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16 November 2013

Charles L. Ihlenfeld (1937 – ) sexologist, psychiatrist

Charles Ihlenfeld came from West Virginia, where his father was a prominent attorney and then mayor.  He graduated from the New York School of Medicine, and was working in 1969 as an internist with an interest in endocrinology when a friend arranged an introduction to the then 84-year-old Dr Harry Benjamin who asked him to cover the office during the summer while Benjamin was in San Francisco. Ihlenfeld learned on the job, and stayed on.
"I was awed by the courage of people who were willing to risk losing everything to gain the truth of their own lives".
 He came out as gay in 1973. Benjamin was surprised but then became supportive.

1975 was Benjamin's last summer in San Francisco. He developed facial herpes, and was hospitalized for a few days with what was probably mild encephalitis. Ihlenfeld continued the practice after Benjamin's retirement for another year, until 1976 when he took a psychiatric residency in the Bronx, and Jeanne Hoff took over the practice. This disappointed Benjamin who had considered Ihlenfeld to be his successor. Benjamin, who had learned to be wary of psychoanalysts, was further concerned in that Ihlenfeld had chosen a program with a strong analytic tradition, and old-fashioned ideas about homosexuality. Ihlenfeld told his Director of Residency Training that he was gay and the other was somewhat puzzled and replied: "You mean that there are gay psychiatrists?"

That same year Ihlenfeld was interviewed in The National Observer. He spoke of how working with Benjamin's patients had helped him come to terms with his own sexuality. And how he felt the need to understand more about his patients. He spoke of how he no longer considered the idea of a female mind in a male body to be a satisfactory explanation, and that there were psychologic issues that hormones and surgery did not reach, which might resurface in later years. The newspaper article came with a sidebar which ended with:
“Whatever surgery did, it did not fulfill a basic yearning for something that is difficult to define. This goes along with the idea that we are trying to treat superficially something that is much deeper."
This was quoted twice in Janice Raymond's Transsexual Empire, 1979, and has been often copied in feminist criticism. She hailed his leaving as "a significant defection from the transsexual empire".

The same year as Raymond's book, Ihlenfeld spoke to Garrett Oppenheim's Confide group:
"Should every patient who comes in asking for hormone therapy receive it? I used to feel that most of them should, but now I look at this request a bit more critically. … Perhaps my psychiatric training has made me more conservative. ... 80 percent of the patients who want to change their sex shouldn't do it. ... There is too much unhappiness among people who have had the surgery. ... Too many of them end as suicides. ... The transsexual candidate has been described as the only patient who diagnoses himself and prescribes his own treatment".
Ihlenfeld settled on the North Fork of Long Island with his lover, also a psychiatrist. He continued to see transsexuals for evaluation and counseling, and continued to prescribe hormones and surgery when they seemed appropriate.
"Cross gender feelings strong enough to bring a person to reassignment are probably fixed in personality far too early and far too firmly to reconcile any other way."

Ihlenfeld and his lover were married in Massachusetts in 2008 after several decades together, when the law was changed.

His patients have included Rupert Raj, M.T. Diane Kearny, Renee Richards, Ron Rigsbee. He appeared in court to support the law cases of M.T. and Paula Grossman.

*Not the Ohio prosecuting attorney.
  • Charles L. Ihlenfeld. "When a woman becomes a man." Sexology, 1972.
  • Harry Benjamin & Charles L. Ihlenfeld, “Transsexualism". American Journal of Nursing, 73, March 1973: 460.
  • Charles L. Ihlenfeld. "Thoughts on the treatment of transsexuals." Journal of Contemporary Psychotherapy 6.1, 1973: 63-69.
  • D. Greene interviews Charles L, Ihlenfeld. "A Doctor Tells Why He'll no Longer Treat Transsexuals". The National Observer, October 16, 1976: 14.
  • Janice G. Raymond The Transsexual Empire: The Making of the She-male. Boston: Beacon Press. 1979: 184, 208n33, 212n4.
  • Garrett Oppenheim. "Ihlenfeld Cautions on Hormones". Transition, 1979. Online at:
  • Charles Ihlenfeld. "A Memorial for Harry Benjamin." Archives of Sexual Behavior 17.1, Feb. 1988: 1-33.
  • Joanne Meyerowitz. How Sex Changed: A History of Transsexuality in the United States. Cambridge, Ma, London: Harvard University Press. 363 pp 2002: 214, 217, 249, 251, 267.
  • Charles L. Ihlenfeld, MD. "Harry Benjamin and Psychiatrists".  Journal of Gay & Lesbian Psychotherapy 8.1-2, 2004: 147-151. Reprinted in Ubaldo Leli & Jack Drescher. Transgender Subjectivities: A Clinician's Guide. Binghamton, NY: Haworth Medical Press, 2004: 147-152.

1 comment:

  1. When I look back on my life I wish I knew I could've made choices like these. Guess I'm not so smart!


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