Joanne Meyerowitz Gender Reassignment

Fascinating account of how transsexuality has challenged American concepts of sex, gender, and sexuality in science, medicine, law, and popular culture in the 20th century.

As defined by Meyerowitz (History/Indiana Univ.), transsexuality refers to conditions in which people hope to change the bodily characteristics of sex through hormones and surgery. Sex changes in animals were attempted in Europe in the early decades of the 20th century, and during the 1920s, German doctors performed sex-change surgery on patients, but few Americans were aware of the phenomenon before 1952, when the story of Christine Jorgenson’s transformation from male to female made headlines. Magazines, newspapers, books, and B-movies sensationalized the topic, while scientific literature began debating the biological and social basis of gender and sexuality. By the 1960s, with more men and women calling for the right to determine their own sex, a small number of American doctors were acceding to these demands. Meyerowitz describes the two sexual revolutions that followed: one, the open eroticisation of male-to-female transsexuals; the other, an effort by doctors and transsexuals themselves to distinguish transsexuals from homosexuals and transvestites. She recounts how the latter effort led in the 1970s to the establishment of clinics, professional standards of diagnosis and treatment, research programs, and support groups, and how different concepts of gender led to friction between the emerging transsexual liberation movement and the gay and women’s liberation movements in the decades that followed. With her sympathetic reporting on the lives of individual men and women coming to terms with their transsexuality—especially Jorgenson, who lived until 1989—Meyerowitz gives serious social history an engaging human face.

Informative and absorbing. (20 b&w photographs)

How Sex Changed is a fascinating social, cultural, and medical history of transsexuality in the United States. Joanne Meyerowitz tells a powerful human story about people who had a deep and unshakable desire to transform their bodily sex. In the last century when many challenged the social categories and hierarchies of race, class, and gender, transsexuals questioned biological sex itself, the category that seemed most fundamental and fixed of all.

From early twentieth-century sex experiments in Europe, to the saga of Christine Jorgensen, whose sex-change surgery made headlines in 1952, to today’s growing transgender movement, Meyerowitz gives us the first serious history of transsexuality. She focuses on the stories of transsexual men and women themselves, as well as a large supporting cast of doctors, scientists, journalists, lawyers, judges, feminists, and gay liberationists, as they debated the big questions of medical ethics, nature versus nurture, self and society, and the scope of human rights.

In this story of transsexuality, Meyerowitz shows how new definitions of sex circulated in popular culture, science, medicine, and the law, and she elucidates the tidal shifts in our social, moral, and medical beliefs over the twentieth century, away from sex as an evident biological certainty and toward an understanding of sex as something malleable and complex. How Sex Changed is an intimate history that illuminates the very changes that shape our understanding of sex, gender, and sexuality today.

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