Feature

America in Transition

You get to be the sex you think you are (and everybody else has to acknowledge it).

By From the May 2012 issue

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I am used to surprises from the New York Times—a newspaper so far from me culturally and politically it might as well be a daily bulletin about life in a parallel universe—but last August I read a personal essay in the “Modern Love” space of the “Styles” section that really brought me up short. “My Husband is Now My Wife” (quite a tabloidy title for this genteel newspaper) was about the deeply ambivalent day the author escorted her husband to a hospital for surgery in which he would “take his first surgical step into womanhood.”

I’m a jaded ex-Manhattanite, awright? “Sexual reassignment surgery,” as it is called, is not news. I know about the clinics in Colorado where they slice up existing organs and then do Play-Doh sculpturing with the tissue that’s left. The surgery thing has been going on since the sixties. And I know from cross-dressing. On my Upper West Side block it was not uncommon to encounter a neighbor—skinny, middle-aged, bald pate surrounded by a cap of stringy graying locks—taking his daily constitutional…on roller skates, wearing a tiara and a pink tutu, blessing passersby with a Tinkerbell wand.

So it wasn’t the soo-last-century, Dude-Looks-Like-a-Lady part that startled, it was the part near the end where the author lets slip that all her fussing about losing a husband and gaining a wife was actually over a hospital stay in which her husband would have “facial feminization surgery, a not uncommon procedure in male-to-female transitions, in which a surgeon carves out a more femininely proportioned version of a male face.”

“In my husband’s case,” she wrote, “this meant higher eyebrows, a smaller nose and a more pronounced chin. A few months later, his Adam’s apple would be shaved down and he would receive breast implants.”

Almost as if it was an afterthought, she added “genital surgery would follow” on some unspecified date.

OK, he hadn’t had the genital surgery yet. It was unclear if he ever would. Certainly, for the average woman, the breast part could be hard to take. But the point is, at the moment, “Husband” had just messed around with his face. So what entitled him to claim membership in the sorority of majestic, complex, mysterious creatures called Women? It was actually a bit presumptuous. (If I were a feminist I would say, “How very male.”)

But here we had our author, one Diane Daniel of North Carolina, telling herself sternly that she must remember to stop referring to Husband with “him,” “his,” and “he.” We meet the couple’s therapist who has been “suggesting for months” that Daniel “use female pronouns at home” when addressing Husband, even before he went into the hospital:

“I will when I need to,” I’d told her on our last visit. “But for now he’s still a man to me.” I’d turned to my husband, dressed in jeans and a black button-down shirt. “When I look at you, hon, I see a man.”

“But she’s a woman,” our therapist countered, her words slicing through my denial.

By the end of the essay, Daniel has re-educated herself. Now she gently corrects nurses when they use the “incorrect” pronoun:

“After he eats a little something, we’ll give him pain pills,” a nurse said.

“Could you say ‘she’?” I asked gently.

Once I looked in to it, I found more “Modern Love” columns where it was just assumed the reader has already accepted that “gender identity” (what you decide you are) trumps “gender assigned at birth” (what your body says you are). There was, for instance, the woman who started her essay by writing, “Before we met, my partner had changed names from a female-sounding one to a male one…”

…and by the time we were together, everyone we knew either called him by this new name or spoke of him with male pronouns. He identified himself as a transgender man, woman to man. It wasn’t until two years after we began dating that he decided to have his breasts removed. For him, chest surgery was the next step in transitioning genders, a symbolic and physical gesture of leaving womanhood behind.

This essay, written by a younger woman than Daniel, was much more philosophically evolved. Apparently this boyfriend, girlfriend, whatever, hadn’t had any medical interventions at all. She merely “identified himself as a transgender man” and began dressing as a man (what does that mean nowadays anyway?) and that was enough, the author says, for everyone they knew to either call him by this new name or speak of him with male pronouns.

WELCOME TO THE Brave New World of “gender identity” versus stick-in-the-mud old “gender.” This subjective aspect—the demand that the world recognize you as what you think you are, simply because you’ve decided you are—is new. It turns out law and theory to support this new definition have been proliferating quietly for quite some time as well.

