Born as a girl
New man … upholsterer Danny King, father to a two-year-old boy, grew up as a female. Photo: Susan Wright
Danny king is an upholsterer with blond hair and a ginger beard. The 31-year-old is also father to a two-year-old boy named Elton. Eleven years ago, King had an operation that made a big difference to his life. "As soon as I opened my eyes I could feel that they were gone," he says.
The surgery he underwent on that autumn day in 2001 was a double mastectomy. Stepping out of the shower soon after, he wrapped a towel around his waist. It was a decisive moment, in that hospital room in Sydney's Hunters Hill, wearing his towel like this. It was how he had worn it as a small child, before puberty intervened and the towel crept higher, all the way to his armpits to cover his breasts. The breasts had grown because, even though he always felt like a boy, Danny King was born in the body of a girl.
Tomboy … Danny as a six-year-old girl. Photo: courtesy of Danny King
Transsexuality is slowly edging its way out of the shadows. In the UK, the National Health Service estimates that one in 4000 Britons is receiving medical help for gender dysphoria. This April, the US TV series Glee introduced its first transgender character. The next month, Hit & Miss debuted on British TV, starring It-girl Chloë Sevigny as a lady assassin who was born male.
The distinction between a woman and a man may seem simple on the surface, determined by genitals. But even on the biological level, sex is more complicated than this. There are chromosomes to take into account, and hormones. Then there is gender, the sex a person feels they are in spirit, which may be different again. Science offers no conclusive answers as to why some people feel themselves to be one sex when their bodies tell the world something else. Genes might play a role, as might the hormones a baby is exposed to in the womb. And though, when hearing the word "transsexual" or "transgender", the public imagination may conjure visions of men becoming women, in reality much of the traffic at the frontier of gender politics is headed in the opposite direction: biological females are becoming men. The most public example is the child of entertainers Sonny and Cher. Chastity Bono came out as a lesbian in 1995. Then, in 2008, Chastity began the process of becoming Chaz, transitioning from female to male with hormones and surgery. More recently, Warren Beatty and Annette Bening's eldest child, born Kathlyn, has made a video about his transition to a male named Stephen.
Testosterone, or "T" (as it is known in the trans community), stirs profound changes in the biologically female body. Facial hair thickens, muscles grow and the voice deepens. Ovaries atrophy and monthly bleeding wanes. Sexual organs that formed early in the life of the foetus transform again decades later under the influence of male hormone. The clitoris lengthens and becomes more phallic. And there is acne. Just like a second puberty, really.
You've got male … Chastity today, as a man called Chaz.
In trans circles, as in most circles, it is considered impolite to discuss genitals. Surgery to the genitals, coyly known as "lower surgery", is not common. Female-to-male genital surgery is less developed than the reverse, and there has been less success. For those who do go under the knife, surgery is usually limited to "top surgery" to remove the breasts.
Danny King says the growing visibility of female-to-male transsexuals means more people are aware that it is an option these days. Back in the 1990s, when King was a teenager living in Sydney, it never occurred to him that he could one day become a man. His mother was his champion - "At school I really didn't want to wear the girls' uniform, so my mum went down and sorted it out" - but primary school concessions to a tomboy did not last. At Randwick's Brigidine College he was expected to wear a dress. He mucked up, seeing no future for himself. By year 9 he had been expelled. He was attracted to girls and went to lesbian clubs but didn't feel like a lesbian.
At 17, for the first time in his life, he saw a man who had once been a woman. The man was a guest on The Ricki Lake Show. "That's when it occurred to me that it was something you could do, but I thought, 'Only in America.' "
Turning back time … Cher with then daughter Chastity in LA in 1991. Photo: Getty Images
The rise of female-to-male transsexuality is unnerving some feminists and challenging the medical profession and the courts to keep pace. At the same time, it is bringing comfort to the latest generation of transgender teenagers who are beginning the process of transition younger than ever before. For them, it is becoming possible to get puberty right the first time around.
The gender centre in Sydney's Petersham is a terrace house hidden by trees, which appears from the street to be a private home. It is not considered prudent to have signage out the front, which says something about the way society treats transgender people, even now. In the past year, 437 individuals dealing with gender issues have sought assistance from this service. As time goes on, the clients get younger. At the start of the year the centre launched Transtopia, a monthly group for teenagers aged 14 to 19 who are questioning their gender. Of the 10 regulars, eight are biological females who identify as boys.
