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Gender Identity: MIND OVER BIOLOGY

by Barbara Sehr

Originally Written August 18, 1987

It was a religious experience that left me fundamentally born again. It was a mid-life anatomical correction. September 12, 1989 was the first day of the rest of my new life. In a Colorado hospital, the attending physician delivered a bouncing 6-foot tall, 200-pound baby girl that had lived for four decades in the body of a reluctant male host.

I was a rare individual, born a woman without a woman's body. Gender dysphoria is not only a rare affliction, it is a unique experience in medical technology and human suffering. An episode of the television show "LA Law" once featured a victim of Tourette's syndrome responding to a defense attorney's inquiry about how long he had "suffered" from the illness. Tourette's syndrome is a physical problem that forces involuntary body movements and sometimes causes its victims to make spontaneous noises and say unintentional words that bring discomfort to those around them. "I do not suffer from Tourette's Syndrome," the fictional victim responded on the witness stand, " I suffer from the intolerance of those around me." For those of us waging a war with our biology, the suffering is the same.

Gender dysphoria literally a confusion over our gender identity is not hereditary, contagious or a deliberate escape from real life. We are dealt our membership card into this coven of confusion long before any of us can tell the difference between puppy dog tails and sugar and spice. The curse begins as we take our first breath outside the womb and we are officially labeled as either "boys" or "girls." It doesn't end until ( and if) we achieve the emotional, mental and fiscal maturity to move the hurdles between us and a mid-life correction.

Gender dysphoria is no more and no less than an unfortunate birth defect. Despite its titillating relegation to the tabloid talk show circuit, it is a serious medical problem. Because of society's intolerance, it is often left untreated and marinated in alcohol and other addictive behavior. When this no longer has the desired effect, there are only two choices remaining: death or recovery. For many, the first choice is easier.

The road to anatomical correction is filled with enough slings and arrows of outrageous fortune to make most any potential Ophelias trapped within a Hamlet decide it is easier not to be than to be. In fact, only one in ten of us who are dealt the condition, ever reach surgery. In between recognition and surgical satisfaction are those same three horsemen that accompany the grim reaper: denial, guilt and acceptance. This is true not only for the transsexual, but for family members, significant others, and close friends.

In my own case, denial took the form of a 12-year marriage that was designed to make a man of me. Guilt manifested itself in the form of a 300-pound shell intended to insulate me from society as a whole and the woman inside. After 37 years of denial and guilt, I discovered that life without self esteem is not life at all and that physical neglect can be as deadly an instrument as any gun. Many of us do not take the right road to acceptance. I can only thank God I did.

The Harry Benjamin International Gender Dysphoria standards, named for the New York endocrinologist who coined the term "transsexual" four decades ago, are the Fairness Doctrine that I and others in my situation must live by. The standards demand that transsexuals seeking hormone therapy endure a minimum of three months of counseling. Those who seek surgical correction must live in the intended role for a minimum of one year. Certainly, just as there are those who seek to evade death and taxes, there are those who flee these standards and seek out the gender dysphoria equivalent of coat-hanger abortion mills.

The Benjamin standards, however, are a necessity in this often confused field. Since the late Christine Jorgensen's case was sensationalized in the national media four decades ago, thousands of confused individuals have mistaken feelings of sexual insecurity, failure to do the "manly" thing or even a genuine desire to see what it feel likes to be a part of the opposite sex, for gender dysphoria. In the absence of strict counseling and strict separation of gender identity from sexual confusion, mistakes frequently led to irreversible surgery and failed re-incarnation for those individuals seeking the wrong solution for the wrong problem. As a result, prestigious programs like those at John Hopkins University in Baltimore were shut down amidst cries of failure. Those of us who truly need the services consequently suffer from diminished experienced resources.

I was fortunate enough to be in Seattle, one of a few locations where a full range of resources were available through a single clearinghouse of information. It took me four long years from the time I first sought out counseling at Ingersoll Gender Center until my surgery. But then it had taken me nearly forty years to take the first step.

Despite the long road to self-acceptance, it was easy compared to my efforts to convince others that the surgeon's knife had not removed my brain. Gender dysphoria boggles the mind of those who are fortunate enough to be certain of their gender identity. In the last four years, I have not only had to recapture the hearts of my loved ones, the friendship of my friends, and the respect of my colleagues, I have had to submit my most intimate emotions to a jury that does not even represent my peers.

