18 Chapters
Medium 9781855753327

1. Transsexualism: what’s new?

Chiland, Colette Karnac Books ePub

It would seem that there have always been people, men and women, who reject their original sex and wish to live as members of the opposite sex. What is new is the term “transsexualism”, as is the offer that some physicians make to “reassign” a person’s sex. The way in which contemporary society comes to terms with the condition is new, as is the train of ideas it brings in its wake.

I. The word itself

It is an easy matter to put a date on the word itself. It developed in three stages.

Firstly, in 1923, Magnus Hirschfeld, a German sexologist, used it occasionally in the form seelischer Transsexualismus (transsexualism of the soul or mental transsexualism) when referring to the intersexed. Then, in 1949, D. O. Cauldwell wrote a paper with the title “Psycho-pathia transexualis” in which he described a case that we would nowadays call female-to-male transsexualism. Finally, in 1953, Harry Benjamin coined the word transsexualism, a term that in the space of ten years or so would establish itself as the correct designation for a highly specific condition, different from transvestism or eonism.

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3: Gender identity

Chiland, Colette Karnac Books ePub

Every society draws a distinction between men and women, and sometimes also between other, minority, categories. Each of us has the intimate feeling of being either a man or a woman; some feel themselves to be in an ambiguous situation. That feeling was for long known as one's “sexual identity”, but nowadays that term is more often used to refer to one's erotic inclination—homosexual, heterosexual or bisexual. Then the idea of “gender” appeared, followed by that of “gender identity”.

In grammar, of course, the concept of gender is by no means recent. Masculine, feminine and neuter dictate the rules of grammatical agreement between different parts of speech.

Gender is not a universal grammatical category (Corbett, 1991). To assume that it is is an ethnocentric illusion held by Indo-Europeans, all of whose languages have two or three genders. There are, however, many languages—notably Chinese—which do not have that notion; this does not prevent those who speak a genderless language from drawing a distinction between men and women. Linguistic gender does not create sex.

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6. Masculinity and femininity

Chiland, Colette Karnac Books ePub

It is time to address the fundamental issue concerning what masculinity and femininity really are. If we ask a transsexual, for whom the question of being acknowledged as a man or as a woman is of vital importance, what a man or a woman is, the answer we obtain will be remarkable for its sheer poverty. Transsexuals are not inclined to write essays on the topic, and often the answer will be a mere “It’s what I am” – whereas, for the observer, it is precisely what he or she is not … If they do elaborate on their answer, transsexuals fall back on the social stereotypes prevalent in their culture.

The distinction between the two dimensions male/female and masculine/feminine is very important, but is not always easy to express; it depends on the language that we use. In English, for example, there is no problem, just as the difference between “sex” and “gender” is easy to express.

I. Male or female

It was to some extent as a result of the invention of gender that it became obvious that the male/female dimension had to be differentiated from the masculine/feminine one. One’s sex is male or female – this is a biological matter – whereas one’s gender is masculine or feminine – a social and psychological matter, the psychological aspect being fundamentally influenced by social factors, with little heed for biology. The differences between male human beings and female human beings are universal; the same is not true of those between masculine and feminine.

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8: Sex makes the world go round

Chiland, Colette Karnac Books ePub

At every moment in life, each of us is either a man or a woman. We go beyond this division into two sexes only at the highest level of thinking, of reflection, of abstract thought. At the same time, the question of how we position ourselves with respect to others is constantly present, hence the challenge not only to our identity as such but also to our chances of being loved. Those who belong to the opposite sex are in a quite specific position in this respect.

At every moment in life, each of us is either a man or a woman. Is it right or wrong that everything should remind us of this? Our first (given) name, the clothes we wear, the tasks we undertake, our status in society? Ought we to emphasize these sex characteristics or attenuate them? Is it easier to obtain equality when the sex to which we belong is ignored or, on the contrary, emphasized? Every society reminds its members of the existence of the sexual difference, but in an arbitrary manner, by imposing attitudes and ways of doing things. Although we cannot erase that difference, we can fight against arbitrariness in the way society interprets it whenever this leads to deprivation of rights or of personal liberty.

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5. How the transsexual’s mind works

Chiland, Colette Karnac Books ePub

One of the reasons that makes a psychotherapeutic approach with transsexuals so difficult has to do with the way their mind works. The type of functioning which I am about to describe is, to all intents and purposes, shared by all transsexuals in whom the identity component is a decisive factor.

I. On the defensive

“Transsexuals lie,” one of my fellow doctors tells me. In fact, they say what they imagine will force the doctor to agree to the transformation which they so much want to have.

One young woman, pleasant and forthcoming, spoke to me in a way that made me feel sympathetic towards her. She told me that it all went back to her childhood: she had always refused to wear skirts or dresses. Later, I met her mother who showed me some of the very few photographs which had survived the auto-da-fé of the family album which the patient had instigated when she took the decision to live as a man, towards the end of her adolescence, after a love affair had broken up: I could see an adolescent girl of about 15, with a pony-tail, wearing a Liberty print dress that she had sewn herself.

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