A Quaker Feminist’s Perspective on Transsexual Concerns

From the January 2002 issue of Friends Journal

NarcissaWhat moves me, a biological woman who is happy with my lot, to address this issue?

Initially, I was led to deeply examine the claim that male-to-female transsexuals are women and thus appropriate participants in events intended for women only.

As a feminist, I know that naming is power, and I believe individuals have the right to name their own reality. But I also believe groups have the right to define themselves and that individuals are not completely free to name themselves part of any group. My ancestors were European; I don’t feel entitled to claim Asian or African descent or to participate in self-defined groups of those ethnicities. Yet I support the struggles of transgendered and transsexual people against the cruel rigidity of our culture, which provides so few avenues for gender expression.

Awareness of the terrible suffering of people who are not at home in their biological sex can stifle questions about whether they are men, women, or genders that as yet we lack language to describe. Prayer, study, research, and sharing have doubled my original concern to embrace both the preservation of sacred women’s space and the need to deepen understanding of and resistance to gender oppression. I offer this writing as extended worship sharing on paper and hope it will serve to stimulate further threshing of these concerns.

I define “sex” as a biological condition related to reproduction and “gender” as a human cultural phenomenon of displaying one’s biological or preferred sex. Sex is thus a constant across cultures, while gender has a vast number of culturally determined variations. Before medical sex reassignment became possible, in Western cultures differently gendered people (those whose gender does not match their sex) had two choices: endure their deep sense of wrongness about their gender or try to “pass” as the other. Other cultures have sometimes accommodated the differently gendered by recognizing their unique status and providing meaningful roles that drew on the strengths of combined male and female natures, as understood by their communities.

My investigation of the transgender movement has convinced me that gender dysphoria is an important area of civil rights. Transsexuals are not the only gender outlaws within our culture. When I was a child, acceptable occasions for women to wear trousers were severely limited; even now, men appear in skirts at great peril. Transvestites, drag queens, butch women, and effeminate men also are ridiculed, assaulted, and killed for daring to violate norms of clothing, hairstyles, mannerisms, names, and other gender-identified behavior. Anyone who challenges gender norms is in danger. Yet gender norms are not now, if they ever were, essential to survival.

Most of us adhere to a bipolar concept of two sexes with narrow ranges of gender expression. Against this backdrop, the gender trauma of people who undergo transsexual medical treatment is intense. I believe this treatment is ongoing torture, to which no one would submit without powerful motivation. Transgendered and transsexual people speak eloquently of the agony of feeling differently gendered, and their suffering about this should not be denied or devalued. They make heroic efforts to reconcile their inner longings with the acceptable gender roles in our society.

However, I don’t think anyone can be transformed from one sex to the other. After all, what is transformed in transsexual treatment? A founding practitioner of transsexual surgery, Dr. Georges Burou, once stated: “I don’t change men into women. I transform male genitals into genitals that have a female aspect. All the rest is in the patient’s mind.” Male to female transgendered people, even those who are post-operative, can and do continue to use a masculine power voice or walk “like a man” when they want better service or more attention.

Medical sex reassignment is a process of adjusting a person’s gender presentation, sometimes including forming genitals and secondary sex characteristics that are more congruent with the way the person feels about him/herself. In other words, persons who are physically male but feel female or physically female but feel male obtain medical services to change their bodies to resemble the other sex. Surgical and hormonal reassignment of sex has been developing since the 1930s. General public awareness about this process came in the 1950s with published accounts of the “sex change” of Christine Jorgenson.

Many feminists condemn cosmetic plastic surgery and the removal of healthy organs, both of which are part of sex reassignment. My sense is that many Friends would agree with these feminists that such processes are violent expressions of self-rejection. Of course, there are exceptions. Few among us would question preventive mastectomies for those at high risk of breast cancer, and fewer still, reconstructive surgery for burn victims. I have thought of sex reassignment surgery as unnecessary. But transpersons tend to view the drastic medical procedures they employ simply as relief from the severe distress of being treated as a sex that feels alien to them. I am profoundly uneasy here because my own understanding clashes with clearness committees that have supported decisions for such procedures. I know my present degree of enlightenment isn’t a final answer to this complicated question.

Several Friends have remarked that my sharing about sex reassignment reminds them of anti-choice arguments against abortion. I have no desire to prevent anyone from following a course of action that alleviates persistent existential pain. However, I believe there is a better way for transpersons to be in the world, a way that would, at least for some, reduce the dangerous medical consequences of transsexual treatment.

I believe that civil rights for gender expression is one of the next great waves of struggle toward individual freedom, and that Friends can support transgendered and transsexual people in a variety of ways. The first yearning transsexuals often express is to meet with a group of similar people. We could help by sharing the stories of how Quaker organizations overcame isolation, growing from a handful of Friends to organized spiritual communities. We can advocate for education about transgender issues in our monthly meetings, workplaces, and neighbor-hoods. We can invite and welcome differently gendered people to wider Quaker gatherings.

The most difficult challenge we face around transgender concerns may be the tendency to judge those who hold a different point of view as being wrong or spiritually less advanced. We can learn about defining our identity and setting honest boundaries from many Quaker organizations. For instance, Fellowship of Friends of African Descent has struggled repeatedly to define the roles of white family members in the organization. Friends for Lesbian and Gay Concerns went through a painful discernment process before declining to add the words “bisexual and transgendered” to its name. American Friends Service Committee labored at great length over its affirmative action policy, especially inclusion of sexual minorities. Many monthly meetings have engaged or are engaged in threshing the definition of marriage under their care.

The queries that follow rose out of my private worship and reflect only my personal searching.


How can a caring spiritual community best respond to transsexuals?

How can we encourage social change that celebrates masculine women and feminine men as well as other variations of gender expression? How could Friends work to make human culture a more welcoming home for all individuals?

What is our single standard of truth in relation to sex reassignment? Do the terms “male” and “female” name reality or social constructs? How does the process of sex reassignment confuse image with essence?

To what extent does outward appearance comprise maleness or femaleness?

What is the relationship between sex reassignment and the testimony of simplicity?

Are Friends being called to speak truth to power on the subject of gender oppression? If yes, what is the next step?

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