Why Be Just One Sex?

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Why Be Just One Sex?

Magazine article

By: Gloria Kim

Date: September 12, 2005,

Source: Kim, Gloria. "Why Be Just One Sex?" MacLean's 118, no. 37 (September 12, 2005): 52-53.

About the Author: Gloria Kim is a staff writer for MacLean's magazine.


Transsexuality, in which members of one biological sex adopt the physical attributes of the other, emerged as an independent sexual orientation in the mid-twentieth century, distinct from homosexuality and transvestism. In an attempt to maintain the gender norms considered necessary to social order, however, physicians and psychologists defined trans-sexuality in negative terms.

The growth of medical technology did little to change negative attitudes towards transsexuals, but did make it possible for such individuals to change their anatomy. The earliest case of sex reassignment surgery (SRS) apparently occurred in Germany in 1930 when a hermaphrodite designated to be male received ovaries. By midcentury, Scandinavia led the world in SRSs. The first known American transsexual, Christine Jorgensen (formerly known as George W. Jorgensen, Jr.) traveled to Denmark in 1952 for the surgery. The publicity surrounding Jorgensen's operation helped educate the public about the differences between homosexuality, transvestism, and transsexuality.

After the Jorgensen case, American physicians began to offer SRS to men. Women seeking SRS continued to face strong opposition, a difference due in part not only to the difficulties of constructing an artificial penis, but also a cultural resistance to allowing women to claim masculinity and its privileged status. The best-known transsexuals have received male-to-female surgery, including mountain climber Jan Mor-ris (James Morris) and tennis player Renee Richards (Richard Raskin) in the 1970s.


THE FIRST THING THAT strikes you about Sally is her eyes. Bright blue, they're the kind that inspire songs. The next thing you notice is how she moves. Sally is poised the way dancers are, the result of taking movement classes with a runway model. She inspires courtliness from those around her, including the waiter who helps her into her chair. By the time you notice her muscular build and she tells you she was born in a male body and lives about half the time as a man, it's too late. You already think of this 45-year-old as a woman.

Sally (not her real name) is one of a growing group of people who identify not as male or female, but as trans-gendered. It's an umbrella term that describes people who are born of one biological sex but feel they belong to the other, or both, and don't necessarily want sex reassignment surgery. "There's definitely a social movement of transgendered people trying to break down the binary system and expressing themselves in whatever way they want," says Lukas Walther, a counselor at the Vancouver-based Transgender Health Program and a female-to-male transsexual. "There's more fluidity with bodies and gender and freedom of expression."

"They even have new terms, "gender-queer' or 'gender-fluid,'" says Rupert Raj, counselor at the Toronto-based Sherbourne Health Centre, and himself a transsexual who was born female. "They mean an openness to not being boxed in to either sexual orientation or gender identity. Sometimes they want hormones and no surgery. Sometimes they want surgery and no hormones. Sometimes they don't want either."

Most people are familiar with transsexuals, who have had sex-change operations, such as much-publicized individuals Christine Jorgensen (the ex-GI turned blond bombshell performer in the 1950s), Tula (actress Caroline Cossey), a Bond girl in For Your Eyes Only, and tennis star Renee Richards. But society and the medical community are just learning about transgendered people. The American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders IV classifies trans-genderism and transsexualism as disorders (in much the same way homosexuality was considered a mental illness before it was de-listed in 1973), and estimates that "roughly 1 per 30,000 adult males and 1 per 100,000 adult females seek sex-reassignment surgery." But many health care professionals believe a substantial number of cases are not reported, because of a lingering social stigma and the fact that many transgendered people don't seek surgery.

GROWING UP as a boy, Sally had no words to describe what she felt. "Harry," as we'll call him, just knew he was different. He was always more comfortable with his mother than his aggressive father, and he enjoyed trying on his sister's clothes. His dad "wanted me to play hockey and be a man's man," Sally recalls, "and I just couldn't be that for him." During puberty, Harry found out about cross-dressers or transvestites. This, he thought, must be him. After all, he didn't want a sex-change operation, so he wasn't a transsexual. Besides, he was attracted to women. He married and went on to run his own business. Privately, with his wife's support, he indulged in cross-dressing. Then one summer, while they were vacationing in California, a salesgirl in a fetish store gave him an entire makeover—hair, clothes and makeup. Harry walked out of the store as Sally, knowing there was something more to his feelings than just having fun wearing his wife's panties.

Many people like Sally consider themselves gender outlaws, playing outside the standard definitions of man and woman. But current thinking on gender is coming around to the concept that sex, like sexual preference, isn't an either/or proposition, but rather a continuum. Transgender studies have become a hot new area of scholarship as more transgendered academics come out and publish. Philosophy professor Michael Gilbert of Toronto's York University is a "committed cross-dresser" who started teaching periodically as Miqqi Alicia Gilbert in 1996, after he received tenure. "When we're born, the doctor takes a peek between our legs and says, 'Oh, it's a boy or girl,' and that's the end of it," Gilbert notes. "But there are a huge number of people who are not comfortable with that. Not all are cross-dressers or transsexuals. Some are tomboys who resent having to play a feminine role. Some are 'sissies' who didn't want to play sports but were forced to. I think of gender as analogous to eyesight—there are many different prescriptions."

