Pink News ran this article on Richard O’Brien back in March, but I have seen it being trotted out quite a bit on Twitter lately, presumably due to the Rocky Horror remake that aired on Thursday. The piece is based on comments that O’Brien made to Metro; I assume that the interview ran in the paper’s print edition, as I can find no trace of it online. O’Brien’s statements have led to him being labelled a transphobe, so I thought I would take a closer look at exactly what he is saying.
Here are O’Brien’s comments, as quoted by Pink News:
Speaking to the Metro, O’Brien weighed in on “feminists [who] say that because someone has surgery that doesn’t make them a woman”
He added: “I think I agree with that. I agree with Germaine Greer and Barry Humphries. You can’t be a woman. You can be an idea of a woman.
“You’re in the middle and there’s nothing wrong with that. I certainly wouldn’t have the wedding tackle taken off.
“That is a huge jump and I have all the sympathy in the world for anyone who does it but you aren’t a woman.”
He adds: “I think of myself as Richard. I think of myself as a third sex and it makes things easier. I’m somewhere in the middle. My wife and children love me and celebrate me for who I am.
“I wish we would see ourselves as members of a sentient race of beings and be nice to each other as human beings as opposed to male or female.”
For context, I’d also like to quote another interview with O’Brien which, likewise, appears not to be available online outside of an excerpt on Pink News:
He said: “All my life, I’ve been fighting never belonging, never being male or female, and it got to the stage where I couldn’t deal with it any longer. To feel you don’t belong . . . to feel insane . . . to feel perverted and disgusting . . . you go f***ing nuts.
“If society allowed you to grow up feeling it was normal to be what you are, there wouldn’t be a problem. I don’t think the term ‘transvestite’ or ‘transsexual’ would exist: you’d just be another human being.”
“I’d been fighting, going to therapy, treating what I was as though it were some kind of illness to be cured. But actually, no, I was basically transgender, and just unhappy.”
O’Brien, who uses transgender to describe feeling “in between” being a man or a woman, added: “There is a continuum between male and female. Some are hard-wired one way or another, I’m in between. Or a third sex, I could see myself as quite easily.”
So, in O’Brien’s framework, it is impossible for a man to become a woman or a woman to become a man — but it is possible to belong to a third sex. O’Brien uses the term “transgender” to describe this third category, in which he places himself. This puts him at odds with the wider trans community, who would generally argue that (say) Laverne Cox is a woman, not a member of a third sex.
This, to me, looks like an inter-generational conflict rather than a case of trans people versus a transphobe.
O’Brien was born in 1942, and his comments recall an earlier era of queer thought. His usage of the phrase “third sex” is the most striking example of this: in the nineteenth century, Karl Heinrich Ulrichs argued that homosexuals constituted a third sex. He identified them as men with the souls of women, or vice versa — a turn of phrase which, to modern ears, would seem to conflate gay people with transgender people. Ulrichs’ theory of a third sex was carried into the twentieth century by Magnus Hirschfeld, whose book Berlins drittes Geschlecht (Berlin’s Third Sex) was published in 1904. This volume covered not only homosexuals but also cross-dressers and people who would now be termed transgender, all classified under the broad label of the third sex.
“Third sex”, as a term for homosexuals, remained current as late as the 1960s, but the terminology used by Ulrichs and Hirschfield is wildly different from that used by the LGBT community today. This should not be surprising: the concept of queer (in terms of either sexuality or gender) describes something that, by definition, exists out of hard classification, and no attempt to classify it will be entirely satisfactory across the queer community. Times change and labels change, leading to tension between old and new generations of queers — the controversy around the alleged transphobia of this self-identified transgender person being a perfect example.