On the Science of Changing Sex

The More You Know…

Posted in Book Reviews by Kay Brown on March 27, 2015

PraegerCoverBook Review: The Praeger Handbook of Transsexuality – Changing Gender to Match Mindset by Rachel Ann Heath

Common wisdom says not to judge a book by its cover.  But one can’t help but be struck by the uncanny resemblance between the cover of Ms. Heath’s 2006 Handbook and J. Michael Bailey’s 2003 The Man Who Would Be Queen.  Take a moment to look at both, compare and contrast the two.  Given the nasty fuss within  the autogynephilic transwomen’s community regarding Bailey’s book, even deriding its cover, calling it transphobic and disrepectful, one can’t help but wonder if the editors at Praeger and perhaps even Heath herself, were making an insider’s editorial comment?  Consider Heath’s own words, in fact the second paragraph of Chapter One, which states it clearly,

“When writing about a sensitive issue such as transsexuality, the temptation to right the wrongs is always present.  However, it is equally important to offer readers a critical evaluation of what is known.  By so doing, transsexed people will not be deluded by half-truths, and professionals and researchers will not be deterred by uninformed claims from disenchanted clients.  This book treads a fine line between upholding the human rights of the downtrodden minority and ensuring that what is known about transsexuality and related conditions is presented accurately and understandably.”

Heath’s book was published before Alice Dreger’s history of the contretemps surrounding Bailey’s book, but I strongly suspect that she understood the wrongness of accusations against Bailey, given the cover and the complete coverage of the very material, the research into the true nature of transsexuality, upon which Bailey relied.

If I have any serious criticism of this book it is that although a wonderful aggregation of the research, it lacks the very “critical evaluation” that Heath states as a goal.  Further, the work lacks a comprehensive synthesis of the voluminous data and accrued hypothesis, which was tested and found supported by them.  It is left to the reader to perform these tasks.  Given that in this absence, a critical analysis requires going back to the original papers, it is essential that a serious reader constantly refer to the many footnotes.

As an example of the failure to synthesize the information contained, consider how she covers the two type taxonomy and the evidence supporting it.  In Chapter Five, Interesting Correlates of Gender Identity and Sexual Orientation, she writes in a subchapter, “Relations Between Gender Identity and Sexual Orientation,

“Young transsexed woman are more likely to be nonheterosexual than are older transsexed women.  Transsexed men tend to be nonheterosexual irrespective of their age at transition.  This generalization suggest that the independence of gender identity and sexual orientation is difficult to discern… A contentious idea is to associate heterosexual transsexed people with autogynephilia, the tendency to be sexually aroused by one’s own image as a woman. … According to Blanchard, there are only two fundamentally different types of transsexuality in males: homosexual and nonhomosexual.  In his view, nonhomosexual transsexed women, that is those with a sexual preference for women, are characterized by their propensity towards autogynephilia.”

She goes on for several pages covering the research and evidence, but then fails to note later in the book that other researchers are referring to the exact same two populations and their characteristics, while a critical reader can’t fail to note them.  Consider her Chapter Seven, Transsexualism as a Medical Condition and her subchapter Primary and Secondary Transsexualism,

“Primary transsexualism is distinguished by its early onset, with clients reporting memories of cross-dressing when they were young, as well as partaking in feminine activities such as playing with dolls from an early age.  Primary transsexed women who often exhibit homosexual preferences from adolescence onwards frequently enjoy greater success in transition than do their older counterparts.  Secondary transexualism develops after a period of possibly fetishistic cross-dressing when the client starts to assume a more permanent feminine self-identity around puberty.  Often secondary transsexed women prefer sexual relationships with women.  They seek initial assessment at an older age … The primary transsexed group tends to present earlier for assessment, show better social gender reorientation, have less erotic arousal when cross-dressing, and experience fewer postoperative regrets than does the secondary transsexed group. … Differences between primary (young) and secondary (older) transsexed people have some diagnostic value.”

Note the clear connection between age of transition, sexual orientation, and “erotic arousal when cross-dressing”, also known as autogynephilia.  Later in the same chapter, Heath discusses Anne Vitale’s Group 1 vs. Group 3, while completely missing the obvious, that these are simply names for the same groups as Blanchard’s and for the classic dichotomous Primary vs. Secondary transwomen.

The book, while being somewhat encyclopedic, is very poorly indexed.  For example, she frequently refers to researchers by name, but these names are not found in the index, making it difficult to find such references.

Even with its weaknesses, I recommend buying and referring to this handbook.



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