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Rachel and Me (2000)

Rachel and Me (2000)

©2000, 2013 by Dallas Denny and Sage Publications, Inc. For the official version on the Sage website, click the button below.

Sage Publications

Source: Dallas Denny. (2000, February). Rachel and me; A comment on Kessler & McKenna’s Gender: An ethnomethodological approach. Feminism & Psychology, 10(2), 62-65.


I picked up Suzanna Kessler and Wendy McKenna’s book in the mid-80s at the conference of the Animal Behavior Society. When I read it I was mightily impressed—why not—it was the first thing I’d ever read about transsexualism that made sense—and when I recognized the only transsexual I’d ever met in the pages, I was astonished. Despite the care the authors had taken to shield her identity, I knew “Rachel” just well enough to recognize her.


Feminism & Psychology Pages


Rachel and Me

Commentary on Gender: An Ethnomethodological Approach

by Suzanne J. Kessler and Wendy McKenna

By Dallas Denny


In the Fall of 1975 I found myself in graduate school at the University of Texas (not the real university). As a novice research assistant, my first assignment was in the lab of Dr. Amos McCoy (not his real name), where ceiling-high racks of electronic components stood wall to wall. The purpose of this equipment was to monitor certain physiological functions of test subjects. In those pre-microcomputer days, the lab was a wonder of exotic, custom-made components, with dozens of modules, hundreds of blinking LEDs, and miles of wires.

The person responsible for this place of electronic marvels, and in fact its designer, was another graduate student, a thin young individual with long black hair. I will call him Paul. I saw Paul only once, during my first week, when he came into the lab late one night in jeans and bare feet to show off his work to friends. He was a thin, androgynous individual with small but noticeable breasts and a puffiness about his face that I now know was caused by electrolysis.

And then Paul was no more. He told folks around the lab that he wished to be called Rachel and began dressing as a woman.

Rachel caught a good bit of hell in her last year of graduate school, but her brilliance was unquestioned, and no one else had the ability to maintain Dr. McCoy’s lab. Because money and reputations were at stake and because she was irreplaceable, Rachel was allowed to complete her doctoral program. Considering the time and place, I suspect the outcome would have been different had she been less essential.

I never really got to know Rachel, but during our occasional times together in the lab, she taught me the rudiments of transistor-transistor logic and feminism—the latter began when I suggested in all innocence we go to a drag show. She bristled, informing me that drag was offensive to women, herself included. I had brought the matter up only in hopes of getting to know her well enough to talk with her about her transsexualism—and mine. We never had that conversation.

Eventually, Rachel graduated and took a job in the then-fledgling microcomputer industry. On her last day at the lab, I gave her a ride to her apartment, since her car had died. There was one of those awkward moments. I came close to revealing myself, or at least telling her I admired her for her courage, but I didn’t. She thanked me and went into her apartment, and I never saw her again.

It wasn’t to be my last exposure to Rachel, however. About a decade later, I picked up a copy of Suzanne Kessler and Wendy McKenna’s Gender: An Ethnomethodological Approach. It was the first book on gender issues I had ever come across. I was astonished to find the subject featured in the lengthy appendix was none other than my ex-schoolmate Rachel. The authors had taken considerable pains to conceal her identity, disguising her school, the type of work she did, and of course her name, but I was just familiar enough with the circumstances of Rachel’s life to recognize her in those pages.

And so I find it remarkable that I have been chosen to comment on Gender: not only because it was the first volume I read on the subject, and not only because it remains one of my major influences, but because it features an individual whose transsexual process informed my own eventual gender transition.

Gender: An Ethnomethodological Approach is an extraordinary book, a prescient work, for a number of reasons: First, it took a social deconstructionist approach to gender—that is, its authors asked serious questions about whether gender is a natural category or whether it is socially constructed. [1, 2] Second, its authors were among the first to recognize that the social realities of transsexual lives have something to say about gender and the ways gender affects nontranssexual people. [3] Third, it set the stage for the liberation of transsexuals because its authors were led to do something exceptional—break with the medical model of transsexualism.

When Gender was published, the literature of transsexualism was almost exclusively clinical, based on a medical model which presumed transsexual people were mentally ill (cf Benjamin, 1966; Green & Money, 1969) and that they could be rendered less dysfunctional by sex reassignment (i.e., there was no cure, but sex reassignment was a palliative “treatment” which could alleviate suffering in selected cases).

