A queer exploration of all things gender

Posts tagged ‘Transgender’

What is the Relevance of one’s Legal Gender?

Hey all – sorry for the large hiatus. Due to personal family reasons there isn’t likely to be much activity for the immediate future, but I will be back to writing regularly eventually. In particular there are lots of new book reviews lined up.

 

Whilst I haven’t written anything *new* per se, for those who have an interest in gender through an academic lens, I am posting one of my essays from my Master’s Degree in Multi-Disciplinary Gender Studies. Sorry about the lack of pictures, I don’t think the examining panel would’ve approved. This was written in May 2011.

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What is the relevance of one’s legal gender?

When asking about the relevance of one’s legal gender, one must address various questions that immediately lead from this. Some of these questions are legal in nature and others examine the social context within which the laws are made and executed. The most obvious place to start when asking about the relevance of one’s legal gender is to ask how does the law define one’s gender, and how does it distinguish this (if indeed it does at all) from one’s ‘sex’? One then needs to ask both how and when it is relevant for an individual to be placed in one legal category or another. How does the law deal with individuals whose categorisation is unobvious or contested for the purposes of making a decision for which the outcome varies based on the gender category of the individual in question? How are people who have changed legal category then treated by the law? And finally, is legal gender always relevant when scrutinised in legal proceedings, or indeed is legal gender ever ignored when it should not be? By addressing each of these questions in turn, not only are the factual ‘word of the law’ and the subjective way in which it is interpreted addressed, but the bigger picture of how legal, social and medical hegemony affect each other and come to shape what is accepted and therefore what is legislated is understood.

So how are sex and gender defined under the law? Under present UK law, the categories of ‘man’ and ‘woman’ are recognised, and are indicated on UK birth certificates under the heading of ‘sex’ as ‘boy’ or ‘girl’. This is used to define a person’s legal sex and gender. Whilst it is a legal requirement that births are registered within forty two days in England and Wales (Directgov, 2011) and that a child’s ‘sex’ is given, it is assumed rather than explicitly outlined that ‘boy’ and ‘girl’ are the acceptable possible responses. It is worth nothing that whilst it is common for the words ‘sex’ and ‘gender’ to be used interchangeably in any given context, it is also common particularly in scholarly parlance for ‘sex’ to be used to refer to a person’s categorisation based on biology (broadly understood to refer to a composite understanding based on genital, gonadal and chromosomal sex, which has been increasingly recognised as problematic when considering intersex individuals in particular) and ‘gender’ to refer to a person’s social categorisation, which may rest more on self-definition and social visibility, that which is presented for others to see.

An important legal precedent was established by the case Corbett vs. Corbett heard in 1970. In this case, the husband of the male-to-female (MTF) transsexual April Ashley petitioned for nullity upon the breakdown of their marriage on the basis that as April was legally male the marriage was void (Whittle, 1999). Whilst at the time it was held for the purposes of matrimonial law that hormone treatment and surgery did not result in a legal change of sex, which was then cited in many forthcoming legal cases, this changed with the advent of the Gender Recognition Act 2004.Interestingly, whilst the entirety of this act is written in terms of gender, the terms gender and sex are not formally defined as part of the Act. However, it is specified that “Where a full gender recognition certificate is issued to a person, the person’s gender becomes for all purposes the acquired gender (so that, if the acquired gender is the male gender, the person’s sex becomes that of a man and, if it is the female gender, the person’s sex becomes that of a woman)” (Gender Recognition Act 2004). One might think therefore that once an individual has received a gender recognition certificate, they would be legally indistinguishable from members of the same sex who were born as such. However there are exceptions to this which means that some individuals can problematically find themselves with a currently legal and previously legal gender that are both still legally relevant. Specific examples of where this may occur will be discussed later.

The law then, in its current form rests upon a binary understanding of sex and gender. There are a wide range of different scenarios where membership of a particular category results in different treatment under the law, thus demonstrating legal relevance. Before discussing these scenarios it is important to establish the difference between legal and social relevance. It is well established that the treatment of men and women is socially unequal, as can be evidenced from observing pay gaps that endure between men and women by occupational group (Browne, 2006). These inequalities exist as a result of how individuals are observed, socially categorised and treated by others rather than by a word present on their birth certificate which affects their treatment under particular legal circumstances. Individuals who are observed as ‘woman’ are treated differently to those who are observed as ‘man’, but may or may not be treated in the same way under the law. For instance a male-to-female transsexual who ‘passes’ is likely to have on average ‘a woman’s’ social experiences (the precise meaning of which could receive detailed treatment but is not the focus here), which must therefore be independent of their legal gender – if they remain technically, legally, a man.

Therefore, legal gender is not particularly relevant when considering many questions of women’s rights and women’s treatment under the law. This rather is the relevance of one’s social gender in legal contexts. An example of this would be the treatment of women as flight attendants during the late 1960s and 1970s. Female employees were restricted in ways that male employees were not, which could include not wearing glasses, being unmarried, physical attractiveness, and being under the age of thirty-two (Rhode, 1989). The age and marriage rules resulted in many women leaving their jobs each year, preventing a fair proportion of women from reaching senior positions, thus being unable to reach higher pay brackets and senior staff pension schemes. This discrimination is clearly based on female aesthetic rather than legal gender, and whilst clearly unacceptable under modern legal frameworks, if legally challenged would not need to consider legal gender in successfully arguing illegal sexism. Women are considerably more likely to be the victims of domestic violence, sexual assaults and rape (Walker, A., Kershaw, C., and Nicholas, S., 2006), but this is crime against individuals that is a product of their social rather than legal category as demonstrable by the successful socialisation within the desired gender by transsexuals (who successfully ‘pass’, and are not criminally targeted as a result of their trans status). If a female plaintiff makes a legal case of sexual harassment, it would not be usual practice to scrutinise her legal gender in order to ascertain whether the case was valid. It is chiefly where social and legal genders are not the same, or were once not the same (in the case of transsexual and transgendered people) and where sex does not readily fit into the binary (intersex people) that scrutiny of legal gender becomes most relevant.

There are still many important ways in which legal decisions vary based on a person’s legal gender, and a case with many relevant examples is that of Christine Goodwin v. The United Kingdom, at the European Court of Human Rights in 2002. Whilst this case occurred before the major change seen by the instigation of the Gender Recognition Act in 2004, the case still highlights the relevance of legal gender in several key ways than can be related to current law and to social theory.

In this case, Ms. Goodwin was successful in claiming breaches occurred of articles 8 and 12 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which are respectively the rights to respect for one’s private and family life, home and correspondence, and the right to marry and found a family. There were three key claims that were the basis of her case. Firstly,that the UK Government had not taken any steps to address the suffering experienced by post-operative transsexuals despite international court warnings to keep this under review. Secondly, rapid changes in regards to the social attitude towards transsexuals were taking place worldwide, and thirdly that discriminatory legislature regarding pension age and access to her NI number by her employee lead to significant distress and difficulty (Council of Europe, 2002). The European court’s response shows agreement that aspects of UK legislature were unsatisfactory by this time at dealing with social reality relative to trans people’s legal gender. By making the points that: “The stress and alienation arising from a discordance between the position in society assumed by a post-operative transsexual and the status imposed by law which refused to recognise the change of gender cannot, in the Court’s view, be regarded as a minor inconvenience arising from a formality”, “The Court is struck by the fact that nonetheless the gender re-assignment which is lawfully provided is not met with full recognition in the law” and “it appears illogical to refuse to recognise the legal implications of the result to which the treatment leads” (Council of Europe, 2002), demonstrates the necessity for legal gender to be harmonious with an individual’s (chosen and observed) social gender in all ways in order to avoid obvious inconsistencies leading to unequal treatment. Legal gender then, is highly relevant in the sense that there are many medical and professional contexts where one can be demanded to provide one’s legal gender. How necessary this is may be controversial, but due to being the reality which may impact heavily on an individual’s right to privacy, the relevance is undisputable. Yet, the requirements and responsibilities of individuals remain poorly defined. This point is well made by Whittle when he says: “If the trans man were born outside of Britain then his identity in each of these areas of the law would be dependent upon the nation state he was born in. yet the trans man would be classified on his driving licence (through the codification system) as a man. But what if the trans man is required to give his ‘sex’ to the court as he is facing a driving disqualification? Presumably the purpose of that disclosure is to ensure that the driving licence records of the correct person are marked up. Should he say he is a man or male, or should he say he is a woman or female? What is the requirement of the law, which would ensure that the correct person has his or her driving records amended? It is no defence to a criminal act to argue that you had no knowledge of the law or that you did not understand it” (Whittle, 1999). This also raises the question of how ‘relevant’ does legal gender have to be in order to justify a requirement for disclosure? There is no simple answer to this, but one could potentially argue that in the case of a driving offence, simpler alternative ‘non-gendered’ alternative records of identification could be used.

The Court also considered the potential significance of medical and scientific perspectives in the legal recognition of transsexuals. Whilst it was concluded that medical science did not offer any determining argument (Council of Europe, 2002) it highlights the fact that the law uses the medical and scientific perspective, and may offer this perspective a position of privilege in making judgements that then impact upon the social world. Certainly this method was used by Judge Ormrod in the creation of his sex determination text used in the Corbett vs. Corbett case, consisting of a consideration of the chromosomal, gonadal and genital features of an individual at birth (Whittle, 1999). This reflects the Foucaultian point made in The History of Sexuality that society regards minority issues of sexual orientation and identity through a medical lens (literally and figuratively), and that ‘knowledge’ of what ‘legal gender’ in this case is not set in terms of law and repression, but of power. The law does not look to sociologists for potential ‘truths’ to aid decisions which find legal gender to be relevant, but it is increasingly recognised that whilst hard science can present molecular fact about bodies, the social processing of such does not give a rational reason to infer decisive significance to that information. It can be argued therefore, that the Court in this case supported Ms. Goodwin’s claims of breaches of articles 8 and 12 due to her social experience as a trans-woman, and the behaviour of others as a result of this social experience resulting in the breaching of these articles, in spite of her legal gender at the time.

