A matter of more than linguistics

I just read a column in the Advocate that has disturbed me greatly. The author seems to think that transsexuals should just accept their birth sex and live their lives without making a big fuss about being the wrong sex. It reminds me of the tracts I have read that seem to indicate gays won’t be gay if they just try to act more manly and try to like girls. I have heard such attitudes before, but reading them in the Advocate seems a low blow. I have heard some say that if a person has a penis or a y chromosome, then that person is a male, man, boy, etc. and never can be any thing but that no matter how they feel and no matter how they live or even if they have surgery that eradicates all outward signs of their birth sex.

I have also read articles about transsexual frogs. It seems if you expose certain male frogs to certain chemicals, they act like female frogs. I have read an article that show there may be measurable differences in the brain between men and women and that some transsexuals show patterns more like the sex that they feel they are and not that to which they were born. I know that key research by John Money that said that if you raise a boy as a girl (including perfoming the sex change at a very young age), the child will adjust normally to being a girl, was shown to be tragically false.

Great Debate: So-called transsexuals can’t cross the sex barrier, those born with xy and penis are male and those born xx and no penis are female, GET OVER IT vs. Transsexuals are just trying to align physical sex to psychological sex, MTF transsexuals are really women and FTM transsexuals are really men, DEAL WITH IT.

sub great debate: The Advocate should not publish what amounts to hate speech against part of their readership vs. The Advocate was just publishing a colum that expressed an opinion, so what?

The Advocate is a piece of trash. It’s all military, boy scouts, gay marriage, gay marriage, boy scouts, and then if you’re lucky you get the back page being about gay youth suicide or transgendered rights or homophobic violence or SOMETHING IMPORTANT. If you’re not lucky, you get a goddamned bloody moron like Norah Vincent.

They don’t give a shit about queer youth. They don’t give a shit about queer people of colour. They don’t give a shit about poor or homeless queer people, queer drug abuse, transgendered people, queer people in other countries, body fascism, or anything that suggests that gay weddings are of lesser immediate concern than gay funerals. I get better queer news from XY magazine, for gods’ sake.

Made bad English into a dialect? That’s what happens when you get your linguistics education from the preface to a dictionary, I guess.


Uh, Hazel? Which thread did you mean to post that in?

After reading the article linked to in the OP, I disagree that the writer is saying what the OP claims. He explicitly agrees with the idea that gender is socially constructed and that people should feel free to present whatever gender markers they want to the public regardless of their chromosomes. (And I agree with him.) He also says, however, that sex is an unchangeable biological characteristic, but that too many people want to blur the distinction between gender and sex. (I agree with this, too.)

I think the article is poorly written, though, because he doesn’t really approach his thesis until the penultimate paragraph: “So why, as adults, do transsexuals mutilate their bodies in order to make them conform to the fashionable version of the opposite sex and gender? That only reinforces oppressive stereotypes every bit as much as liposuction or a bimbo’s boob job. If you’re a man in a woman’s body, then live androgynously if you’re such a revolutionary. Don’t conform. I do it every day, and it isn’t particularly easy. Half the time I’m sir, and half the time I’m ma’am, and that’s how it should be when sex and gender don’t matter.”

He appears to be questioning why many transsexuals feel the need to go through SRS, and feels that they may be succumbing to the popular culture’s idea that to present feminine gender markers in everyday life (like, say, skirts, heels, hose and makeup), you should also have a vagina and breasts. That is, society’s idea is that your secondary sexual characteristics should be in agreement with your clothes, hair and appearance.

I think it’s a valid argument on its face, and changes the debate somewhat as proposed in the OP. If you really want to wear a dress and eyeliner to work every day, should you also feel compelled to get your penis and testicles removed? Certainly there’s the testimony of many transsexuals who state that they always felt that their penis (or vagina and breasts, for FTM transsexuals) were invaders, foreign parts they wanted to get rid of, like an extra leg or a ginat boil. Could that feeling also, perhaps, be instilled through a cultural process, and not be innate?

My feeling is that I don’t think anyone should feel they should have to make their sexual organs line up with the popular conception of what they should be based on gender markers. If they want to, though, more power to them.

Well, this sort of ties into an arguement we are having on another thread. Without expressing an opinion on the main debate in the OP, I think there is intolerance on both sides of the homosexual debate. Labelling something “hate speech” just because you have a different take on it is as intolerant as demonizing homosexuals in general.

