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April 26, 2007 8:55 AM   Subscribe

"I am a transsexual sportswriter," reads Mike (soon to be Christine) Penner's touching, brave column in today's L.A. Times. Although Mike's transgender identity is rare, it's natural ... and it seems that he is not alone. Christina Karl started her sportswriting career as Chris, and according to her, "nobody has batted an eye." Nip/Tuck's creators are even developing a series about a transsexual sportswriter's career and family life. One thing's for sure: the USTA's non-discrimination policy just got a lot more blurry ...
posted by chinese_fashion (74 comments total)

 
"Although Mike's transgender identity is rare, it's natural"

What does this mean?
posted by OmieWise at 9:02 AM on April 26, 2007


What does this mean?

It means that transpeople, while a minority, shouldn't be seen as freaks — no? I guess it's a little oddly worded, but I think I got the gist of it.
posted by nebulawindphone at 9:11 AM on April 26, 2007


OmniWise, it's a paraphrase from the linked article.
posted by treepour at 9:12 AM on April 26, 2007


Oops, replace Omni with Omie. Sorry.
posted by treepour at 9:13 AM on April 26, 2007


"Although Mike's transgender identity is rare, it's natural"

What does this mean?


Well, a lot of people feel that trans folk are sick / damaged in some way that accounts for their "deviant behavior". I presume that ChiFash was just taking a few words to mention that this notion is bigoted bullshit.
posted by Squid Voltaire at 9:14 AM on April 26, 2007


Squid Voltaire, treepour: you are both right on.
posted by chinese_fashion at 9:16 AM on April 26, 2007


Well, a lot of people feel that trans folk are sick / damaged in some way that accounts for their "deviant behavior".

Also -- "Well, a lot of people feel that *gay/lesbian* folk are sick / damaged in some way that accounts for their "deviant behavior."
posted by ericb at 9:20 AM on April 26, 2007


I presume that ChiFash was just taking a few words to mention that this notion is bigoted bullshit.

Well, sure, but given the contested nature of the term "natural" in this context, it's infelicitous, to say the least. I'm not trying to be snarky or obtuse, but when the very category at question is one which privileges non-material identities over material identities, and uses that as an argument for changing the human body through surgery, it's strange to call it "natural" with no exploration of that term. It's also strange given the complete lack of any information, let alone consensus, about what causes trans-sexual feelings.
posted by OmieWise at 9:26 AM on April 26, 2007


Mike (soon to be Christine) Penner's

Actually, according to the end of the column, that should read "Mike Penner's (soon to be Christine Daniels')." I'm actually curious about the choice to change last names (maybe there's a relationship involved?). For that matter, it's interesting to me how someone goes about choosing what their new first name will be -- I know that many (though certainly not all) try for a variant of their previous name.

Anyway, that's all OT, and really is just curiosity. For the rest of it, good on you, MikeChristine. There's so little happiness in the world, I heartily applaud anyone who finds a way to increase their share.
posted by pardonyou? at 9:40 AM on April 26, 2007


OmieWise, I think the context you're looking for the use of the word "natural" is in the article itself. From the article:
Transsexualism is a complicated and widely misunderstood medical condition. It is a natural occurrence — unusual, no question, but natural.

Recent studies have shown that such physiological factors as genetics and hormonal fluctuations during pregnancy can significantly affect how our brains are "wired" at birth.

As extensive therapy and testing have confirmed, my brain was wired female.
You may or may not find that a sufficient definition, but I think does give at least a sense of what's at stake for the author in the use of the term.
posted by treepour at 9:45 AM on April 26, 2007


treepour,

Yeah, it's totally inadequate as either explanation or basis for any sort of public or private action.
TranssexualismSchizophrenia is a complicated and widely misunderstood medical condition. It is a natural occurrence — unusual, no question, but natural.

Recent studies have shown that such physiological factors as genetics and hormonal fluctuations during pregnancy can significantly affect how our brains are "wired" at birth.

As extensive therapy and testing have confirmed, my brain was wired female.
This is definitely a pet peeve of mine, that comes up an awful lot with transgender and transsexual issues, an unsophisticated recourse to the very categories which are being challenged by the issue in question. It's a poor strategy because it cuts both ways with almost no effort, and it's a poor strategy because it's inane on it's face: why should we accept the insistence that a brain being "wired" a particular way trumps the body being "constructed" in a particular way? The argument from nature doesn't say, but it doesn't take much reflection to conclude that if we're forced to seek recourse in empiricism, then visual evidence should probably be trumping phenomenology.

Note that this isn't in any way an argument for restricting rights, or indeed, for or against the existence of transgender/transsexuality, it's a substantial objection to the way that this gets framed.
posted by OmieWise at 10:07 AM on April 26, 2007 [2 favorites]


FWIW, I've always wondered how this whole "trans" thing works and didn't get the "natural" reference either -- treepour, that pull quote gives me something new to ponder.
posted by pax digita at 10:09 AM on April 26, 2007


OmieWise, I'm not sure I'm following you. Say we consider the brain the bodily organ which produces, among other things, an "inner sense" of gendered identity. I don't see a problem with the suggestion that the brain may have developed in such a way that this "inner sense" doesn't match one's biological sex.
posted by treepour at 10:27 AM on April 26, 2007


Well, leaving aside for a moment any debate about brain v. mind, I don't see any problem with it either. My point is that if you want to start talking about transgender/transsexual things being "natural," you either have to explain why the feeling of being a certain gender trumps the physical manifestation (also, most emphatically, a product of nature) of a different gender, or the term has no meaning. After all, we all know that the mind can and does produce many feelings which lead to deeply felt beliefs, which we almost all agree may be "natural" feelings without leading to "natural" outcomes.

To put it another way, how do you know which is the right "natural" thing to pay attention to when your brain is naturally wired one way (a formulation I find highly suspect, but I'm accepting it for this purpose) and your body naturally grows another?
posted by OmieWise at 10:40 AM on April 26, 2007


It's a poor strategy because it cuts both ways with almost no effort, and it's a poor strategy because it's inane on it's face: why should we accept the insistence that a brain being "wired" a particular way trumps the body being "constructed" in a particular way?
Hi Omie,

We already do accept this for homosexuality. If a gay man says that his brain is just wired to find other men attractive, we don't say "But your *body* is male and as such constructed to have sex with females."

