When Deborah Rudacille learned that a close friend had decided to transition from female to male, she felt compelled to understand why.
Coming at the controversial subject of transsexualism from several angles-historical, sociological, psychological, medical-Rudacille discovered that gender variance is anything but new, that changing one's gender has been met with both acceptance and hostility through the years, and that gender identity, like sexual orientation, appears to be inborn, not learned, though in some people the sex of the body does not match the sex of the brain.
Informed not only by meticulous research, but also by the author's interviews with prominent members of the transgender community, The Riddle of Gender is a sympathetic and wise look at a sexual revolution that calls into question many of our most deeply held assumptions about what it means to be a man, a woman, and a human being.
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February 13, 2006
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Excerpt from The Riddle of Gender by Deborah Rudacille
One THE HANDS OF GOD I began the research for this book in the way that I approach every scientific subject that interests me, by searching the literature. I soon discovered that far from being a product of the modern world, gender variance has been documented across cultures and in every epoch of history. Male-bodied persons dressing and living as women and female-bodied persons dressing and living as men were known in ancient Greece and Rome, among Native American tribes prior to the arrival of Europeans, on the Indian subcontinent, in Africa, in Siberia, in Eastern Europe, and in nearly every other indigenous society studied by anthropologists. According to historian Vern Bullough, "gender crossing is so ubiquitous, that genitalia by itself has never been a universal nor essential insignia of a lifelong gender." In some of these cultures, cross-gendered persons were considered shamans gifted with extraordinary psychic powers, and they assumed special ceremonial roles. In many religions, the gods themselves can transform their sex at will, cross-dress, or are androgynous. Our Judeo-Christian heritage, founded on a belief in an exclusively male deity, has frowned on such gender fluidity; nonetheless, throughout the Middle Ages and even into the modern era, cross-dressing has been permitted and indeed celebrated at festivals, in clubs, and on the stage. Moreover, the deathbed discovery of a gender reversal is a far more common occurrence in Western history than one might suspect. Many (though not all) of the persons whose names and stories are known to us today were born female and lived some or all of their lives as men. A few of the better-known individuals in this category include James Barry, British army physician and Inspector-General, died 1865; Charles Durkee Pankhurst, California stagecoach driver, died 1879; Murray Hall, Tammany Hall politician, died 1901; Jack Bee Garland, soldier in the Spanish-American War, died 1936; and Billy Tipton, jazz trumpeter, died 1989. Some of these people were married to women, who publicly expressed shock and amazement when their partners died and were found to be other than what friends and neighbors assumed them to be. It is impossible to know if this shock was real or was feigned for the benefit of a public that was not prepared to accept the alternative explanation--that the widow had lived happily with a female-bodied person who saw himself and was accepted by others (including his wife) as a man. The case of the Chevalier d'Eon, an eighteenth-century aristocrat whose gender was a source of considerable controversy during his lifetime, is a bit more complex, and because it became a public scandal, I will recount it more fully here. Born in France in 1728, Charles-Genevieve Louis-Auguste-Andre-Timothee d'Eon de Beaumont lived forty-nine years as a man and thirty-four as a woman. Aristocrat, diplomat, soldier, and spy, d'Eon worked for the French government in both male and female roles, exhibiting such a chameleon-like ability to change from man to woman and back again that contemporary historians remain just as baffled as d'Eon's peers by the chevalier's metamorphoses. Traditional accounts suggest that d'Eon was dispatched on his first diplomatic mission to Russia in female garb to infiltrate the social circle of the Empress Elizabeth. After successfully carrying out this mission, d'Eon returned to France and assumed an unambiguously male role, becoming a captain of dragoons and fighting valiantly in the Seven Years' War. Wounded in battle, d'Eon was named a Knight of St. Louis, and in 1762 was offered a diplomatic assignment at the British royal court. In a letter, the French king Louis XV congratulated the chevalier on his new post and wrote, "You have served me just as well in women's clothing as you have in the clothes you are now wearing." While d'Eon was serving as mini