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Beyond the Media Circus: A Perspective on Transsexualism (1999)

Beyond the Media Circus: A Perspective on Transsexualism (1999)
©1999, 2024 by Dallas Denny
Source: Dallas Denny. (1999, February). Beyond the media circus: A perspective on transsexualism. Transgender Forum.
Beyond the Media Circus: A Perspective on Transsexualism

By Dallas Denny

Transsexualism as a recognized condition of human existence is now four-and-a-half decades old. A little more than forty-five years ago, in November, 1952, a young American woman named Christine Jorgensen returned from Denmark to be greeted by an army of reporters and photographers as she stepped from her plane. What made her newsworthy is that when she had left several years earlier for Denmark, her name had been George Jorgensen, and she had been a man.

Christine’s presentation as a woman was quite convincing. Slim and stylish and reasonably pretty, there was nothing about her to suggest 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.

And so the idea of sex change entered the public consciousness. Articles about Christine, usually accompanied with before and after photos, appeared in newspapers and magazines. She was in newsreels, on the radio, and on that enfant terrible, television. Although the media 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 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 U.S., 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.

But of course the feelings which had led Christine to Denmark and Dr. Hamburger were nothing new in human experience. Gender dysphoria, the sense of inappropriateness in one’s gender role, is pancultural and is woven throughout the tapestry of written human history. Only Christine’s actions—seeking and obtaining medical treatment to change her body—were new; the feelings which impelled and propelled her were ancient and honorable—something it has taken scientists, the general public, and transsexual persons themselves forty years to begin to figure out.

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.

Meanwhile, Back at the Ranch

In 1953, Hamburger and his co-authors, Sturup and Dahl-Iverson, reported their treatment of Christine in The Journal of the American Medical Association. Transsexualism, even if there was not yet a name for it, stopped being a topic only for tabloid papers and became a subject for serious scientific study. Logically, scientists should have stroked their beards and pondered what had been done and think about what it could teach them about the human condition—but of course, that didn’t happen. Several highly visceral letters appeared in JAMA, attributing Christine’s wish to be a woman to neurosis, psychosis, death wishes, guilt about crossdressing, masochism, and perversion; the surgical team was maligned nearly as badly in the letters as was Christine.

But something else happened, as well. Hamburger received more than 400 letters from men and women—many desperate—wanting to be surgically converted, as did Christine. Certainly, if Christine were screwed up, there were a lot more folks out there like her.

We all know what happened after that, of course, in the sixties and seventies and eighties. Renée Richards, Jan Morris, Tula, that funny little guy that used to sack your groceries down at the IGA—transsexualism, in its new identity as a condition requiring medical treatment, reared its head repeatedly, providing fodder for the five o’clock news, for popular magazines, for medical journals, for Johnny Carson’s monologue, and eventually for Oprah and Geraldo and Sally Jesse Raphael. Soon, everyone knew what transsexualism was and what transsexuals did. They went to the doctor and they got their problem taken care of. Transsexuals were larger than life and yet smaller than life, from someone else’s family, exotic and disturbed people who sought and sometimes obtained happiness at the end of the knife and who made their living by flagging down cars on big-city boulevards on Saturday night or by dancing nude at the joint down on the corner.

But now it’s the end of the nineties, and suddenly transsexuals are your best-friend’s ex-husband, your second cousin, the Boy Most Popular from 12th grade who shows up at your 20th reunion in a fabulous gown, your platoon leader from Viet Nam, the guy at the next work station, the woman who delivers the mail, your podiatrist, the pilot of your transcontinental flight, middle-class folks who are not at all like the stereotypes we once bought into. Many of us have at least met someone we knew to be transsexual, and most of us have worked or recreated with transsexuals we didn’t even know about. Many of us have figured out that, hell, transsexual people are okay to have lunch with or count on to come through with that report that’s due on Thursday. And yet we still view them as different, in some fundamental way, from other human beings. We hate them for this difference and think that it was wrong to do what they did (while we do similar things to other areas of the body and think nothing about it), and yet we respect them for their courage of their convictions and maybe even envy them their apparent freedom. And we still wouldn’t want our sister to marry one.

Forty-five years have passed since Christine Jorgensen stepped off that plane. Transsexualism is a fact of American life, and yet we, the American public, have not yet assimilated it. We still react viscerally to the notion of crossing gender lines and changing anatomies with surgical instruments—especially down “there.”

The treatment community is also still reacting viscerally. Psychiatrists have been especially angry about the surgical treatment of transsexualism. More than a few have written that transsexualism is a mental condition, and that by damn the proper way to treat a mental condition is to whup some psychiatry on it. They advise against surgery for transsexual people, prescribing (years and years of) therapy, even though five decades of experience has shown that transsexual feelings cannot be “cured” by psychotherapy or by anything else, and that if it grew back most postoperative transsexual people would do it again. Others psychiatrists, less vehemently opposed to hormonal and surgical treatment, still see transsexualism as an illness, and so something to be cured.

Transsexual people are still reacting viscerally, as well. Most are either so desperate to make the physical changes which they perceive will make them happy that they will do or say almost anything to get treatment, or else become so embittered by a lifetime of public humiliation and psychiatric mishandling that they just want to disappear into mainstream life once they are through with their process.

Everyone—everyone—has had an agenda, and few people have been able to tear themselves away from their personal and professional peepholes and really look at the phenomenon of transsexualism, and what it means.


Simply put, sex reassignment is a prime example of an individual taking charge of his or her life and putting it right. Faced with feelings which make them very unhappy and which cannot be made to go away (no one asks to be transsexual, and no one can cure transsexualism), transsexual people elect to do something about their condition. They sculpt their bodies into shapes they find more appropriate, teach themselves new skills, and form new relationships, often in the face of hostility from those who would be supportive in most other circumstances—parents, teachers, ministers, physicians, counselors, governments, friends, siblings, sons and daughters. More often than not, they embark on this frightening and perilous journey with limited funds, limited knowledge, and limited support.

Transsexualism is not catching. It affects only a small portion of the population, and it is such a distressing condition that most of those who suffer from it never find the wherewithal to work through their fear and guilt. Those who are able to face their feelings and do something about them should be, if not admired, at least respected for their courage and stamina.

Transsexualism certainly violates some basic cultural assumptions—but then, so does good art, good science, and good sex. We should not let the media circus, which has been ongoing for 45 years now, dictate the way we feel about what is actually a quite amazing phenomenon. Rather than seeing transsexual people as crippled, we should see them as enabled. They have overcome or are setting out to overcome something that has made them miserable for their entire lives. They should be proud of themselves, and whether or not we approve of what they have done, we should be proud of them.