What Harry Benjamin Really Meant about Crossdressers and Transwomen

Jack Molay's picture

In this post I will take a look at what one of the giants of trans research, Harry Benjamin, really meant about what he called "transvestites" and "transsexuals".

The discussion of Rose White's book on the Harry Benjamin Syndrome and the idea that "true transwomen" and crossdreamers belong to different species continues.

What about Harry Benjamin?

"So who are these HBS people that hold themselves clear and distinct from all other people on the planet?" Rose White asks. (Yes, that was a direct quote!). Her answer:

"Put simply an HBS is a person who from first memory feels to be trapped in the wrong body just as Harry Benjamin described back in 1966."

But would Harry Benjamin have embraced White's book if he was alive today? I can with great certainty say that he would have hated it!
Harry Benjamin
Harry Benjamin (1885-1986) was a German endocrinologist who late in life, in the US, started treating and doing research on transwomen. His patient Christine Jorgensen made transexuals known in the US. His pioneering work remains very influential.
Benjamin was a man of his time and his use of language reflects that period, but all in all he was a very tolerant and loving man who embraced all transwomen, including the crossdreamers, who he -- using the lingo of the day -- called transvestites.
Beyond the binary
In his book the Transsexual Phenomenonfrom 1966 Benjamin observes that:
"For the simple man in the street, there are only two sexes. A person is either male or female, Adam or Eve. With more learning comes more doubt. The more sophisticated realize that every Adam contains elements of Eve and every Eve harbors traces of Adam, physically as well as psychologically."
Because of this Benjamin does not operate with a binary system as the one of White (or Ray Blanchard for that matter):
"Coming back to the differences between transvestism and transsexualism, another simpler and more unifying concept and a corresponding definition may have to be considered. That is, that transvestites with their more or less pronounced sex and gender indecision may actually all be transsexuals, but in varying degrees of intensity.
"A low degree of largely unconscious transsexualism can be appeased through cross-dressing and demands no other therapy for emotional comfort. These are transvestites (Group 1).
A medium degree of transsexualism makes greater demands in order to restore or maintain an emotional balance. The identification with the female cannot be satisfied by wearing her clothes alone. Some physical changes, especially breast development, are requirements for easing the emotional tension. Some of these patients waver between transvestitic indulgences and transsexual demands for transformation (Group 2).
"For patients of a high degree of transsexualism (the 'true and full-fledged transsexual'), a conversion operation is the all-consuming urge, as mentioned earlier and as a later chapter will show still more fully. Cross-dressing is an insufficient help, as aspirin for a brain tumor headache would be (Group 3)."
Harry Benjamin as a supporter of the "transgender" concept
So, according to Benjamin crossdressers and "true" transsexuals are different positions on a scale. Their "transsexuality" is the same (at least for some "transvestites" and transsexuals), while the degree of transsexuality differs.
He also refers to crossdressers who gradually move towards transitioning, exactly the kind of development White cannot accept.
"Nature does not abide by rigid systems," Benjamin says. "The vicissitudes
of life and love cause ebbs and flows in the emotions so that fixed boundaries cannot be drawn."
The Benjamin model
So how has it been possible for White to misinterpret Benjamin in this way? Well, she is probably projecting her own prejudices onto the book, reading what she wants to read.
Benjamin developed an interesting typology of the trans phenomena. Click on the image below to see his table.
Benjamin explicitly and repeatedly says that there are no clear boundaries between the columns, but White and others like her read it this way, because it gives them the order and exclusivity they so desperately need.
Benjamin does not deny the sexual slant to crossdressing. He also upholds the traditional theory that there are fetishistic transvestites, i.e. where the main focus of interest is on feminine garments. This he considers a sexual deviation. But at the same time he has a category of transvestites with a latent transsexual trend, where there is a "gender disharmony":
<- Image: Harry Benjamin
"The second inception of transvestism is not fetishistic but in all probability the result of an inborn or early acquired transsexual trend of 'latent' character. (S.O.S. III). Those patients (like true transsexuals), invariably date the beginning of their deviation to earliest childhood. 'As long as I can remember, I wanted to be a girl' is a frequent part of their history.
"While it is quite possible that such statements may merely express the wish that it may be so, most evidence gained not only from patients but also from relatives points to the fact that transvestitic tendencies, in the great majority of all cases, were noted in the first five or six years of the child's life."
Benjamin is clearly confused about the cause of the different types of "transvestites". At the same time as he upholds a difference in etiology (cause) for the two types, fetishists vs. latent transsexual, he also opens up for biological men developing from fetishists to transsexuals:
"A sharp differentiation between a fetishistic and a latent transsexual inception of transvestism is not always possible. The fetishistic can gradually develop into the (basically) transsexual variety, as case histories have repeatedly shown me. The former, however, may well contain elements of the latter from the very beginning. Otherwise the initial morbid interest in one or several articles of female wardrobe would hardly have evolved into the desire for total 'dressing.' The basic transsexualism may therefore explain an occasional and, seemingly, progressive nature of transvestism."
How a fetishist can develop into a transsexual is not explained, but this is clearly what he says.
Closeted gay men
White repeatedly talks about crossdressers as being homosexuals. They are not, Benjamin says:
"The idea that transvestism may be a latent or masked form of homosexuality was expressed by several writers but particularly by the Viennese psychoanalyst, Wilhelm Stekel, and is still favored by some of his followers.
"The explanation seems simple enough, but to the unprejudiced clinical observer it does not ring true. Kinsey and his collaborators also consider it incorrect. There are too many clearly heterosexual transvestites and it could do no good to saddle them with another (the homosexual) emotional burden, a deviation that they often greatly resent and reject."
Benjamin does not conclude on the general etiology (cause) of all these phenomena, but it is clear that he is supportive of an "inborn, organic, but not necessarily hereditary origin."
The only conclusion I can draw from this is that White has not read Benjamin, she has not understood him or she is deliberately misusing his name for political purposes. I, a much detested "autogyne", am much closer to Benjamin's real position than White. Crossdreaming is definitely a Harry Benjamin Syndrome.
The Controversy
White's book is born out of an alliance of HBS transwomen who aggressively fight crossdressers and crossdreamers, and who uphold the dogma that only they can be considered real women.