An unfortunate effect of this literature was that it forced transsexuals to conform to the expectations of its authors, turning them into sexual stereotypes. The clinical literature pictured transsexuals in a variety of uncomplimentary ways, and transsexuals were denied treatment by gender clinics if they did not conform to the expectations set down in print; that is, transsexuals were considered transsexual only if they conformed to the often naive and sexist notions of clinicians. This is a clear case of the cart driving the horse (Bolin, 1988; Denny, unpublished; Stone, 1991). Kessler and McKenna were perhaps the first to question the clinical truisms of the medical model, opening the door for a more thorough deconstruction of the medical paradigm by Bolin (1988).

Kessler and McKenna “saw through” the gender doctors, and ultimately the medical model. They noted, “A clinician during a panel session on transsexualism said he was more convinced of the femaleness of a male-to-female transsexual if she was particularly beautiful and was capable of evoking in him those feelings that beautiful women generally do. Another clinician told us that he uses his own sexual interest as a criterion for deciding whether a transsexual is really the gender she/he claims ” (p. 118). The authors turned to those with lived experience, transsexuals themselves, rather than nontranssexual “experts,” and in so doing developed a theory of gender that helped lead us to the era of postmodernist gender deconstruction and the gender revolution of the nineties.

Kessler and McKenna’s analysis of transsexualism occurs primarily in the chapter titled “Gender Construction in Everyday Life: Transsexualism” and in the appendix I have already mentioned. At the beginning of the chapter (pp. 113-114) they present a table of “natural” attitudes toward gender, taken from Garfinkel (1967, pp. 122-128). When Kessler and McKenna assembled Garfinkel’s eight maxims into a table, it became clear that transsexualism violates or casts doubt on every one of them. It is the rigid belief in these maxims exhibited by some of the transsexuals interviewed by Kessler and McKenna, and the lack of belief by other interviewed transsexuals, which no doubt helped the authors to see that “natural” attitudes are not natural at all, but socially constructed. Kessler and McKenna demonstrate that transsexuals must “do” or “perform” gender in order to manage their social identities in a manner which allows them to function in society as one of the two acknowledged genders, and note that even nontranssexuals must do this: “… everyone must pass or everyone must insure that the ‘correct’ gender attribution is made of them.”

Gender: An Ethnomethodological Approach is a work which has aged well. Unfortunately, it remains largely unknown to medical professionals and is under-referenced in the medical literature of transsexualism. It should be required reading for every clinician who works with transsexual and transgendered people.

End Notes

[1] An argument can be made for Garfinkel (1967) being the first to have done so.

[2]Fortunately, Kessler and McKenna were writing pre-Foucault, and so the reader is spared the obtuse language of social constructionism.

[3] Transsexuals nonetheless do not automatically have a special understanding of the subject; they know only that they are unhappy in their assigned gender roles. Unfortunately, transsexuals have been expected by some feminist critics (cf Raymond, 1979) to save the world from dichotomous gender norms by showing just such an understanding, and vilified because they have been more interested in finding personal happiness than in leading gender theorists into a brave new world.


Benjamin, H. (1966). The transsexual phenomenon: A scientific report on transsexualism and sex conversion in the human male and female.New York: Julian Press.

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

Denny, D. (1992). The politics of diagnosis and a diagnosis of politics: The university-affiliated gender clinics, and how they failed to meet the needs of transsexual people. Chrysalis Quarterly, 1(3), 9-20.

Denny, D. (unpublished). A critique of the psychomedical literature of transsexualism.

Foucault, M. (1979). The history of sexuality. London: Allen Lane.

Garfinkel, H. (1967). Studies in enthnomethodology. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Green, R., & Money, J. (Eds.). (1969). Transsexualism and sex reassignment. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

Kessler, S.J., & McKenna, W. (1978). Gender: An ethnomethodological approach. New York: John Wiley & Sons.

Raymond, J. (1979). The transsexual empire: The making of the she-male. Boston: Beacon Press. Reissued in 1994 with a new introduction by Teacher’s College Press,New York.

Stone, A.R. (as Sandy Stone). (1991). The empire strikes back: A posttranssexual manifesto. In J. Epstein & K. Straub (Eds.), Bodyguards: The cultural politics of gender ambiguity, pp. 280-304. New York: Routledge.