I belong to a small community of people all born with the same unusual syndrome. It has the unfortunate name of transsexualism and is one of those rare conditions – like hermaphroditism – where the individual is born as a mixture of the sexes. There are thousands of us in the UK, and as soon as our condition is confirmed, we lose many of our civil liberties. We have no substantive employment rights, it is illegal for us to marry and we are not allowed to adopt children.
But of course we are people – lawyers, doctors, academics, nurses, business people, rich and poor, from shop assistants to peers of the realm, whose life-experience, curious to others, is normal to us. We do not believe that we are less worthy of human rights than anyone else: only less powerful.
It is almost impossible to communicate how it feels to be born and to grow up in this way. Knowing nothing else, it is normal for us to find nature and nurture at odds, to know ourselves one thing while being brought up as another. Typically, then, from the age of four or five, the child knows that there is something wrong and, typically, they believe it will change naturally. Of course, it doesn’t and by the age of eight or nine their distress is so great that they may simply hope to die.
Even if parents, doctor or child did want to speak about it, it is only recently that they would have had language to do that in: the syndrome wasn’t introduced to the general medical world until 1954, and its diagnostic criteria wasn’t agreed until 1980. There were whole generations who had no voice, no language and thus no way of articulating their profound sense of disability.
Indeed, it wasn’t until an article in Science magazine last year that the physiological basis of transsexualism was finally demonstrated. Put most accessibly, the medical explanation is that when the child is in the womb, it receives two shots of hormones, one to form the body and one to form the deep structures of the brain. In most cases, this formation is congruent; in a tiny minority of cases it isn’t and the child is born the body of one sex and the brain of another.
Treatment, by hormone replacement therapy and reconstructive surgery, over a period of three to five years, has a 97 per cent success rate. As individuals go on to live otherwise unremarkable lives, the social penalties for being born with transsexualism seem inexplicable. I do not just lose my marriage, adoption and employment rights. Although my external anatomy is the same as that of all other women, it is not illegal to rape me and if I were remanded in custody it would be in a men’s prison.
Before 1970, I could not be legally raped, and if I went to prison for not paying my parking fees I would have been placed in Holloway. But after 1970, I could be raped and have no recourse to law. If sentenced to a prison term, I would serve it in a jail for men.
In 1970, the son and heir of Lord Rowallen gained an annulment of his marriage on the grounds that his wife, the model April Ashley, had been treated for transsexualism and was therefore legally male. To confirm this view, the judge set up a “sex-test” using criteria that have since been formally rejected by the world medical community but which still operate in the UK for legal purposes. The judge’s comments were astonishingly brutal. April was not a woman but a “pastiche of femininity”.
A life-giving way of understanding our personal circumstances, is to see them as symbolic of the need of the individual to define themselves, to live autonomously to explore the nature of their being. Alternatively, we may be seen as a symbol of communality, through our lived experience that men and women are not different in potential in achievement, or in need. Or again, like the myth of Tiresias, the seer who was changed from man to woman and back again, as a symbol of new life, new vision, new ideas, a third point on which to stand to re-examine and call into question otherwise unquestionable social norms. Or perhaps we are a symbol of the requirement for compassion, a reminder that the degree of civilisation in a society can be judged by the way in which it treats those who are most vulnerable.
We are both vulnerable and powerless. But Vaclav Havel, the Czech philosopher cum politician in his essay The Power of the Powerless, spoke of the way that the crust of a dishonest social fabric can be broken “when a single person breaks the rule of the game, thus exposing it as a game … the whole crust seems then to be made of tissue on the point of tearing and disintegrating uncontrollably”.
My cases against the British Government were brought to open up just such a debate, the debate that Havel calls “the wellspring of truth”. One debate leads to another; from those issues have sprung other issues of human rights, questions about the legality of dismissing homosexuals and lesbians from the armed forces, about the equal treatment of people under the immigration laws, a new defence of the individual and a renewed debate about the real aims of life.
All that is required is for government to accept a return to the pre- 1970 status quo, a move that is supported by medicine, a large section of legal opinion and many parliamentarians. There is no need for new legislation or new administrative systems; the Birth Certificate still contains a column where errors at registration can be corrected as they were before 1970. Time has shown that there were no practical complications with those corrections, and thus there is no realistic argument for not reinstating the practice. Indeed, there is every reason for regarding it as an urgent necessity.
For in the end, the rights under question are not just mine but yours. Laws that do not protect me, do not protect you, your child, your friend, your family. The unequal, inhumane treatment of us is a microcosm of the inhumanity, the injustice, with which you might be treated. The purposelessness of these laws, their brutality, the general ignorance about this state of affairs is, as Simone Weil puts it, “obedience to the force of gravity. The greatest sin”. To change them is, for myself, and my colleagues, not just a matter of personal freedom but a question of freedom for all of us.
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