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).

Annabel by Kathleen Winter – a review

Annabel is a novel about an intersex child born in a small town in Labrador in 1968, his parents’ decision to raise him as a boy, and the effects that that decision has on them all.  It is inevitably but unfortunately compared by most (if not all) reviewers to Jeffrey Eugenides’ novel Middlesex.  I say “inevitably” because both are recent novels which deal with the subject of intersex children, so the comparison comes easily.  I say “unfortunately” because whereas Middlesex was dry, interminably dense with the history of the city of Detroit (which added exactly nothing to the story), and thick with uninteresting characters, Annabel is impossible to put down, written by someone who clearly knows her way around a sentence, and contains characters who are complex and sympathetic, even when their decisions are clearly going to lead to hardship.

It’s hard for me to pick a favourite passage; the chapters build themselves so well that it’s hard to excerpt just a sliver.  But here is one passage I enjoyed from early in the book:

“You get used to something unusual when you’re the one it happens to,” Jacinta said to Thomasina.  “If Wayne had two heads I’d get used to that in a few months, and I would wonder why anyone would want to change him.  There’s something good to be said for any circumstance.  That’s the way I see it.”

But it was not, she knew, the way others saw things, and it was not the way Jacinta herself would have seen them had another woman in the cove had a baby who was a hermaphrodite.  Sometimes you had to be who you were and endure what happened to you, and to you alone, before you could understand the first thing about it.  So the fact that Wayne had ever been a girl as well as a boy was hidden and never spoken of, and no one in Croydon Harbour knew except his parents and Thomasina.

The characters, also, are very well developed; especially Treadway Blake.  It would have been very, very easy to paint him in broad strokes resulting in a one dimensional character, but Ms. Winter did not do this.  He has his own motivations, his own complex approach to the world, and clearly, his own very deep love for his child.  In fact, he was probably the most interesting character; certainly, he underwent the most development over the course of the novel (with the possible exception of Annabel/Wayne her/himself), and he did it with very little dialogue.

So, summary:  Annabel was great.  Plus it’s Canadian.  So two thumbs up.  Read it.

gender studies 101

Actually… probably more like 501.  Best put on your thinking caps before proceeding, folks.

Thanks to a link my friend Green Weaver posted to facebook, I’ve spent some time over the past week or so reading articles on gender non-conforming kids.  It doesn’t go far enough by half just to call this an interesting topic; it’s fascinating, hopeful, challenging, and deliciously complex.

Warning:  I really pared down my writing on this post so as not to repeat territory already covered by the links on Accepting Dad’s blog (link above).  So unless you’re super-familiar with the topic already, it’d probably be best to read those articles first.  Some of the following is not going to make much sense otherwise.

What is gender non-conformance?  Although most of us feel that our gender identity matches our phenotype, some do not.  This is challenging enough in adults who have to grapple with issues of identity and change and acceptance; it is even more complicated in children.  Is gender non-conformance genetic or is it learned behaviour?  Is it a phase or something enduring?  Either way, what’s best for the children, immediately and long term?  Very tough questions.

As I understand it, there are two basic approaches:  either force affected kids to deny their feelings and adhere to societal expectations about their gender phenotypes (let’s call this the Toronto approach), or allow them to explore life as they wish (the Boston approach).  Unsurprisingly, I whole heartedly support the Boston approach.

We can look at this in terms of minimising risk.  Worst case scenario with the accepting (Boston) approach:  you get some weird looks from the neighbours because your little boy now dresses like a little girl (or vice versa), possibly you lose some evangelical Christian friends who tell you that you and your kids will go to hell (this of course could be viewed as a benefit), and maybe your kid reconsiders in a few years and transitions back to her or his original gender (some evidence indicates that gender non-conforming kids overwhelmingly do not grow up to be transgendered adults – though this evidence is reported by the Toronto clinic and has not (as far as I’m aware) been peer reviewed, so it may be suspect).  In short, I fail to see how any real damage could possibly result from allowing kids to try on other gender roles.

