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Letter to SEXNET e-group RE Posting by Ken Zucker (1995)

Letter to SEXNET e-group RE Posting by Ken Zucker (1995)

©1995, 2013 by Dallas Denny

Source: Denny, Dallas. (1995). Posting to SEXNET e-group in response to 2 March, 1995 posting by Ken Zucker.






I am writing in reaction to Ken Zucker’s e-mail posting to SEXNET on 2 March, 1995.

I am a transsexual woman (not male transsexual!) and a member of the steering committee of the conference Dr. Zucker was discussing. I have the following comments for Dr. Zucker, and anyone else who would care to read them:


Dear Dr. Zucker:

I realize that the criticism which follows is unasked for and probably unwanted, but your voice and the voice of the Clarke Institute of Psychiatry are influential ones, and I cannot in good conscience let your posting go without response.

Although your point that reports by transgendered and transsexual persons that they were forced to crossdress early in life may be less than accurate is a valid one, you should not be so quick to totally discount the existence of the phenomena. There is ample evidence of “petticoat punishment” throughout history, and it would seem nonparsimonious to think that this would not have a lasting effect on some individuals. However, I don’t want to debate this point.

What I do wish to point out is that the ship has left the dock, and you don’t seem to be on it.

By that, I mean that there has been a major reframing of the clinical literature, which is being reinterpreted in light of the circumstances and assumptions about transgendered and transsexual persons which has driven and continues to drive such research. A paradigm shift, in the classic Kuhnian sense, has occurred. In the same way in which it was possible for Stephen Jay Gould to look with late XXth Century eyes at the science of mental measurement, as studied in the last part of the nineteenth century and the first part of the twentieth, and see its shortcomings and flaws, it is now possible to see the deficiencies of the literature of gender dysphoria (a term, which, incidentally, I no longer use), and to see the biases and faulty assumptions of the researchers who did and continue to do such research.

The notion that science is not subjective is an absurd one. We build a body of knowledge based on research which is as objective as we can make it, but our cultural framework shapes that research by determining the questions we ask and how we interpret that data. In The Mismeasure of Man, Gould was able to show how then- contemporary notions of intelligence shaped research. It is non-parsimonious to suspect that the same forces have not been in play in the study of what was once called gender dysphoria.

The patterns became obvious to me during my three-year review of the literature, which was published last year by Garland with the title Gender Dysphoria: A Guide to Research. Biases of researchers came through clearly, and were apparent not only in the terminology they used to describe transgender and transsexual issues, but in overtly moralistic statements, and jokes made at the expense of transsexual and transgendered individuals. To give just one example of this, Laub & Fisk (1974) began an article in the journal Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery with the sentence, “To change a person’s God-given anatomic sex is a repugnant concept.” It is incredible that such a statement could appear in a refereed journal, and it would never have happened with a less stigmatized group than transsexual people.

What also became apparent from my review was that the clinical literature had arisen out of a nearly complete ignorance of what transsexual and transgendered persons were and are like. This was perhaps understandable in the days of Christine Jorgensen, but it is indefensible in the 1990s. The clinical literature has disregarded of anthropological studies, and what’s worse, of the importance of that literature; indeed, I was driven to write a letter to The Archives of Sexual Behavior in response to Charles Mate-Kole’s review of Anne Bolin’s In Search Of Eve because he felt it would be of little use to a clinician.

When Walter Williams pointed out in his talk during the recent Van Nuys Congress on Gender, Cross Dressing and Sex Issues that the transgendered and transsexual persons in attendance, rather than those who study us, were the true experts, a number of clinicians and researchers took offense. If Dr. Williams and other cultural anthropologists had had the same sort of hubris about the people they have studied, anthropology would not be the vibrant, exciting field that it is today. And it is precisely because most of those who have contributed to the literature have not taken the trouble to study transgendered and transsexual persons outside the 50-minute therapy hour, outside the interdisciplinary clinic, and outside the periods in their lives in which transgenendered and transsexual people are in crisis, that the literature would not be such an unproductive swamp.

It’s not as if the natives don’t speak English.

