Karin: “Middle Sexes”, not all the same

Intersex people are often represented as being all the same, or as slight variations on a uniform theme. So, too, are trans men and women. Likewise, the Hijras of India and Pakistan, or the Kathoey of Thailand, are depicted as being near-identical clones of each other.

It’s a new form of an old trope – the coloniser’s misrepresentation of the colonised, portraying them as a uniform mass without individuality or, indeed, humanity.

This manufactured uniformity has led to one-size-fits-all medical treatments and legislation. Medical researchers, and religion’s medical advisers, issue diktats the rest of the medical fraternity follows uncritically – ‘all 5-alpha reductase newborns have male identities and must be surgically made into males,’ ‘those with the XXY karyotype are male only,’ ‘all AIS girls are supermodels with big boobs – the perfect woman, except that they’re really men invading women’s sacred space.’

It was refreshing, then, to come across Middle Sexes at YouTube.com, the whole program posted in 11 parts by an anonymous individual. If Middle Sexes has been taken down by the YouTube.com management by the time you read this, please refer to HBO’s web pages on the program – links listed at the end of this post.

The segments of most interest to us at OII Australia are those on Max Beck, and three kathoey women in Thailand.

Middle Sexes - three very different katoeys

Middle Sexes, three very different katoeys

According to Peter Jackson, an academic at the Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies (RSPAS), of the Australian National University (ANU) in Canberra, in pre-modern times the term kathoey applied exclusively to intersex women. Now, in the throes of Thai modernisation, its meaning has been extended to include many kinds of women, as well as men who dress and live as women. Yet, in Thailand itself and amongst Western tourists there, kathoey exclusively signifies prostitutes, bar girls and entertainers in glitzy revues.

Spend time with a group of kathoey girls and any preconceptions evaporate. They’re likely to be very well educated – often to university graduate level and beyond – smart, vivacious, well-spoken, with the same hopes and dreams of a normal life and career as any Western woman. The uni grads amongst them want to work in the professions they have trained for. Far too many, though, find they are not allowed to enter professional practice, and end up in less desirable occupations instead.

That is a tragic loss for Thailand and for women who didn’t ask to be born this way. We applaud, therefore, the growing movement by kathoey that is working for an end to discrimination, and to gain full equality with their fellow citizens.

Max Beck in Middle Sexes

Max Beck, in Middle Sexes

Max Beck was a member of ISNA (the Intersex Society of North America, now defunct and replaced with an organisation that promotes the erasure of intersex), and not long after he was filmed for Middle Sexes, tragically died of cancer. According to his story, published on the PBS website, Max was born with mosaic chromosomes – XY/XO – and his genitals were surgically carved into the semblance of female ones from birth onwards. The doctors instructed Max’s (then named Judy) parents to ‘raise him as a girl.’ Max, of course, rejected that sex assignment, and eventually, after enormous struggle, became himself, only to die not long afterwards.

Of his birth, Max wrote:

They couldn’t tell if I was a boy or a girl. Between my legs they found “a rudimentary phallus” and “fused labio-scrotal folds.” They ran their tests, they poked and prodded, and they cut open my belly, removed my gonads, and sent them off to Pathology. My parents sat in the hospital cafeteria, numb, their hearts as cold as the Manhattan February outside.

We were reminded about Max when Dr Jessica Cadwallader featured his story in her paper at the University of Technology, in Sydney on 23rd April 2009.

From HBO’s synopsis for Middle Sexes:

Researchers cite examples from the natural world, where species display a wide range of sexual variation, and point out that humans show more diversity than the strict male-female dichotomy. About one in every 100 people is born with anatomically ambiguous genitalia; these individuals, formerly called hermaphroditic, are now known as “intersex.” …

Other research reveals biological explanations for differences in sexual identity. At the Dutch Institute for Brain Research, Prof. Louis Gooren found that tiny clusters of nerve cells in the brain structure of male-to-female transsexuals were more like a female structure; likewise, in female-to-male transsexuals, they were more like a male structure. This, he says, “explains that the brains of transsexuals have not developed in agreement with their genitalia.” …

The filmmaker interweaves these findings with the personal stories of individuals and their partners and families. In the film we meet: (from the U.S.) 8-year-old Noah, who gets teased for acting like a girl; Calpernia, a transgender woman whose boyfriend was killed when her true identity was revealed; and Max, an intersex male who was raised female for most of his life; (from India) Veejay, secretly married to a male partner while maintaining a “normal” heterosexual marriage; and Nandini, who undergoes a sex change operation as part of an ancient religious ritual; (from Thailand) Go, who, though born male, is a successful actress and model, and Kui, a transsexual who met her western boyfriend on the internet; and (from Suriname) Elli, who lives in a culture where sexual orientation is seen as fluid and has had a non-stigmatized 20-year relationship with her female partner.

From HBO’s interview with the director, Antony Thomas:

HBO: What is the stigma surrounding the blurring of gender?

Antony Thomas: The social pressure to conform to one sexual standard is huge – and this is true, in varying degrees, throughout most of the modern world. In the ancient and medieval worlds, the position was different, but today anything that causes us to question the validity and truth of that universal standard is threatening; and what we fear, we demonise.

HBO: Was there anything that surprised or shocked you while making the film?

Antony Thomas: Yes. I remain surprised at the numbers of people who don’t conform to the simple categories – man/woman, hetero/homo. In making this program, I was also surprised and shocked to discover the scale of the violence meted out to those who can’t be pigeon-holed.

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