We recognize a gay man's identity as something he doesn't have control over, and yeah, our respect of that does trump reproductive functions. We accept that a gay man isn't "confused" about his body or his sexual preference, because we instead accept that his sexual identity is just that way.

Why shouldn't we ask society to accept the same with transpeople, but with gender instead of sex? I don't find it inane at all.
posted by cotterpin at 10:48 AM on April 26, 2007


I think this is great, it's good to have trans people in the public eye, and they should be accepted, but the way it's being talked about in the article is going to, at best, simply replace one sort of gender essentialism (physical sex) with another (mental sex).

I suppose this is progress, but it still falls short of addressing gender as the complicated an nuanced thing that it really is. This is still reinforcing a standard where everyone is expected to hold to one gender expression or the other. In reality, physical sex, mental sex, sexual orientation, and ordinary gender role compliance all factor in to allow for many different expressions of gender.

Transsexualism is just one extreme expression of this, more visible because of the diametic opposition of what is normative.
posted by Arturus at 10:51 AM on April 26, 2007


The fact that men have nipples is reason enough for me to believe that a transgender person is a natural occurence.
posted by disgruntled at 10:51 AM on April 26, 2007


we don't say "But your *body* is male and as such constructed to have sex with females."

Well, I have problems with the recursive appeals to "nature" in the pro and con homosex debate as well, but then I've never been much a a mind-brain reductionist, and I think evolutionary psychology is a crock.

That aside, however, you raise a very poor analogy. The counter to your argument is very simple: If my body is constructed to have sex with women, why do men have mouths and assholes? We don't disregard the argument of gender complementarity because we believe that gay men are wired to find other men attractive, we disregard it because the fact that homosex is possible obviates it as an argument.

In the case of transsexualism, on the other hand, what we're being asked to do, philosophically, and by this argument, is authorize the physical alteration of the body because the mind feels it should be different. You still haven't explained why that should be so.

Again, I'm not making an argument about transsexuality, I'm making a point (or trying to) about the "it's natural" argument for transsexuality.
posted by OmieWise at 11:08 AM on April 26, 2007


To put it another way, how do you know which is the right "natural" thing to pay attention to when your brain is naturally wired one way (a formulation I find highly suspect, but I'm accepting it for this purpose) and your body naturally grows another?

OmieWise, I think I see your point -- thanks for clarifying. I can think of a few responses:

1) Accepting one version (biological sex) as more fundamentally "natural" produces an unbearable cognitive dissonance for the transgendered person whereas accepting the other (gender identity) resolves this dissonance.

2) The word "natural" is being used in two ultimately incommensurable ways. The author's version of "natural" means something like: "Transexualism isn't a choice, it's beyond my control, I've been this way for as long as can remember, it's not a reflection of my moral character, I deserve to be treated with the same dignity and respect as a non-transexual person." Your version of natural, on the other hand, has more to do with a claim about the ontological priority of one phenomenon over another.

Whether "natural" should be used as shorthand for "it isn't a choice, etc . . . " (and I think it's a very interesting question), it seems to me this use of the term is quite common.
posted by treepour at 11:34 AM on April 26, 2007


Well, this may be low-hanging fruit, but consider: "Although John's psychopath tendencies are rare, they're natural".

In that sense it comes down to semantics, i.e. "If it exists in nature then it is natural", leaving one no other option than to conclude that four-legged ducks are natural, or that cystic fibrosis is natural.

On this basis I agree with you, Omie (although "OmniWise" is hella cool), that the linguistic framing here is misleading and ill-advised.

But then again,

I think evolutionary psychology is a crock.

That's a bold statement. Really? Why?
posted by goodnewsfortheinsane at 11:40 AM on April 26, 2007


Omie, genitals are there, biologically, for reproductive function. The possibility of non-reproductive sex doesn't change that. And when we're talking about "natural", it's in the context of biological process, not possibility.

In any case, the focus on the body is orthogonal to the point. I am saying that I believe the identity is natually occurring. So the "it's natural" argument says that the people exist naturally, surgery or not. I see a clear parallel with homosexuality, which is to say that gay people exist even if they're not having gay sex.

In those terms, the idea of "authorizing" surgery sounds silly to me. If we didn't authorize it, what would we accomplish? Deny treatment and it makes gender identity issues go away? No, no more than stopping gay sex will eliminate gay people.
posted by cotterpin at 11:42 AM on April 26, 2007


What about other cases where one's identity and one's body are disjunct? For example, suppose I identify as a member of another race, and want to change my physical attributes accordingly. Do we take this as somehow more deceptive, or less natural, than a sex change?
posted by kid ichorous at 11:44 AM on April 26, 2007


The counter to your argument is very simple: If my body is constructed to have sex with women, why do men have mouths and assholes?

Oh oh! I know this one! One's for eating and one's a handy place to store your head.

Do I get a gold star?
posted by chairface at 11:57 AM on April 26, 2007 [2 favorites]


The fact that men have nipples is reason enough for me to believe that a transgender person is a natural occurence.

Men have nipples because all vertebrate embryos start development as female, until an enzyme or something kicks in and male development begins. If you look, for example, at that seam that runs along your perineum, up your scrotum, and partway up your cock? It's where the proto-labia fused together during gestation. Men have nipples because women have nipples. Whether that has something to do with being trans, I'm not sure. Perhaps MTF transpeople were developing as female, and oops, the wrong enzyme got switched on. Vice versa for FTM transpeople of course.
posted by dirtynumbangelboy at 12:12 PM on April 26, 2007


The word "natural" is being used in two ultimately incommensurable ways. The author's version of "natural" means something like: "Transexualism isn't a choice, it's beyond my control, I've been this way for as long as can remember, it's not a reflection of my moral character, I deserve to be treated with the same dignity and respect as a non-transexual person." Your version of natural, on the other hand, has more to do with a claim about the ontological priority of one phenomenon over another.

