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Designing Invisible Bodies

Lauren Fried

 

‘After the operation, they can melt into the world in which they want to live’.[1] 

On the last day of the ‘First International Symposium on Gender Identity’ in July 27 1969, Dr John Money appeared before a conglomeration of newspaper, television and radio reporters, who had gathered at London’s Piccadilly Hotel for the brief press conference following the event. Money, a senior doctor at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, confidently announced to the assorted press that medical treatment for transsexual people had now reached the pinnacle of success:

‘Before they [transsexual people] are entitled to live full time in the sex they feel they belong to, if they dress in the clothes that you and I think they belong to, they look really freakish, and attract attention. Whereas afterwards’, Money reasoned, ‘they’re able to melt into the general population’.[2]

'Various Newspaper Clippings from the Erickson Educational Foundation, c. 1969' (c) LAGNA at the Bishopsgate Institute (TG/TV & TS 1900-1960s)

‘Various Newspaper Clippings from the Erickson Educational Foundation, c. 1969’. Image © LAGNA at the Bishopsgate Institute (TG/TV & TS 1900-1960s)

This phrase was pounced upon by the press and spawned a series of articles bearing this headline quote over the following days.[3] Money’s analogy of bodies melting away through strategies of surgical, psychiatric and endocrinological curative treatment is more than a little unsettling. It raises questions of what the perceived aim of cure for transsexual patients was thought to be by the late 1960s. It suggests that transsexual bodies were being forcibly erased with the aim of successfully ‘melting’ them into normality. For a historian of design such as myself, this peculiarly arresting phrase resounds in thinking through issues of somatic materiality, asking what was at stake for patients who interacted with treatment practices which had the explicit aim of dematerialising bodies to protean invisibility.

In the first volume of The History of Sexuality, Michel Foucault remarked upon the repression of ‘perverse’ (i.e. non-heteronormative) sexualities in the 19th century, stating, ‘repression operated as a sentence to disappear , but also as an injunction to silence, an affirmation of nonexistence’.[4]  This was a theory Foucault had previously grappled with in his 1961 work, Madness and Civilization, suggesting that the will to normalise certain bodies is in fact the will to make such bodies disappear entirely.[5] Foucault argued that during the early modern period, lepers were exiled to beyond the city limits and sanctioned from view both spatially and psychically. This injunction of bodily repression, disappearance, silence, and nonexistence, bears a powerful resemblance to Money’s phrase, where trans bodies are medically melted into perceived normality.

Plastic surgery can be thought of as a technology not entirely dissimilar to Foucault’s leper being manoeuvred to beyond the city gates, which enforces bodies considered ‘other’ to transform into material invisibility. Plastic surgery played a key role in the medical treatment of trans people in the 1960s and ‘70s, with medical programmes typically offering uro-genital operations, rhinoplasties, mammoplasties and even limb-shortening surgeries.[6] Sander Gilman, a contemporary historian of plastic surgery, has suggested that the impulse to ‘pass’ is at the very core of plastic surgery’s history and praxis, ever-striving to help people vanish into the ‘imagined majority’.[7] The aim of a curative effect on the designed trans body through plastic surgery was, for Money, evidently more than just about passing: this body would fade into the general population, and then out of it.[8]

'Drawing of the Self by a Transsexual Patient' from Ruth Rae Doorbar, 'Psychological Testing of Male Transsexuals: A Brief Report of Results from the Weschler Adult Intelligence Scale, the Thematic Apperception Test, and the House-Tree-Person Test' in Richard Green and John Money, eds.,Transsexualism and Sex Reassignment (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1969), p. 89. Image c Lauren Fried, 2014.

‘Drawing of the Self by a Transsexual Patient’ from Ruth Rae Doorbar, ‘Psychological Testing of Male Transsexuals: A Brief Report of Results from the Weschler Adult Intelligence Scale, the Thematic Apperception Test, and the House-Tree-Person Test’. Image © Lauren Fried, 2014.