The difficulty that medical science can encounter when attempting to establish what an individual’s ‘real’ sex is for the purposes of treatment, law, and ultimately identity can be readily problematized. This is seen most clearly in the story of Agnes, whose treatment and narrative was published by Stoller and Garfinkel in the 1960s. Upon physical medical examination Agnes was seen to have female secondary sexual characteristics (hair pattern, breasts, fat distribution) but with male external genitalia, which resulted in her being identified as ‘male’ on her birth certificate, and treated and raised as male until late adolescence. She was found to have no uterus or ovaries, some atrophy of the testes, and moderately high female hormone activity.Agnes was also observed to present as a “120 per cent female” in terms of behaviour and identity, with a history suggesting not only typical but stereotypical female behaviours and attitudes such as passivity, coyness, avoidance of rough games, etc. (Garfinkel, 1967). It was concluded that Agnes was suffering from an unusual case of an already very rare condition, ‘testicular feminization syndrome’, whereby the testes produce oestrogen and ‘feminize’ the genetically male foetus – however in this case the possession of Agnes of a normal sized penis and testes remained present and relatively unexplained.

The fact that Agnes presented as she did convinced the medical establishment to allow and perform surgery in 1959 where: “the penis and scrotum were skinned, the penis and testes amputated, and the skin of the amputated penis used for a vagina where the labia was constructed from the skin of the scrotum”. This was incredibly unusual for the time given both social and legal contexts, and rested heavily upon Agnes’ ‘gendered performance’. It is interesting that in scrutinising whether Agnes was to be considered a ‘real’ woman and deserving of surgery, it was explicit that she must’ve experienced no sense of homosexual desire – that is, attraction to women, despite the irony that based on her legal gender, attraction to men would be homosexual, of course illegal at this time. It was still true once homosexuality was legalised that the medical establishment looked for “a distain or repugnance for homosexual behaviour” in trying to identify the ‘true transsexual’ (Billings and Urban, 1996). This attitude would be characterised by Butler as “the heterosexualisation of desire” (Butler, 1990). Individuals can be considered to be trapped by the social sex and sexuality chosen for, and required of them.It was also a matter of concern that it was unable to be ascertained that her penis was not used with erotic purpose (Garfinkel, 1967), as this would be seen as evidence with identifying with a ‘male’ sexuality. This is evidence that Agnes’ legal gender was not of huge relevance to the doctors, which makes sense given that it would be implicitly understood that given her unique physiology, this would provide a shallow understanding of her sex/gender that would not usefully allow them to ascertain a deeper ‘truth’. As said by Whittle: “A quick glance at birth determines whether a child has a penis of appropriate length. If it has, it is designated as a boy/man, if not, it is designated a girl/woman. Here in the UK, that cursory glance and the decision made as a consequence is transcribed onto the record of birth, and will remain with the child for ever more. The sighting at birth will be the ‘citing’ for the remainder of life” (Whittle 2002). It may be considered somewhat worrying that being labelled with a legal identity that may have very real and complex consequences for a significant minority can be routinely made in such a fleeting and inexpert manner. That said, this is assuming that the categories available are even satisfactory in the first place!

The most crucial element to Agnes’ narrative is that she was able to receive legitimisation of her gender identity and be granted privileged access to the treatment required to ‘match’ the category of female as she so wished – by the fact that she lied. Agnes later revealed to her doctors that she had been taking oestrogens since the age of 12 (Garfinkel, 1967). By withholding this information, Agnes was capable of manipulating the medical establishment into providing her with social legitimisation. Given social context, people ‘suffering’ from intersex conditions were treated (both with pity, and medically), whilst ‘transsexuals’ and ‘transvestites’, whilst also pathologised, were degraded, blamed, and considered perverse. Social legitimisation, gained through passing in the desired category (of man or woman, strictly) was the chief goal, and has been the holy grail for trans people for longer than the term trans has even existed. This was far more relevant to Agnes’ experiences than her legal gender, as highlighted by the report of the attitude of Agnes’ family regarding her performance of her gender as female before and after medical legitimisation: “The aunt, said Agnes, reflected the attitude of other family members. This attitude, said Agnes, was one of gender acceptance prior to the trip to Midwest city [when she had lived as a boy], consternation and severe disapproval after the return [she ran away to attempt to live as a girl], and relieved acceptance and treatment of her as a “real woman after all” (Agnes’ quotation of the aunt’s remark) following the operation” (Garfinkel, 1967).

It can be said then, that Agnes was (really) a transsexual who was able to be successfully accepted as having indeed ‘always’ been a girl as she so claimed, rather than a boy who ‘became’ a girl. To have the sex/gender of desire accepted as the individual’s only reality is a common desire of many trans people. It has been pointed out that for many trans people, ‘success’ in one’s gender is to become entirely removed from the ‘trans identity’ – one is not a man who feels they are a woman, one is not a trans woman, one is a woman (or vice versa)! The limitation of legal gender as strictly relevant (it wasn’t for Agnes, as despite her success it was legally impossible at the time for the sex on her birth certificate to be altered)is challenged by Roz Kaveny who asks: “how does changing our birth certificates and passing and disappearing into the wider community free us from discrimination and oppression? Some bigots, some of the time, will spot us, or think they spot us, and be able to discriminate against us, or anyone else they think is one of us, with impunity, arguing in self-defence that they were doing no such thing. If there is no document that states who we are, our right not to be discriminated against as TS disappears. The possibility, or even probability, that someone passes most of the time is no defence for them on the rare occasions when they do not. You are only as safe as your roughest day” (Kaveny, 1999).

How relevant then is possession of a legal gender that does not accurately reflect one’s gendered life experience, especially when this problem is equally true for those who may indeed embrace their trans identity as more than transitional, and those who feel their intersexuality is not something that can be ‘vanished’ by ‘correction’ to one of the two available legal categories. This is concordant with the conclusions from the Goodwin case, in that it can be argued that to truly live without fear of judgement one needs a concurrency between legal and socially identified gender which can at best only be partially achieved within current legal categorisation.In her social discourse, Butler points out that “The binary regulation of sexuality suppresses the subversive multiplicity of a sexuality that disrupts heterosexual, reproductive, and medicojuridical hegemonies” (Butler, 1990). Indeed, as it is increasingly recognised that to be transgender and have one’s legal gender recognised as independent from one’s ‘birth biology’, the monopoly held by medical practitioners on what gender variance means is lessened. It is now no longer the case (in theory) that one under UK law must receive surgery to have one’s legal gender change recognised. However in practice a review board will take this into account when considering whether to approve an application for a gender recognition certificate particularly in the case of trans women (the surgery that may be undertaken by trans men is recognised as more complex with greater risk).The trans advocate group ‘Press for Change’ states that in regards to having reassignment surgery: “unless for reasons of health, it is not a good idea to simply say you do not want it. Better to state that you intend to have it in the future when the surgical waiting list has spaces” (Press for Change, 2011)

What is the relevance of one’s legal gender when possessing an intersex condition? Unless an individual can be placed into one legal gender category or another, one may encounter difficulties in receiving the rights of both or either categories. Within western culture, there has been a prevailing view that being ambiguous in sex is a dramatic problem, as highlighted by this quotation from a textbook on intersexual disorders published in 1969: “One can only attempt to imagine the anguish of the parents. That a newborn should have a deformity…[affecting] so fundamental an issue as the very sex of the child…it is a tragic event which immediately conjures up visions of a hopeless psychological misfit doomed to live always as a sexual freak in loneliness and frustration” (quoted in Fausto-Sterling, 2000). Given the incredibly dramatic language, it is somewhat surprising that this account does not directly justify its purple prose by mentioning that intersex disorders may be associated with some serious medical dysfunction. This is not always the case by any means, and it is worth saying that the term ‘intersex’ is used to refer to a wide range of conditions, many of which may remain undetected for an entire lifespan.

The American Academy of Pediatrics is quoted as having said “The reasoning behind this [early ‘corrective’] genital surgery is the need for a clear and unambiguous sex assignment to save intersex children from being ostracized and to enable parents to bond with their baby girl or boy” (quoted in Benatar, 2006). The assignment of intersex children to one legal gender category or another, and modifying surgery to better justify this regardless of whether or not there is a physiological need for this in terms of medical wellbeing is thus justified on social grounds, and reinforced by the legal requirement for a child’s sex to be declared.

The relevance of one’s legal gender can therefore be said to rest heavily on how social genders are viewed, because it is the view of society that is used to form legislature. Alison Shaw makes the point that “Sex and gender are not always either mutually exclusive or corresponding categories because ideas about the nature and significance of anatomical and physiological sex differences vary and can influence the rigidity or flexibility of gender categories and, conversely, the social significance of gender in any given context may in turn influence the ways in which biological differences are perceived” (Shaw, A., 2005). The fact that there is no straightforward biological test to show a ‘man’ or ‘woman’ that can’t be problematized through social discourse means that likewise a legal difference between ‘father’ and ‘mother’ is also problematic.

When it comes to parental status of trans people in the UK, there is no obvious or simple answer to the range of questions that may be asked. UK law maintains the categories of ‘mother’ and ‘father’ as distinct legal terms. Whilst both parents receive joint responsibility of a child that is born or adopted if the couple are married (or civilly partnered), should partners not have their relationship legally recognised parental responsibility is always given entirely to the ‘mother’. This presents the obvious problem of trans parents being registered as the ‘parent type’ that does not match their legal gender, and thus compromises their social treatment by the lack of the total recognition of their (new) legal gender as  their only legal gender. The argument that the mother is defined by ‘that parent which carries the child’ is rendered insufficient by the existence of both adoption and surrogacy. Parenthood is a scenario whereby legal gender is afforded more attention than can be justified – parental aptitude is not strictly sex/gender dependent nor would any court following equality frameworks claim such in the modern day. The legal categories of mother and father are arguably linguistic artefacts stemming from the social and psychological need of most individuals to categorise people by the binary gender system upon sight, or upon receiving information concerning a given individual.

