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The Biggest Breakthrough of All (1992)

The Biggest Breakthrough of All (1992)

©1997, 2013 by Dallas Denny

Source: Denny, Dallas. (1992, January). The biggest breakthrough of all. Twenty, the Newsletter of the XX Club, p. 11






The Biggest Breakthrough of All

By Dallas Denny


Some time ago, I was asked to write an article about breakthroughs in the gender field for the newsletter of a local support group. The proposed issue of that newsletter never materialized– nor did my article, although I continued to bat the idea of breakthroughs about in my head. Which one of the many fascinating things that have happened in the last 40 or so years since the time of Christine Jorgensen should I write about? I was just unable to make up my mind.

Now, a year and more later, I find my writer’s block has lifted. It was not that I had nothing to say about breakthroughs; it was that I was unable to choose any single one of the many significant things that happened– things which have made the real breakthrough possible.

When I think about breakthroughs in the field of gender, many ideas come to mind.  I think about John Money’s work with intersexed (hermaphroditic) people at Johns Hopkins University, which led, in 1955, to his making a distinction between gender and sex (previously they had been considered to be the same).  I think about recent genetic research in pursuit of a gene which “switches on” masculinize development.  I think about the publication, in 1979, of the Standards of Care of the Harry Benjamin International Gender Dysphoria Institute, Inc., which standardized the treatment of transsexual people.  I think about the recent realization by researchers that transsexualism is not a single clinical entity, but a behavioral manifestation common to an unknown number of syndromes with underlying causes which might be biological, psychological, sociological, or familial in nature.  I think about recent progress in hormonal treatment of transsexualism (the use of antiandrogens, replacement of oral administration with transdermal and other routes).  I think about the advent, in the 1980’s, of the use of the radial forearm flap, which revolutionized female-to-male bottom surgery.  I think about innovative hair replacement surgeries. I think about the blossoming of the gender community.

I think about all these, and more, only to reject them in favor of the biggest breakthrough of all– the unique combination of social and psychological and medical factors which has for the first time in history made it realistic for large numbers of genetic males to live their lives as women, and for large numbers of genetic females to live their lives as men.

There have always been transsexual people, and there will always be. In the future, sex reassignment may or may not be available. Certainly it has not been in the past. But during the past two decades, reassignment has become a realistic goal for those willing to work long enough and hard enough to achieve gender congruity.

Consider:  if you had been born at any time in history except the second half of the twentieth century, you would have (unless you were one of the fortunate few who happened to look sufficiently like the opposite sex) been stuck in the gender normally associated with your biological sex. Electrolysis was not available. Sex hormones had not yet been artificially synthesized.  Sex reassignment surgery was not performed.

Before 1949, the word transsexual had not even been coined. In the scientific literature, transsexual people were called transvestites, and sometimes Eonists.  People who were confused about their gender did not even consider that something could be done about it.

It was in 1952, with the breaking of the “GI Becomes Blonde Bombshell” headlines about Christine Jorgensen, that things began to change.  Transsexual people began to go to other countries to seek SRS.  The 1960’s saw the founding of the first gender clinic in the United States, and in the 1970s, SRS became widely available.  The 1980s brought increased media coverage of transsexualism, and the formation of a national umbrella organization for transgendered people.

And where does this leave us?  Well, in a difficult position, to be sure.  The struggle to change one’s gender is probably the most significant event of one’s lifetime– but it is now, thanks to hormonal and surgical techniques and the social acceptance of transsexualism, within the realm of possibility for Everyman (and Everywoman).

And that, my friends, is a breakthrough.