As if in direct response to these issues, transgender activist and theorist Sandy Stone, in her ground breaking essay The Empire Strikes Back, argued that for trans people, ‘It is difficult to generate a counterdiscourse if one is programmed to disappear. The highest purpose of the transsexual is to erase him/herself, to fade into the “normal” population as soon as possible’.[9] In this essay and performance piece, Stone contends that transsexual subjects have been programmed to disappear precisely because of the normalising effects of curative strategies in medical treatment, a point substantiated by Money’s comments. Stone has since argued that medical treatment enforces trans subjects to alter their bodies into heteronormative confines, in order to enact with the regulations of medical access which ‘they did not create’.[10]

The prerogative to ‘pass’ as a non-transsexual body, and to be effaced into heteronormativity by medical intervention, was a key concern in mid-twentieth century medical treatment. By the advent of transgender activism and transgender studies in the 1980s, which Stone was at the forefront of, this was beginning to be challenged. In order for transsexual people to begin operating on a plane of visibility, Stone has suggested, they must stop conforming to those heteronormatising narratives present in medical treatment, and instead rejoice in the notion of ‘not passing’, to proclaim their bodies as defiantly, proudly other, to resist the call to melt away.[11]

Although Dr John Money may have idealised the concept of disappearing the trans body through medical treatment, in reality, people’s lived bodies are not so easy to erase by scalpel or hormones. The bodies of those who underwent surgery and hormonal therapy did not melt away; the body as a substantive, solid and material thing makes this concept delightfully impossible. It is important therefore, to raise the stakes for a history of trans bodies which recognises the importance of visible, lived and living materiality.

For all of us – transsexual and not – being misperceived, wrongly interpreted or erased is one of the most terrible things that can happen. This seems to be particularly true when it comes to gender. To be taken for the wrong sex is to be blotted out, to be mis-seen in the most vital way.[12]

 

Note: The use of the term ‘transsexual’ in this article is used only when it is unquestionably historically valid to do so, in relation to medical contexts from 1949 to 1970. Otherwise, I have chosen to use the term ‘trans’, which allows for less absolutist definitions of a person’s identity, not predicated on whether a body is pre- or post- medical treatment.

 


[1] John Money, ‘Nothing Like a Change’, The New York Post, 29 July, 1969; ‘Sex Change Benefits’, Winston-Salem Journal (29 July 1969); ‘Unsexy Sex’, the Sun, Baltimore (8 June 1969); ‘Patients Improve After Sex Surgery’, Worcester Mass. (29 July, 1969) HCA/AT/11/19.

[2] John Money, Uncorrected transcript of Press Conference at ‘First International Symposium on Gender Identity 25 – 27 July 1969’, p.222. HCA/AT/11/13.

[3] John Money, ‘Nothing Like a Change’, The New York Post, 29 July, 1969; ‘Sex Change Benefits’, Winston-Salem Journal (29 July 1969); ‘Unsexy Sex’, the Sun, Baltimore (8 June 1969); ‘Patients Improve After Sex Surgery’, Worcester Mass. (29 July, 1969) HCA/AT/11/19.

 [4] Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality Volume I: An Introduction, trans. by Robert Hurley (New York: Pantheon Books, 1978), p. 4.

 [5] Michel Foucault, Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason, transl. Richard Howard, orig. publ. 1961 Histoire de la Folie, first publ. GB 1967 (London: Routledge, 1991), pp. 3 – 11.

[6] Milton T. Edgerton, ‘The Surgical Treatment of Male Transsexuals’, Clinics in Plastic Surgery: An International Quarterly, ed. by Blair O. Rogers, ‘Symposium on “Sex Reassignment: Intersex and Gender Identity Disorders’, special ed. by Jon K. Meyer, 1:2 (Philadelphia: W. B. Saunders, 1974), 285-324 (p. 293).

[7] Sander Gilman, Making the Body Beautiful: A Cultural History of Aesthetic Surgery (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999), p. 226.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Sandy Stone, ‘The Empire Strikes Back: A Posttranssexual Manifesto’ in The Transgender Studies Reader, pp. 221-235 (p. 230).

[10] Nikki Sullivan, ‘Transmogrification: (Un) Becoming Other(s)’, The Transgender Studies Reader, pp. 552-564 (p. 552).

[11] Stone, ‘The Empire Strikes Back’, pp. 221-235 (p. 232).

[12] Pagan Kennedy, The First Man-Made Man: The Story of Two Sex Changes, One Love Affair, and A Twentieth-Century Medical Revolution (New York: Bloomsbury, 2007), p. 22.

 

Image credit – ‘Drawing of the Self by a Transsexual Patient’ from Ruth Rae Doorbar, ‘Psychological Testing of Male Transsexuals: A Brief Report of Results from the Weschler Adult Intelligence Scale, the Thematic Apperception Test, and the House-Tree-Person Test’ in Richard Green and John Money, (eds.), Transsexualism and Sex Reassignment, (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1969), p. 89

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Lauren Fried –

Lauren graduated from the V&A/RCA History of Design MA in 2013, writing her dissertation on the use of design as a strategy of medical treatment for MTF trans people in the first half of the twentieth century. She is now looking to carry on her research to PhD level, while she continues to write, lecture and curate.

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© Lauren Fried, 2014. All Rights Reserved.

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