The First Man-Made Man by Pagan Kennedy – a review

I’ll start with an excerpt, from page 52:

The earliest technology that people used to change their sex was not hormones or surgery.  It was clothing:  skirts and trousers, jackets, scarves, earrings, scabbards.  In the nineteenth century, a delicate-looking man did not have to ask anyone’s permission to become a woman:  he could simply move to a new town, costume himself in gowns and rings, and find a job as a seamstress.  Meanwhile, a number of women escaped poverty by melting into an army or taking up the life of a sailor.  References to such “female men” pepper the newspapers of the 1800s.  “Amongst the crew of the Queen Charlotte [ship] … was a female African who who had served as a seaman in the royal navy for upwards of eleven years,” according to one report.  The woman, known as William Brown, “has served for some time as the captain of the fore-top, highly to the satisfaction of the officers … She says she is a married woman and went to sea in consequence of a quarrel with her husband … She declares her intention of again entering the service as a volunteer.”

But that kind of do-it-yourself sex change had become nearly impossible by the 1940s … Years before, governments had begun tracking citizens as they changed address – and now just about every major transaction, from getting paid to buying property, required an identity card or driver’s license.

The “sex-change operation” therefore was more than just a product of medical breakthroughs that could stunningly retool the body.  It was also a mid-twentieth century cultural invention, necessary in a new world of computer databases and routine medical exams.

The First Man-Made Man is the story of a genetic female who took testosterone and underwent bilateral mastectomy and phalloplasty in the early twentieth century to change his body’s appearance to match his identity as a male.  The book was relatively interesting as a biography, but most of my interest was not in life story but in sociology.

Let’s get back to the quote with which I began.  I’ve sometimes wondered what transsexuals did prior to the advent of surgery, and here is the (obvious) answer – where possible, they just passed themselves off as well as they could, and got on with their lives.  Didn’t require medical intervention, didn’t require documentation.  Now certainly, in the past eighty years, medical intervention – especially hormone therapy – has been a tremendous boon to transsexuals.  It would be untenable to argue otherwise.  It’s been a game changer.  However, here is the other side of the coin:  who you are (in terms of gender, at least) is no longer a function of how you present yourself or how you feel.  It is now, even more than before, a question requiring input and consensus from a group of others – doctors, psychologists, lawyers.  Why should this be?  I was discussing with a friend recently the peculiarity of assigning gender to infants.  Why do we do this?  Why is the first question we ask always, “Is it a boy or girl?”  Why does it matter?  What would be the problem with raising all kids unisex until they hit puberty, then asking them whether they’re male/female/other?  I know that’s a pretty far out there idea, but I can’t think of any good arguments against it.

Most people, of course, take all of this for granted, because their external appearance matches their internal sense of self.  But my interest does not lie with them; it’s far more interesting to me how we, as a society and as individuals, view those who don’t feel that they match up.

Back to the book.  I felt pretty bad for the protagonist.  He was some sort of minor royalty or member of the aristocracy or whatnot, and he was terrified (as it turns out, with good reason) that the press would find out about his transition and never leave him alone.  So he spent most of his life in hiding, with varying measures of success.  He was careful about who he told about his past, and it was interesting to see that some people simply accepted him without batting an eye, and others did not.  The author didn’t really address this directly (possibly didn’t recognise it herself), but the arc of his life gave me the impression that he was looking for something that he couldn’t find.  Acceptance, or external validation, I imagine.  He was in love, at one point, with a fellow transsexual, but she jilted him; apparently, she was simply using him for his medical expertise (he was a doctor).  Very, very sad.  The last years of his life, he spent in India and Nepal, studying Buddhism.  The Buddhists, to their discredit, really did not accept him, and this sort of surprised me.  Apparently, there is an injunction against members of the “third sex” in ancient Buddhist scripture.  So, for those of you taking notes at home, yes, Buddhists can be assholes too.  (I already knew this, but that’s another story entirely.)

Anyway, I enjoyed the book.  It was a pretty quick read, the story was interesting, and it did raise good questions (though I’m not certain the author recognised all of them herself).


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