I who may well be...

Musings from the perspective of a human being who may well be not locatable completely within the usual categories of male or female or gay or straight or transsexual or intersexed or exploiter or exploited or supplier or consumer or performer or spectator.

Tuesday, May 31, 2005

My changing view of gender

A very respected and very personable figure in the field of sexology, Professor Milton (Mickey) Diamond, recently asked me to expound on my changing view of gender over the years. This essay was the result, and I decided to share it by blog.


Around 1985, when I was 23 and about to go on hormones, I was hanging around transsexuals and drag queens and doing shows with them in drag, and heard the narratives of "women trapped in men's bodies", and internalised without question the idea that all or most humans are either male or female internally, and that the "truth" of this internal identity was more important than external features, which could after all be changed to conform to the internal "truth". At the time, I had been persecuted in a straight (public service office) workplace for presenting androgynously, as a flamboyantly effeminate queen, and had suffered a reactive depression, or an old fashioned nervous breakdown, but I was still doing drag shows, and getting approval for presenting with an external gender appearance in congruence with my "internal self", which was far more female than male in its speech patterns and posture and so forth, and came far more naturally to me than the idea of dressing as a straight man (which in those days was very rigid, dark, and bland), an idea I found personally abhorrent.

In accordance with the standard transsexual mythology of the time, I identified fully as a female trapped in a male body, and in a relatively short time (four years, 1989, aged 27), had changed the body.

I was almost deliriously happy for a few months after surgery, but my romantic relationships were problematic, and within a few years I sought counselling (around age 30, 1992), and identified some patterns known as co-dependence, wherein my sense of value had been misplaced onto what other people thought of me. Some people thought I was not a real female, and never would be, and I realised I could not win if my happiness depended on their opinion. I delved into "personal development", and faced my fears and owned my scars, and re-identified as a human being, no longer willing to be restricted by other people's ideas about gender roles and appearance. My body shape is informed by male skeletal development and female skin, by passing one way through male puberty and through feminising hormones and through years of negligible sex hormones. Why should I be ashamed of any those factors?

Around 1992, post-modern deconstructionism was brought to my attention, and I could see that what I had taken to be truths about gender were just cultural constructs that did not necessarily serve the individual. Anne-Faust Sterling's essay "The Five Sexes" blew my mind, for I had never before been aware of human hermaphroditism, and suddenly there was evidence that Mother Nature had broader ideas for human potential than are encased in everyone being either male or female. Free of external expectations (based on the popular myth of the genders being polar opposites), I questioned myself about my gender and what I would be if I could, and found I could comfortably imagine being hermaphrodite or female or male. I came to appreciate that I am not in essence different to any women, or to any pre-op transsexual, or to any effeminate queen, or indeed to any man. On this scale, differences are just a matter of degree, not of essential qualities.

I shaved my head and went barefoot, removing gender signifiers from my hairstyle and shoes, and read about historical eunuchs. I weaned myself off (female) hormone replacement therapy, two years after the genital realignment surgery. I was exploring who I was without other people's gender expectations, and without my identity being dependent on a bottle of pills.

I also observed that many pre-op transsexuals conformed more to female stereotypes than I did. I began to question the transsexual medical model, which assumes that we are essentially either male or female, and that happiness is contingent on our bodies being congruent with our social role or gender. I was horrified, and remain outraged, to learn of the butchery and routine child sexual abuse perpetrated on infants and children seen as "suffering" from intersex conditions, in order to "normalise" them at all costs.

Gender did not disappear from my world, but it shifted from being a person's defining quality, to an relational aspect. I became more conscious of how people act out roles, and change roles to maintain group dynamics. On one level, it seems that the actors are in control, but on another level, it is usually the roles that move the actors. I could be masculine in relation to another's person expressing femininely. I could be feminine in response to another's masculinity. I could be unashamedly androgynous, and dare to act as if I deserved acceptance as a human, whether or not I had a normative gender nature.

There is reproductive biology, which we have in common with dogs, bitches, and puppies, and there is everything else about human nature and human activity, in which we may play as kings or queens or beggars. Our place in a class or gender structure is relational, not absolute, and while we may ascribe a range of qualities or roles to one gender or another, it is arbitrary and culturally determined and has no absolute truth. And many people have aspects that may be classed as of the opposite gender. Given the rigid rules of straight gender, it seems that few people naturally conform, and most have to work at it at least some of the time. Women have to shave their legs and armpits, and men have to know what to do and never ask another man for help. I found reflected in ordinary people my own lack of automatic gender uniformity. In 1997 I wrote A Brief Cartoon Guide to Gender and Transgender (http://www.geocities.com/the_norrie/ultra5.html).

Looking back on how miserable I was a pre-op transsexual, doomed to victimhood as a "woman trapped in a man's body", I wish I could let every person of non-conforming, non-normative or ambiguous gender know that we are not mistakes, that we are part of life's rich diversity, and that not knowing for sure whether you're Arthur or Martha is not necessarily a sign of madness or uncertainty, but may be an acknowledgment that the "this OR that" model does not fit you. If I can't clearly answer the question am I male or female, the problem is not necessarily the answer (or lack thereof), but the false assumptions inherent in the question. I have since seen both bisexuals and transgender activists proudly proclaim themselves "Both/And in an Either/Or world". And my heart breaks when I hear of people persecuted for being ambiguous about their gender, for example, transsexual women* (*gender of subjects is as self-identified, rather than as imposed by chemist's assumptions) taking hormones but not seeking genital amputation, for example, or finding that while they can pass as girly as get out, they feel more comfortable if they can go out in boy clothes every now and again.

I live my life now as an example of gender diversity, openly not conforming to gender stereotypes, and insisting on humanity as our common standard, not how well one can be a man or a woman. And I work for the day when the base values of farm animal breeders are no longer used to choke human happiness.

Monday, May 02, 2005


This is text for the back of a flyer promoting I mAy-welby U, a special evening of iconoclasm with politics, colour and movement, starring me, norrie mAy-welby, and Ditzi and friends, and featureing the BrownSkin Asian Male Dancers, 8pm, Monday 23 mAy 2005 @ the Imperial Hotel 35 Erskinveville Rd Erskineville NSW, $20/$15 conc, fundraising for the Refuggee Action Coaliton NSW http://racnsw.org

Because being a sexual outlaw through times when this was actively prosecuted, I know how terrifying it is to be locked up and treated as sub-human.
It’s not surprising that jailers treat their prisoners as sub-human. If they saw them as human, how could they lock them up like caged dogs? There’s a de-humanising price we all pay for the unjust incarceration and torture our government’s policies cause.
People like me whose gender is a little more colourful than black or white are persecuted and executed in many countries, and often have to flee for their lives. If I was born in any of those countries, I would now be dead, or locked in a box in the desert awaiting YOUR mercy.
Or maybe I, or a relative, or a relative of yours, might go a little senile one day, and end up like poor Cornelia Rau, imprisoned and tortured.
As long as these concentration camps stay, none of us are safe from this terror.

And you can see the front of that flyer at: