Karin: “Conformity’s never-ending war against diversity”

The past is another country and it can be a savage, brutal place. No matter how bad things may be now for intersex and other biological nonconformists, in the past they were immeasurably worse.

I was reminded of this when chatting with a woman who had rejected the sex she was assigned at birth and she went on to tell me about what had been done to her in her youth by her mother, her family and the medical profession.

All of us who reject the lives others have selected for us at birth exhibit enormous courage by doing so. Nowhere is simply being ourselves easy and in the past, as I was reminded last night, to do so invited a wrath of unfettered viciousness.

Australia remains one of the most conformist western nations and in the 1960s and 1970s, when my informant was effectively jailed for life in a succession of mental institutions, if psychiatry’s ‘talking cure’ failed to change your nonconformist mind then a veneer of conformity was assured by doping you up into insensibility.

One of my own relatives had undergone brutalization for her biological nonconformism in the psychiatric wards of the time, so my informant’s story held few surprises. My aunt had been subjected to certification and ECT – electro-convulsive treatment aka electric shock – because her hormone secretions had refused to adhere to medicine’s dictates. The result was iatrogenically lowered intelligence and a terminally crushed spirit.

What was new to me though in last night’s sharing was how medicine had dispensed dangerous drugs with gay abandon back then. This woman had been certified by her mother, institutionalized for almost two decades, never told she had the right to walk out at any time, and kept on a drug regimen centred around the antipsychotic drug Largactil aka Chlorpromazine, known as Thorazine in the United States.

She has never gotten over her mother’s betrayal nor almost twenty years spent spent in a prison of deadened minds but now she has another legacy to live with.

Largactil was found to have a long string of side effects when it was dispensed like aspirin, but the little-known one most affecting her is its carcinogenic properties. The drug’s cellular mutations have given rise to serial skin cancers and related epidermal problems and she is always going under the knife to remove them. Her skin is mottled, dry and heavily scarred. She told how Largactil was used as an isolation tank, a chemical straitjacket, to shut her up and zombify her into conforming.

She lives in isolation still, a shunned, scarred and shuffling wreck marked for life with angry red and white lesions all over, treated with contempt by most who encounter her, acutely aware she will never experience anything like a normal life, career or relationship.

Her interactions with organized society via clubs, the police, health care providers and government departments are marred by variations on the same contempt for her biological nonconformity that she first encountered on entry into Sydney’s mental wards when she was young.

She knows she is the undeserving victim of our society’s ongoing war of conformity against diversity but as her life is now almost over the best she can do is endure it, put up with the daily insults, live within her s/hell of isolation, and make occasional contact with others on the biologically diverse front-line as a disembodied voice trembling over the wires.