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Review of Jason Cromwell, Transmen & FTMs (1999)

Review of Jason Cromwell, Transmen & FTMs (1999)

©1999, 2013 by Dallas Denny

Source: Denny, Dallas. (2001). Review of Jason Cromwell. (2004) Transmen & FTMs: Identities, bodies, genders, and sexuality. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1999). Journal of Sex Education and Therapy, 26(4), 374-375.

Cromwell, J. (1999). Transmen & FTMs: Identities, Bodies, Genders, and Sexualities. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.



Journal of Sex Education and Therapy Pages (PDF)


Review of Transmen & FTMs by Jason Cromwell

By Dallas Denny


When anthropologists turn their attention to contemporary Western culture and, in particular, to subjects studied by Western social scientists, it would behoove social scientists to pay attention. Unfortunately, this doesn’t often happen. Even though anthropologist Anne Bolin’s (1988) study of male-to-female transsexualism focused on the interactions between transsexuals and their caregivers, it has been largely ignored by clinicians. When Bolin’s book was finally reviewed, the reviewer unfortunately concluded that Bolin’s book “may offer greater assistance to the student or avid reader in sociology/anthropology than to the clinician or psychology/psychiatry student” (Denny, 1993; Mate-Kole, 1992). Yet today, more than 10 years after publication, Bolin’s book remains a “must-read” for anyone interested in the clinical treatment of transsexuals and other transgendered people.

Bolin chose to limit her observations to male-to-female transsexuals. A companion volume on the gender variance of those born with female bodies has to date been lacking. Now anthropologist Jason Cromwell gives us Transmen & FTMs: Identities, Bodies, Genders, and Sexualities.

Like Bolin’s In Search of Eve, Cromwell’s book is based on his dissertation and other work he did while in graduate school. Portions and in some cases expansions of his previously published work have found their way into the text. Cromwell skillfully interweaves them, but I found myself wishing he had included them in their original forms and then commented upon them. Those who have not read the originals will not notice which portions are new and which are not, although the update may make the reading seem a bit choppy or redundant in places.

Anthropology texts, I have learned, are rather like nuts: The meat is surrounded by a hard shell. This shell is the inevitable chapters on methodology and terminology, in which the personal and cultural biases of the author and the rationale for the study are laid out. This can be heavy going under the best circumstances. Cromwell’s are especially difficult because he uses the notoriously dense language of postmodernism to discuss “the language of identification.” Cromwell argues that the terms sex, sexuality, gender, and even body are not natural categories but are socially constructed, citing authors many social scientists may find unfamiliar. Nevertheless, considering the dry nature of the approach, I found Cromwell’s chapters on methodology and terminology rather easier to read than most postmodern texts, well worth sticking with. I would suggest his readers take the time to digest them properly.

With the shell out of the way, we come to Cromwell’s major point, and one he keeps returning to time and again (and with good cause): the invisibility of female-bodied transpeople. He laments the dearth of case studies, texts, autobiographies, and research papers on female-bodied transpeople before the mid-1990s; but more than that, he documents a variety of ways by which FTMs and transmen have been historically rendered invisible. I have assembled these into this table:

Some Ways FTMs and Transmen Have Been Rendered Invisible By Those Who Study and/or Treat Them Quotations from Cromwell, 1999 Anthropologists, theorists, researchers, and clinicians have:

1. allowed their own social norms to color their interpretations of the data on female-bodied transpeople (pp. 45-46): … the data are biased in that most are from the period of colonization and are thus written in language that perpetuates colonial images (p. 47);

2. ignored female-bodied transpersons, or mentioning them only in passing: It is common in the literature for an entry to consist of nothing more than a statement that says, in essence, “Oh, by the way, females have been known to do this also” (p. 93);

3. signified female-bodied transpeople “as invisible by virtue of having been born with female bodies and being assigned to the female sex” (p. 11): Until the mid-1970s, as feminist studies have demonstrated, females have been overlooked in most cultural research” (p. 47, citing Lamphere, 1987, pp. 50-51);

4. attributed gender variance in female-bodied persons to motives other than self identification as a man: According to newspaper accounts and the few books that have been published on the subject, female-bodied individuals who assumed men’s ways did so in order to increase their changes of employment and drawing better wages, for adventure, or to travel unfettered as well as “marry” women …. seldom have the individuals been allowed to speak for themselves (p. 83);

5. considered gender variance in female-bodied transpersons to be homosexuality and designating them as lesbians: … even when female-bodied transpeople identified themselves as men, their identifications were discounted or ignored. One researcher, for example, insisted on referring to these individuals as “women,” “she,” “her,” and [using] other female gender markers (p. 46);

6. stigmatized female-bodied transpeople by imbuing them with a label as mentally ill or sexually deviant: Much of the data contains words such as “aberrant,” “pathetic,” or “peculiar,” and occasionally individuals are referred to as “it” (p. 46).

