Monday, April 28, 2008

Pregnant Men and Caricatures

Now that a transman is receiving worldwide attention for becoming pregnant, conservatives and bigots everywhere are, per their usual hyperbolic tendency, declaring this "tragedy" to be a sign that the end is near.

To start, I don't know what it's like to be a transgender person. So I'm writing this with full awareness that I may unintentionally say something offensive. That being said, from bigots and the usual close-minded suspects, mocking and displays of outrage are to be expected and ignored (but really? "Bearded lesbian"?). From educated members of the conservative intelligentsia (dun-dun-dun), however, we expect a bit more. They, at least, attempt to hide their bigotry in big words. Unfortunately, and despite the alleged Liberal/Leftist/Marxist conspiracy in academia, biased and prejudiced ideas are lent credibility by the academic prestige of those who utter them.

Paul McHugh of the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, a man who takes much credit for closing the school's Gender Identity Clinic, essentially believes believes that medical professionals should not perform gender reassignment surgeries because doing so makes them complicit in mental illness. That belief, if he is sincerely concerned that transgender persons are by definition mentally ill, is valid. Yet.... when reading McHugh's various papers, I can't help but to think that many of his arguments and beliefs about transgender persons are subjective stereotypes based on his limited interactions with trans people and are the result of having a prejudiced worldview.

1. Faulty Analogy

One of McHugh's main arguments against gender reassignment surgery is based on a problematic analogy between transgender persons and babies born with ambiguous genitalia.

In a nutshell, in this article, McHugh points out that some babies are born with ambiguous genitalia. Sometimes, doctors convince the parents of such babies to have their ambiguous genitalia turned into vaginas even when the babies have XY chromosomes. Doing so results in confusion in later life, since the babies were born as genetic males. At this point, I should say that many people, myself included, would concede all of this. What I take issue with is McHugh's taking his observation a step further with the following non sequiter:

"Quite clearly, then, we psychiatrists should work to discourage those adults who seek surgical sex reassignment....I have witnessed a great deal of damage from sex-reassignment. The children transformed from their male constitution into female roles suffered prolonged distress and misery as they sensed their natural attitudes."

At this point, I am wondering if McHugh genuinely doesn't know the difference between a baby born with ambiguous genitalia versus a transgender adult. In the case of the baby who, for lack of a better term, "wrongly" undergoes genital reconstructive surgery and suffers later in life because of it, the resulting confusion and "dysphoria" results from the fact that doctors cut off his under-developed penis, turned it into a vagina, and raised him as a girl often without him knowing it. And, importantly, he feels like a boy inside. In the case of the adult, who is fully conscious of what he is doing, there is no such confusion. And in fact, if my understanding is correct, transgender persons feel pretty much exactly how the male-baby-raised-as-a-girl feels: the outside doesn't match the inside. In effect, they feel like those who "wrongly" have female genitals even though they are really males. McHugh, however, seems to think that feelings of gender dysphoria are legitimate only in the case of a child born with ambiguous genitalia who was raised as a female. The feeling, in his mind, is not legitimate in men with unambiguous man parts who were raised as men. (He doesn't discuss biological women).

What is most troubling about this faulty analogy is that McHugh's justification for claiming that sex reassignment should not be performed on transgender persons is that his arguments are based in stereotype. As we will see below, McHugh's arguments suggest that he does not believe that gender dysphoric feelings in adult men are legitimate because even when they dress like women they're still men and they will always be men no matter what.

2. Stereotypes and Respect

To begin, McHugh's assumption and worldview is essentially this: Transgender women are not "real" women and that's that. This is a common refrain I've observed, particularly in comment threads following articles about the pregnant transman.

For those who are not "passable," for those who look like- as McHugh calls them- "cariciatures of women" I understand the.... "concern." It sort of looks like we (meaning those of us who call transpersons by their preferred pronouns) are "acting." Like we're kids having an invisible tea party in some sort of tedious uber-politically correct game.

Now, I don't know what it's like to be every person in the world. I don't know what a transgender person feels inside. Just because I am confident that I am a woman inside and out, that doesn't mean everyone is. And so, in light of that, calling someone by his or her preferred pronoun is a very small concession for me to make to respect someone else's experience in the world.

I understand, however, that that's too much to ask of some people. There will always be those people who continue "enlightening" us that, biologically, XX is female and XY is male dammit, as if we don't already know that. Thanks.

McHugh, however, argues that reassignment surgery is not appropriate because a genetic male can not ever or should not ever be anything other than a man. Based on his limited experience and with biology-is-destiny-goggles on, he goes on to argue that transwomen remain men because they still have male characteristics.

For instance, he recounts his experiences with transwomen: Like men, they supposedly remain obsessed with sex, they are uninterested in babies and children, and they want to have sexual relationships with women. McHugh continues that they are "caricatures of women" who wore "high heels, copious makeup, and flamboyant clothing; they spoke about how they found themselves able to give vent to their natural inclinations for peace, domesticity, and gentleness—but their large hands, prominent Adam’s apples, and thick facial features were incongruous (and would become more so as they aged)." In other words, they're just a bunch of men in dresses.


I have to question the scientific and logical integrity of an argument that accepts, creates, and perpetuates stereotypes about groups of people based on limited subjective interactions with a few members of said group. And, not that my experience is the be-all, but my experiences with this population have been quite different. It sort of makes me question McHugh's perceptions and biases that he brings to his work.

In sum, I don't see much good coming from McHugh's work in this area. Couched in biases and stereotypes, other people with sinister motives will latch onto his ideas and use them to justify discrimination and hatred against transpeople. If there's any redeeming value it comes from this: Since McHugh only seems to be "concerned" with "male transsexuals," it's clear that female-to-male transgender persons are A-OK!

But seriously.... what does all of this mean in relation to the pregnant transman? Some people, because they are trapped in their own subjective, limited, close-minded perspective, will always be obsessed with and opposed to people who are different than them. Fortunately, the close-minded worldview is not the only one.

There are other ways to respect human beings.

Personally, I think the child will be raised by loving, open-minded, and accepting parents even if, and in spite of the fact, that children in families where hate is a family value will make fun of him or her for having parents who are "different."

Personally, I think it's none of anyone's fuckin business as to whether, why, or how the man had "bottom" surgery or what his genitals "down there" look like.

Personally, I don't think anyone is psychic enough to know that the transman is selfish, "just wants the best of both worlds," or "is just doing it for attention" as many have claimed.

Personally, I don't think anyone, especially the bigot crowd, is the ultimate authority as to whether another human being is "legally, biologically, psychologically, and/or emotionally" a man or a woman.

Just so that's clear.

No comments: