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Transsexualism at Forty (1993)

Transsexualism at Forty (1993)

©1993, 2013 by Dallas Denny

Source: Dallas Denny.  (1993). Transsexualism at forty: Some uncommonly discussed aspects of an increasingly common phenomenon. Chrysalis Quarterly, 1(6), 39-46. The article appeared simultaneously in TV-TS Tapestry Journal (1994, No. 65, pp. 41-43It also appeared in TG Forum, 7 January, 2013.



I wrote this essay forty years after Christine Jorgensen’s sex reassignment, which arguably marked the beginning of what Harry Benjamin called The Transsexual Phenomenon. In early 2013 I reprised the piece for my column at TG Forum.

Below are PDFs from Chrysalis and Tapestry and the text of Transsexualism at Forty.


Chrysalis Pages (PDF)

Tapestry Pages (PDF)


Transsexualism At Forty

Some Uncommonly Discussed Aspects of An Increasingly Common Phenomenon

By Dallas Denny


Forty years ago, Christine Jorgensen was in Copenhagen, Denmark, and not just to see the sights. She was undergoing the final stages of a series of hormonal and surgical treatments that would enable her to live the rest of her life as a woman, even though she had been raised as a boy, had duly grown into a man, and had even served a hitch in the U.S. Army. Her “sex change,” as it came to be called, was hardly the first, but when the story was leaked to the newspapers, the headlines shocked the world, creating a media circus which has lasted for forty years.

Christine was the first indication most Americans, even those Americans with the same problem, had that such a thing as a change of gender was possible, or even conceivable; indeed, there was not even a commonly accepted label to assign to her. Now there is a word, of course, but the media circus has had its effect: to this day, the notion of transsexualism seems bizarre to most Americans, and transsexual people are commonly viewed in a stereotypic, one-dimensional fashion, rather than as the highly individualistic and talented people that they are. Even serious magazines look at transsexualism in a myopic way, either dwelling upon transsexual people as sex objects or focusing upon their pain or the miracle of their transition, missing the point that here is a phenomenon of great social and scientific significance.

So now here I come to deconstruct this fascinating phenomenon for you, to point out a little of what so many have missed. Why, of all people, me? I’ve asked myself that question many times. What moves me to write on a subject which most people find simultaneously intriguing and disgusting? Why do I not take my assigned place in the ranks of manhood or womanhood (as the case may be) and take gender for granted like everyone else?

The reason is that for many years it was impossible for me to take gender for granted. I had one; I wanted another. It was not something I chose for myself, but something which arose unbidden and could not be made to go away. The story of my personal quest is another story for another article, but its significance is that I have looked at transsexualism and its developing treatment system from both sides now, from up and down, from the bloody underside, as a transsexual person, as well as from above, as a social scientist. I have seen the wisdom and the follies of both perspectives, and, like a holograph, a vision has risen up, incorporating elements of both, and yet transcending them. This vision is one of transsexualism stripped of its newsworthiness, its sensationalism. It is Transsexualism, with a capital T, and it is an awesome and powerful entity, with multiple arms like a Hindu deity.

I offer twelve observations about transsexualism:


Observation 1: Transsexualism is a Religious Experience

Transsexualism is a burden, but in overcoming that burden, there can be great spiritual growth. Despite the pain that their gender conflict causes in their lives, transsexual persons will tell you that they feel a power, a specialness, because of the way they are, and most will tell you that they would not change, even if they could. Their transsexualism gives them a sense of connectedness, of place, of unity, a sense of the goddess—of a nurturing feminine deity, rather than a jealous and destructive masculine one.

