Gender: M/F/It's Complicated
"The Lives of Transgender People" presents the findings from a 3500-person survey. Scott McLemee takes a walk on the wild side.
The adventurous reader browsing a newsstand in the 1940s could sometimes find a periodical called Sexology. This was not, in spite of its title, a specialized medical journal, but rather a mass-market title in the empire of Hugo Gernsback. The publisher had invented science fiction -- or at least the expression “scientifiction,” which eventually fissured into something easier to pronounce. Sexology was, like Gernsbeck’s Amazing Stories, a pulp magazine. For that matter, it was also full of amazing stories, many of them sent in by readers.
Not that it was Penthouse Letters, avant là lettre. Anxiety was the dominant tone, not arousal. People who wrote in to Sexology tended to be perplexed by what their libidos were doing (or wanted to do, in any case) and they were looking for advice. And among the regular authors dispensing it was one D.O. Cauldwell, M.D. -- a general practitioner who had served as a military doctor and picked up a smattering of Freudian and Jungian ideas along the way.
I became aware of Cauldwell’s psychosexual journalism while studying the Midwestern publishing house of E. Haldeman-Julius, which had roots in the old Appeal to Reason, an extremely popular Socialist Party newspaper during the first two decades of the 20th century. By the late 1940s, it derived more revenue from reprints of literary and philosophical works than it did from socialist pamphlets. But what really kept the press afloat were the booklets (more than a hundred of them) reprinting Cauldwell’s work. There was Female Homosexuals -- Lesbians -- Tell Their Stories and The Intimate Embrace and The Diary of a Sexologist. None of this sat well with J. Edgar Hoover, and the fact that Cauldwell’s oeuvre contained at least half a dozen volumes on transvestism cannot have helped.
Cauldwell documented the range, intensity, and terrific flexibility of the American libido at least as well as Alfred Kinsey, but without leaving a comparable trace in the historical record – although he is now recognized as the first person writing in the English language to use the expression “transsexual” which appeared in one of his Sexology articles in 1949. (The neologism already existed in German medical literature, and it is possible he picked it up.) The pamphlets on transsexuality are now among the rarest items by Cauldwell. In 2001, the peer-reviewed International Journal of Transgenderism devoted a special issue to Cauldwell, reprinting some of his work and otherwise treating him as a pioneer: “a popular writer disseminating information and helping to create a climate in which such things could be discussed in a more open and liberal way.”
The good doctor is absent from the pages of Genny Beemyn and Susan Rankin’s The Lives of Transgender People (Columbia University Press), and in a way that is understandable. Cauldwell was not what anyone would call a careful researcher or deep thinker, and his work veers oddly between the sensible and the sensationalistic. Beemyn and Rankin, by contrast, have gathered an enormous amount of data, much of it statistical, and they exhibit all the probity that being vetted by an institutional review board would demand. They are contributing to an established and developing body of knowledge. (Beemyn is the director of the Stonewall Center at the University of Massachusetts. Rankin is an associate professor of education at Penn State.)
The term “transgender,” they explain, subsumes those undergoing or considering sex-reassignment surgery, but is “a general term for all individuals whose gender histories cannot be described as simply female or male, even if they now identify or express themselves as strictly female or male.” Such is the common usage now. But it only serves to underscore the originality of Cauldwell's work, since he meant "transsexual" in roughly the same sense and regarded it and cross-dressing as just part of the continuum of human behavior.
In any case, Beemyn and Rankin are far more methodical than their somewhat erratic predecessor. In 2005 and '06, they conducted a large-scale survey of transgender people by preparing a detailed questionnaire that they circulated online via appropriate listservs, support groups, and the like. Not quite 3,500 individuals completed the survey, of whom 400 agreed to detailed follow-up interviews by phone or e-mail, or in person. Interview subjects were asked to review the transcripts “to make sure their responses were presented accurately and in their own words.”
The questionnaire and interview protocol cover some fairly generic demographic categories -- age, race, citizenship status, sexual orientation, etc. -- but most questions are transgender-specific: “At what age did you begin to feel ‘different’ from others? … How did you experience this ‘difference’? … At what age did you first understand that there were [sic] a group of people whose gender identity or expression did not coincide with their birth sex?” Quite a few questions focus on the difficulties, and in some cases dangers, of being openly transsexual, including how comfortable subjects feel in their interaction with family members, co-workers, and strangers.
