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Myfanwy McDonald

Further information

About the author

Myfanwy McDonald has a BA(Hons)/BCA from the University of Wollongong and is currently undertaking a PhD at the Centre for Women’s Studies and Gender Research at Monash University in Melbourne.

Publication details

Volume 13, November 2005

Telling the Story of Gender Transition: The Case of Alan Finch

Mr Finch’s own decision to revert to life as a man, a deeply painful and traumatic process, came only after he sought psychotherapy to probe and understand the origins of his confusion. “Sex surgery is a way for a person who hates himself to reinvent himself” he [Mr Finch] said (Hammond, 2004: 87).

This article analyses a contemporary Australian narrative of gender transition, the case of Alan Finch, a man in his mid-thirties living in Australia (and originally from England) who underwent surgical sex reassignment at the age of 21. Having lived as a woman for roughly a decade, Finch then decided to go back to living as a man. Finch’s story received relatively broad coverage in the Australian press during and after the time the Australian Story program was aired (see for example Hogan, 2003; Leung, 2004; Papadakis, 2003; and Rose 2003). His story also appeared in Australian Story (Fleming, 2003)1, a weekly half hour program on ABC television that features what Plummer (1995:50) calls “personal experience stories.” Personal experience stories, typical to the modern era, are characterised by a narrative sequence of suffering, surviving and surpassing (Plummer, 1995:50)2.

In this article I am not aiming to cast doubt upon the factualness of Finch’s story, nor do I mean to dismiss the particular difficulties he, and others in similar predicaments, have faced 3. Rather what I am interested in this article is how Finch’s story is “formed, the genres of storytelling that are drawn upon, and the ways in which stories construct identities and events” (Wetherell et al, 2001: 23).

My argument is two-fold. Firstly the way Finch’s story is presented in Australian Story relies upon and potentially reinforces a range of problematic assumptions, not only about transsexualism, but also about the meaning of gender, gender roles and the connection between sexuality and gender identity. Ultimately the representation of Finch’s case reinstates the heterosexual matrix which requires that gender follows sex (that is only a female body be called a ‘woman’ and only a male body be called a ‘man’) and that desire follows from either sex or gender (that is only a woman can desire a man, only the female can desire the male and soon)4. The second part of my argument is that Finch’s case is being utilised (in some cases by Finch himself) to undermine the practice of sex reassignment and to make problematic sweeping claims about those seek and undergo sex reassignment procedures (such as: “Sex surgery is a way for a person who hates himself to reinvent himself”).

In the following discussion I look first at how the representation of Finch’s life story on Australian Story reinforces certain ideas about the heteronormative connection between sex and gender. I utilise Butler’s (1990) poststructuralist perspective on gender identity to challenge some of these ideas. In the second section of the article I investigate the underlying assumptions in the text that are made about heterosexuality and homosexuality.

Journeying Back to the True (Masculine) Self

Finch’s story begins in “the tough, uncompromising world of a coalmining family in the north of England.” He had a violent father with whom he had a tumultuous relationship (eventually this is seen as one of the most influential subconscious factors driving Finch’s desire for sex reassignment). In his teens Finch gets involved in the local gay scene, which is where he learns about the possibility of sex reassignment. He then begins to live as a woman, Helen, a transition that ultimately proves to be unsatisfying. During transcendental meditation one day Finch realises that he has made a mistake and asks himself:

My God, how did you get yourself into this? And I remember for the first time ever, I said to myself, ‘You stupid boy.’5

Throughout the Australian Story program the concept of the journey to a “true self” is drawn upon in order to tell the story of Finch’s return to heterosexual masculinity. The journey to the true self is a decidedly modernist narrative with its roots firmly grounded in Enlightenment concepts such as a truth and progress (Wetherell et al, 2001: 5). Ironically Finch’s tale is also a coming out story – the coming out story of a heterosexual man. Coming out stories are characterised by the concept of a movement away from a “closet of socially constructed ‘passing’ behaviours [into] an ‘essential’ identity” (Turner, 1999: 468). Indeed coming out stories are appealing precisely because they confirm the idea that there is an “essential identity”, thereby settling any anxieties that surround the ambiguous, uncertain aspects of identity in the postmodern age.6

The appeal of Finch’s tale of a return to the “true self”, however, obscures the fact that this is also a tale of medical misdiagnosis. Indeed it is interesting to note that when we acknowledge that this story is about a misdiagnosis – misdiagnosed gender identity disorder (the condition previously referred to as transsexualism) – one of the things that stands out in the Australian Story programme is that neither the term gender identity disorder nor the word transsexual are used. Nor are any of the labels associated with the condition such as transgender or gender dysphoria.

