Georgina Somerset is often overlooked as an account of somebody who changed sex from male to female, and she is clear in her writing that she understood herself to be intersex; she lays out the details of her intersex condition quite clearly. Her second book was autobiographical, published under her married name of Georgina Somerset (Somerset, 1992), and included her original 1963 book which dealt with the medical aspects of changing sex. It is the first UK autobiography of someone stating they were intersex and not transsexual. All quotes are from the 1992 book. Somerset maintained her skepticism about the possibility of somebody born one sex changing to another:
It is sad though, that many feel they can only be fully satisfied when they have a ‘change of sex’. Sex cannot be changed. (Somerset, 1992, p15)
Somerset says of transsexuals:
I have met some delightful young women walking around in a man’s body, and I was pleased to help them, but I have to confess that they were a rarity and the vast majority of transsexuals are totally unsuitable for surgery. (Somerset, 1992, p16)
Somerset describes her assignment as male. She felt more like a girl than a boy, wanted to wear girl’s clothes, and developed “neither male nor female secondary sexual characteristics” (Somerset, 1992, p19) as she grew up. In puberty she developed female hair distribution, avoided the aggressiveness of boys, appeared introverted, was sexually immature and asexual. As an adult she found it increasingly hard to cope with life as a man, because of her ‘intersexuality’. She could find no information to help her, and took androgens to try to counteract her ‘sexual disorientation’. When examined she was told:
That I was physically a hermaphrodite, that I had not developed as a male but had dominant female characteristics (Somerset, 1992, p34)
She quotes Cawadias:
He said, sympathetically but meaningfully, “hermaphrodites like you have to be looked upon as cripples in society” (Somerset, 1992, p34)
She had a gonadectomy to remove ovotestes, which revealed a rudimentary uterus and other female-type structures. Then she was prescribed oestrogens and advised to change sex-role.
There followed a time when she oscillated between male and female before her birth certificate was changed to female in 1960; an affidavit was provided by Cawadias and a surgeon of her intersex anatomy.
She rejects that sex is a ‘definite entity’ determined by a nuclear cell test:
The whole make-up of sex is so complex that it can only be correctly assessed when all the factors of anatomical, nuclear, biological, psychological, and even social and environmental sex are taken into consideration. Not always are these conclusively in one direction and […] we are a long way from the absolute truth and certainty [quoting from Family Doctor June 1961] (Somerset, 1992, p66).
Blood tests in 1969 showed that she had an XY/XO mosaic of chromosomes, a form of true hermaphroditism related to Turner’s syndrome. Her views on transsexualism were similar to those subsequently voiced by J. Michael Bailey:
By far the majority of so-called transsexuals to-day (sic) are pseudo-transsexuals, a term generally embracing those whose desire for a ‘change-of-sex’ is sexually motivated (Somerset, 1992, p83)
She argued that commercialism has hijacked genuine ‘transsexuality’, and criticises the assumption of transsexualism within queer, placing it alongside gay, lesbian, bisexual and other sexual identities.
Her autobiography is about a change of sex, but unique in that she sets out clear evidence of her intersex condition and gives details about it; she is clear about that not being the same as transsexualism. Her narrative is also different because unlike other life stories about changing, hers was not a clear-cut change from one sex to another; she hovered, unsure of which direction to go, moving back and forth at what was clearly a huge cost emotionally and psychologically, keen to ensure she did the correct thing. The reason her life story is not often cited, may be because of her intersex history, or because contained within it is one of the earliest critiques of transsexuality from somebody who today would be regarded as falling within the ‘trans community’. This has not prevented later trans academics from assuming her story as a purely transsexual one (alongside others):
There are several early autobiographies of people who we would now view as transsexual where it is clear that doctors cooperated in obtaining amended birth certificates and hence a new legal sex (Allen, 1954; Cowell, 1954; Turtle, 1963). (Whittle and Turner, 2007)
Where others talked about repression of something from a very early age, denial and mistaken assignment, Somerset talked about needing to resolve being trapped in ambiguity. In some ways, despite her later rejection of assimilation into the Queer/LGBT movements, Somerset anticipated views about diversity that have only re-emerged relatively recently; by being ‘out’ as an intersex person, she anticipated the more recent intersex movement in the USA by over 30 years.
Somerset, G. T. (1992) A Girl Called Georgina / Over the Sex Border. The Book Guild: London.
Whittle, S. and Turner, L. (2007) ”’Sex Changes’? Paradigm Shifts in ‘Sex’ and ‘Gender’ Following the Gender Recognition Act?”, Sociological Research Online, 12, (1).
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Fascinating story of one of the people rarely mentioned in intersex and trans history. It appears her book, A Girl Called Georgia is rare.
Correction to a typo my previous comment:
It appears her book, A Girl Called Georgina is rare.
Hi James, I have this book, it is vey interesting. Thanks.
Thanks for this obituary, Mish!
According to the link below, as an adult, Georgina was refused surgery by her first choice of a doctor.
Thanks for that, John.