Trans History and Activism

On Tuesday night I was in London participating in a panel on trans history and activism. It was part of a series run by a group called History Acts who bring together activists in various fields and historians who study those fields. I’d originally been approached to be an historian, but they got some actual academic historians for that. However, one of the activists had to cancel, and I was able to step into that role instead.

The historians were all people I knew: Kit Heyam, Catherine Baker and Clare Tebbutt. They all have some sort of queer connection. In fact almost everyone who does trans history well is queer in some way. This, we were told, made the event somewhat unusual for History Acts, in that the historians and activists were very much of the same mind.

The other activist was Morgan M Page who does this podcast and is all-round awesome. She and I take very different approaches, in that I do serious academic history and harrange academics, whereas she takes the history to a much more general audience.

It was a good event, and lots of us got to hang out afterwards, but the most interesting thing I got from it was another great lead from Clare. Several years ago I heard her speak about the work of Lennox Broster who worked with a lot of intersex patients in the 1930s. Assigning the sex of an intersex baby is often difficult, and Broster’s patients generally came to him complaining that they had been wrongly assigned. As he was an expert in such conditions, he could help them change their legal gender.

Broster’s work tended to get reported in the newspapers as cases of people who had “changed sex”. The coverage was sensationalised, but generally supportive of the patients and presented as a scientific miracle. But these were not the only patients that came forward.

On Tuesday Clare talked about the work of a sexologist called Norman Haire. In 1948 he published a book called Everyday Sex Problems. Chapter 2 is all about “changing sex”. Haire details some of the types of cases that Broster worked with, but goes on to add that other are other patients who approach doctors but do not have the same symptoms. Haire notes that no actual change of sex takes place in the case of intersex patients. They simply have their legal sex re-classified. He goes on to say:

It is important to stress this fact, because quite a number of people […] read such sensational articles and apply to surgeons to change their sex for them. From what they have read, they firmly believe that such a change is possible, and it is often difficult to convince them that they are mistaken.

I have recently had requests from four such patients, and they were bitterly disappointed when I told them that no doctor in the world could bring about the change of sex they so desired.”

Haire seems unaware of the work of Magnus Hirschfeld, and the more recent work of Harold Gillies and Michael Dillon. Dillon’s book, Self, in which he describes treatment that he had actually experienced, was published in 1946, but even then was hard to get hold of. However, Haire’s testimony shows that there were people whom we would now class as transsexuals in Britain in the 1940s in much greater numbers than we previously knew. And they existed despite the fact that the gender reassignments that had been carried out before then did not receive wide publicity.