All That Other Stuff

Because I need to get it out of my system, I’m going to do a post about all of the other things that were wrong with the talk I walked out of at the trans history conference. Think of this as a follow-up to this post.

So what else was wrong? History, for a start. Modern gender medicine did not begin with Lili Elbe, or even Dorchen Richter who preceded her. Trans men have been having surgery a lot longer. They didn’t get phalloplasty until the late 1940s when Sir Harold Gillies and Ralph Millard invented the techniques they used on Michael Dillon. But trans men could and did have hysterectomies and mastectomies. CN Lester tells me that such operations were performed on a man in Germany in 1912, and there’s a suggestion of a similar operation in the 1890s. I wouldn’t necessarily expect people to know that, but anyone with an interest in trans history should know about Alan Hart.

Hart lived in Portland Oregon and underwent surgery in 1917 and 1918. He’s pretty famous in trans history circles, through I see that his Wikipedia entry now contains reference to earlier operations in Germany. I can, however, think of a reason why the presenter of this talk might want to ignore Hart. You see, Hart was a doctor himself. He wasn’t persuaded into surgery by sexologists, he prevailed upon his medical friends to do the job for him. There’s no way that Hart can be painted as an innocent victim of the medical establishment, because he prescribed his own treatment. If the point you are trying to make is that medical transition is something forced on trans people by doctors then you’ll want to bury any knowledge of Hart.

The talk very much painted Lili as a victim of doctors. It did get right that she died as a result of an operation intended to allow her to have children but she was not, as far as I know, badgered into it. She’d got herself a boyfriend and wanted to marry him and have kids. She was 49 at the time, which seems rather ambitious, but the operation wasn’t doomed because allowing trans women to get pregnant is a daft thing to do, it was doomed because no one at the time knew much about organ transplants and the problems of tissue rejection. Had the surgeons known, there’s no way they would have tried it.

In any case, the idea of trans women wanting children is not ridiculous and unnecessary. It is certainly true that you don’t need to get pregnant to make you a “real” woman, but that doesn’t mean some of us might not want to do it. If womb transplants had been on offer when I was in my teens I’d have been very keen on the possibility.

Then there is science. Most people agree that the pink brain / blue brain thing is nonsensical. Certainly it is true that, as was claimed, if you put a man’s brain and a woman’s brain side by side on a table, a trained neurologist won’t be able to tell the difference by looking at them. But then if you put two lumps of coal, one made of Carbon-12 and one of Carbon-14, on a table together a chemist won’t be able to tell the difference by looking at them either.

The vast majority of gendered brain nonsense arises from people comparing the averages of two heavily overlapping distributions, which is bad science. That doesn’t mean that subtle differences cannot exist, nor that those differences might, in certain specialist functions, make a world of difference.

It is also true that there is no proof that differences in the way that embryos develop result in a trans identity. There is, however, good evidence that the embryo goes through a variety of different growth spurts, and the time during which the brain develops is quite separate from the time during which the gendered differentiation of the body happens, so there is a possibility.

There’s also a possibility of a genetic factor, in that a large number of trans women (including myself) have a preponderance of maternal aunts (that is, a maternal grandmother who had difficulty conceiving male babies). Such apparent coincidences are often clues to a genetic explanation.

In any case, if you poo-poo the whole idea of differences in embryo development then you are effectively erasing intersex people, because they very clearly develop differently from other humans when in the womb.

I’ll certainly agree that there is no evidence of a scientific cause of trans identities. I’d also speculate the any cause that we find will be complex, and quite possibly very different depending on whether the person in question is trans-masculine, trans-feminine or non-binary. Until such time as we know more, the right thing to do is to accept people as they are, not to insist that there absolutely is or is not a scientific explanation.

On to religion now. There are people of faith who believe that God (or Satan), deliberately or accidentally had some hand in making them trans. If that works for them, all well and good. Right now it is no better than any other explanation we have. I’m not going to descend to Dawkins-esque mockery of straw man theological positions to try to discredit them. Theologians have, after all, spent an awful lot of time pondering the meaning of evil and why it exists in the world. It is rather ironic that for an illustration the presenter chose William Blake’s “The Ancient of Days”, which is not actually of God, but of Urizen, a figure who was part of Blake’s Gnostic-tinged theological explanation for the fact that God doesn’t make everything right for us.

And finally stargazy pie is not made from fish guts. I’ll admit that the heads and tails are put on the crust in part to freak out the emmets, but they are for decoration. Even if you cook whole fish into the pie, you fillet them first. It is, of course, rather delicious (and probably very good for you, being traditionally made from those oily fish that nutritionists keep badgering us to eat).

I’m perfectly happy for people to come up with whatever explanation for being trans works for them. It is a very difficult life in many ways. What I won’t tolerate is people who feel the need to delegitimize and mock everyone else’s coping strategy in order to prove that theirs is valid. And at an academic conference I won’t tolerate someone using bad history, bad science and bad theology to make such a point.

3 thoughts on “All That Other Stuff

  1. Amazing that this person was allowed to make a presentation at all when they are so clearly ignorant. I don’t have the knowledge to comment on the transgender histoy side of things, but the suggestion that the science of gender is in any way clear and fixed at this point is just ridiculous.

    Getting the stargazey pie wrong shows a lack of rigour, it’s not exactly hard to find recipes for it these days.

    1. As I said in the post about Ulrichs, it is often hard to tell the difference between someone who is ignorant and someone who is lying to make a point. Mostly I don’t want to point fingers, but with respect to stargazy pie the person giving the presentation specifically stated that they had looked up recipes online.

  2. Pah. I’ve a cornish heritage so I know about stargazy pie from having been told of it as a child, and so am not your average ignoramus when it comes to Cornish cooking. But I still think that’s ridiculous, I’m also a bit of a cook book addict and have several books about regional cooking, even a pamphlet on just Cornish cooking all of which contain recies for stargazy pie and while the details may vary a wee bit none of them suggest using the guts.

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