If you aren't a Rocky Horror Picture Show fan-- and you should be-- you may not immediately recognize Richard O'Brien as the creator of such immortal characters as Dr. Frank N. Furter, whose signature song introduces him as "a sweet transvestite/ From Transexual, Transylvania".
In the course of the movie gender is bent and broken; the IMDB plot synopsis barely does justice to it, but here's a taste of the gender disorientation the film offers:
Frank N. Furter comes into Janet's bedroom, dressed as Brad, and seduces Janet. Then he goes into Brad's room, dressed as Janet and tries to seduce Brad. Brad puts up a little bit of a fight, but is talked into it.
In one glorious homage to horror films, O'Brien challenged the fixity of gender, sexual desire, and identity.
What the film didn't trouble so much was the duality of sex/gender; there may be some cross-dressing, but the masculine/feminine dyad is on display in exaggerated form.
Now, O'Brien has hit a nerve in remarks published on a BBC website that question the gender binary, describing himself as "about 70% male, 30% female":
"It's my belief that we are on a continuum between male and female. There are people who are hardwired male and there are people who are hardwired female, but most of us are on that continuum and I believe myself probably to be about 70% male, 30% female."
O'Brien reports that all his life he has felt a desire to be "more feminine". About ten years ago, he acted on that-- by beginning to take estrogen, described by the BBC as "the female hormone".
Hence his claim that today, he is 30% female: by raising the level of estrogen in his body, he shifted both his physical characteristics (developing small breasts) and his behavior to more closely approximate his own self image:
"It takes the edge off the masculine, testosterone-driven side of me and I like that very much. I think I've become a nicer person in some ways, slightly softer. For the first time in my life, I've started to put on a little bit of weight, which I like."
Actually, the same sex hormones are found in all human bodies, so it would be much better not to describe them as "male" and "female" hormones. But it proved astonishingly difficult to find a website to link to that did not describe testosterone as 'male' and estrogen as 'female'. While the average female body has higher levels of estrogen, and the average male body has higher levels of
testosterone, each hormone plays a role in the human body. Testosterone in the ovaries is known to have a role in women's fertility. Some estrogen products also reportedly play a role in prostate health in men. Sex hormone levels are not static over people's life time, and they also may vary depending on personal habits and characteristics.
Seen from a perspective of hormonal function, sex is something more like the continuum O'Brien cites, a spectrum rather than two boxes. This is a familiar characterization to gender researchers, like Cambridge University Professor of Psychology Melissa Hines, quoted by the BBC as saying there "are not two distinct sexes, male and female':
"I think that the research in this field suggests just the opposite. That there is not a gender binary, that there's a range of gender, and there are many dimensions of gender and an individual person can be in a different position in terms of how masculine or feminine they are on each of these dimensions."
Of course, there is still push-back from other researchers who, while willing to agree that gender is a spectrum, insist that biological sex must really be a duality.
There are two responses to that. One, made by scholars (like me), is that biological sex is always described using language, which comes already imbued with cultural frameworks.
A second is that sex, biological sex, is not inherently dualistic. Chromosomal sex isn't just limited to XX and XY. Describing people with other sex chromosome profiles as 'abnormal' is not scientific; it is ideological. Apparent external genitalia are not always unambiguously assignable to one of two categories-- leading to surgical intervention in recent history designed to "correct' a form of physical sex seen (through cultural lenses) as "abnormal". In some individuals, external genitalia may appear typical of one of two recognized sexes, but internal reproductive organs and/or chromosomes may not correspond.
And all of that is simply biological variability. If we add to that the myriad ways a person and those around him/her can react to bodily form, behavior, sexual activity and choice of sexual partner-- then we realize that sex/gender is indeed more of a continuum than a simple case of two boxes. And a multi-dimensional continuum at that, since different bases to assess 'sex' may suggest different identifications. And all of this can shift over time, or between different settings.
So I circle back to the wonderful concreteness of "70% man". What this plays with is the rigidity of the two sex model, which is flexible enough to allow for people being cross-identified-- but always, with the idea that you should be male-identified or female-identified.
A gender identity clinician cited in the BBC report, James Barrett, admitted what research shows: that there is a spectrum of gender. But he cited the reluctance of gender identity clincians to encourage the development of sexual bodies that are not easily assigned to one of the two cultural categories:
"It may well be that biological findings report that, in fact, everybody's on a spectrum. It's just that the way society works, most people don't think of themselves as on any kind of a spectrum at all."
"People who are seeking drastic surgical or hormonal treatment because they wish to live in a socially ambiguous gender role… are thought about really carefully. The concern is that one doesn't want to do anything that's irreversible and then have them in a position where they're not happy."
Which is where O'Brien comes in. Happy with the outcome of his estrogen regimen, he has no intention to undertake surgery that would alter his body completely. He embraces an identity as a "third sex", apparently unaware of the vast scholarly literature and contemporary activist culture surrounding third sex/third gender positions and identities.
And that is just fine. Because it means O'Brien is telling us, not what he knows, but what he experiences-- he is not a woman in a man's body; he is something else.