Ultra [Latin Beyond}. Sex [from Latin seco to divide].
Norrie mAy Welby
(Introduction by Benoît Loiseau)
“The biggest change is the weather. And one of my cats died a couple of months ago. Is that what you’re asking?” responds Norrie with wit, when I ask what has changed since winning hir long-running battle with the Australian High Court, started in 2010. Sydney-based sex and gender diverse activist Norrie mAy Welby was born male, and went through gender reassignment surgery in 1989. In the year following the operation, zie stopped taking hormones and started rejecting the idea of identifying solely as a man or a woman. In April 2014, Norrie was granted the right to be recognised as sex non-specific in a landmark High Court decision. “An activist group suggested I was a candidate for getting legal X status, so I applied for it” explains Norrie. “I just launched into it, and one thing led to another”. The possibility in Australia to mark X for “indeterminate” in the gender category of a legal document followed similar decisions made in New Zealand as well as in Nepal, where it is recognised a “third gender” category; and Germany, where the X category was introduced for intersex individuals. As laws and policies are being reshaped internationally, so is our understanding of sex and gender. “There is no third gender. There is a third answer to ‘what sex are you?’" tells me Norrie tells me. So why have we been so obsessed with reading the world through such a strict male vs female binary? In 2011, Norrie published UltraSex, an autobiographical book featuring a series of personal recounts and essays published online, dedicated to “the understanding and acceptance of the human condition, in particular to spanning the divisions and chasms between the sexes, between our ideas of ourselves and our real selves”. In the book’s introduction, reproduced below, zie tells hir journey into changing sex, and more importantly, changing hir beliefs about sex.
Norrie mAy Welby © Jason Marshall
I have been avoiding this book fairly successfully for over seven years. I prepared the first draft of what I then felt was a fairly eventful life-story while waiting for that ultimate goal of classical transsexuals, the bold letters and capitals please OPERATION.
Thank the Goddess that Providence saw fit (to fix amour I met) to keep me away from the dangers of possessing a word processor till I had bent my mind well beyond transsexual. I had recently fled from Perth, a story I shall no doubt get into in a more orderly fashion after this sketchy introduction, and was staying at a refuge for transsexuals in Sydney, with little aim in life outside of waiting for my scheduled OPERATION. To fill in the time, and to reinforce the feeling of rightness about the BIG CHANGE, I drafted, as above-noted, the story so-far, expecting the SEX CHANGE to be, as I’d noticed in the success stories trumpeted in Women’s Weekly and the like, the pinnacle of my career.
While the classic transsexual story was still in handwritten form, I volunteered to be the Assistant Secretary of the Australian Transsexual Association, which then managed the refuge. Thus I maintained, post-operatively, a sense of identification as a transsexual.
On Monday the 3rd of April 1989, somewhere between two and four o’clock in the afternoon, I ceased to have a penis and now had a vagina (People still say, “But didn’t it hurt?” I was unconcious. I was on powerful painkillers. Sure, there was some post-operative discomfort, but for the actual event I was “feeling no pain”. Look, I’ll get into the medical trivia later, okay? I’m more interested in the consequences of the event at this stage. I’m trying to sketch out an overview to bring you up to where I am now, where the book is being written from).
After the op, I tried to live my life as a real woman.
Now that I had changed sex, I, as a woman sexually attracted to men, felt it would be appropriate to socialise in heterosexual circles, and so I went in search of the straight equivalent of the gay scene, the bars and nightclubs, I had so long lived in.
In the “straight world”, I was treated as a liar if I did not reveal my transsexuality, and a pariah if I did. I was abused by men, sometimes for being a transsexual, often for just being female. I was taken from a nightclub by five guys who, unaware of my transsexual status, raped me.
