August 17, 2010

HBS 3: What Harry Benjamin really meant

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 trans women" and crossdreamers belong to different species continues.

Read parts 1 and 2 first!

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!)

"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 trans women. 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 trans women, including the crossdreamers, who he -- using the lingo of the day -- called transvestites.

Beyond the binary

In his book the Transsexual Phenomenon from 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 was a "transgenderist"

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":

<- 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 trans women 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 trans women. 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 trans women 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 trans woman 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 trans women. 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 people like me. The fact that they offend me 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)


  1. Personally, I often wish people would communicate who they really are. Everyone in the group wants to be the opposite gender to some degree but it can mean different things and be for different reasons.

    If you look at my life history, I am not transsexual. I am a feminine androgyne by which I mean that I am a feminine person who grew up with characteristics of both sexes and doesn't really feel like a male or a female at a deep level. Of course, I probably wouldn't say that is what I am out on the street or to the genderqueer I occassionally meet. It would be de-legitimizing and for most it wouldn't fit with how they see gender issues.

    I know all sorts of genderqueer but more often I know people who have problems with gender roles more than they have a problem with their gender. It is not unusually to hear someone describe themselves as andro and yet have them feel very much like the member of their sex just not very masculine or feminine. I have even met one person who did a very good job as coming across as a butch female (and may be).

    Most women I have talked to see tg as only masculine versus feminine men and so it is hard for them to understand how a masculine person will want to transition. Too frequently I feel the answer is shame or that they want one little thing they can't have as a male.

    I have gone through periods where I have felt that all masculine TS where men and been very condemning. They still often read as principally men to me. But I am trying to get better about not condemning them because it would be really easy to judge me. I kind of live in a glass house and my position is not envious.

    I think people mistake what someone is to believe their sex with gender and I feel the overall language is bad. Many queens have a female gender but they identify with the male sex and most of them feel like men at some level and some don't and probably are really genderqueer.

    There is tabula rasa. The blank slate from which our identity rises. But I don't think it is really blank. And there is a constructed identity and they don't have to match. Someone born a feminine female can identify as a gay male or a female or possibly even a slightly effeminate straight male. I hate effeminate. It implies there is something wrong about being feminine.

    Maybe the entire picture would be much clearer if there wasn't so much shame involved. There are so many transgendered people and most don't even realize it. The people who agonize over it are sometimes simply those who perhaps ended up with the mismatch of traits that caused the greatest strain between themselves and society.

    I don't have to live the life of many transsexuals to support them. I will never be very much like the majority of them. Honestly, I can identify more with the struggles of a lot of feminine gay men. Generally, my friends are women and gay men. Those people tend to be more comfortable and more accepting of who I am than other groups. But still, I don't hate them.

  2. I think if you look in the waters I swim in, you can see a spectrum of different possibilities. I don't think it is as simple as henry would like and I am not sure that the majority of transitioners don't do it because of a very specific agp-type need. AGP seems to be one of the most shameful things out there. Perhaps it is shameful because it provides incongruence in what otherwise seems to be a perfectly contructed identity. One incongruence properly placed and humans question. Then they construct a new sexual identity and suddenly the majority of who they are becomes anathema, wrong, or something that can't be right. Is the problem really that most are the other sex or just that many are not completely like their birth sex? Perhaps we have made all the boxes too small and everything is a social problem. Boxes/definitions/stereotypes tend to shrink as societal size increases and the need to simplify complex situations increases.

    I think people with issues should start with seeing themselves as human and a collection of needs rather than this simplification we call sex or gender. When they feel incongruence, they should ask themselves how they should interact with the world around them to get their needs met and to what extent it is worthwhile to not get your needs met in order to be socially acceptible. For example, being a little bit more butch than your really are might be acceptable but denying sexual attraction to people may not. Society is not built for everyone as themselves and will always demand sacrifices so people don't have to think. What do you want to sacrifice and what do you want to keep and to what extent? How do you take the freak who lives in us all and construct for yourself a masquerade to go out among the living? It can be a suit of armor that makes things a little easier or a little too pleasant demeanor.

    Still, for all god might make little deviations, I don't think s/he often deals us hands that are atrociously bad. Little challenges everywhere but not often a raw deal. And all this, and sometimes the deal seems very raw but still most of the time labels exist because they fit.

  3. @Amanda

    I agree with your observations.

    It is clear that main reason this all becomes so toxic is the sexual element. Our culture is obsessed with sex, and basically we are still stuck to the idea that sex i "bad" somehow.

    The generations that cling to the HBS/CT ideas are brought up with the idea that women are "pure" and "unsullied" by dirty thoughts, or at least: they should be.

    Hence you can dream of becoming a mother, but not get turned on by the idea of becoming a sensual woman.

    It does not matter if crossdreamers and crossdressers at the same time want to dress up as women, behave like women, feel like women (whatever that is); they are still tainted because they get sexually aroused by the idea of having sex as a woman.

    The fact that genetic women also get turned on by the idea of having sex as a woman (some 50 percent of Norwegian women own a sex toy) does not count, because in this paradigm only men have strong sex drives.

