Sex Between our Ears - More Important than the Sex Between our Legs?
"All in the Mind" Radio Program Explores Gender
Natasha Mitchell: Hello, Natasha Mitchell here with you for All in the Mind and thanks for joining me today for what I hope will be something of an adventure into the inner workings of our sexuality.
MUSIC: Blur "Girls and Boys"
Jamison Green: What we tend to think it seems like the medical profession tends to think is that sex is real and gender is not real because gender is socially constructed, that's sort of the classical phrase. But actually I think that sex is every bit as socially constructed as gender and gender is every bit as real as sex.
Felicity Haynes: And they interact with each other in such a close and intimate way.
Jamison Green:We are very, very complex beings.
Felicity Haynes: Yes.
Natasha Mitchell: Two of the participants at last week's 5th International Congress on Sex and Gender hosted in Perth, which brought together people, transgender, gay, straight and lesbian, including academics and activists to talk shop.
With the 6th International Gay Games on in Australia this week, there's been a whole suite of gender bending forums and discussions like this one happening right across the continent.
And when it comes to tweaking with gender and looking beyond the binary that we know as male and female given that `the mind' is this program's turf, today I thought we'd explore the following question. Is the sex between our ears more important than the sex between our legs?
Certainly the polarisation of gender into `male' and `female' is a powerful division in most societies. But does `man' equal `male' equal `masculine' all of the time? And does `woman' equal `female' equal `feminine' all of the time? When it comes to sex and gender is one just about biology and the other just about identity?
Sexologist Milton Diamond is Professor Anatomy and Reproductive Biology at the University of Hawaii and heads up the Pacific Centre for Sex and Society. He's most famous for his work with transgender and intersex people and it throws up some very interesting questions about the relationship between our sex, gender and genitals.
Intersex people are those who have biological characteristics of both males and females ranging from ambiguous genitalia, say to even an extra X or Y chromosome.
100s of people are born this way in Australia each year but this isn't openly acknowledged. And the common practice is for the well- meaning medical profession to nominally assign intersex children to one sex or another soon after birth through surgery and perhaps hormone treatment.
But this is a practice that Milton Diamond argues strongly against, not the least because of his work with the well-known case of John/Joan.
John was born a boy, but during a messed up circumcision his penis was removed and it was decided that he should undergo sex reassignment surgery and be brought up as a girl, Joan. But things didn't go quite to plan.
Milton Diamond: That case was used as a justification for the idea that you can change the individual's genitals and therefore reassign how that individual will think.
In other words the thinking was the penis was accidentally removed. An individual without a penis by that primitive definition has to be a girl.
Natasha Mitchell: Very Freudian.
Milton Diamond: Absolutely, that's like saying a woman who has a mastectomy can't be a woman anymore. A woman who has a hysterectomy can't be ? that's crazy. That's society's imposition on individuals and people can say well why not reconstruct a penis.
The unfortunately simplistic comment that's usually made is `it's easier to dig a hole than build a pole' and again, the physicians are well meaning so they are trying to do their best but they were dealing with the idea, "well, I wouldn't want to be a boy going through school without a penis, how are we going to deal with a pissing contest?" "And how are we going to do those other things? And in case he'll be made fun of."
Yes they might be made fun of, first of all most kids don't show their genitals to anybody, kids are terrible about everything. If you wear glasses you're four eyes, if your fat you're `fatty', if you're 'skinny you're `beanpole', kids can't hide their glasses, they can't hide their fat?but they sure can hide their genitals and don't have to show it to anybody.
Then, as they develop they say "you know, I do want a penis", or "I do want a vagina" or whatever it is. When the child becomes old enough usually about puberty then we can so "OK, you can have the surgery you want".
Natasha Mitchell: With John and Joan though and now David I understand - known publicly as David, this confluence, if you like, between sex and gender that we tend to demand really wasn't there?
