Sex and the troubled mind

It’s not every day a man has a baby. Which is why Neil Hope and “his” baby are in the news. Neil Hope, now 37, is a transsexual female who underwent gender-reassignment surgery in his 20s, but left her uterus intact. With the help of artificial insemination, Hope conceived a baby and gave birth last year. This case is unusual, to be sure, but it has naturally inspired questions about the ethical limits of assisted-reproductive technology.

Transgenderism and its social implications is a hot topic these days. Recently Toronto and the world were abuzz with the story of a 4-month old baby whose sex was being kept a secret from everyone but the immediate family. In related news, a school in Sweden dropped all references to sex in its nomenclature, and was offering children only sex-neutral toys (dolls yes, trucks no – this is the new “neutral” amongst social constructionists).

In the old days, it would have been quite acceptable to call Neil Hope’s bizarre experiment freakish, not only in the literal dictionary sense – “a very unusual and unexpected event” – but as an assessment of the psychological state of the individual behind the decision. Many people will still identify the act and the person as freakish, but behind closed doors. It has become politically incorrect to suggest that transgenderism or transsexualism is anything more than an alternate lifestyle, perfectly healthy just as all other sexualities are. Moreover, to think otherwise, to think that transgenderism is a medical problem, say, is to be guilty of heteronormativism. In the new parlance, “normal” is not how people are born biologically, it is whatever they think they are. Slotting people into binary roles – male, female – merely on the basis of genitalia is to be a narrow, intolerant rigidly socially constructivist.

That is certainly Neil Hope’s take on his/her situation. He/she says: “Trans people make amazing parents, the same way they make amazing children and they make amazing siblings and husbands and wives.” No suggestion here that believing you were born in the wrong body is in any sense a tragedy, or something one might wish to seek psychiatric help for. It’s all good!

The reality is that we know very little about what drives the desire to be the other sex. Sex is an objective reality. But “gender identity” is a subjective condition – an attitude towards oneself that may externalize itself in behaviours like cross-dressing as its self-expression. It is a phenomenon scientists know little about, and they should have the right to explore it without being intimidated by the sexual relativists who have thus far commandeered discussion around it.

In the November, 2004 issue of First Things Magazine, Dr. Paul McHugh, psychiatrist-in-chief at John Hopkins University, wrote an interesting account of his university’s adventures in sex reassignment surgery. He interviewed many men before their surgery (most cases of sex reassignment are male to female). He says they spent a lot of time talking about sex and their sexual experiences, which preoccupied them. Many of them claimed to be “lesbians,” who found women sexually attractive. And – a telling detail – “discussion of babies or children provoked little interest from them; indeed, they seemed indifferent to children.”

Dr. Hughes wanted to know more about his patients. He wanted to test the claim that sex change would solve the patient’s suffering, and that changing genitalia allows the individual to settle easily into the new role, i.e. he wanted to know whether gender really is merely the result of cultural shaping.

His patients fell into two different groups: one was “guilt-ridden homosexual men” who thought being female would resolve that problem; and older heterosexual men who found intense sexual arousal in cross-dressing as females. The name given to their condition was “autogynephilia.”

When his team started tracking their sex-changed patients, they found that few regretted the change, but “in every other respect, they were little changed in their psychological condition. They had much the same problems with relationships, work and emotions as before.”

Dr. Hughes and his team ultimately decided to stop doing the sex reassignment surgeries. Their conclusion was “that Hopkins was fundamentally cooperating with a mental illness. We psychiatrists, I thought, would do better to concentrate on trying to fix their minds and not their genitalia.” Instead of pretending that a “man” having a baby is something to celebrate, we should lend our efforts to research that will lead to a cure for this terribly sad psychological problem.

National Post