In other words, when we stodgy old conservatives, not attuned to the latest reverberations of the “progressive” world, think of a “transsexual” or (this is much more correct) a “transgendered person,” we’re probably imagining, say, Christine Jorgensen (if we’re really old) or Jan Morris, i.e., someone who made a good old Protestant Work Ethic effort to “transition” to the other sex. We are thinking of people who have at least put a considerable amount of effort and in most cases, a lot of money, like their life savings, into this illusory project of “becoming the other sex.”

The various stodgy old state laws (it is the states that control issuance of the all-important birth certificate) reflect this attachment to physical reality versus subjectivity. Most state laws are still like those in New York City, which, since 1971, has been willing to issue a “corrected” birth certificate to a transgender person provided he or she is able to prove, via a detailed medical record, that “the applicant has undergone ‘convertive’ surgery, which has generally but not exclusively been interpreted by the Department [of Health and Mental Hygiene] to mean genital surgery.”

This onerous surgery requirement has been excised in a several states but that’s hardly enough, say the gender activists. As lawyer Christopher Daley of the very activist Transgender Law Center explains, a transgender person is one “whose internal understanding of their own gender is different from the sex they were assigned at birth.…Transgender persons seek to live in accordance with the sex that takes proper account of the sex of their brain…” (The Transgender Law Center is apparently even so uncomfortable with the designations like “men’s room” or “women’s toilet” that they refer to “gendered” public bathrooms as “bathrooms intended for people who identify with a particular gender.”)

In the future, as Kristina Wertz of the Transgender Law Center puts it, all of official America will recognize “that gender identity is not dependent upon anatomy or the ability to access expensive medical treatment.” Wertz applauded the State Department for its June 2010 policy change, a small but important one, stating that applicants wishing to change the gender markers on their passports will only need to present certification that they have “undergone appropriate clinical treatment for gender transition.” The State of Vermont has amended its law to say that “hormonal or other treatments” are sufficient for a sex change on a birth certificate.

Chaz Bono, one of America’s most famous female-to-male transgendered people, was a beneficiary of California’s liberalized law. On May 2, 2010, Bono was able to leave a Santa Monica courthouse officially a man, after the court’s acceptance of a vaguely worded letter from a doctor stipulating that he had “performed an irreversible surgical procedure for the purpose of altering Chaz Bono’s sexual characteristics from female to male.” (At the time Bono had had a mastectomy and lots of testosterone.) Meanwhile the press had never questioned that Chaz Bono was anything other than all man, from the moment the Chaz persona appeared on the scene and throughout “his” turn on “Dancing With the Stars.” When Hollywood Reporter reviewed the documentary Becoming Chaz, it obediently informed us that Chaz Bono “was a male trapped in a female body since birth.”

Outside of the Mainstream Media, there are, of course, still some dinosaurs skulking around who are not comfortable with the notion that you can change your sex by whacking something off and soldering something else on. There is the matter of chromosomes, and wombs, and the fact that the newly constructed genitals aren’t good for much of anything except just kind of sitting there—like a trophy, a symbol. They are useless for procreation. Both kinds of sex reassignment surgeries, female-to-male and male-to-female, render the recipient irreversibly sterile. And they are not too good for other uses either. As Chaz Bono explained on the David Letterman show, she has not been rushing the decision to get what the trans community calls “bottom surgery” because “you can end up with something functional but very small or something that’s more normal sized but without much erotic sensation.” (Chaz did admit that “There’s different ways to do the surgery, from real basic to more and more options. It’s like a car.”)

In short, the long-standing “surgery requirement” laws may have seemed silly when they first appeared, but they now stir up something like nostalgia. At least they are a nod to the idea that gender is rooted in anatomy, and that maybe human beings are defined by their role in the procreative project.

