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Beyond Our Slave Names (1999)

Beyond Our Slave Names (1999)

©1999, 2013 by Dallas Denny

Source: Dallas Denny. (1999, 24 September. Beyond our slave names. Invited keynote given at Southern Comfort Conference, Atlanta, GA.





As a representative the the nonprofit American Educational Gender Information Service, I was present at the organizing meeting to start the first transgender conference in the American Southeast. That conference would be called Southern Comfort. AEGIS, one of the more than one dozen organizations that started the conference, provided seed money to fund the first conference. That makes me, in my eyes at least one of a dozen or so people who started the conference. The credit, however, goes to Sabrina Marcus, who approached the International Foundation for Gender Information, asking them to start a Southeastern conference, and IFGE for sending a team to Atlanta at their own expense to teach us how to start and run a conference.


Beyond Our Slave Names

By Dallas Denny


Several years ago, here at Southern Comfort, Sabrina Marcus had this podium, this wonderful place to talk. It’s wonderful because everyone is trapped in the room and has to listen, or at least has to pretend to listen. What fun! For me, at least!

Sabrina spoke about reclaiming crossdressing, about her being glad to be a man who crossdresses, but a man nonetheless. Today I’m going to talk about the other end of the gender spectrum. I’m going to speak about transsexualism—but I’m not going to talk about reclaiming it, for I don’t believe transsexualism was ever properly claimed in the first place. Transsexualism is rather like a land that has been colonized by conquistadors from across the seas. For forty years now this transsexual country has been flying the flag of our masters. It’s not the flag of Spain or France or Portugal or England, or even the United States. The flag of the transsexual land is a caduceus, a staff entwined by serpents. Our flag is the symbol of the medical profession. Physicians have owned this land and its inhabitants—transsexuals—registered, copyrighted, trademarked, lock, stock, and barrel, signed, sealed, and delivered.

Indeed, the very word transsexual was conferred upon us by a physician. He was well-meaning, to be sure, but it’s a slave name nonetheless. A slave name. You know what a slave name is, don’t you? That’s the name given to you because your master can’t be bothered to learn your real name. Transsexual is my slave name. It was given to me by doctors. It’s not the name I might have chosen for myself, but I’m stuck with it. To me, to you, and to the rest of the world, I am a transsexual.

Before 1966, there were no transsexuals. Now, we were here, to be sure. We’re always been around. We just didn’t have a name for ourselves, a term around which we could build an identity. In 1966 Harry Benjamin, a physician who was exploring the strange new land in which people changed their sex, published a book with the title The Transsexual Phenomenon. In it, he gave us our name.

We were happy, ecstatic, to finally be named, to have our own special designation. Transsexual. We were transsexuals.

But Dr. Benjamin did more than gave a name to the natives he found in the strange new land. He described us. He described us, and in so doing, he gave us our identity. Today, more than thirty years later, we transsexuals work hard to conform to Dr. Benjamin’s picture of us. He told the world who we were, and lest we be defined as nontranssexual, we strive until this day to conform to his definition.

Dr. Benjamin defined us in this way: We had a syndrome, a syndrome called transsexualism. A syndrome, you see, is a group of symptoms which occur together and characterize a disease or condition. In one fell swoop, Harry Benjamin labeled us as diseased—mentally diseased.

Harry Benjamin had a medical practice in New York City in which he saw all manner of people eager to change their sex. What he saw as their defining characteristic was misery—their profound unhappiness at being locked into bodies and social roles they disidentified with and detested. And that’s how he defined us—as unhappy, miserable people for whom sex reassignment held forth a promise of redemption.

Now, to be fair to Harry Benjamin, who was by all reports a good-hearted man and a caring physician, he was only trying to justify his belief that sex reassignment was the right and proper thing for many of his transsexual patients. We were already considered damaged goods by the medical profession. The difference with Dr. Benjamin was, he believed we were salvageable. The rest of the doctors thought we were psychotic, immoral misfits. They held out no hope for us. But Harry Benjamin believed there was hope for us and outlined ways in which we could be identified and helped. We can thank him for packaging us in a way that made us less of a bitter pill for other physicians to swallow and gave us what we were looking for—a passport to a new gender, via sex reassignment.

