The Fifth International Congress on Sex and Gender and the Gay Games in Australia

Originally appeared in Transgender Tapestry #104, Winter 2004.

Text by Katharine Coleman, photographs by Mariette Pathy Allen.
Last September, Mariette accepted an invitation to speak at the Fifth International Congress on Sex and Gender at the University of Western Australia in Perth, Oct. 24-27. We also attended the Gay Games in Sydney and journeyed to Melbourne. The latter was the subject of an article in Tapestry #103; we saved the Congress and Games for this issue.

The Fifth International Congress
on Sex and Gender
Perth is a city of about a million people, set on the Indian Ocean in the far west of Australia, about five hours by air from Sydney. Perth has a reputation as a redneck town, but to us it looked much like downtown San Diego: new, clean and stylish. It has a beautiful location and a balmy climate. If you want to see what Perth was like seventy years ago and what the surrounding countryside still looks like, then go see the film ?Rabbit Proof Fence,? which is showing at art cinemas around the U.S.
The Congress was held at the University of Western Australia and produced by the International Foundation for Androgy-nous Studies. IFAS is co-directed by Felicity Haynes of the University and Tarquam McKenna of Edith Cowan University. Margaret Dylan Jones, IFAS?s treasurer, also played a role in running the Congress. By my estimate the attendance was about one hundred people, with about one-third expressing some kind of transgender or intersex status. The academic community had a notable presence, with most presentations having a strong sociological orientation.

The keynote speeches were excellent. Stephen Whittle of the University of Manchester is exceptional for his work
in England regarding the treatment of transsexuals in the legal system. We were also favored by Milton Diamond of the University of Hawaii, who described his work, which was instrumental in discrediting John Money?s theory that gender is determined by nurture rather than nature. And Tony Briffa, an intersex activist and one-time candidate for the Australian House of Representatives, had much to tell us about hir efforts for the Australian Law Reform Commission and support of people suffering from Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome.

The academic focus of the Congress resulted in a number of sessions in which graduate students read their papers or Ph.D. theses. I?d be in favor of having this practice banned by the United Nations.
It taxes the mental stamina of attendees who are suffering from jet lag. It?s difficult to stay awake while someone stares down and reads in a monotone voice. Worse, academic papers are typically ponderous and overloaded with a
vocabulary that rivals the best legalese American lawyers can produce. That
said, I?m sure there were other exceptions, but I?d like to take this opportunity to profusely thank Tracy Stedman for the engaging presentation of her Ph.D. proposal on the incarceration of transgendered people in Australia.

The full title of the Congress was ?Intersexions, The Fifth International Congress on Sex and Gender.? I gather this was an attempt to add a special theme. About ten participants identified as intersexed, some of whom went out of their way to declare their genetic code. A few took exception to being labeled transsexuals and were unwelcoming to those who said they felt mentally intersexed but admitted to not having genetic credentials.

I can understand the importance of being biologically intersexed, as it gives a certain validation in the cultures of both Australia and the United States, where psychological experiences aren?t given much value. That this had to spill over into the Congress is a shame. While I don?t mean to denigrate any of the
presentations on intersexed people or
the good intentions of the sponsors, considering what I saw and heard, ?Intersexions? provided nothing so special to the Congress that it deserved a headline.

One theme heard throughout the Congress was the difficulty of obtaining government or university research funds for the study of transgendered people. This accounts for the paucity of rigorous academic research, thereby leaving the stage open for half-baked theories based on personal and anecdotal experiences that defy validation. Fortunately, Dr. Whittle has had some success in the U.K. in obtaining research funds by including transgender issues in grant proposals for more mainstream subjects. I thought that brilliant. If more health care researchers include transgender issues in the scope of their usual research, we?ll finally have the beginnings of a body of scientific information regarding the transgendered. But how does one get these mainstream researchers to include such issues in their proposals?

If I had to describe the content of the Congress it would be eclectic academic, enhanced by the university setting. Examples of this diversity were the presentation by Kenneth Dollarhide?s ?The Concept of Gender Among Selected Native American Traditions?; Stephen Whittle?s work with the transgendered in the U.K.?s criminal justice system; Mariette Pathy Allen?s slide show on the transgender community, 1978-2003; Felicity Haynes? talk, ?Is Gender in the Brain??; Hadass Shlagman?s artwork on the GLBT community; and Milton Diamond?s work showing that gender has more to do with nature than nurture.

At the plenary session, it was decided to hold the 2004 Congress at another academic venue. Dr. Whittle?s offer to coordinate it at the University of Manchester in England was accepted. It should be interesting to see Europe?s view of the transgender community. Personally, I?m hoping Mariette can line up speaking engagements in Paris, Rome, Berlin, and Stockholm, so we have an excuse to discover their communities?assuming, of course, that she invites me along again.

At the end of the Congress we had a chance to participate in the annual Gay Rights parade. Given Perth?s provincial reputation, we didn?t expect to see much of a turnout. We were very, very wrong. It looked to us as if a quarter of the population came out to watch what was one of the most spectacular parades I?ve seen. There were many families enjoying the spectacle (and on occasion even toasting the participants) as they dined at the caf?s lining the parade route.

Before the parade began, Mariette disappeared into the gathering participants to take photos. Left to our own devices, Ken Dollarhide, Jamison Green, Tracy Stedman, and I found ourselves invited to join IFAS?s contingent of intersexed people. We were handed IFAS signs to wave at the cheering throngs of spectators lining the mile-long parade route. It was great fun, and substantiated what we?d heard about Western Australia?that it?s becoming more progressive.