All this happened within the first year of changing sex. I stopped going to straight nightclubs. I no longer wanted to live as a normal heterosexual woman. I spent the next year in destructive relationships with a group of youths who alternatively hung around the shopping malls in Bankstown and the streets of the inner city. I slowly started frequenting gay nightclubs and bars again, unsure of my place there, unsure if I’d be welcome if people realised I wasn’t a lesbian (as was commonly assumed), worried how the gay boys would react if they knew I had the vagina some (how many?) of them were so repulsed by.
Seeking acceptance from a group of young heterosexual adults who hung around on the gay scene, I took an acid trip with them at their “Orphan’s Christmas Party” on Christmas Day, 1990. In the process of that first acid trip, I realised that who I am, when I stopped worrying about whether I was male or female, or at least allowed myself to find out who I am without trying to be male or female, is the same as everyone else.
I am a human being.
Later, I consciously noted the difference between doing and being. Later, I realised that woman and man are roles we play, things that we do, and that who we are is not something that should be defined by what we do. Later, I agreed with the idea that gender is performance. For the time being, I simply resolved to accept life not as a woman (not man) or as a man (not woman), but as a human being. I could not honestly be sure of defining myself otherwise.
In my role with the refuge, I became acutely aware that the major problems facing transsexuals (or transgendered persons, as we later came to more inclusively term ourselves), were those arising from our stigmatisation from society for breaching the commonly expected gender roles. Our most common problems were associated with drug (and alcohol) dependence, abusive adult relationships, and being survivors of adult and (more often than not) child sexual abuse.
One survey at the time indicated that, contrary to what the general public (including transsexuals) were told about transsexuals, only ten per cent of those diagnosed by the medical profession as transsexual (which defined us as those seeking the “sex-change” surgery) actually underwent genital realignment surgery.
As President of the Australian Transsexual Association (ATA), I was invited along to a meeting to form the Transgender Liberation Coalition. TLC was more politically oriented than the welfare dollar dependent ATA, and attracted people living beyond the medically defined model of transsexuals seeking surgery. We adopted the word “transgender”, including everyone who lived in a role alternative to the sex originally assigned, whether they had sought or were seeking medical approval or surgical reassignment or hormonal treatment for this or not.
Following an incident where I was chastised for dancing topless in a place where men were allowed to dance topless, I went off hormones. I reasoned that I could not be discriminated against for having female breasts unless I (as someone presumably genetically male) was taking female hormones, so I immediately stopped taking the pills. Unfortunately, I was so physically dependent on the drug that the pain of total withdrawal was almost suicidal.
On the advice of a doctor sympathetic to the idea of self determination (a rare breed in the care-taking professions), I weaned myself off medically prescribed hormones over the period of six months. Slowly, inexorably, my brain returned to normal functioning. The human organism is a wondrous thing. The moment one ceases to inflict mind-boggling damage on it, it regenerates and restores itself.
Within a period of a few months, I was producing written work of a professional standard, and my first piece, on the definition of “woman” as applied to transsexuals, was published first in Naughty Sydney (a sex industry users magazine, a fact of which I am perversely proud), and then in Campaign, a national gay magazine.
Inspired by this success, I talked to a more academically inclined transgendered person (as the appropriate language now termed it), Aidy Griffin, and applied to the Sydney Star Observer to write a column with Aidy about transgender issues. I titled this “Gender Agenda”. During the course of writing Gender Agenda, I realised that I didn’t want to be exclusively male or female, but male and female. I realised that “society’s oppression” of me (and those like me) was based on making everyone conform to fit the mutually exclusive roles of “real man” or “real woman”. I hadn’t realised the option of being “hermaphrodite” (male and female) was available until Aidy gave me a copy from an academic journal of an essay about “intersexed infants”. This essay talked about how human children born hermaphrodite are routinely dissected and altered by doctors to conform to the doctor’s pre-conceptions (and surgical pre-dispositions) that humans must be unambiguously “male” or “female.”
I cried in public on the train as I read how the doctors remove healthy testicles from and amputate clitoro-penises off of infants they decree to be “really” female, and remove healthy ovaries from and stitch up vaginas of infants they decree to be “really” male.
