onto her.

  9. Nick:
    I bestowed an award on you over at my place.

  10. It seems to me that gender is more complex than biology, as are many characteristics. There is an interesting book, written in the 60's, called 'Black Like Me". A white man takes medication to increase the melanin in his skin and has the appearance of a black man. He is treated, by the world around him as if he is black. Now, he knew it wasn't permanent and still it changed him greatly.

    When I imagine someone who wants to be considered the opposite sex, dresses the part, takes hormones to change their body and even undergoes surgery, I believe they embody the essence of that gender. Perhaps even more than those of us who are born to it.

    Think of the analogy of adoption. Is an adoptee any less a family member than a child born naturally into that family? Only if the other family members think and act differently and the child believes they are different. Otherwise, the child is fully accepted even though genetically they are not a family member and could never become one (except by marriage).

    In truth, reality is an agreement we make with one another. Circumstance can change that of course, like natural disasters,etc. I mean we can all agree that it's a sunny day but, in the midst of a storm; it is what it is. Outside of those things, we agree that red is red, up is up, male is male, etc.

    We even make agreements that damage one another. Stereotypes are like that. But, if we decide, we can see, treat and accept transgendered people as the sex they know themselves to be. It's all a matter of agreement. And I, for one, vote 'aye'.

    Sorry to be so long winded. Always good to read you.


  11. I agree that altering a birth certificate is wrong. You cannot rewrite history and retain any integrity. But a passport should represent who a person is when he or she enters a country; it needs to agree with the gender one claims to be unless one is disguised for criminal purposes, which is another matter entirely.

    I think that if it is not illegal to undergo surgery, hormone therapy, etc. to assume the appearance of a man or woman, then such people should be afforded the full benefits of being that gender.

    It's a very interesting philosophical question, which I knew nothing of as I don't watch that show (and live under a rock.)

  12. www - the Blogging Star Award, how exciting! Thank you. I'll do my best to keep illuminating the darkness!

    Gayle - Thanks for that very thoughtful and perceptive comment. How true that reality is often just an agreement we make with one another. The analogy with adoption is an intriguing one, though I'm not entirely convinced - a child is always a child, you can't become a kind of opposite-child. But I take your point about people being whatever they are accepted as.

    Also an intriguing idea that transsexuals may embody the essence of their new gender more than those naturally born to it. Though then again, the whole concept of an essential gender is hotly disputed.

    Heart - Interesting distinction between birth certificates and passports, the latter not having the same function of confirming sexual identity.

    Not sure that just because there's no law against assuming a new sexual identity, therefore you should have the full benefits of being that sex. Isn't that encouraging all sorts of fraud?

  13. Live and let live.
    If a guy can look much sexier than a woman, why not let them be?
    I personally don't like reality shows and the beauty paegants etc, because there are much more important things to focus on in life than wasting it on trivial stuff. Having said that, if I were to have a say on this particular reality series (top model, whatever); I'd say, if a man decided that they are more comfortable and happy acting/pretending/living like a woman and they wanted to become a model, why the hell not?
    My definition of attractive, sexy is much more profound than seeing someone on TV screen and making that call, but for the sake of simplicity, let's say that's all there is to it. In that case, a sexy body is a sexy body, regardless whether the owner of that body was born with a penis or not.
    That's my thoughts on it.
    Stupid show regardless and I bet they let that person take part in the show not to give them a fair chance, but definitely to create this kind of drama, for ratings but what else is new...

  14. I always think it incredibly strange that we identify such people by their sexuality. "Gay" or "Transexual" it's nobody's business but their own in my opinion. Nobody asks if I'm heterosexual! I've got no problem with gender reassigned people having their passports changed and I'm not even particularly sure of the relevance of sex on a birth certificate other than for census reasons. Although I like Hullaballoo's idea of an addenda.

  15. Gayé - That's remarkably easy-going! If you say you're a woman, you look like a woman, what's the problem? Why do people need to ask unnecessary questions about genitalia, original sex etc? Maybe you're right, we're all making it a lot more complicated than it needs to be. It's certainly true that a man can turn himself into a very sexy-looking woman (like Jaye Davidson in The Crying Game)

    Baino - Also amazingly easy-going! You certainly believe in reality being whatever the person says it is! Reminds me of that old gay slogan "How dare you assume I'm heterosexual". I'm beginning to think I'm distinctly strait-laced on this one!