My point is, that while I agree with your formulation about transexualism not being a choice, "natural" is in fact being used in both senses by the author. The second meaning is meant to validate the first, as if something natural cannot therefore be challenged. That's why I find it a stupid use, and precisely why I think it's a bad way to frame any kind of argument for or against transsexual rights or responsibilities. In that sense cotterpins analogy is a perfect illustration—if something can be plausibly used as an argument on either side, we should be wary of the construct. In this case, the term "natural" is so fraught with societal construction as to be worthless, and in fact even dangerous, as a basis for acceptance or rights.


In those terms, the idea of "authorizing" surgery sounds silly to me. If we didn't authorize it, what would we accomplish? Deny treatment and it makes gender identity issues go away?

You continue to misunderstand my position. No where am I arguing about any aspect of transsexual rights. I'm very carefully suggesting that if you want to argue for those rights you could do much worse than to find a better basis for it that what's "natural." In that sense, again, your analogy provides some illumination: I thought penises were there for urination, not procreation. The argument for nature is confused by the very broad sense of what's natural. Ultimately it takes a fiat to decide which version of nature we're going to accept as final for the sake of argument.

I find the comparison with homosexuality really troubling. Is there really no difference between a sex act and irreversible surgery? I understand why, in identity politics terms, transsexuals cast in their lot under the queer banner, but because something is politically expedient doesn't make it right, or even a good idea.

Again, I have to stress that I'm not trying to make an argument about transsexuality itself, but I have to ask on what basis the subjective feeling of discordant gender is granted exceptional status, versus, say, schizophrenia or synesthesia? We recognize wide variation in human experience, all presumably natural in the sense that "the people exist naturally," but we also recognize many instances where "natural" is not admitted as "normal." That's a good thing. There is such a thing as psychological norms, and there is a societal interest in curtailing the unmitigated freedoms of people who do not fall within those norms. This is also a good thing. Again, I'm arguing by analogy here, I'm not suggesting that discordant gender feelings are the same as schizophrenia. I'm trying to stress that both are natural, they occur in nature, they occur in people. However, in the case of transsexualism, the argument is frequently that that naturalness should somehow translate to normality. Why should that be the case? Why don't we make similar arguments for schizophrenics who are sometimes a danger to themselves or others?
posted by OmieWise at 12:19 PM on April 26, 2007


Is there really no difference between a sex act and irreversible surgery?

Not much, no. Because you're missing the precursor to both of those things: sexual identity. In the case of what you term a 'sex act' (which, please, it's not. My being gay is a lot more than just getting off. It's also about love and companionship and who I want to have that with. But I digress) the sexual identity, of whatever stripe, pushes you towards attraction to a particular gender. No modification--except of societal norms and, possibly, laws--is required.

In the case of irreversible surgery, that is what's required in order to express identity. But again, the common thread between the two is sexual identity.
posted by dirtynumbangelboy at 12:28 PM on April 26, 2007


That's a bold statement. Really? Why?

gnfti, you can call me OMNI. So We Decree.

It just doesn't seem that useful to me, and I'm suspect of the motives of many of the researchers. I think psychology is rooted in but not reducible to biology, just as I think that biology is rooted in but not reducible to chemistry. I find evolutionary psych to be reductive in the extreme.

I'm also not sure what it really tells us. Of course evolution shaped humanity (Lord knows it wasn't god), and so it's interesting to speculate on how that affected human development, but I haven't been convinced that natural selection is responsible for all aspects of current human life and psychology, or even the most major aspects. Evolutionary psych attempts to determine the causes for the major aspects of human behavior, but in my view it's our humanity that makes that behavior human, not vice versa. In other words, while some things translate quite easily into an evolutionary model (parental nurturing connected to the biological pre-maturity of the human infant), other things seem to me to run the other way (altruism need not be selected for in order to confer an advantage to humans).

Decidedly unscientific as a response, but the variations in human psychology seem broad enough to resist the kind of reduction that evolutionary psych represents. (I also don't think that mental illness is determined by biology, although I can see why the opposite might be true.)
posted by OmieWise at 12:32 PM on April 26, 2007


My being gay is a lot more than just getting off. It's also about love and companionship and who I want to have that with.

This is, of course, exactly right, and all the more reason why the notion that the only way to express sexual identity is through surgery is problematic.
posted by OmieWise at 12:35 PM on April 26, 2007


Er, no, that doesn't make it problematic in the slightest. One cannot express a female sexual identity with male genitalia. Or, rather, one can only do so to a very rough approximation. While surgery is still a rough approximation, it's several orders of magnitude closer to the real thing.
posted by dirtynumbangelboy at 12:38 PM on April 26, 2007


Oh, I see, it's more natural that way.
posted by OmieWise at 12:43 PM on April 26, 2007


This is a bit of a tangent, but it occurs to me that it might be useful to ask the question of how "natural" became a part of the argument for LGBT rights. It seems this is primarily reaction to fundamentalists denying rights on the basis of LGBT identity being "unnatural." In order to fully unpack what's meant when the "argument from nature" is invoked, perhaps we need unpack what the fundamentalists mean by "unnatural."
posted by treepour at 12:47 PM on April 26, 2007


I didn’t even know there were transsexual sports.
...what kind of balls do they play with?

heh heh, see, ‘cos we all have balls whether they’re ovaries or testi...I’ll stop now
posted by Smedleyman at 12:54 PM on April 26, 2007


As far as "natural" goes, I'm a big fan of Terentius:

"homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto"

Nevertheless, we can all agree on an objective reality, no? People who sincerely believe that they're vampires, werewolves, tigers, or who identify as members of another real or imaginary species also want social confirmation and validation of their lifestyles. Are you as prepared to extend it to them, on their terms?

We should be prepared to grant to any and all the same protections and impartiality we grant to religions and other subjective beliefs. But what we should not be prepared to do is redefine objective reality, nature, and science to suit anyone's ego. Fortunately, most people aren't that pushy about it.