By avoiding these terms the program overlooks the fact that gender identity disorder for many people is a genuine medical condition that can cause extreme distress, often alleviated via sex reassignment procedures. Instead the emphasis in the story is the artificial nature of the identity ‘woman’ for a male body, as Finch describes in the following quote:

Anatomically I was never really a woman. It was creating a battleground within my own body. It’s just rearranging flesh, but the tissue that’s used is still male tissue. I never was able to have any orgasm or sexual pleasure. Everything was fake about it from top to toe.

In making such a claim Finch reiterates the heteronormative connection between the sexed body and gendered identity by implying that challenges to that heteronormative connection (the male body that identifies as a woman for example) create a “battleground” and produce a “fake” body.

Whilst the heteronormative connection between the sexed body and gender identity is often viewed as common sense, Butler (1990: 6-7) has argued that the connection between the sexed body and gendered identity is in fact held in place for specific social and political reasons. It is not natural but naturalised. According to this theory, no body is “anatomically” a woman. ‘Woman’ is a category that is produced via particular configurations of socially meaningful expressions – expressions that mean woman. Female as a sexed category is separate to ‘woman’, just as male as a sexed category is separate to ‘man’. Given this, why should the male body call itself a man and the female body call itself a woman? Butler argues that it is heteronormativity that enforces the naturalised, normalised connection between male and man and female and woman (Butler 1990: 16-25).

From this perspective the statement: “It’s just rearranging flesh, but the tissue that’s used is still male tissue” becomes nonsensical. It doesn’t matter how the flesh is rearranged, or whether the flesh is rearranged at all; it doesn’t matter if the tissue is male, female, neither or both. It is not the flesh that makes meaningful or meaningless the gendered identity but the aforementioned configuration of socially meaningful expressions that mean woman. As Hall (1997:21) states:

The meaning is not in the object or person or thing, nor is it in the world. It is we who fix meaning so firmly that after a while it comes to seem natural and inevitable.

In this sense there is no meaning in the body: it is we who fix meaning upon the body; it is we who have determined that the meaning of the male body is man and the meaning of the female body is woman.

Of course it is unfair and unrealistic to expect all narratives to take into account the conflicting theories about the relationship between the categories sex and gender. What does it matter if Finch thinks, along with many other people (including plenty of transsexual/transgendered people), that gender identity is internal and more than just a configuration of socially meaningful expressions? The problem, I would argue, lies in the way this narrative is being utilised both by Finch and by others in a seeming crusade to undermine the practice of sex reassignment surgery and pathologise those people who seek that form of treatment. For example, Finch claims:

We have nothing but compassion for the transgender person. They are depressed, psychotic confused people. They need psychiatric help, counselling and anti-depressants, not the removal of their penises (in Hammond, 2004:87).

This statement, clearly referring specifically to MTF gender transition, relies upon the heteronormative connection between the sexed body (male) and the gender identity (man). Exactly what the “transgender person” Finch refers to should be counselled for is not specified although the implication is clear that “transgender person(s)” should be helped and counselled out of their depression, psychosis and confusion in order to revert to life as men. Finch, described as “understand[ing] the origins of his confusion”, becomes the norm against which the transgender Other is measured. Not being depressed, not being psychotic and not being confused results in the healthy reunion of the male body with its rightful identity – man.

