Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Sex changes accepted but thugs can still make life a misery

This is the text of my That's Men for You column in The Irish Times on Tuesday 30th October:

When Lib Dem Jenny Bailey (on right in pic) became Mayor of Cambridge earlier this year, the UK media sat up and took notice.

Media interest was spurred by the fact that Ms Bailey had been born a man but had a sex change operation about fifteen years ago.

Moreover, the Mayoress – traditionally the Mayor’s wife – would be Jennifer Liddle, (left in pic) her partner, who was also born as a man and who also had a sex change operation.

But though the media took an interest in this development, it was a fairly mild interest. A few articles appeared and that was that.

All of which indicates acceptance nowadays of the use of surgery to change gender – and that this is no longer seen as a barrier to high political office at local level underlines that acceptance.

Ms Bailey’s two sons, aged 18 and 20, live with her and her partner. When the media contacted Ms Bailey’s former wife she had nothing but praise for the person who had been her husband. She described her as “totally selfless” and said she would make an excellent Mayor.

Then last week, on Joe Duffy’s radio programme a person in Dublin who is undergoing preparation for a sex change related a rather different experience. She was born a man and for many, many years has been bullied by local thugs because, she thinks, she keeps herself to herself. Her life seems to be entirely dominated by the behaviour of local children. She chooses to do her shopping only in the early morning when the children are at school. Once they get out, she stays in.

She wears feminine tops and trousers but not skirts or dresses. In order to receive sex-change surgery in the UK she will have to live as a woman for a year and then be assessed. But to do that is impossible where she lives. If she left her apartment dressed fully as a woman, she would not, as she put it, know what was waiting for her at the bottom of the stairs. To venture out in women’s clothes would require a degree of courage and recklessness which few possess.

At one level, her story is simply about the acceptance of low-grade thuggery at official and community level. Her story also, however, shows that while persons with a sex change in one setting may become the mayor of a city, there are other settings in which such a venture is very risky indeed.

On reading such stories the question will, no doubt, arise in many people’s minds as to how successful these sex changes are and whether they bring people the improvements they hope for in their lives.

There is now some interesting evidence that indeed surgery to change gender from male to female is largely successful and that those who have such surgery are largely pleased with the results.

The research was done by the University Hospitals of Leicester NHS Trust in the UK. Researchers looked at the early experiences of more than 200 patients and they did detailed follow-ups with another 70.

In the early stages, almost nine out of ten patients were happy. What was the situation after more time had passed? The research team was only able to conduct detailed interviews with 70 longer-term patients. This, the explained, is because people who have this operation want to get on with a new life and therefore can be hard for researchers to contact.

Of the 70 (average age 43 years), more than three quarters were happy with their appearance following surgery. Eight out of ten said their general expectations had been met, according to a report on the research in the journal BJU International. Almost one in four were having intercourse regularly. Two thirds were happy with the depth of the vagina that had been constructed for them.

So it looks as though sex-change operations work well and that this phenomenon is increasingly accepted by families and, in most cases, by society at large.

All of which throws into question the whole nature of identity and how we define ourselves. But that’s another story.

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