But if you expect me to call you a "tiger," in recognition of feline lifestyle adjustments and surgical alterations you've made, is it wrong if I choose not to do so? Am I morally reprehensible for not doing it?
posted by kid ichorous at 1:05 PM on April 26, 2007


Interesting that she will change her last name as well (to Daniels, which is a rather bland choice, don't you think?). Makes sense, I suppose, but I found it surprising.
posted by kosem at 1:14 PM on April 26, 2007


That said, being pragmatic about it, transsexuals are asking very little from us in the way of redefining reality - just a pronoun here and there. In contrast, religious doctrines ask us to overthrow basic tenets of physics and biology. So there's a huge difference here, but this doesn't solve my basic issue of whether we're compromising with objective reality.
posted by kid ichorous at 1:15 PM on April 26, 2007


Oh, I see, it's more natural that way.
posted by OmieWise at 3:43 PM on April 26


And the reason for your snark is...?

We should be prepared to grant to any and all the same protections and impartiality we grant to religions and other subjective beliefs. But what we should not be prepared to do is redefine objective reality, nature, and science to suit anyone's ego. Fortunately, most people aren't that pushy about it.

But this isn't about redefining reality, nature, or science. As for the otherkin.. they're sadly deluded people who need antipsychotic medication.
posted by dirtynumbangelboy at 1:32 PM on April 26, 2007


Om[n]i[e]Wise: I like the analogy with schizophrenia. My own feeling is that if schizophrenics could wear certain clothes or get certain body mods that would reliably make them happier, healthier, more productive members of society, then that would be wonderful news. I think the difference between schizophrenia and transsexuality here is empirical: it turns out that most transfolk do feel more comfortable after transitioning, but we haven't found a voluntary change for schizophrenics that would give them that sort of relief.

So in that sense, yeah, "it's natural" isn't a complete argument for trans rights. You need to add on some sociological facts about life histories before and after transition, and maybe some medical facts too, and a system of ethics that says people are better off happy and fulfilled than unhappy and frustrated.

But it sure is the start of an argument for trans rights. If desire to transition, and frustration at being unable to, weren't innate and inescapable for some people, none of those other facts or ethical arguments would get you anywhere.

Look — there are enough people in the world who think that transsexuality could be "cured" by prayer, good intentions, therapy or "meeting the right man/woman." And any sane person would admit that if Christine's options were expensive, potentially complicated surgery or a few good dates, she'd be better off just going on the damn dates. Similarly, there are enough people who think that transsexuality is something you bring on yourself through sin or poor choices, and if that were true then one could make a plausible case that transfolk didn't deserve to transition at all. So the first fact that it's important to establish is that no, nobody asks to be transsexual, and most people can't just wish it away.

(In fact, the analogy with schizophrenia keeps working here too. If a schizophrenic's options were "thinking happy thoughts" or a grueling lifelong regimen of drugs and therapy, the happy thoughts would be the better option. If you're fighting for good care for schizophrenics — even though the details of that care involve pills and counseling, not hormones and surgery — you have to start with the same basic point: nobody asks for this, and there's no wishing it away.)

When people talk about transsexuality being "natural," I get the sense that that's what they're talking about: the fact that they didn't ask for it but now they're stuck with it. It might be an infelicitous word choice — lord knows there's enough other baggage attached to "natural" to make it confusing — but the message behind it is an important one to get across.
posted by nebulawindphone at 1:44 PM on April 26, 2007


Heh. The otherkin analogy is a nice one too.

I think the main problem that otherkin have is that they can't pass — not ever, not in a million years, not with all the surgery in the world.

A transwoman has a perfectly harmless way to get herself addressed as "ma'am." She just needs to look female. No need to insist that people ignore the evidence of their senses — she can just present different evidence. But yeah, an otherkin who wants to be called "tiger" doesn't have that option — all he can do is ask people to lie.
posted by nebulawindphone at 1:56 PM on April 26, 2007


subjective feeling of discordant gender is granted exceptional status, versus, say, schizophrenia or synesthesia?

In some ways, it isn't granted exceptional status. I'm not sure about synaethesia in this context, but certainly we treat schizophrenia and psychopathy in ways intended reduce harm to the individual and society. Gender Dysmorphia we treat how we can because not treating it can be extremely damaging to the individual concerned.
posted by Sparx at 2:50 PM on April 26, 2007


What about other cases where one's identity and one's body are disjunct? For example, suppose I identify as a member of another race, and want to change my physical attributes accordingly. Do we take this as somehow more deceptive, or less natural, than a sex change?

I don't think the two situations are analogous. I think an argument can be made for gender being more "deeply" linked to a sense of self and identity than race. A few reasons that come to mind:

Races can be mixed in ways that biological sex can't. E.g., one isn't a mixed sex because one parent is male and the other is female. In this sense, race a more "mutable" human characteristic than is gender.

Imagine you're talking to some people for whom the notion of a "soul" has some currency. Ask them whether souls have gender and/or race. My suspicion is that they'd be more likely to say that souls have gender than they do race (of course I could be wrong about this).

There's evidence that men's and women's brains work somewhat differently. I'm not sure such evidence exists with regard to racial differences.

Sexual attraction is more likely to be divided along gender lines than racial lines. What's more common: "I'd consider dating someone of any race, so long as they're of the opposite (or same) sex" or "I'd consider dating someone of any gender, so long as they're of a different (or the same) race"? I'd venture the former.

Does something like a racial dysmorphic disorder exist? If so, I've never heard of it (snarks about Michael Jackson aside) -- and I'd count this evidence against the notion that race and gender are analogous in this case.
posted by treepour at 5:09 PM on April 26, 2007


And the reason for your snark is...?

Sorry. Your responses glossed over 95% of mine in favor of not answering my central question, which is why this particular feeling is granted the status that it is. Your assertion that surgery and sex are somehow comparable if they both have to do with underlying sexual identity issues was astonishingly glipb. There may be an argument there, but you didn't make it. I figured you weren't really interested in a discussion.

In some ways, it isn't granted exceptional status.

It's absolutely granted exceptional status. While treatment for psychopathology focuses on curing or ameliorating the symptoms and disordered thoughts of the suffering individual, gender reassignment surgery takes as valid what in a psychopathology would be viewed as the most blatant form of delusion. This is precisely why the "it's natural" argument breaks down. If natural is the signpost, then biological gender and the knowledge that some people suffer from complex and persistent delusions would seem to militate for a different conclusion about appropriate treatment. Again, again, again, I'm not making that argument.