It’s difficult to imagine the study of black history without black historians, or of gay and lesbian studies without gay and lesbian academics. Clearly, in those fields, writings by, respectively, whites and heterosexuals are subject to scrutiny for bias. So, too, is the work of nontransgendered academics subject to bias. Yes, transgendered and transsexual academics are also biased, but so are black and gay and lesbian scholars—it doesn’t diminish the importance of their contributions. It is impossible to separate one’s academic heritage from one’s cultural and racial heritage, whether one is white or black, gay or heterosexual, transgendered or nontransgendered.

Those who study transgendered and transsexual persons are hardly unbiased. If they are heterosexual, they bring those biases—but often, they have gender issues of their own. Some acknowledge those issues, and others don’t. One researcher at your institution, the Clarke Institute of Psychiatry, as you well know, has had sex reassignment, but that issue was not acknowledged in his (now her) published research. Some clinicians and researchers have transgendered or transsexual sexual partners. Others are Out gay men or lesbians. Yet others are closeted gay men or lesbians.

And this brings me to two points which I wish to make about your posting:

1) Your description of the attendees of the Van Nuys Congress is best characterized as name-calling. The assumption, both implicit and explicit, behind such categorization is that because someone has an acknowledged transgender or transsexual issue, they are incapable of maintaining any objectivity whatsoever. I find this incredibly patronizing. You are implying that no matter what our accomplishments, no matter what our credentials, the fact that we have or have had a gender issue invalidates our personal histories and our ability to participate on a professional level in the Congress. That is absolutely not true.

It is simply that our biases are different than yours. You can no longer illigitimize us because we are transgendered. First, we won’t allow it, and second, it will only serve to make you seem preposterous.

2) You seem ignorant of (or worse, choose to disregard) the literature on sexual orientation of female-to-male persons and what FTMs are saying about their sexuality. You acknowledge Lou Sullivan, who literally died for his right to his sexual persuasion, at the same time invalidating that of others by saying that gay-oriented female-to-male people are extremely rare. You needed only look around at the gay and bi FTMs at the Congress to see that that statement is invalid, or to read the recent work of Dr. Holly Devor, who found that sexual interest in men is quite common in FTM people. If fact, there were a number of these “exceedingly rare” people at the Congress.

There are other things I object to in your posting: the use of quotations around the words “gay male” to describe Lou Sullivan’s sexual orientation, and around the word “lesbian” to describe erotic attractions of post- process transsexual women; the division of conference attendees into “types” based on supposed pathology; a discussion of the sexual orientation of the transgendered conference attendees which was none of your business and which was not needed in the context of the point you were making.

The paradigm has changed. The work you have done and the work you will do from now on and yes, even your electronic postings are going to be subject to criticism which was not possible even a year or two ago. You work is sure to become increasingly irrelevant as your biases become more apparent. Only one thing can change that: you must open yourself to new knowledge about transsexual and transgendered persons: that transgender identity is not a pathology; that we are not “sick,” and that we are able and entitled to and capable of contributing to the literature and to our own destinies.

Now that I have vented my spleen, I would like to urge you to be a good scientist and look at the biases reflected in your posting, and think about how your assumptions have impacted your work with transsexual and transgendered persons. And I would like to invite you to swim out to the boat before it completely leaves the harbor.

Thank you for reading this.




Dallas Denny, M.A.
Licensed Psychological Examiner
Executive Director, AEGIS




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

Denny, D. (1993b). Letter to the editor: Response to Charles Mate-Kole’s review of In search of Eve: Transsexual rites of passage by Anne Bolin. (South Hadley, MA: Bergin & Garvey). Archives of Sexual Behavior, 22(2), 167-169.

Denny, D. (1994). Gender dysphoria: A guide to research. New York: Garland Publishing.

Devor, H. (1993). Sexual orientation, identities, attractions, and practices of female-to-male transsexuals. The Journal of Sex Research, 30(4), 303-315.

Gould, S.J. (1981). The mismeasure of man. New York: W.W. Norton & Co.

Laub, D.R., & Fisk, N. (1974). A rehabilitation program for gender dysphoria syndrome by surgical sex change. Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery, 53(4), 388-403.