In many non-western cultures, transgendered persons have special status as mystics and healers, as shamans. They are revered, even if they are sometimes scorned as well. They are people to listen to, for they are the balance between the masculine and the feminine, the chosen ones. Rena Swifthawk, who has had to resurrect the lost tradition of berdache in her own Ute tribe, says that transgendered persons are the ones who will save the planet, who will put the masculine and feminine energies in balance, for we are in touch with those same energies. Perhaps, and perhaps not—but I do know that I have always had a deep sense of the need for balance in nature, and have been repelled and appalled at the way our Western technology is ravaging and hurting the planet. I have a deep sense of what Rena calls Grandmother Earth, and I feel Grandmother’s pain—and so do most other transgendered individuals I have come in contact with.

Observation 2: Transsexualism Gives Western Culture a Mental Template for a Third Gender

In many tribal and Eastern cultures, there were and are institutionalized roles for transgendered people. For instance, many American Indian tribes had berdache, genetic males who functioned as women in the tribe. Some societies had three genders, and some more than three. Those who did not fit into “traditional” male and female roles had a choice of (or were sometimes assigned to) one of the other genders.

With the possible exception of the castrati of medieval Europe, such social roles have been lacking in Western society. In keeping with our tradition of Aristotelian thought by way of Descartes’ dualism, individuals are classified as either male or female. Although people with gender dysphoria (unhappiness in their assigned gender) have always been present—as the Maid of Orleans might attest, if she were alive today—there was no third gender, no alternative to maleness or femaleness in Western society. Before the mid-twentieth century, the hormonal and surgical procedures necessary to enable an individual to live productively in the gender of choice were simply not available. Only those lucky enough to look sufficiently like the other gender—or brave enough to not give a damn—could manage to live as a woman, if born male, or as a man, if born female. And most did not even realize it was possible. People with gender dysphoria had no idea that such a thing as sex reassignment was possible, and lived their entire life in their gender of original assignment, often with profound unhappiness. They had no label for themselves, and neither did caregivers. Physicians and psychologists, when confronted with someone with gender dysphoria, labeled them delusional, homosexual, perverted, or schizophrenic.

It was Christine Jorgensen, stepping off that airplane and into history, who provided the template that we now know as transsexualism. Her case catapulted the idea of sex change into Western consciousness. Transsexual people now had a name for themselves, as well as a process (sex change), and began to come forward, galvanizing the medical and psychological communities into action and forming a new category of human beings who would increasingly demand place.

Observation 3: Transsexualism Is Evolving into an Established Social Role in Western Society

Anyone who has not been hiding under a barrel for forty years know what a “sex change” is. Most Americans have heard of at least one of the celebrity transsexual people like Christine Jorgensen, Renee Richards, Jan Morris, Canary Conn, Wendy Carlos, Caroline (Tula) Cossey; many, and perhaps even most Americans have either become acquainted with a transsexual person (sometimes unknowingly) or are related to one. The subject of transsexualism has been addressed and readdressed on television and radio, in popular magazines, in books, in college courses, in scholarly journals, and in homes and businesses throughout the nation. Although much of the exposure has been sensationalistic and shallow, the fact is that transsexual people now constitute a distinct and identifiable segment of the population. They are, where they were not before. Large corporations have formulated policies for dealing with transsexual workers, psychologists and physicians have developed procedures for counseling their transsexual clients, and drivers license examiners have become used to changing male names to female names, and vice-versa. Openly transsexual people have become established in successful careers, entered into happy marriages, adopted children, written books and plays, and appeared on television and in movies. A new genre of transsexual exploitation films and magazines (“Chicks with Dicks”) has arisen, and transsexual prostitution is highly visible in large cities. Laws have been written to protect transsexual people or to exclude them from protection. Diagnostic categories and treatment policies have been created by caregivers, and a scientific literature of transsexualism has arisen. The word transsexualism is appearing in dictionaries, encyclopedias, and medical textbooks.

Transsexual people, like other minorities, have defined themselves and created a societal niche for themselves, merely by virtue of their existence. Every transsexual man or woman, in his or her process, impacts hundreds of others—family, friends, coworkers, the clerk at the corner store. And so a phenomenon which was unheard of (if nevertheless common) forty years ago, has become an established social category. Transsexualism has become integrated into Western thought and society, and there is every indication that it is here to stay. It has become a commonly accepted diagnostic category and condition of human existence.

