One of the most persistent challenges transsexuals receive is some variation of the statement: “I think it’s wrong for people to indulge their fantasies about being the opposite sex by mutilating their bodies. If you’ve got male parts, you’re a man. If you’ve got female parts, you’re a woman. End of story.”
A nicer version of this same challenge suggests we should really, really try to get “cured” through some form of psycho-therapy, rather than with hormones and surgeries.
I’ve got no illusions about this being a fringe opinion held by an ever-shrinking minority. This is the mainstream opinion on the matter. In my experience it doesn’t really matter whether people are more liberal or more conservative in their overall outlook – this is almost always their perspective on transsexuality. If you’ve got a male body you’re a man, and believing you’re something else doesn’t really make it so. In this perspective, I can’t ever really be considered a woman, but it might be possible to tolerate me as some kind of poor, deluded man deserving of pity. [I could keep qualifying all these by adding the female to male equivalent phraseology, but that would get pretty tiresome, so please just understand this applies to all of us changing in either direction. I’m coming from the male to female angle, so it’s easier for me to write in that direction. – D]
The traditional transsexual response to this has been the old cliche “I’m a woman trapped in a man’s body.” Something about that phrase has always bothered me, even though I sometimes use it myself. Let’s just say, it wouldn’t have become such a cliche in our community if it didn’t capture some pretty significant and commonly held truth. But it doesn’t really tell the whole story.
One of the flaws in this “woman trapped in a man’s body” phrase is that it decouples the mind from the body. It suggests some kind of “spiritual” or at least non-physical nature of our trans-ness. My body is male but my mind is female? The mind is something other than a physical thing then? What’s the nature of the mind, then? Where does it reside? We’re walking right into philosophical areas debated and never settled since the time of Socrates and Plato if we go in that direction. Rhetorically we’re re-framing the debate from something un-winnable into an area where we have a debater’s chance of contending the point. But by doing so we’re also conceding that it’s going to remain a subjective rather than objective matter. Our very existence is being cast as a matter of opinion rather than fact.
And that’s a problem. I don’t believe my being transsexual is a matter of opinion. I believe it’s a matter of fact. It was this very realization which provided the key turning point which resolved my life-long depression and identity confusion. I was not a man because my body looked like one, and no amount of debating or persuasion was ever going to make me one. There was no “cure” to make me feel like my mind and body match one another, because it was not – in fact – true.
But if this is a fact, and not a matter of opinion, it should be something which could be studied and understood by fields beyond those like psychology, queer theory, or gender studies. Medical science should be able to tell us something about what distinguishes a transsexual from others in quantifiable and measurable terms. If you assume that the brain is where this “mind” thing resides, that sounds like the most sensible place to look.
And you know what? I’m not the first person to follow this line of reasoning. Others got there before me, and some of those others were scientists in fields like neurobiology. Their findings bear directly on the central question: Are the physical structures of the brain truly different for transsexuals, or are they not? Because if they are, then we’re not “mutilating” our bodies by hormones and surgeries any more than we’d be mutilating our minds trying to force our brain to behave like something it’s not. The brain is part of the body too, isn’t it?
Toward this end I intend to share what I have learned about the scientific study of transsexuals. I intend to write about it in easy to understand, layman’s terms, but also leave you links to source material if you’re inclined to be skeptical. I’m going to be shamelessly and extensively linking to Zoe Brain’s series of posts with Ron Goldman discussing this very question (highly recommended if you’re curious – part 1 of 7 is here. From there you can follow the links at the bottom to get to the rest), but I’m not simply going to rehash what she wrote. I’ll be putting my own spin on her points and coloring it up with some of my own experiences.
This is something I believe it’s important for people to know, and yet the vast majority of people have no clue about it. I want to give it the attention it deserves.