Another example of where current legal gender and past legal gender may both be brought into question is in the context of military service. Whether a trans man would be called up on the basis of a new legal gender or a trans woman could be called on the basis of an old or unchanged one would depend upon the legal systems (and of course, social attitudes) of the country in question, but the most obvious problematisation would again be in a visible context. How would a barracks deal with an individual who appears and is judged to be female in every visible capacity, only contested actively by documentation? There is an interaction between the social and the legal in that, as we have seen, social categories lead to legislation, but the legislation leads to problematisation of the social, and vice versa. There will always be some level of problem with legislation on categories of sex and gender, due to the necessary black-and-white nature of the law. As Judith Butler puts it: “the notion that there might be a “truth” of sex, as Foucault ironically terms it, is produced precisely through the regulatory practices that generate coherent identities through the matrix of coherent gender norms…the cultural matrix through which gender identity has become intelligible requires that certain kinds of “identities” cannot “exist” – that is, those in which gender does not follow from sex and those in which the practices of desire do not “ follow” from either sex or gender” (Butler, 1990). Would the creation of further legal categories (trans, intersex, ‘other’, etc.) make legal gender more relevant to more individuals? Only in the sense that this logically goes hand in hand with social recognition. Legal recognition is quite separate from acceptance, as can be historically considered from the comments of Lord Arran at the third reading of the Sexual Offenses Bill in 1967 decriminalising homosexuality in the UK: “let me remind them that no amount of legislation will prevent homosexuals from being the subject of dislike and derision, or at best of pity. We shall always, I fear, resent the odd man out. That is their burden for all time” (Hansard, 1967). Whilst obviously discussing a different variation, Kaveny makes the related point that “It is less important to pass than to be accepted. If being transgendered is valued as a human variation, then many problems disappear. And it is more likely to be valued if we value it ourselves – being out and proud and prepared to defend ourselves is probably rather less risky than being in the closet, ashamed of our pasts and relying on a piece of paper” (Kaveny 1999). Legislation is an extension of social acceptance, affording people the rights afforded to others regardless of gender identity based on a liberal and rational society. This does not compromise the special protection and needs that individuals may require (for example, maternity leave for birth mothers who experience physical stress that requires remit and recovery time), as this may be provided in a manner that does not dictate and limit in a manner that restricts based on category but provides based on need.

To conclude then, what is the relevance of one’s legal gender? It is nothing if not dependent on a web of factors including location, personal identity, circumstances, and perhaps most importantly social context. Individuals are not ‘invisibled’ through lack of adequate legal category when there is no-one contesting those individuals legitimacy – often not merely to rights, but to existence, or at least visibility. An entirely positivist approach to answering questions of gender conclusively have been considered flawed as it has been “shown to be driven by the value-laden but unexamined presumptions of scientists themselves in numerous fields, especially medicine and human biology” (Carver 2007). As this medical justification was used for body policing in a thoroughly Foucaultian power-play, legal concession resulted in order for those outside of the gender hegemony to be silenced by inclusion in ‘normality’ and normativity. This ironically allowed a defence of gendered variance from within the normative system, which moves with social progression as further legal rights are demanded worldwide to solve questions of gender injustice. Legal gender will be relevant for as long as there are questions where legal (and therefore social) outcomes are contested by individuals based on personal rights and freedoms. It must be understood however that the impact of legal gender as a defence from social repression is limited, and does not have the impact on day to day existence as the willingness of the general public to accept difference.

 

References:

Benatar, D., 2006, ‘Cutting to the Core: Exploring the Issues of Contested Surgeries’, p. 80

Billings, D. B. and Urban, T., 1996, ‘The socio-medical construction of transsexualism – an interpretation and critique’, in Ekins, R. and King, D., ‘Blending Genders – social aspects of cross-dressing and sex-changing’, p. 105

Browne, J. 2006, ‘Sex segregation and inequality in the modern labour market’, p. 11

Butler, J., 1990, ‘Gender Trouble’, p. 17

Butler, J., 1990, ‘Gender Trouble’, p. 19

Butler, J., 1990, ‘Gender Trouble’, p. 17

Carver, T., ‘‘Trans’ trouble – trans-sexuality and the end of gender’ in Browne, J., ‘The future of gender’, p. 129

Council of Europe, 2002, ‘Case of Christine Goodwin v. The United Kingdom’, p. 17-18

Council of Europe, 2002, ‘Case of Christine Goodwin v. The United Kingdom’, p. 22-23

Council of Europe, 2002, ‘Case of Christine Goodwin v. The United Kingdom’, p. 24

Directgov website, legal information on registering and naming one’s baby: http://www.direct.gov.uk/en/Governmentcitizensandrights/Registeringlifeevents/Birthandadoptionrecords/Registeringorchangingabirthrecord/DG_175608

Fausto-Sterling, A., 2000, ‘Sexing the Body: Gender Politics and the Construction of Sexuality’, p. 47

Garfinkel, H., 1967, ‘Passing and the managed achievement of sex status in an “intersexed” person part 1’ (in collaboration with Stoller), in Garfinkel, Studies in ethnomethodology, chapter 5, p. 3

Garfinkel, H., 1967, ‘Passing and the managed achievement of sex status in an “intersexed” person part 1’ (in collaboration with Stoller), in Garfinkel, Studies in ethnomethodology, chapter 5, p. 24

Garfinkel, H., 1967, ‘Passing and the managed achievement of sex status in an “intersexed” person part 1’ (in collaboration with Stoller), in Garfinkel, Studies in ethnomethodology, chapter 5, p. 36

Garfinkel, H., 1967, ‘Passing and the managed achievement of sex status in an “intersexed” person part 1’ (in collaboration with Stoller), in Garfinkel, Studies in ethnomethodology, chapter 5, p. 7

Gender Recognition Act, 2004, section 9, subsection 1. Accessed at: http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2004/7/crossheading/consequences-of-issue-of-gender-recognition-certificate-etc

Hansard, The parliamentary debates, House of Lords official report, volume 285, p. 523

Kaveny, R., 1999, ‘Talking Transgender Politics’, in More, K. and Whittle, S. ‘Reclaiming Genders: Transsexual Grammars at the Fin de Siècle’, p. 148-149

Ibid.

Press for Change website, accessed last on 2/5/11: http://transequality.co.uk/Legislation.aspx

Rhode, D., 1989, ‘Justice and Gender – Sex discrimination and the law’, p. 94

Shaw, A., 2005, ‘Changing Sex and Bending Gender: An Introduction’ in Shaw, A., and Ardener, S., ‘Changing Sex and Bending Gender’ – p. 3

Walker, A., Kershaw, C. and Nicholas, S. (2006) ‘Crime in England and Wales 2005-6’

Whittle, S., 1999, ‘The Becoming Man: The Law’s Ass Brays’ in More, K. and Whittle, S. ‘Reclaiming Genders: Transsexual Grammars at the Fin de Siècle’, p. 18

Whittle, S., 1999, ‘The Becoming Man: The Law’s Ass Brays’ in More, K. and Whittle, S. ‘Reclaiming Genders: Transsexual Grammars at the Fin de Siècle’, p. 19

Whittle, S., 2002, ‘Respect and Equality, Transsexual and Transgender Rights’, p. 5

Whittle, S., 1999, ‘The Becoming Man: The Law’s Ass Brays’ in More, K. and Whittle, S. ‘Reclaiming Genders: Transsexual Grammars at the Fin de Siècle’, p. 28-9

Book Review: Feminism is Queer – The Intimate Connection Between Queer and Feminist Theory by Mimi Marinucci

So the first thing I have to say about this book  is that I consider the title to be extremely misleading. I was – unsurprisingly – expecting a work that examined perhaps different areas of feminist thought and queer theory, and perhaps examined their tensions, agreements, and nuances. I think it’s generous to say that a quarter of the book does this. The final two chapters (7 and 8), ‘Feminism Explained and Explored’ and ‘Notes Toward a Queer Feminism’ offer a very accessible synopsis of a range of different definable branches of feminism (such as Liberal Feminism, Radical Feminism, Marxist Feminism, etc.) without assuming any existing knowledge of other gender scholars whilst introducing a few in a baby-steps capacity. Even bearing in mind these two chapters make up only 22 pages (excluding notes and references) I would still say I found simplifications and generalisations that very unsatisfactory. For example:

Although there is some disagreement about whether or not the second wave is over, those who believe a third wave [of feminism] has begun…

I find it alarming that someone could purport to write a book focussing around feminism, whilst giving the impression to readers who may be new to this area that the existence of Third-Wave Feminism is somehow tenuous or in its infancy. Whilst distinctions between Second and Third-Wave Feminism can be interesting and/or open to discussion, this implies a poor exploration of the literature given that discussion of a Fourth-Wave of Feminism certainly exists. Another textual example (also from chapter 7) that concerns me concerns a stunningly oversimplified definition.

…womanism, unlike liberal feminism, addresses intersectionality. Intersectionality refers to the simultaneous impact of race, gender, and class on the lives of Black women.

(emphasis original)

(*Edit*: It is important to note – as both I, and Marinucci failed to do – that Intersectionality as a theoretical position and tool has its origins in black feminism, and was originally particularly associated with the Combahee River Collective and the statement they produced. This scholarship, nucleated in the experiences of women of colour, has since been used to consider how multiple sites of oppression [such as gender and race originally but then also sexuality, disability, age, and innumerable additional categories] interact and produce unique discourse rather than simply being ‘additive’.)

Okay, so yes, this is an example of intersectionality – but the definition implies that only the interplay between the three categories of race, gender, and class are considered, and worse, that this might only be in relation to black women. It comes off to me like saying ‘LGBT activism is the activism of gay men who live in Chicago’. I may sound like I’m nitpicking, but in a book that makes obvious efforts to be accessible to readers who are not already entrenched in queer or feminist literature, an opportunity was lost here to produce communication on a key concept. Plus, the short definition given doesn’t manage to be properly accurate.

Sadly other confusing errors have also entered the text – most noticeable for me being a short discussion of the evolutionary history of lactose intolerance, in relation to how social processes can impact on physical bodies. For someone without any background in biology, they could be forgiven for not knowing that lactose is not “the enzyme that digests milk sugar”. Whilst perhaps a typo of ‘lactase’, this one letter change causes the entire paragraph to cease making any sense.  This is on page 70, for anyone who ever gets hold of a copy. With a background in philosophy, my sense was that Marinucci has some problematic understanding regarding scientific methodologies and epistemological objectives. Just in using turns of phrase like “contemporary science acknowledges two basic sex categories” (chapter 4) strongly implies some ridiculous notion of ‘science’ being some kind of hive-mind monolith, able to declare objective facts, with further ‘fluffy’ discussion being an outside realm.

