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Transgender, Intersex; Mind, Body

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Charlie Caplan

Critical Feminist Literature

Prof. Dalke

3 October 2008

Transgender, Intersex; Mind, Body


Scene: a hospital. In a room waiting to be filled with either pink or blue balloons, a mother’s cries cease, replaced by the shrill shrieks of a just-born baby. The doctor cleans it up, wipes off the last of the placenta, and checks between the legs. The doctor spies the missing clue and makes an announcement: “It’s a girl!” It’s met with cheers, with talks of pink wallpaper, of Barbie dolls, of cheerleading. One voice, however, cries out in protest: the small baby, still adjusting to the reality of being born, a foreshadowing to a childhood of dissociation from female expectations and maturation into becoming true to itself, a boy.


The child, a boy born as a female, would be considered transgender. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language defines transgender as “one who wishes to be considered by society as a member of the opposite sex.” Others would see the child as a transsexual, defined as “appearing as, wishing to be considered as, or having undergone surgery to become a member of the opposite sex.” While others still merely interchange these terms, an important factor separates the words: one involves surgery, and the other does not. There are myriads of surgeries that help people physically appear to be their true gender, yet not all transpeople – those who are of a gender different from that assigned at birth – choose to undergo the physical process.


One would think that such a condition – to be born into the wrong gender – would have a universal solution. However, this inconsistency demonstrates the spectrum of opinions among transpeople. Some seek surgery, while others seek therapy. This leads to the question: is being transgender a “mistake” of the mind or the body? Is it a mistake at all, or a sign that we, as a culture, must stop insisting on only two genders?


For some, gender and sex go hand in hand: men have penises, and women have vaginas. Any variance from this dichotomy is considered a psychological disorder, categorized under “Gender Identity Disorder” in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders: “A strong and persistent identification with the opposite gender. There is a sense of discomfort in their own gender and may feel they were ‘born the wrong sex’” (APA). Some therapists, such as Dr. Kenneth Zucker, realize that many children have desires to become part of the other gender, sentiments which must be dealt with through what is called ‘reparative therapy.’ This process involves banishing these ‘unnatural desires,’ and replacing them with ‘healthy activities,’ such as cars for boys and dolls for girls. For example, a parent would bring their son in, and be told that “feminine toys and accoutrements […] are no longer to be tolerated at home, much less bought for the child” (Bailey 31). Instead of “[letting] their sons express their feminine sides,” reparative therapists attempt to lead the children away from “a diagnosis in GID,” which is considered “a bad outcome” (Bailey 31). This, of course, ignores the possibility that some “boys with GID grow up as normal gay men,” making the “discouragement of femininity that Zucker recommends is unnecessary and even cruel” (Bailey 32).


While some, such as those who consider themselves to be ex-homosexuals, feel saved by reparative therapy, they are in the extreme minority to those who were threatened and damaged by the process. It’s hard, and dangerous, to be told that your sense of being and that the way you are is wrong, and that it needs to be fixed. This criticism is one of the deepest injuries to one’s mind. It contributes to the suicide rate among queer youth, which is more than three times higher than that of non-queer youth (Rutter).


Others have come to the conclusion that being transgender is merely a problem of being wrong with the wrong body parts. Women who are born male lament that that they “can’t even bleed without a wound,” and their “body can’t do” what women are expected to do (Stryker). It makes one wonder, “why [has she] always felt that way?” Why does she “claim to be a woman?” (Stryker). This would require defining gender itself, and what constitutes variance from it. Is gender wanting to play with certain toys? Wear certain clothes? Act in a certain way? Does gender variance happen when “[boys] play with yarn, or [girls] play with trucks?” (Butler). The answer is a simple one: gender is defined by announcing one’s membership in it. Saying “I am a woman” or “I am a man” or any other announcement makes it so. Yet, with that announcement comes the expectations and skills required of the gender, and thus a desire – not necessarily by the announcer, but by anyone – to inhabit the body commonly associated with that gender. It takes a chest with “smaller nipples” to make the “grocery store clerks and people behing the counter at the post office to call [a man] sir instead of ma’am” (Califia).