- Documentary: Transgender Kids - Most transgender children still live in the shadows, hiding from a world that sees them as freaks of nature
Speaking from the upstairs room of the centre, where he talks to clients, counsellor Anthony Carlino says some of these teens bind their breasts with bandages to create a flatter, more masculine chest. Some have started on puberty blockers, hormones that keep the body in a state of suspended animation, buying families time to consider the next step. There is no one type of family. "I've got rural, I've got outskirts of Sydney, I've got inner city and I've got general 'burbs - it's just everywhere," Carlino says. People drive from Wollongong for the parent support group. Older clients comment on how much easier a lot of the young people have it these days.
Creative coupling … musician J.D. Samson (at left) with pop singer Sia in New York in early 2010. Photo: Getty Images
The story is similar at Twenty10, down the train line in Newtown. Since the 1980s, this service has supported young gay people. Now about a third of its work concerns gender identity rather than sexual orientation. Managing director Rebecca Reynolds estimates that three-quarters of the young people who present here with gender concerns are biologically female or, in the preferred language of the organisation, "assigned female at birth". The youngest "gender client" got in touch at the age of 11.
Reynolds expresses concern that teenagers cannot access puberty blockers or opposite-sex hormones without approval from the Family Court of Australia, even when the child's family and doctors are on board. This is out of step with practices overseas, and the legal process is costly and borne by families. It is also time-consuming when time is of the essence - puberty moves faster than the wheels of justice. Carlino reports that some young people are buying hormones illegally over the internet to avoid court.
The lives of transgender teens transitioning to the other gender are captured in these Family Court judgments. The landmark case was "Alex", who was granted permission to transition eight years ago, at the age of 13. The court permitted him to change the gender on his birth certificate from female to male, start hormone therapy and enrol in school under a male name.
Facing the change … Historic Houses Trust guide Darby. Photo: Nick Cubbin
Similar cases followed, like "Rosie". At the age of two, Rosie was already uneasy about living as a girl. One day, as her father bathed her, she asked him whether it would be possible to go to hospital for an operation to give her a penis. Her father, a manager, told the court her tone was "imploring and serious". Her mother, a teacher, painted a similar picture. Rosie only ever wanted to wear boys' underwear and clothes. As puberty loomed, her anger and defiance grew. She would ride her bike in circles for hours until darkness fell. She would spend hours bouncing on the trampoline in the dark. The court allowed her to start taking male hormones at the age of 17.
At the Royal Children's Hospital in Melbourne, a team of doctors is working to co-ordinate treatment of the bodies and minds of children such as Rosie who are struggling with gender dysphoria. Writing recently in the Medical Journal of Australia, the doctors noted the increasing numbers of children presenting with the condition. "The annual frequency of referrals increased eightfold from one patient in 2003 to eight patients in 2011," the report noted. Four biological girls and three biological boys went on to be treated with hormones.
Louise Newman, professor of developmental psychiatry at Monash University, and one of the authors of the report, notes that it is important not to put children into any rigid category where a particular treatment is prescribed. "For some people, around the time of adolescence they resolve the issues, they feel better in their own skin."
The medical literature suggests most children who dress in opposite-sex clothing or express dissatisfaction with their gender do not go on to become transsexuals. Studies show that only 16 per cent of children like this will go on to have gender identity disorder, as psychiatrists call it, in adolescence and adulthood (although studies also suggest that 42 per cent of them will later identify as gay or bisexual).
For parents, one of the greatest stresses is living with the uncertainty while the issue resolves in one direction or another. "That's one of the hardest things for parents, not having a crystal ball where we can say what their children are going to do at 16," Newman says.
Once medical transition begins, it may not be entirely reversible. Testosterone can deepen the voice permanently. More seriously, it chokes off the supply of female hormones. When the testosterone is removed, the ovaries may not spring back to life. This can leave the body stranded in a state of early menopause, with all the consequences you would expect, including greater risk of osteoporosis.
Like any big decision in life, some people will get it wrong. "There have been a few cases where that's happened in the adult population," Newman says. "It's not unknown, but it's probably rare." She saw one female-to-male transsexual who had her breasts removed then changed her mind. After reverting to her original sex, she was able to give birth to a baby, though she could not breastfeed.