“What do you want to be?” I asked myself as I pondered these questions on the train.
“A male,” I answered, thinking about the “gay” guys I was most attracted to.
“When I was male, you wanted me to be female,” I pointed out, using the second person pronoun for the purpose of discussion. “Now that I’m female, you want me to be male. Do you just want to be whatever you’re not?”
“No,” I replied from the heart, "I want to be male and female”
And it’s true.
As I discovered shortly thereafter, confronted with the eminently fuckable buttocks of a lover.
Why then, did I have my dick cut off?
Well, I prefer to think of it as being simply re-arranged, but that doesn’t answer the question.
I started out on the transsexual route because I had a fundamental need to express my self in ways that contemporary Western society described as “feminine”, and faced unbearable censure for doing this as a male. The way I walked, moved, talked, the style of clothes I was comfortable in, the expression of my sexuality, the way my mind worked, were all, if these things ever have a gender at all, female. The obvious solution to the traumas I faced from my gender being different to my sex was to change my sex.
At the time, I didn’t think of being hermaphroditic, to coin a word, and in all honesty, that option is not something the doctors would’ve been too keen on. On the contrary, they were pleased that my gender appeared to be so uniformly female, for this meant that it was only a matter of prescribing hormones and surgery to normalise me.
The error, I think, is the assumption that “normal” equals “happy” or “healthy”.
As I have outlined, being a normal heterosexual female wore off for me. Besides, as strong as those aspects that were labelled female are for me, there are also “male” aspects to my being. I am, in spite of the efforts of the medical profession, hermaphroditic. I may well be physically female from the neck down, but as I have noted in an earlier footnoteelsewhere: “have fingers/tongue/dildo, will travel”.
As transsexuals are defined as wanting to be of one sex, male or female, I am – since I want to be (and in my own special way, am) male and female – post-transsexual.
Since changing gender, I have enjoyed sex with women much more than I enjoyed it as a male acting heterosexually. I’ve always liked girls as people, and living on the gay scene and surrounded by lesbians, I became increasingly curious about how it would be to have sex with girls now that I had the same shape of genitals and skin texture.
I had avoided sex with girls as a boy because I was uncomfortable with the gender expectations, the idea that each partner in heterosexual sex has a clearly- set role: the boy is active and insertive and does all the initiating, the girl is passive and receptive and makes him do all the initiating, and so on. Perhaps because it is less obviously decided who will fuck who in a homosexual sex scene, roles are much more flexible. Perhaps because penis-vaginal intercourse is not possible with gay and lesbian sex, oral sex is much more expected and performed, and much more imaginative sexual activity happens than simply intercourse. Perhaps because the partners are more liable to regard each other, being the same sex, as equals, there is more give and take and respect.
The sex of my partners is not as relevant as their willingness to be free with roles and to be more imaginative than being limited to penis-vagina intercourse. As bisexuals are, by definition, attracted to people who are either male or female, and I am attracted to males and females and people like myself who transcend gender, I am also post-bisexual.
I may well be anything.
I may well be you.
I can see elements of my self in any honest autobiography I have read. I have immense difficulty in seeing any resonance to my life experience in the autobiographies of transsexuals who talk only about finding their “true female identity” and the bliss of celibacy or monogamous heterosexual love.
Frankly, I am dubious about the claims of transsexuals who claim to be “different” from the rest of the human race, “trapped in the wrong body”. To quote Steve Gerber:
“Trapped in a world he never made”.
It’s a cop out.
It’s a no-win victim’s outlook.
There is a better, more honest way.
I made this. I made this life. I chose to be born in a world that tried to tell me I was of a gender role I couldn’t perform. I chose to change the shape of my body, and experience wholly the oppression that women and men experience from sexism. I don’t claim to know what I was doing, and I don’t claim to know what I am now doing, but I believe that we, you the reader and I the writer, will learn more about ourselves as I tell you my story, honestly.