The Harry Benjamin Syndrome site is down at the moment. I have not been able to find out what has happened to it. "The Original Harry Benjamin Syndrome" site is up and running, though.

The group has been strongly criticized by people from the transgender community:
Laura of Laura's Playground originally sat up a site in support of HBS. She later turned it into a site against the HBS. She explains why:

"With such an impressive name you must be wondering how many medical doctors invented this medical syndrome? The answer is none. The inventor of this syndrome is a non-medical lay person. Charlotte Goiar claims to own the originating web site. Does this give her authorship? In addition permission was never obtained from Dr Benjamin's heirs to use his name. Can a layperson invent a Medical Syndrome? NO! Can A layperson write Medical Standards of Care for anyone? No! Can a layman change terms and definitions established for Transsexuals by Medical Doctors? NO!"

She says that in order to learn more she joined the Official Yahoo HBS Support Group, and found it to be an anti-GLBT group:

"People who asked simple questions and needed support, were diagnosed by militant members as being transgendered, perverts and fetishists. Gays and lesbians were also denigrated with frequent slurs. In fact those who did support GLBT [gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender] rights were banned simply for supporting them. "

Is this important?
Why do I bother writing about this? Well, like all transgendered persons many crossdressers and crossdreamers struggle with guilt, shame, confusion, depression and grief. The growth of the Internet have given them a new arena where they can reach out and get in touch with other transgender people -- a place to get help.
Too often their cries for help are met with hateful and derogatory comments from HBS transwomen. These comments seem to confirm the prejudices found in the rest of society. I have been in touch with crossdreaming teenagers who have considered suicide after meeting such an aggressive lack of compassion. It is important that crossdreamers and crossdressers realize that this group does not represent transwomen in general.
The HSB/CT position can be defended
My point is not that it is wrong to uphold the belief that "HBS women" or "classical transsexuals" are completely different from crossdreamers. I disagree with this approach, but the position remains a valid point of view. It is this hateful way of communicating I cannot stand.
Ironically it is actually easier to defend such a standpoint using a more complex approach (gender identity as the combined result of a large number of biological variables) rather than the essentialist position of the HBS group and the "classic transsexuals".
They need to find one and only one part of the brain that makes them female, which puts them completely at the mercy of a handful of researchers. One thing is certain: science constantly develops and what is considered the truth today may very well be considered to be old prejudices tomorrow.
Using the much hated "transgender" approach you can argue that a female gender identity appears when a sufficient number of "feminine" traits are present in a sufficiently strong degree. You could say that a biological male is female when the combination of traits have reached critical mass. If you pass that tipping point the gender dysphoria becomes acute, and it is impossible for that person to live a harmonious life in her male body. Using this approach it becomes perfectly clear that a transwoman is very different from your average crossdresser, even if they share the same etiology (cause).
The reason the HBS group is not following this approach is probably because it cannot be used to stigmatize crossdressers, crossdreamers and feminine gay men as perverts. Their fear of being associated with these groups stops them from taking the obvious route, even if this is the route Harry Benjamin took in the real world, and not in the fantasy world of White.
For them it is important to be understood as stereotypical women, so that there can be no doubt as regards their right to call themselves women. The very existence of crossdressers and transsexual prostitutes means that they may be associated with people they believe are perverts and degenerates. Regular men and women may suspect that they too are "perverts" of this kind, which is why they so desperately try to keep a distance from them.
They take this as far as trying to change the meaning of words in order to achieve this goal. To White the word "transsexual" has become tainted because of all the crossdreamer transwomen. Hence the need for the HBS term. For "classical transsexuals" using the word "transgender" as an umbrella term embracing all types of gender variation is offensive, because the word indicates that they have something in common with crossdressers, crossdreamers ("autogynephiliacs"), drag queens and effeminate gay men. The fact that they offend me - a crossdreamer -  by finding me so toxic, does not seem to bother them. The goal apparently justifies the means.
I would love to see a constructive and fruitful discussion on the various forms of transgender lives, what causes them and how you can learn to live with them, but that means that the HBS group will have to find a way of communicating that is more constructive than the one of White.
Further reading:
Charlotte Goiar, the founder of the HSB movement, has written a knol that describes the syndrome.
For a a more serious defense of the "classical transsexual" position, see Anonymous T Girl. She is also highly critical of the HBS culture.

Harry Benjamin Syndrome Revealed: The naked bigotry of some transwomen against others (Hontas Farmer).

Harry Benjamin Derangement Syndrome (Below the Belt)

Harry Benjamin Syndrome - Transgender-haters putting the BS in HBS (Transboutique)

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