SO IS THERE SUCH A THING as “the sex of one’s brain”? Questions like this raged back and forth in 1966 when Johns Hopkins Hospital opened its Gender Identity Clinic and became the first hospital in America to do sex change operations. The doctors had a variety of opinions about why these operations were worth doing. Some, bolstered by a new genre of psychological theory, were downright messianic about “correcting the body to match the real gender.” Some seemed to feel that the surgeries were like a nose job or any other cosmetic surgery, a chance to make a body-part-obsessed person feel better. Some, like psychiatrist Paul McHugh, who did psychological screenings for the program, eventually became fiercely opposed. He saw other doctors’ relatively easy acceptance of the project as a kind of abdication of the professional’s role and a symptom of a social climate in which “all standards by which behaviours are judged are simply matters of opinion—and emotional opinions at that.” The new relativism was even reflected in new attitudes toward schizophrenics—who, increasingly, were deinstitutionalized as a matter of course and treated as if they were just expressing “a different lifestyle choice.” With a similar reluctance to “be judgmental” about someone else’s life choice, McHugh felt that patients were too often approved for surgery without much probing, out of “the spirit of doing your thing, following your bliss, an aesthetic that sees diversity as everything and can accept any idea, including that of permanent sex change, as interesting and that views resistance to such ideas as uptight if not oppressive,” he wrote in a scathing article for the American Scholar titled “Psychiatric Misadventures.”

“Just because we can do something doesn’t mean we should,” wrote McHugh. In his intake interviews, the typical applicant claimed it was “torture for him to live as a man, especially now that he has read in the newspapers about the possibility of switching surgically to womanhood.” But “[u]pon examination it is not difficult to identify other mental and personality difficulties…” which McHugh believed, unless resolved, would follow the patient into his new body and torment him again after attaching to a new external target.

“It is not obvious,” he note, “how this patient’s feeling that he is a woman trapped in a man’s body differs from the feeling of a patient with anorexia nervosa that she is obese despite her emaciated, cachectic state.”

“We don’t do liposuction on anorexics,” he wrote. “Why amputate the genitals of these poor men? Surely, the fault is in the mind not the member.”

BUT THE STANDARDS McHugh complained about in the late sixties have become so entrenched, I may as well be quoting cuneiform off a stone tablet. Allowing some patriarchal white male Ob/Gyn to have the power to take a cursory glance at your baby genitalia and “assign a gender” doesn’t seem to fit in a world where “self-definition” has become a mantra.

And this may explain why, according to the New York Times, “a growing number of high school and college students…are pushing for the right to change their pronoun whenever they feel like it.” Katy Butler, one of those high school students, identifies herself as part of the “nonconforming gender community” and is one of those enthusiastic about “Preferred Gender Pronouns” (PGPs).

“You have to understand, this has nothing to do with your sexuality and everything to do with who you feel like inside,” Katy said, explaining that at the start of every Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, and Questioning Association meeting, participants are first asked if they would like to share their PGPs.

A PGP can change as often as one likes. If the pronouns in the dictionary don’t suffice, there are numerous made-up ones now in use, including “ze,” “hir,” and “hirs,” words that connote both genders because, as Katy explained, “Maybe one day you wake up and feel more like a boy.”

Butler is lucky enough to live in the anything-goes enclave of Ann Arbor, Michigan. Out in the hinterlands the idea that a newly chosen “gender identity and expression” must be tolerated at all times does not always go down so well. Men who have recently decided they are women, for example, and show up at work wearing a dress have been fired or been harassed until they quit. There have been a number of savage attacks on trans people who attempted to use the public restroom corresponding to their gender identity.

Enter what the New Republic last year called “America’s Next Great Civil Rights Struggle,” the struggle to end discrimination against transsexuals in housing, the workplace—and eventually any other place a trial lawyer can discover it. Sixteen states (plus D.C.) and 143 cities or counties have added “gender identity or expression” to their protected categories lists—alongside the usual race, religion, gender (the other kind of gender), age, and disability. A more subtle but telling sign that more states will probably add the new category is the news that 207 major corporations (places like Coca-Cola, Apple, Chevron, Kellogg, and Best Buy) now offer insurance covering the cost of full-scale “transitions.” According to 2011 numbers collected by the Human Rights Campaign’s annual Corporate Equity Index, this is an increase “from just 85 a year earlier.” When HRC began following the issue a decade ago, no corporations covered the surgery.