Milton Diamond: It wasn't there because he was being called girl, he was expected to do girl things and everything in his inner being was saying this is alien to me. Remember he didn't know he was male. It was poignant, you know the way he would say "every Christmas I was hoping for a gun or something and they gave me a doll and I threw that away and played with my brothers' toys".
Natasha Mitchell: It's a very confusing scenario though isn't it because it also questions the very assumption we make that gender is socially constructed?
Milton Diamond: That's right, I mean in a way science is fortunate and the medical community is fortunate that David was what I would call "Joe Six Pack". He is so macho, you know that they probably kept him in a confined room, a pink room you know, he never would have turned out.
There were other people that are much more flexible and much more malleable and I'm not giving that a good or bad feature so there are some people who will accept their impositions, societies' imposition. The `tomgirl' who is told you can't go on the swing or climb you know, you have to stay home and read or whatever. But that doesn't mean they're happy doing it.
Natasha Mitchell: I guess the conclusion that we can come to here from your observations or certainly your argument is that we're not psychologically neutral when it comes to our sexuality at birth.
Milton Diamond: Absolutely, you're correct we are not. I use the term we're predisposed, you have a predisposed bias, act in certain ways, you accept certain things and you rebel against others. Some societies allow you to rebel more strongly than others. Fortunately in the west we're allowed to rebel.
Natasha Mitchell: My concern is that if we do say then that we are born in a sense with a gender identity of sorts that we then go back to those days where that becomes our limitation, that's our limiting factor, we are born this gender and because we attach a whole series of social roles and expectations to that gender therein we have our lifelong role.
Milton Diamond: That's true but that's the fault of any stereotype. Whether you say well `you're Chinese you have to act so and so, or you're Japanese, you have to act so and so' or `you're Islamist you have to act so and so', or `you're Australian' you know. I mean that's the fault with any stereotype.
Natasha Mitchell: Sexologist, Professor Milton Diamond there from the University of Hawaii. And you're tuned to All in the Mind with me Natasha Mitchell coming to you on ABC Radio National and internationally too via Radio Australia and the web.
Natasha Mitchell: Today's gender bending questions ? is the sex between our ears more important than the sex between our legs? And are sex and gender the same or different?
And joining me now are two more participants at the recent international Congress on Sex and Gender that was held in Perth.
Dr Felicity Haynes is senior lecturer in Education at the University of Western Australia and Co-editor of Unseen Genders: Beyond the Binaries: She's also co-director of the International Foundation of Androgynous Studies.
And visiting Australia from his home state of California is Jamison or James Green who's an internationally respected writer, speaker, educator and advocate for transgendered and transsexual people.
Jamison is also on the board of the non-profit organisation Gender Education and Advocacy and also of the Transgender Law and Policy Institute. And he's past president of FTM International ? an organisation focused on the needs of female to male transgender people, of which he is one.
Thank you both for joining me on the program today.
Jamison Green: Thank you so much Natasha.
Natasha Mitchell: Now Jamison Green can I start with you, your own journey has been an interesting one and as I understand it you began your transition to be male in 1988 just before your 40th birthday.
Jamison Green: That's correct.
Natasha Mitchell: And was then identified legally as male three years later but you started out in life as you describe it female bodied and male gendered. Let's unravel what you mean by that, what did that feel like?
Jamison Green: I didn't feel connected to my female body, I was much more socially comfortable in male space if you will. You know when you're 5 or 6 years old it's sort of hard to define what's male space and female space but I was more comfortable playing with the boys. And when I was with all girl groups, I would often feel not quite one of them. And they often also felt that I wasn't quite one of them either. But because I had a female body there were expectations that I should be in this other mental space I guess, that I was supposed to relate more with them. And people would become confused about whether I was a boy or a girl. Sometimes even when I was wearing a dress adults would ask me, are you a boy or a girl?
Natasha Mitchell: And how did you respond to that?
Jamison Green: Well I knew I was supposed to say I was a girl so I did. Of course there were tomboys and that was OK and I understood that people sometimes thought of me as a tomboy and I was supposed to outgrow it but I didn't feel that that was really going to happen.
