Oktober 1998

Third International Congress of Sex and Gender

A fairly large number of Australians presented at the Third International Congress of Sex and Gender held in Oxford, England last month. Only one was from the old school of one option transsexual medicine. The others included a contingent from International Foundation for Androgyny Studies, a couple of intersexed academics, a pro-visibility professional, and a prominent spansexual activist. This was a microcosm of the entire conference, energised by transgender community professionals, academics, and activists.

(By "transgender community", I mean the whole range of transsexual, crossdresser, intersex, male-to-female, female-to-male, bi-gender, surgical, non-surgical, "part"-surgical, hormonal, non-hormonal, partners, parents, young and old present.)

Herbert Bower, from Melbourne's gender dysphoria clinic, wailed about the "widening gap between the medical model and the non-medical model."
However, what he failed to grasp was obviously well understood by the majority of (transgender and non-transgender) doctors and therapists present: That there are more than two models for transgender people to choose from. They talked not about "the medical model", but about plural and diverse models that allowed for combinations of selections from the full range of medical and other options.
Esben Benestad/Esther Pirelli, a bi-gendered therapist from Norway rejected the term "Gender Dysphoria". "I've never met anyone who is not happy about their gender. They're very happy about it. It's their bodies they are dsyphoric with." Zie suggested that this (gender-related) body dysphoria is not dissimilar to other body dysphorias such as bulimia or anorexia, or those that lead to presentation for plastic surgery.

In a session on treatments for young people, Esther said "The quest is not for the possibly transgendered child or adolescent to understand or take care of the world, but for the world to understand and take care of the transgendered." Zie asserts that transgenderedness is not a disease (and can thus not be treated), but that the main source of pain and trouble for transgendered young people is the way they are met and perceived by the world. The main therapeutic route to a better situation for the identified transgendered is to treat their world of significant others: parents, teachers, siblings, and so on.

Claire McNab, a prominent activist with Press For Change, conducted workshops on using mass media and particularly the internet for lobbying, education, networking, support, and producing swift mass actions. Press For Change is the British umbrella group for transgender activism.

Perhaps because of the packed and competing program, few people attended my HIV paper, but we did network on this issue during the Congress. I was most disturbed to hear of HIV funding being withdrawn on the basis of less AIDS beds being needed, as a presumed result of combination therapies. Well funded peer-based HIV prevention programs are also a likely cause of declining AIDS cases, and cutting support for prevention programs will have disastrous results.

Elizabeth Riley, Co-ordinator of the Gender Centre in Sydney, advocated for the advantages of "visibility". Being out about ourselves allows us to be educative, usually creating positive responses in people who "just hadn't met anyone like that before." Of course, this doesn't mean being an advocate twenty four hours a day seven days a week. In my workshop (which deconstructs sex and gender), I pointed out that although I asserted my gender as "neuter" for the Australian Electoral Commission, I was happy to have a gender-normative passport. Sometimes, "passing" can be the sensible expedient (for example, in getting through Customs easily), and other times it may be more appropriate to insist on recognition of our own specific identity.

Julia Greenberg , a legal academic from California, talked about the legal status of transgender people. She outlined various determiners of gender, hormonal, anatomical, psychological, and chromosomal. If these are not all congruent, and one has to be chosen as the determining factor, she posits that it makes most sense to determine the social gender according to the individual's psycho-social gender identity.

The final plenary heard of an intersex infant recently born in England. It is still not clear which gender is "most predominant" in this individual, but one has to be specified on the birth certificate. The registration of birth can be delayed for up to nine months, but the psycho-social gender will still be unknown by then, and even a best guess of the predominant somatic gender may be later "disproven". This case highlights the difficulties caused by legal insistence on a single (exclusive) gender identity that may have no basis in reality.

The first Congress was very much dominated by non-transgendered professionals searching for the answers for their troubled patients. This Congress was full of transgendered professionals exploring and expanding the range of options for transgender people, our families and friends, and the wider societies we live in. This was a change in dynamics from "Here is the answer for you, if you fit criteria X," to "What combination of options might suit you?" and "What support do you need in order to be
happy where you want to be?"

It was an exceptionally illuminating, educative, networking and supportive experience, well worth the expense of travel, the outrageous cost of living in England, and the discomfort of up-ending our body-clocks. The next one will be in Pennsylvania, but there was wholesale support for Sydney in 2001.

-norrie mAy-welby

norrie mAy-welby
Lay Sister
Universal Life Church