Observation 4: Transsexualism Has Had a Significant Impact on Medical Ethics

The idea of operating on healthy tissue is a strange one to most physicians. The conceptually profound nature of genital reassignment surgery caused considerable self-examination by a profession which was already struggling to decide whether cosmetic surgery was ethical. In the 50s and 60s, transsexualism was called “collusion with delusion”, “collaboration with psychosis,” and “unjustifiable mutilation.” Physicians treating transsexual persons were accused by other physicians of mayhem (the intentional mutilation of the body to avoid military service) and of violating the First Rule of Medicine (“First, do no harm.”). Those doing sex reassignment surgery were chastised in the pages of medical journals and on the golf courses of the nation.

Ultimately, outcome studies convinced the medical community that the operation was usually successful and often lifesaving, and that psychotherapy, aversion therapy, and other techniques were ineffective and could even be harmful. The eventual position of the American Medical Association and other organizations was one of acceptance of the hormonal and surgical treatment of transsexualism.

Inverting the penile skin and using it to line a neovagina or constructing a phallus from the skin of the forearm are not the most technically difficult surgeries in existence (I walked four miles on Day 6 following my own reassignment surgery), but they are without parallel, for they challenge our most basic notions of the human experience. The acceptance of such concept-shattering surgeries means that any lesser operation (i.e., rhinoplasty, facelift, breast augmentation) is unlikely to be challenged on ethical grounds. By moving the issue ahead a light-year, from bobbing a nose to bobbing a penis, the ethical issues of cosmetic surgery were taken to the extreme position. Resolving the issue of genital surgery necessarily resolved the issue of conceptually less profound surgeries.

Observation 5: Transsexualism Has Had an Important Role in the Differentiation of Sex and Gender

Traditionally, in Western culture, sex and gender were considered to be the same thing. It was John Money and his co-workers who separated the two, pointing out that one’s sex is a combination of physical factors, but that gender is a sense of self, of manhood or womanhood, boyhood or girlhood. Virginia Prince helped to popularize the notion that it is entirely possible to function socially as a woman, although anatomically and gonadally a male, and vice-versa (in fact, many persons do just that, with no desire for sex reassignment surgery; they are called transgenderists). Although Money had been working for some years with intersexed (hermaphroditic) individuals, it is not coincidental that the separation was not made official until 1955, only three few years after Christine Jorgensen’s return from Denmark.

In the four decades since Money’s epiphany, this separation of sex and gender has gradually permeated scientific and popular thought. Many Westerners—indeed many published authors in the literature of gender dysphoria—still have trouble differentiating between the two, but the trend is evident—and transsexual people are the torchbearers, living proof that sex and gender are two very different phenomena.

Observation 6: The Early Treatment of Transsexual People by Caregivers Was a Case Study in Prejudice and Bias

Even after Christine Jorgensen’s debut, sex reassignment was difficult to obtain, for there was great societal prejudice, which was reflected by many helping professionals, and great societal ignorance, to which helping professionals were not immune. Those who changed their gender did so in the face of nearly unsurmountable odds, often placing themselves in the unenviable position of being medical guinea pigs in order to get the treatment they needed—and most could not get help, even under those terms. Although the technology for surgical and hormonal sex reassignment has been in place for most of this century, there simply was not a treatment and support system which could deal with the large numbers of transsexual people who came forward, seeking sex reassignment.