Why did Harry Benjamin define us so? Well, he saw people who had kept their feelings bottled up inside them for years, decades, sometimes for more than half a century. These were people who could not tell their parents, their spouses, their friends, their co-workers, their pastors, or even their therapists or physicians about their feelings, lest they be ridiculed, shunned, beaten, cast out, institutionalized. And let me assure you, as someone who lived through those years, disclosure was rarely an option. And so the transsexuals of the day held in their feelings until they were ready to explode. When they did blow out they made their way to Dr. Benjamin—and when he saw them, they were indeed unhappy people. They were truly miserable, and to be sure he would help them, they made themselves sound even more miserable than they actually were. Dr. Benjamin only defined us according to what he saw. But his definition, while it helped him help us, also branded us. Misery came to be seen as the primary defining characteristic of the condition called transsexualism, and continues to be so today.

Considering the times, Harry Benjamin could have done no better. I find no fault with him. He was a hero, and he is rightly celebrated as such today. Nor do I find fault with the many other physicians, psychologists, and other professionals who have dedicated their lives and sometimes risked their careers to help transsexuals.


I still have a slave name.

What I object to most is not the name itself, but what it has come to signify. To be transsexual, I must be miserable. I must hate my genitals. I must be suicidal. I must be a knotted ball of rage and agony. I must be inadequate. I must be dysfunctional. And if I’m not, the doctors who work with us will tell me I’m not transsexual, will tell me I’m gay, or a crossdresser, or these days, a transgenderist, and deny me access to the medical tools I need to reshape my body. If I’m not careful to conform to the stereotype, other transsexuals will tell me I’m not really a transsexual.

Let me tell you how the medicalization of transsexualism affected me. Me personally. I used to think I wasn’t transsexual, for I wasn’t miserable enough. I certainly wasn’t happy with the fact that my body and gender role were not to my liking, but it was a dull ache, omnipresent but manageable. I wasn’t suicidal. I was never suicidal. I didn’t hate my genitals. They were there, and they worked, and I used them, even though I considered male genitals a strange thing for a woman to have on her body. I read about transsexualism, and I didn’t fit the stereotype in many ways. And so, despite a persistent lifelong desire to be a woman, I considered myself something other than a transsexual. What I was, I wasn’t sure, maybe just a man who wanted to be a woman. But I couldn’t possibly be a transsexual. I mean, there it was in black and white, gloom and despair. I didn’t fit the clinical profile. I wasn’t miserable enough.

In 1979 I found my way to the gender clinic atVanderbiltUniversityinNashville. The gender experts there, after skillfully relieving me of $500, confirmed my own fears. They told me I was nontranssexual and denied me access to hormones and surgery. I then went to the medical library, where I dug up journal articles and the few existing textbooks about transsexualism, and discovered the Vanderbilt doctors had been right. Transsexuals were immature, histrionic, suicidal, dysfunctional, warped, miserable people. I wasn’t screwed up enough to be transsexual. I wasn’t dysfunctional enough. That’s actually what the Vanderbilt doctors told me. “Mr. Denny, you’re employed in a professional capacity. You have a graduate degree. You function well in the male role. You kept a marriage together. Your test scores indicate you’re intelligent and resourceful. If you were transsexual, you wouldn’t be able to do all those things.” In other words, I would be destitute, uneducated, immature, hysterical, addicted to drugs or alcohol, behaving badly.

I was told in so many words I wasn’t screwed up enough to be transsexual. “Mr. Denny, if you had mutilated yourself, tried to kill yourself, flunked out of school, been unable to hold a job, we could diagnose you, but hey! You’re just fine. Have a nice life as a man!” Thank you, Vanderbilt. Thank you, Dr. Benjamin.

