Universities can be a haven from ignorance and prejudice for transsexuals. But the academic debate about whether it is possible to change sex rages on. Phil Baty reports
When Susan Marshall started her career as a bursar at Exeter College, Oxford, in 1988, she was a man. Simon Stone became Susan in 1993, and barely an eyebrow was raised. "I've had nothing but support ever since," she says. "In the academic establishment, people are judged by their brains. All academe asks for is a good brain. People accept you for what you think, not what you look like."
As the American economist Deirdre, formerly Donald, McCloskey says: "If you wish to change your gender get out of the Navy, and get a professorship at the local university. Or move to Holland."
In Britain the legal position for transsexuals is oppressive. People cannot legally register a change of gender, transsexual marriage is out, and the fight for parental rights is fraught with difficulties. But universities, it would seem, are the place to escape this official prejudice.
Stephen Whittle, born a woman but living as a man for the past 20 years, says his law lectureship at Manchester Metropolitan University is the best job he has ever had. "I've worked in a variety of professions before and they were all horrendous. I was a finance manager, and, originally, an engineering technician. In one job, I uncovered a fraud scam, but was blackmailed about my past, so I just walked away. I lost a lot of jobs. You are always hounded out."
But in universities, Dr Whittle found a "safe haven". "In academe no one gives a damn as long as I do my job properly," he says. "I'm increasingly impressed by a real laissez-faire attitude. I'm allowed to do my job with no interest in my private life beyond simple friendship. I've found no institutional prejudice and when individuals want to take you on you can just turn round and say 'bog off'. There is nothing anyone can do."
Even Rachel Padman, the 43-year-old fellow of the all-female college Newnham, Cambridge, who was dramatically "outed" as a former man across half the front page of The Times last month, says that her personal history has almost never been an issue in her career. In 1977 Padman arrived from Australia, aged 23, to the then all-male college, St John's, Cambridge, on a Commonwealth Scholarship. She presented herself, she is embarrassed to admit now, "as a pretty butch Aussie male". But away from her home and family, she began "sorting herself out", had private surgery in 1982, and left St John's as its first female graduate. Her PhD research supervisor, Richard Hills, now head of her radioast- ronomy group at Cambridge, is "a wonderful man" she says. "We have had our conflicts, as one does, but the question of my personal history has never been an issue. He has provided great personal support at critical moments."
When her transsexuality first emerged, her tutors at St John's "were at least not visibly shocked" and she had her name changed on the residence list. Professional relationships provided some problems. "I know I rather upset the group secretaries with the revelation, but apart from that it all went almost unremarked," she says. "This is not to say that everyone accepted it - I have always been able to tell who believed in me and who was just being polite. When people slip up and use your original name, or say 'he' or 'his' in conversation with reference to you, then it's pretty clear what they think. It hurts, but all you can do is grin and bear it. Fundamentally however, there has been almost no one that felt so distressed that they couldn't at least respect my decision and treat me as a human being."
Padman was successful in her radioastronomy research, and accepted as a woman, despite her past, by Newnham's principal and her own colleagues. Then the status quo was shattered. Outspoken feminist Germaine Greer, also a Newnham fellow, rekindled the passion-fuelled debate about "essentialist" feminism - almost the last remaining intellectual stumbling block in the movement for transsexual recognition and rights.
Dr Greer, who believes sex-change operations are "mutilations", was apparently denying Padman's status as a woman when she said: "We have to be true to the spirit of the original bequest to the college as a women's college for women." Padman's appointment to Newnham, said Greer, "marred the dignity of the college" and "made monkeys" of Newnham's governing body.
There is a remaining essentialist strand in some theoretical feminism, which argues that women are innately different from men. As well as the obvious biological differences between men and women, essentialists argue, women are born with inherent, recognisably female, characteristics; sympathy, a different moral sense, a willingness to nurture and work cooperatively, for instance. It follows that someone who is born male can never become truly female, or vice versa.
Most feminist theory, however, adheres to the "constructionist" Simone de Beauvoir view that "one is not born a woman, one becomes one" through immersion in and adherence to social expectations. Nevertheless some essentialists still pose a considerable challenge to transsexuals. As female-to-male transsexual, and rights campaigner, Stephen Whittle explains: "The biggest thing working against male-to-female transsexuals, seen in the Newnham debate, is the feminist idea that they invade women's space. It is suggested that Rachel Padman is completely destroying the basic aspect of femaleness - as if male-to-female transsexuals are bringing with them the privileges of patriarchy."
