But who could describe my fright when, on the next morning, I awoke and found myself feeling as if completely changed into a woman. -- Case 129, Autobiography, from Psychopathia Sexualis, a Medico-Forensic Study by Richard Von Krafft-Ebing
At the time the passage above was written, people who felt trapped in the wrong gender automatically became case-studies. Today they become the men and women they always felt they were. Transsexuals test our notions of what it is to be male or female and, more provocatively, what it means to be one self as opposed to another. "Their stories," says Jonathan Ames, "hold the appeal of an adventurer's tale."
In Sexual Metamorphosis, Ames presents the personal narratives of seventeen gender pioneers. Here is Christine Jorgensen, the first celebrity transsexual, greeting thousands of well-wishers from the stage of Madison Square Garden. Here is Caroline Cossey, former model and Bond (as in James) girl, being outed in the tabloid press. Here is novelist and English professor Jennifer Finney Boylan discussing her impending transformation with her heartbroken spouse and supportive yet confused colleagues. The result is a fascinating and compulsively readable book, filled with anguish, introspection and courage.
It's a story that extends back far into human history: a boy or girl feels uncomfortable in his or her own gender-"trapped" in the body of the wrong sex-and life becomes an attempt to reconcile the dichotomy. But it's only in the last 75 years or so that, with the help of medical technologies, a third act has been possible for this narrative, one in which the story's hero has the opportunity to bridge the schism by actually changing his or her physical gender. And, as the stories in this remarkable anthology show, it's in this third act that the true difficulties begin. In his introduction, editor Ames argues that the shared narrative that runs through this anthology parallels that of the classic "bildungsroman," and it's true that the book is really a collection of coming-of-age stories. But it's the unique perspective of the storytellers, as well as Ames's editorial decisions that make these 15 memoirs (all excerpts) particularly engaging. The book covers such surprising subjects as a Bond girl, a Gulf War vet turned beauty queen and an amateur tennis champion while offering such prurient details as the gory particulars of the operations themselves and the first post-op sexual encounters. But it's the excerpts' most human moments-attempts to explain the transformation to young (and even grown) children, reactions of family, friends and strangers-as well as otherwise mundane situations (i.e., getting fitted for one's first suit as a man) that truly make the book a worthwhile cover-to-cover read. Being an anthology, the book is naturally uneven in sections, occasionally dull or repetitive but, in general, Ames makes great choices in his excerpts, and his introduction is good enough that one wishes he had inserted his own voice in the volume just a bit more.
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April 10, 2005
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Excerpt from Sexual Metamorphosis by Jonathan Ames
PSYCHOPATHIA SEXUALIS Richard von Krafft-Ebing 1886 Richard von Krafft-Ebing (1840?1902) was a German physician and neurologist. His Psychopathia Sexualis (1886), a pioneering collection of 237 case studies in sexual pathology, revolutionized the scientific understanding of sex, influencing Freud (a student of Krafft-Ebing?s) and introducing the terms sadism, masochism, and fetishism. In this excerpt, Case 129 is presented and is the autobiography of a patient who ?feels like a woman in a man?s form.? CASE 129. Autobiography. Born in Hungary in 1844, for many years I was the only child of my parents; for the other children died for the most part of general weakness. A brother of later birth is still living. I come of a family in which nervous and mental diseases have been numerous. It is said that I was very pretty as a little child, with blond locks and transparent skin; very obedient, quiet and modest, so that I was taken everywhere in the society of ladies without any offense on my part. With a very active imagination?my enemy through life?my talents developed rapidly. I could read and write at the age of four; my memory reaches back to my third year. I played with everything that fell into my hands?with leaden soldiers, or stones, or ribbons from a toy shop; but a machine for working in wood, that was given to me as a present, I did not like. I liked best to be at home with my mother, who was everything to me. I had two or three friends with whom I got on good-naturedly; but I liked to play with her sisters quite as well, who always treated me like a girl, which at first did not embarrass me. I must have already been on the road to become just like a girl; at least, I can still well remember how it was always said: ?He is not intended for a boy.? At this I tried to play the boy?imitated my companions in everything, and tried to surpass them in wildness. In this I succeeded. There was no tree or building too high for me to reach its top. I took great delight in soldiers. I avoided girls more, because I did not wish to play with their playthings; and it always annoyed me that they treated me so much like one of themselves. In the society of mature people, however, I was always modest, and, also, always regarded with favor. Fantastic dreams about wild animals?which once drove me out of bed without waking me?frequently troubled me. I was always very simply but very elegantly dressed, and thus developed a taste for beautiful clothing. It seems peculiar to me that, from the time of my school days, I had a partiality for ladies? gloves, which I put on secretly as often as I could. Thus, when once my mother was about to give away a pair of gloves, I made great opposition to it, and told her, when she asked why I acted so, that I wanted them myself. I was laughed at; and from that time I took good care not to display my preference for female things. Yet my delight in them was very great. I took special pleasure in masquerade costumes?i.e., only in female attire. If I saw them, I envied their owners. What seemed to me the prettiest sight was two young men, beautifully dressed as white ladies, with masks on; and yet I would not have shown myself to others as a girl for anything; I was so afraid of being ridiculed. At school I worked very hard, and was always among the first. From childhood my parents taught me that duty came first; and they always set me an example. It was also a pleasure for me to attend school; for the teachers were kind, and the elder pupils did not plague the younger ones. We left my first home; for my father was compelled, on account of his business?which was dear to him?to separate from his family for a year. We m