Back in 1979 I did something pretty remarkable. Even though I was nontranssexual, officially so now, having been proclaimed so by Vanderbilt University, I rejected the collective wisdom of the medical community and I consulted my inner self, which was saying, “Transsexual or not, I want to be a woman.” I decided to do my own sex reassignment, and I did. I was my own case manager. I was my own endocrinologist. If it had been possible, I would have been my own surgeon.

I read all about hormones, and I selected one, a powerful one, diethylstilbestrol, which is no longer available. But this was before its dangers were known. I consulted the Physicians Desk Reference and picked a dose, and waltzed into the drugstore with a prescription blank on which I had forged a signature. I took my first pill in January, 1980, nearly 20 years ago, when I was 30. It changed my body, and eventually it changed my life. Had I not acted with courage and conviction 20 years ago, had I not broken the law, had I not obtained estrogens, I would be a 50-year-old man today rather than a 50-year-old woman. Two paths diverged in the wood, and I took the road less traveled. Thank the Goddess.

I resented having to break the law, but I had very little choice, did I? I could have listened to the gender docs at Vanderbilt and lived my life as a man, in which case I would be wearing a wig today and not passing all that well—if indeed I had ever found the courage to address my issue again. But in 1979, there were two choices. I could consider Vanderbilt the expert and be a man. Or I could be my own expert and become a woman. Duh!

I absolutely do not regret having made the decision to put myself on hormones. Under the same circumstances, I would do it again.

Notice that I said under the same circumstances. Nowadays, of course, the circumstances have changed. No one needs to do what I did. In fact, for more than 10 years I’ve worked diligently to make sure no one else has to break the law to get hormones. Today, it’s easy to get hormones legally. There are plenty of great therapists, and they won’t hold you hostage for hormones. No one has to break the law anymore. Shame on everyone in this room who is on hormones illegally.

Twenty or thirty years ago, I couldn’t be a transsexual because I didn’t fit Dr. Benjamin’s definition. I wasn’t miserable enough. I wasn’t dysfunctional enough. Even ten years ago, when I first came to Atlanta, newly transitioned, I wasn’t sure I was transsexual, for I didn’t fit the definition. Even though I had found the courage to take my future in my own hands, even though I had put myself on hormones, even though I had changed my role and was living and working full time, even though I was happier than I had ever been, I wasn’t quite ready to say that it wasn’t me that had a problem, it was transsexualism. Today I am ready to say it. There is a problem with the way we define transsexualism.

It’s 1999. It’s 46 years since Christine Jorgensen’s story broke in the newspapers. It’s 33 years since Dr. Benjamin made transsexualism a syndrome. It’s time for the inhabitants of this transsexual country to haul down the colonial flag, the caduceus, and run up our own flag. It’s time to do away with the trappings of colonialism. It’s time we defined ourselves rather than striving to conform to what the doctors have told us we should be.

I’d especially like to do away with one vestige of our colonial heritage, the trait that’s most closely associated with us. It’s something I’ve already mentioned, the quality Dr. Benjamin was most impressed by, the trait the world has come to identify us by, and it’s what we ourselves have come to believe. It’s the characteristic that’s seen as the defining feature of transsexualism: unhappiness. Internal pain, misery, anguish, sadness, dysphoria, call it what you will, I’m talking about the gut-wrenching sense of alienation that transsexuals claim they experience.

Now please, understand, I’m not saying the pain isn’t real. It certainly is real. I’ve experienced it. But there’s more to my transsexualism than pain. Being transsexual has gifted me with other emotions also, most of them positive: wonder, awe, ecstacy, enlightenment, laughter, surprise, happiness, warmth, the joy of becoming, awakening spirituality, the sense of peace that comes of having a body that fits the mind, pride at being what I’ve always wanted to be. For me, these emotions are stronger and more acute than any pain I ever felt because of my transsexualism. And I believe something. I believe this is true of almost all transsexuals, if they would only let themselves realize it.