My discussion so far has engaged only with the last two of eight chapters of this book for the most part. So what is the book about if not what the front cover indicates? This is covered in the preface, and caused my eyebrows to disappear into my fringe.

Introductory texts in gender studies, sometimes identified as women’s studies or feminist studies, address gender identity. Introductory texts in sexuality studies, sometimes identified as lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender studies (or LGBT studies) address sexual identity. Unfortunately however, introductory texts situated at the intersection of gender identity and sexual identity are rare. This book attempts to fill that gap, and could therefore serve as a text for any course of study, be it in a university setting or in the context of independent scholarship, directed towards the examination of virtually any aspect of gender, sex, and sexuality.

This made me ask three questions:

  1. How is the sweeping claim of the (I think erroneously) conglomerated gender/women’s/feminist studies being about ‘gender identity’ justified?
  2. How can introductory books considering gender identity and sexuality be considered rare?
  3. How is Marinucci defining and differentiating between ‘gender’ and ‘sex’?

Gender identity concerns one’s sense of oneself as male, female, non-binary, without gender, or any other minority gender identity. I would not say that gender/women’s/feminist studies ‘address’ this per se, as if to imply this is ‘the’ central area of investigation and discourse production in these fields. This closed statement by Marinucci left me uneasy, as the book begins with a factually-stated premise which I not only find over-simplifying but problematic. Secondly, a good range of gender studies readers exist – such as this one, this one, and this one – which contain essays covering a broad range of topics, as probably the most obvious thing about gender studies (other than it being about gender) is that it’s very multi-disciplinary. Marinucci’s book was published in 2010. Feminism is Queer doesn’t quite hark from the era completely lacking in intersectional resources.

Thirdly, well, at no point in reading the book did I feel this question was properly addressed. The book is divided into four sections – I. Sexuality, II. Sex, III. Gender, and IV. Queer Feminism. The way this played out was a first section that engages with some tired old figures to discuss the Kinsey Spectrum and discussion of philosophy and social construction in chapter 1. Chapter 2 talks about social history, and I thought actually does a pretty nice job of discussing the interplay of the work of Foucault on power relations and D’Emilio on how capitalism and wage labour allowed for the emergence of sexual identities*. A lot of emphasis was also put on the works of Mary McIntosh (who wrote an article called ‘The Homosexual Role‘ in 1968) and Alan Bray (who wrote ‘Homosexuality in Renaissance England‘ in 1982), which seemed like odd resources to focus on. In the third chapter ‘Queer Identities’, a little more Wikipediable LGB history is recounted, a rather modest nibble at the meaning of queer is attempted in the form of more history, how binary constructs are avoided, and the philosophy of underdetermination.

Two big alarms went off in my head when reading chapter 3. Firstly, Marinucci uses language like “biologically unproblematic women and biologically unproblematic men” when referring to cisgendered people. I find it very unfortunate that such painful cissexism is slipped into given that in the preface, she rightly holds her hand up regarding her possession of race and class privilege. Marinucci also demonstrates an awareness of ableist language, and also states:

I resist the use of binary language by avoiding the gender pronouns ‘he’, ‘she’, ‘him’, ‘his’, ‘her’, and I resist the use of universalizing language by avoiding the plural pronouns ‘we’ and ‘our’. I also resist oppositional language by avoiding such expressions as ‘arguably’ and ‘on the contrary’.

Sadly, this list makes me feel that whilst an effort has been made to avoid offending individuals, engagement with detailed scholarship of trans issues and language use are somewhat lacking. This feeling doesn’t come from this single example, but gnawed at me at various points throughout the book. Not least section II, which boils down to being on medical and social treatment of (binary) trans people. That Marinucci also claims in a note that:

Gender usually refers to constellations of characteristics commonly regarded as feminine and masculine, whilst sex usually refers to constellations of characteristics commonly regarded as female and male.

Left me with the sense that I was glad I wasn’t trying to make my first investigations into gender studies using this book, due to how ideas about biology, gender presentation, and identity are slooshed around together to give banality at best and downright erroneousness at worst.

I may sound like I am utterly damning every element of this book. I do not mean to entirely. Whilst each chapter was started with a fairly irrelevant Wizard of Oz quotation simply for containing the word ‘queer’ (the joke gets old after being used 8 times) and the appendix is literally passages copied verbatim from the main text, some of the metaphors used (particularly regarding philosophical concepts) were useful. Any even slightly technical language was defined in the main body of the text, which is certainly more useful for students than the assumptions made by many teachers. Being led by the hand a little too much is preferable to being shoved out alone in the dark, after all. But as this book made lofty claims regarding its importance and usefulness, I critique it in these terms. Not only would a book covering such a wide range of material be unable to do a solid job in only 100 pages, much of the text is relatively commonly discussed work or narratives that has been dealt with by a scholar who has left me unconvinced that she has a masterly grasp on the range of areas touched on.

Get this book out of a library and check out chapters 7 and 8. But perhaps spend your money on other works.

*Both of these scholars are big and important names, and it would be nice to talk in detail about both of them. I won’t enter discussion on them in this review for brevity’s sake, but at some point their work will be reviewed independently.

Book review: Gender Outlaws – The Next Generation by Kate Bornstein and S. Bear Bergman

Gender Outlaws: The Next Generation is a collection of essays submitted from a wide range of people with very different experiences of gender, and very different things to say.

This book is brilliantly original. Never before have I read a book that blurs the boundaries between academic discussion, activists talking about their causes, artists talking about their passions, and humans talking about their pain, love, and needs. This coupled with things like comics, recipes, and poetry mixed in, and the introduction formed entirely of an online conversation between Bornstein and Bergman themselves. The tone struck is witty, thoughtful, relaxed, and (certainly in my case) draws the reader in.

Obviously in a work with contributions from…*counts*…52 different authors, some styles and content will speak more to any individual than others. Despite this large heterogeneity, I found the ‘tone’ of the book remarkably cohesive. Not because what the different writers say is necessarily over-similar, but virtually all inspire a wonderful state of thoughtfulness.

Each submitted piece stands alone, and all are short (2-7 pages each). This makes it extremely easy to dip in and out of, but the organisation of the essays is such that one can read straight through and stay gripped. Even accounts that may be very abstract for some readers – for example, the negotiation of gendered experience whilst being in an all-women Roller Derby league – contain powerful insights into the treatment of other people, and I would suggest offer at least a wonderful set of alternate perspectives and empathy-inducing thought patterns.

Some of the writers speak to me more than others, and I mean this to mean how much I enjoy and respect what they’re saying and their style and clarity – rather than necessarily a direct resonance with personal experience. Indeed, many of the articles are so interesting because they can cause you to think about experiences you may never have considered – but this can then shape how you consider gender in your own life. I didn’t find terminology confusing despite much specific ‘gender language’ being used by lots of different people, but this could reflect my academic privilege. I imagine this is a book that will speak most loudly to people with either an active interest in gender or those who have experience of being a gender or sexuality minority – rather than as a present for grandma. Though I would love to be wrong about this. I would imagine that not that many straight and cis readers would pick this book up of their own accord, but that the world would be a better and cooler place if more did.

The wide range of topics covered does involve a range of areas that may be distressing for some readers. As one might expect, the submissions from writers often discuss some of the post poignant (and difficult) occurances in their own lives, which may be triggering for some readers – and unfortunately each chapter does not come with trigger warnings or particularly indicative titles. Eating disorders, gendered violence, experience of chronic illness, and racism are all themes that are touched on. Though despite this, the book didn’t leave me with a sense of heaviness. Many of the writers imbue their pieces with valuable humour.

A point that may cause some controversy and disagreement very early on in the book (which is a point raised by Bergman in the introduction) is their use of the word/slur ‘tranny’. I think they produce some valuable discourse around this important and sensitive topic, but at the same time you may not like it. If the following quote gets your brain fired up, then you will probably find the book stimulating.

S. Bear Bergman: I can see the argument for outlawing “it’s so gay” better. They’re trying to outlaw bullying, but “don’t be mean” isn’t – evidently – an enforceable school rule, so they list particular meannesses the young people are not permitted to engage in.

Kate Bornstein: But look at what happened a generation after people were damning the word queer. Now it’s something you can major in, in college.

SBB: The think I just thought is: people are who are super-protective to police the word tranny have no real confidence in the cultural power of transpeople. They police it because they fear that if not-trans-identified people get hold of it, their power will make it always and forever a bad word. And I, we, feel find about it because we have a lot of faith in the cultural power of transfolks – of trannies – to make and be change.

If this tickles your imagination, then bearing in mind some of the other essays are about:

  • The insights being trans gave one writer into corporate politics
  • A love affair with a non-binary bathroom
  • Christian anti-gay and anti-trans actions in Singapore and activism against this
  • The experience of being a Drag Queen having being Female Assigned at Birth
  • Queer sex as performance art

I would hazard you’ll be very stimulated indeed if you pick this book up.

GenderBen is now on Tumblr!

So I’ve finally started exploring the wonderful queer and gender-y nooks and crannies and communities present on Tumblr. I’m currently in the process of posting links on there to older blog works on here, but I’ve also found there’s so much good stuff (particularly images) that I want to share, i’ll be reposting lots of things on there that won’t actually be found here.

So if you want more gender fun, beauty and thought in your life, then follow:

http://genderben.tumblr.com/

Because this sort of thing is all kinds of awesome.

Book Review: Whipping Girl by Julia Serano

So at the top of the GenderBen homepage there has been a forlornly empty tab dedicated to book reviews. Today marks the day when this emptiness is no more! This tab will be where links to any book reviews I write can be easily looked up.

It’s probably not normal procedure to open a review with a huge endorsement, but I will be very (and delightfully) surprised if I read any book as thought provoking, clear, useful, and important as this one for quite some time. With the subtitle ‘A Transexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity’, Serano utilises structural and stylistic devices in her book that make it a real breath of fresh air compared to many stodgy collections of gender essays and other works useful to scholars of gender.