Natasha Mitchell: I wonder if we fast forward to when the possibility of women having sex reassignment surgery first became apparent to you in the 70s I think it was, was this an option at all accepted amongst your women friends many of whom identified as lesbian, or was it considered heresy of sorts?
Jamison Green: Well in those days it was pretty much considered heresy and I think some people felt that actually there were some friends of mine who felt that I should go to one of these programs and present myself and because-
Natasha Mitchell: As a case study?
Jamison Green: Yes, and because I was so masculine they would go, the people at the programs would go "oh, this is wonderful, absolutely you're a transsexual" and I would laugh in their faces and say that "hah, hah fooled you, I'm just a very strong woman"!
But I didn't feel like I could really do that because I thought if I actually got that close to the possibility of having my sex changed that I might actually do it. And at the time I was absolutely terrified of it.
Natasha Mitchell: Then you were more comfortable with the label `lesbian' but not with the label `woman'. How did you distinguish between the two in your mind at that time?
Jamison Green: Well `woman' was sort of an adult person who accepted themselves as having a female body and accepted certain things about what that meant and I just didn't seem to relate to that at all.
Natasha Mitchell: Was it about more than simply who you were sexually attracted to?
Jamison Green: Oh yes, much more than that. Sexual attraction really has very little to do with it. I did not accept a lot of things that other women around me, even lesbian women accepted about their reality. For instance I was not afraid to go out at night, you know walking alone, it just didn't occur to me that there should be anything to be afraid of. I didn't understand how really truly fearful women are until after I became a man and had that fear turned on me because I was perceived as a threat, just because I had a male body now.
Natasha Mitchell: Right, so how was it seeing it from the other side so to speak, feeling it from the other side?
Jamison Green: You know I still have continuity in my body in spite of the fact it is now dramatically different than it was, it's still me inside here so I have the privilege of observing life from those two angles except that there's still a constancy here, it's not like a reverse 180 degrees for me.
What I see is much of the way that men actually are hemmed in and depressed by the proscriptions around their behaviour. Not that I don't think that women shouldn't be afraid of men because there certainly are bad men out there but I think that we, because we don't examine how we treat each other, for instance men pretty much learn not to smile at strangers and to stay away from children because you're always going to be suspect.
Natasha Mitchell: And acknowledging the continuity within your body as you just have I wonder how then you relate back to the experience of the gender that you were assumed to be from birth ? female, where does that fit in your conception of yourself today?
Jamison Green: Well it's interesting if you take sort of a Jungian view that all men have an `inner feminine' and all women have an `inner masculine'. Right now I feel that the `outer masculine' and the `inner feminine' are perfectly balanced in me. Whereas when I had a female body I felt that the `inner masculine' was simply too large to fit in that `outer feminine' space. And I felt extremely uncomfortable.
Natasha Mitchell: So in a sense it's been a real process of matching mind and body.
Jamison Green: Exactly.
Natasha Mitchell: Felicity Haynes if I can come to you, the sexologist Milton Diamond who's been in Australia this past month does a lot of work with intersex and transgender people and he argues, and these are his words, that the sex between our ears is more important than the sex between our legs. What do you think of that idea?
Felicity Haynes: Well it seems to me to be a question that assumes that James's identity was gendered identity, and the continuity that you're talking about is between his ears. Now where do we get that from? I think the gendered identity is there in your practices, it's there in the way you perceive the world. And James just talking then about how he had to change his perceptions because he was mirrored in peoples' eyes as a male, change the way he sees the world. Now you could say that's cerebral but it's a physiological thing as well?
Natasha Mitchell: Certainly the concept of gender for women has been a liberating one in the idea that gender was socially defined, or that argument and separate somehow from biology and that?we're not exclusively confined to our so called biological roles i.e. child birth etc.
Felicity Haynes: Humans are very interesting creatures, they are continually trying to build theories and theories demand that we make differentiations so we've made a differentiation between male and female and we have to see yes, there is a difference but we don't have to reify it as being essentially caused by some vital ingredient.