When people talk about transsexuality being "natural," I get the sense that that's what they're talking about: the fact that they didn't ask for it but now they're stuck with it. It might be an infelicitous word choice — lord knows there's enough other baggage attached to "natural" to make it confusing — but the message behind it is an important one to get across.

I agree with all you say about the problems associated with being accepted as transsexual in our society. There may be no other way to go about talking about it, but a lot of things are done in the name of nature that don't seem particularly just, and I continue to think of it as a problematic way to approach an argument for equal rights.

The argument from the deeply felt sense of gender identity, is, I think, tricky as well, since there's every reason to think that those things which people feel deeply connected to are things they are more likely to have psychological stumbling blocks about. We get more wrapped up in our families than in the family down the road. In other words, because it's closer doesn't mean that the angst felt over it tells us one thing or another.
posted by OmieWise at 6:10 PM on April 26, 2007


What about other cases where one's identity and one's body are disjunct? For example, suppose I identify as a member of another race, and want to change my physical attributes accordingly. Do we take this as somehow more deceptive, or less natural, than a sex change?

This brings to mind the numerous cases I've seen paraded about in the media of people who firmly believe they are supposed to be missing limbs. They apparently go to great lengths to remove the offending limbs, even to the point of amateur surgery on themselves when refused by the medical establishment.
posted by nightchrome at 7:02 PM on April 26, 2007


Sorry. Your responses glossed over 95% of mine in favor of not answering my central question, which is why this particular feeling is granted the status that it is. Your assertion that surgery and sex are somehow comparable if they both have to do with underlying sexual identity issues was astonishingly glipb. There may be an argument there, but you didn't make it. I figured you weren't really interested in a discussion.

But it's not accorded any special status, except perhaps in your own mind. There is a disorder, there is a treatment for that disorder. I fail to see how that's any different from any other medical condition. You can call my response glib if you like... but how many transpeople do you know? How much do you actually know about the process? It would appear that the answers to those questions are 'none' and 'not much', respectively.
posted by dirtynumbangelboy at 7:08 PM on April 26, 2007 [1 favorite]


This brings to mind the numerous cases I've seen paraded about in the media of people who firmly believe they are supposed to be missing limbs.

Costing an Arm and a Leg -- "The victims of a growing mental disorder are obsessed with amputation."

Whole -- A Documentary by Melody Gilbert.
posted by ericb at 7:19 PM on April 26, 2007


A New Way to Be Mad – “The phenomenon is not as rare as one might think: healthy people deliberately setting out to rid themselves of one or more of their limbs, with or without a surgeon's help. Why do pathologies sometimes arise as if from nowhere? Can the mere description of a condition make it contagious?”
posted by ericb at 7:22 PM on April 26, 2007


I don't buy the "it isn't a choice" argument. Don't get me wrong - I'm bisexual, and a supporter of trans people as well. But while I think there are plenty of reasons to support GLBT rights, I don't think that that argument is a valid one.

It may be useful within a religious context. I can see potential in an argument along the lines of "God wouldn't create people who are inherently unable to experience love/be comfortable with their identities within the system of laws that he created." This may be useful in advocating gay/trans rights among religious people, but I'm non-religious, so this doesn't work for me. I don't think the fact that a characteristic is not a choice implies that the behaviors it makes one tend towards are moral. No teleological suspension of the ethical for me.
posted by obvious at 8:35 PM on April 26, 2007


Omie: So, uh, not to be all "whose side are you on," but I really am wondering — what is your take on the decision to transition? Do you think it's a legitimate decision to make? And if so, how do you think it could be defended?

I'm not planning on getting into an argument about it. I'm just curious. You've clearly put a lot of thought into the issue, but so far in this thread you've been explaining the flaws in other positions. Have you arrived at a position of your own that doesn't have those flaws?
posted by nebulawindphone at 9:25 PM on April 26, 2007


Does something like a racial dysmorphic disorder exist? If so, I've never heard of it (snarks about Michael Jackson aside) -- and I'd count this evidence against the notion that race and gender are analogous in this case.

Well, procedures to "correct" Asiatic eyes used to be fairly common. I imagine that if we possessed the technology today to inexpensively reassign racial features, there'd be many buyers, with just as many reasons for wanting to blend into a majority or a niche culture. People already do this to the extent they possibly can by appropriating clothes, language, and other signs of cultural and racial assertion, as well as changing hair and eye color without surgery. You might also want to consider the European avatars imposed upon the audience so frequently in Japanese pop art and manga, and the analogue of white Americans cloaking themselves in fetishized Japanisms, each envying what the other is. The more power we have over our appearances, the more racial characteristics will be as subject to fashion as... well, fashion itself, if they already aren't.
posted by kid ichorous at 9:36 PM on April 26, 2007


uh, kid ichorous, please don't conflate the whims of fashion with serious mental disorders.
posted by dirtynumbangelboy at 9:59 PM on April 26, 2007


Or, to put it another way... Gender Reassignment Surgery isn't cosmetic surgery in a strict sense. It's much more akin to post-burn reconstruction surgery.
posted by dirtynumbangelboy at 10:11 PM on April 26, 2007


Well, it's fucking sick, that's what. This isn't about sexual preference or identity, it's about carving up your body like a turkey because you think you'd be more comfortable as a man or a woman or a anthropomorphic giant squirrel. It's just goofy -- it's humankind on the cliff, confused & horrified. We -- I mean, those of use not in the Starving Class yet far away from the Ruling Class -- clearly can no longer figure out what to do with ourselves, because there are no real challenges to life and no real importance to what we do.

Oh, and Mr. Glen/Glenda has a wife (and perhaps a family). His wife is also a sportswriter at the LA Times, from what I've heard. Any thoughts for her, unmentioned in Frank 'n Furter's outrageously selfish announcement?
posted by kenlayne at 10:15 PM on April 26, 2007


Whoops, I mean, an "anthropomorphic giant squirrel."
posted by kenlayne at 10:17 PM on April 26, 2007


uh, kid ichorous, please don't conflate the whims of fashion with serious mental disorders.

Dude, have you seen fashion lately?
posted by kid ichorous at 10:26 PM on April 26, 2007


What the fuck?