On the other hand, let’s look at the worst case scenario with the forced-to-maintain-birth-gender (Toronto) approach:  first off, your kid is miserable and feels that his/her feelings and needs are not deserving of consideration.  Possibly/probably, she or he ends up engaging in self-destructive behaviours.  Suicide is not unlikely.

The best case scenarios put forth by advocates of both the Boston and the Toronto approaches are essentially identical:  kids who grow up to be happy, healthy adults.  Because they are identical, we can discard them for purposes of comparing the approaches.  What would really help would be to know whether each approach works; however, this is very new territory, so we don’t have a whole lot of long term efficacy data (as far as I’m aware).  This leaves us only minimising risk as a decision making tool, and in these terms, the Boston approach is clearly superior.  QED.

And that, believe it or not, is the easy part.  What follows below is what really makes me wonder.  So, if you don’t want to be kept up nights trying to answer questions which may be unanswerable, it may be best to stop reading here.

All of what I wrote above applies to pre-puberty.  A newish development of the Boston approach is staving off puberty using hormone blockers, then prescribing hormones to induce the puberty of the kid’s self-identified gender.  This is where it gets somewhat more ambiguous for me.  For kids who are genuinely transgendered, this is clearly the right course of action.  But what about those (if any) who aren’t, and how do we tell who’s who?  What if the Toronto data is correct, and gender non-conforming kids usually don’t grow up to be transgendered adults?  Or – what if the Toronto data is biased by the fact that puberty had already occurred for all of their subjects, thus poisoning their bodies with the wrong hormonal mixture and totally changing their brain chemistry?  Would these people have been happier as adults if they’d transitioned as kids, even though they don’t currently identify as transgendered?  This is what I suspect (at least in some cases), but I don’t think there’s any way of testing my theory.  It would be unethical to run a case/control study comparing the Boston and Toronto approaches; with the hypothesis that one approach works and the other does not, too much would be at stake for the subjects.  And I don’t know if the two clinics are maintaining follow-up data that would be useful for purposes of comparison.

Another difficult question, and more (I think) to the point that Accepting Dad was making on his blog – why dichotomise?  Do we really have to shovel kids into one pigeon hole or another?  What about kids (or adults for that matter) who don’t want to change gender, but aren’t satisfied with the expectations placed on them because of gender?  (Here, too, though, I think the Boston approach is clearly superior.)

So… my idea is this.  Let gender non-conforming kids (and all kids for that matter) be who they wish, and try on whatever roles they want to try on.  Most of what we think of as gender is pretty outmoded anyway; it’d be better for everyone if we all started transitioning away from our biases.  And when puberty approaches, it’s inevitable that things will get messy (as they always do with puberty).  A certain amount of suffering may be unavoidable; I think the crucial thing before committing to any dramatic and largely irreversible course of action is to determine how damaging the alternative would be.  If a kid is going to be absolutely miserable without transitioning, then she or he should begin the biochemical process of transition.  A certain amount of suffering, as I said, is probably unavoidable; but that’s part and parcel of the human condition anyway (Buddhists proclamations to the contrary notwithstanding).  No one should have to be miserable, though.  And of course, hormonal interventions which are begun prior to puberty are going to be far, far, far more effective than those begun after puberty; so by all means, for kids who need to transition in order to be happy and healthy, sooner is better than later.

Caveat to all of the above:  I’m not a medical or psychology professional, or really in any way qualified to weigh in on this topic.  I do have a bachelor’s degree in psychology, with a concentration in psychobiology, and I have been working in (unrelated) medical research for over ten years.  My main qualification, though, is that I’m very interested in people, generally, and all of our glorious, unclassifiable, messy intricacies.  And I am interested in people being able to live the lives they want to live.

