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27 June 2016

Benjamin’s TS Phenomenon – comments

Harry Benjamin's book is now 50 years old.
  • Harry Benjamin. The Transsexual Phenomenon. Julian Press, 1966. Warner Books Edition 1977, with a bibliography and appendix by Richard Green.  PDF (with different pagination). 
Part I:  intro and the Scale
Betty (?1938 - ?) female impersonator, salesgirl, model. --- 2nd entry, Appendix D, autobiographies
Part II:  transvestites
Clara Miller (1899 - ?) fur merchant, office worker ---  3rd entry, Appendix D, autobiographies
Part III: trans women
Joe (1920 - ?) cattle breader, art dealer ---  4th entry, Appendix D, autobiographies
Part IV: photos, legal, trans men, conclusions

See also my biography of Harry Benjamin:
Part 1 - beginings
Part 2 - rejuvenation.
Part 3 - transsexualism to 1966.
Part 4 - transsexualism since 1966
Harry Benjamin's other books
The other Harry Benjamin

When I wrote my 4-part biography of Harry Benjamin in October 2012, I had intended to finish with a review of his major book. However it turned out to be a bigger task than I had realized, and I put it aside until now. As this year is the 50th anniversary of the book's publication, this is certainly a good time to reread it.

A close reading reveals that the book is composed of segments that were written at different times. Sometimes this is openly admitted. Such that chapter 1 was published in Sexology in 1961, and part of chapter 7 in Sexology in 1963. Sometimes this is deduced such as at the beginning of chapter 6 where Benjamin writes: “Although this volume does not deal with transvestism specifically, a few remarks as to the therapy of this less serious deviation, in comparison with TSism, may be in order” as if chapters 2 and 3 do not exist. The grumpy bits at the beginning and end of chapter 4 were probably written at a different time from the rest of the book, including the middle parts of the same chapter.

Textual analysis as a tool well developed in literature and Bible studies (e.g. we know the text of TS Eliot’s Waste Land before Ezra Pound edited it, and gave us the version that is best known; The Epistle to the Philippians contains a kenotic hymn at 2:5-11 whose theology is quite at odds with the rest of the document). The tool is only just beginning to be used in transgender studies. The obvious document for such analysis is Neils Hoyer’s autobiography of Lili Elvenes (Elbe), where Sabine Meyer has made a good start.

The Harry Benjamin Archives at the Kinsey Institute, Indiana (a US State where trans persons are not allowed to use the toilets) is quite vast. Does it contain the initial drafts that became The Transsexual Phenomenon? A comparison with the published version would be a useful PhD thesis for somebody to write.


Some parts of the book do not seem to know about Benjamin’s Scale, suggesting that it was developed after the book was partly written. The big problem in the scale is the assignment of Kinsey Scale numbers which led inevitably to erasures, of gay transvestites and gynephilic transsexuals. In a couple of cases Benjamin attempts to get around this by declaring a person to be a Kinsey 3 or 4 while being a husband and father, but a 6 after deciding to transition. As Kinsey and his team based positions on the scale on a person’s sexual history this would be an innovation by Benjamin.  In Kinsey's usage a person who was 3 or 4, and then became exclusively androphilic, would have become a 5, not a 6.   Your previous history becomes part of your current history.


Other problems with the scale are the lack of real difference between Type III and Type IV and the lack of a type for full-time non-ops. This would seem to have grown out of Benjamin’s previous three-part typology 1) those who merely want to ‘dress’ and be accepted as women. 2) those who waver, who want breast development but shy away from surgery. 3) ‘fully developed’ transsexuals. Hence he mainly sees a Type IV more as wavering, rather than choosing to live without surgery (despite the name).

Type I (pseudo-transvestites) is not really thought through. Three subtypes are quickly mentioned:
  1. “Nonaffective dressing” is Type 0 (cis) doing drag for non-existential ends.
  2. Those who cross-dress when young and then desist.
  3. Those who never actually cross-dress, but enjoy transvestic films and literature.
Type II is quite muddied by being labeled ‘fetishistic’ while not understanding fetishism, a practice performed by a few transvestites, a few transsexuals, and mainly cis persons. Type III is ‘true transvestite’, implying that type II is sort of ‘false transvestite’. In what way false? This is not addressed, other than talking about ‘fetishism’. Some trans women who are into fetishism, or go through a period of fetishism, appear otherwise to be true transvestites (Johnny Science, Kim Christy),  and some complete the transsexual journey (Lana Wachowski). In this, as in much else, Benjamin paid too much attention to Virginia Prince who was obsessed that her femmephilics not be regarded as fetishistic.

As I wrote: “Two years after Benjamin’s book, Transvestia columnist Sheila Niles popularized the concept ‘whole girl fetishist (WGF)’ for FPE members who did not pass well enough, particularly if it were for lack of trying. Over the next few years it came to be that those who failed or didn’t bother to fashion themselves as truly feminine were ‘fetishistic’. Susanna Valenti even estimated that the majority of members were WGFs”. I think that here we have the key to what Type II should have been: those who don’t attempt to pass, especially those who get off on being read. Those who want to pass are often uncomfortable around those who don’t care to. This division, into true=wants to pass and false=doesn’t want to pass, can also be applied to female impersonators, as they were then called - as long as we do not insist that they are Kinsey 0-2.  Some female impersonators were women offstage (the pre-op Coccinelle, April Ashley etc) but others were definitely men offstage.