Finch’s ideas about the relationship between sex and gender are extremely important in that they are being used to comment upon, not only a particular type of medical treatment, but also a whole group of people in our community – transgender/transsexual people. It is not a unique approach to take to a minority group and argue ‘we’ have compassion for ‘them’, but we know them better than they know themselves because they are sick and we are healthy. Roughly 30 years ago a similar claim was made about gay men and lesbians. In fact what Finch says about the depressed, confused, psychotic trans person reflects the way homosexuals were viewed prior in the first half of the twentieth century: “There was no such thing as a happy homosexual and early twentieth century narratives were often moral warnings” (Plummer, 1995: 84). Interestingly, as I will discuss below, the Australian Story text also contains underlying assumptions about the relationship between gender identity, the sexed body and sexuality.

Saved By Heterosexuality

As stated, Finch’s story is the modernist tale of the journey to the true self. Interestingly, at a certain point in the Australian Story programme the postmodern condition of uncertainty is constructed as a form of ignorance. The producer of an up-coming feature film about Finch’s life (interviewed as part of the Australian Story programme), Helene Nicol, states:

Finch’s story is about how we’re all confused about who we are and how Alan’s confusion was greater than most and the lengths that he was willing to go to try and clarify as to who he was [sic]. I think a lot of us kind of, um, just stumble through life and we’re not that concerned about who we are (Fleming, 2003).

In this quote Nicol is suggesting that knowing who we are, which Finch supposedly does, is a condition that requires a kind of superior effort. As I argued in the previous section, Finch’s narrative, like many narratives of the true self, appeals to a general longing for the certainties that modernity provides. Yet in the process of fulfilling these longings a number of problematic ideas and assumptions about the relationship between gender identity, the sexed body and sexuality are made.

Consider, for example, the relationship that is made between gender identity and sexuality in the narrative. Alan Finch describes one particular significant relationship with a man when he lived as a woman and what occurred after he told his partner he had undergone an MTF transition:

He just looked at me and he… couldn’t believe it. He was very compassionate and then he just said, “My God, why did you do that to yourself?”…. From that moment on the relationship changed. We then had separate bedrooms…
In the narrative sequence of the Australian Story programme it is at this point, when Finch’s heterosexual relationship (as a woman with a man) fails, that Finch then claims he was never really a woman (“Anatomically I was never really a woman”).

Following this relationship, but still living as a MTF transsexual, Finch describes a lesbian relationship (with a previously heterosexual woman) in which he receives confirmation of his status as a man. Finch describes the moment he revealed his status as a MTF transsexual to his lesbian lover:

She just kept looking at me and saying ‘My God you ARE a man. You ARE a man.’ And turning me around and looking at me differently. And I think for her it made sense why she felt she was in love with me. And she suggested the idea of maybe I could do it, I could just live as a man again [emphasis in the original transcript].
The homophobia and transphobia of Finch’s boyfriend and girlfriend are both expressed here: the boyfriend who ‘changed’ after Finch’s revelation about having had sex reassignment and the girlfriend who, upon discovering that Finch was an MTF transsexual, suggested he just go back to living as a man (the relationship didn’t “make sense” to her otherwise).7

The narrative situates heterosexuality in both these cases as confirming Finch’s ‘true’ gender identity. Heterosexuality is posited as having a clarifying effect – as having revealed to Finch a kind of ‘gender truth.’ Whilst the heterosexual moments in the narrative are clarifying, the homosexual moments are, in contrast, situated as confusing. Finch describes his first sexual experience with a man (prior to his MTF sex change) during his adolescence:

This was my first sexual experience really with another man, where he was kissing me and the affection I felt was really nice. And then it just seemed to go a bit further and I didn’t want to go with that then. So I felt probably more confused, actually, than ever at that time. Having been thinking ‘Maybe I’m gay’, now all of a sudden I started to think ‘Well maybe I’m not gay.’

In the next narrative moment Finch discovers the book Tula: I am a Woman in the hairdressing salon owned by two gay men, where Finch is working. The progression from gay to transsexual in the narrative – one coming straight after the other – positions homosexuality or a ‘homosexual environment’ as having a negative effect upon Finch’s journey towards his true self, not only as heterosexual but also as a man. Homosexuality in the stereotypically gay realm of the hairdressing salon is presented as having a corrupting effect, not so much on Finch’s sexual orientation, but upon his gender identity.

