In The South

OPINION: Sam Trans Man – what lies between?

Besi Besemar July 28, 2018

Dr Samuel Hall on the artificial chasm that splits the human race in two.

I WAS at a dinner party last night. A great and old friend, renowned for her fabulous catering, put on a pretty impressive do to celebrate her 50th. She is one of a circle of friends from my pre-transition days who are really accepting of my new life, have embraced my amazing partner and her family, and really help me to take myself seriously as a man.

Why is this so important? When I realised I was transgender, which happened at the tender age of three, I had no language for it. I remember knowing that I was different from my younger sister. I can remember that I couldn’t understand why, and was really distressed by having to wear the same kind of clothes as her.

I remember a friend, a boy, who was allowed to wear the clothes I wanted to wear. Who had the toys I wanted and was treated differently from his little sister. I couldn’t understand why this should be the case. I was the same as him, I knew I was, but for some reason my mother insisted on treating me like a girl.

I’ll never forget the day we took our pants down to compare the contents. This was the day I realised that not having a penis, something I’d become aware of, was going to be a problem. Was, in fact, the problem. This was the gender divide at work. My genitals, at the moment of my birth, were the sole dictator of my destiny.

It was because of my genitals that I was expected to play with dolls, wear dresses and skirts, and enjoy ballet classes. I was dragged to the latter, forced into the clothes against my will, and just plain refused to engage with the former, preferring to have no toys at all than be seen as a girl. I was adamant that I be allowed to live in the blue box, not the pink one.

I was a single-minded child. I screamed blue murder when I went to school and encountered gendered toilets for the first time. I became a school refuser, anything to avoid the horror of being forced into the wrong box. I learned that my name ‘Lisa’ was something that denoted the team I’d been placed in, and I learned to hate my name. I’d been put in the wrong team, and although over time, my parents became more tolerant of my peculiarities, they never actually allowed me to live as a boy.

I was eventually allowed to dress, do and play as the boys did (my friends were all boys) but I wasn’t allowed to actually say I was a boy. I can still feel my mother’s hand on my shoulder, outing me before I had a chance to give my chosen name ‘Lee’. “This is Lisa, she’s a tomboy”. I was so ashamed. For years I thought I was or had been ashamed of being a tomboy. But now I know I was ashamed of being found out, ashamed that in that seemingly harmless sentence, my mother was inadvertently letting people know that I didn’t have a penis.

In the context of today’s debate about gender, whether it truly exists or not, how nurture is likely to be the strongest determinant of behaviour rather than the DNA blueprint, or nature; how the opportunities we’ve always regarded as better suited or appropriate for men, or women, are not really as gender-specific as we’d like to think; on a background of understanding more and more about biological variation and the different bodies that we are all born with, including intersex people, it hardly seems right that we should make sweeping decisions about a child’s future based on what lies between their legs at the moment of birth.

This artificial chasm that literally splits the human race in two, is both oppressive and one-sided in terms of favour, and which is deeply damaging to humanity, affects each and every one of us from the moment we’re born, if not some months before when the ultrasonographer reveals this all-important details to our expectant parent(s).

How is it that our sexed bodies are allowed to carry so much weight in terms of options and choices later in life? From the earliest moment a child labelled ‘girl’ will be spoken to, thought of, reacted to, played with, shouted at, held, guided and pointed in a different direction to her male counterpart, the so-called ‘boy’. He in turn will be expected to conform to another set of rules, the majority of which he will learn so early in his life he doesn’t remember learning them at all. And so it goes on.

The gender divide is almost unquantifiable in magnitude, and not quite possible to separate from biology because there are legitimate differences in the sexed bodies of humans. The differences, however, are not as significant as we think – there is more biometric variation (height, weight, physical strength etc) within the sexes than between them.

So thinking back to those painful childhood days, had I not been placed in a silo based on biological variation but rather been allowed to express myself freely, had there not been a rigid framework within which I was expected to live, would I have developed differently? I rather think not. My distress at not having a penis wasn’t because I wanted to be a boy and couldn’t, it was because I was a boy and wasn’t allowed to be.

This may seem or sound like a trivial distinction, but everything hangs on this point alone. The sense of being invisible was because I was constantly being shamed for not having my penis, a fact which has completely revealed itself in the loss of shame I feel now that I do have a penis. I needed to know when I chose to have this surgery, that I was doing the right thing for myself, morally, ethically, clinically and psychologically.

Now I know I was.