The following is an excerpt from the 1997 Presidential Address at the Harry Benjamin International Gender Dysphoria Symposium. This organization is currently known as WPATH (World Professional Association for Transgender Health), and is the preeminent transgender lobbying organization for the medical industry.
WPATH devotes itself to promotion of medical/surgical “treatment” of gender nonconformity, based on the philosophy that females and males who non-perform social roles ascribed to their sex should disguise themselves as members of the opposite sex to prevent corrosion of the gender hierarchy which ritualizes and enforces male domination and female subordination.
Dr. Harry Benjamin, an endocrinologist and sexologist, pioneered this “treatment” and is known as “The Godfather of Transsexualism”.
By Friedemann Pfaefflin, MD
“For a continental European it is a great pleasure to visit British Columbia and to watch the salmon climb the rivers and the salmon ladders to reach their spawning grounds where they fertilize and start their new journeys through the oceans. Just like the tides it seems to be an eternal circuit of being born and dying away. Every individual salmon contributes to it. It goes on and on, although not all salmons reach their places of origin and are able to procreate. Quite a few are caught by fishermen on their journey, and others are devoured by bigger fish or by the black bear. Some grow to an enormous size and if caught they are exhibited as trophies: the salmon king of a certain year or of an individual valley.
It is this picture that came to my mind when I was pondering the prospective topic for the Presidential Address at this Symposium. The journey of the salmons seemed to be a metaphor for our scientific dreams and endeavors. They are born and they die away, and we treat the names of selected individual scientists as trophies. We may call such a person a king scientist, and we admire this person for his or her contribution to the progress in the eternal quest of mankind to transcend its boundaries. The ideas of such a person may fertilize the minds of many others. They also may be treated by the entourage of the king salmon as if the truth had been found forever and as if the narrow stream of the individual valley is just like paradise. The followers thus may never become aware of what is going on in neighboring valleys. That may be one of the reasons why mankind has to repeat itself over and over again, and why every new generation seems to have to invent the same things that could have been known if one looked across the boundaries of one´s own valley.
It is the purpose of this presentation to demonstrate that some of the issues we are struggling with look like second or even third editions of problems our forefathers in the field had already tried to solve. I will use Harry Benjamin, Sigmund Freud and Magnus Hirschfeld, three of the most outstanding sexologists of the beginning of the century, who worked in the field, before the term sexology was known, to exemplify this.
Our Association carries Harry Benjamin´s name in its coat of arms as the name of the physician and scientist who paved the way to a better understanding of transsexualism, and above all, an easier access to cross gender living, cross sex hormonal treatment and sex reassignment surgery. Without his deep caring for far more than a thousand patients, without his engagement in academic and professional organizations, without his numerous talks and writings, these treatments might not have become as easily accessible as they are now. We owe him a lot, and his work has been acknowledged in previous presidential addresses, in the special issue of the Archives of Sexual Behavior in his memory, published about a year after his death (Ihlenfeld et al. 1988), and in the short portrait of him in the introduction to the abstracts of this conference (Schaefer & Wheeler 1997).
Before he turned to treating transsexual patients and responding to their concrete wishes, he had devoted much of his work to rejuvenating individual life or rather prolonging it. Both wishes, to transcend the time limitations of an individual life as well as to transcend individual boundaries of sex and gender most probably are as old as mankind itself – religious traditions of various backgrounds, myths, philosophies, pieces of art and literature giving testimony thereof.
We know quite a bit about his work and his life, but we are still missing a biography of him putting the roots of his research and clinical work into the perspective of contemporary scientific developments and investigating mutual influences between him and other king scientists and clinicians of his era, an epoque which witnessed an unprecedented development of sex research and sexual science. When he was a young man, the capitals of Austria and Germany, Vienna and Berlin, were the two very places to study sexology. Although he set off very early for the United States, he stayed in close contact with the leading researchers of those places, and he eagerly soaked up every new finding of sexual endocrinology and sexual psychology years before he met the first transsexual patient. Let me highlight just a few examples.
He was an ardent admirer of the work of Eugen Steinach (1940), Vienna, who, together with Magnus Hirschfeld (Steakley 1985, Baumgardt et al. 1985), Berlin, experimented with the transplantation of gonads to cure all kinds of what then was considered a sexual disorder, for instance homosexuality. Like Steinach, Benjamin believed in the beneficial effects of vasoligation or sterilization respectively, to postpone the process of aging and to cure – among other complaints – erectile dysfunctions. For the psychoanalysts among you it may be worth mentioning that even Sigmund Freud underwent such a sterilization operation in the hope to thus defeat his cancer disease and to slow down the process of aging (Schur 1972). This is worth mentioning because so many psychoanalytic colleagues are still reluctant to accept the overall beneficial results of somatic treatment measures in gender reassignment.
On one of his visits to Vienna, Benjamin met Freud and consulted him because of personal problems with sexual potency. Freud, at that time, was still rather inexperienced in his psychoanalytic technique – at least when judged from our knowledge of today – and he gave Benjamin a very primitive interpretation. He suggested Benjamin´s erectile dysfunction was due to his latent homosexuality, and you certainly can imagine that Benjamin did not appreciate this interpretation.
This short interaction between the two great men resulted in a permanent skepticism of Benjamin against psychoanalysis if not a thorough dislike which since then has been replicated in many encounters of transsexuals and their doctors. A prototypical example of it is found in the movie “I change my life” in which Vanessa Redgrave plays Renee Richards and in which the attempt of a psychoanalytic cure of the patient´s problem is profoundly ridiculed.”