Conclusions

The publicity surrounding Finch’s case has a potentially very strong impact on the general public’s understanding of sex reassignment and the people who seek those procedures. Sex reassignment procedures, as procedures that can be used to alleviate the distress associated with gender identity disorder, are reconfigured as procedures that cater to people who are deluded by self-hatred. A desire for sex reassignment that emerges from a rational understanding and awareness of one’s self is made impossible by these generalisations and stereotypes. Indeed, by claiming that trans people are depressed, confused and psychotic, Finch leaves little room for trans people themselves to challenge his claims. As stated, the implication is ‘we know you better than you know yourself.’

As well as having an effect upon people’s understanding of sex reassignment, these heteronormative representations of Finch’s case could have concrete effects on the actual delivery of health services. Finch’s current psychiatrist claims that the physicians who misdiagnosed Finch were incompetent:

I can’t imagine how [the sex reassignment surgery] could be medically justified in the absence of much, much more adequate counselling that what I understand he received... Any thorough history taken by a competent psychiatrist or even non-specialist would reveal what was apparent to me in three or four sessions.

Surgical sex reassignment procedures, for MTF trans women and especially for FTM trans men, are very difficult procedures to access in Australia, mainly because of the cost of those treatments and the lack of experienced surgeons. Indeed, there is already a concern, both within transsexual/transgender communities and within the medical institution itself, that there will be no-one to replace the current specialists when they retire.8 Such intense scrutiny of the physicians who are currently assessing patients for sex reassignment would hardly inspire younger surgeons to enter the profession. Indeed, anecdotal evidence suggests that this intense scrutiny of the physicians practising in the area seems to have had an impact upon the delivery of services. In response to an online article on the Alan Finch case (Skallagrigg, 2003) one FTM trans man (Guy, 2003) claimed: “I require metoidioplasty but thanks to Finch and his friends the doctor is not working at the moment.”

Certainly there is a broader point to be made here about what the representation of Finch’s case means, not only for our understanding of sex reassignment but also for our understanding of gender identity in general. The point has been made to me, on a number of occasions, that what Finch’s case represents is in fact the instability and changeability of gender identity. An article, published in Woman’s Day over 15 years ago, describes Helen Finch’s happy, contented life as a woman. At that time Helen stated: “I haven’t got a problem anymore. I see it as a problem that has been solved” (Avieson, 1989: 14). On the surface Finch’s transition from boy to woman to man does represent the potential for gender identities to be unstable and to change over time. It represents the possibility that one can be happy as a woman at a certain point in one’s life and then go on to be happy as a man. Yet what I have tried to show here is that the way Finch’s transitions are represented imply that instability and changeability of gender identity is a pathological, regretful, sorry state.

According to the host of the Australian Story program, for example, Finch’s transition from boy to woman is a “tragic mistake.” Helen, according to Finch, was merely a subconscious expression of his inability to relate to his violent father. By the conclusion of the Australian Story program the host states:

“Alan is about to undergo partial reconstruction surgery. He hopes to form a long-term relationship in the future.” Finch’s transition from woman back to man is the “happy ending” to the “tragic” tale. Finch has surpassed the difficulties he has faced, represented by the symbolic unity of his male body with his newfound identity as a man and the potential “long-term relationship.”

Plummer (1995: 31) claims that: “those stories that [are] most readily said and heard [are] those that facilitate standard gender divisions and the paramountcy of heterosexual relations”. Thus perhaps what Alan Finch’s story highlights is the limitations upon all subjects in terms of how we describe and make sense of our gender identities. Rather than simply highlighting the ethical issues surrounding surgical sex reassignment, the case also highlights the type of narratives available to subjects in order to describe either comfort or discomfort with their gender identity. Is there room for someone to move between gender identities more than once in their lifetime without having to denounce their former identity: as Helen Finch did about Alan and as Alan Finch now does about Helen? Indeed, what stories of gender transition are repressed by the “paramountcy of heterosexual relations”?


