Thursday, 8 April 2010


When I was about twelve my schoolfriends and I used to waste a lot of our energy worrying if we were really proper females. We tried lots of different tests to gauge our femininity (or, horrid thought, its absence) – nothing invasive, just things like which way you struck a match – if outwards, it was quite a major worry (proper women, being silly creatures, would, of course, strike them towards themselves, ignoring the fact that the head might fly off and burn them) – and how you looked at your nails – if you folded your fingers over and looked at them in the palm of your hand rather than spreading your hand out and looking at them that way, you were almost certainly doomed to a life of dreaded manliness. You couldn’t get away with trying to change your natural match-striking and nail-viewing tendencies either. You might be able to fool some of your friends, but deep within you the dye was already cast.

I thought of this nonsense today, while listening to the news, which reported the case of one Conor Montgomery, aged 50. Young Conor (yes, I did say ‘young’ – 50 is the new 30 apparently, didn’t you know?) was born a woman but ‘a few years ago he borrowed 10,000 dollars to have what transsexual men call top surgery ... He has also taken male hormones.’ However, for health and financial reasons, Mr Montgomery has had nothing else done. In other words, physically, he is essentially a woman who has had her chest cut off. In these circumstances, Mr Montgomery has persuaded the authorities to give him a passport that describes him as ‘male’, which is probably sensible - things could be awkward at the airport without it. Mr Montgomery is not satisfied with this though – he is now fighting for the right to have his birth certificate revoked and replaced with one that says he was born a man.

Does this strike anyone else as ludicrous or am I just a horrible person? I am not saying I don’t feel sympathy for Mr Montgomery – clearly, life is confusing and probably not entirely satisfactory in his situation. Nevertheless, if what Mr Montgomery is requesting is agreed to, we will be complying with rights demands that have more to do with delusions than reality. This person thinks they are a man, they dress like a man, they have had bits of themselves cut off so that they look more like a man, but they aren’t a man, and they were not born a man. I am happy to call this person ‘he’ but, if he is allowed to change his birth certificate as he wishes, the result will be that it will state something that isn’t true. This person was not born male and no matter how much surgery he has, that fact cannot be altered. If the change he is asking for is carried out, what will happen next? Will I, if I take it into my head that I am a small grey Angora rabbit, be able to have that put on my birth certificate?

Do words have meanings or not? That is the essential issue here. In this context, as so often, Lewis Carroll’s Alice crystallises the dilemma. I am not, of course, referring to that excrescence that claims to be a related film, but to Alice through the Looking-Glass and Alice’s conversation with Humpty Dumpty:

‘“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.”
“The question is,” said Alice, ‘whether you can make words means so many different things.”
“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master – that’s all.”

Even as a small child I found Humpty Dumpty’s cavalier attitude very disturbing. Perhaps this was simply the first of many indications that I was going to be a hopeless bigot and spoilsport in adult life. Certainly I haven’t changed - I still hope that the Humpty Dumpties of this world will not triumph over words.


  1. Like much of modern political life it was anticipated here.

  2. Life of Bryan is right up there with Alice in Wonderland as a reference work for bonkers times.

  3. Gender, contra the loonier university feminist element, is not merely a social construct.

    But on the other hand, it's not always biologically clear which sex a baby is, because biology is messy at the edges, so doctors sometimes have to guess. This bloke/sheila could therefore legitimately argue that they guessed wrong at the start.

  4. Guessed wrong at the start? What, you mean they recklessly concluded gender from the vagina without checking for the incipient adam's apple?

    From The Australian: Mr Montgomery says the Government has deemed him to be an "intersex person", causing him embarrassment, depression and awkwardness.

    At least Humpty Dumpty didn't hire a solicitor to sue his English teachers for inflicting mental distress on him.

  5. Brit: Yes, in the same way I have the right to feel aggrieved at the midwives who wilfully ignored my soft grey fur and floppy ears.
    Peter: My impression of Humpty Dumpty's character is that he would never have allowed anyone to be his teacher to begin with

  6. This is both more complicated and simpler than you think.

    Black and white are legitimate categories. Some things are black and no amount of postmodern theorising will make them white.

    It does not follow that all things are either black or white. Some things are grey. The trouble comes when you insist that all things must be in one of the two categories. Some babies should be classed as "to be confirmed", but that's not traditionally an option.

  7. But, Brit, isn't the problem in this case that it's the greys who are insisting that we define them as black or white to make them emotionally comfortable? Montgomery has been pegged as grey, which is what he is objecting to.

    I'll bet middle-aged women everywhere will be thrilled when told they are the grandmother of a beautiful, healthy, baby to-be-confirmed.

  8. Peter - your second paragraph provides the answer to the first.

    Who'd want to be a grey in a world in which absolutely everything is geared to black and white? This is why tbc is not traditionally or practically an option.

    Clearly, Montgomery sees himself as a man who was misdiagnosed as a woman, because he was born a bit grey.

    (Btw, defining purely on the basis of what the naughty bits look like obviously isn't by itself a failsafe method, that's been known for ages.)

  9. I like the Welsh bint's compromise from LoB: give him the right to have babies if it makes him happy. Why should we care very much?

  10. Brit:

    You are confusing "I'm a man born in a woman's body" with "I say I was born a man, so that's now reality! Change the rules to make me happy, you gender fascists!"

    Who'd want to be a grey in a world in which absolutely everything is geared to black and white?

    Oh, the horror! Still working on that postmodern novel, are we?

  11. Just answering the Humpty Dumpty question, m'lud, but as it happens I do sympathise with the freakazoids. As St Bono put it, we're one, but we're not the same, we get to carry each other, carry each other.

  12. Oh, I sympathize with them too. I just wish sometimes they wouldn't be so...umm...purposeful. I find it distracting when I am trying to focus on getting angry about third world poverty.

  13. While being grey has never seemed to me a setback, I agree with Peter. I don't want anyone to change the rules to make me happy - all I want is a carrot and an occasional pat.

  14. And sometimes a little bit of cabbage, as a very special treat

  15. z, I may not agree with your right to be a rabbit, but I will defend it to the death - or at least over a couple of blog comments.

  16. The rabbit reductio is rather too ad absurdam to be relevant. Biology isn't that messy at the edges. This is actually quite a sad business, though we giggle at it.

  17. Thanks, Gaw. I can see I shall have to rely on you for lettuce supplies in the future, since Brit seems determined to continue in his discriminatory ways.