You do know, of course, that Norah Vincent (the author of the article in question) is a woman; calling her “he” is perhaps a bit unfair?

Mea maxima culpa! I read it as “Noah Vincent.” D’oh!

Still, he, she, it’s all good, right? :wink:

And that last sentence is where you diverge from Ms. Vincent. She’s saying, Don’t get the surgery you want. Continue to swim while wearing a wedding dress. You’re a pathetic anti-feminist unradical dupe if you get transgender surgery. It’s people like her who poison the inclusiveness of the queer rights movement.

That you got this impression that the article author believes this suggests so very clearly that the article author understands nothing about what it’s like to be transsexual, and yet is writing as if she in fact had some clue.

Clearly not. But that’s not the article author’s point. Her point is not only that you should not feel compelled to do so, but that you should not do so even if you might otherwise want to. Personally, I would rather not have to wear eyeliner and am rather agnostic on the issue of dresses, but I have quite strong feelings about my genitals. Norah, like so many others in the so-called “gay community”, has conflated transsexualism with transvesticism. One of the unfortunate side effects of lumping all the various forms of gender incongruence into a “T” awkwardly stapled onto the end of the already awkward GLB.

I sincerely doubt it.

I sound like a broken record, don’t I? I think I’ll shut up about it for a while.


  1. I tend to agree with Matt, although not quite so vehemently.

  2. I thought that Phil’s faux pas:

…nicely summed up the whole issue.

i.e. Who cares? Let 'em be what they want to be – never mind whether they’ve had surgery or whatever. Or have I gotten the whole issue of the infamous “butch vs. femme gays” Pit thread all wrong?

Now let me get one thing clear at the beginning. I believe in the right to reasignment surgery, even in Britain on the NHS, paid for by the state. I have worked with people who have had this problem of gender dysphoria.

Further, I am fully aware of the varieties of indicators of gender:

‘Prins notes that Bancroft (Bancroft J, 1989, Human Sexuality and its Problems (second edition) London: Churchill Livingstone.) notes:
‘”…gender can be manifested in at least seven different ways:
(1) Chromosomes;
(2) Gonads;
(3) Hormones;
(4) Internal sexual organs;
(5) External genitalia and secondary sexual characteristics;
(6) The gender assigned at birth (‘it’s a boy’);
(7) Gender identity (‘I’m a girl’)”’’

Despite all of the above, I am at a loss to distinguish adeqautely between a firmly fixed false belief that ‘I am the wrong gender’ (gender dysphoria) and the firmly fixed false belief that ‘hidden forces are out to get me’ (paranoia).

I cannot get a grip on the philospohical similarity between these two thought processes and the societal reaction difference to the two processes.

With gender dysphoria we are willing to allow and encourage major physical, psychological and cultural changes to allow the person to accommodate themselves to their belief, whereas in the case of paranoia we go to extreme lengths to correct the persons belief and so accommodate their beliefs to the real world.

Interesting, huh!

Funny you should mention Dr. Bancroft. I know him personally.

The difference is that paranoia is objectively false (“hidden forces are NOT out to get you”) but gender dysphoria is not. There is no objective way to measure gender identity, so someone’s constructed gender identity cannot be objectively true or false. I’d also point out that gender dysphoria is not the belief that “My gender is wrong” but rather that “my body does not match my gender”. At least, that’s how it is for me.

Surgical reassignment is not the only way to reconcile a discongruence between gender identity and physical sex. There are a lot of people with mild gender dysphorias who deal with it through therapy alone, with or without social role reassignment. The problem is that we’ve found that with moderate to severe dysphoria, the long-time efficacy of less “drastic” approaches is poor, while surgical reassignment generally offers a good chance of long-term results.

You can’t surgically remove “hidden forces”, but you can surgically remove unwanted genitals. Hence the difference.

No, not really. For a long time they regarded “I was born wanting to have sex with other men” as a firmly fixed false belief.

*Originally posted by KellyM *


OK, try these:

1/ Gender dysphoria leading to gender reassignment surgery (accepted practice)

2/ Belief that a limb is not really part of you (body dysmorphobia)- very dificult to persuade a surgeon to amputate

3/ Belief that you are not worthy of life and should therefore be able to kill oneself without outside intervention (and possibly, if one is incapable, of demanding assistance if unable to carry out the action) (psychotic depression)- almost impossible to allow within a hospital setting without major professional problems.

There is a contimuum of intervention, and I am not sure why.