I have not been 100 percent successful in this course, but I have been luckier than most. As a writer, I am naturally expected to be somewhat "strange." As I grew up, those who knew me well, were aware there was something different about me -- they just didn't know what. When the truth was finally known, reactions ran in several paths. There was the "white liberal" reaction of "Hey, that's great, I'm with you all the way, let's do lunch -- but I'm kind of booked up until the turn of the century." Then there is the outright hostility, "You're not going to show up in a dress in front of my children are you?" The worst reaction I received was from a once-valued family member. He had no reaction at all. I had expected at best an angry rebuttal to all of my arguments in favor of my decision. His lack of any response in the past four years told me he didn't care at all.

Others who suffer this ordeal are not even this fortunate. Gender dysphoria is difficult enough to understand for those of us who are reasonably literate. For those whose attention span is long enough to absorb only 30 second television spots, gender identity is a difficult concept to digest.

Most people who consider the question of gender dysphoria confuse the issue with sexual orientation. The word "transsexualism" conjures up images of homosexuality, drag queens and transvestites. It makes colorful reading and entertainment for the simple minded, at the same time, it brings those of us who must face the issue on a daily basis, continuing headaches and heartaches. For many people, all they know about transsexuals is what they read about us in supermarket tabloids -- right next to Elizabeth Taylor's UFO Diet Plan. About as many people ever expect to meet a transsexual as expect to take a ride in an alien space craft. As a result, when they make a confirmed sighting, the reaction is frequently one of disgust and ridicule.

"Why couldn't you be happy as a gay man?" well-meaning friends have asked when they learned of my affliction. There is a simple answer to this question. I have always been a woman. All that I changed is my biology -- not my gender identity. I could not be a gay man, since I am not now or ever have been a man.

There are those in the transsexual community who are homosexuals, for sure, just as there are homosexuals in society as a whole. Others who may have had a "normal" relationship with a man or woman before surgery, may choose a homosexual or lesbian partner after surgery. Frequently, gay men discover that surgery to one of the partners might actually break up the relationship because the homosexual element is no longer there. The majority of gender dysphoria victims, however, maintain heterosexual relationships both before and after surgery. Some (to the bewilderment of Geraldo fans) have no sexual relationships at all.

Even educated people appear to do their thinking about gender dysphoria with their crotch rather than their brains. For some reason the action we have taken offends many people very personally, and as a result, they find themselves discriminating against those of us who must air their private hell in public.

Not a few of us have encountered medical and legal personnel who have expressed their disgust with our unintended condition with no uncertain terms. Some of us have even encountered medical professionals who seek to "cure" our "illicit" feelings in the same way as some are "cured" of alcohol and tobacco abuse. That is to say nothing of the religious and "moral" saviors who wish us to be "born again" with our birth defect intact.

It is not only fashionable to discriminate against those of us who are inflicted, it is also very legal. Unlike being black, Jewish, female or gay, gender dysphoria is a transitional affliction. It is not the stuff that gives birth to revolutionary movements. Since the Christine Jorgensen case and a few other celebrated cases such as that of Dr. Renee Richards, transsexuals have made it a point to remain as low-keyed as possible. Individually, we each must move mountains, yet together, we are unable to lift our voices. Most of us would prefer not to wear a scarlet TS on our bodices, not because we are ashamed, but because we consider ourselves transsexuals only during the period of transition. Once we have achieved our goal, we seek to be recognized only for the men or women that we are.

I and my fellow transsexuals usually do our best to stay out of the spotlight. Marches, protests and political lobbying is not our cup of tea. Our particular special interest group has remained more anonymous than Alcoholics Anonymous, more silent than the Silent Majority, and by necessity, more moral than the so-called "Moral Majority." We do not seek to overcome, yet we often have to overachieve. We simply are your brothers and sisters who seek to become your sisters and brothers, your sons and daughters who seek to become your daughters and sons. Statisticians number us at only one in 80,000. Even though we are a minority group, we seek no special consideration. The only affirmative action we demand is the absence of a negative reaction from both friends and strangers. All that we ask is that we be given a chance.

I do not believe that becoming anatomically correct will cure all of my problems. In fact it may create some new ones. This one small candle, however, will light some of the darkness in my life. Even if there is still no peace on earth, peace has begun within me.



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