7. attributed female-bodied transpeople with characteristics they do not in fact possess (Chapter 8): Transvestism in women… is so rare it is almost nonexistent (p. 101, quoting Stoller, 1982, p. 99) Female-to-male transsexuals… are a relatively homogeneous group (p. 101, quoting Steiner, 1985, p. 3) [Female-to-male transsexuals are] repelled by the idea of sexual relations with males (p. 110, quoting Stoller, 1973, p. 386). Numbers 1, 5, 6, and 7 can also be applied to MTF transsexuals and transgendered women.

Cromwell gives many examples of ways in which these biases are still rendering female-bodied transpeople invisible. He tells of Lou Sullivan’s difficulty in having his biography of Jack Bee Garland published: “The straight press said it was a gay story. The gay presses said it was a woman’s story. The women’s presses said it was a man’s story” (p. 83, citing a personal communication with Lou Sullivan, 1989; see Sullivan, 1990). Cromwell also recounts having manuscripts returned to him marked, “female-to-male-centric” (p. 94), as if that somehow meant they were unworthy of publication.

Cromwell’s secondary point is that transmen and FTMs do not necessarily agree with views of some clinicians that they have a “gender problem;” they do not consider themselves to have any form of psychopathology, and many resent being given stigmatizing labels. Cromwell describes a number of ways in which the assumptions of caregivers do not match the realities of the lives of female-bodied transpeople. He notes, for instance, the lack of distinction between MTFs and FTMs in the Standards of Care (SOC) of the Harry Benjamin International Gender Dysphoria Association; the Standards have ignored the realities of FTM transsexuals and transmen, considering them simply the “flip side” of male-to-females. This has led to the absurdity, until recently, of female breasts being considered “genitalia,” with letters from therapists being required for construction of a male-appearing chest because they are, for HBIGDA members, “genitals.” Cromwell also points out the bias of the SOC toward genital surgery; they do not speak to transsexual and transgendered FTMs who eschew FTM genital surgery either because it is expensive, painful, ineffective, or simply not desired. Finally, Cromwell condemns the SOC for their use of the language of pathology. FTMs and transmen do not, he asserts throughout the text, have any confusion about who they are. They know exactly who they are. It is society that is uncertain, and most of the problems faced by FTMs and transmen stem from the difficulty society has in dealing with the fact that they know exactly who they are.

Those looking for a history of FTMs and transmen will not find it here; although Cromwell discusses anthropological evidence and historical cases, he does so mainly to make his points. Those looking for theory, treatment protocols, or explanations of the psychology of female-bodied transpeople won’t find them in these pages, either. Nor does Cromwell give prescriptions for making an unfortunate situation better. For those so interested, I would suggest Holly Devor’s excellent 1997 book on FTM transsexuals. What the reader will find in Transmen & FTMs is a powerful critique of the treatment of FTMs and transmen by social scientists in the 19th and 20th centuries. Jason Cromwell is to be commended for giving us this useful book.


Bolin, A. (1988). In search of Eve: Transsexual rites of passage. South Hadley, MA: Bergin & Garvey.

Denny, D. (1993). Letter to the editor: Response to Charles Mate-Kole’s review of In search of Eve: Transsexual rites of passage by Anne Bolin (South Hadley, MA: Bergin & Garvey). Archives of Sexual Behavior, 22(2), 169-170.

Devor, H. (1997). FTM: Female-to-male transsexuals in society. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Lamphere, L. (1987). Feminism and anthropology: The struggle to reshape our thinking about gender. In C. Farnham (Ed.), The impact of feminist research in the academy, (pp. 11-33). Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Mate-Kole, C. (1992). Review of A. Bolin, In search of Eve: Transsexual rites of passageArchives of Sexual Behavior, 21(2), 207-210.

Steiner, B. (1985). Introduction. In B. Steiner (Ed.), Gender dysphoria: Development, research, management. New York: Plenum Press.

Stoller, R. (1973). Splitting: A case of female masculinity. New York: Quadrangle.

Stoller, R. (1982). Transvestism in women. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 11(2), 99-115.

Sullivan, L. (1990). From female to male: The life of Jack Bee Garland. Boston, MA: Alyson.