Additionally, I do not understand your argument that


If you can claim that you ‘know’ that your body is the wrong sexual type for you, how does this differ in an objective way from true paranoia- that you cannot trust the world and you always seem to be done down by outsuide forces. Both beliefs can be either accepted as an indisputable first person account of their world view, or discounted as a mental aberration.

If we accept that first person claims of identity are unquestionable, then we run into problems with, for instance, one client who was undeniably WASP in appearance and cultural background, but insisted that his racial identity was African. Did that mean that he was African ( or what, thank God he never requested, surgery to correct his features should be carried out.

I repeat for emphasis that I am not angainst geneder reassignment surgery, just interested in the many and varied ways that we interpret mental difference.

In reply to matt_mcl:

This is another illustration of the continuum. When I started training, Homosexuality was still listed as a mental disorder. Then suddenly it was no longer recorded as such. What had changed other than its social construction?

The problem is that you don’t understand the purpose of psychotherapeutic intervention (which I find frightening since you seem to be in the field). The goal of any medical or psychotherapeutic intervention is to “improve the life of the patient”; it is not to further some theory of human existence or identity. Experience has shown that surgical genital reconstruction generally yields improvement in the lives of the patients who qualify for it under the standards of care heretofore developed; most post-surgical patients seem to lead fulfilling, satisfying lives, and generally that they live better ones than similarly-placed individuals who do not obtain reassignment. It’s less clear that limb amputations for apotemnophilia yield improvements in quality of life (see this thread). It’s quite clear that assisted suicide does not improve quality of life except in the case of the terminally ill.

This is also a large part of why nondystonic homosexuality was dropped as a disorder: people who are comfortable with their sexual identity do not require intervention. They are not “disordered”. Homosexuals who are not able to cope with being homosexual are disordered, and that disorder is still listed in the DSM as “dystonic homosexuality” with a recommended treatment of counseling to accept their homosexuality. What happened is that the medical establishment has recognized that in most cases, patients achieve better long-term results in life by accepting their homosexuality than by trying to change it. Paranoiacs, on the other hand, seem to achieve better long-term results with therapy constructed to rid them of their paranoia. Obviously, this is empirical evidence, but that’s medicine for you.

Medicine isn’t about philosophy; it’s about making people’s lives better by whatever means available. If you want theory and philosophy, stick to research psychology or something, and leave healing people to the doctors.

To KellyM:

Your response indicates a high level of emotion that may have blinded you to what I have said several times.

I do agree that, as you say ‘The goal of any medical or psychotherapeutic intervention is to “improve the life of the patient”’. I have made it clear that I believe that gender reassignment surgery is appropriate for this very reason. If anything, my practice was (I am just retired) seen to be well to the libertarian and humanistic side of the field, despite conservative professional dynamics that are often found within treatment organizations.

However, it is not posible to remain solely a therapist, and as a teacher I have had a long interest in the way that society (including the medical profession) compartmentalises various human behaviours as either illness or not, and remain fascinated by the cases that sit particularly close to the boundaries between normal/abnormal, acceptable/not acceptable, illness/not illness as they are variously constructed in different societies and in different times.

Among these ‘boundary’ cases is the social treatment of gender dysphoria, and as it was raised by the OP I thought that a discussion of where this ‘experience’ currently fits into the strange taxonomy of such non-normative experiences that may be construed as illness, badness, chosen behaviour, blame-worthy on the one hand, and normative (or at least accepted within societal norms of tolerance) o the other.

At no time have I suggested that gender dysphoria is in any way not to be responded to in the most positive manner; only that there is s potential valuable critique of the concept of normality that may be illuminated by a consideration of the societal treatment of gender dysphoria.

Therapy and ‘philosophy’ are not separable, for any therapy will rely on a philosophical base. Atempting therapy without a consideration of its philosophical base is highly likely to lead to mechanistic and non-humanistic intervention.

Having re-read and edited my reply, and toned it down, I still feel I should ask you in advance to please excuse my apparent high level of emotion!

It really depends on where you go though. At age 12 in sweden you can kill yourself over your parents wishes. I kind of see where your getting at but your really going to have to spell out what your critique is if you want to argue about it. Your critique is too much based on your own experience, with the limited information you’ve said, for anyone else to gain the same idea as you.

Of course she’s emotional about it; this issue deeply affects her life. I’m very emotional when it comes to issues of homophobia, Canadian nationalism, university education, police brutality, and the like. That doesn’t mean what I - or she - had to say can be dismissed!