The Unbearable Lightness of Being Transgender

A human's sex is determined at the time of conception, however, sexual differentiation only occurs around the fourth month of pregnancy. The sex organs of a male fetus and a female fetus look identical before then.

The realm of the spirit yields archetypes that can be just as unified. In The Unbearable Lightness of Being, for example, Milan Kundera recalled the myth from Plato's Symposium that has borne upon romantic love for centuries: "People were hermaphrodites until God split them in two, and now all the halves wander the world over seeking one another. Love is the longing for the half of ourselves that we have lost."

Western literature has stoked this idealism through modern times in explorations of identity. No later than 1928, Virginia Woolf wrote about a sort of magical gender transition in Orlando: A Biography: "Orlando had become a woman -- there is no denying it. But in every other respect, Orlando remained precisely as he had been. The change of sex, though it altered their future, did nothing whatever to alter their identity. Their faces remained, as their portraits prove, practically the same. His memory -- but in future we must, for convention's sake, say 'her' for 'his,' and 'she' for 'he' -- her memory then, went back through all the events of her past life without encountering any obstacle."

Gore Vidal sparked scandal four decades later in 1968 with his novel Myra Breckenridge, the tale of a woman in Hollywood who had "this scar where cock and balls should be." Yet for all the book's shock and titillation at the time, as in Orlando, Vidal tethered the phenomenon of changing sex to individual identity: "[i]t is impossible to sort out all one's feelings on any given subject, and so perhaps it is wise never to take on any subject other than one's own protean but still manageable self."

The first known sex change surgeries were performed in Berlin, Germany in the early 1930s, and advances followed after World War II. Dr. Harry Benjamin, an endocrinologist born in Germany who later practiced in San Francisco, California, wrote The Transsexual Phenomenon in 1966, and published standards of care for transsexual people in 1979. One of Dr. Benjamin's patients was Christine Jorgensen, who underwent surgeries in Europe to become female during the early 1950s, and returned to fame in the United States as a blond bombshell. By the end of the millennium, awareness of treatment had spread: in 1987, for example, Ayatollah Komeini issued a fatwa sanctioning sex change surgery for transsexuals -- and now Iran is apparently second only to Thailand in the number of such surgeries performed every year.

Yet even as sex change surgeons have achieved proficiency in correcting flaws of nature -- once, in a surreal conversation, a man claimed I was lying about being transgender after he saw my vulva -- the transgender movement in the West has begun to reject a dichotomy from which the concept of changing sex necessarily arose: binary gender.

An example of this shift is an article by M. Dru Levasseur, Esq., the Director of the Transgender Rights Project National Director for the Lambda Legal Defense & Education Fund, Inc., entitled, "Gender Identity Defines Sex: Updating the Law to Reflect Modern Medical Science Is Key to Transgender Rights," which appeared in the Summer 2015 issue of the Vermont Law Review. (Disclaimer: Levasseur and I are friends.)

Of gender dysphoria, the name for the condition that afflicts transgender people, Levasseur observed, in line with a conventional dual gender approach, "The availability of a diagnostic classification serves to facilitate appropriate treatment, which alters the mutable primary and secondary sex characteristics to match the core self-identity, rather than alter the fixed, core gender identity."

But Levasseur went on to posit a theory that would redefine the presumptions upon which society's understanding of sex is based: "If the goal for transgender people is to provide for the most self-determination under the law, we must go to the root of the reason for 'changing' one's sex. . . . Transition is not altering one's sex, but affirming one's underlying gender identity. It is not done to evade or to be someone you are not; rather, it is to realize who you deeply are."

And the result? "Sex is multifaceted," Levasseur concluded, "and of the multiple factors that determine sex, gender identity must be given primary weight, as the single most important biological determinant of sex."

Pause and reflect on that sentence.

Does Levasseur's theory imply that divisions of the gender binary dissipate upon scrutiny, and, regardless of the body, maleness and femaleness inevitably broaden to the point where they meld into a third gender?

To be continued...

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This blog post is from my essay Transgender No More.