    It is interesting to note that in Benjamin's chart, one of the major differences between the crossdreamers and the transsexuals is that the transsexuals are more likely to have a low libido.

    I suspect that many in the HBS crowd are asexual, and that this reinforces their belief that they are different from the crossdreamers.

  4. Well Jack, low testosterone or low susceptability to testosterone kind of equals low libido.

    I have more libido when taking female hormones than I normally have. Does that re-affirm anything? No.. only makes it more obvious that endocrinological abnormalities are at play.

    It is not abnormal for me to only have sexual feelings once a year. Hence, I frequently have sexual orientation confusion which would be unlikely for most people.

    Honestly, the sexual problems I have are upsetting and really, to some degree, they have two solutions: I can either supplement testosterone or I can take estrogen. Even if I did not have serious desires to live as a female (let's say that gender didn't matter), I would probably prefer estrogen because it is a lot easier to present as a male after feminizing than it is to present as a female after masculinizing. Many genetic women can pass as men. Fewer men can pass as women.

    But does the fact that I have certain biological issues that I factor into my decisions make things easier? Maybe.. maybe not.

    I have been attracted to men and it would be much easier for me if I grew up being crazy about guys because then I would know I am doing the right thing. Without low libido, I might turn out to be very feminine person who non-the-less would have been relatively straight (unlikely) and happy as a male. But we only can work with what we can observe.. From god's point of view, s/he could be laughing over the fact we feel gender exists at all.

    So.. I think that while low libido might make transition decision hypothetically easier to defend, I don't think it makes it easier.

    I think in the end that all transgendered people envy the life experiences of that which they most identify with and those people who seem most likely to have some similarity to those experiences.

    But at some points questions make no sense.. If I grew up with 10x the amount of testosterone (or affect of testosterone) that I have naturally, would I behave more like my brother? And given that developmental endocrinology structures the brain, couldn't it be a valid reason to feel a certain way?

  5. I think a theme needs to be that it would be easier for everyone to come to terms with who they were if there wasn't all the shame and society was a little more tolerant.

    No one wants to hit puberty and then suddenly be called a fag and jeered at by all the kids around them (as feminine men often do - and lets please remove the word effeminate from the english dictionary or at least the conotation that being feminine is wrong). No one wants to engage in activities which might cause their sexual orientation to be questioned (as crossdressors who are not gay do). No one wants to be judged as less female or male due to their sexuality (as gay men and lesbians frequently are).

    Natural variation is a wonderful thing that, in general, ensures the survival of the species and almost always makes the human race better. We should celebrate differences and help people make the best choices they can for the cards they are given rather than condemning them.

    If I saw Jack in a dress, I probably wouldn't feel there was anything feminine about it *BUT* that shouldn't matter. He needs to make the best choices for himself and.. the fact that a man can love a woman that much, perhaps in a way our society considers twisted but still, gives some hope of ever have a degree of true equality and respect between men and women. And really.. as long as we don't have to make someone pervert their nature in order to fulfil part of it, screw society. Everyone just needs to be as true to themselves as possible. I don't think there ever are any easy answers.

    And even if science finds answers behind AGP.. The answer is unlikely to ever be as pretty or vindicating as some would like. It exists and it is natural but in this world, if you are not a clone, you are ugly. It just shouldn't be that way.

    We can't change what all the reasons behind so called transgendered behavior are but everyone can work to remove the stigma and help ensure that people make the best decisions for themselves.

  6. I guess the only thing Mr. Benjamin failed to account for is why so many level 3 and 4 individuals eventually transition and why some level 5 individuals might choose to live as gay men.

    Of course, that assumes that his picture isn't only one side of things as are the AGP/HSTS, etc. views. The reality is probably a bit more complex.

    On the scale, I would probably be between a 5 and 6 leaning toward 6but not a solid 6 by any means. Ironically, my mother would probably categorize me as a 4 but she also wants me to live as a gay male so..

    My personal guess would be that most level 5 individuals probably end up living as gay men and most solid level 6 are early transitioning "true" transsexuals. I know a couple solid level 6s and there path is more obvious than mine. If need be, I can survive living as an andro, slightly effeminate male and maybe occasionally be taken for a queen. I don't want to but I could. I don't think many solid 6s could even pass as andro. I definitely can't pass in any heathy way as being genuinely masculine.

    If I didn't have some unusual advantages as far as passability, I would probably be living as an andro of effeminate male and probably just tell people I was gay or predominantly so. This is my last transition attempt. If I can't live as a female this time, I am probably going to accept a gay identity. I just really need to get on with my life.

  7. Obviously, you´ll find no doctors who invented HBS, because...who could 'invent' a condition that occurs when you are in the womb? Science actually discovered that it´s more a natural variation, than a mental illnes, a sexual sin, an option, etc. etc. etc.

    And, in the case you don´t agree with this 'biologic tendence', OK let´s proove that is not a biologic issue, show us all HOW it develops (supposedly, if it´s not an inborn condition).

    Prove it. The whole world is waiting for a response.
    Let´s prove that HBS is NOT an inborn condition...
    then we talk ;)

  8. HBS is a brilliant "thesis" spoiled by personal feelings against people that have nothing at all to do with it.


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