We also make differentiation between sex and gender because that's handy for our discourse, it makes it easy to think of gender as something that we believe and feel and sex is something you're born with. Caused by hormones or caused by the size of your hypothalamus, chromosomes but when you look at the multitude of variations the causal theories don't stand up. We've got people with X Y chromosomes who still identify as female, but gender and sex and your gender identity and your body work in tandem. Most of our life we are trying to find a balance between our gender and our body and the two are interacting so constantly dynamically, that you can't separate them out as easy as the doctors I believe and the theoreticians want you to.
Natasha Mitchell: Well Felicity Haynes certainly in the mainstream at least many of us have you know a tendency to go "me Jane, you Tarzan", we tick the box male or female.
Felicity Haynes: Women are from Mars and ?oh I've got that the wrong way round?
Natasha Mitchell: It's totally habitual. I mean do you think we have a tendency to equate sex and gender, and also to equate them with where are genitals are at?
Felicity Haynes: There's a tendency and Freud was one of the first people to say the most important characteristic that makes us look for is gender identification is genitalia. We immediately ask ourselves on meeting a strange person `is it a male or a female'? We've picked that up, it's part of our cultural history but this is that peculiar dynamic interaction once again. Our language constructs the physical reality that we see and they both have this dynamic interchange, and this is the thing that really fascinates me.
Jamison Green: Yeah, I think so and I think we in our language we are very, very sloppy with our use of terminology. We tend to use gender as a euphuism for the word sex, and another factor here is that most peoples' gender and sex do line up. So why shouldn't everybody else feel the way they do? And most people are appalled at the idea that someone would actually allow a surgeon to touch their genitalia.
You know it's just something that a person who doesn't match may need to do. Some people are OK with that not matching too, and that's important to acknowledge I think.
Felicity Haynes: That's right so I don't think the genitalia are the crucial thing myself I think for various individuals different things are important. I should say that I see myself as a female, I've born children, I've had heterosexual relationships and thoroughly enjoyed them but I'm 6 foot tall, I've got very big feet and I've got facial hair. So some parts of my physiology are not quite compatible with my feminine gender identity. However, my gender identity of `woman' is comfortable with those things. So, see what I mean, you can't pick out features that are meant to be typical of male and female and so that they've got to all follow a straight line. They've all got to be a compact parcel in which any variation on the stereotypical male is a transgression I suppose.
Natasha Mitchell: Jamison Green what do you think of this idea, the argument that the sex between our ears is more important than the sex between our legs, or is that just a trivial demarcation?
Jamison Green: Actually I think that Dr Diamond is trying very hard to come up with language that lay people can understand that how a person feels about who they are is important, not just that we are what our bodies say we are.
Natasha Mitchell: Clearly for you though in the decision to undergo reassignment surgery all those years ago now and hormone treatment to become a man, to identify as a man physically as well as emotionally, the impression is that the features of your body were just as important as the landscape of your mind. What was between your legs was just as important as what was happening in your mind.
Jamison Green: Well I think that is the case for most people who identify as transsexual and it is a crucial that their body reify, to use Felicity's words, their identity which is what most people experience.
Felicity Haynes: But there will be some people who don't need to have a penis constructed because their identity of `maleness' doesn't require that physiological change. There are others for whom it's desperately important because they want to mirror the image of masculinity the society values. But for lots of those people it's impossible to either afford the surgery, it's impossible to `out' themselves in that way.
But you see, Milton Diamond wants to have when he says the sex between your ears I think he's right if he does mean this thing, this sense of self. But, what I was trying to say is, that in his book on John/Joan he seems to identify it as a physiological location perhaps in the hypothalamus, perhaps in the thickness of the Corpus Collosom. And when you're trying that desperately to find a physical or sensual cause for gender identity that's where I think you're making a mistake.
