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Review, Two Transsexual Autobiographies (1993-1994)

Review, Two Transsexual Autobiographies (1993-1994)

©1993, 1994, 2013 by Dallas Denny

Source: Dallas Denny. (1993-1994). Reviews of Katherine Cummings, Katherine’s diary and Christina M. Hollis, Beyond Belief. The Journal of Gender Studies, 15(2)/16(1), 64-66.

Katherine Cummings. (1992). Katherine’s Diary: The Story of a Transsexual. Port Melbourne, Australia: William Heinemann.

Christina M. Hollis. (1993). Beyond Belief: “The Discovery of My Existence”. Galena, IL: Genesis Publications.


Journal of Gender Studies Pages (PDF)


Two Transsexual Autobiographies

By Dallas Denny


For many years, my only contact with other transsexual people was via their autobiographies. The first I found was The Man-Maid Doll by Patricia Morgan. I noticed it on a clearance table in an outlet mall, and managed to lag behind my girlfriend long enough to pay for it and stuff it into a paper bag. Later, I read it with fascination and disgust (fascination with Morgan’s change, and disgust with her lifestyle).

Morgan’s book was less the story of her transsexualism than the story of a long and lucrative career as a prostitute. Her lifestyle was characterized by trouble with the law, abusive relationships with men, and excesses of alcohol and other drugs. Somehow, during all the tumult, she had sex reassignment surgery.

Not that I knew much at the time, but Morgan didn’t fit my private picture of transsexualism. She seemed more like an aggressive gay male who liked the attention paid to her by men because of her breasts and vagina. Still, I figured that if she had had SRS she must be transsexual. And she certainly fit all the stereotypes promulgated by the medical literature. I couldn’t quite myself to throw the book away, but I put it in the bookshelf and forgot about it until it came time to write this essay.

In the years since, I have read many autobiographies by transsexual people: Second Serve by Renée Richards, Conundrum by Jan Morris, Canary by Canary Conn, Emergence by Mario Martino, Mirror Image by Nancy Hunt, My Story by Caroline Cossey, I Was Male by Abby Sinclair, Phoebe by Phoebe Smith, Man into Woman by Dawn Simmons, Christine Jorgensen: A Personal Autobiography, The Roberta Cowell Story, April Ashley’s Odyssey, The Autobiography of Jane Fry, and even the self-published A Finer Specimen of Womanhood: A TS Speaks Out by Sharon Davis. Without exception, these autobiographies were full of pain, rejection, and misery, and full of hope that things will become better now that SRS is past. They were painful reading, as were Katherine’s Diary: The Story of a Transsexual by Katherine Cummings, and Beyond Belief: “The Discovery of My Existence” by Dr. Christina Hollis.

Dr. Hollis’ book consists of journal entries, beginning with the onset of crossdressing late in her life and culminating in the immediate post-operative period. For many of the entries, she annotates the text with notes describing her feelings and the circumstances at the time she wrote.  The entries span several years of rapidly escalating crossdressing and her quest for sex reassignment.

Cummings takes a retrospective look at her life from a (just) post-operative perspective. She describes her career as a librarian and her crossdressing during several decades of travel through Australia and America. She was present at the seminal crossdressing event of the 60s, a weekend attended by and written by such people as Virginia Prince, Dr. Wardell Pomeroy, and Darrell Raynor, the author of A Year Among the Girls. Cummings’ narrative ends with a tone of obvious regret and despair, backwards-looking at a ruined marriage rather than forward-looking to life as a woman.

Let me say now that having endured more than twenty transsexual autobiographies my major problem with them is that they focus on the pain of being transsexual. Being transsexual, I can certainly relate to that pain, but the authors of transsexual autobiographies seem to revel in it. It’s almost as if they wish to justify what they have done to their bodies by explaining how miserable they were before and doing their best to convince the reader how happy they are now. No one, with the possible exception of Holly Woodlawn, who, according to her autobiography A Low Life in High Heels, once answered, when asked if she felt like a woman trapped in a woman’s body, “No, darling, I feel like a man trapped in high heels,” has focused on the joy of being transsexual.

Cummings’ and Hollis’ books do not break from the tradition. They are riddled with angst. But where they differ from earlier autobiographies is that both authors seem at the time of writing to have significant regrets about the effect their transitions have had upon their lives and their relationships with others. While on the one hand they proclaim they are now liberated and happy, it doesn’t take much reading between the lives (I had meant to type reading between the lines here, but perhaps the typo is instructive) to see they rushed into surgery without first resolving the issues of separation from their families. Cummings goes so far as to write that she would gladly go back to living as a man in order to be with her former wife and family—but she isn’t sorry she had surgery, oh, no.

Gender euphoria is a phenomenon in which an individual becomes increasingly infatuated with his or her new presentation and rushes headlong into decisions which will have lifelong consequences. Eventually such persons may find that they have destroyed their lives in pursuit of a hoped-for happiness which never quite materializes. Cummings and Hollis, writing from a perspective only months post-surgery, seem to be awakening to this possibility. For both, the desire for sex reassignment came late in life—Cummings’ gradually, after a long career of crossdressing, and Hollis’ suddenly, with no prior history of crossdressing. Once their decisions were made, they moved swiftly, and surgery were faits accomplis after only a couple of years.

Autobiographies should have some significance, or they are merely an exercise is self-aggrandizement—or, as I have just noted, in the case of transsexual people, as an exercise in self-justification. Both Cummings and Hollis seem to be struggling with their ambivalence and have put it into book form, but one must ask—what is the importance of their books to other people, except to say “I may have screwed up, although I’m not admitting that possibility”? Perhaps that is the true significance of Hollis’ and Cummings’ tales, that they may serve a cautionary purpose, hopefully causing other to stop and think before rushing headlong into futures full of doubt and regret.

Cummings’ book contains some fascinating history, for she was active in the early days of organized crossdressing in the United States, and writes of the same people and gatherings as does Darrell Raynor in A Year Among The Girls and Virginia Prince in the 100th issue of Transvestia. But aside from that, the lesson of her book, and of Hollis’, is probably not what either author intended, for the reader is left not with a sense that they made the correct decision, but a conviction that they rushed headlong into something the consequences of which they were just beginning to understand at press time.

Sex reassignment is a miracle of the late 20th century, and it is the right decision for many of us. After Hollis and Cummings sort everything out, it may well turn out to have been a good decision for them. I certainly hope so. Sex reassignment is an unwise decision in some cases, to which Cummings and Hollis, and perhaps Patricia Morgan, might be able to attest.