Dancing to the tune of alienation
Why is everybody cheering transsexuals all the way to the operating theatre?
‘Welcome is every organ and attribute of me, and of any man hearty and clean / Not an inch nor a particle is vile, and none shall be less familiar than the rest’. (Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass.)
Where transsexuals were once spurned as freaks, now they are feted and held up as role models. ‘She’s not a girl, she’s got a dick’, the teenage son of a pre-op transsexual told a young hitchhiker friend in Transamerica. The friend responded enthusiastically, saying that in his mind transgender people have a ‘liberated state of being’.
Transamerica is a road movie of self-discovery that ends up under the surgeon’s knife in LA. The scene going into the operating theatre is shot from above to rousing music, portraying it as a moment of spiritual transcendence. Although Transamerica is a truly terrible film, it received rave reviews – a sure sign that transsexuality has arrived as an ‘issue’.
Meanwhile, Antony of Antony and the Johnsons has bagged the Mercury Prize with his songs crooning about transsexuality. ‘I’m singing about transformation’, he says. ‘It’s psychic, sexual and mortal transformation. The songs are about growing.’ In his view, ‘Transsexuals
are among the most highly evolved and beautiful creatures on the planet.’ Few would demur. Some groups have taken to calling transsexuality ‘gender giftedness’, a cut above those who live as their birth sex.
What seems to have been forgotten is that transsexuality begins with self-disgust. At base is a feeling that your body is not your own – indeed, that you really are the opposite of the person you were born. The transsexual starts not with Whitman’s delight in ‘every organ and attribute of me’, a sense at being at home in oneself and in possession of every faculty. Instead, it starts with a feeling that things are ‘not right’. One criteria for transgender surgery is that you must ‘abhor your genitals’. ‘What do you feel about your penis?’, asks a doctor in Transamerica. ‘It disgusts me’, he replies, shuddering.
In this respect, transsexuality is little different from the various other ways in which people experience alienation from their bodies. In Better Than Well (2003), Carl Elliot describes all the different ways in which people feel that they are ‘stuck in the wrong body’, and look to medical science to make them feel okay: from a bodybuilder who takes large amounts of anabolic steroids; to those who pursue endless rounds of cosmetic surgery; to those who undergo amputation of one or more limbs, convinced that this arm or leg is not ‘theirs’.
Tellingly, one of his case studies for voluntary amputation was also a transsexual. Cutting off a leg or your penis are both attempts to feel more at ease with the body. This is transcendence via the operating theatre, as surgeons nip and tuck the bits that don’t feel right.
Why is this a cause for celebration? Why is transsexuality held up as a higher state of being? Perhaps because today’s society has no spiritual or ideological answer to individuals’ experience of alienation. It can’t offer salvation through God, politics or communities, so it instead celebrates individuals’ fumbling attempts to find themselves. On websites, in the papers and in Hollywood, would-be transsexuals are cheered all the way to the operating theatre.
People who could go one way or the other are encouraged to think of themselves as transsexual. One Dutch university hospital has introduced puberty-stopping drugs for 11- to 16-year-olds who feel that they are really the other sex, advising about the options for an operation once they are 18 (1). The transsexual narrative should not be offered so casually, especially since the teenage years involve a lot of confusion about sexuality and identity. It turns out that three quarters of those on the programme decide that they are gay rather than the opposite sex. Some of the rest may have done so too if they hadn’t been schooled in transsexuality since the age of 11.
One consultant psychiatrist noted the phenomenon of ‘conspiratorial transsexuals’, individuals who were convinced by transsexual websites or friends that this is the explanation of their problems. ‘Some smart people with mild Gender Dysphoria fool themselves into believing they are essentially female and therefore Transsexual.’ He also notes that five per cent of people remain unhappy after the operation, some even changing back. Astonishingly, though, he claims that ‘”changing back” does not necessarily equate with “failure” since they may be happy to have “exorcised their gender demons”‘ (2).
Surely there must be easier ways of ‘exorcising their gender demons’? The change of sex is an extreme and essentially irreversible operation, which involves mutilation and pain on the part of those who undergo it. This should not be seen as an acceptable way of settling identity confusion.
Clearly condemnation is no answer to those who are convinced that they are transsexuals. Some people are deeply unhappy, and feel more at ease after the operation has been done.
Instead, we need more of a cultural discussion about these forms of body modification. We need to be able to tell the difference between acts of self-determination, which mean taking control over your own life and body; and acts of alienation, which are really various forms of running away from yourself, and leave you yet more entrapped.
Transamerica: dysfunction by numbers, by Tara McCormack
(1) Wrong Body….They have that ‘pecker’, the treatment of transsexual teens in the Netherlands
(2) Minefields and Pitfalls in Gender Identity Disorder, for both Patient and Doctor,
Dr Russell Reid, GENDYS network
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