Friday, April 6, 2007

Book Selection of the Month: "The First Man-Made Man" by Pagan Kennedy (Updated with hermaphrodite twin and foot-nipple) Book Selection of the Month (April 2007):

The First Man-Made Man: The Story of Two Sex Changes, One Love Affair, and a Twentieth-Century Medical Revolution by Pagan Kennedy

Since I mentioned a couple amputees in my last blog entry, it’s fitting that today I laud a book that’s partly about body modification. In the first half of the twentieth century, Laura Dillon decided to become Michael Dillon, the first person ever to be surgically altered from female to male — and for a time, Dillon, having become physically male, romantically pursued one of the first male-to-female surgically-altered transsexuals, Roberta Cowell. There’d be a comedy film involving Adam Sandler and some wacky mix-ups in there somewhere except that this story, as great a pleasure as it is to read, is largely about pain and loneliness.

While I don’t think of homosexuals as insane, I’ve always been inclined to regard surgically-altered transsexuals with a good deal more suspicion — not condemning them but wondering if they’re altogether right in the head, not because being born one sex and identifying with the other is so strange but rather because it’s hard to imagine being so incapable of adjusting one’s emotional and mental state to circumstances that elective surgery is the only solution. I mean, whether it’s a sexual or non-sexual issue, if someone says to you, “I’ve decided that radically altering my body parts [for reasons unrelated to physical health] is the key to happiness,” you’re allowed to ask, “Is this really necessary?” (many people are disturbed, as am I for slightly different reasons, by the idea of breast implants, so surely I’m not a hopeless reactionary for thinking genital transmogrification is a rather drastic step).

I once met a well-known libertarian economist when he was a chunky, bearded, stuttering male (I even sang a Guns N’ Roses song, the admittedly offensive “One in a Million,” with him in front of a libertarian crowd, after altering the lyrics to replace the immigrant-bashing and gay-bashing with anti-government jibes) who later became female, Dierdre McCloskey, and I was a bit disturbed by the flippant answer he once gave in an article to the inevitable question “Why do this?” He said “Why not?” Luckily, he also wrote a book-length response to the question, since (again, regardless of the sexual politics) one hates to think of people rushing to surgery if there’s some attitude adjustment that could do the trick.

Pagan Kennedy’s intriguing yet straightforward book does a very good job of explaining all the sorts of social and psychological pressures that might well lead someone to make this most drastic of decisions. With her usual tolerance and compassion, Kennedy — who has told the stories of missionaries, hippies, scientists, and others — shows exactly what sort of corner Dillon felt backed into as a young woman who wanted to be male in early twentieth-century England — and on a more physical level, she explains the historical origins of sex change surgery techniques, which I had never known before.

Dillon longed to play sports, wear uniforms, smoke pipes, argue politics with men, join men’s clubs, dance with women, and so forth — and came to see surgery as the only way to become comfortable in her/his own skin, the only way to officially cross over and become part of this other world. Interestingly, though this story leaves me more able than ever before to understand the mindset of a transsexual, it also leaves me wondering whether Dillon would have resorted to surgery if all this were happening today. On one hand, both surgery and social acceptance of transsexuals are easier to come by, but on the other hand, the somewhat less rigid sex roles of our own era mean that Dillon might well have been content to be butch, lesbian, athletic, and so forth without feeling the need for a complete physical transformation. In any case, as I have often thought of gays (even before I thought about politics), such people clearly lead difficult and confusing enough lives already that the last thing they need is the rest of society mocking or condemning them. So for all my unresolved questions about the wisdom and necessity of sex change operations, I wish the transsexuals well and hope they do find happiness and relief from anxiety.

In Dillon’s case, interestingly, the sex change is really only half the story (and the first half of the book), the second half being Dillon’s journeys through India and involvement in mysticism, sparked by the popular writings of the guru Ivanovitch Gurdjieff (who is also admired, it occurs to me, by my left-leaning theatre-producer and computer-programmer friend Richard Ryan, who is prone to like unsettling philosophical discussions and unsettling theatre experiences such as, for good or ill, the plays of Richard Foreman — anything that makes you less complacent in your current setting). And that just complicates the question of Dillon’s wisdom further, since we could (to put it crassly) say, “See? Even with the operation, Dillon was an unsettled, unsatisfied eccentric with loony ideas, so what good did the operation really do?” On the other hand, we might conclude, “Dillon was exactly the sort of explorer and personal transformation buff who makes sense as a pioneer in this strange area, and what Dillon did on the physical level resonates in an apt fashion with what Dillon did on the mental level later.”

