a fine fellow

Womanhood did not come naturally to Rachel Padman, it had to be earned
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For a while in the Seventies it was very fashionable not to quite know what sex you were. Or, at least, to appear vague about it. The Kinks sang "Lola", Bowie invented androgyny and put his arms suggestively around his lead guitarist. Even if you weren't that keen on sleeping with boys, women (at least I think they were women) wouldn't look at you unless you expressed - at the very least - sexual ambivalence. It sort of went together with proto-feminism and in 1973 lots of guys found themselves kissing each other at parties, just so that they could get off with girls.

But at the same time as many of us were having lots of jolly fun bending gender, some of our fellow human beings were enduring terrible pain with it. These were the sufferers from what the doctoring classes have come to call "gender dysphoria", or - as the tabloids would have it - people "trapped inside the body" of someone that they did not want to be. Their condition could not be ameliorated by painting a Ziggy stripe on their foreheads or attending Men Against Sexism meetings (essentially a non- musical version of the party kissing process, with less immediate leg- over prospects). As surgery progressed, however, dysphoriacs increasingly made the incredibly brave decision to change sex physically - or at least to manage the nearest possible approximation.

One such courageous person, Russell Padman, became Rachel Padman in 1982, and has lived for 15 years as a woman. She looks like a woman, physically resembles a woman more than a man, and is accepted by most who know her, as a woman. Legally she is not a woman. But then, legally, no one is a lesbian. This didn't stop a lesbian decorator called Dee from completely buggering up the tiling in my kitchen. Eventually the law will catch up with lesbianism. And, I trust, with Dee.

Unfortunately for Rachel Padman (who, as Russell, had attended an all- male Cambridge college), her fellowship at the all-female Newnham College in Cambridge has now become a matter of public controversy and leading articles in the Daily Telegraph.

The latter's hostility was to be expected, since the paper sees society as a fragile entity under constant threat from the forces of anarchy. Let one man become a woman, and they'll all become women, and then where will we be?

Less expected, however, was the reaction of that magnificent journalist and feminist, Germaine Greer, a member of Newnham's governing body. Ms Greer took agin Ms Padman. The college statutes had said "women", Dr Padman was not (in the eyes of the law) a woman, so Dr Padman should not be a college fellow. Legally she was the wrong sex for Newnham, and there must be an emergency meeting of the governing body to discuss it all.

Now, the two words "Newnham" and "sex" in the same sentence can, for me, conjure up a historically induced tumescence within seconds. I still cannot pass the place without feeling the sharpest pangs of ancient love and desire. To enter Newnham was then to enter heaven. And many men felt the same; all those beautiful, bright young women in one place!

So could it be that Ms Greer's unusual pedantry owes something to the feeling that men - given half a chance - will always muscle in on whatever good thing women have going, and attempt to colonise it? That we wish to invade womanhood, taking the perks but avoiding the drawbacks? Perhaps she believes - along with the Telegraph - that if you let one in, then they'll all be cutting off their willies and trying to become fellows.

I cannot help feeling, however, that if anyone can be said to have "deserved" to be a woman, then Rachel Padman is that person. Womanhood did not come naturally for her. It had to be proved (not least to those surgeons judging whether she would qualify for the operation), fought for and earned. For her, gender was a matter of exceptional seriousness, and still is. If only others understood how serious.