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Germaine Greer's "The Whole Woman"

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Text from "The Whole Woman" (1999)

From a chapter titled 'Pantomime Dames'

[First she devotes a few pages to male-to-female transsexuals, with a description of the surgery involved and its limitations, and mentions the Hijras of Varanasi in India (males who have lost their genitals but do not make any attempt to pass as women), and suggests that no-one has asked XX females if they mind MTF transsexuals being called 'she' etc.]

She then continues.....

There is nothing new in using the catch all category 'female' to describe incomplete males. In August 1996 the British media were alerted to the existence of 'women' with Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome. AIS is the name given to a condition in which a male foetus does not respond to androgens and fails to develop masculine characteristics; this is mis-described in a Guardian article as 'developing along female lines'. In fact, AIS babies do not develop along female lines; they simply do not develop adequate male genitalia or the male pattern of hair distribution. They are born with male gonads which remain within the body instead of descending as testicles; the degree of penile development may vary from the almost imperceptible to the almost full-sized. In most cases of AIS the newborn child has been mistakenly identified as female and raised as female. When AIS results, as it often does, in a masculine figure - broad shoulders, narrow hips, no waist, short legs - and progressive baldness and heavy facial hair, the benefit of denying maleness is hard to discern, but the initial mistake cannot easily be undone especially after puberty has been reached. "Biologically they are male; in every other way they are female" ran the sub-head to a piece by Beverley D'Silva in the Guardian. Cosmopolitan too ran the story of AIS as the story of women with men's genes. Christine was operated on to remove undescended testicles at the age of two; after puberty she found that her vagina was only a centimetre long; a gynaecologist told her, "Come back when you want to get married, and we'll operate. There's no reason why you shouldn't regard yourself as a normal woman." The operation was performed when she was in her forties but her artificial vagina closed up again. According to Simone Cave in Cosmopolitan, "Doctors insist there is no ambiguity over the gender of AIS babies, they are always female."

Doctors are not bothering to establish the chromosomal sex of newborns but are judging according to impressionistic criteria whether the genital they are looking at is a clitoris or a penis and apportioning sex arbitrarily on the basis of this casual assessment. As we know that a mother treats a baby very differently according to her understanding of what its sex is, we need hardly be surprised that babies brought up as girls believe that they are girls whether they are or not and behave accordingly. In the past chromosomally male children who were classified at birth as male could not be re-registered as female even in cases where it had subsequently been decided to raise them as female. The case of Joella Holliday set an important precedent when it was decided in December 1998 that her birth registration should be changed and that she should be re-christened. From now on chromosomal sex is irrelevant.

H____ M_____, [our alteration] though male by this criterion, stated categorically, "It would be grotesque to suggest I'm anything other than female. I wouldn't know how to be a man." The possibility that men know as little about how to be a man as she does is worth exploring, more interesting to a feminist is what M_____ thinks being a man involves and how she knows that she is 'being' a woman.

It was a woman doctor who said to an AIS patient, "You can consider yourself female if you like." An eminent man, Howard Jacobs, Professor Reproductive Endocrinology, at Middlesex Hospital, is reported as telling the same patient that 'she' was "completely female" though 'her' "genes were male". "That," she went on gratefully, "was the first time my condition had been explained to me". Professsor Jacobs is directly quoted as saying, "Revealment, not concealment, is the way to go. Euphemism is out. Full-frontal honesty is in." 'Full-frontal honesty,' (the term is revealing) would have informed this patient that she was not a woman but a failed male who may pass for a female and even marry her long-term boyfriend because she was wrongly identified at birth as a female. AIS 'females' have no female organs and not a female cell in their bodies. We need to be sure that their being classified as female is not a reflection of a refusal on the part of entire males to recognize these damaged males as belonging to their sex. Cruel and unsympathetic though it may seem, women should not automatically accept all those who do not wish to be male as being ex gratia females.

The same article told the story of an AIS baby who was correctly identified as male. From the age of three he was subjected to surgical procedures meant to enhance his undersized external genitalia. He explained: "My schooldays were hell. At primary school I was the weirdo in the corner with the funny little thingy. Come secondary school, with PE and changing rooms, you can't avoid being seen naked. With me it was once seen, never forgotten". Schoolboys are here enacting in an obvious and tribal way what grown-up endocrinologists do in a devious and respectable fashion - they are rejecting an AIS male as any kind of a male. When this patient was in his mid-twenties he accepted the inevitable and began to live as a woman. 'She' consulted a psychiatrist, had surgery to tidy up 'her' ambiguous equipment, had a vagina constructed out of a section of bowel and 'hormone replacement therapy' which, I presume, means that she was dosed with oestrogens. Accounts of- the procedures inflicted on AIS males are shocking; no two cases are treated in the same way. Most but not all have their male gonads removed - without explanation. Many but not all have vaginas surgically constructed for them so that they can function as normal, i.e., heterosexual females. This implies a curious attitude to females as simply bodies with clefts in for the accommodation of a penis. Even so, more and more sex-change males now feel free to come out as lesbian, as Tracie O'Keefe has done. Tracie O'Keefe is a Harley Street psychotherapist who at the age of twenty-two had vaginoplasty, breast augmentation and rhinoplasty, and married twice before setting up house with Katrina Fox. O'Keefe thinks "perhaps it is time to jettison the bipolar elitist model of human behaviour", though it would be hard to see how her life would have made sense without a bipolar model to react against.

AIS males appear in some cases to have made a free choice to live as spurious females. One patient is quoted as saying, "I sit between AIS and transexxualism because I was brought up male and changed to female. But being reared male was determined by society, not by me. Given the choice I would have grown up female." No baby is given the choice; every baby is endowed with a sex at birth by 'society'. That identification can prove to be wrong. On the one hand we have intersexual children who cannot grow into the gender role chosen for them by their parents and revert to their chromosomal sex, to the huge delight of the genes-dictate-everything school, and on the other the fully developed normal males with active testicles and no shortage of testosterone who decide that they are locked into the wrong body.

[She launches into various cases of transsexualism again]

In the meantime women will probably continue to accept as women all those who wish to be regarded as female, including AIS males and surgically altered males and XXY androgynes and single-X individuals. A good-hearted woman is not supposed to mind that her sex is the catch-all for all cases of gender ambiguity, but her tolerance of spurious femaleness, her consent to treat it as if it is the same as her own gender identity weakens her claim to have a sex of her own and tacitly supports the Freudian stereotype of women as incomplete beings defined by their lack of a penis. Womens' lack of choosiness about who may be called a woman strengthens the impression that women do not see their sex as quite real, and suggests that perhaps they too identify themselves as not-male, the other, any other.

[She talks a bit more about female gender identity being worn thin by the pressures of society, saying that MTF transsexuals' worst enemy is their mother (even brings in Norman Bates from the film 'Psycho'), talks about female impersonators shouting down women's objections, about rapists, etc. etc.]


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