The system which arose was research-based, experimental, and needlessly restrictive. The university-affiliated gender clinics which arose in the late 60s and early 70s treated transsexual people by triage, but they did so in an unusual and ultimately harmful manner. They separated people into the traditional three groups (those who were terminal, and would probably not survive, even with treatment; those who would probably survive with treatment; and those who would probably survive, even without treatment). Unfortunately, rather than treating the middle group, the gender clinics, which considered themselves to be experimental, selected the first group—those who would have a poor prognosis, even with maximum care. Their treatment populations consisted of a very high percentage of prostitutes, drug addicts, alcoholics, schizophrenics, and suicidal and self-mutilating depressives—a very unrepresentative cross-section of the universe of transsexual people. The clinics then compounded their error by publishing papers about these people; in their naivete and arrogance, they were defining all transsexual people based on their very biased samples. Consequently, the literature came to be filled with very pejorative descriptions of transsexual men and women, who were characterized as having stereotyped notions of masculinity and femininity, of having a high incidence of prostitution and criminal arrests, of having character and personality disorders, of being manipulative and demanding. This literature was then applied and continues to be applied to all transsexual people, despite the clear findings of anthropologist Anne Bolin, who studied male-to-female-transsexual people outside the treatment setting, that the common clinical conceptions of transsexual people are just not true.

Transsexual people are often desperate for treatment, but until recently, they had no alternative to the university-based gender clinics. Their desperation was to the advantage of researchers, who all-too-frequently used promises of hormonal therapy and reassignment surgery as the proverbial carrot-on-a-stick. The clients of many of the clinics were verbally abused, forced to participate in research studies, and made to conform to the often-sexist notions of masculinity and femininity of the researchers. This extended into areas ordinarily considered sacrosanct, the sole business of the individual—dress, sexual preference, choice of partner, name, occupation, and lifestyle. Transsexual people were forced into sexual liaisons to “prove” their earnestness, into jobs they did not want, into divorces, into clothing they did not want to wear, into being Barbie and Ken. They could not refuse, for refusal meant withdrawal of medical treatment.

Surprisingly, many clinicians were unaware of and continue to be unaware of their own prejudices and behavior, just as researchers of earlier times were blind to their own biases. Stephen Jay Gould has pointed out in The Mismeasure of Man the horrible excesses and injustices in the history of mental measurement—notions that blacks were inferior to whites, that women were inferior to men, and that persons with big brains were more intelligent than persons with smaller brains. These biases colored not only the findings of research; the very questions asked were dependent upon the preconceived notions of the researchers. This sort of thing has happened with transsexualism, but it is not generally recognized, and may not be until sufficient time has passed to allow us to see our prejudices and biases for what they are—as we can now see in Gould’s book how Goddard colored in the eyes of the members of the Kallikak family in photographs to make them look depraved and sadistic.

Ultimately, the university-based treatment system self-destructed. A grassroots movement arose, making sex reassignment accessible to practically anyone who wants it. And many people want it. Although the present treatment system is far from perfect, it is self-regulating, for there are finally alternatives. Transsexual people are no longer depending upon the whims of a single individual or clinic; they can practice consumerism, shopping for services as if they were buying a house or a car. And caregivers have become aware of transsexual people as human beings, with individual needs; for the first time, they are beginning to see transsexual people as they are, and not forcing them to conform to notions of transsexualism garnered from textbooks or medical journals.

Observation 7: Transsexualism is an Industry

Since the 465 men and women who wrote desperate letters to Christian Hamburger following the public revelation of Christine Jorgensen’s surgery in Denmark, increasing numbers have applied for surgical and hormonal sex reassignment. Because it is not a condition which exactly inspires the individual to come forward, the exact numbers of transsexual people are unknown, but the latest edition of The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association (DSM III-R) places the incidence at 1 in 30,000 for males and 1 in 100,000 for females. Prevalence rates have regularly been revised upward (for instance, many in the treatment community are now acknowledging equal numbers of female-to-male and male-to-female persons). In my opinion, the DSM III-R’s estimates are on the low side. Why? Because for every identified transsexual person, there are probably between 10 and 100 people who would really like to change their gender. Incidence rates tend to reflect only those who are known to the treatment community (which sees only those who seek help, and which has traditionally considered as transsexual only those who actively seek genital surgery). Many men and women never come to terms with their transsexual feelings, living and dying in the gender of their birth, revealing themselves to no one, including the authors of books like DSM III-R.