And, it strikes me, there are probably some feminist readers — perhaps even Jen Dziura and Jill Friedman, who posted comments objecting to my anti-feminism — who find themselves thinking “Why should we be at all troubled by sex change operations, given all the bizarre things we expect normal women to do to maintain their bodies?”

And that, by the way, will be the topic of our next Debate at Lolita Bar (downstairs at 8pm on Wed., May 2): “Does the Beauty Industry Oppress Women?” pitting Dziura (who argues no) against her fellow comedian Charles Star (who will argue yes, in what is itself arguably a bit of sex-role-reversal).

UPDATE 4/7/07: As it happens, my friend Diana Fleischman (who looks a bit like the Austin-dwelling Grindhouse character who is a reluctant lapdancer but, unlike that character, is an evolutionary psychology expert) recently forwarded a news item about a hermaphroditic twin who has led scientists to discover a new type of twin-formation, and webmaster Michel Evanchik forwarded a story about a woman with a superfluous nipple growing on her foot.


Christine said...

Gurdjieff is also admired by Peter Murphy.

You haven’t said it so bluntly, so I will: the extent to which transsexuality endorses more conservative theories of gender as biologically constituted and not those of gender as performance. Your question about whether Dillon would need surgery today approaches this, of course. I was fascinated by an episode of *The L Word* (which treats sexuality with all the delicacy and sophistication of a medieval mace) I saw recently in which the transsexual character Max (FTM) expressed his need for a urinating dildo-apparatus by saying “I’ve just always wanted to whip it out” and piss in a urinal. Oh, okay. Does the desire to “whip it out” really express radical dissonance between personhood/”who I really am” (defined how?) and the biological characteristics of sex, rather than simply a psychological attraction to particular manifestations of the mutable trappings of gender?

chuck said...

And let us not forget the South Park episode, Mr. Garrison’s Fancy New Vagina, wherein “negroplasty” and later “dolphinoplasty” raise trans-race and trans-species issues in a somewhat delightfully less subtle way. :)

Christopher said...

And if I recall correctly, Gurdjieff was admired by Annie Hall as well. This reminds me of the line “Why don’t you get William F. Buckley to kill the spider,” which is funny.

Alyssa said...

This is well said, and I was also thinking something pretty close to what Christine put into words. A recent Voice future on the emergence of transgendered children (a phenomenon whose relative novelity poses a bunch of questions about the the degree to which the intersection of how we configure gender and how our acceptance of body modification has changed conservative theories of childhood gender), whose parents are considering surgery and hormone therapy for their grade school-age kids, makes cultural norms rather than the children’s needs seem like greater impetus for surgery.

I dunno, though. Not feeling at home in one’s (gendered) body has to be incredibly difficult. And how mutable _are_ primary sex characteristics (since this feeling of _lack_ is often so central to trans people’s decision to undergo surgery)?

Alyssa said...

Wait: what are your slightly different than normal reasons for being disturbed by breast implants?

(‘Cause the most typical reasons I know of are aesthetic, feminist, and health-related.)

Todd Seavey said...

Well, I suppose this is basically aesthetic, but the idea of them just screams “prostheses” to me, which makes them sort of “medical” in my brain, which in turn makes them unsexy in the same way that a splint or a steel hook-hand would be — which is not by any means to say one couldn’t be a sexy person with a hook-hand, but I wouldn’t regard the hook-hand as a _plus_, nor the fluid-filled fake spheres where only breasts were expected. (I’m guessing most people with strong aesthetic objections to them merely think of them as tacky, not slightly-disturbing as I do.)

Alyssa said...

Your reaction _is_ basically aesthetic, but I suppose it’s fair to say that most people who object for aesthetic reasons (texture, hang, etc.) aren’t _consciously_ thinking “medical prostheses.”

But I’m sure most women would assert that Captain Hook is sexy precisely _because_ of the steel hook-hand. On the other hand (no pun intended), the crocodile who swallowed an alarm clock really did himself a disservice; but I guess that’s more of a pragmatic issue.

Laura said...

Of course, there are many women — post-mastectomy cancer survivors, generally — who have breast implants that are indeed considered “prostheses” (or “forms,” which is language you tend to see in specialty-swimwear catalogs). I imagine that these women choose breast implants not to enhance themselves sexually but to restore the normative aesthetic symmetry of their recovering bodies.

Alex said...

Thank You

Todd Seavey said...

[...] Tonight at 6:30, Pagan Kennedy reads at the Mid-Manhattan Library (40th and Fifth) from her book The First Man-Made Man (which was winner of the prestigious Book Selection of the Month for April 2007), about the first woman to become a man through surgery. [...]