Let me tell you something curious. Until recently, the only books about transsexualism were written by nontranssexuals. Until 1994, there was not a single book about transsexualism by a transsexual. There was of course one area of exception: the transsexual autobiography. Only transsexuals were deemed suitable to write about their hellish existence. Every transsexual autobiography I’ve ever read—and that would be more than 50—every single one was full to the brim with gloom, despair, agony on me, deep dark depression, excessive misery, oh, my! Why, if it weren’t for hard luck, transsexuals would have no luck at all!

Usually, only a few pages before the end, there would be the surgery, and the authors, writing from a perspective just post-surgery, in other words, way too early to have any real idea about how their lives would be affected by surgery or whether it was the right thing for them after all, these authors would, in the concluding paragraphs, do their level best to convey a sense of sunbeams, butterflies, flowers, fresh air, bunny rabbits, bright futures.

It took me a long time to figure out why these autobiographies bothered me. It finally came to me: the authors were able to relate to their experience only through their pain, and they channeled the pain in an attempt to bring it to the reader. Only in the very last pages did they attempt to cautiously venture beyond the pain.

Now, once again, I’m not belittling the pain transsexuals feel. We all feel it. Some of us, I imagine, feel it more deeply than others. My point is that for all practical purposes, we’re defined solely by this pain. There’s more than the pain. Very much more.

Remember what I said about bottling up our feelings? In a society which represses us, we keep out mouths shut until we can’t contain it any more. Then what happens? We explode! But is this a symptom of being transsexual, or of being transsexual in a phobic society? I would argue the latter. You get beat up enough, you’ll indeed be miserable. In an accepting society, we could be ourselves from the earliest age. We wouldn’t have to hold everything inside. But we don’t live in an accepting society. We live in the U.S., most of us in this room, anyway, and other countries are just as bad. We do explode, and then what happens? We wind up seeing the shrink, who sees us and says, “What a mess this person is! Dr. Benjamin was right!” And so, transsexuals continued to be defined by the doctors as miserable people and other transsexuals validate this by telling us only of their misery. We come to believe we are miserable people, and in believing we’re miserable, we become so. We wallow in our misery, holding forth a belief that everything will magically and dramatically change after transition, or after SRS, and of course, it doesn’t. In our anticipation of reaching unreachable goals—who, after all, is perpetually “happy”?—we lose the magic of the journey.

And what a magical journey it is! We transsexuals are social engineers. We take the body of one sex and reshape it to resemble as closely as possible the other sex. We built new identities and forge new lives, make new relationships. And in so doing, we discover much about life and much about ourselves. And what do we think about? What do we tell others about us? What do we write about ourselves? About the magic of transcendence? No, only about how miserable we are.

When I was finally able to cast aside the spectacles provided me by the conquistadors and began to look around my native land with innocent eyes, I discovered a new landscape. Pain is part of this new land, to be sure, but despite what Dr. Benjamin thought and taught, it isn’t the predominant feature. And so my message for you today, to those of you who are transsexual and to anyone else who may identify themselves by their misery, is: we are much more than our pain.

Many post-transition transsexuals have discovered this through their own life experiences, and many of the professionals in this room have discovered through their own work with transsexuals and other genderfolk that what they learned in school isn’t true, and have come to view us as whole people. But we’re all living under the historical shadow of transsexualism as a mental illness. I would like to thank Dr. Benjamin for taking us this far, but I say today, it’s time we stepped out on our own. It’s time to redefine transsexualism.

Transsexualism isn’t about misery. It’s about finding the courage to define oneself. It’s about reshaping oneself to fit comfortably in the world. It’s about the awe and wonder which accompanies any profound change, whether changing sex or growing from an infant to a child to an adult. It’s about the journey, about becoming, about transcendence. On a more material level, it’s about making friends. It’s about finding community. And it’s about building a better world, one in which people are judged not by what lies between their legs, but what lies between their ears.

Thank you.