Newman emphasises the need for proper assessment to avoid such mistakes. One thing that has to be ruled out is that the desire to be male is not a result of abuse or trauma in early life, though she notes this is not a common presentation. "We have to be careful that a young woman is not saying, 'Well, I'll be a young male because that's a safer place to be.' "
In the case of Alex, referred to earlier, the decision to transition at the age of 13 proved to be the right one. By the age of 17 he was still living as a boy. He sought, and was granted, permission to have breast surgery over the school holidays, so he could swim, hug girls and wear clothes like the other boys without fear of discovery. Alex had a message for the court. It read: "I know what I'm doing. I won't change my mind."
For all of us, how we see the world is shaped by the hormones coursing around our bodies. Transgender people, who have experienced lives ruled at different times by oestrogen and testosterone, know this best of all.
Hudson Jones, as he wishes to be known for this story, has a five o'clock shadow and tattoos etched along his forearms. Traditional American tattoos are one of his interests, along with "nerdy stuff" like philosophy, comics and politics. In his check shirt, the 32-year-old looks like any other good-looking guy you might find on an inner-city street. From the time he was old enough to label the world, he knew that he had blue eyes and blond hair, and that he was a boy.
After his early years as an athletic tomboy, he discovered the high-school word for tomboy was lesbian and adopted that label. As an adult, he lived in the space between male and female until he returned to the simple, unerring truth he knew as a child: "That I am a man and my body has betrayed me."
He started taking hormones two years ago and says it is like "seeing for the first time how gender truly functions in society". "The emotional instruments I once used to measure my experiences have become in some way blunted, imprecise and far less nuanced," he says. "When something sad happens, I feel it deep in my chest as a heavy pressure and it sits there at my core like a dull thud at the back of my mind." He also cries less.
His sex drive has increased dramatically and he views pornography differently. "In my previous hormonal incarnation I did on occasion watch pornography, but the pornography I enjoyed had some semblance of storyline, situation and circumstance. I preferred the actors to be attractive and the sex to be respectful ... With testosterone everything changed: good porn became about cutting to the chase, the action, the thrust, the aggressiveness, the power dynamic."
It sits uneasily. "I didn't experience the majority of my life as a woman with all the difficulties and prejudice that the sexualisation of women brings to become a chauvinistic man. But I remain ever surprised at how these new hormones normalise behaviour and attitudes that were so foreign to me."
From the beginning, Jones was blessed with supportive parents. His father was an academic, his mother an impeccably groomed teacher who loves "all things pink and flowery". "She understood female masculinity from her days in the feminist collective at university in the '70s, but she was still baffled at this child who appeared before her, stuffing olives up their nose and running around playing war games like a little maniac."
Sometimes he wonders whether, if his parents had been less accepting of their tomboy, he would have decided to transition sooner. "While a masculine female identity worked as a stopgap for a time and allowed for the lie to be stretched into adulthood, there was an intense discomfort in my body and self-hatred that never went away."
Far from being a sign of modern liberalism gone mad, transsexualism exists across time and cultures. Though gays and lesbians face the death penalty in Iran, sex-change operations are legal and subsidised by the government. India has hijras, a caste of men who live as women; in Burma, transgender women have a role to play in temple life. Third genders are recognised in the cultures of Thailand and Oman.
Injecting hormones and undergoing surgery to become a man may be relatively modern; living as the opposite sex is not. It has a long history, including in this country. In centuries past, Australian society was scandalised by a series of high-profile cases of men who turned out, under braces and trousers, to be women. In 1906, a Melbourne bookie named Bill Edwards was tried for burglary and discovered to be a woman named Marion. In the 1920s, a Sydney man arrested for killing his wife turned out to be an Italian migrant called Eugenia Fallini. The most celebrated case of a man revealed as biologically female came even earlier.
In 1879, Edward De Lacy Evans, whose activities included blacksmithing, mining and marrying three women, was admitted to the Lunacy Ward of Bendigo Hospital. Suffering depression, he refused to bathe for six weeks. Upon moving to another institution he was forced to strip and his secret was uncovered. As he recalled later: "The fellers there took hold o' me to give me a bath, an' they stripped me to put me in the water, an' then they saw the mistake. One feller ran off as if he was frightened; the others looked thunderstruck an' couldn't speak. I was handed over to the women, and they dressed me up in frocks and petticoats." De Lacy Evans was revealed to be an Irish housemaid named Ellen Tremayne, who had migrated from Kilkenny as a young woman. He lived out his days unhappily, exhibited as an oddity at downmarket venues like the Egyptian Hall on Sydney's George Street.
It is open to speculation why these individuals chose to live as men. One suggestion has been that women pretended to be men because they were not allowed to be lesbian. But what if, in more recent history, it has been the other way around? What if some women have only lived as lesbians because they were not allowed to live as men?