  16. Oh The Crying Game, it's one of my all time fave movies Nick. I remember when it first came out, and I saw it at the movies the entire cinema went HUH! or OOH! when the camera moved down from the face to the genitelia. It was AMAZING and SHOCKING and such a great movie with bugger-all budget. :)
    It really doesn't bother me the least bit to see a man turned woman or a woman turned man on TV, at least not as much as seeing a woman with no self-love or respect doing ridiculous things to herself in the name of looking sexy, young(ish), etc. Or a man losing self to pressures of being a "man" and the middle age. Yeesh.

  17. Gayé - Isn't it a brilliant film? I was so completely taken in until that revealing moment! You're dead right about a man turned woman (or vv) being more positive than men and women desperately sexing themselves up and looking idiotic in the process.

  18. wisewebwoman above: "I would love to see the day when there is a 'h' for human on all our i.d. papers, including passports"

    - what a lovely idea! Nationality: humanity. Gender: human.

    Reminds me of the biblical saying about "There are neither Jews nor Greeks, slaves nor free people, males nor females. You are all the same in Christ Jesus"...

    Here's a conundrum though. What should prisons do with transexuals who are convicted. (I work in the prison service and I know they have been wondering about it). If someone is pre-op, or pre-op but well on with the hormone treatment, or post-op, should they go to a male prison or a female one?

  19. They did something similar with one of those tacky shows in the states that have a competition to see who can win the heart of Mr or Miss X. In this case it was Miss X who had previously been Mr X. All for ratings no doubt

  20. Anne - Indeed, human would be quite enough for me. I certainly find it hard to identify with any particular nationality.

    I imagine transsexuals would want to be in a prison appropriate to their desired sex rather than their existing one.

    Quicky - What's interesting is that when men who fall in love with a transsexual woman are asked how they see her, they say "Well, to me she's just the person I love. So what if she was born a man?" Very straightforward.

  21. Hi Nick,

    I think that most of the confusion surrounding Transsexuals is that most people get their info about them from the media. The media, as you may agree, is not known for thoughtful examination of issues. Rather the media tends to take the most outrageous examples and showcase them. The media does this with so-called minorities for example. So when a person’s only exposure to a particular minority group is through the media, their level of understanding is usually very poor.

    In regards to Transsexuals I think the media distortion is that Transsexuals are not normal. It seems to me that Transsexuals are looking for normalcy. They simply want their inner selves to match their outer selves; very simple.

    Also there is always confusion when sexuality is thrown into the mix. Transsexualism really has nothing to do with sex although most people make that association.

    In my work I have some clients who are Transsexuals. After getting to know a few Transsexual people what I've concluded is that there is no way to view these people as a group. They are individuals with individual stories.

    So for someone to say they do or don't understand Transsexuals is like someone saying they do or don't understand Black people. It's not possible to understand Black people but it is possible to understand an individual Black person.

    My point is; a Transsexual wanting to be treated as they appear is no different than any of us wanting to be judged as individuals; if you view Transsexuals as a group then it's hard to understand them but if viewed as individual people than it becomes much easier.

    Did I ramble? Lol

  22. MDC - Very interesting perspective from your personal experience of transsexuals. That makes perfect sense to me that they are looking for normalcy and for their inner and outer selves to match. Also that they are all individuals rather than a generalised stereotype.

    And you're so right that the media focus on sensational examples rather than a careful look at the subject. They're always obsessed with 'the operation' as if that's the point of it all.

  23. Well, intrinsically you are NOT going to have the full benefits. For example, you may look as female as the model in question, but you will never bear a child.

    Of course there was the recent case of a woman who "became" a man but got pregnant and gave birth, having retained the relevant bits of her female reproductive system, which seems a bit like having your cake and eating it, too.

    I meant that if you present a convincing image of yourself as female, you should be accepted socially as one. And yet, it seems as if maybe there should be a third category for such people which has not yet been created by society, a third sex.

    I'm afraid this is too much like trying to understand a culture without any Rosetta Stones at all. I understand that some people feel wrong-gendered and I sympathize, but cannot really relate to it. Perhaps that's the problem - few can, and they aren't making the rules.

  24. Heart - Indeed, however female you may appear, you can never get pregnant (although neither can many natural women of course). Sure, if you're a convincing female, you should be accepted as one socially, but it's hard to be 100% convincing when you're not a born-and-bred woman.

    Somehow I don't think transsexuals would want to be seen as a third sex either, they just want to be their desired sex, whichever that is. Just looked up Rosetta Stone: "a language learning software". Yes, perhaps we all need to learn Transsexual to have a mature take on it all.