Anybody with an ounce of compassion would have been doffing caps in recent days to Frank Maloney — as, indeed, absolutely everybody with an ounce of compassion vigorously and noisily was. His announcement that he is undergoing a sex change has been met by plaudits from far and wide, notably from within the muscularly male world of boxing in which he made his name and from where his former client, Lennox Lewis, has led the cheerleading. Quite right, too. Maloney’s appalling, sometimes suicidal misery of half a century is beyond imagination; his eventual admission to his beloved wife was heartbreaking to read and his courage, now, in going public — albeit forced by the threat of media exposure — is admirable.
But… oh yes, there is a but. As news reporters and commentators dutifully swivelled overnight to refer to the retired promoter as ‘she’, Maloney explained that, ‘I wasn’t born into the right body. I have always known I was a woman.’ With every other due respect, Maloney has never been a woman. Nor — surgery, chemicals, counselling and coaching notwithstanding — will he ever be a woman. He might wish it to be so; he might feel it to be so; nevertheless, wishes and feelings do not make it so.
We have developed, by and large, an admirably liberal stance on transsexuals — certainly when compared with our collective take on other poor souls who would prefer their bodies to be other than they are. We give short shrift to sufferers of Body Integrity Identity Disorder (BIID, also known as amputee identity disorder). This is a very real and recognised condition, an extreme body dysmorphia where people are so certain that they should not have been born with, say, two arms or legs that they will go to such lengths as laying an offending limb before an approaching train. Yet when, in the 1990s, a surgeon in Scotland was prepared to give two BIID patients the relief for which they begged, he was firmly stopped in his tracks. For some inexplicable reason, I find I do not lose sleep over this.
I do, however, lose sleep over the equally short shrift afforded to another group of people unhappy with their bodies, which is to say those who would sincerely prefer that those bodies be dead; just think of Tony Nicklinson, who was paralysed from the neck down and campaigned for years to be allowed to die, and we’ll leave it there.
So, in spite of the unpleasant ribaldry that many transsexuals are forced to endure from idiots, by comparison they do not have it that badly. If they have a preference for frocks over trousers, lipsticks over moustaches, rounded bosoms over six packs and the comforting flow of oestrogen rather than beastly testosterone dominating their hormones, then so be it. I am not suggesting it is easy or painless — emotionally or physically — but in the end, and increasingly, they may find the peace they seek by effecting these changes. Amen to that.
It is only the last step on this path that I cannot take with them: when they leap with joy and alacrity to call themselves ‘women’. Our differences thus boil down to as small and as enormous a thing as terminology.
No matter the miraculous advances in medicine and technology, a woman is born, not made. You cannot be a woman unless you were a girl first. You cannot be a woman unless you came into the world as a female, destined to be treated and differentiated as such — both for good and bad — then lived through years of childhood, prepubescence, puberty, sexual development and the consequent effects on brain and heart.
It has been put to me that, for heaven’s sake, this is quibbling: if someone sees themselves as a woman (or, as the jargon has it, ‘identifies’ as a woman) then, really, what skin off my nose to welcome them to the fold and, come to that, to the ladies loo? They have a point — especially about the loo, which bothers me not a jot. Nonetheless, the claim to womanhood by those who were not born to it does essentially demean those who were; the defining of a woman solely by her sexual organs and by what you see when she is or is not dressed is the province of Page Three girls, not of those proud of their sex and proud, sometimes, of surviving the years of trials it may have brought.
This applies, by the way, to both sexes: should a bold, male soldier be felled by an IED in Afghanistan and left without legs or gentlemanly tackle between them, would we then declare that he is no longer a man? Obviously not. It is widely understood that a fellow in such a predicament who cries that he ‘feels’ himself to be no longer ‘a real man’ will be hastily reassured by all who love him and all who treat him that he was made to be a man from the moment he was conceived and he will die as one, too.
By the same token, I can no more shrug off my formative years and experiences than can Frank Maloney, now to be called Kellie. I can no more forget pregnancy and childbirth than, I imagine, he (or she, if I must) can forget the conception and fathering of three children; more than sex, more than body shape, more than clothing — and certainly more than wishes or feelings — it is these things that define us. Irrevocably so.
We do not ever need anyone else to go through the misery Maloney suffered, and I would be the first to advocate more funding to rescue more people from that wretched hinterland. What we do need, however, is another word. I quite like ‘transsexual’, suggesting as it does some crossing of mind and body; someone cleverer than I am could no doubt come up with something better. But as long as the newly created Kellie carries that irksome, dangling little y chromosome, whatever the word is, it is not ‘woman’.