by Rebecca Benton, Transgender Law Center, Board Chair
(originally published in the TGSF Channel, 2006)
Magnus Hirschfeld, the prominent German-Jewish physician and sexologist introduced the term “transvestism” and the theory of an intermediate, “third sex,” in the early 1900s. In the more liberal 1920s Germany, Hirschfeld headed the Institut für Sexualwissenschaft (Institute for Sexology), which, among other things, maintained an immense archive devoted to sex and the human condition. It is this very library that one often sees set ablaze in newsreels of Nazi book burnings.
Holding the contemporary autobiography by Richard J. “Alice” Novic, M.D., in my hands, I paused to reflect on my enjoyment of the book and its presence in today’s America. The book itself is good. It’s a detailed and frank depiction of the life of someone who has successfully negotiated the treacherous and rocky shores of dealing with transgender issues. It is often funny, sometimes sad, occasionally touching, and Alice’s voice is something that resonates with vibrancy and makes you want to turn each page. Her fortitude and success offer hope, her perspective as a Harvard-educated psychiatrist is fascinating, and her observations about herself and those around her are as often witty as they are sharp. This is a memoir I would recommend to anyone, especially anyone with interest in transgender issues.
Thinking about where we were one hundred years ago, when Hirschfeld brought about a new thinking of gender, to eighty years ago when his institute was the active nerve-center of sexological research and progressive movements (like sex education, contraception, and civil rights for gay and transgender people), to Nazi oppression and their murderous purges, and on to our enlightenment today, I am struck by the fact that the publication of Alice in Genderland has been uneventful. Not that long ago it would have been the kind of thing that would have been sneered at and destroyed while its author would have been hounded into exile or death.
There is a continuous sub-audible growl of oppressive social conservatism in this country that becomes a dull roar from time to time (as in attempts to ban gay marriage) that makes me instinctively hold fast to gems like Alice in Genderland. I value them not only for their comfort and wisdom, but because I know that unless we continue to be alert and aware, this book and others like it, and maybe even our very lives may be thrown on the fire.