An incredibly important element of the book which I thought was handled more masterfully than any other gender book I’ve seen was the clarity with which technical terms are used. Also the recognition of the different ways such can be used or understood by different people helps support not only her own robust arguments but also shine a revealing light on the assumptions, misconceptions and prejudices of others.

For example, very early in the book a distinction is made between transphobia, defined by Serano as “an irrational fear of, aversion to, or discrimination against people whose gendered identities, appearances, or behaviors deviate from societal norms.”  and cissexism, defined as “the belief that transsexuals’ identified genders are inferior to, or less authentic than, those of cissexuals.” This allows for an analysis that recognises differences in experience based on whether individuals identify as or experience being transsexual as opposed to transgender.

Whilst these are terms that are often used interchangeably (as are cissexism and transphobia), Serano uses the word ‘transsexual’ to refer to individuals who specifically were assigned a given gender at birth, and wish to transition from this (most often referring to MtF and FtM transitions, though appreciation of non-binary identities is also given). Transgender is used as a more general term to allow discussion of issues in a broader sense that may impact upon individuals who may identify as a cross-dresser, as butch, effeminate, queer, or any number of other non-conforming gender identities. The point is made though that “The focus on “transgender” as a one-size-fits-all category for those who “transgress binary gender norms” has inadvertently erased the struggles faced by those of us who lie at the intersection of multiple forms of gender-based prejudice.” Lack of commonality between individuals who may be described by the same terms receives the important attention it deserves. Serano manages to carefully define a large number of gender terms to allow for construction of excellent arguments and observations based on this without simplifying or invisibilising individual experiences as caveats and clarifications are also abound in the text without becoming overwhelming.

The second chapter offers direct commentary on the portrayal of trans individuals in the media, both in fictional and non-fictional circumstances. With films and TV shows covered including The Crying GameAce Ventura Pet Detective, Jerry Springer and The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, a perhaps controversially critical analysis is given yet it’s very difficult to fault. The only criticism I have of this section of the book is a small factual inaccuracy made when describing what happens in Ace Ventura. It is claimed that a large group of police officers proceed to vomit after having it revealed to them that the film’s villain who is portrayed as female throughout the film  possesses a penis and testicles. They actually all begin spitting – the ‘joke’ being that they have all kissed her at some point, in reference to her having kissed Ace at an earlier point in the film. This hardly makes a huge difference to the nature of the analysis in pointing out unambigous homophobia, and portrayal of a trans individual as ‘deceptive’, and ‘really a man’. The analysis of media output in this chapter rests on trans characters usually falling into one of two patterns, either ‘pathetic’ or ‘deceptive’. Whilst such a binary analysis may seem simplistic, its impressive (and alarming) point is disappointingly supported by a good range of sources cited.

The book repeatedly draws upon the author’s personal experiences, in terms of both how other individuals have responded to her gender identity and gender presentation, but also her direct experiences of dysphoria and ‘gender dissonance’, and the sensation of one’s hormonal profile changing. These accounts are not only very brave (and indeed an honour for the reader – it is a privilege to know the intimate details of an individual’s transition experience), but also tie in important discussion of biological difference to produce an argument that “socialization acts to exaggerate biological gender differences that already exist”. Serano is not only valuably situated as having experienced different gender identities in her life, but also possesses great familiarity with queer theory and the social sciences literature AND a PhD in biochemistry and a scientific career. Such multi-disciplinary scholarship coupled with vital personal experience packs a serious punch. In saying this I of course do not wish to imply that Serano’s PhD and scholarship makes her accounts and arguments on transgender politics and experience superior to the experiences recounted by other trans people. Serano however occupies an uncommon position in possessing such awareness of intersectionality, plus personal understanding of disparate academic and gendered experiences.

The largest chapter in the book is titled “Pathological Science: Debunking Sexological and Sociological Models of Transgenderism”, and gives not only an excellent historical overview but also challenges some methodological problems with scientific modes of inquiry (such as disconnection of the author from work done, or the assumption that some kind of true objective position is actually possible). Discourse on medicalisation, the cissexist declarations made by various feminists, and how masculinity and femininity are considered are tied together in an accessible manner. This leads into a chapter dealing with the dismantling of cissexual privilege which I found provided more clarity and focus than I had achieved through my own introspection, even given that I am actively engaged with trying to be the best ally I can be.

All of this, together with a most original chapter where the appropriation of intersex and transsexual identities in art and academia is critiqued makes up part one of two of this book. The sensation I had from reading each of these two parts was rather different. Part one contained a greater range of material, and had more of an ‘academic’ structure – unsurprising as this half of the book was subtitled ‘Trans/Gender Theory’ – whilst the second section (Trans Women, Femininity, and Feminism) is pithier and contains a greater sense of polemicism. Three of the ten chapters of this section contain only 4 pages each, but each has its place and each makes a point. I had a small sense that some material was repeated, giving me the sense that some chapters were written independently from consideration of the book as a whole, and I felt I gained more from Part 1 than Part 2. This is a book where each chapter stands alone quite well – not quite separate essays, but not a book that necessitates being read linearly from start to finish. Maybe it’s only because I did read it through from start to finish that made me wish for more of a sense of ‘wrapped up conclusion’, but these are ephemeral concerns. In writing this review it was difficult to not write condensed, reworded versions of every chapter, such was the importance of their contents that resonated with me. This book is too important to not be more widely read. One becomes a better human for reading this book.

The story of Agnes – Gender recognition and surgery in the 1950s

This post is based off a chapter of a book. It’s a rather obscure book called ‘Studies in Ethnomethodology’, which may be among the least catchy possible titles for a book, even given that the chapter was originally published as a paper in 1967. Bear in mind that much of the way in which this story is discussed will be reflecting on attitudes held widely on gender in the 1950s and 1960s.

Don’t give up on me just yet, as the contents are rather unexpectedly fascinating.

The paper was written by one Dr. Garfinkel and his experience treating a patient called Agnes, whom he first met in November of 1958. Agnes had sought medical attention in her home town, been referred to a doctor in Los Angeles, who referred her to a colleague of Dr. Garfinkel who saw her with him.

The nineteen year old Agnes was the youngest of four children, supported by her mother who worked in an aircraft plant. Her father died when Agnes was a child. She was raised Catholic, but no longer believed in God.

These particular sisters may not have put Agnes back on the path to righteousness…

She also had a penis, and testes.

Agnes was presenting with what nowadays would be referred to as an intersex condition – in that she possessed physiology typically associated with the social categories of ‘male’ and ‘female’ at the same time. To quote from Dr. Garfinkel’s account directly:

Agnes’ appearance was convincingly female. She was tall, slim, with a very female shape. Her measurements were 38-25-38. She had long, fine dark-blonde hair, a young face with pretty features, a peaches-and-cream complexion, no facial hair, subtly plucked eyebrows, and no makeup except for lipstick. At the time of her first appearance she was dressed in a tight sweater which marked off her thin shoulders, ample breasts, and narrow waist. Her feet and hands, though somewhat larger than usual for a woman, were in no way remarkable in this respect. Her usual manner of dress did not distinguish her from a typical girl of her age and class. There was nothing garish or exhibitionistic in her attire, nor was there any hint of poor taste or that she was ill at ease in her clothing, as is seen so frequently in transvestites and in women with disturbances in sexual identification. Her voice, pitched at an alto level, was soft, and her delivery had the occasional lisp similar to that affected by feminine appearing male homosexuals. her manner was appropriately feminine with a slight awkwardness that is typical of middle adolescence.

As tempting as it is to pick apart the frankly amazing number of problems there are with anyone, let alone a doctor scrutinising someone in such terms, this isn’t actually the focus of where this is going. Please feel free to pick it apart in your own delicious, juicy minds.

This is a fairly common intersex (and more generally, trans) pride symbol. To think that being intersex is to be a ‘mix’ of male and female (rather than its own state of being, not framed in terms of a binary) as the stereotypical pink-purple-blue colour scheme suggests may be a bit simple.

Agnes wanted to get treatment for what she regarded as a very problematic condition. She thought of her penis and scrotum as being nothing more than a tumour that she wished to have removed so she could get on with living a ‘normal female life’. The fact that she had been born with a penis had meant that for the first 17 years of her life she had been treated and socialised as a boy by her family others who knew her. When she was around 12 years old, she was delighted when she noticed breasts beginning to develop, and other female secondary sex characteristics associated with the onset of puberty.

After much medical scrutiny, it was decided Agnes had a rare disorder known as ‘testicular feminisation syndrome’ , where the testicles, rather than producing testosterone, instead produce lots of oestrogens, causing an XY fetus to develop female genitalia and female traits at puberty. Agnes was seen to be a unique variation on this, in that she had a penis and scrotum and no vagina, and also no ovaries or womb. The doctors were a bit confused by this, but it was the best they could come up with – particularly given how ‘obviously female’ Agnes was to them in all other respects.

Agnes considered herself to be entirely apart from feminine homosexuals, “transvestites” (n.b. I put this in inverted commas because this was the term Dr. Garfinkel and Agnes herself were using at the time to refer to cross-dressers. The term ‘transvestite’ may be considered offensive, and it’s important that this be borne in mind), or any other gender variant individuals, considering them to be “freaks”, and nothing like her whatsoever. She went to an incredible amount of trouble to ensure that she was never scrutinised as being anything other than a ‘normal female’. To again quote directly from Garfinkel’s account:

“I’m not like them” she would continually insist. “In high school I steer clear of boys that acted like sissies … anyone with an abnormal problem … I would completely shy away from them and go to the point of being insulting just enough to get around them … I didn’t want to feel noticed talking to them because somebody might relate them to me. I didn’t want to be classified with them.”

Just as normals frequently will be at a loss to understand “why a person would do that, i.e. engage in homosexual activities or dress as a member of the opposite sex, so did Agnes display the same lack of “understanding” for such behavior, although her accounts characteristically were delivered with flattened affect and never with indignation. When she was invited by me to compare herself with homosexuals and transvestites she found the comparison repulsive.

