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Jewish World ReviewMarch 5, 2001 / 10 Adar, 5761

John Leo

John Leo
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Consumer Reports

The 'transgendered' boom

Is politics the appropriate arena for this discussion? -- A media boom is underway on behalf of transgender men and women. Last week, for instance, A&E television's Investigative Reports ran a segment, the "Transgender Revolution," quoting an activist who called it the fourth great rights movement of our era. The Los Angeles Times weighed in with two days' worth of long, sympathetic reports. One account featured an enormous bald man with a long beard who had been born a woman, and a husband and wife who are both undergoing sex-change operations. They will stay married, but the husband will become the wife and vice versa.

Some of the current publicity has been triggered by San Francisco's decision to pay the medical expenses of city employees who want sex-change operations. Like most homosexual groups, the city's large gay population is basically committed to the transgender cause. Gay empathy and power in Hollywood help explain the surge of cross-dressing and changed-sex characters appearing in movies and on television. Gay activist Nick Adams, a former female, told the Los Angeles Times that transgender characters are following the earlier TV pattern of blacks, feminists, and homosexuals–appearing in sympathetic roles in comedies and as characters in crisis on dramas.

In general, the media have depicted transgender issues as an extension of the rights revolution. It's a matter of "fighting bigotry" and "taking America to the edge of a gender revolution," as A&E's announcer told us. Transgender complaints and activism are now bathed in liberation rhetoric, with the customary stress on antidiscrimination laws, hate crimes, and even the mandatory new word of indignant accusation, "transphobia." Is there anything wrong with this? Well, yes. Reducing cruelty and acknowledging the humanity of all our neighbors are obvious social goods. But framing transgender individuals and their problems as essentially another victim movement skews the discussion. It locates the source of the problem in society, when the focus should surely be on the hormonal or psychiatric factors that cause some people to hate their own bodies and reject their own sex.

Liposuction for anorexia. Here's an interesting argument from Paul McHugh, director of psychiatry at the Johns Hopkins University medical school: A patient feeling that he is a woman trapped in a man's body is not obviously different from an anorexic woman feeling that she is drastically overweight. In 1992, writing on sex-change operations in the American Scholar, he said: "We don't do liposuction on anorexics. Why amputate the genitals of these poor men? Surely the fault is in the mind, not the member." In the late 1970s, McHugh halted sex-change operations at Hopkins, calling them "perhaps, with the exception of frontal lobotomy, the most radical therapy ever encouraged by 20th-century psychiatrists." His conclusion was that reputable surgeons should not be in the business of carving up a healthy body to satisfy a feeling about what that body should be.

At the time, it looked as though the Hopkins decision might discourage and help stop sex-change surgery. But it didn't. One reason is that no medical way of relieving transgender pain and torment has appeared. The cultural acceptance of body modification–everything from breast enlargement to tattooing, scarring, and branding–made drastic surgery on healthy organs seem routine. The rise of radical gender studies on the campuses played a role too, spreading the argument that gender (as opposed to sex) is socially constructed or at least very malleable.

Now a new argument is forming against sex-change operations because of a peculiar demand for a different kind of surgery: People are asking to have one or more healthy limbs cut off because they say they don't feel whole or happy with both arms and both legs attached. This is a psychiatric condition known as apotemnophilia. Last year a surgeon in Scotland drew heavy publicity for amputating the healthy legs of two patients. His hospital stopped him before he could amputate the leg of a third patient, a New Yorker. In the December 2000 Atlantic Monthly, University of Minnesota bioethicist Carl Elliott notes that "clinicians and patients alike often suggest that apotemnophilia is like gender-identity disorder and that amputation is like sex-reassignment surgery." This has the effect of undermining the uniqueness of sex-change surgery and challenging the social value attributed to it.

Elliott suggests that unpredictable psychopathologies rise in certain societies "seemingly out of nowhere . . . and then disappear just as suddenly." In 19th-century France, young men commonly lapsed into a "fugue state," often coming to in a foreign country with no idea of how they got there. In the 1970s and 1980s, thousands of Americans came to believe they had multiple personalities as a result of childhood trauma. Fifty years ago, he says, nobody suspected that tens of thousands of people would have their genitals surgically altered as a way of relieving intense suffering. He thinks transgender activism and many social cues may have resulted in a temporary boom for sex-change surgery. It's a tentative analysis, and maybe he's wrong. But at least he's looking for an answer in the right arena, psychiatry and medicine, not politics.

JWR contributor John Leo's latest book is Incorrect Thoughts : Notes on Our Wayward Culture. Send your comments by clicking here.


02/27/01: Lovely monsters
02/20/01: When perfectly reasonable principles are carried too far
02/13/01: Bill and Hill are pills
02/06/01: Partner hopping
01/30/01: Sensitivity police
01/22/01: Found in the White House dumpster on Jan. 20, 2001
01/16/01: New slogan belies what the Army really is
01/08/01: The black dissent
01/03/01: The year's best quips on life, politics – and golf
12/19/00: Supreme confusion
12/11/00: Racial rhetoric conveniently ignores election facts
12/05/00: Savage fantasy
11/27/00: Victims of the year get the recognition they deserve
11/20/00: It's a chad, chad, chad, chad world
11/13/00: The election rhetoric is running much too high
11/07/00: How yesterday's hero becomes tomorrow's heel
10/30/00: Would Bush's Supreme Court picks make a difference?
10/24/00: Yankees, go home!
10/17/00: Un-American activity?
10/10/00: A tempest in an ink pot
10/03/00: The Al Gore quiz
09/26/00: The sleeper effect
09/19/00: Baby-saving made easy
09/12/00: Line between reporting and editorializing continues to blur
09/05/00: In the key of F
08/29/00: Hollywood connection
08/22/00: Some friendly advice to the GOP
08/15/00: You can't make this up
08/08/00: The niceness strategy
08/01/00: When rules don't count
07/25/00: Anti-male bias increasingly pervades our culture
07/18/00: Banned in Boston
07/12/00: What Jacoby had to deal with!
07/11/00: Will boys be boys?
07/05/00: Partial-sense decision
06/27/00: Attitude toward death penalty gets in the way of facts
06/20/00: Double troubles
06/13/00: Fools paradise
06/06/00: Accidental conspirator
05/30/00: Faking the hate
05/23/00: Was it law or poetry?
05/16/00: Here, there and everywhere, people have gone bonkers
05/09/00: Tufts evangelicals are punished for acting on their beliefs
05/02/00: Elian's opera isn't over until nearly everyone sings
04/25/00: All the news that fits: The media serve up many stories from a standard script
04/19/00: Those darned readers: The gap between reporters and the general public is huge
04/05/00: Census sense and nonsense
03/29/00: Hollywood message films leave no room for other views
03/22/00: The Vatican confesses, but is it enough?
03/14/00: Watch what you say: The left can no longer be counted on to defend free speech
03/07/00: McCain's malleable messages
03/01/00: Bush's appearance at Bob Jones U. will dog him all the way
02/23/00: 'Multi-millionaire' show is new evidence we're insane

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