A Better ‘Universe’ for Sex-Change Beauties
Andy Ho – Straits Times
The grand finals of Miss Universe Singapore to be held on September 9 may well be the last one in which only natural-born females compete. From next year, the Miss Universe pageant will allow transgender women to participate. Local organizers say they will comply with the new rule. I think this is an inclusive move and a good one to make.
Trans people live or seek to live as the gender opposite to that which they were assigned at birth. Some parties support transwomen participation in beauty pageants. Opponents say these are not “real” women, having had surgical and hormonal enhancements.
However, transwomen participation would be in accord with the spirit of the Women’s Charter. Amended in 1996, it made valid a marriage solemnized anywhere in the world between a person who has had sex reassignment and a person of the opposite sex. It also defined the sex-reassigned person to be “of the sex to which the person has been re-assigned,” which was to be reflected in the person’s identity card (IC).
Australia, New Zealand and Europe also permit the reassigned sex to appear on the trans person’s birth certificate, driver license and similar documents. Many states in America, however, do not permit such documentation. This means a sex-reassigned transwoman remains legally male and thus may marry a female only.
Take Texas. Its law allows marriage only between a genetic female (defined as having XX chromosomes) and a genetic male (with XY chromosomes). Thus, in Texas, a sex-reassigned transwoman who looks utterly female but is genetically male may marry only a genetic female.
Since 2009, however, transgender people have been allowed to marry in Texas, but only to someone of the opposite sex from their birth gender. Ironically, this creates a situation where same-sex individuals can get married in a state that disallows same-sex couplings. Take a genetic male who becomes a transgender woman who then gets into a lesbian relationship: She can be legally married to a natural born-woman.
The Women’s Charter in Singapore avoids such head spinning situations by giving legal clarity to the gender status of trans people, so it is a good law. But it is not necessarily true that once the IC sex marker is changed by law, the change will apply across the board in practice. Transwomen may marry men and not be caned for certain criminal offenses as men (under 50) may be. But can they be excluded from public female spaces such as female toilets, hospital wards and locker rooms?
Or beauty pageants?
The situation is not clear-cut.
Legally recognizing transwomen as women may have been meant primarily to safeguard the heterosexual marriage model. Indeed, the Women’s Charter defines marriage as that between a male and a female only. This is also true in New Zealand, where the court in Attorney-General v. Otahuhu Family Court (1995) required that both sexes be represented in marriage. It defined this as the marriage partners having genitalia of a male and female respectively, regardless of functionality. So long as the marriage looked heterosexual, all was well.
It may be because of this “hidden transcript” that feminists appear ambivalent about the transwoman cause. One expects their shared struggle against sex discrimination to see feminists calling for the inclusion of transwomen. Yet local feminist groups have been rather silent.
Older feminists argue that transwomen were brought up as males, acculturated into male behavior and continue to exercise the power that males have. By contrast, younger feminists — brought up by older feminists to believe that gender has no part in one’s life success — cannot quite grasp why gender should play such a significant role in the trans person’s identity. They find it hard to empathize with the willingness to undergo surgery and endure lifelong hormonal therapy just to change the gender.
Regardless of why gender remains central to most people’s identities — whether nature made us so or we are nurtured into a false consciousness — there is no gainsaying it does. In some sense, gender matters to one’s identity in the way that religion does, even if outsiders may not get it.
In a Washington DC case, Schroer v. Billington (2008), the court even drew an analogy between discrimination against trans people and that against religionists. Just as victimizing a Muslim, say, or someone who converts to Islam, are both instances of religious discrimination, victimizing a transwoman because she had transitioned from male to female is as much sex discrimination as that against a genetic female because of her sex.
In “Second Skins: The Body Narratives Of Transsexuality” (1998), Leeds University don Jay Prosser extracted a recurring motif from trans-autobiographies. The transsexual “feels confined in the wrong body on a fundamental level, (not being) at home in one’s skin, (with) a compulsive, repetitive, and nostalgic… homesickness”. Conversely, medical and surgical completion of transition was a climactic “coming home to the self through the body.”
Prosser found that the gendered changes in bodily appearance were truly substantive: The person felt his or her body and soul finally aligned post-transition.
Before the sex change, trans persons are highly conflicted emotionally and spiritually. Post-transition, they feel aligned internally, but continue to face society’s transphobia, their “lives and issues frequently misunderstood and derided,” as Manchester Metropolitan University don Stephen Whittle described in his 2002 book, “Respect And Equality: Transsexual And Transgender Rights.”
Himself a transman born female, Whittle lamented that trans people were “always falling outside of the ‘norm,’ our lives become less, our humanity is questioned, and our oppression is legitimized.” They are not protected from discrimination and their victimizers are not punished.
Even in the US, it was only in October 2009 that the law was extended to protect trans people from hate crimes perpetrated against them because of their perceived gender expression.
Transphobia will remain acceptable unless society accepts that each person expresses her gender in her own unique way, whether girlish or hoydenish or anything in between but always also as part of our common humanity. Participation in Miss Universe Singapore will simply add quotidian impetus to our collective journey of inclusion.
Reprinted courtesy of The Straits Times