She has a name. It's Christine. To refer to her as 'Mr Glen/Glenda is horrifically insensitive and shows only your own ignorance and bigotry. Gender Dysmorphia has nothing to do with having 'no real challenges' or 'no real importance'.

And do you honestly think that she would have made this announcement without having spoken to her wife about it? Gender reassignment is a process that takes years.

Grow the fuck up.
posted by dirtynumbangelboy at 10:26 PM on April 26, 2007


Well I'm glad you made that clarification. Otherwise I would have thought your comment was completely ridiculous. Now I see.
posted by kosem at 10:26 PM on April 26, 2007


Dude, have you seen fashion lately?
posted by kid ichorous at 1:26 AM on April 27


Ha. Ha. I can hardly control the laughter. You are so edgy.
posted by dirtynumbangelboy at 10:27 PM on April 26, 2007


And by you, I mean, you, mf.
posted by kosem at 10:28 PM on April 26, 2007


I'm not trying to be edgy, I'm addressing what seems to be a "my plastic surgery addresses a legitimate mental disorder, but yours is mere whimsy" argument. Is equating these various forms of self-customization "edgy?"
posted by kid ichorous at 10:41 PM on April 26, 2007


That's because you're making the mistake of thinking of GRS as cosmetic surgery.

GRS is the same, functionally speaking, as repairing a hole in your heart, or rebuilding a shattered kneecap. While it's true that some people seeking cosmetic surgery are suffering from various dysmorphias--or, indeed, surgical addiction--conflating those who choose relatively minor cosmetic procedures with those who have a disorder for which there is only one satisfactory treatment is deeply, deeply ignorant.
posted by dirtynumbangelboy at 11:00 PM on April 26, 2007


While it's true that some people seeking cosmetic surgery are suffering from various dysmorphias--or, indeed, surgical addiction...

Yup. And just as there's some people out there pondering suicide over minor cosmetic flaws, there's some people for whom GRS is not a psychological imperative but a fantasy to realize. Are psychological evaluations so infallible as to weed them all out? In every country?

Because I feel that both kinds of marginal cases are, in a field dealing with marginal personalities, significant, I think it's arrogant to rank the various kinds of plastic surgery a priori. Just because this surgery touches upon sexual identity doesn't make it universally more life-shattering than the next person's experience. Nose jobs and braces aren't universally motivated by whimsy, people who get GRS aren't universally motivated by necessity, and people who want cat features don't universally need a regimen of anti-psychotic drugs.
posted by kid ichorous at 11:57 PM on April 26, 2007


I don't buy the "it isn't a choice" argument [ . . . ] It may be useful within a religious context.

In what other context do we have to make an "argument" in the first place? Who else but religious nutjobs (and, say, neo-nazis, fascists, etc) would demand that we provide them an "argument" for why trans, queer, or LGBT people shouldn't be ostracized, discriminated against, persecuted, etc?
posted by treepour at 11:57 PM on April 26, 2007


The conversation seems to have narrowed to focus on the surgery, but I think it's worth keeping in mind that switching genders isn't merely about going under the knife and waking up a new woman or man.

It's a long, complicated process that involves not only extensive psychotherapy but ongoing hormone treatments, retraining speech, body language, etc. I've known several people who are in the process of transitioning, and only one of them has gone completely through with it. All of them have spent years, sometimes decades, taking it one step at a time. Some may never ultimately go through reassignment surgery, preferring instead to live as the opposite gender while keeping their equipment intact; some may be deemed psychologically unfit. Surgery or not, it's a pretty radical and near-total transformation -- anything but merely cosmetic.
posted by treepour at 12:17 AM on April 27, 2007


All of them have spent years, sometimes decades, taking it one step at a time. Some may never ultimately go through reassignment surgery, preferring instead to live as the opposite gender while keeping their equipment intact; some may be deemed psychologically unfit.

Sounds brutal to me... especially when you factor in the way most people (America is a terribly prudish country) feel about this sort of thing. No, thanks.

I guess I should count myself lucky that I didn't end up in a body I don't want; sounds like it was just a roll of the dice.
posted by chuckdarwin at 2:03 AM on April 27, 2007


there's some people for whom GRS is not a psychological imperative but a fantasy to realize.

Cite, please. Seriously, if you're going to make such utterly ridiculous claims, I really would like to see some hard scientific data backing it up.

Nose jobs and braces aren't universally motivated by whimsy

True, but they're generally minor and not indicative of an underlying mental disorder. You keep missing the point.

people who get GRS aren't universally motivated by necessity

Again, cite. Come on.

and people who want cat features don't universally need a regimen of anti-psychotic drugs

This is debatable, but hardly germane to the point that you keep missing.
posted by dirtynumbangelboy at 4:26 AM on April 27, 2007


But it's not accorded any special status, except perhaps in your own mind. There is a disorder, there is a treatment for that disorder. I fail to see how that's any different from any other medical condition. You can call my response glib if you like... but how many transpeople do you know? How much do you actually know about the process? It would appear that the answers to those questions are 'none' and 'not much', respectively.

You're almost completely wrong in this paragraph, and the later sentence in which you compare GRS to fixing a hole in your heart is completely flabbergasting. Gender dysmorphia is accorded a special status because the conviction of being another gender is treated by helping the person become that gender, rather than attempting to ameliorate that conviction as a delusion. It's evident from this thread that I partially undid myself with the comparisons to schizophrenia since almost everyone who has commented evidently confuses the terms of treatment for mental disorders. There isn't a conviction based mental disorder I can think of in which the treatment is to take as correct the conviction based on disordered thinking and act accordingly. One never says to someone with schizophrenia: "Yes, they are all inside your head, and I know how much that distresses you, here's a hammer so you can take care of the problem."