If the idea of trans men is challenging to mainstream society, it is also challenging to feminist orthodoxy. In the case of lesbians who become men, it can mean morphing from the profoundly marginal - a cross-dressing, butch dyke - to the quintessentially mainstream - a straight bloke. (Although it is also quite common for lesbians to transition to male and find themselves suddenly sexually attracted to gay men.)
Feminist Ariel Levy complained in Female Chauvinist Pigs that transitioning has become so prevalent in the lesbian scene there is a name for it: "Butch flight". "This is to say that women who don't feel the traditional definition of femininity fits them, who in another lesbian era would have considered themselves butch, are more and more frequently thinking of themselves as transsexual, and doing whatever they can to actualise that self-conception medically."
Other feminists have been harsher. Sheila Jeffreys, a lesbian feminist scholar at Melbourne University, called the practice of women undergoing sex-change operations "surgical social climbing". She noted the lesbian community "needs to address the urgent political task of enabling lesbians to retain and love their lesbian bodies". Germaine Greer has called them "wannabe men". In a 1999 essay focused on men who become women, Greer wrote that "a feminist must argue that the treatment for gender role distress is not mutilation of the sufferer but radical change of gender roles".
Consider the human experience underlying the ideological battles. Darby is a guide for the NSW Historic Houses Trust who'd prefer not to share his last name. He lived his adult life as a butch lesbian before embarking on a new life as a man two years ago at the age of 46. As he describes it, he is "a middle-aged person going through puberty". He began testosterone last year, then two months later had his breasts removed. Standing over his computer in his unit overlooking the Sydney skyline, he plays the home movie of his transformation, set to a Grace Jones soundtrack. There he is on the screen, wide awake as a surgeon puckers flesh on his chest and sews, creating new nipples.
His childhood story begins in the same way as younger trans men. As a child, all he wanted to be was a boy. "Every game I was the husband, Tarzan, James Bond - these were my heroes." But unlike the younger trans men, he was growing up in the 1960s and '70s and changing gender did not seem to be an option. "When I found butch in my 20s, it made me very happy because it allowed me to be masculine, trapped in this female body. I lived with that happily but still had this dialogue [about being male] in my head." At his work, children would ask if he was a boy or a girl. "Both" he would say, and they would be happy with that answer.
The stories of transgender men are not simply stories about the fluidity of gender. They are also about the opposite: how strongly some individuals desire to be distinctly male or female in spite of anatomy. But to get to this distinct gender, all three men - Danny, Hudson and Darby - had to negotiate the space in between. The experiences they describe make it clear that living on the continuum - as butch, boi, intersex, gender queer or as a gender outlaw, like the moustache-sporting lesbian musician J. D. Samson, once the girlfriend of Aussie pop star Sia - can be hardest of all.
For Hudson Jones, bathrooms and change rooms have been a source of intense anxiety and discomfort his whole life. As a competitive athlete at high school, he was yelled at for being "a boy in the girls' races". As an adult he had children ask their parents whether he was a boy or a girl. Job interviews were torture. "All I wanted to wear was a three-piece suit and tie, but I know too well that people rarely hire anyone whose gender they can't determine."
In preparation for a job interview with a government department, he went to David Jones to buy a woman's pants suit. In the ladies' change room a woman spotted him. "What are you doing in here?" she shouted. "The men's change room is over there." He blushed, the queue stared at him in disgust. "I knew I couldn't try a female pants suit on in a male change room and the interview was in a few days and I had no other time to buy something to wear. So it took everything I had to conjure the courage to say, 'I am in the right change room.' " He raced into the cubicle and cried.
For all the changes taking place, life is still not easy for those who defy the gender they were assigned at birth. Recently, a student in NSW, who did not want to use the female toilets at school, was asked not to come back to class until the education department could come up with a solution. When dealing with a private health fund, another trans man had to choose the title "Captain" or "Professor" because the computer could not cope with the idea that someone with the title "Mister" was claiming a rebate on a hysterectomy.
It may not be long before the treatment of transsexuality as a mental illness is looked upon in the same way as the treatment of homosexuality as a mental illness. Or perhaps true progress would also mean more people feeling safe to occupy the space in between male and female. Whatever the politics, the stories of transgender people are stories about bravery, about humans who risk everything to become themselves. Anthony Carlino says he has watched people lose their family, relationships, even their kids. "The clients I see are the ultimate role models for 'Live your truth.' "
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