Natasha Mitchell: Jamison Green, this interface between the biological sciences and the medical sciences and culture offer some really interesting tensions when it comes to this discussion about sex and gender. Now look clearly the medical profession has shifted in its response to the needs of those who identify as transgender and surgery is available for people, complicated and expensive though it is, but I wonder are there some very powerful prevailing stereotypes in the mainstream medical profession when it comes to gender, and indeed to gender reassignment surgery?
Jamison Green: I think there are and I think there are some certainly enlightened practitioners who are starting to learn better about this. But I think one of the prevailing myths that the medical profession has is that, for one thing, they think that male to female (MtF) transsexual people are less emotionally stable that female to male (FtM) people.
Natasha Mitchell: And what's their rationale?
Jamison Green: Because female to male people are just becoming men, they are more stable, they are more rational, they are more intelligent, you know they are more likely to have jobs, they are more likely to have partners, you know all these kinds of things which I think horrid stereotypes and very, very sexist.
There was a doctor at one point who basically would not perform the final surgery on a male to female person unless she sexually excited him. That was his criteria for whether or not he should do surgery and I think, you know, we're getting beyond that now thankfully - in that more of the surgeons are not looking this as a really important psychological and social issue for people. And instead of thinking that `these are just crazy people so we'll just do a little cutting on them and they'll be happy, we'll send them away'.
Natasha Mitchell: On the question of gender Jamison I take it that you believe that there is something about gender that is not expressed only in clothing, in hair styles, in body shapes, in voices or even the awareness of a body sex. What is that something else? Can you articulate it for me?
Jamison Green: I think it has something to do with soul, I think it's absolutely ethereal. Just like sex is one thing it can be genitalia and it can also be an activity that we do. Gender is characteristics that we ascribe to bodies, it is also the deeply felt sense of who we are.
It is like a language that we communicate when others meet us. They don't see our genitals, they don't know what our reproductive capacity is, they get a sense of who we are based on secondary sex characteristics, clothing, various social cues and also, and I know this from my own existence as a female bodied/male gendered person who was wearing dresses when people would ask "are you a boy or a girl" ? what are they getting that from?
Natasha Mitchell: A more intuitive sense you suspect?
Jamison Green: Right.
Natasha Mitchell: Oh, it's a fascinating mind field, Jamison Green and Dr Felicity Haynes thank you very much for joining me on the program today.
Felicity Haynes: Thank you.
Jamison Green: A pleasure.
Natasha Mitchell: And I've been speaking to Jamison Green, a California based but internationally known writer, educator and advocate for transgendered and transsexual people. And to Dr Felicity Haynes, senior lecturer in education at the University of Western Australia.
And that's where we leave the program for today. Don't forget our website at abc.net.au/rn just look for All in the Mind under programs and click your way to a bonanza of transcripts and audio.
I'm Natasha Mitchell, until next week ta da for now.
Guests: Jamison Green Writer, speaker, educator, & advocate for transgendered and transsexual people. http://www.jamisongreen.com/ [email protected].
Professor Milton Diamond Professor of Anatomy and Reproductive Biology Director, Pacific Center for Sexuality and Society http://www.hawaii.edu/PCSS/
Dr Felicity Haynes Senior Lecturer in Education University of Western Australia Co-author of the book, Unseen Genders: Beyond the Binaries [email protected]
Publications: Unseen Genders: Beyond the Binaries Author: Editors: Felicity Haynes and Tarquam McKenna Publisher: Peter Lang Publishing (2001) ISBN: 0-8204-5024-3 More information: The Hidden Gender - A feature from ABC Science Online
Milton Diamond's Online Publications at the Pacific Center for Sex and Society
International Foundation for Androgynous Studies Inc Includes information about the 5th International Congress on Sex and Gender held in Perth Australia, October 2002
FTM Australia An Australian organisation for female to male transexual and transgender people. For"transmen and those affirming their masculine identity".
FTM International International organization serving FTM transgendered people and transsexual men.
ABC TV program explores Intersex issues Story aired on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation's TV's science program called Catalyst about intersex children.