Why “Sex Change” is a Problematic Term

I had a little rant on a facebook group today. Yes, I’m back on that shitty facebook thingy. Only to be able to access a few groups though. I don’t use facebook for anything else. This rant is related to labels and the phrase “sex change” that is often thrown around haphazardly in contexts where transsexual people are discussed. All the added oestrogen flowing through my veins makes my tits hurt, so I’ll offload some of that annoyance onto my blog. Here’s an edited and expanded (as if that was necessary) version of my rant.

Image from Wikipedia

I don’t like labels. They separate people and they categorise people like samples in a lab. I can accept them as linguistic devices for expressing ideas and concepts without having to first write a wall of text defining your premise, but when you instead have to write a wall of text explaining why they’re just labels, they sort of lose their purpose.

Although I am most definitely a feminist, I reject the idea in radical feminism that there are no innate genders and that maleness and femaleness are entirely learned gender roles. It makes little sense from a biological/anthropological point of view, is not supported by evidence – at least not to the absolute extent expressed by radical feminism, and is pretty much an ideologically constructed theory in order to shoehorn reality into a specific utopian world view. As a trans female person, maleness is definitely a persona I have tried taking on though, and I am discovering more and more every day how natural femaleness is to me. I am of course trying to avoid the mistake of projecting my current feelings back onto my past self, but I also recognise that my past self didn’t understand me as I do today. So, yes, a lot of the roles we play are constructed by society and ourselves, but that there is no basic, natural identity on the gender spectrum, is in direct opposition to my own experience, and to nearly all the trans people I know.

It is widely recognised in all other contexts that the person you are is the person you feel you are because you do after all live inside your body – peering out. What others see is at best a projection, and usually a fake one at that – to one extent or another. I don’t understand why this suddenly is so hard to accept when the topic is trans people. Why is your identity suddenly overruled by what’s to be found between your legs? What’s so threatening about seeing one thing and finding out that is not the case? That you were wrong?

I know that many homophobic guys are horrified by the idea of a woman with a dick. It obviously makes them gay – the people they despise more than anything. Add to that the misogynistic idea that masculinity is superior to femininity, and every person perceived as male that seems to prefer femininity is obviously an inferior human being. Just like a woman is. Combine these two bigoted points of view, and you have a source for much hatred. Somehow these types of people feel it is their right to know and be warned about a trans woman’s past as if that made any sort of difference to who the person they just met is. Ok, it is fine to have sexual preferences when it comes to genitals and how you want to have sex, or if you want to have sex with that person at all, but that is not what this is usually about.

Although many trans people do want surgery, a lot more feel obligated to get it. Surgery for trans people is not primarily about vanity. It can of course move into that, but it isn’t by default. It is about feeling at home. It is not about making you into something else. It is a combination of making other people stop making the wrong assumptions about who you are and it is about you feeling your body represents who you are to yourself. The former is sort of conformity, but it is necessary conformity for many. The latter is not about conformity but about well being. As with cosmetic surgery, this can go too far, but that is a different subject. A good analogy is the analogy from the movie The Matrix where your digital self image, what you show other people in the digital world, is a projection of how you see yourself. (It is no accident that The Matrix has many parallels to transgender experiences as one of the directors is herself a trans woman.)

Added to all this is the medical profession’s insistence that there can only be two strict and narrowly defined sexes. Known as “the binary” (say it with a loud booming voice). It is of course a completely artificial idea. There is a whole group of people who are intersex, displaying pretty much any variations and combinations of male and female biology. These people used to be forced into a binary state by cosmetic surgery already as babies. A horrendous form of child abuse that often led to life long medical complications. Completely unnecessary, and only to uphold a normative ideal. This obsession in the medical profession with “the binary” (use that booming voice again) follows far into the psychologists treatment of transsexual people too. Transsexual people have often been forced into narrowly defined gender roles in order to receive any treatment at all. If you’re a trans woman, you would have to date men, wear layers of make-up and high heels and pretty much conform to every feminine gender stereotype in the book. Psychologists have been stumbling around blind in this fog  for decades – generally refusing to listen to actual transsexual people who are well represented in all of the relevant scientific and medical professions involved. You know, transsexual people aren’t mentally ill. We are represented in every layer of society, in academia and in other professions. This is nothing but the arrogance of the majority defining normality according to their own perspective. It is directly parallel to the way women’s reproductive rights are decided upon many places in the US by a board of old white men. People who don’t know the first thing about how it feels to be the person whose life they claim authority over. Fuck that shit.

Then we come to the term “sex change”. Implying, by its common use, that an artificial procedure is undertaken to change who someone is. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Hormonal treatment and surgery doesn’t change who you are, it aligns your body with who you already know you are. Hormonal treatment is perfectly natural and is how the body morphs into the various configurations in the first place. These are generally not reversible, but they can be pushed to progress into another direction. It is still the body who does all the work. It is just being told what to do. Surgery fixes the irreversibles, and help when your body isn’t cooperating. These things don’t change who you are though, just what other people see you as. This is incredibly important to understand. Very few people are confident enough, or socially detached enough, to not see themselves through the eyes of others. We all have to function in society somehow.

On this basis I reject the term “sex change” as an overall description of the process. Since penises and vaginas are, biologically speaking, parts of the respective reproductive organs for males and females in mammals, I can accept calling that particular bit of surgery “sex change” or “corrective”. But only in the narrowest technical sense. It is not usually that way it is used though. It is used as a way of inferring that you as a person are defined by your genitals. An outrageous claim in any other context than when the topic is transsexual people. Since it isn’t actually the reproductive bits you change, the reproductive argument of sex is invalid. What you change is the parts you see and the parts involved in sexual activity. It is up to each and every one on their own to decide what surgeries are necessary for them. Society has absolutely nothing to do with it. What your passport says under “sex” cannot possibly have any dependence on what’s between your legs. That is just absurd. What matters to the public when it comes to identification is your gender expression. There is nothing else that is relevant. Ever. So the whole idea of “legal sex” is double bullshit. Genitals matter to yourself and possibly your partner. It is no one else’s business, and is completely irrelevant to how you function in society. The whole obsession with it is honestly perverted.

It is time the media stopped pushing these tropes. They are every bit as demeaning as the racial slurs used in the past, or the homophobic slurs used only a few decades ago. Grow the fuck up and take some responsibility.

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  1. Mik VanEs says:

    If I murder someone, but I feel I’m a nice person, should that be enough reason to accept me murdering someone? Or do my actions count in stead of my feelings?

  2. Veronica says:

    Your point being?

  3. Thank you for this post. I’ve read research papers that showed structural differences in the brains of deceased persons; between people who felt male, and those who felt female. To no-one’s surprise, all the ‘male’ brains were alike; but different to all the ‘female’ brains, which were also like one another. What some people do find surprising is that the brains weren’t necessarily from bodies of the ‘appropriate’ sex. In other words, some of the female brains came from bodies that were seen as ‘male’, and vice versa.

    The people who had female brains had identified in life as female, regardless of genitalia.

    What so-called ‘sex-change’ operations do is simply re-align the body to match up with the brain, and, often, the mind’s body-map. The brain is ‘where we live’, where we have our thoughts, feelings and values and our perception of ourselves. When our bodies fail to match that perception, what is wrong with taking steps to correct it? Especially if the mis-match causes other people to treat us as someone we aren’t.

    It used to be a fantasy of mine that it would be wonderful if humans didn’t develop any discernable body differences until puberty (rather like birds), so all children were just ‘children’ and no automatic, externally imposed ‘gendering’ took place. Of course, while I’m fantasizing, I suppose it would be even better if the whole process were under conscious control, so a person could remain externally ungendered until they decided for themselves whether they wanted their body to become a man or a woman!

    I know I would have chosen a different body to the one I was born with. Will I have surgery? No. For many and various reasons. Should anyone else have the right to as much or as little surgery as they want? Hells, yes!

    I was heartened recently to hear a woman correct an interviewer who had said her daughter “was born a boy, and recently started going to school as a girl” or words to that effect. The mother said that no, she has always been a girl and now she was going to school as herself, instead of play-acting in the role that had been wrongly assigned to her. Well said, Mum! We must realise that just because assigning roles to children based on their genitalia at birth might work in a sizeable majority of cases, it isn’t an infallible guide to the sex of that child’s brain. Guide-books for parents should have whole chapters dedicated to children who do not fit into those stupid boxes labelled ‘The Binary’* so that mums and dads know what to look for and how (and how not) to behave when they discover that their child isn’t who they thought they might be. I used to blame my ‘male’ brain on my autism; until I met several women who were also autistic, but had been assigned male at birth. That was when I realised that my lifelong discomfort with my body and assigned roles had more to do with being a trans male person than with not being neurotypical.

    I am excited by the new medicines that delay puberty until a person is ready to take (or allow their body to produce) hormones to create the correct secondary characteristics to match their brain’s gender. It will make life so much easier for people when they don’t have a whole slew of wrong secondary characteristics to have to change. I’m waaaaaay too old for any modern advances to have much to do with me; but I’m thrilled that future generations will look back at the twentieth and twenty-first centuries as ‘the Good Old Days’, when bigotry of all kinds was finally given the boot.

    (I imagine a descendent in the future asking hir parent “What do you mean, Great-great-…great Granny wasn’t able to transition? That’s sick! =^_^= )

    *I will forever read those words as if said in a booming voice by James Earl Jones!

  4. Rebecca W says:

    I’d not thought about the term ‘sex change’ a great deal before reading this, but I found this very insightful and it made me think a lot. Thanks for writing it :)

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