Scientists are learning there's much more to sexual differentiation than just what's between our legs. First comes chromosomal differentiation—XY for men, XX for women. Then we develop either ovaries or testes. Next comes the difference in genitalia and, finally, the differentiation of the brain into male and female. In 1995, scientists at the Netherlands Institute for Brain Research and Amsterdam's Free University Hospital found there's one brain structure essential to sexual behaviour that develops between the ages of 2 and 4, as a result of interaction between the developing brain and sex hormones. When they are examined this area of the brain in male-to-female transsexuals, they found it matched those of females more than males.

Nature furnishes multiple examples of gender variation. Stanford University biologist Joan Roughgarden, herself a transsexual, shows in her book Evolution's Rainbow: Diversity, Gender and Sexuality in Nature and People that in plants and about half of the animal world, the most common body form is both male and female, either simultaneously or at different times of life. Many species have three or more genders. Roughgarden challenges the prevailing notion that diversity in biology is a deviation from an ideal "norm." Instead, she suggests diversity is the norm. She cites data indicating the incidence of male-to-female transsexualism in the U.S. is close to one in 500.

And ambiguous gender identity among humans isn't just a modern Western phenomenon. Various societies have traditions of transgendered people. In Polynesia, the transgendered are often called mahu (half-man, half-woman), and are identified before the onset of puberty. Among North American First Nations, transgendered people—known as "two-spirited"—have been held in high esteem, serving as religious leaders or warriors.

OF MI'KMAQ heritage, Alec Butler, born Audrey, identifies as two-spirited. He's a playwright, filmmaker and "trans" policy adviser at the 519 Church Street Community Centre in Toronto. At 46, without having had surgery or hormone treatment, he looks like a stocky, grey-bearded male rocker. "It's not that I felt that I was a guy," he says, "it's just that from an early age, I knew that I wasn't a girl. I was always getting mistaken for a boy, even when I was little." When puberty hit and Audrey started growing facial hair, her alarmed parents took her to see a slew of doctors, all of whom were puzzled. Eventually, she moved to Toronto from Cape Breton Island and started to grow a beard. She was spat on and called names because she had breasts she didn't bind. At 40, Audrey took the final step, changed her name to Alex and assumed a male identity.

Such indignities are not uncommon. "Trans people are one of the only groups left that people feel they have the right to insult to their faces," says Walther in Vancouver. "I have clients come in regularly who've had coffee thrown on them." The discrimination extends to the medical community, where many believe either that cross-gender behaviour can be corrected, or that the transgendered should be encouraged to get a full sexchange operation.

Vancouver MP Bill Siksay sees a need for better legal protection for people caught up in gender issues. The NDPer has introduced a private member's bill, given first reading in May, that would amend the Human Rights Act to include gender identity and gender expression as prohibited grounds of discrimination. "In terms of formal or legislative equality, trans rights are the next frontier," says Gilles Marchildon, executive director of Egale Canada, a gay, lesbian, bi, and trans advocacy group in Ottawa. "Trans people are where the gay and lesbian rights movement was a couple decades ago."

Unemployment, homelessness, suicidal tendencies, and self-harm—all are issues health care workers cite as commonplace among trans people. Even the simplest pleasures, like going to the gym or swimming pool, are out for someone like Alec Butler, Still, trans people like Sally and Alex prefer not to have surgery. "I don't have a penis," says Alec, "but I have a penis in my head. I don't think genitals make gender." For Sally, who runs her business as a man, surgery could mean losing her livelihood.

But she'd never want to give up her female persona. Once, she met a man in the cafeteria of a department store where a friend worked. Afterwards, the man told her friend that he had fallen in love with the most beautiful girl—it was her eyes that haunted him. The only thing was, he said, he had to know if she wanted children, because having a family was so important to him. "I said to my girlfriend, 'Don't you dare tell him,'" says Sally. "I couldn't break his heart."


In contrast to Native American societies that recognize a third gender, Western society defines an individual as either male or female, with a sharp, distinguishing differences between the sexes. This social system has created inequalities that place men and masculinity above women and femininity. It also stigmatizes transsexuals who threaten male power by challenging the system.

Even at the beginning of the twenty-first century transsexuals frequently suffer discrimination in employment and housing as well as public harassment. Opponents of transsexuality, who support conservative definitions of gender, question whether transsexuals should be able to teach school, marry, and adopt children.

To cope with such widespread public hostility, transsexuals established dozens of support and advocacy organizations, including the American Educational Gender Information Service in 1990 and the Transgender Law and Policy Institute in 1991. These organizations promote legal protections for transsexuals, although only a handful of states, including California, Minnesota, New Mexico, and Rhode Island, have passed laws prohibiting discrimination against transgendered people. As SRS becomes more common, howver, Americans are less likely to see transsexuals as a menace.



Bullough, Bonnie, Vern L. Bullough, and James Elias, eds. Gender Blending. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1997.

Califia-Rice, Patrick. Sex Changes: The Politics of Transgenderism. San Francisco: Cleis Press, 2003.

Hausman, Bernice L. Changing Sex: Transsexualism, Technology, and the Idea of Gender. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1995.

Lev, Arlene Istar. Transgender Emergence: Therapeutic Guidelines for Working with Gender-Variant People and Their Families. New York: Haworth Clinical Practice Press, 2004.

Web sites

Transgender Law and Policy Institute. "News" 〈http://www.transgenderlaw.org〉 (accessed March 26, 2006).