The system which arose to replace the university-based gender clinics is based on free enterprise. Physicians are not constrained by the experimental model; this allows them to treat their transsexual clientele as patients, rather than as subjects. An army of caregivers—psychologists, psychiatrists, endocrinologists, surgeons, electrologists, aestheticians, and others—has arisen to meet the needs of those seeking treatment, and organizations such as the Harry Benjamin International Gender Dysphoria Association, Inc. (HBIGDA) have formed to regulate treatment practices. But perhaps more importantly, transsexual persons and other transgendered persons (crossdressers and transgenderists) have formed a community—a loose conglomeration of support groups, information clearinghouses, advocacy organizations, political action committees, publishers, telephone help lines, and computer bulletin boards—through which information flows and action is initiated. This community sponsors regional and national meetings, influences legislation, and helps novice transsexual persons learn the amazing game of gender. Although many organizations are run on a nonprofit basis, cottage industries have arisen—boutiques with hard-to-find sizes and literature, manufacturers of penile prostheses and breast forms, publishers of magazines, sponsors of conventions and other events. Transsexualism has become an industry. A three-day convention of 200 gender-conflicted persons (and there are literally dozens held annually throughout the continental U.S.) can generate hundreds of thousands of dollars of revenue for restauranteurs, hoteliers, convention sponsors, and vendors, as Merissa Sherrill Lynn has pointed out in Tapestry magazine. And the financial impact extends outside the transgender community, for transgendered persons must buy clothing and cosmetics which are appropriate for their gender of choice, and avail themselves of medical care which can run into the tens of thousands of dollars per person. Hospitals, pharmaceutical companies, manufacturers of breast implants, Avon, and Lane Bryant—all benefit from transsexual dollars, and must compete for them—and this ensures better services.

Observation 8: Transsexual People are BioPsychoSocial Engineers

With the help of medical and other professionals, transsexual persons physically deconstruct and reconstruct their bodies, their behavioral patterns, and their social roles in order to bring them into consonance with their gender identities. This makes them biological, psychological, and social engineers; never before in history has there been such profound self-engineering.

Christine Jorgensen is a case in point. Her presentation as a woman was quite convincing. Slim and stylish, and reasonably pretty, there was nothing about her to suggest that she had not always been a woman. This made her transformation at the hands of her medical team all the more astonishing in an age in which refrigerators were white, telephones were black, boys were boys and girls were girls, and there were no shades of gray in between.

Articles about Christine, usually accompanied with “before” and “after” photos, were everywhere. She was in newspapers, magazines, newsreels, on the radio, and on that enfant terrible, television. Although the treatment was sensationalistic and carnival-like, the message was clear: here was a miracle of science, a man who had been turned into a woman by a series of surgical procedures. In an age of hydramatic transmissions and atom bombs, the average American believed that scientists could do virtually anything, that all of life’s little problems could be fixed by a simple application of technology.

In terms of the medical treatments she had received, Christine’s sex reassignment (a term not yet coined) had consisted of hormonal therapy and two surgical procedures: castration (removal of the testicles) and penectomy (removal of the penis). Later, after her return to the US, she was to quietly have yet a third procedure, vaginoplasty, in which a vaginal cavity was created in the Barbie-Doll-like groin her Danish surgeon had given her. But if her operations were what constituted her “sex change” in the popular imagination, it was the feminization caused by female hormones and electrolysis which shouted “woman” to the American public. Her surgery sites were invisible, but that smooth face, those blonde curls, those slim hands were right out there for everyone to see. If she was any less than a woman, it was not because of her appearance or demeanor, but only because of the particulars of a past which been laid open by journalists as deftly as Christian Hamburger had once laid her male parts open with a scalpel. Christine was a new sort of person, a woman who had not always been a woman, a human being who had not been content with her biology and had by damn done something about it.

