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Journal of the History of Sexuality 15.1 (2006) 148-151

Reviewed by
Alice D. Dreger
Feinberg School of Medicine, Northwestern University
How Sex Changed: A History of Transsexuality in the United States. By Joanne Meyerowitz. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2002. Pp. 380. $29.95 (cloth); $17.95 (paper).

In 1954 Christine Jorgensen—the woman whose famous personal transsexual history also made transsexuality famous—penned a new tune for her act. The lyrics went like this:

Every hour—every day—we encounter something new
Electric this—atomic that—a modern point of view
Now anything can happen—and we shouldn't think it strange
If oysters smoke cigars—or lobsters drive imported cars [End Page 148]
For we live in a time of change.

(Quoted on 78)

In her excellent book How Sex Changed: A History of Transsexuality in the United States Joanne Meyerowitz points out that Jorgenson offered this ditty in an attempt "to associate change with progress, to portray it as modern and entertaining, and to place herself at its vanguard" (78). Indeed, the song encapsulated Jorgensen's never-ending quest to dictate what her own change—a "sex change"—meant, but, as Meyerowitz makes amply clear, Jorgenson was fighting an uphill battle. Jorgenson's positive spin aside, the ultimate meaning of transsexuality constituted a source of great debate in the twentieth-century United States, as did the question of what transsexuality exactly was and whether it was even real—that is, whether it was really possible for a biological male to have a female gender identity, or vice versa, and whether it was really possible to change sex.

To this day, of course, some detractors maintain it is no more possible for a person to change sex than for an oyster to smoke a cigar or a lobster to drive an imported car. Meyerowitz does a great service to historians, political scientists, sexologists, transgender activists, and gender clinicians alike in tracing the genealogy of these debates. She deftly demonstrates how

Jorgenson's story and the history of transsexuality are central parts of [the] reconceptualization of sex in the twentieth century. The notion that biological sex is mutable, that we define and redefine it, that we can divide it into constituent parts, such as chromosomes, hormones, and genitals, and modify some of those parts, that male and female are not opposites, that masculinity and femininity do not spring automatically from biological sex, that neither biological sex nor gender determines the contours of sexual desire—these were significant shifts in American social and scientific thought. . . . They occurred piecemeal through vociferous conflict and debate, and because not everyone accepted them, they laid the groundwork for ongoing contests over the meanings of biological sex, the sources of gender, and the categories of sexuality.


How Sex Changed brings the reader to the revelation that transsexuality functioned as both a cause and an effect of surrounding notions of what sex, gender, and sexuality do or don't have to do with each other. That is, at times contemporary attempts (e.g., feminist) to pry gender and sex apart seemed to nudge the possibility of transsexuality forward in the cultural psyche, and at other times the personal stories of transsexual people seemed in turn to push gender theorists (e.g., Robert Stoller) to separate gender identity and sexuality. In this way Meyerowitz contextualizes the history of transsexuality while also making clear the importance of her subject to other realms of history.

Most impressively, Meyerowitz manages this long narrative of ideas and ideals without ever losing sight of the real people whose lives were [End Page 149] caught up in it. She writes sensitively and sensibly about transsexual people, arguing that,

like everyone else, they articulated their senses of self with the language and cultural forms available to them. They were neither symbols, emblems detached from social milieus, nor heroes or villains engaged in mythic battles to further or stifle progress. They were instead ordinary and extraordinary human beings who...


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pp. 148-151
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