Which side am I on? I'm on the side of people doing whatever they damn well feel like with their lives and their bodies. I think that the range of human experience is vast enough to encompass that without asserting that it's in the service of a medical disorder being corrected. What happens if we can't manufacture a medical disorder, do we stop supporting a person's right to do with their body what they will? I support reassignment surgery, but I don't think that it's inconsequential or similar to fixing a life-threatening medical problem. I'm not sure what causes such intense gender dysmorphias, but I'm not convinced that it's inevitable or necessarily biological in origin. I've been pretty clear about what I think the limits for an argument in favor of rights based on nature are in this case. As with all kinds of mental distress, I remain skeptical of the rush to medicalize treatments for conditions that we do not know the cause for and which we do not effectively treat medically. I find it disturbing that we seem to be stuck in a moment when if it isn't biological it's discounted as not real. It would be a ludicrous trend if the stakes weren't so high. Faith isn't biological, but it's real nonetheless. I don't think the type of person you're attracted to is biological, but that doesn't mean it's mutable or that it isn't persistent, and that doesn't mean anyone else has the right to try and legislate it.

And, dnab, your bit about transsexuals I have known really seems beside the point. If you can't make the argument on the merits, is your contention that you should be allowed to argue by assertion because you've been close to some transsexuals? I've known and do know as friends and colleagues several MTF transsexuals, I've known casually a couple of FTM transsexuals, and I've professionally worked with a handful of transitioning transsexuals as a psychotherapist. I've heard a lot about the process, a lot about the pain and suffering leading up to the process, and I'd venture to say that I know as much about it as most people who aren't actually transsexual or working directly in the community full time. But this is another part of the problem, if the only people who are allowed to speak for transsexuals are people who already know all about them, and those who agree with the orthodoxy of presentation, there's something wrong with the way the argument is being developed. That doesn't mean the cause is wrong, but if identity is the both the argument and the detailing of that argument, it's always going to be a short conversation.

Nowhere have I argued against transsexual rights (which I support 100%), and nowhere have I suggested that I take this issue anything less than very seriously. I've provided reasons for why I think a particular way of approaching transsexualism as something for which people should not be condemned is problematic. I'm not sure why your disagreeing with me should somehow constitute an argument, and it evidently doesn't since the best you appear able to do is retreat to the most base kind of ad hominem. It's strange, usually you have decent things to say, even if I don't necessarily agree with them.
posted by OmieWise at 4:28 AM on April 27, 2007


You're almost completely wrong in this paragraph, and the later sentence in which you compare GRS to fixing a hole in your heart is completely flabbergasting. Gender dysmorphia is accorded a special status because the conviction of being another gender is treated by helping the person become that gender, rather than attempting to ameliorate that conviction as a delusion.

What if it's really not a delusion?

What do you say to a teenager who's been cross living for years? There are kids gorwing up now who are allowed to live and grow up as the gender they feel comfortable in. If someone is known and accepted only as a girl, is it really a delusion anymore?

If you're assuming that it's just a delusion, then you're saying that a transperson has a "real" gender and it's the birth one. You realize that it's just the opposite for a trans person, and not only that, for those who've been living and is known and accepted in their chosen gender, especially those that pass, it's also the opposite for the people around them.

You don't see those who live in their chosen gender and blend in -- the treatment can work and it's appropriate for some. But you'll only see the ones who don't fit in, for whom cross-gender living that is obvious. And so it's easy to decide, "let's try to stop people from having to do this", because you, and everyone else, sees the person as failing. It's easy to scoff at the treatment when its successes are invisible and its failures prominent.
posted by cotterpin at 5:51 AM on April 27, 2007


I'm actually not arguing that it's a delusion, but the DSM sees it as a delusion, so my point is that recourse to the fact that there's a mental disorder out there that describes the condition isn't really a very useful position to take.

cotterpin, with all due respect, throughout this thread you've seemed to think I've been arguing something other than what I've been arguing. I've never suggested that people should be prevented from surgery, nor have I scoffed at any form of treatment. I started, and I continue, to be convinced that recourse to "nature" is a poor substitute for a more nuanced argument based on, essentially, human rights. Each of your posts has tended to confirm my point, as you've repeatedly made recourse to the idea that because something is persistent, it must be natural, while ignoring that for most people, anatomy is the bedrock of "nature." You don't have to convince me, I don't think that, but as a general rhetorical strategy in support of transsexualism, I think it's poor.
posted by OmieWise at 6:09 AM on April 27, 2007


I find it disturbing that we seem to be stuck in a moment when if it isn't biological it's discounted as not real. It would be a ludicrous trend if the stakes weren't so high. Faith isn't biological, but it's real nonetheless. I don't think the type of person you're attracted to is biological, but that doesn't mean it's mutable or that it isn't persistent, and that doesn't mean anyone else has the right to try and legislate it.

Well said.

Lots of food for thought here. I'm still frustrated by how difficult it is in practice to defend any of this without appealing to a medical explanation. (For whatever reason, "it's medical" really does win the argument — just the bare assertion — while a similarly unsupported "trust me, it's not a ploy to get attention" gets nowhere. But I guess that's part of what you're complaining about, how odd it is that appealing to MEDICINE is the easy way to get the upper hand.)

Anyway, I'm still mulling it over, but thanks for all the explanation.
posted by nebulawindphone at 8:04 AM on April 27, 2007


OmieWise, even though I don't agree entirely with your position, I think you're raising excellent points that are well worth considering. If the argument from nature is as flawed as you think it is, it could easily backfire. And, perhaps more importantly, why can't we argue from human rights and compassion instead?

You said earlier that the concept natural-as-ontological-priority is being used to justify the concept of natural-as-immutable. I'm not sure I agree. I believe the word "natural" came into use as an argument for LBGT rights because an increasingly fundamentalist culture was using word "unnatural" to justify its lack of humanity toward LBGT people. This is still going on. And that's why we can't argue from human rights -- not only have we generally tossed the concept of human rights aside as "quaint" post-9/11, it seems to me our culture as a whole does not grant "human being" status by default to those it doesn't understand. Historically and in the present day, it's the other way around -- those most like us are most human and most deserving of our love; those most unlike us are least human and most deserving of our hatred. The burden of proof, therefore, has always and still does fall on those who want to end discrimination toward a certain group deemed sub-human and deserving of hatred. It shouldn't be this way, but it is, as far as I can tell.