Aside from the parade?s intersex contingent, there was a band of Chameleons, the group described by some in Melbourne as more into show than gender issues. Sometimes show is a good thing, and that evening the Chameleon women shone. Their float featured three camels, each with a gorgeous girl on top. Behind each camel there was an equally thin and pretty young thing wearing a short skirt and daring top, balanced on CFM pumps (if you don?t know this acronym, send e-mail to attesting that you?re over 18, and we?ll tell you. ?Ed.) and carrying a dustpan and broom in case a camel left a reminder of itself. It was hilarious.

Sydney and the Gay Games
Sydney, the capitol of New South Wales and home to more than seven million people, is on the opposite coast from Perth, five hours away by plane. Sydney appears to be a tolerant and cosmopolitan city. We got a flavor of this when we
read a front-page article in the Sydney Morning Herald. There was a photo of a grumpy male gorilla named Kibabu. It seems Kibabu had been unable to get any of his harem pregnant. Zoo management decided an artificial insemination program was necessary, but first they needed a donation from Kibabu. They proposed sedating him while one of the zookeepers manually generated Kibabu?s contribution. The zookeeper?s reaction was an emphatic, ?It was too bloody dangerous. What if he woke up??

In their defense, zoo officials countered that they?d heard that manual masturbation was practiced in Europe. I?m not sure what point they were trying to make, but I?d be curious to know if European gorillas are a generally happier lot.

The reporter completely missed the zookeeper?s homophobia. Apparently it never occurred to him that if the gorilla awoke in the middle of his ?donation? that the zookeeper would have simply become Kibabu?s new best friend.

In the end, zoo officials decided to use an electrical device in a process called ?electro-ejaculation.? No mention was made as to how the zookeeper was going to teach Kibabu to use the device.
Our primary purpose for visiting Sydney was for Mariette to deliver a
guest lecture at the Australian Center for Photography. Before her lecture began, I had the good fortune to tour the school?s gallery and see many of the award-
winning photographs of its gifted graduates. I could see why the Center is Australia?s most prestigious school for
the photographic arts.

Mariette?s lecture was well-attended, and the students were a serious but lively group. Afterwards, it was fascinating to watch them gather around to ask questions on her techniques and art.
That evening the Center?s director, Alasdair Foster, and his wife held a dinner for Mariette, to which I was fortunate to be invited. Alasdair and his family had moved to Sydney from the United Kingdom so he could take charge of the Center, a challenge he found pioneering and exciting. His success was evident. Their home was as colorful and eclectic as you can image an artist?s home would be. Dinner was a delicious selection of Australian fare, and it gave us a chance to ask questions about Australian life and society in general.

Alasdair had asked Mariette to bring along the mock-up of her latest book, The Gender Frontier. It was fascinating to watch two professionals exchange ideas from their unique artistic perspective. (Readers will be pleased to know that Mariette?s book was published this fall, in both English and German, by Heidelberg?s Kehrer Verlag. ?Ed.)

The next day, we began our tour of Sydney. There were banners all over town welcoming the Gay Games. We heard there were over 50,000 attendees; certainly, the city was alive with happy revelers. Many events sold out before the opening ceremonies, including the wrestling matches, which Mariette and I thought would be the most fun to attend.

The Games had a gender policy. The Official Guide to the Games stated that events were to be harassment-free in a number of ways, including sex and gender identity. Furthermore, unlike the prior Games in Amsterdam?which required documentation of a complete gender transition?the Sydney Policy stated that officials were to use a person?s gender identity, even if it conflicted with their passport or birth documents. A photo of a transperson was featured in the Guide.

Frustrated by our inability to see wrestling, but inspired by the Games? gender policy, Mariette and I decided to go looking for events where we might find transgendered participants. We heard the Tongan netball team had some transgendered players and found seating at a match where the team was playing. Tongans appeared to be androgynous in general; in a number of cases we couldn?t tell what a player?s gender identity was. The next morning?s edition of the Sydney Morning Herald carried a story about the transgendered netball players from Tonga, Samoa, and Papua, New Guinea. By the way, the Tongan team was really good. We watched them trounce the Australian Indigenous team.
Prostitution is legal in New South Wales. One evening Mariette decided she wanted to photograph the transsexual prostitutes who worked in a certain part of town. We asked the hotel concierge where we could find these women. He gave us directions, but suggested we
didn?t want to go there. Mariette persisted in spite of my warning that if some working girl took offense and attacked her with six-inch heels, I wasn?t going to stay around to help.

As we left the lobby of our hotel, we saw what appeared to be a prostitute sitting on a low wall just outside the door. Curious, we walked up to chat, and as we did, we realized she was trans. She was in fact waiting for a ride to an event, as she was on a cheerleading team?and she turned out to be the woman who was
following the camels in Perth?s Gay
Rights parade! She was a doll.

We finally made it to the transgender red-light district. For a while, we strolled the dark street looking for photo opportunities. Mariette said she saw a few transgendered prostitutes, but I couldn?t tell for sure. My concerns for our safety faded when the streets started to fill up with cars and we realized this working-girl part of town was also a tourist attraction. Sydney is a fun place.
With this, our journey through Australia ended. The next day, Mariette headed up over the North Pole for New York, and I flew straight to Los Angeles. Crossing the International Date Line,
we lost a full day. So in a way, she and
I had been living in the future while in Australia. It was only 24 hours, but
given its progressive attitudes on legal protection of transgendered people, Australia seemed years ahead of the United States.