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In light of recent debates I have decided to do two blog posts on an early ethnographic study undertaken by Thomas Kando. His work was cited approvingly by Janice G. Raymond in The Transsexual Empire which sparked my interest. I will only concentrate on the sexism and homophobia which was revealed in the study because I find these topics to be the most eye-opening.

A short overview

The study subjects were 17 post-operative MtTs (male-to-transsexuals). They underwent so-called sex reassignment surgery as part of an experimental project at the University of Minnesota in 1967/8 and were interviewed in 1968/9. During the course of the project 26 MtTs were created with 90% of the applications having come from males.

Kando conducted taped interviews with the subjects, but also with some of their friends and relatives but doesn’t cite the latter at length so they can be safely disregarded.

The interview was preceded by a structured questionnaire, i.e. a questionnaire built from a set of pre-selected questions and answers. To discover differences and similarities between transsexuals and the general population two control groups, one male and one female, were selected from a random sample according to seven variables: age, education, marital status, religion, socio-economic status, birthplace and size of birthplace. In case you might be wondering about the birthplace variables: it is used to estimate the degree of rural/urban background to make assumptions about its influence on social behaviour.

Kando also received access to clinical files, psychological test results and biographical data. The final output was 12 interviews given and 5 questionnaires filled in because the respondents had moved too far away to talk to Kando in person. Additionally he immersed himself into the relevant subcultures (trans, gay/lesbian, prostitution) to observe and socialize as a means to give an overview of the social context that some trans inhabit.

Kando says that the motivation to study transsexualism as a sociological phenomenon stemmed from his interaction with a self-identified MtT he calls “Georgette” which he picked up for a ride: expressing disblief that “Georgette” could have stood so long on the sideline without being picked up despite being so attractive the MtT eventually spend the entire ride trying to convince him of his transsexualism.

Theoretical basis

Kando’s starting position can be summarized  by these opening remarks:

“Transsexuals can be viewed as the first and only individuals who attempt to achieve the sex roles which, to other members of society, are ascribed by virtue of sex at birth.” (p. 4)

“While feminized transsexuals may sometimes pass quite successfully as natural females, we know that they are not, and so do they.” (ibid)

Kando is clearly of the opinion that transsexualism arises out of the desire to perform a certain sex role. It is definitely not inborn. This approach can be summarized as a social constructivist one. Social constructivism was one of the most dominant paradigms in sociology and has greatly influenced the scientific approach to be found there. It sees individual actors as capable of building and upholding social structures including the norms within while at the same time considering those individuals to be dependent on what they created in return. It is a most sensible position and far superior to the regressive biological determinism that dominates medical and psychological models of transsexualism. It has not been possible to either prove that sex roles are genetically pre-determined or that brain structures cause a condition that creates a motivation to cut up your own body. At the same time, however, social constructivism does not deconstruct biological realities like those of chromosomal sex and considers them to be unchangeable conditions.

Seeing as this is the case MtTs are not women and they know it. Otherwise they would not attempt to pass. You can only pass as something you are not. In fact, it becomes hard to figure out what exactly an MtT wants to be considered to be: a transsexual, a “woman” or a “trans woman”. All these categories are different and cannot be replaced by each other: a transsexual is defined by his wish to be(come) the other sex, a woman is a female human being with X-chromosomes only and a “trans woman” defines the self as “woman” without actually being one.

As should be noted the study is old – however, as I will show, this only serves to highlight how much suspense of disbelief must have been involved academically to create a conception of transsexualism as transgressive. Interestingly, most academics, at least the most cautious ones, do not come right out and call transsexualism transgressive – they just speak of “potentials”. Kando actually does this, too. This is because neither his own study nor the ones following as recently as 2010 seem to actually have indicated that the phenomenon of transsexualism is transgressive.

So I hope that I can contribute to some myth-busting by making aspects of Kando’s study available online.

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Kando, Thomas (1973): Sex Change. The Achievement of Gender Identity Among Feminized Transsexuals. Springfield: Charles C. Thomas.

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