IntroductionSex and gender. What is meant by those words? Interchangeable, right? Okay, so what do you think they mean? Could they have more than one definition? And what would it mean to our concept of man, woman, male and female if they were rooted in a definition whose meaning may be open to interpretation? Preposterous, you say? Well, that’s what people said when someone suggested that the earth revolved around the sun, or that the earth was flat, or that man would never fly … you get the picture.
“But, but,” you sputteringly protest, “everybody knows what male and female are! Everybody knows what sex means!”
Yeah? And what if they are wrong abut that, too? What if this is one more case where humans are evolving beyond our old ideas? There is excitement in doing that, but there is fear as well. Sex/gender are so primal to the very core of our identities, to our seemingly innate need to belong to a group, these are ideas that most people will cling to for dear life. That is, unless some drastic change in their life forces them to. What this article is about is facing these old ideas in a new light, without fear or reservation. Maybe you won’t need a drastic change to do that.
I penned this article for TransSisters in mid-1994, and as I revisit it now, the column seems to read as though I am opposed to SRS. As with many articles I did for that publication I wrote partly from a devil’s advocate viewpoint, but mostly to expand the boundaries of popular thought and challenge the reader’s assumptions. I was never trying to piss off anybody on purpose.
I say for the record I am most definitely a transsexual, and I do believe in the right of responsible candidates to obtain surgery. I certainly have no personal regrets regarding my own transition. However the entire point of this article is aimed at questioning some of the entrenched thinking in the transgender community’s trenches: that all TSs must, by definition, want and seek to obtain full SRS; and that the non-op TS is not a legitimate TS. Also there is the opinion, seldom publicly spoken but privately held view that MTF pre-ops are still, by definition, men until they have been “tucked and rolled.”
I apologize in advance to the FTM community for not mentioning them by name in this article but the same principles still apply, perhaps even more so because their “bottom” surgery is still less than perfect. Finally, I have resisted all temptation to rewrite and edit, to reflect my vastly improved skills. The writing may be a little hamhanded, but it gets the point across. Remember, I’m just putting forth some radical ideas; you don’t need to take them home with you!
What Sex Are You?
by Christine Beatty
I wish to preface this article by saying that I am not trying to anger anybody on purpose, however I know that some people will get very irate about the concepts I raise in this essay. Many of us have a significant investment in our belief systems and questioning those beliefs is not something we will do without a lot of kicking and screaming. It is not my intention to dictate anybody's thoughts: I merely want to open a few minds to some possibilities. Unfortunately this sometimes requires a crowbar and maybe some plastique.
This is not an easy subject to write about. On the surface, to those who have never really considered these issues, gender is a cut and dried topic. You are what you were born and that's all there is to it. Then there's those of us who know it is possible to change one's sex and who theoretically believe in more than two genders, but who still become mired in the binary gender system when trying to figure out a label for themselves. And there's a few of us, myself included I might unmodestly add, who maintain that no matter what surgery we get or how many hormones we take, we can never be women like (and I know I'll catch hell for this) born-women.
In some ways we can never be women. We will always be different. Please note I did not say “we will always be men” which I believe an important distinction. Now that your pulse is racing and I have your attention (assuming you're not already composing your rebuttal letter before you even finish this article) I would like to explain that.
Firstly, I wish we could all read Gender: An Ethnomethodological Approach by Kessler and McKenna (University of Chicago Press, 1978). This book is the finest treatise on gender I have ever read because it approaches the subject with a minimum of assumptions and with no axes to grind. It is not overwhelmingly negative to transsexualism like Raymond's The Transsexual Empire nor does it go to the other extreme of Kim Stuart's The Uninvited Dilemma. Even In Search of Eve by Anne Bolin is tainted by the author's subjective positive bias toward transsexuals. Don't get me wrong. I'm overjoyed when people like us, but I believe it undermines their credibility when they are professionals who write about us with obvious favoritism. And that's how even Bolin comes across to me. Worst of all, most of these books fall into the ancient patriarchal binary gender trap: only two genders exist.
Not so with Kessler and McKenna's book. It is a supremely detailed discussion of the subject that makes no presumptions on its own. It methodically examines many facets of gender including the various methods of categorizing gender, cross-cultural perspectives on gender, and social gender constructs. Kate Bornstein suggested this book to me, and I wholeheartedly endorse it to you. It's great stuff, a real eye-opener that will hopefully also open your mind.
An open mind is of crucial importance when discussing gender. We don't want to fall into the same traps as do those who steadfastly maintain that MTFs are men and will always be men. Closemindedness is never a virtue, so let's not practice it, okay? In that spirit, I'd ask you to set aside your preconceived notions, take a few deep breaths, maybe pop a few Thorazines if that's what it takes to read on.
I think the evolution of my gender identity consciousness might help explain the point of reference from which I write this article. I have no memory of “wanting to be a girl” at age five or so. Many transsexuals claim such memories, although I wonder just how many of us have selectively interpreted our childhood recollections because “true” transsexuals are supposed to have such memories. Such memories “legitimize” us.
Anyway, I didn't have any consciousness desire to be female; all I knew was that I didn't fit in. This persisted through my teenage years. The only indicators I had of a buried gender issue was a propensity to run from fights, a dislike of most sports, a hatred of showering in front of the “other” boys after Physical Education and a love of my own long hair. Not exactly compelling evidence, but it was all I had when trying to validate myself as a “true” transsexual. As a teenager, I thought I was different. I had no idea of what a transsexual was.