Would this condition, being born in a body that does not match one’s gender, then be considered a variation of sex development? Both involve having a body that is incorrectly assigned to male, female, or neither. However, many are mixed on the issue: Some, such as the AIS Support Group Australia, explicitly state that people “who claim that transsexualism is an intersex condition [are], quite simply, incorrect” (AIS). Others have concluded that, “any intersexed person that just knows they are a man or just knows they are a womyn [sic] deep down despite their body betraying them, should surely know the transgender plight… because that’s what transgender is” (Natalie). Regardless of who is correct, both groups are, in one way or another, excluded from the binary gender system on which our society is so based. Both are forced into a gender role they may or may not fit, and while one might be subjected to life-changing surgeries without their consent, others are denied life-saving surgeries despite overwhelming consent.


It’s such an explosion of concepts and language, talking about gender. Impossible to define or explain without including some, dooming some to impossible expectations, uncomfortable situations, and ostracization. Kate Bornstein notes that, “eventually the gender system lets everyone down. It seems to be rigged that way.” So why the need for it? Some Native American cultures have more than two genders: the Navajo have the nadle, “a sort of a transgendered male-to-female person,” who [reversed] the course of the age-old theme of the strike of one gender against the other” (Bornstein, O’Flaherty).


Would we be better off without a gender system? Perhaps. There would be no reparative therapy. There would be no need for gender-related surgery to make others treat people how they expect to be treated. There would only be a group of people, undivided, living their lives the way that makes them happy.


Works Cited

AIS Support Group Australia. “Transgender & Intersex?” AIS Support Group, 2003. 01 Oct. 2008. < transgender_ and_intersex.htm


The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth . Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004. 01 Oct. 2008. < http://dictionary. browse/ transgender>.


American Psychological Association. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorder, Fourth Edition., 01 Oct. 2008, < http://all disorders/dsm.html>


Bailey, J. Michael. The Man Who Would Be Queen: The Science of Gender Bending and Transsexualism. Joseph Henry Press: 2003.


Bornstein, Kate. “Gender Terror, Gender Rage.”


Butler, Judith. “Doing Justice to Someone.”


Natalie. “Intersex vs. Transgender.” eFeminate, 2008. 01 Oct. 2008. 



O’Flaherty, Wendy. “Women, Androgynes, and Other Mythical Beasts.”


Rutter, Phillip A. “Youth suicide risk and sexual orientation - Statistical Data Included.” BNET Today, 2002. 01 Oct. 2008. < http://find>


Stryker, Susan. “My Words to Victor Frankenstein above the Village of Chamounix.”


Serendip Visitor Josie Francis's picture

Me vs. happyness

Hi; I'm M2f (60 yrs.)live alone + cat, and need ballence in my life. There are many parts to me ,yet even in the State of Delaware USA this is hard to do. Limited transportation makes it worse. I help those in need sometimes. but to find others as I am it is difficult. Please may I join in. Thank You Love Josie

sally fisher's picture

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m all for LGBT rights, it’s just that I think their line of thinking is a slippery slope similar to those who have impulsive urges to modify their bodies, and consequently end up ruining them. I’m all for gender reassignment operations if the person genuinely feels that he would feel more in harmony with himself if he had a sex change, but the issue is of whether he will feel that way in a few years, or even a few months. When people get tattoos and piercings, sometimes they regret them when they’re older because they no longer have the same mindset that they did, or are simply sick of it. Unless it’s a necessary operation (implants for breast cancer surgery, etc..), we already have seen many cases where elective surgeries lead to an addiction. I’m just afraid that LGBT people might be going down this same path by being so eager to undergo an operation. All I’m asking is that they try to do everything in their power to be comfortable and accepting of the way they were made before they decide to go get work done.

