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Gender reassignment surgery does not help in our gender-divided society

By David Skidmore - posted Friday, 23 April 2004


The historic Family Court of Australia decision to allow “Alex”, a biological girl of 13 years to commence hormone treatment to become a boy has created expected controversy. Many commentators including the Prime Minister have weighed into the debate. Indeed as Orietta Guerrera reported in The Age, John Howard summarised the issue best when he said:

It’s a hard one this; very, very difficult because there is a great deal of psychological sadness and unhappiness, and I understand that and it’s a very unusual situation.

“Alex”, according to reports, was very unhappy. Louise Milligan in The Australian said that:

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[Alex’s] school principal became very concerned at her distress, self-harm and constant talk of suicide because her gender identity did not match her body… [Justice Nicholson of the Family Court] was "anxious about the detrimental consequences" Alex might suffer from showing a birth certificate that was "antithetical to his [sic] self-image".

From a gay male point of view there are essential elements of Alex’s situation that I can empathise with. Alex’s sense of self is at odds with social expectations – so much so that she has engaged in self-harm and has been contemplating suicide. Nonetheless, I find it difficult to uncritically endorse gender reassignment surgery because of the implications it has for those of us struggling to be accepted for who we are – openly gay and proud to be so.

Historically, the gay male community has been allied with the transgender community. Both communities have been marginalised through legal sanctions and social disapproval. Gay men have suffered (and still suffer) homophobic violence and until last year, the age of consent in NSW was 18 years for male-to-male sexual relations as opposed to 16 years for male-to-female sex. This inequitable situation is still the norm in many countries today (that is, in those countries where homosexuality is not completely outlawed).

The transgender community has a history of solidarity with gays in the fight for liberation. Transgendered people have socially mixed in gay circles and performers such as Carlotta have become much-loved icons of the gay community. They have also suffered for being “queer” – the level of violence against transgendered people is shockingly high. This is something gay men and other oppressed sexual minority groups can certainly identify with.

The salient difference between gay men and transgenders’ experience is the “coming out” process. That is, the process of self-acceptance. When a gay man comes out as gay, he is saying to himself, his friends, family and others around him that he is accepting himself as he is. He is no longer pretending to be straight. He refuses to use a persona acceptable to a heterosexist society and is now quite comfortable with his genuine personality and sexuality. He no longer wants to change.

Transgenders, on the other hand, want nothing more than to be able to change. “Alex” came out by openly desiring changes to her body. Transgendered people are not accepting themselves for who they are. Rather, they are saying that who they are can only be achieved by “aligning” their sexual organs with what they believe to be their real persona. They regard themselves as being trapped in the body of the wrong sex.

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The desire to change sex because one’s body is not in sync with one’s gender identity begs the question of what is the right body for a particular gender identity? Why doesn’t “Alex” want to remain a girl? Mainly because “Alex” feels her behaviour and desires aren’t right for a girl. But who decides what is right for a girl?

Some gay men often recount as they grew up they had an interest in things that were supposed to be for girls. There are adult gay males have found work in traditionally female dominated areas such as nursing, social work and childcare. Logically these men should undergo sex-change operations because the way they behave and what they want in life is at odds with how a man is supposed to act in Western society. But they refuse to consider such a radical change to their bodies because, despite rigid societal definitions of masculinity and femininity, they are happy with the sex they were born into and see no reason to make any alterations.

This is a much easier way of achieving a sense of self than undergoing difficult and not entirely satisfactory gender reassignment surgery. It is unlikely that “Alex” will have a fully functioning penis. And there is no way as yet developed of giving her the male Y chromosome. She will become a female-to-male transgendered person rather than a biological male. What she calls her male characteristics will not make up for this. This is not to say “Alex” should be prevented from undergoing surgery (although it is problematic, to say the least, that she should start hormone treatment at the age of 13 – below the age of consent). However, those not familiar with the procedure should understand the likely outcomes and possible alternatives.

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About the Author

David Skidmore works for a non-government organisation in NSW that lobbies for people with disabilities. He has also worked on behalf of pensioners, homeless people and tenants. In his spare time he's a gay-rights activist.

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Alex Leffers response in the On Line Opinions forum
Family Court of Australia
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