Saturday, November 24, 2012

Letter to The Editor, Coming Up! March 1986

"I feel such sadness on reading Debbie Mikuteit's response to Randy Turoff's article on transgenderism.  It's clear that Mikuteit is too outraged to hear me, but maybe someone else will.  And her thinking is deep enough to deserve a response.

I am a lesbian psychotherapist who has had the privilege of speaking at length with some transsexuals in both personal and professional contexts.  Some seemed deeply disturbed to me and some did not.  Some seemed like kind, conscientious, trustworthy people and some did not.  What moved me was the profundity of the experience which can make a person take such a radical step.  The people I spoke with were typically no older than three or four years when they had the experience of "I am in the wrong kind of body."  The descriptions they give of these experiences have a unique tone to them: they seem to reflect more than the experience of conflict that any alert child must feel (especially girls) when facing the huge oppression of gender-prescriptive roles.  To the careful ear, they seem possibly to be speaking of an actual somatic experience that is preverbal and deeply, heartbreakingly, difficult to come to terms with.

I know a human being who was born with a penis, who at age 12 began to grow breasts.  This seemed to them to be a confirmation of the childhood conviction that they were, in fact, female.  For years this person wore bulky shirts--pockets on each side filled with pencils--so that the family doctor wouldn't notice again, wouldn't carry out the threatened surgery on the cherished breasts.  I know someone else who went to college--an absolutely unheard-of step in their family--because they figured that would be the only way to afford a transgender operation.    I know someone who was born with ambiguous (malformed) sex organs.  The parents decided on the gender their child should be and set about raising it that way; plastic surgery followed later; later still, in adulthood, this person went through months of agony to admit to themself that deep inside, they found the parents' decision wrong.

These people and others like them faced an isolation that was unremitting in childhood and adolescence.  Their courage to keep living, face the unthinkable, and find a path for themselves deserves validation.

The mysteries of chromosomes, hormones and genetics vs. conditioning is not simple or fully understood.  Is there any force besides patriarchal conditioning that may account for a person turning to transgender surgery?  For example, the hormonal differences that distinguish a male from a female fetus are detectable six weeks after conception.  What if the balance is upset while the child is in the womb?

If self-hatred and patriarchal conditioning were the only source of transgender motivation, surely the stories of transsexuals would show a monotonous, pathetic sameness and shallowness.  They do not.  I doubt the simple sickness-and-perversion theory of transgenderism for the same reason I don't accept it as a theory of homosexuality: it just doesn't fit.

Everything in our patriarchal situation enforces the idea, "There's only two kinds of people, male and female, and that's that."  The people who don't fit into those categories have been invisible and unnameable, like lesbians.  They are unique.  They have something to tell us.  Maybe at times (as in Turoff's article?) their case is presented as simpler than it really is.  Maybe concepts like "self-definition" make it sound too easy.  But if we listen, maybe some doors will open in our minds.  If we follow Mikuteit's advice--slap them in the face and tell them they're sick--then the doors slam shut and we all lose something precious."