Academic transsexuals have been queuing up to condemn the essentialist view, not least Deirdre McCloskey, from the University of Iowa. "Essentialist feminists may present an academic argument, but it comes out of prejudice," she says. "It is exactly the same intellectual argument that is used against blacks. One could argue that there's an 'essential' black character, one could offer genetic evidence of that and one could propose to exclude blacks from colleges."
McCloskey lived for more than 50 years as Donald, before she started living as a woman in 1995. She has just had the last of eight operations - this time on her larynx - to complete her transition to a woman. As a male-to-female transsexual, she is under direct attack from the likes of Greer, she says. "There is a particularly annoying book by Janice Raymond called the Transsexual Empire, which argues that if you are born as a girl with XX chromosomes, you are raised as a girl and so have a whole history and life as a female, which transsexuals can't have. By Raymond's argument either you are born a woman or you are not a woman - it is all a matter of chromosomes, which is harsh, strange and stupid. People who hold these views are either highly theoretical academics or are utterly ignorant. I know I can't be 100 per cent woman. I haven't got the correct chromosomes or the correct history. On the other hand, gender is just not about 100 per cent. That is the mistake that these people are making."
Padman is not a feminist academic, she is a physicist, and she does not care much for the intellectual debate. "I was not brought up as a girl, and I was not discriminated against as a young woman," she says. "So in that sense I have undergone less 'construction' by society than most women. I have probably had some measure of unfair advantage over most other women in competing in a male-dominated society, and have almost certainly grown into a different person as a result, probably a less feminine person too. On the other hand, I have now had nearly 20 years of socialisation as a female, which has made a real difference, and I changed early enough that I very much doubt my career benefited directly from the 'old boys network'."
Marshall and McCloskey are pleased to report that the essentialists are in the minority. And Padman believes that the arguments are getting blurred anyway, because science is beginning to find evidence of essentialist physical characteristics in transsexuals.
As Whittle explains: "The big debate has been about whether transsexuals actually change sex, or whether they just have their gender confirmed by medical treatment. There is a strong argument that transsexuals are actually just misguided people with a psychological need to reinforce what's simply a delusion with treatment. Science has often said that transsexuals are just mentally ill and it is the role of science and medicine to cure them without pandering to their delusions with surgery, but this is changing."
There is mounting evidence that transsexuality is a medically recognised condition, with a physiological, rather than a mere psychological, origin. Lord Winston, one of the country's leading gynaecologists, as a member of the House of Lords, told The THES he is considering introducing a Private Member's Bill to push for greater legal rights for transsexuals.
"I don't pretend to understand transsexuality, but then I don't understand sexuality either," he says. "There are a number of different aspects of sexuality - genetic, hormonal, psychological, anatomical - and after 30 years work, I'm none the wiser. But it is pejorative and very damaging to suggest that transsexuality is a psychiatric disorder. It is very probable that we will find in due course a physiological cause of transsexuality."
Lord Winston, professor of fertility studies at Hammersmith Hospital, points to research first pioneered by the now retired William Walters, at the Monash University in Australia, which suggested that transsexuality could be established in fetuses in the womb. "Professor Walters had evidence that these male-to-female transsexuals had been subjected to maternal influence in the womb. During their uterine existence as fetuses, something maternal had stimulated their hormonal environment which changed their psychological sexuality after their physical sex had already been established. Very interesting evidence, from respectable sources, is emerging."
As Padman also points out, it has recently been reported that a region of the brain that determines one's psychological gender, the stira terminalis, has been found to be more like a woman's in male-to-female transsexuals. "If this were so," says Padman, "it would be as much an essentialist argument as any based on the genitalia of the newborn baby. I have difficulty perceiving how anyone could come to the belief that they ought to be a different sex if not for some biologically mediated reason. Certainly I get the feeling that most transsexuals would rather there were a biological reason for their situation than that they had just screwed up somewhere."
The "nay-sayers" are losing pegs to "hang their prejudices on", says Padman. "And there has never been anything but respect for me as a person. I guess scientists respect one's science first and foremost. Certainly visual tics seem to have very little place in determining one's scientific credibility or standing."