Margaret Atwood has written a warm history of transgenderedness (subscription required):
Skylar is a boy, but he was born a girl, and lived as one until the age of fourteen. Skylar would put it differently: he believes that, despite biological appearances, he was a boy all along. He’d just been burdened with a body that required medical and surgical adjustments so that it could reflect the gender he knew himself to be. At sixteen, he started getting testosterone injections every other week; just before he turned seventeen, he had a double mastectomy. The essay question for the University of Chicago, where Skylar submitted an early-action application, invited students to describe their “archnemesis (either real or imagined).” Skylar’s answer: “Pre-formed ideas of what it meant to have two X chromosomes.” No matter what people thought they saw when they looked at him, Skylar wrote, he knew that he “was nothing along the lines of a girl.”
This too is a history of what we call things and how we construct problems and their solutions:
In America, doctors didn’t talk openly about the feasibility of sex-change operations until after the Second World War. In 1949, a psychiatrist named David O. Cauldwell began using the term “transsexual” to describe people so alienated from their biological sex that they wished to change it. The endocrinologist Harry Benjamin took the lead in promoting this idea, wresting gender discontent away from the psychoanalytic realm, where it was diagnosed as a disorder of sexual desire (curable through will power and talk therapy), and defining it as a problem of having been born in the wrong body (fixable through hormones and surgery).
Perhaps one of the reasons transgenderism is so confusing for many people is because of the implications of taking seriously the idea of being born in the ‘wrong’ body. It gets right to the core of debates over nature vs nurture, the structure of family and the concept of the self that are far from settled. Accounts like Atwood’s are important because they remind us that it should be the flourishing of the people involved that informs these debates, rather than foisting the debates onto the people.
Meanwhile, I learned about the Genderbread Person!