Is a sex change operation liberating or mutilating?

A debate over sex reassignment surgery pits transsexuals against feminists.

Published August 2, 2007 9:50PM (EDT)

Wednesday the BBC reported on a recent debate about the validity of sex change surgery organized by BBC Radio and the Royal Society of London. Opposing four experts on transsexuals, Julie Bindel, a British feminist and journalist, argued that sex reassignment surgery is an "unnecessary mutilation" based on unscientific ideas and a reactionary idea of gender. She
contended that the very idea of "being trapped in the wrong body" is a homophobic diagnosis invented by psychiatrists in the 1950s and that the "highest number of sex change operations take place in Iran, where homosexuality is punishable by death."

Voicing support for Bindel's controversial position was Claudia MacLean, a transsexual woman who told the audience she should never have had sex change surgery, and that she was recommended for it after a 45-minute consultation. Also interviewed for the story were a couple of other transsexual people who regret their surgery.

The BBC story was careful to point out that those who regret sex reassignment surgery seem to be a small minority of the transsexual community, but what the story failed to mention was that Bindel's antagonistic stance toward transsexuals has a history. In a 2004 article in the Guardian about a trans woman who complained when she was denied a volunteer position in a rape counseling office because it was a "woman-only" service, Bindel called a male-to-female transsexual a "man in a dress" and asked: "Imagine a world inhabited just by transsexuals. It would look like the set of 'Grease.'" Is it any wonder that such comments got her labeled transphobic?

The ideological underpinnings of the debate intrigued me -- a sort of battle of ideas, the tranny vs. the feminazi. "To [radical feminists] the claim that someone can be 'born into the wrong sex' is a deeply threatening concept," BBC producer Innes Bowen wrote. "Many feminists believe that the behaviors and feelings which are considered typically masculine or typically feminine are purely socially conditioned. But if, as some in the transsexual lobby believe, the tendency to feel masculine or feminine is something innate then it follows that gender stereotypical behaviors could well be 'natural' rather than the result of social pressures and male oppression."

Or as Bindel
put it in a Guardian commentary this week: "Feminists want to rid the world of gender rules and regulations, so how is it possible to support a theory which has at its center the notion that there is something essential and biological about the way boys and girls behave?"

In other words, ye olde nature-nurture debate is rearing its head, pitting one marginalized "radical" group against another. But there is something about this explanation that doesn't quite make sense. On the nurture side, there's the belief that you shouldn't mess with the body Goddess gave you because it's just a shell, essentially empty of meaning. On the nature side, there's the belief in undergoing surgery and using hormones for life to fix an essential mistake of nature. Does anyone else see a contradiction here? If the body is a meaningless shell, why not allow people to play with it and alter it? And if you believe nature "makes mistakes" or can be improved through medical technology and a nice face cream, is that really a rigid understanding of natural gender distinctions?

Sitting here in San Francisco -- where "vive la difference" has far more political clout than "your spike heels are digging into my gender theory," I find Bindel's perspective baffling. It seems to me that it's not so much an ideological debate as ideology in the service of personal experience. "As someone who spurned dolls and make-up as a child," she writes, "I find it deeply troubling that, had I gone to one of the specialist psychiatrists while growing up and explained how I did not feel like a 'real girl' (which I did not, because I wanted to be a lesbian), I could be writing this as a trans man."

Bindel may be right to call for research studying the outcomes of patients and their post-operative regret or satisfaction. It's too big an operation for the medical establishment not to fully research. But speculating that her experience as a little girl who didn't like dolls could have landed her with an unwanted sex change operation ignores the more common experience -- of transsexuals doing many years of convincing a hostile world that a sex change operation is what's right for them. No doubt some people do regret these operations. I knew a depressive guy who became a woman only to regret it later. He was unhappy and confused before and unhappy and confused after. But people do extreme, transformative things of all kinds -- full-body tattoos, dangerous sports, plastic surgeries -- and some of these people no doubt do them for the wrong reasons. Should we expect gender transformations to be any less vulnerable to human error?

By Carol Lloyd

Carol Lloyd is currently at work on a book about the gentrification wars in San Francisco's Mission District.

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