MNopedia Editor’s Note: Doctors began using the word “transgender” in the 1950s to refer to a person who sought medicine and/or surgery to change their gender so that it aligned with their gender identity. Because of this clinical association, many transgender people stopped using “transgender” in the 1990s in favor of a word they chose for themselves: “transgender.” This word (and eventually its abbreviation, trans) included people who did not identify as transgender or seek medical treatment. It now includes gender non-conforming people who identify as non-binary, cisgender, and genderqueer. This article uses the word “trans” in appreciation of the shared history of these groups; It retains “transgender” in some cases to reflect the historical use of that word. Similarly, she uses the historical term “sex reassignment surgery” (often called gender confirmation surgery or confirmation surgery in the 2000s).
Trans medicine became a legitimate field of study in the United States in the 1950s through the work of sexologists (such as John Mooney and Harry Benjamin) as well as trans people themselves, who demanded nationwide recognition. Christine Jorgensen inspired a sensational media frenzy when she returned to the United States after having sex-reassignment surgery in Denmark in 1953, and the attention made trans issues more visible. In this context, however, “trans” was a transsexual—a catatonic state of mind-body contradiction doctors have called it. Doctors believe that trans people can be “cured” of sexual and behavioral diseases deemed deviant or unacceptable through hormones, surgery, and social rehabilitation.
In December of 1964, a 38-year-old trans woman was admitted to the psychiatric ward of the University of Minnesota Hospitals. Psychiatrist Donald W. Hastings was deeply affected by her distress and desire for surgery. In response, he and his colleagues designed a multiyear research project to “determine whether this surgery is a worthwhile approach for an untreatable condition.” They planned to study Hastings’ initial patient and 24 others during surgery and additional treatments, then track their progress over the next 10 years.
After obtaining approval from senior officials, Hastings, Markland, and other medical schools began implementing the project in 1966. The Gender Commission screened and interviewed trans women before enrolling them in intensive psychotherapy. In the end, the patients started a six-month regimen of hormone therapy and then surgery. While gender confirmation surgeries have been performed for years in Europe, Morocco and Mexico, and in secret in some major US cities, the University of Minnesota became the second US health system to offer them publicly, with less than Johns Hopkins beating them. two months. The project accepted free Minnesotans, but rejected people who were married or assigned female at birth, as well as those with criminal records unrelated to cross-dressing.
When patients received their operations and were discharged, project staff followed up every six months, recording the patient’s progress according to a sliding scale. Patient A married heterosexual men, became professionals or housewives, passed out as co-consensual women, and dumped their gay or transgender boyfriends. ‘Failing’ patients were sex workers, dependent on luxury, failing to marry, and becoming ‘famous’ [the] Morality Squad of the Local Police.” Implicit in this scale was the secondary goal of the project: to make acceptance unacceptable, to erase homosexuality and gender difference, and to “treat” transsexuality by making it invisible.
The final days of the project represent his complex legacy. By the mid-1970s, despite the lack of public reaction, the university began charging high fees for access to surgery “…so that transgender surgery would not be at the expense of Minnesota taxpayers”. At this point, local trans women found it increasingly difficult to access services that were readily available just a few years ago. The change damaged the relationship between the U of M and the community for decades to come. Hastings died of a heart attack in 1977, marking the official end of the project.
Despite its shortcomings, the Transgender Research Project was revolutionary in providing basic, low-cost medical services to transgender patients. The patients woke up with tears of relief running down their cheeks. As of 1978, project staff could not find a participant who regretted the surgery, and half of the group reported, without excuse, that the procedure saved their life. Many people in the trans community view Hastings positively. Patient Donna Ewing (aka Big Mama, a lady who wears coats at a gay party in the 1990s) stated, “He was like a father to us… He was so sweet and so accepting, and he was all for us.” Although the project ended in relative disfavor, it cemented the Twin Cities’ place in America’s transnational history.
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