Friday, January 11th, 2008


HBS, or Harry Benjamin Syndrome, is another term for transsexuality, named for the German sexologist who did pioneering work in transsexualism. It may surprise you to know that not all transsexuals are of one mind about just what it is that we have (if we have any identifiable condition at all) or what we want or what we’re like.

One of the most interesting divides can be found at TS-SI, a website devoted strictly to people with HBS. No big deal, you say. Of course not, until you read the Op-Ed pages by Lisa Jain Thompson, who makes her point over and over again that people with HBS have absolutely nothing to do with the concept of transgender. Here’s an example of this approach from her 12-29-07 piece:

I am not transgendered. HBS men and women are not transgendered. Our brain’s sex identity was set before we were born. We are neither transgendered or part of someone’s gender theory.

In other words, being transsexual (oops, HBS) is a congenital physical defect that requires one to fix one’s genitals, and nothing more. In the rest of this op-ed piece, Thompson labors to distance herself from queer theory, trans politics, GLBT organizations, and social constructivism. This approach relies very heavily on the concept of brain sex, as you read over and over again that HBS sufferers have a male brain in a female body or a female brain in a male body.

In her 12-31-07 column, Ms. Thompson laments the recent court cases in California and elsewhere seeking gender-neutral bathrooms as being completely off-target:

It would seem that where HBS men and women are focused on bringing their outward sexual organs into agreement with their actual sex, the transgendered community’s key concern is to be able to choose public bathroom facilities at random. An HBS man or woman is driven to correct their misassigned genitals, the transgendered seem driven only to change the noun on their bathroom door.

When I first found the Ts-Si website, I was quite happy to bookmark it as yet another resource available to me, and it does contain a lot of information about science, biology, and sex, but the website is also grounded in this transsexual separatist dogma and a commitment to belittle social and gender theory and political deeds that are hard-fought and hard-won. This end-of-the-year commentary was what put me totally off Ms. Thompson’s agenda, and if you can only read one thing of hers, this should be the one you read, as it captures her philosophy perfectly.

I’m willing to accept the wrong-brain-in-body theory of transsexuality, although I personally think it’s probably more complicated than that. And who knows what researchers will learn as they study the biochemistries, brains, and lives of transpeople? But it seems unnecessarily narrow to say that HBS sufferers have absolutely nothing to do with culture, gender, performance, psychology, and sexual orientation. The way this brain and body have been enculturated has everything to do with those things, and everything to do with how they get by in the world, and everything to do with how they’re perceived/received in the world.

TS-SI’s fairly reductionist argument is this: Transsexuality is nothing more than a brain condition, and fixing it is nothing more than removing a flap of skin, taking some medicine, and getting your “M” on your legal documents changed to “F”. But almost everyone involved in these things, from transsexuals to significant others, knows that “fixing” your condition involves a lot more, and here’s why. It’s not that a transsexual seeks to change a male into a female, focusing exclusively on the biological, but rather that one seeks to change from a man to a woman. “Man” and “Woman” are social categories and “Male” and “Female” are scientific and biological categories. You can remove your testosterone, add estrogen, and fix your secondary sex characteristics via surgery, and you will have, in theory at least, changed the scientific category.

But women are more than females and men are more than males, and society responds to men and women, not to males and females, and TS-SI’s unnecessarily narrow understanding of HBS either has to ignore the social, legal, political, and gender aspects of sex change or it must argue that while those things are important, they are irrelevant to HBS sufferers because society isn’t a medical condition, and the only thing wrong with us is biological and thus only requires medical intervention. The former is deep in denial. And the latter, while being technically correct (I suppose), makes me wonder why, then, it’s necessary to work so hard to distinguish the transgender, queer, gender, and cultural studies approaches from the biological condition of HBS. Ts-Si should simply say “we focus only on the body and leave all the other key personal and cultural and social issues to other organizations” and then they wouldn’t’ have a problem.

And yet the website expends an enormous amount of energy saying “they’re not like us. We have a real medical condition and they’re involved in some kind of queer agenda.” Methinks she protests too much.

Several things conspire against the male-to-female transsexual’s attempts to continue stuffing her wallet in her back pocket, her keys and coins in one of the front pockets, a checkbook and a comb in the other back pocket, and a watch and a little container of Carmex in the other front pocket — which is precisely what I used to carry around un-self-consciously. First, when you buy women’s jeans, you notice that the pockets have almost no depth, so it’s not longer practical to put all that stuff in your pockets. Second, even if I could stuff all that material into my pockets, it wouldn’t be comfortable anymore. About 4 months ago, after 4 months on hormones, I noticed that I really found my wallet uncomfortable, along with my keys and other stuff in my pockets. I began taking them all out when I sat down at my desk or in the car, and ended up forgetting them quite a bit.

I guess it’s really quite straightforward — as the fat redistributes and I acquire a butt, the way I used to wear my stuff is no longer comfortable. Probably the same reason you don’t see big deep pockets on women’s shirts — I used to put my eyeglasses case, several pens, and other sundry notebooks and pieces of paper in my left shirt pocket, but now that there’s that lump there, those items just aren’t welcome in my pocket any more.

So I moved all my stuff into one of Mary’s backpack purses a couple of days ago, and have been carrying it as a trial run.

So here’s my theory of stuff, bodies, and trust.

I think men tend to have a very close relationship with their stuff, so close that they wear it. Sitting on your wallet all the time is a lot closer than carrying it. It is true that key rings, tool belts, wallets, deep pockets all allow you to work with your hands free, and I’m content with this explanation at some sort of surface level, even though this would imply that women, who have to carry everything, don’t really need to have their hands free or carry tools around with them.

By putting everything I need in one bag, and by not wearing any of it, I find I feel a bit lost, or maybe it’s just confusion. Since my stuff is not on my person, I have to trust it’s in the bag, and there’s no way of really verifying it’s in the bag unless I rummage around in there to check. With a wallet in your back pocket, it’s a simple matter of feeling (with your hand or your butt) whether the wallet is there. Same with keys and other items. Maybe it’s that I don’t trust myself right now, that the wallet and the checkbook and my car keys, which I placed in the bag earlier, might somehow have vanished in the interim.

It seems to me that this runs counter to the idea from one branch of feminism that says that women live a more embodied experience than men. In the case of stuff, my observation is that men embody their stuff, while women do not. Maybe it’s simply a function of clothing and fashion, but these must also reflect society’s understanding of men and women. I suspect if I were a better-read feminist, I’d probably have a quotation for the occasion, something pithy like “women may wear their hearts on their sleeves, but the only thing men wear on their sleeves is their stuff” or “Having a body that’s in touch with the world and the people in it is a far cry from having a body that knows where its stuff is.” You might argue that materialism is patriarchal, so it’s not surprising that men care about stuff; but women care as much about stuff as men, as far as I can tell. You might argue that the concept of embodiment has to do with movement and relationship and interaction with other bodies, and that trying to graft the concept onto inanimate objects is invalid. Or you might say that men and women are equally embodied, but their relationships with other people, stuff, the moon, and their own bodies are enacted differently.

Maybe everyone already knows this about bodies, trust, and stuff, but I find it new and fascinating.

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