Then, at nineteen, I started cross-dressing fetishistically with tremendous guilt attached. Got married at twenty-six to “cure" that. Started reading about gender issues when I found that the only thing marriage did was to put a greater selection of female clothing at my disposal. Upon reading about gender issues and noting the number of parallels between myself and the transsexuals in the books, I began to wonder if I wasn't a “woman trapped in a man's body.” Within a year I left my wife and moved to the Tenderloin of San Francisco. I started hormones and electrolysis, and became “Crystal” twenty-four hours a day. Got involved in heavy drugs and prostitution. Went back to trying to be a man for two years and was miserable. Got clean and sober and back on hormones at age thirty. Have been living as a woman ever since. Real talk show stuff, huh?
The point is that I went from having a self-concept as a male, then a woman, then a man, and finally back to a woman. On this last leg of the journey, I was something I had never been: totally drug and alcohol free. I was now able to think clearly about my gender issues and all of their implications. I started reading voraciously on the topic. And I began to question some of my rock-solid beliefs about gender. Then I saw Kate Bornstein's Hidden: A Gender and befriended this highly talented member of our community who helped me put the last piece of the puzzle into place: I wanted to identify as a “real” woman so strongly because belonging is so important to me as it is to most people.
It took a few years after that to become comfortable with the idea of being neither male nor female AND both male and female. I'd read some great stuff about spiritual androgyny but I only viewed it theoretically until then. Really. it's only been a year since I have fully realized the benefit of being a “third” gender: neither and both. Being clocked as a transsexual is no longer a traumatic event, largely due to my new self-identification. I no longer feel like a freak when other people notice that I'm a transsexual. And I can do as I truly feel like, rather than checking my behavior against a stereotyped gender checklist. I'm talking freedom here, folks!
Okay, that's great. You're free. So what sex are you?
First of all, let's establish a frame of reference on terminology. Many people use “sex” and “gender” interchangeably, including some authors who write on transgender topics. However most writers use “gender” to refer to “psychological” and “social” sex, and they say “sex” when referring to biological characteristics.
Sure, fine. Now let's back up a little — oh, say thirty years. When Harry Benjamin wrote The Transsexual Phenomenon in 1963, he set down principles that are still applicable today. In Benjamin's heyday “gender” wasn't the trendy P.C. term it is today; he used “psychological sex” to denote one's self-identification and “social sex” to classify how others attributed somebody's sex. So to simplify this conversation, I will just use “sex” in all of its manifestations to denote “gender.”
Fair enough. So now we have one problem: how do we know what someone's sex is? And guess what, boys and girls... It's a very complex question. After all, [according to Benjamin] sex can be classified by chromosomes, genitalia, hormones, psychology, social attribution, legal status and history. So which one (or which ones) is the RIGHT one? What truly defines one's sex? I told you it was a complex question.
A post-op transsexual whose opinion I respect once said that she recognized a multitude of genders, but only two sexes (three, counting hermaphroditism). I wish I'd asked her how she classified them, because that is the crux of the matter.
Well, I know I'm just guessing here, but I'd probably be in the ballpark if I said she would have classified the sexes by genitalia. And I wouldn't be too far off base if I observed that the vast majority of the transgender community also classifies sex the same way. After all, why else is “the surgery” so important to us? Of course, taking that point of view automatically labels all pre-operative MTF transsexuals as men until they obtain SRS. (Shudder.)
Could it be that the gender community is caught in the same binary gender tap as the rest of patriarchal society? (Massive shudder.) Is it possible that most post-op transsexuals consider themselves more female than their pre-op sisters? (Gasp!) Is there an easy answer to this philosophical quandary?
Wait. It gets worse.
Kate Bornstein, who is post-operative, once told me over dinner at Chevy's: “I still have a penis. It's just turned inside out.” I think I had a mouth full of chips and salsa at the time, and only the spirit of Emily Post kept me from spewing the well-masticated wad all over the table. What a radical thought! What a gutsy thing to say! Talk about brutal honesty! And what a depressing thought for any post-op who steadfastly believes she now has a real vagina; what she has now is the appearance of a birth-given vagina
Of course, now this gets back to my infamous “Rolex” analogy. If you have a watch and it looks like a Rolex and everyone believes it is one — even though it wasn't manufactured by Rolex - well, isn't that the same as having the real thing?
Yes and no.
It is tempting to wax metaphysical/philosophical and quote Werner Erhard who said several things that apply in this case, but instead let’s cut to the chase and get it out on the table. A vagina formed in utero by the action of hormones is not the same as a vagina fashioned out of a penis that has been cored, sutured, and turned inside out like a glove. (The same holds true for vaginal canals formed from bowel sections.) So if we're going to classify sex by genitalia, let's keep that fact in mind.
Am I suggesting that transsexuals should not get genital surgery? Absolutely not! I believe that people should do whatever makes them comfortable with themselves as long as nobody gets hurt. There is nothing wrong with wanting, as Margaret O'Hartigan said, “to experience genital sexual pleasure without a prick getting in the way.”
What I am suggesting is that there is a lot of elitism in our community regarding SRS, and there is an unspoken pressure to want surgery and to obtain it. People should make decisions based on their own needs and not based on peer expectations. This is especially true of weighty, irrevocable decisions such as having your genitals altered. I firmly maintain that underlying the elitism and expectations regarding SRS are the beliefs that only two genders exist and that gender is determined by genitalia And if you insist on maintaining that sex is different from gender,please tell me how you classify them, and more importantly, tell me which box (M or F) I should check the next time I fill out a government form.