YOUR GENITALS DON’T DETERMINE YOUR GENDER
This article first appeared on GQ online here
Think you’re in the wrong job? Born in the wrong century? What about the wrong body? Eddie Redmayne’s portrayal of Einar Wegener’s transition to become Lili Elbe in The Danish Girl is already being tipped as a winner at the Oscars, and in recent years advocates like Caitlyn Jenner, Laverne Cox and Paris Lees have broken through to the mainstream. Our resident sex anthropologist for GQ.co.uk uses case studies from around the world to show that it’s not what between your legs that determines your gender.
The Third Gender of Thailand
Lili Elbe was transgender woman, famous for being one of the first recipients of surgery to change her sex, who underwent the first gender reassignment surgery in 1930 to “correct” her physical sex. She tragically died from complications.
22 years later, Christine Jorgensen underwent hormone therapy and operations and became the first American to be widely known to have sex reassignment surgery. From the age of 27 until her death at the age of 62, she lived a celebrated life in the public eye.
Today, Thailand leads in the field of gender reassignment operations.
To be kathoey or a “Ladyboy” in Thailand is to lead a life on the margins of society. Western scholars have tried to interpret the existence of hermaphroditic figures in mythic text to explain sex and gender attitudes in Thai culture, but ultimately the evidence is too sparse to make an accurate judgement about the origins of the situation. Today, attitudes towards kathoey are mixed: Thailand’s constitution is being rewritten to acknowledge a third gender to ensure they have equal rights and freedoms as “male” or “female”, and advancements in sex reassignment operations in Thailand — which cost as little as $12,000 (£7,800) — point demonstrate a general cultural acceptance of transsexuality.
However, laws and sex changes don’t change the reality of living as a kathoey. Raids on red light districts to crack down on sex tourism hurt sex workers most, and it’s sex work that the most marginalised members of society are forced into out of necessity.
It’s possible that a latent Buddhist belief of reincarnating into a lesser form lingers, but the popularity of sex reassignment to “correct” your mismatch of spirit and physical sex suggest that it’s the notion of ambiguity that continues to make most people uneasy. But it’s not what between your legs that determines your gender.
Fa, Fa Away…
Meet the the Samoan fa’afafine. The closest equivalent we have in the UK are transvestites, no Western parallels truly effectively explain this culture. Often, fa’afafine begin living as women from a very young age when their mothers dress them as girls.
Sometimes the child will decide for themselves. Fa’afafine have held an important role within Samoan culture for centuries. Their ability to take on both feminine and masculine characteristics means that they can help their mothers but also do traditionally male tasks, such as cooking. Fa’afafine might marry men or women, but that’s not the important part. Fa’afafine are able express their feminine spirit to whatever degree best reflects their being, without a scalpel in sight.
There are few countries where transgressing the modern Western definitions of heterosexuality accepted as easily as in Samoa. Life in New Zealand or Australia as a fa’afaine isn’t plain sailing.
Elsewhere, Brazilian travesti live in fear for their lives. And Barack Obama’s transgender Waria nanny, Evie, who cared for the US President when he was a child in the Sixties, had a steady occupation while the Obamas where employing her, but afterwards her life was exposed and uncertain. The threat of persecution and violence is constant for many transgendered and transexual communities.
Life for transgendered people today
In the West, the concept of identity as a human right rather than a medical condition has helped advance attitudes, but puerile stupidity still allows for a world where you can buy a halloween costume of Caitlyn Jenner.
Poor show. Maybe this October we should go dressed as ourselves?
Surveys of trans and non-conforming gender communities report attempts of suicide as high as 41 per cent in comparison to 4 per cent for the overall population. Only a quarter of people living as trans women have gender reassignment. Activists from the trans community include some high-profile and beautiful advocates like Caitlyn Jenner and Laverne Cox. And they are sorely needed. The Transgender Europe’s Trans Murder Monitoring project counted 226 deaths from October 2013 to September 2014 with the majority of murders happening in Brazil and Mexico. Underreporting of transphobic crimes means that this figure is certainly much higher.
Eddie Redmayne’s portrayal of Lili Elbe in The Danish Girl is already being touted as a hot winner for the 2016 Oscars. While casting has been criticised for enrolling a cisgender actor rather transgender, Eddie Redmayne’s commitment to trying to understand the role won him the blessing of trans activist Paris Lees. We’ve still got a long way to go to eliminate discrimination and phobias, but change is happening, and Eddie Redmayne’s latest role is a big leap.