HBS, or Harry Benjamin Syndrome, is another term for transsexuality, named for the German sexologist who did pioneering work in transsexualism. It may surprise you to know that not all transsexuals are of one mind about just what it is that we have (if we have any identifiable condition at all) or what we want or what we’re like.
One of the most interesting divides can be found at TS-SI, a website devoted strictly to people with HBS. No big deal, you say. Of course not, until you read the Op-Ed pages by Lisa Jain Thompson, who makes her point over and over again that people with HBS have absolutely nothing to do with the concept of transgender. Here’s an example of this approach from her 12-29-07 piece:
I am not transgendered. HBS men and women are not transgendered. Our brain’s sex identity was set before we were born. We are neither transgendered or part of someone’s gender theory.
In other words, being transsexual (oops, HBS) is a congenital physical defect that requires one to fix one’s genitals, and nothing more. In the rest of this op-ed piece, Thompson labors to distance herself from queer theory, trans politics, GLBT organizations, and social constructivism. This approach relies very heavily on the concept of brain sex, as you read over and over again that HBS sufferers have a male brain in a female body or a female brain in a male body.
In her 12-31-07 column, Ms. Thompson laments the recent court cases in California and elsewhere seeking gender-neutral bathrooms as being completely off-target:
It would seem that where HBS men and women are focused on bringing their outward sexual organs into agreement with their actual sex, the transgendered community’s key concern is to be able to choose public bathroom facilities at random. An HBS man or woman is driven to correct their misassigned genitals, the transgendered seem driven only to change the noun on their bathroom door.
When I first found the Ts-Si website, I was quite happy to bookmark it as yet another resource available to me, and it does contain a lot of information about science, biology, and sex, but the website is also grounded in this transsexual separatist dogma and a commitment to belittle social and gender theory and political deeds that are hard-fought and hard-won. This end-of-the-year commentary was what put me totally off Ms. Thompson’s agenda, and if you can only read one thing of hers, this should be the one you read, as it captures her philosophy perfectly.
I’m willing to accept the wrong-brain-in-body theory of transsexuality, although I personally think it’s probably more complicated than that. And who knows what researchers will learn as they study the biochemistries, brains, and lives of transpeople? But it seems unnecessarily narrow to say that HBS sufferers have absolutely nothing to do with culture, gender, performance, psychology, and sexual orientation. The way this brain and body have been enculturated has everything to do with those things, and everything to do with how they get by in the world, and everything to do with how they’re perceived/received in the world.
TS-SI’s fairly reductionist argument is this: Transsexuality is nothing more than a brain condition, and fixing it is nothing more than removing a flap of skin, taking some medicine, and getting your “M” on your legal documents changed to “F”. But almost everyone involved in these things, from transsexuals to significant others, knows that “fixing” your condition involves a lot more, and here’s why. It’s not that a transsexual seeks to change a male into a female, focusing exclusively on the biological, but rather that one seeks to change from a man to a woman. “Man” and “Woman” are social categories and “Male” and “Female” are scientific and biological categories. You can remove your testosterone, add estrogen, and fix your secondary sex characteristics via surgery, and you will have, in theory at least, changed the scientific category.
But women are more than females and men are more than males, and society responds to men and women, not to males and females, and TS-SI’s unnecessarily narrow understanding of HBS either has to ignore the social, legal, political, and gender aspects of sex change or it must argue that while those things are important, they are irrelevant to HBS sufferers because society isn’t a medical condition, and the only thing wrong with us is biological and thus only requires medical intervention. The former is deep in denial. And the latter, while being technically correct (I suppose), makes me wonder why, then, it’s necessary to work so hard to distinguish the transgender, queer, gender, and cultural studies approaches from the biological condition of HBS. Ts-Si should simply say “we focus only on the body and leave all the other key personal and cultural and social issues to other organizations” and then they wouldn’t’ have a problem.
And yet the website expends an enormous amount of energy saying “they’re not like us. We have a real medical condition and they’re involved in some kind of queer agenda.” Methinks she protests too much.