A number of recent gender identity discrimination cases have been settled in the plaintiffs’ favor. If Johnny is hired as a paper pusher, and then starts to come to work as Jane, and then is fired, his lawsuit for workplace discrimination and wrongful termination is relatively straightforward, because the defendants cannot usually prove the sex change affected the job of paper pusher.

Things get murkier when a workplace has established a “Bona Fide Occupational Qualification” to justify hiring only males or only females. Yes, there are jobs where one can still discriminate. Take “urine monitors”—the people who would watch you pee into a cup if you went for a drug test.

El’Jai Devoureau is currently embroiled in a gender discrimination lawsuit against her former employer, Urban Treatment Centers of Camden, New Jersey. Devoureau, a fortysomething who claims to have been dressing as a man for years, to have had years of hormone therapy and some kind of surgery which she/he has so far been very opaque about, and who even has a “male” driver’s license, applied for the male-only job but was fired after two days because Devoureau’s supervisor said rumors were going around that she/he was not a man. Devoureau, who wears long corn rows, sports a wispy beard, and looks a bit like the ’80s singer Terence Trent D’Arby, said, “But I am a man.” The supervisor said something to the effect of, “Um, we don’t think so.” And the standoff began. The case has thus begun its crawl through the New Jersey court system. More evidence to support Devoureau’s claim may have to be…er, unveiled to support Devoureau’s claim—but maybe not. As the New York Times says, the outcome could turn on “the question of what is a man.” It could certainly be precedent-setting.

WHAT I FIND REALLY ODD about this “new Civil Rights movement” is that it’s happening now—after decades of struggle over the boundaries of sex roles and a great expansion of norms. As one of the online commenters to the New Republic’s “Great New Civil Rights Struggle” article put it, “Isn’t the trans-sexual phenomenon at heart conservative? Instead of enlarging the range of human behavior, it narrows the options down to ‘girls act one way and boys another so if you act one way, you have to be trapped in the wrong gender’s body.’   ”

But exactly. As a sign of how far we have come, there is a film, Alfred Nobbs, currently in theaters. It’s about a 19th century woman “living as a man” apparently because she seeks the love of women. But in 2012 no woman has to dress as a man in order to openly partner with another woman. (Well, in most parts of the country!) No woman has to attempt to “pass” as a man to take a job on a highway crew, or to enter a training program for fighter jet pilots.

Another curiously retrograde part: Once they “transition” many transgenders become the most devout standard-bearers for sex stereotypes. “When you discuss what the patient means by ‘feeling like a woman’ you often get a sex stereotype in return—something that woman physicians note immediately is a male caricature of women’s attitudes and interests,” Paul McHugh wrote. “One of our patients, for example, said that, as a woman, he would be more ‘invested with being than with doing.’”

“Ever since I became a woman, I just can’t do math anymore,” trills the main source in the New Republic’s “Civil Rights” article.

Chaz Bono is now infamous for having become a walking sexist-comment-machine. (“I can be a a-hole; I can be insensitive.…There is something in testosterone that makes talking and gossiping really grating.…I’ve stopped talking as much. I’ve noticed that [my girlfriend] can talk endlessly.…I got way more gadget-oriented.…Definitely since transitioning I’ve wanted to be up on the latest, coolest toy.”)

Accordingly, Warren Beatty’s oldest child (who started life as Kathlyn but is known, after hormone treatments, as “Stephen Ira Beatty”) has taken to excoriating Bono from her blog, with flamers like: “I don’t want any rich white trans guy…telling the media that testosterone made him a misogynist…he has some deep-seated misogyny to work through.”

If your head is spinning with all this gender-bending, join the club. But keep in mind that there is one reference point that will hold steady like the North Star: With this new category of victim slouching toward Bethlehem to be born, the trial lawyers are girding happily. I await the day a male-to-female trans applies for a job at Hooters.

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About the Author

Stephanie Gutmann is the author of The Other War: Israelis, Palestinians and the Struggle for Media Supremacy (Encounter, 2005).