It was not physicians who had actually accomplished Christine’s sex reassignment. No lancet, no hormone tablet can make a woman of a man. Christine herself was the driving force in her own sex reassignment. Certainly the medical procedures helped by making her outside congruent with her social presentation, but it was the sheer force of her will which set the process in motion, persuading reluctant physicians to undertake such a novel set of procedures. Although she did not wield the knife, Christine did her own sex change, moving into the female role with confidence and aplomb.

Jorgensen was a prime example of the intersection of the human condition and modern technology. Pills made from the urine of pregnant farm animals, plastic surgery techniques developed to correct deformities and repair disfigurements, doctors from Denmark—these were merely tools she used in orchestrating the metamorphosis she sought. She managed to conceive of the possibility of changing her sex, figure out that she would need medical help in order to do so, and recruit physicians do give her that help. She was the project manager for a bold social experiment which lasted until 1991, when she died of cancer.

Christine was not only a medical pioneer, but a social pioneer and a role model for an emerging class of people. With no socialization or training at womanhood, she put on her high heels and went out into the world to slay dragons. She lived with dignity, and died with dignity, a spokeswoman for transsexualism, a pioneer, a woman.

Transsexual people redesign their bodies in the same way that some future bioengineer might redesign the human body for optimal functioning on a heavy gravity planet, or for underwater living. They monitor the cutting edge of medical and other knowledge and apply it to themselves, usually without the help and often without the permission of family, friends, clergy, teachers, governments, and helping professionals. They use hormones, plastic surgery, and electrolysis to fashion their bodies into a form that they find more acceptable than the ones their genes designed for them, and then they wear those bodies, venturing into society and creating place for themselves. They similarly redesign their mode of dress, grooming, and hairstyles, coming to clothe and accessorize themselves in ways which are characteristic of their gender of choice. They change their careers, relationships, affiliations, and sexual liaisons. They change their names and identifying documents, disguise their paper trail, and in some cases, even concoct Orwellian retrohistories, fabricating past lives as the little boys or little girls that they never were.

Transsexual people must also alter their speech patterns, gestures, major motor patterns, and other aspects of their behavior so they will be consonant with their new gender roles. This requires the unpacking of a great deal of psychological baggage, for they must unlearn behavior and thinking patterns which are typical of the gender in which they have been forced to live throughout their lives, and which they have been forced to exhibit. These must be deconstructed before the individual can learn to talk, move, and think like any other member of their chosen gender.

This human re-engineering, and not the actual genital surgery which morbidly fascinates the American populace, is the true significance of transsexual change. What is significant is not that penises and scrotums can be fashioned into vaginas or that phallus can be made from the skin of the arm, but that someone who is easily identifiable as a man can come to be identifiable as a woman, and vice-versa, by sheer will of self-determination (with hormonal assistance). This is exciting stuff, subject matter for science fiction stories, and it happening now, in every city in America and practically every small town in America.

Observation 9: Transsexual People Seek Change in the Face of Adversity

Not only are transsexual people self-designers of their new selves, but they must do their work in the face of the generalized ignorance and in the face of the hostility of society, and despite their own feelings of guilt and self-doubt. They re-engineer themselves without specialized training, usually without assistance of parents, spouses, authorities, and helping professionals, and often in the face of extreme financial adversity. They forge these new frontiers not with federal dollars in spotless laboratories, but under battlefield conditions, trying to change their bodies while simultaneously trying to preserve social relationships, get educations, keep jobs, have their teeth cleaned, and maintain the other trappings of a normal life.

Most transsexual people learn early on to play their gender cards close to their chest, for their attempts to reach out are frequently rebuffed—sometimes violently. Those who would ordinarily be turned to for help—parents, grandparents, siblings, teachers, clergy, lawmakers, friends, and neighbors—are unlikely to understand, and even psychologists, counselors, and physicians are usually distressingly ignorant—sometimes even those who proclaim to specialize in the treatment of gender dysphoria. Those who are sympathetic and knowledgeable can be difficult to find, and resource material, although it exists, is rarely readily available.