That's where I think the "natural" argument comes from -- there's an implicit "I think you're unnatural and therefore deserving of contempt and discrimination -- prove to me that you're not, and I'll consider treating you fairly" hanging in the cultural air. It seems to me an argument from human rights would just bounce right off of such a brick wall.
posted by treepour at 8:35 AM on April 27, 2007


but the DSM sees it as a delusion

Actually, I'm wrong here. The entire diagnosis is structured as if the DSM considers it a delusion, but in the differential dx section there is this sentence:
In Schizophrenia, there may rarely be delusions of belonging to the other sex. Insistence by a person with Gender Identity Disorder that he or she is of the other sex is not considered a delusion, because what is invariably meant is that the person feels like a member of the other sex rather than truly believes that he or she is a member of the other sex."
This seems like kind of a dubious distinction to me (why get an operation if you don't truly believe you're the other gender?), and it hasn't been my experience in practice, but I was wrong about what the DSM says.
posted by OmieWise at 8:36 AM on April 27, 2007


In what other context do we have to make an "argument" in the first place? Who else but religious nutjobs (and, say, neo-nazis, fascists, etc) would demand that we provide them an "argument" for why trans, queer, or LGBT people shouldn't be ostracized, discriminated against, persecuted, etc?

Maybe few people argue that gays and lesbians should be persecuted for non-religious reasons, but right in this thread are people who argue against the acceptance of transsexuals.
posted by obvious at 8:46 AM on April 27, 2007


Omie, We obviously disagree but I really am not trying to convince you that treatment is necessary or appropriate. I do understand that you already believe that.

I think you misunderstand what transsexualism is, in a subtle way. We both agree that it's not a choice, that transgendered people need treatment, and that it would be wiser to try to help people cope with gender dysphoria as opposed to rushing into surgery and transition.

But I think where we disagree -- and I may be wrong, and if so, I am sorry -- is that you don't seem to accept that the gender dysphoria is anything beyond something that is felt. I think it has a natural, physiological basis. Calling it a delusion, even if you accept it's not a choice and it's a real problem, still casts it as a mental illness foremost.

The problem isn't that the trans person feels that he or she was born into the wrong gender, the problem is that he or she actually was born into the wrong gender. It goes to the Platonic truth as to what gender someone is. A man who wants his genitals modified to look female: mental illness. A woman who wants her genitals corrected to look female: physical problem.

I think the disagreement about this platonic truth is just so fundamental, that we are really just talking past each other. If it's delusion, and you see the difference between "feels" or "is" as dubious, well then that's the heart of the disagreement. That's why I keep hearing "why should we have surgery for a *man* wanting to be a woman," and I am objecting to the question. Not because I think you are asking the question snidely. I'm sure the question is honest. I just think it's the wrong question. Of course there really isn't any reasonable justification for it if you put it that way, besides saying that these men are mentally ill, can't control it, and need it to be happy. OTOH, if you start from the assumption that they aren't really men to start with, then it doesn't need to be justified the same way.

Consider for a minute ... would you treat the problem differently, if it were shown that transpeople have physiological differences in their brain structures? If a trans woman's brain more closely resembled a woman's brain, structurally, than a man's?

Research into this is slow, but in the late 90s there was the first study done about physiological brain structure in transwomen versus men, and it did show this. The research is slow because it needed to be done post-mortem. It was mentioned in scientific american recently, and you can look further if you'd like.

I hope I'm making some sense here. If not, then I guess I'll just have to say that we obviously aren't understanding each other and leave it at that.
posted by cotterpin at 9:27 AM on April 27, 2007


That's an interesting study, Google html link to a synopsis here. I hadn't seen it.

But, yeah, we have fundamentally different ideas about this. I don't think the evidence for physiology is very strong, as yet, and I'm tired of just granting the benefit of the doubt to biological determinism. Brains are plastic, and brain changes can as easily come from behavior as vice versa, something that's pretty well established in the literature.

As to your question about if I'd treat the problem different were it proved to be biological in origin? No, I don't think so. I'm not being obtuse (or maybe I am, but I'm not trying to be). I treat conditions all the time that I take absolutely seriously that have a very poorly drawn relationship to brain biology (depression, anxiety, suicidality, even psychosis). More to the point, most of history has consisted of people using biology as an excuse for radical solutions (death, sterilization) to social problems. I'd much prefer to argue for rights not dependent on biology as biology has never really been an effective guarantee of rights.
posted by OmieWise at 9:44 AM on April 27, 2007 [1 favorite]


there's some people for whom GRS is not a psychological imperative but a fantasy to realize.

DNAB: Cite, please. Seriously, if you're going to make such utterly ridiculous claims, I really would like to see some hard scientific data backing it up.

Well, it's not all that hard to do, since the whole purpose of mandatory psychological screening (whether it's fair or unfair is also arguable) is to weed out people who want SRS on "incorrect" grounds, as well as weeding out delusional schizophrenics and others unable to give meaningful consent. Personally, my stance on body modification is more permissive, but if you're going to insist that this operation treats a specific medical condition and nothing else, you're forced to reject people who want it for other reasons.

Some people who desire sex reassignment therapy do not have gender identity disorder, as the term is usually defined, and desire to transition for other reasons. This can include homosexual people who are unable to accept their homosexuality (or which were, up until the 1970s, encouraged by caretakers to change their gender role, including SRS), cross-dressers who feel more comfortable dressed as members of the opposite gender and may become confused (although, it may be important to realize that many transsexual women do go through a period where they self-identify as cross-dressers), and people with certain psychiatric disorders, such as schizophrenia, borderline personality disorder, dissociative identity disorder, and Munchausen syndrome. (Brown 106-107) Most professionals believe that sex reassignment therapy is not appropriate for such individuals.

Lynn Conway, among her online resources for post-op transsexuals and for people considering SRS, outlines a few of the "wrong" reasons for undergoing surgery:

Some examples of "wrong reasons" and wrong situations for undergoing SRS are (i) efforts to become a center of attention and live a "sexy life", (ii) thinking it will "automatically turn oneself into a woman" in others' eyes, (iii) deciding to become a woman on a whim (for example, in the midst of a mid-life crisis), (iv) doing it for autosexual "thrills", (v) doing it while suffering from preexisting serious mental conditions unrelated to GID (depression, bi-polar conditions,...), etc.
posted by kid ichorous at 10:58 AM on April 27, 2007


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