Those who relish attention, on or off stage, are sometimes called drag queens (of whatever sexual orientation) or attention whores. But only a small percentage of them may reasonably be called ‘fetishistic’. So would genderqueer and non-binary be false transvestites in this meaning? Mixing up 1960s questions and ways of thinking with 21st century concepts is an interesting game, but of limited validity.   Nobody in 1966 was  genderqueer or non-binary, and so we need not pursue the question. Today very few people want to declare any one group ‘true’, and another ‘false’. That does not get us anywhere.


The HBS crowd made a big deal of being followers of Benjamin while execrating Virginia Prince. This is intellectually nonviable as Prince and Benjamin were long time associates and Prince is repeatedly mentioned in The Transsexual Phenomenon. She is mentioned 5 times in the first three chapters, and in addition Benjamin also repeats opinions that we know had earlier been expressed by Prince. From chapter 4 onwards, transvestism has been left behind, and perhaps you hope that Prince is also left behind. However she is mentioned another three times.

Prince also deformed the work of Richard Docter and Vern Bullough. I certainly think that Benjamin should have been advised to pay her less attention, and more attention to Louise Lawrence and Patricia Morgan. He should perhaps have also paid more attention to those trans women who could not afford his fees and went to Leo Wollman, Benito Rish or David Wesser instead.


So is a change of sex possible? The Warner Books cover promises: “All the facts about the changing of sex”. Chapter 1 (written 1961) affirms that chromosomes are only one of seven aspects of what is sex. I think that most of us go with this. It is really disconcerting that Benjamin reneges in chapter 3 and declares that “No actual change of sex is ever possible”. And then again in chapter 7 (written 1963): “Furthermore, the operation, even if successful, does not change you into a woman”.

Editor Brooking Tatum did not feel that this inconsistency was something that should be resolved.


Benjamin lists four motives for the conversion operation (p140-2/65-6):
  1. Sexual. “It concerns particularly the younger transsexuals. Their sex drive is not that of a homosexual man but that of a woman who is strongly attracted to normal heterosexual men.”
  2. Gender. “Especially for the older transsexuals, the urgent need to relieve their gender unhappiness can be powerful and impressive”.
  3. Legal. “The constant fear of discovery, arrest, and prosecution when ‘dressing’ or living as women is a nightmare for many. They want to be women legitimately and have a legal change of their sex status.”
  4. Social. “applies only if the transsexual patient happens to have a conspicuous feminine physique, appearance, and manners” [while still presenting as male] 
I will leave (2) until last.
1. This became a standard criticism that androphilic trans women were really gay men in denial.  This, of course, is not so, not only because many 'gay transsexuals' first explored the gay scene, but found that they were something different from gay men.

Furthermore there are  men who do want to have sex as a woman, but without being a woman, who seek to acquire a vagina, but otherwise continue living as men. They are rarely discussed. They are not what Benjamin meant here.
3. Fortunately – in most of Europe and North America – it is no longer a crime to dress or live as a woman without surgery. However in many parts of Asia, Africa and South America it still is. And in many of these countries, a conversion operation is not recognised. However even where such legal hassles are present, is the fear of discovery really a greater motivator than the desire to be fully a woman?
4. As it happened there were three outstanding transsexuals in the 1960s who were frequently taken to be women even when dressing as male: Coccinelle, April Ashley, Rachel Harlow. Most of us are not so beautiful. However surely all three became women because they wanted to be women, not that they became women involuntarily to avoid hassles. In the 1990s we had the example of Jaye Davidson who was cast as Dil in The Crying Game because of his beauty. However he is not transsexual, and continued living as a man.
2. “Especially for the older transsexuals, the urgent need to relieve their gender unhappiness can be powerful and impressive”. This sounds like Anne Vitale’s G3 with Gender Deprivation Anxiety Disorder (GEDAD). Should we assume that Vitale’s G1 has been split between 1 and 4?

What is missing is that persons want the conversion operation for existential reasons, in that they want to be women, have always felt that they are women, being a woman is what feels right, being a woman is who they are. There are other ways of saying it. But the overwhelmingly dominant reason for wanting a conversion operation is not mentioned by Benjamin.

One could use this section on the four reasons to argue that Benjamin did not understand at all why trans women asked for and sometimes got the conversion operation.   You could otherwise argue that his support and empathy showed that he did understand, or at least sympathised.   Speaking as a writer I know that sometimes I write something that seems quite dumb on rereading.    A good writer does reread and takes out what jars with the overall theme of the book.   This was not done re the four reasons, but should have been.


Benjamin states clearly that, except for the frequency of hypogonadism, pre-op, pre-hormone trans women are physiologically indistinguishable from cis males - except for their assertion that they are/want to be women.   And likewise for trans men and cis females.    But what about intersex persons who likewise seek a sex/gender change? 

Benjamin worked with John Money and must have been aware of the work that he was involved in with those who at that time were referred to as 'hermaphrodites'.   He would have been aware that most intersex stick with the gender of rearing, but that a few do not.  And some transsexuals discover that they have xxy or mosaic DNA and then announce that they are not therefore transsexual, even though e.g. the vast majority of xxy boys grow up to be xxy men.

It is perhaps a pity that Benjamin did not comment on this.


Female-to-male persons get pretty short shrift. Not only are trans men confined to one chapter, but female transvestites, and implicitly female fetishists, are erased.

There are four autobiographical accounts in Appendix D. Only the first Ava/Harriet is properly discussed in Benjamin’s text, there is also a very quick mention of the fourth, Joe.

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