Transsexual people have been maligned in the medical literature for being readers of that selfsame literature, as if their attempts at self-discovery were somehow shameful or presumptuous. Medical writers have seemingly not realized that it is the desire for self-exploration and discovery, the lack of support from the medical and other helping professions, and the general unavailability of self-help books which drives transsexual people to the stacks of the medical libraries. Certainly, these critics have seemed unaware of their bias in making criticisms that they would never make about less stigmatized classes of people like diabetics or heart patients. After all, would a cancer patient be criticized in print in a medical journal for reading a book about cancer? Obviously not.

It is truly amazing that so many transsexual people are able to sort out their feelings, locate the appropriate medical references, diagnose themselves, and begin to seek treatment. It is even more amazing when they supervise their own treatment, for it is a near-impossible task to fill the roles of psychologist, social worker, physician, and vocational rehabilitation counselor. It is an indictment of these professions and of our society as a whole that so many transsexual persons have so often had to face their difficult journeys without help.

Observation 10: The Real Issue in Transsexualism is Freedom of the Body

The history of the treatment of transsexual people is filled with injustice, hatred, ignorance, and, occasionally, sympathy. Few minorities have been so discriminated against, and few things are so difficult to contemplate as changing one’s gender. Transsexual people have been and continue to be viewed as so bizarre that they are usually not thought of as a minority, even by those who should know better. Like other minority groups before them, they are devalued—and being devalued, there are no safeguards and few checks to ensure their proper treatment, or even their safety.

Nevertheless, transsexual people have insisted on their right to self-determination, even to the point of civil disobedience. When I was unable to obtain treatment in the late 70s—when I was refused help by one of the university-based gender clinics and told that I was not dysfunctional enough to be a candidate for sex reassignment, that it was their decision that I would remain a man, and that as there was nowhere else to go, I could like it or lump it—I refused to allow them the right to that determination. I promptly found an extramedical and extralegal source for female hormones, and in essence reassigned myself. I was not the only one to do so, either. Not by a long shot. In the face of fear and confusion, thousands and perhaps tens of thousands of transsexual men and women have used every available means—legal or otherwise—to bring about the desired changes to their bodies. And having done so, many of us have become activists to ensure that those who come after us will not have to break the law in order to obtain treatment.

The parallel here to abortion is obvious, even though there is not the complicating issue of whether a speck of fetal tissue is or is not a human being. Both abortion and transsexualism have to do with the right of the individual to the freedom of his or her own body—and both have come under attack from persons who would restrict that right. The opponents of abortion are the opponents of transsexualism, although they have in general been too busy with the former to give more than lip service to the latter. But the right to choose somehow disappears when genital modification becomes involved; many who support the rights to terminate pregnancy cannot conceive that a mentally healthy human being would want his or her breasts or genitals altered to resemble those of the other sex.

Much more than abortion, transsexualism is the logical gameboard on which to determine the freedom of the individual to his or her own body. No other individual or potential individual is involved to cloud the issue; there is only one person, and his or her desire to change the genitals and secondary sex characteristics.

Observation 11: Transsexualism Does Not Occur in a Vacuum

Transsexual men and women are part of society, with all of the obligations and priviliges of membership. They are sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, fathers and mothers, grandmothers, grandfathers, aunts, uncles, cousins. They are best friends, roommates, husbands, wives, lovers. Depending upon their achievements in their attempts to function in their assigned gender, they may be shift supervisors, students, captains of industry, bank presidents, airline pilots, teachers, physicians, waitresses, taxi drivers, army generals. Their social roles demand that they fill those roles in appropriately masculine and feminine ways; gender variation is not tolerated well in our society—especially in males. The discovery of mere crossdressing can shatter marriages, ruin careers, alienate parents from children. The revelation of deep-seated transsexual feelings and a wish to change gender can be devastating to the individual’s life. Transition can result in alienation and anomie, loss of job, loss of family, loss of friends, loss of status. And not only the transsexual person is affected. Everyone who knows him or her is affected.

