Out of the closet

Normal: transsexual CEOs, cross-dressing cops and hermaphrodites with attitude

Amy Bloom <em>Bloom

Amy Bloom has written a humane, liberal book about what I called, in Woman Hating (1974), "multisexuality" - the notion, as she puts it, "that gender has a continuum, a fluid range of possibilities". Through anecdote and observation, she explores three phenomena that testify to the reality of sexual and gender diversity: female-to-male transsexuals; heterosexual men who cross-dress; and the intersexed, sometimes called hermaphrodites, whose genitalia and reproductive organs are configured at birth in a variety of atypical ways. She asks: What is normal? And why are those of us who presume to be normal so frightened of those we presume are not?

She expected to find self-hating women worked on by woman-hating surgeons; instead she found men: "I met bullshit artists, salesmen, computer programmers, compulsive, misogynistic seducers, pretty boys inviting seduction, cowboys, New Age prophets, good ol' boys, shy truck drivers saving their money for a June wedding, and gentle knights. I met men." We don't know what maleness is, she asserts; but she knows a man when she meets one. In one interview she asks, "Have you had any previous surgeries?" The man replies, "Why, yes, the double mastectomy and the hysterectomy." Her incredulous reaction is, "But you're a man."

Bloom looked at photograph albums of female-to-male transsexuals at different stages of hormone treatment. The changes suggest gender fluidity. But the surgery involves a great deal of pain and money. Large numbers of the female-to-male transsexuals decide not to add the male organ. James Green says: "I chose this because, well, I don't really feel the need for a big one and I like having the range of feeling I always did. This form of sexual pleasure is fine for me and my girlfriend."

The willingness to have female genitalia and to abstain from sex, the lack of emphasis on the penis as such, raise many questions about the maleness of these perceived men. Maybe Bloom's subjective reaction to these female-to-male transsexuals - these are men - might not withstand more aggressive scrutiny: has any of them ever committed a sexual assault? Are they communicating with her as women might, or might being oneself appear to be male, lacking as it does the deviousness and decoration of the female role in the west?

The heterosexual men who dress as women like the artifice. They have a fetishistic relationship to dressing in women's clothes and using make-up. There is a lustful, narcissistic desire to be viewed as female. The fetish is a "mixture of attraction and envy that often leads these men to have sex with women while thinking of themselves as male lesbians".

These are the "cross-dressing cops" promised in the subtitle of Normal; according to Bloom, "Heterosexual cross-dressers are disproportionately represented among the retired military; they are often first-born sons, and often quite masculine-looking, which is why the rest of us struggle so with their appearance." The men claim a hidden female side that cross-dressing expresses but, as Bloom puts it, "the woman within is entirely the Maybelline version". The men do pay some lip-service to feminism and tree-hugging.

It is their wives who suffer. Bloom points out that these are conventional women who stay in marriages with an unforgiving double standard. If the wives cross-dressed - didn't shave their body hair, or spent money on expensive artificial facial hair - the marriages wouldn't survive. The double standard has another side. As one wife remarked: "For 20 years he couldn't help with the dishes because he was watching football. Now he can't help because he's doing his nails. Is that different?"

Bloom had trouble with these guys. She did not want to be cruel or illiberal, but had to conclude "that a passion for a person, or a capacity to love people, is different from a sexual impulse that is directed toward an object or an act and is greater than the desire for any person". Welcome to the wider world of heterosexual men who don't cross-dress.

The last group is the intersexed: males born with small penises, females born with large clitorises; as well as genetic deviations. There is a variety of genital and reproductive anomalies associated with these conditions. These folk are the innocents, dealt a bad hand. Surgeons stepped in to remedy nature. They decided which were boys and which girls, and then took a knife to make it as true as it could be.

It was not until the intersexed became adults and began to organise that the surgical emergency was challenged. The ethic that evolved was "No unnecessary surgery, no cosmetic surgery without consent . . . No lying, no shame." The intersexed children had been the ones most lied to - about themselves. The fight is not over; there are still many doctors who perform sex reassignment surgery on infants. It is in the surgeon as pater-familias that one encounters appalling social injustice.

Andrea Dworkin's most recent book is Heartbreak: the political memoir of a feminist militant (Basic Books)

Andrea Dworkin (1946-2005) was a radical feminist writer known for her work on pornorgraphy, war and sexual intercourse. Her account of being raped in Paris in 1999 was published exclusively by the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2003 issue of the New Statesman, One man went to war