I was tree or perhaps four years old when I realized I had been born into the wrong body, and I should really be a girl. I remember the moment well, and it is the earliest memory of my life.First published in 1974, Jan Morris’ Conundrum is a pioneer among transgender memoirs. Morris tells the story of her journey from man to woman: despite having known she wasn’t comfortable with the body she’d been born with from a very young age, it wasn’t until the age of 35 that she was able to begin hormonal treatment. And it was only at 45 that she finally underwent the surgery that matched her physical sex and her gender identity. By then, Morris was married and had children, but fortunately her family remained supportive all through her transformation. Reactions among her friends and acquaintances varied, but Morris was too happy to finally be able to be herself to pay the naysayers much mind.
Of course, none of this is to deny the very real and often life-threatening hostility that trans people throughout the world have to face. But as a comfortably off writer with a supportive family, and as someone who was socially privileged in many ways, Morris was insulated from much of that. Which brings me to something else: the fact that Morris was raised as a privileged white male in the first half of the twentieth century shows in many different ways in this memoir (as she eventually acknowledges herself). She’s someone who’ll dismiss ecology and conservationism as a fad and a denial of man’s mastery over nature (to paraphrase); who’ll say things like “Black Africa seemed everything I wanted not to be”, but then acknowledges that this is a result of her being “a child of Imperial Times”; or who’ll label the life of a gay couple as empty and futile because they couldn’t have children (I don’t mean to dismiss the plight of those who want children but aren’t allowed to adopt because of stupid, bigoted laws, of course. It’s just the assumption that children are absolutely necessary for anyone to lead a fulfilled life that gets on my nerves.)
A lot of what Morris says in Conundrum took me aback – but then again literature is important exactly because it invites us to empathise with people who are very different from us. And even as some of her views made me shudder, I appreciated her honesty, her candour, and her bravery in speaking of transgender issues at a time when this was even more of a silenced subject than it is now.
One of the most interesting aspects of Conundrum was the fact that Morris compared her experiences as a male and as a female in the second half of the twentieth century. There are several brilliant passages about how her sex change equalled a loss of social status. For example, she says:
We are told that the social gap between the sexes is narrowing, but I can only report that having, in the second half of the 20th century, experienced life in both roles, there seems to me no aspect of existence, no moment of the day, no contact, no arrangement, no response, which is not different for men and for women. The very tone of voice in which I was now addressed, the very posture of the person next in the queue, the very feel in the air, constantly emphasized my change of status.But to my disappointment, Morris often shifts from acknowledging the powerful effects of gender stereotyping and the psychological consequences of being regularly patronised to a retreat into good old fashioned essentialism. Even more disappointingly, she also seems to genuinely believe that sexual attention of any kind, even aggressive and unwelcome, is flattering to women.
And if others’ responses shifted, so did my own. The more I was treated as a woman, the more woman I became. I adapted willy-nilly. If I was assumed to be incompetent at reversing cars, or opening bottles, oddly incompetent I found myself. If a case was thought too heavy for me, inexplicably I found it so myself.
When all is said and done, Morris still idealises maleness; the “close knit societies of male traditionalism” that she was brought up to fit into. She says of her negative experience working for The Guardian: “I have a disconcerting feeling now that I disliked it because it was like working for a woman rather than a man.” And towards the end of the book, I’m afraid she crosses the line into magical penis territory with the following comment:
A neurotic condition common among women is called penis envy, its victims supposing that there is inherent to the very fact of the male organs some potent energy of the spirit. There is something to this fancy. It is not merely the loss of androgens that has made me more retiring, more ready to be led, more passive: the removal of the organs themselves has contributed, for there was to the presence of the penis something positive and stimulating. My body then was made to push and initiate, it is now made to yield and accept, and the outside change has had its inner consequences.Um. Right.
There is of course something to the idea that people change their behaviour according to how they’re treated; that expectations can change not only how we act in front of others, but even how we perceive ourselves. But I’m afraid this (to quote Wollestonecraft a few centuries ago) is just plain nonsense. Gender essentialism isn’t really something I see as a matter of opinion so much as a matter of facts versus misconceptions (speaking of which, I can’t wait to tell you all how awesome Delusions of Gender is). I very much resent the idea that the lack of a penis makes me more passive, but at the same time, I don’t want this resentment to blind me to the fact that someone like Morris might know something I don’t.
Conundrum made me wonder whether my frequent rants against essentialism ever come across as a dismissal of the entire concept of gender identity, and consequentially of the experiences of trans people. I hope not. I believe that gender is a continuum and not a binary, and that there are as many possible and valid identities as there are individuals. But I also know that as a cisgendered female, there’s a lot that I take for granted. And although I’ll never be convinced that there are insurmountable and innate psychological differences between men and women, I’ll readily acknowledge that I know nothing of the pain and discomfort of living in a body that doesn’t match who you feel yourself to be.
In the end, this book made me think about different ways of experiencing gender, which is exactly what I was hoping it would do. And although I might have sounded harsh when it comes to Morris herself, I want to clarify that I didn’t dislike her or look down on her. She came across as someone who was trying to wrap her mind around ideas radically different from the ones she had been brought up with, be it about race, about gender, or about her place in the world. The attempt may not be everything, but it’s certainly worth something.
(Have you posted about this book too? Leave me your link and I’ll be glad to add it here.)