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One, or rather two, of the significant experiences of my life, have been two intimate friendships, in different times and places, with two male-to-female transsexuals. I don't actually want to talk about them; I featured one of them in my fic Second Chance, and I have reasons not to describe the other at all. Let me just say a couple of things. First, when I speak of an intimate friendship, I do not exaggerate. Both these persons told me everything, and I have a fairly clear understanding of their minds and experiences. Second, they were very unlike in many ways, so that having met the two of them counts as having acquaintance of a fairly broad spectrum of male-to-female TS/TG experience.

One question that has since occurred to me is the historical status of this particular sexual identity. Homosexuality of both genders is known to every culture; and bisexuality, though it has only felt the need to define itself as an identity in our time, is at least a recognizable phenomenon down the ages. On the other hand, while individual cases are on record in many times and places, I think it would be very difficult to compile a dossier of recognized categories and groupings in history that would add up to anything recognizable as the modern category of transsexuality and transgendering. Certainly eunuchism and castrato status do not count, both because the condition was not in general willingly embraced by the victim, and because eunuchs and castrati were recognized and treated as males. The issue was disability, not gender identity. So far as I can see, the fourth term of the hallowed quaternion GLBT is the only one that seems to represent something genuinely new.

Of course, the fact that a category has only been recently recognized does not mean that it did not exist before. There are a few possible reasons why it may have not been recognized as a standard category of sexual deviation. It might be that, before modern times, there were too few in earlier societies to form a coherent and recognized group. People often don't recognize the significance to modern socity of the sheer weight of numbers: people often speak as though an England of three million inhabitants (Queen Elizabeth's time) posed no different administrative, social and political problems than one of forty-seven million (today's). That is the main flaw of nostalgia as a program. Specifically, the formation of groups of recognized sexual difference - sexual difference not as an occasional feature, but as a regular social phenomenon - does not tend to take place until the rise of large cities. Therefore, if we suppose that TS/TG people are even fewer than homosexuals as compared to total population, it may be that it took them even longer to realize that they existed - as a group - at all.

Another possibility is that the whole group might exist as a result of an advance in surgery - the invention of gender reassignment therapy, which, unless I'm mistaken, took place in the fifties. A cynical hypothesis might suggest that this was, like the near-contemporary discovery of laser, "a solution without a problem", but that its existence taught people who were, in whatever way, unhappy with themselves, to look for a way out by "changing sex".

Another possibility is grimmer. My experience of TS is that they are constantly close to suicide. I had to fight to keep both my friends going; the possibility of self-destruction was always in their minds, seductive as a siren. And if you think about it, it makes sense. To reject one's own physical body is pretty close to rejecting one's own physical existence. At any rate, one thing is certain: to be unhappy with one's gender is something that poisons your whole life - every second. It is a condition of regular and terrible unhappiness; it produced the most painful lives I ever met. Now, if TS as a group were not heard of until the invention of sex-change surgery, it may be that any person who, before that date, suffered from unhappiness with their gender, might simply commit suicide, and add to the number of unexplained tragedies that are a constant feature of any society. Not everyone would have any idea why a member of their family cut his/her throat or jumped into the river, and if they did, they would want to keep it quiet, for it would be the same, in the eyes of contemporary society, as to declare them insane. From this point of view, the invention of gender reassignment surgery "created" TS/TG as a group in a different sense: it gave them a reason to go on living.

Recently, however, I have become aware of a fourth possibility. Everyone who follows the news will by now be aware of the case of Bruce/Brenda/David Reimer. Baby Bruce Reimer was one of twins born to a young working-class couple in Canada. A few months after birth, a botched circumcision (an operation which is apparently almost universal in North America) left him without a penis. The devastated parents were taken to a supposed great authority in the field called John Money, and Dr.Money proposed a radical step: reassign the baby's gender and bring it up as a girl. As everyone knows by now, the results were catastrophic: Bruce, now Brenda, was unhappy his/her entire childhood, while Dr.Money heartlessly produced a string of publications falsely claiming the operation a success. Eventually his mendacity was exposed, but, in spite of successful gender reassignment therapy, Brenda, now David, was never happy, and recently committed suicide after the unexpected death of his twin.