Unfortunately, in our society, the necessity for the individual to maintain a facade of maleness or femaleness often takes precedence over the relationship itself. That is, it is more important that someone be a man or woman than that they be a friend, family member, or lover. Thus, by merely acknowledging that which they are, transsexual people lose families they love, jobs they do well, friends they would do anything for. Most transsexual people are well aware of the probability of their lives falling apart, and the very fact that many proceed with transition should give some indication of the unremitting pain they feel because of their gender dysphoria. But many, despite their pain, remain in their original roles at least partially out of consideration for the others in their lives. Most who do transition do so in a manner calculated to cause minimal disruption to those they love. Transsexual people are faced with a difficult moral choice—they must decide between being their true selves or sacrificing their very selfness for others. They should not be faulted for making either decision.

Observation 12: Transsexual People Will Help Us To Move Toward a Gender-Just Society

Unfortunately, the enemies of transsexualism come from not only from the far right, but from the far left. Transsexual persons are excluded from many lesbian organizations and from woman-only events like the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, from which Nancy Burkholder was expelled in 1991 for being a suspected transsexual. She was, in fact, transsexual (post-op; she had been cavorting naked with the other womyn), but what is important here is that the assumption of transsexualism was sufficient to get her the boot, despite documents identifying her as female. This is gender fascism, or as JoAnn Roberts calls it, gender naziism, for any woman with masculine characteristics—who was too tall, who had facial hair, who had a deep voice—could have just as easily been expelled from the festival.

Margaux Schaffer has said that when it is safe for a known transsexual person to function in society without harassment, without prejudice, and without discrimination, then all varieties of gender expression will be allowable, and we will have a gender-just society. In 1992, we do not have a gender-just society, although we are a lot closer than we were in 1952.

Even if long hair and earrings are now marginally more acceptable for men and masculine clothing and short hair are more acceptable for women, tradition notions of gender still prevail. Many people don’t feel comfortable with these traditional roles. Many conform, forcing themselves into presentations they find distasteful and repulsive. Those who don’t conform face a lifetime of ridicule, criticism, and discrimination because of their appearance, dress, and behavior.

Names like sissy, faggot, dyke, and butch, with their implications of inadequacy and deviance, will lose their sting when all expressions of gender are allowable. Feminine men will be allowed to be feminine men, and masculine women will be allowed to be masculine women. When transsexual people are accepted in the neighborhood, the church, the family, schools, and the workplace, then other varieties of gender expression will be allowable, for transsexualism is the extreme case, and lesser manifestations pale by comparison. Men will be allowed to wear long hair, earrings, makeup, or skirts, and women to do away with those things. Sissies and tomboys will escape harassment at school, and those with expressions of gender which stray from the norm will be free to walk down city streets, dressed however they please, without fear of insult. All sorts of gender alternatives will be acceptable, allowing men and women who might otherwise be forced to the extreme position of transsexualism to find comfort zones far short of surgery.

In Margaux’s gender-just society, men will be free to cry and to express emotions without being considered unmanly, and women will be able to be strong and independent without being considered unwomanly. People of whichever sex will be free to express their gender in whatever way they see fit, without fear of social sanction. And transsexual people will have once again have been the torchbearers.


It is forty years since the “birth” of transsexualism, forty years since the notion of “sex change” burst upon the American scene like a supernova. Just as television, which is also for all practical purposes forty, transsexualism has begun to mature, to show its true nature, its potentialities. From “I Love Lucy” to “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” from Christine Jorgensen to Caroline Cossey, both television and transsexualism have matured. And as the horizons of television have broadened, giving us larger screens, hundreds of channels, home video recording, rental movies, and interactive video, so has transsexualism begun to broaden our notions of sex and gender, of the potentialities of human experience. Our culture is richer for transsexualism. Perhaps in another forty years, we will understand just how much richer.