Agnes was also very anxious about how her situation may affect her relationship with her boyfriend, Bill. Agnes met bill in April of 1958, seven months before she received medical scrutiny. Her refusal to let him allow his hands to wonder below her waist was met with much frustration by him, only temporarily alleviated by claims of her modesty and virginity. Agnes disclosed her situation to him in June, and whilst Bill accepted that it was “like an abnormal growth”, he found it difficult to understand why Agnes attended sessions every Saturday to discuss the condition with the doctors (over 70 hours of interviews were recorded and analysed). This was because Bill did not know that Agnes had been raised as a boy, and she sure as hell wasn’t intending for him to find out. She was also somewhat scared about the fact that Bill might himself be ‘abnormal’ (i.e. homosexual…) due to staying with her after disclosure – though she put this worry to rest after remembering that he took interest in her before he ever knew.

In March 1959, Agnes received a castration operation, where her penis and scrotum were removed, and a vagina constructed in their place. Before the surgery, she was scared that the doctors would make the decision that she was ‘actually’ male, and would amputate her breasts without telling her – but was reassured when told this definitely would not happen. With some time for healing and the use of a penis shaped mould, she was able to acclimatise her new genitals such that she was able to have vaginal sex.

After surgery, Agnes was well accepted by her immediate family and Bill. This was because the doctor’s treatment legitimised her claims of having been ‘female all along’, and that her being raised as male was simply an unhappy mistake due to a condition. The medical justification also meant that her “man-made vagina” was seen as ‘legitimately deserved’ by her, unlike individuals making claims of being women, whilst being ‘unambiguously’ physiologically and genetically ‘male’. Sorry for all the inverted commas, but I hope you see I’m illustrating the beliefs of Agnes and wider society at the time, rather than my own.

PRIDE SHARKTOPUS. I swear, coming up with images to break up the text of this post in a relevant way has been nearly impossible. But I could not resist this badass. For anyone wondering, they’re brandishing the (from bottom left going clockwise): the STRAIGHT ALLY flag, the ASEXUAL flag, the BISEXUAL flag, the PANSEXUAL flag, the GENDERQUEER flag, the INTERSEX flag, the TRANSGENDER flag, and the rather more common LGBT flag. This link is the best I could do towards crediting. 

Five years after her surgery and consultation sessions had finished, Agnes returned to catch up with the doctors who had helped her. Whilst she was no longer with Bill, none of the men she had been with sexually since him had ever given any reason to think they found her in any way out of the ordinary. She was still worried however, so Garfinkel arranged for her to see an expert urologist, who confirmed that “her genitalia were quite beyond suspicion”.

Agnes then dropped a massive bombshell.

During the hour following the welcome news given her by the urologist, after having kept it from me for either years, with the greatest casualness, in mid-sentence, and without giving the slightest warning it was coming, she revealed that she had never had a biological defect that had feminised her but that she had been taking estrogens since age 12. In earlier years when talking to me, she had not only said that she had always hoped and expected that when she grew up she would grow into a woman’s body but that starting in puberty this had spontaneously, gradually, but unwaveringly occurred. In contrast, she now revealed that just as puberty began, at the time her voice started to lower and she developed public hair, she began stealing Stilbestrol from her mother, who was taking it on prescription following a panhysterectomy. The child then began filling the prescription on her own, telling the pharmacist that she was picking up the hormone for her mother and paying for it with money taken from her mother’s purse. She did not know what the effects would be, only that this was a female substance, and she had no idea how much to take but more or less tried to follow the amounts her mother took. She kept this up continuously throughout adolescence, and because by chance she had picked just the right time to start taking the hormone, she was able to prevent the development of all secondary sex characteristics that might have been produced by androgens  and instead to substitute those produced by estrogens. Nonetheless, the androgens continued to be produced, enough that a normal-sized adult penis developed with capacity for erection and orgasm till sexual excitability was suppressed by age 15. Thus, she became a lovely looking young ‘woman’, though with a normal sized penis…

This 19 year old girl with no medical training, by sheer, unadulterated luck, and using a method that now would be essentially impossible, managed to achieve the treatment and recognition she desired in a time when any gender or sexuality variance was seen near-universally as sickness and/or criminal.

Try reading all that again, bearing in mind what you now know about Agnes. Do you find yourself thinking of her in any way differently? It’s quite amazing how even today, many people still consider legitimacy in gender identity to require the green light from the medical establishment. Agnes’ genius manipulation of the system gives a great big middle finger to anyone who would try and question or prevent her legitimacy. For her, being transgender wasn’t an identity she felt any connection with. She had no interest in waging a political fight, or in challenging any aspect of social norms. There’s no way to really comment on whether her disgust at gender and sexual minorities was an act or real. She got what she needed.

Respect.

The original chapter can be read here (at least in part), through Google books.

Shameless little mini-plug, but it involves a lot of my voice, so.

Last night by a string of happy coincidences, I was invited to be part of a panel answering questions on issues of welfare and gender in Cambridge! It was super enjoyable, so thanks to the lovely people who got me involved.

For those who also may know her, the other guest speaker on the show was the wonderful Ruth Graham, feminist extraordinaire and currently Women’s Officer for Cambridge University Student Union.

The show can be heard by clicking here.

The link should be active for the next six weeks or so, I guess until 22/03/2012.

Scroll down a little bit, and look on the right for the box labelled ‘Listen again’. Click the link that reads ’20:00 08/02/2012′ and there you go!

The show also features a really brilliant interview with Sarah Brown, Cambridge City Councillor and the only openly Trans politician in the country. Another small interview with Sarah can be read in Diva magazine from last year, here.

The essentials – Trans 101, but not as you know it

This post is particularly exciting for me, because of how important I feel it is. Also because of how unexpected its formation has been.

The other day, I was talking to one of my queer companions-in-arms about an idea I had. I expressed how keen I was to write a piece explaining what ‘transgender’ actually is. I wanted to carefully explain out definitions of words and terms like ‘MtF’, ‘FtM’, ‘cis-gendered’, and other terms that may leave the average Jo(e) mystified. As I try my best to be a good ally to the transgendered population, I hoped that my little platform might be good in raising some awareness, and I expected my friend to agree with me.

I was being a bit mentally lazy at the time, and rather narcissistically was looking for a verbal pat on the back, but this wasn’t what I got.

I was a little surprised when she ‘ummed’ at me, and seemed rather uncomfortable about the idea. Her concern was that in speaking about trans people, for trans people, I risked preaching in a way which didn’t offer room for variation – seriously problematic for any trans person who could have a hypothetical problem with what I might’ve said. I’m not trans. I’m not a member of that group of marginalised people. I possess what is termed ‘cis-privilege’ – certain automatic social advantages simply due to not being trans.

It’s not up to me just to do a job of writing. It’s up to me to do a good job. Or I just put stuff out there that it’s then up to someone else to fix.

This obviously isn’t something I have any control over. It also isn’t something to get upset about if someone points out that it’s something I possess and should bear in mind. Indeed, the usefulness and fairness about what is said about trans issues by a non-trans person can only be improved by the recognition of cis-privilege. Whilst LOADS of people still don’t know about this sort of stuff very much, I’m sure there are plenty of trans people who are pretty tired of non-trans people trying to tell an audience who and what they are – either because they do a crappy job, or because of the principle of having someone speak as though they are ‘the expert on you’ – when you might want, er, a voice of your own, thanks.

This made me really worried! I didn’t want my good intentions to go unrealised because of a property about myself that I cannot help. So I decided to change how the post was going to be written. Welcome to the first collaborative post on GenderBen!

Below you will find two accounts, submitted very kindly by Amy Boyd (whose G+ page can be found here), and Jack Pinder, who is also one half of the up-and-coming Indie Rock duo Silence Kid. You can check them and their music out on Facebook, Tumblr, and if you like what you see and hear and wish to support some young, impoverished, queer musicians, they have a kickstarter project here.

Everything written by these individuals is entirely their own, and has not been edited by me in any way.

First, we have Amy’s post.

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What Does “Transgender” Mean?

At first, I didn’t know where to start. How do I explain to people who might never have heard of transgender people what it is like to be transgender. I thought, “I don’t know what it’s like to not be transgender!”.

And it’s true. Ever since I can remember, I’ve felt unhappy with being male.

To not be transgender, like the vast majority of people, is just how life is. They are born with male genitals and assigned male. They are born with female genitals and assigned female. They grow up as that gender assigned to them on day one. For them, everything is great and nothing feels wrong.

Transgender people aren’t like that. Nobody stops to think, “what if the baby has male genitals but actually has a female brain”? For millions of people, this isn’t a “what if” scenario. It is reality. Transgender people have the brain of the opposite sex. Brain scans show it. Those unlucky babies are brought up how society expects them to be brought up, based on their genitals at birth, not their brain.

Some feel from a very early age – 5 or less in some cases – that their brain is different to their body. For others, it takes a while for the feelings to develop – as late as the teenage years.

It’s not OK, says society, for a boy to want to be a girl or a girl to want to be a boy… It’s not OK, says society, for a boy to play with barbies or a girl to play with action men… It’s not OK, says society, to be different to everyone else…

So we hide those feelings, or try to for as long as possible. Hiding these feelings hurts. To the average man reading this: imagine being expected to play with dolls and try out for cheer-leading squad and read Vogue and wear dresses and date boys. Can you imagine doing that? To the average woman reading this: image being expected to jump in mud and get dirty and play football and lift weights at the gym and date girls. Can you imagine doing that? Would you do that? Would that hurt?

Trans-girls and trans-women are born with male genitals and a female brain, assigned male, later feel these feelings of not being right, and finally transition to female. Trans-men are the opposite case: babies born with female genitals and a male brain, assigned female, and transition to male.

My Transition

It took a while for me to understand that I was transgender, because until I was 19, I didn’t know what the word meant. Sure, I have saw drag queens, and what movies and TV shows portray as “men in dresses”. But a man actually becoming a woman? That is such a taboo topic that nobody ever speaks about it. Certainly, nobody spoke about it in front of me.