This ghastly story has repercussions far beyond the tragedy of one man. The point was that Dr.Money, who was already a prestigious figure in his field when he started his experiment on Bruce/Brenda/David, was trying to validate a theory that he and many other people of his time believed passionately - that gender roles are purely social in origin. What the case of Bruce/Brenda was meant to prove - and, according to Dr.Money's publications, did prove - was that an early enough (and medically justified - let us not forget that the baby had effectively suffered a grave accident) intervention could allow sexual roles to be successfully altered. Dr.Money's papers were widely read, and large numbers of doctors believed them: and it led to what I am told is a regular practice in modern hospitals - to intervene on the sex of babies of doubtful sexuality, boys with overly small penises and girls with over-large clitorises, in the first few days after birth. According to what I read, this practice is widespread, regular, and, until recentently, unchallenged.

Hands up all those who knew that doctors regularly play God with the gender of new-born babies. I certainly did not.

Now there are features of Bruce/Brenda/David's story that resonate very strongly with my experience of my TS friends, especially the lovely creature I have cast as "Maria Pinto de Magalhaes" (not her real name, of course) in Second Chance(http://www.astronomytower.org/authors/fpbarbieri/SC.html), especially the way in which other children, long before puberty, recognized "Brenda" as something wholly different from themselves, and different in a specific, sexual manner. And if gender reassignment in early days is as common as I have heard, then a fourth, and awful, reason for the recent rise of TS/TG as a social group becomes possible: that it is an epidemic, and a medically induced epidemic at that.

Let us be clear about this. Hermaphrodites exist and have always existed. Every year, an extremely tiny number of babies are born with dubious, double, or no sex. What we are talking about, however, is both different and far broader in range. For even granting the existence of persons whose sexuality is naturally dubious, there is a choice open to every doctor: to leave things as they are, until and unless asked by the subject him/herself to alter them. What the practice of regular genital modification on new-born babies is about is not any properly medical problem: it is a belief, built largely on Dr.Money's papers (which were however, lest we forget, responding to a general consensus) that sexual identities are social constructs and that they can be manipulated, not just harmlessly, but to the positive advantage of the babies, in cases where physical sexuality is ambiguous or inadequate.

Considering the sheer horror of life as a TS/TG as I have seen at close quarters, well, if it turns out to be a medically inflicted error, all I can say is, God forgive us all. It would be interesting to make a study of known TS/TG and see if any correlation between their identity and early surgical intervention exists.

Better late than never

Date: 2004-10-26 07:23 pm (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
I agree with you about the frequency of suicidal ideation among the transgendered, though I will add that I have been less frequently depressed myself since figuring out what was the matter with me. As with many psychological phenomena, there are individual differences.

I'm only f/m though. There are fewer social taboos against masculine females than feminine males, so in many cases, especially those of us who aren't 'out' in our everyday lives, the difficulties are a lot less significant. Obviously, however, that is a very subjective statement. Over the years, I have heard far more unpleasant stories (murders, beatings, rapes) involving m/f transgendered persons.

Given how unpleasant the lives of the m/f transgendered can be made by society, their families, friends, and so forth, I have no doubt that suicide might sometimes seem preferable to some of them. Not to mention the anxiety caused by dissatisfaction with one's own body.

It would be interesting to make a study of known TS/TG and see if any correlation between their identity and early surgical intervention exists.

I have only known a few people who are transgendered, and none of them well enough to speak to that specific question. However, in my case, this isn't so. I'm relatively normal. But I am also sure that there are many cases where early surgical intervention could have precipitated some difficulty with gender identity. I would like to think that it's rare.

Sometimes I just wish our families and our society would just let us be who we are. I think that would solve a lot of our problems.

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