Sex, shrinks, and the state: one woman's adventures in gender crossing and civil disobedience.

Author:McCloskey, Deirdre Nansen
Position:IDEAS - Essay

I'VE BEEN A woman since age 53, starting on Thanksgiving Day 1995.

The concept of gender transition has burrowed into our culture--recently in a surprisingly cheerful way, as in Transparent, the funny, award-winning TV series in which the only sane person is the man becoming a woman, or Transamerica, the sweet 2005 movie for which Felicity Huffman playing male-to-female got a Best Actress Oscar nomination.

But things weren't always so happy-go-lucky.

In northern Europe and its offshoots, starting with the birth of psychiatry in the late 19th century, governments came to have a deep interest in pushing people around in order to punish unconventional expressions of gender and unapproved sexual orientations. While you're binge-watching those modern uplifting trans tales, don't miss 2014's The Imitation Game. It's about the governmental ruination of Alan Turing, the gay man who saved Britain from German submarines and received chemical castration as a thank you.

The unrelenting terror of the 1950s ruined the queer and unprotected. Turing. State Department homosexuals. A dear friend of my family who taught at Harvard. But not Sen. Joe McCarthy's pal Roy Cohn and his boyfriends, of course.

I didn't get pushed around nearly as much as I might have. I got lucky, beginning my transition as a well-to-do tenured professor of economics in the United States just when that reign of gender-and-sexuality terror was beginning to relent.

But the state remained inappropriately, and sometimes violently, involved in the question of my gender. In 1995, standing in court in gentle Iowa to get my name changed from Donald, the judge had seen such requests before and saw no state interest in preventing it. When a month later I needed female documentation to travel without embarrassment to the Netherlands to teach for a year, I wept over the phone to a sympathetic official in the New Hampshire passport office, and she relented.

And in the fall of that same crazy year, I had $8,000 ready to throw at defense lawyers when my younger sister, along with a University of Chicago colleague, tried three times to have me committed for psychiatric observation. They succeeded twice, first in Iowa City and then in Chicago.

LET ME BE clear: If being trans is a psychiatric disorder, I've got it.

The libertarian psychiatrist Thomas Szasz, who chronicled my adventures in one of the last books he wrote before his death, fought to stop such "mental health" persecutions all his career...

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