It was my luck, I suppose, to stumble upon an article about transgender people. Suddenly I realised, I’m reading about myself. The people in the article echoed my own thoughts: “I hate manly things. I hate sports. I hate cars. I hate getting dirty. I hate not being able to express myself in the way I want to because I’ll be laughed at and told to stop, I hate having this stupid penis attached to me… I hate being male. I’m not even tall enough or strong enough to be considered a man. My name “Michael” doesn’t suit me. Everyone is Michael. I want to be unique. Why can’t I have a nice short feminine name? I like feminine clothes. I liked those two guys at school… wait, am I gay? Were those feelings of attraction? I thought I just liked them because they were nice people. I always wanted to be a girl anyway.”

And that was when it stuck me. “I always wanted to be a girl anyway.” So why wasn’t I doing anything about it?!

I needed more information first to be sure I wasn’t utterly deranged. I needed to know that being transgender was different to being a drag queen or a cross-dresser or one of those people you see on Britain’s Got Talent with 10-foot-high hair and a dress and a full beard.

I turned to Google searches, Wikipedia, YouTube and studies. They all confirmed that how I felt is a real thing – Gender Identity Disorder, or Gender Dysphoria. And the only “cure”, if it can be called as such, is transitioning.

Within a few days, I ordered hormones drugs over the Internet. About three weeks later they were delivered and I started taking them.

It only took a few weeks for me to notice something amazing: the suicidal feelings I had been feeling, dating back to when puberty began, disappeared. Actually, nobody knows this, but before I started “hormone replacement therapy”, I was completely suicidal and had only two options left: kill myself, or travel the world for as long as possible on my savings and then kill myself at the end. I was going to do the second option. I got passport photos taken. I printed out the passport renewal form. I had figured out to where I would go first: Khao San Road, Thailand. Thank you, luck, for letting me run across that article on the Internet about transgender people before I followed through. I have those passport photos in my safe at home. Every time I look at them, all I see is an extremely depressed version of me.

Transition – It’s A Gradual Process, Not An Instant Change

I would like to think I had a realistic timeline of how long it would take to “pass” as a female. I’m still not there yet, but 14 months of hormone replacement therapy has had a big effect, physically and mentally.Mentally I am much happier, more stable, more confident and stronger. On the flip-side, I cry more and have mood swings. Hormone replacement therapy really is like going through puberty a second time.

Physically my face and body have changed to have female “secondary sex characteristics” like fatter cheeks, wider hips, needing to pee every five minutes, softer skin, less body hair, lighter body hair, and so on.

I’ve also done things that drugs can’t do like permanent facial hair removal (expensive!), growing my hair out, making my eyebrows more feminine, generally taking care of myself, making my wardrobe more androgynous, and most of all learning. There is a lot to learn about this whole “being female” business.

Today, I am 20 years old. I recently moved back to London and since then have felt free enough to try making lots of progress in my transition.

I don’t know how much longer it will take. 14 months of hormones got me to the androgynous phase. I hope another 14 months will get me to the “definitely looks like a girl” phase.

And then I can be Amy.

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Transgressive Gender for Dummies: An Anti-“Trans 101”

Hey! My name’s Jack, and I’m a 22 year old trans guy from Baltimore. Ben asked me to write a “trans 101” of sorts for this blog, so here goes.

There are probably a million and one reasons why someone would want to read, or find themselves reading, a “Trans 101”, or an introductory guide to transgender issues. Maybe you’re grappling with, settling into, or exploring your own gender identity. Maybe you’re a confused parent, or a friend of a trans person who you want to be a better ally to. I’m hardly the first person to create an introductory guide like this but the way I’m going to go about doing this isn’t exactly typical. I don’t plan on making an easy list of definitions of jargon or some kind of handy cheat sheet to refer to when you forget what MtF means. Instead, I’m going to strike at the root of the problem, the very reason you don’t know these words in the first place: everything you know about gender is fundamentally wrong.

Sex=/=Gender=/=Sexual Orientation

First, let’s talk about why sex and gender are not the same thing. Here is an example of a well-intentioned but misguided and incorrect understanding of gender:

Sex is what’s between your legs, and gender is what’s in your head!

Sex is biology; it’s what you were born as, what chromosomes you have and what genitalia you have. On the other hand, gender is whatever you “feel” like you are.

 

People say things like this with the best intentions, and probably genuinely believe that this is a progressive framework for understanding gender identity. Really think about this, though. How many variables make up what we think of as sex and what we think of as gender? Biology itself doesn’t even play by the rules of the gender binary—check out Ben’s amazing post about the genetics behind intersexed individuals. There’s your internal genitalia, external genitalia, chromosomes, and hormones, the pitch and tonality of your voice, your wardrobe, hair, mannerisms, and a million other factors that decide whether or not the guy at the deli calls you “sir” or “ma’am”. If every single one of these variables lines up as exclusively “male” or exclusively “female”, you are cisgender and pretty dramatically socially privileged over people who are not because of that. If not, congrats! Your very existence reveals the fallacy of the socially constructed gender binary. You can call yourself whatever you damn well please, but others in this category use words like transgender, genderqueer, non-binary, ftm, mtf, mtm, ftf, genderfluid, agender, pangender, and neutrois. This is hardly intended to be an exhaustive list on non-cis gender identities; the point is that if you aren’t cis, and even if you don’t think of yourself as male or female, your identity is legitimate and real and it is up to you, and only you, to label it.

Now let’s talk about gender versus sexual orientation. To put it simply, gender is what you are, whereas sexual orientation is about who you like. Sexual orientation can of course be extremely complex and nuanced and a ton can be written about it, but that’s not what I’m talking about here, because an individual’s sexual orientation has NOTHING AT ALL TO DO WITH THEIR GENDER IDENTITY.

I make this point because you may be approaching this Trans 101 with the idea that trans-ness is some sort of extension or expression of homosexuality. This isn’t true but it’s a pretty understandable misconception, thanks to what has become the generally accepted lexicon of these issues. When people talk about LGBT (that is, Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender) issues, 99% of the time, they’re really only talking about the LBG. The word “queer” also has a tendency to complicate and confuse things because it is an umbrella term that encompasses both non-heteronormative sexuality (Queer for You-The Degenerettes),and gender expression. Personally, it’s a word that I like and identify with because I’m queer in both senses of the word.

Another reason why I’m abstaining from creating a list of definitions with this post is that when it comes to gender, words are personal and powerful. To define the term FtM, for example, as “Female to Male”, or “an individual who was assigned female at birth who now identifies/has transitioned to/lives as male” is terribly incorrect and erasing to people who identify with that term but that definition does not apply to, as well as people who that definition applies to but do not identify with that term.

Think about every film or tv show you’ve ever seen about a transgender person. They all had the same plot, right? We’re used to hearing transpeople say “I’ve always known,” and something about this seems to be comforting to cisgendered people. If you’re cisgendered, chances are that YOU’VE always known what you are, so this makes sense to you. The expectation of gender consistency throughout one’s life is easy to take for granted. It’s a part of the trans narrative, and it’s actually pretty harmful and repressive. Cut-and-dried definitions of very nuanced and complex human identities reinforce this oppressive narrative.

Consider all the ways it is possible for a non-cisgendered person to deviate from this narrative! Anyone can discover new things about their gender identity at any age, and one’s gender journey need not fit cleanly into a Lifetime movie storyline. Put yourself in the shoes of a non-cis person the next time you question the validity of their identity based on the way they’ve chosen to transition or express their gender. Could you afford a $7,000 surgery? Could you ask your family to refer to you by pronouns besides the ones you’ve used since birth? Would you be okay with the side effects and risks associated with hormone replacement therapy? If you realized you weren’t cisgendered, would you come out about it immediately?

As someone who deviates from the gender binary, the trans narrative kept me from coming out to my friends and family and getting the therapy I needed for entirely too long. My fears were completely justified; when I did come out, friends and family refused to believe me and treated my transition like some sort of passing phase I was going through. This is the social function of the trans narrative, to create “symptoms” that are so specific that hardly anyone could fit the bill.

If you want to be a better ally to a trans person, this is what I have to say to you: do everything you can to not reinforce this narrative. Never assume anything, and never police anyone’s gender journey.

Yes, there is jargon you should probably know, but to paraphrase your sixth grade English teacher, if you don’t know what something means, look it the fuck up. More important than words, though, is attitude and understanding, and I hope I was able to at least lay the groundwork for that with this post.

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I was going to add my own two cents on this topic, but I really feel like Amy spent one cent and Jack spent the other far better than I could. I hope you found these heartfelt and eloquent accounts as informative and important as I do.

When reporters write on transgender – common and subtle problems

The subject of this week’s post was inspired when a couple of friends contacted me separately to bring a particular news article to my attention. To each of you – thanks for your interest! And for making choosing a topic for this post that much easier.

The article to which I was directed was published on the 11th December on the website of The Boston Globe Metro, and can be found here.

But before we get onto that, let’s talk about today’s topic title more generally. For the longest time, it was basically impossible to find mention of trans people in mainstream media. It was a topic that made people uncomfortable. People didn’t generally want to hear about ‘that sort of thing’, either finding it irrelevant, uncomfortable, morally outraging, or any combination of these things. Without going off on a massive tangent on this background of LGBT in media, things are slowly changing and finding pieces of mainstream journalism looking at transgender issues is no longer like finding a four leaf clover by the light of a blue moon. However, the problem with more people taking notice is that more people can – to paraphrase Hugh Laurie’s Prince George from Blackadder III – be absolute arseheads.

Aside: Why did society start having a problem with men wearing wigs and make-up anyway?

Many, many incredibly shitty things have been written about trans people. A (perhaps) surprising amount of this has come from feminist and gay/lesbian sources, with (simplistically speaking) some of the former considering trans men to be ‘traitors’ to womanhood, and trans women are ‘just men invading female spaces’. I wish I was exaggerating. A particularly infamous piece of damaging refuse can be found in the form of the 1979 book The Transsexual Empire by Janice Raymond, which contains this charming quotation:

All transsexuals rape women’s bodies by reducing the real female form to an artifact, appropriating this body for themselves … Transsexuals merely cut off the most obvious means of invading women, so that they seem non-invasive.

