December 28, 2014

Diagnoses And Autobiographies: Transwomen in the 1940s, 50s, & 60s

Guest blogger Liam Lair shares research on the social,medical and scientific norms influencing trans* classification in the mid 20th century

Print More
Trans archives at Kinsey

Trans archives at Kinsey

A growing interest in the study of sex at the beginning of the 20th century inaugurated a new field that we now know as sexology. While sexology initially focused on identifying and classifying “sexual mental diseases,” sexologists eventually began to distinguish gender “disorders” from sexual “disorders.” Harry Benjamin’s The Transsexual Phenomenon (1966) was an important marker of this shift, bringing theoretical and medical diagnoses to bear on those deemed “deviant” in regard to gender. The decades leading up to the use of “transvestite” and “transsexual” as diagnoses provide a unique context for looking at normative investments in relationships among sex, gender, sexuality, and race.

While the history of trans individuals and communities is not limited to any particular time, the 1940s, 50s, and 60s are particularly rich for examining the discourses at play that influenced the development of the official diagnoses. Examining how sexologists and trans-identified people encountered and used “transvestite” and “transsexual” allows researchers to explore how race, class, and sexuality effected the construction of TV/TS diagnoses and identities. In turn, we can begin to investigate how these effects are still relevant today. The archives at the Kinsey Institute provide insight into how doctors, trans people, and the popular press were engaging with transvestite and transsexual people. I am particularly interested in how an exploration of these categories will shed light on historical anxieties pertaining to clear, definable boundaries of gender, sexuality, and race. Trans existence exposes the complexity of sex and gender, and in turn complicates how we can talk about sexuality in relation to race and class.  Looking specifically at the terms “transsexual” and “transvestite” can help to unveil the larger context of sexual, gendered, medical, and legal politics throughout the twentieth century.

One point of entry for this project is reading both canonical and less well-known autobiographical writings by transsexual and transvestite individuals. Part of my work with the Kinsey will be to create a guide that traces multiple writings of TV/TS people across several collections. Too often the histories of transsexual, transvestite, and other LGBTQ[1] individuals have been censored, lost, buried and/or neglected. The Kinsey Institute archives are invaluable to preserving the histories of our communities.

Treasures in The Kinsey Institute Archives

The Harry Benjamin and Louise Lawrence Collections, along with the Transsexual Vertical File (TVF) and back issues of Sexology Magazine are invaluable resources for locating autobiographical writing that is not found anywhere else in the world. The Kinsey also owns rare published manuscripts not in circulation, such as Tamera Reese’s 1955 autobiography, “Reborn”: A Factual Life Story of a Transition from Male to Female. The Harry Benjamin Collection houses over one dozen unpublished handwritten and typed autobiographies, ranging from 5 to 75 pages. Louise Lawrence’s two-part autobiography is available in her own collection, along with another entitled “My Strange Fate.” The TVF contains a copy of Charlotte McLeod’s autobiography “I Changed My Sex,” originally published in Mr. Also, Sexology Magazine, between 1947 to 1959, published at least twelve autobiographies of transvestite and transsexual individuals, mostly transwomen. These resources at the Institute offer some of the most diverse and rich archival material of trans* individuals available and help preserve the histories of transsexual individuals.

Social Norms Shape Categorization of Difference

While the categories of transvestite (TV) and transsexual (TS) will always fail to describe the complexity of cross-gendered identification, my project explores the specificity and particularity of their failure. I argue that this failure is not solely a result of the limited nature of categories. This failure is also a result of the historical context and the ideological investments of the sexologists. It is present in medical fields from which the diagnoses emerged, as well as for the individuals that use these terms as identities. The creators of the diagnoses were influenced by ideas about what was considered “normal” gender during this time. On the one hand, this led to the pathologization of trans embodiment. On the other, it led to the social, legal, and medical legitimation of those we would recognize as cisgender today because of their legibly sexed bodies. This bodily legibility is reliant upon understandings of whiteness and race, understandings informed by decades of eugenic projects and publicity. The investment in eugenicist ideology and “normalcy” affected not only trans* people in the mid-20th century, but these investments also affect how we access and understand trans* identity to this day.[2]

Liam Lair is a 2014 John Money Fellow and a graduate student at the University of Kansas in the department of Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. Liam was profiled in Kinsey Today.


[1] LGBTQ is an acronym for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer communities. I use it here in recognition that it is not comprehensive of all identities in our multiple communities.

[2] Trans* refers to the identities beginning with the prefix “trans” like transwoman, transsexual, and transman. Trans* individuals’ gender identity (i.e., woman) does not normatively align with their sex (i.e., male). Cisgender is a term used to describe individuals who are not trans*, individuals whose gender identity (i.e., woman) aligns with the sex they were assigned at birth (i.e., female).