Notes

1. The full transcript of this particular Australian Story episode is available at: www.abc.net.au/austory/content/2003/s937472.htm

2. The Australian Story website states that it encourages a: “personal approach to story-telling.” This formula has apparently proved especially popular amongst audiences (see www.abc.net.au/austory).

3. There have already been a number of stories of reversed MTF transitions in the mainstream media in the United States. For example Mackenzie (1994) references a Joan Rivers program aired in the US in 1990 entitled “The Man Who Became a Woman and Changed Back.”

4. The concept of a “heterosexual matrix” is also drawn from Butler’s (1990: 16-17) work.

5. This moment in the narrative, where Finch says to himself ‘You stupid boy’ is his epiphany, another characteristic of the personal experience story here there is a: “crucial turning point marked by a radical consciousness raising” (Plummer, 1995: 50).

6. The ambiguity of identity is highlighted by postmodernist and poststructuralist theory. In a seeming challenge to the journey to the true self, Foucault (1982: 216) claims: “Maybe the target nowadays is not to discover what we are, but to refuse what we are.” With a similar sentiment Butler stated in an interview with More (1999: 286): “I think it might be a certain kind of death to have achieved identity.”

7. Thanks to Giulia Garofalo for pointing out the potential influence of homophobia/transphobia here.

8. The lack of qualified practitioners was highlighted in my own personal communications with physicians who are involved in the treatment of people with sex reassignment in Melbourne.


References

Aveison, Bunty. 1989. “Goodbye Alan, Hello Helen… and Happiness.” Woman’s Day, December 19, p12-13.

Butler, Judith. 1990. Gender Trouble. New York: Routledge.

Fleming, Deborah. 2003. "Boy Interrupted." In Australian Story. Brisbane: ABC Television, September 2.

Foucault, Michel. 1982. “The Subject and Power.” In Michel Foucault: Beyond
Structuralism and Hermenuetics
, edited by Hubert Dreyfus and Paul Rabinow. Chicago University Press: Chicago.

Guy. 2003. “Mr” [Online Posting October 3rd 2003]. Melbourne Independent Media Centre. Available from www.melbourne.indymedia.org/news/2003/11/58139_comment.php [Cited January 27 2005].

Hall, Stuart. 1997. Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices. London: Sage Publications.

Hammond, Graeme. 2004. "Suffering for the Sake of Identity." Sunday Herald Sun, March 28, 86-87.

Hogan, Christine. 2003. Man Who Became Woman Wants to Be a Man Again [Online]. The Age. Available from www.theage.com.au/articles/2003/08/30/1062194758846.html. [Cited September 4 2003].

Leung, Chee Chee. 2004. Gender Change Man 'Told Too Late' [Online]. The Age.
Available from www.theage.com/articles/2004/10/26/1098667763861.html. [Cited November 16 2004].

Mackenzie, Gordene Olga. 1994. Transgender Nation. Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green State University Popular Press.

More, Kate. 1999. “Never Mind the Bullocks: Judith Butler on Transsexuality.” In Reclaiming Genders: Transsexual Grammars at the Fin de Siecle, edited by Kate More and Stephen Whittle. Cassell: London.

Papadakis, Mary. 2003. "Second Thoughts after Sex Change." Herald Sun, 31 August.

Plummer, Ken. 1995. Telling Sexual Stories: Power, Change and Social Worlds. London: Routledge.

Rose, Michelle. 2003. Sex-Change Man to Sue [Online]. Herald Sun. Available from www.heraldsun.news.com.au/common/story_page/0,5478,7968028%255E2862,00.html. [Cited December 2 2003]

Skallagrigg. 2003. Monash Gender Dysphoria Clinic Under Pressure [Online]. Melbourne Independent Media Centre. Available from www.melbourne.indymedia.org/news/2003/11/58139.php [Cited January 27 2005].

Turner, Stephanie S. 1999. "Intersex Identities: Locating New Intersections of Sex and Gender." Gender and Society 13, no. 4: 457-79.

Wetherell, Margaret, Stephanie Taylor, and Simeon J Yates, 2001. ‘Introduction’ in Margaret Wetherell, Stephanie Taylor and Simeon J Yates. Discourse Theory and Practice: A Reader. London: Sage Publications.


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