Drawing Down the Moon by Margot Adler – a review

So, I’ve once again been chewing my way through Drawing Down the Moon, by Margot Adler. This is my third try; I first picked it up in spring of 2001 (inspired by liner notes for a Dar Williams song), but was soon distracted by an immediate and unforeseen need to leave the place I was living at the time. I started reading it again a few years ago; can’t remember why I didn’t make it all the way through that second time. Anyway, this is attempt #3, and I’m making good progress. I’m further into the book than I got on my prior attempts, and a lot of it is sinking in and making sense (or in some cases very clearly not making sense).

I just finished the chapter on “Women, Feminism, and the Craft”. The first half of the chapter didn’t do much for me; I’m reading an old edition of the book, and a lot of it seemed dated. Second wave feminism. I understand (at least, I think I understand) the importance from a historical context, but it all seems a bit reductionist/dualistic to me. I’m glad we’ve moved on.

With those caveats in place, there are some really rich passages in this chapter. Let’s start with these two quotes from page 210:

Despite what some psychologists say, no one really has the slightest idea what a woman (or, for that matter, what a man) is.
“…the great mystery of our society is that men and women are exactly alike and this truth is hidden from us under an incredible load of bullshit.”

That second quote gets right down to the heart of the matter. Politics, religion (which is just another word for politics), and 99% of what we call gender – they are all based on the bullshit of false dichotomies and a fearful desire to call things Other. Apart from the gross physical level of genetics, hormones, brain structures, and plumbing (important to note that the last two list items are wholly dependent on the first two list items), is there any inherent difference between men and women? (For the moment, let’s pretend that these two categories are mutually exclusive and exhaustive.) And how amazing is it that this dichotomy that every one of us buys into to some extent is almost wholly fabricated? We as humans have the capability to invent something that orders our entire universe and never, ever gets questioned. Wow. I’m not saying that’s either good or bad. Mostly it’s just amazing.

Also, quoted from Robin Morgan’s Sisterhood is Powerful on page 206:

If you are a woman and dare to look within yourself, you are a Witch. You make your own rules. You are free and beautiful. You can be invisible or evident in how you choose to make your witch-self known. You can form your own Coven of sister Witches (thirteen is a cozy number for a group) and do your own actions…
Your power comes from your own self as a woman, and it is activated by working in concert with your sisters…
You are a Witch by saying aloud, “I am a Witch” three times, and thinking about that. You are a Witch by being female, untamed, angry, joyous, and immortal.

Part of the reason I started with the discussion of gender was to lend this description of witchcraft some degree of universality. What I love about this quote is that it makes it very, very clear that witchcraft/neo-Paganism is not about superficial action; it’s about essence. You can’t convert. You either are or aren’t, and if you aren’t, there’s no way in, and if you are, there’s no way out (stakes and bonfires notwithstanding). Also, modern witchcraft, unlike conventional religion (and much of the rest of neo-Paganism), is independent of power structure, hierarchy, bureaucracy. It is wild, untamed. “You make your own rules.”

Another element of witchcraft/neo-Paganism that’s really struck me on this third voyage through the book is the idea of imminence rather than transcendence. The divine is not off floating in the clouds shooting the shit with saints and angels. If it’s anywhere, it’s right here. Where else could it be? And here’s where the connection to yoga comes in. (You knew that was coming, right?) The first line of Patañjali is atha yoga anusasanam – now, yoga instruction. The key word is NOW – not yesterday, not tomorrow, not in the afterlife. Now. Here. Imminence. Not transcendence.

The risk with a philosophy of imminence is that the divine has nowhere to hide; it’s all out in the open, immediately available to everyone. This is a threat to traditional religion because traditional religion is based on hierarchical power structures. If those at the bottom of the hierarchy have equal access to the divine as do those at the top, it obviates the need for the hierarchy. Also, the game of “I know god’s will but you don’t so you need to listen to me if you want to go to heaven” becomes impossible to play. There is no heaven, there is no hell, and we all have access to divinity.

This post is dedicated to the memory of my friend Byron, who would have been 40 today, and probably would have humoured me by listening to all these musings.