Anonymous's picture

short comming of the gender system solutions are only skin deep

I commend your article - very frank and fair
It would be truly beautiful if we could get past simplistic categories (m/f) that do not encompass identity but rather social roles.
I have long suspected my governments interest in gender reassignment was not out of caring or compassion for the gay community but rather an interest in making female soldiers more suitable for chemical warfare situations (enough tear gas can cause a woman to bleed from the vagina) but I'm a big cynic. Indeed there arise gender conflict even for those secure in their identity. And the repercussions outside the queer community are rarely discussed. Women still struggle to participate in traditional male roles and ideas about who should be playing with trucks (or heavy equipment) still run strong. 2% of Canadian welders are women. I have been told recently "go become a man if you want to do a man's job" I am still pursuing my carrier (as a woman welder ;) Indeed that we even consider gender on the application is a sad and sorry state of society - I have invested so much (financially, time and commitment)I have considered taking the recommended surgery to escape bankruptcy and gain employment in my field. Gender pressures come from all sides - what does it mean for the rest of us? As a polyamourous bisexual woman in trades I have my share of battles, this is not one I expected (haha)

skumar's picture

Benefits of a Gender System


Because I am unhealthly obssessed with the mind-body relationship, I was facinated by your understanding of intersex or transgender as a mind-body separation! Take a look at my web paper on Calliope's karyotype as an objection to the infamous mind-body dualist theory in philosophy.

I would like to respond to the question you raise at the end of your paper, about whether we would be better off without a gender system. You answer your question by saying "perhaps." From reading your paper, though, I assumed you would respond with a definitive "yes." However, the hesitation you expressed with "perhaps" is one that I, too, share with you. I guess, first, I would like to know, why you said perhaps as opposed to yes? Do you think there are benefits of a gender system (ie, categorization)?

I am hesitant to completely reject or completely embrace the dismantling of a gender system because I think it is, to some degree, essential to categorize and simplify the complexity of our society, the variants of our species. I wrote a longer response to Amanda's paper on my opinion of categorizing and a gender system, so I would encourage you to read that when you get a chance. To convey the crux of my argument, though, I will say that categorization introduces a commonality that enables people to communicate and relate. Of course, the difficultity of categorization is that it does not effectively place people; the method of simplicity leaves some people out. The sense of being outside of "normalcy" troubles individuals, thus resulting in the therapeutic and surgical outlets you discuss in your paper.

Hmph. All things considered, gender/sex dentity is too cyclical, fluid, and variable to restrict, to force into rigid categorization. So, I suggest: how about a less rigid categorization? Instead of having gender: __ male __female on applications, forms, about there just be Identity: ______ where one is allowed to fill in what one feels the most comfortable identifying as. I mean, ultimately, every individual has some way of identifying or representing themselves. This reminds me of Pemwrez2009's presentation. He identified as a really faggy F-to-M. The broader term of "identity" allows people to explain hir story.

Anne Dalke's picture

"Eventually the gender system lets everyone down"

To me, the most striking suggestion in your essay, Charlie, is the idea that transgender might be considered a version of intersex, a variation of sex development. There's been such a charged history--and a continued negotation--between the activists representing those two groups, with one arguing for withholding surgery, the other advocating for it, that your suggestion offers a clear common ground that I think might be of real value.

Of equal interest to me is your early, and repeated, references to "true" gender (as in the child "becoming true to itself, a boy"). Do the conditions of intersex and transgender invite us, equally, to talk about the "truth of sex"? Do you think it is the case that, as Judy Butler suggests, a "gender essentialist position must be voiced for transsexual surgery to take place," and/but that there is nonetheless a "self beyond discourse," an "incommensurability" between who we are and what we have?

If (as you and Kate Bornstein say) "eventually the gender system lets everyone down. It seems to be rigged that way"--then of course the much larger question (as you also ask) is: why the need for it? Why can't there be, as you imagine, "a group of people, undivided, living their lives the way that makes them happy"? Is that a rhetorical question? A viable imagining?