And while the very term “transgender” serves to challenge the sexual binary as a way of categorizing people, the range of options for designating gender identity has proliferated wildly. Among those surveyed who had been designated female at birth, the authors note, “45 percent refer to themselves today as male, 36 percent as transgender, and 13 percent as ‘other,’ ” while about half of those in the survey carrying a Y chromosome “now describe themselves as female, 35 percent as transgender, and 6 percent as ‘other.’ ”
Complicating things further is the researchers’ finding that “6 percent of the female-assigned and 12 percent of the male-assigned individuals continue to identify with their birth gender” but “still consider themselves to be transgender because they cross-dress, present part-time as a different gender, or otherwise challenge gender norms.”
The variety of information gathered by the researchers -- and the range of identity and experience subsumed under the heading of “transgender” -- make it difficult to generalize about Beemyn and Rankin’s fine-grained statistical and qualitative analysis of trans life in recent years. Some things do stand out, though.
A majority of respondents in whatever category reported that they “sometimes or often hid their transgender identity.” The psychological benefits of openness seem to be matched by a corresponding degree of risk. Forty percent of those “who reported that they were out to all of their friends were the most likely to state that they had experienced anti-transgender harassment with the last year” (with comparable experiences reported by those who were open about their status “to their nuclear families, extended families, and colleagues”) while only 10 percent of those who concealed their transgender identity indicated they had been harassed.
“Fewer than 10 percent of respondents confronted the harasser at the time (or sometime later),” Beemyn and Rankin note, “and only 6 percent lodged a complaint with the appropriate authority.” A reluctance to involve the police is understandable: other researchers have found that fear of being harassed by the police is common among transgender people. (See, for example, the recent video of a transgender woman being stunned with a taser gun by rangers while she stood with hands in the air.)
The situation on college and university campuses is sometimes better, but it should not be overstated. Of the students, faculty members, and administrators surveyed by Rankin in an earlier national study, 92 percent of transgender respondents “reported that they were the targets of harassment because of their gender identity.” While a growing number of educational institutions have incorporated “gender identity and expression” into their nondiscrimination policies, the authors say that more than 90 percent of two- and four-year colleges have taken no steps at all “and remain completely inaccessible and inhospitable to transgender students.”
The indicators of just how much of an uphill battle trans people still face -- as if things hadn’t changed that much since the days when Sexology magazine was around -- colored my initial reading of the book, and made it seem kind of depressing. I wrote to the authors to ask if they thought otherwise.
“In my mind,” responded Beemyn, “the study shows dramatically different experiences by age. While it may have been largely depressing for people in previous generations, it is often much less so today. Younger trans people in general are not going through prolonged periods of denial, self-repression, and uncertainty; have connections with other trans people from a young age; have role models and mentors; and are able to find friends and partners who support their gender identity.”
Rankin seconded that point. And fair enough: the authors report that 90 percent of their respondents, of whatever age, “realized that they did not fit in with others of their assigned gender by the end of their teen years” -- with large majorities having already felt that way before adolescence, and about one in five experiencing gender dissonance from early childhood on. Most subjects in their 30s and older indicated that they had tried to hide or repress such feelings for long periods, and “more than half of the older participants did not meet another transgender person until they were at least forty years old.”
The contrast with the experience of younger participants in the study couldn’t be more stark. “Among the twenty-one interviewees who were between eighteen and twenty-one years old,” write the authors, “only four indicated that they repressed their sense of gender difference throughout childhood and adolescence,” while “more than two thirds … had already met other transgender people by the time they began to identify" that way.
The formidable array of data presented by Beemyn and Rankin shows that discrimination, humiliation and assault remain facts of transgender life. But at least some of the interview subjects may have more energy to fight them, since they won't be at war with themselves. In time, they will probably take self-respect for granted. If so they ought to go read one of Cauldwell's pamphlets. Even that much information and sympathy, inadequate though it now seems, was once incredibly hard to find.
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