In a similar vein, the lesbian feminist journalist Julie Bindel has written some really horrible stuff about transgender people. She was nominated for Stonewall’s 2008 ‘journalist of the year’ award, not exactly a great message sent out from this huge LGB charity (note the absence of the ‘T’).

This offensive horror was printed with Bindel’s 2004 article (linked to above) in ‘The Guardian Weekend’, 21st January 2004. The gist of the article argues that transwomen are not real women, and their experiences as women are invalid. The badge reads ‘I’m a girl’. 

So yeah, this stuff is pretty unequivocally offensive – but you could easily be forgiven for asking how this relates to the original link to the news story ‘Led by the child who simply knew’, at the top of the page. I’d like to add, that in writing this piece, I conferred with a few trans and non-binary friends, to see what they thought of this article. I did this because of my cis-privilege. Having this doesn’t make me a bad person, but it is undeniably there, and important to bear in mind when I’m talking about transgender experiences. If I simply bust out a load of opinionated stuff on such issues without ever actually discussing it with someone it affects directly, I would be in danger of speaking for a minority group I cannot claim membership of, and in fact risk silencing that group despite my intentions. So yeah. Obviously the people I spoke to could only talk for themselves, but at least I can say I haven’t made sweeping and unchecked assumptions about how this article may be received.

The problems here are less loaded with malice. More comparable to the accidental but nevertheless cringeworthy racist comments that elderly grandparents can sometimes pop out with. It’s not okay, but to some extent we can understand why it happens, due to lack of a certain specific bit of education. To borrow a term from the (fabulous) writer Julia Serano, the original article engages in oppositional sexism, which Serano defines as:

[T]he belief that female and male are rigid, mutually exclusive categories, each possessing a unique and nonoverlapping set of attributes, aptitudes, abilities, and desires.

Right from the start, we catch phrases like “Jonas was all boy. He loved Spiderman, action figures, pirates, and swords.” – would he be less so if he didn’t? In the case of his twin, Nicole, is her being female only justified through the presentation of stereotypical feminine behaviour and traits?

It’s not wrong to talk about Nicole’s experiences. If she likes pink, and mermaids, and Barbies, that’s great! But it’s important to not imply that this is what makes her female identity ‘real’. Little boys can like these things too, and not be any ‘less’, even if some people might argue otherwise.

See, Barbie can be fun for some boys too…

It’s also problematic that the name Nicole was given at birth is repeatedly used, and that she is referred to as ‘he’ repeatedly. As a baby and small child, she clearly wasn’t in a position to understand or communicate any gender identity. So why now her personal identity is clear, are inaccuracies of the past referred to? Gender identity isn’t immutable, but to frame the experience as ‘he’ was a boy who ‘became’ a girl implies both choice, and that being defined as ‘boy’ was the natural state of affairs – creating a hierarchy whereby genitals trumps identity. Not good!

The old cliché of “a girl in a boy’s body” is also touted. What is it that makes a body that of a boys? Lack of breasts? Oh hang on, little girls don’t have them. How about the other physiological markers? I’ve already talked about how this doesn’t really get one anywhere. Nicole identifies as a girl. Therefore, she has a girl’s body. Even if people ‘know what you’re talking about’, it’s potentially rather offensive to call a transwoman ‘biologically male’, or vice versa.

The article does do a valuable thing in providing some insight into the experiences of a trans girl and her family. The quotations from her parents about the experience help make the story relatable to people for whom this is totally alien territory. Whatsmore, Nicole’s self expression wasn’t smoothed down to being textbook-feminine:

“I would say my brother got lucky with me. Because we grew up with only boy neighbors, I developed a liking to shoot-’em-up and military video games,’’ she says. “I could have come out a lot girlier.’

It is important to recognise that the breadth of experience amongst trans people, just like cis people, is immense. Not everyone ‘knows’ from such a young age like Nicole, and that’s okay. Not everyone detests the bodies they were born with and want surgery, and that’s okay too. There aren’t ‘more’ or ‘less’ valid experiences of transgenderism. Unfortunately, breadth of experience isn’t something the mainstream media seems to have represented well just yet. There’s only a certain degree to which papers are prepared to challenge their majority readership. This article seems to me to be more sincere than simply a voyeuristic look at an atypical child, but could also be vastly improved upon with just a certain specific bit of education.

What Tinky Winky says about gender…

You may be familiar with the colourful, fuzzy little oddballs the Teletubbies, whose BAFTA winning performances entertained young children since 1997. For anyone who isn’t acquainted with this ambiguously alien quartet of characters, or for those who simply enjoy looking at bright colours, this is what they look like.

Come and play with us, forever…and ever…and ever…”

In the programme, each Teletubby had his or her own special item. For Po (the red one) it was a scooter, for Dipsy (the green one) it was a rather epic black-and-white mottled top hat. Laa Laa (the yellow one) had a massive orange ball, whilst Tinky Winky had:

“I keep a brick in here, do not cross me, bitch.”

The producers of the show refer to Tinky Winky’s bag as his magic bag, as the inside is bigger than the outside. Most people who saw it, particularly the media, immediately thought ‘handbag’. As Tinky Winky is voiced by, and recognised by the producers to be male, this actually managed to have a political reaction. And more than once! Oh social conservatives, you so crazy. The idea that a character designated (pretty arbitrarily) as male should carry a ‘social marker’ of femininity caused reactions from quite a few people.

As you might expect, the reliably morally outraged evangelical Christian right of America spewed its disapproval – in this instance out of the hatch of Jerry Falwell (who, to give a 60 second summary of his relevant social views, can be heard dishing out blame to abortionists, feminists, gay and lesbian folks for 9/11  here). To quote from a BBC news article from 1999 reporting on Falwell’s views:

In an article called Parents Alert: Tinky Winky Comes Out of the Closet, he says: “He is purple – the gay-pride colour; and his antenna is shaped like a triangle – the gay-pride symbol.” He said the “subtle depictions” of gay sexuality are intentional and later issued a statement that read: “As a Christian I feel that role modelling the gay lifestyle is damaging to the moral lives of children.”

Then in 2007, the spokesperson for children’s rights in Poland, Ewa Sowinska, ordered psychologists to ‘investigate’ whether watching the programme might promote a ‘Homosexual Lifestyle’ (rumble of thunder) to children.

Other folks were also eager to out the purple…space baby thing, but with entirely different motivations. various LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender) organisations believed and supported a gay interpretation of Tinky, and indeed specific claims of Tinky being transgender have also been raised.

Now, my point isn’t just ‘haters you suck, gay/trans Tinky is win’. The consideration of sexuality by Falwell and Sowinska is quite obviously backwards in being based on absolutist moralising about sin and delinquency – whilst the support from LGBT groups and people in relation to the interpretation of Tinky’s traits is also pretty easy to expect. But why do people feel the need to make these ascriptions of gender and sexuality in the first place?

If Falwell was really concerned that this asexual character aimed at entertaining those who’re 0-5 years old was a degenerative influence as indicated by his colour and shape, there’s probably plenty of other targets he also missed in trying to protect America’s youth.

“My my darling, the garden is looking very homosexual this morning…”

People like to see patterns in things. In the last post about defining biological sex, I mentioned some of the things people look for in everyone they meet in order to make the (socially coded, and enforced) judgement as to whether someone is male or female. This need has even extended to the non-human secondary-sexual-characteristic-less Teletubbies, as Tinky Winky and Dipsy are officially labelled as male, with Laa Laa and Po as female. There are none of the typical cues from their physical forms to see this however (nudges and winks about Dipsy’s aerial aside), but Tinky’s voice ‘reveals’ him to be ‘male’.

Now unless I missed the episode where Tinky Winky goes to a gay bar and hooks up with a trucker, the judgements on sexuality – whether from under-educated homophobes or from optimistic advocates – rests, in this case, entirely on stereotyping. Maybe without articulating it so barely, it’s clear that people have gone ‘male + female traits = you’ve got a gay/trans!’. The conflation of sexuality and gender identity has got a LOT of interesting background and historical precedent, but it also almost goes without saying – people viewed as ‘men’ exhibiting traits commonly viewed by most members of a society as ‘feminine’ are not necessarily gay or transgender. Likewise ‘men’ exhibiting masculine traits aren’t necessarily straight or cisgendered. ‘Women’ who are ‘masculine’ are not necessarily gay or trans, and ‘women’ who are ‘feminine’ aren’t always straight or cis.

The clichéd statements of ‘oh! I never would’ve guessed’ or ‘Yes, I’ve thought so for a while’ are things that many gay people may have heard one or the other of when coming out, depending on how their characteristics are judged by their peers. Traits that people commonly use to decide whether someone is masculine or feminine can be described as hegemonic. A hegemony is the dominance of one group by another, so for instance, ‘hegemonic masculinity’ – which could be described as big muscles, aggressive attitude, great physical strength, involvement with sports, etc. are all obvious things that could be referred to when someone casually describes someone as ‘masculine’. It’s the obvious, stereotypical understanding of having qualities associated with being male, rather than other experiences of masculinity, such as how some gay men may consider their experiences, or the experiences of men from different cultural backgrounds. Likewise preoccupation with fashion, make-up, and babies, a delicate and dainty physique, and an empathic, caring nature may all be described as ‘hegemonically feminine’.

Not hegemonically masculine, but does this make Tinky like Winky?

Judgement of people (or Teletubbies) in terms of these hegemonic understandings may often have correlation (plenty of men are involved in sports, plenty of women do like make-up, plenty of gay men do like fashion), but it is still hugely flawed, and never fair. The particularly sad thing is, is how much ‘policing’ of deviations from this so-called ‘normal gendered behaviour’ goes on. Whether it’s full-on verbal or physical abuse from strangers, or comments from friends like “why have you got that?”, a man (or someone judged to be a man by looking) can’t go out with a bag like Tinky Winky’s without strongly risking being questioned, and definitely will make people who see him question why, or question his sexuality to themselves. In the interests of true freedom of expression and personal growth, this ‘gendering’ of traits, behaviours, and activities is something I believe should be resisted. Let your little boys carry red bags and wear tutus, let your little girls play rugby, and don’t let these things inform whether you think they like other little boys or other little girls – or whether they are indeed, as you may have judged!

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