Although the word “transsexuality” is often shunned in trans communities today, it was commonly used in the 1970s in the United States. Historians have shown that psychologists, doctors, journalists, and trans people themselves were familiar with the basic idea that some people’s bodies didn’t—as they thought of it it—”match” their gender identity. But according to historian of sex and gender Barry Reay, this didn’t mean that the idea was (or trans people themselves were) wholly accepted.
The sensational story of Christine Jorgensen, who went to Denmark in the early 1950s to obtain experimental gender confirmation surgery, brought trans people and the treatments they sought into the spotlight. By 1975, there were well-established practices and protocols for hormonal and surgical procedures in clinics around the United States. Reay, whose Trans America: A Counter-History was published earlier this summer, documents the personal and institutional backlash that was there from the beginning.
Those curious about surgery were often viewed as insane or freakish by the very professionals they consulted. “The psychoanalysts seemed always to be wary,” writes Reay about the 1960s and 1970s, while other “experts were simply hostile to the whole notion of transsexuality.” Meanwhile, “the majority of practitioners were not exactly sympathetic.”
Reay finds a theme of trans people’s “alleged tricks” running through the backlash. People who wanted surgical and/or hormonal therapies were supposedly adept at fooling their therapists and doctors. They were said to be untruthful and unreliable: They sought attention and publicity, and they were “oblivious to the codes of public behavior.”
“Distrust of patients was there almost from the start,” writes Reay. He quotes one sociologist, Harold Garfinkel, who published a “classic study” in 1967 of a “notorious case” known as Agnes. Agnes’s “management devices” to con professionals like Garfinkel included “shrewdness, deliberateness, skill, learning, rehearsal, reflectiveness, test, review, feedback.”
“So even those who might be assumed to be the most empathetic, given their expertise and case-loads, could still betray a sense of disdain,” notes Reay. John Money, co-editor of the pioneering Transsexualism and Sex Reassignment (1969), also wrote that trans people were “devious, demanding and manipulative” and “possibly also incapable of love.”
The author of another major study published in 1983, based on fifty patients at the Case Western Reserve Gender Identity Clinic, argued that trans men suffered from “a profound psychological disorder.” Reay gives more examples of how “moral judgement continually crept into diagnostic classification.”
Checking on therapeutic approaches, Reay finds a literature of disturbing practices used on “pretranssexuals,” that is, children. He finds one therapy “that defined masculinity in terms of fantasies of beating, torturing, and raping women and which viewed the cultivation of such imaginings as progress” for an “effeminate” boy. “The gender logic behind such interventions now appears both misguided and dangerous, especially when it involved the very young.”
The professionals’ critique of transsexuality is right there in the medical, psychiatric, and sociological literature of the day. It sheds, argues Reay, a “rather negative light on U.S. psychiatric and surgical practices in the the 1960s and 1970s.” The disapproval, loathing, and condescension aimed at early patients is a true part of trans history.