Dana Bevan ’69 Interview
May 2, 2013
Dana Bevan ’69 has just released “The Transsexual Scientist: Have you ever wondered what the experience of transsexualism or transgenderism is like or what causes these phenomena?” As the title indicates, Dana is a transgender scientist, and her work brings both a scientific and personal perspective to the origins and experience of transsexualism and transgenderism. Her book, which will be noted in an upcoming Dartmouth Alumni Magazine, is available online at Amazon. Dana recently spoke with Green Light about her book and her life. (A condensed version of this interview appears in the June 2013 issue of Green Light.)
You describe yourself as transsexual? How does that term differ from transgender?
Transgender is an umbrella word that refers to a person whose gender behavior is incongruent with the sex they were assigned at birth. The rules of most cultures require people to follow arbitrary gender behavior categories that are associated with their culturally assigned natal sex. Transgender people find that their assigned behavior category is not congruent with their innate disposition. Sex and gender are not the same thing, despite the current trend of conflating them. Conflating sex and gender perpetuates stereotyping. Sex refers to organs and gender refers to behavior.
Most transgenders (about 80-90%) move back and forth between gender behavior categories through crossdressing, but transsexuals want to remain permanently in the gender behavior category that fits their innate disposition. Transsexuals seek to permanently modify their bodies, their declared gender, their voices and their behavior. Transsexuals do this with hormones, facial electrolysis, plastic surgery, and voice lessons.
For the purposes of research I treat transgenderism and transsexuality (TSTG) as one phenomenon. Many transgendered people become transsexuals. Most important, there is no scientific evidence to distinguish between the two, other than the frequency of TG presentation.
How did being a transgender person affect your life at Dartmouth during the 1960s?
It affected my life in three ways. First, I attempted to “get over” my transsexuality by engaging in highly masculine activities including football and ROTC. This is very common for male-to-female transsexuals but it does not work in the long term. I did enjoy a course by Louie Morton in the History Department on military technology which helped me in my career. Second, I was extremely lonely because I could not tell anyone about my transsexuality. It made male friendships and dating awkward. Third, I managed to find out through coursework and library research that TSTG was a naturally occurring biological phenomena which has occurred in most all times and cultures. This made me believe that there was nothing “wrong” with me in spite of how most cultures view TSTG.
How did you come to be involved in scientific research relating to transsexualism and transgenderism?
While at Dartmouth, I was inspired to become a physiological psychologist in the hope that I could understand TSTG. But when I got to graduate school at Princeton, I found that there was no research support for TSTG issues and very previous research. This situation persists today in the US, wherein social science research is ridiculed as wasteful. The poster child for this in my day was Dr. Ellen Bersheid who was castigated by Senator Proxmire and given the “Golden Fleece” for wanting to study why people fall in love.
So for many years, I downplayed my physiological training and became a practicing human factors psychologist to help design machines for people in DOD and the intelligence community.
In 2005, I returned for a semester to teaching physiological psychology while at Georgia Tech and found that the rest of the world had not been as prudish as the US and that there was a wealth of unorganized foreign research bearing on the physiological causes of TSTG. Since 2005, I have been wading through this material and wrote the book to document what I found.
Can you give us a brief overview of the field?
The physiological psychology of TSTG touches on many disciplines including psychology, neuroscience, developmental psychology, pharmacology and, now, genetics and epigenetics.
Genetics refers to DNA inheritance while the new science of epigenetics refers to modifications of DNA itself or its expression. Epigenetics includes the effects of the prenatal environment on development.
The common wisdom of what causes TSTG is almost completely wrong. For instance it is not a “lifestyle choice” or a sexual fetish. There is good evidence that it is caused by genetic and epigenetic factors that make one “born this way”.
What are some common misconceptions regarding transsexualism and transgenderism?
The most common misconception is that TSTG is some sort of psychological or medical “disorder”. This year, for the first time, TSTG will no longer be listed as a disorder by the American Psychiatric Association.
The second most common misconception is that TSTG is rare. The best estimates I have found are that about 2-4% of males are TG and .1% TS. For females the estimates are about half those percentages. Most people think that they have never met a TSTG but they are wrong. Both TG and TS have become expert in hiding. TGs can easily change clothes and there are many TS living in their preferred gender category in what is termed “stealth”. There are some physical clues to TSTG and I reveal them to medical doctors in my TSTG continuing education course to help them ask the right questions of their patients. This may seem trivial but remember that TS and some TG take hormones and the possibility of drug interactions and side effects becomes more dangerous if a doctor does not know that a patient is TSTG. (For example, estrogen can cause blood clots).
The third most common misconception is that TSTG prostitutes are on the street because they want to be there. Truth is that most were thrown out of their homes by their parents. Some clergymen and cultural leaders encourage this parental rejection by pathologizing and demonizing TSTG. The result is one of the most dangerous public health problems in the US because such TSTG “street people” disproportionately harbor HIV and venereal diseases.
The fourth most common misconception is that there are no harmful effects on TSTG in hiding. There is a body of research on the psychology of secrecy and it indicates both physical and mental effects. TSTG must constantly remember their secret, so that they can carefully parse their words. These mental gymnastics interfere with work and relationships. They deprive TSTG of their “authenticity” or being true to themselves.
The fifth most common misconception is that TSTG go to the restroom to attack people. Let me assure you that we are more afraid than you are. We are just there to get our business done.
What do you think about Dartmouth today?
My current experience is limited to research contacts with scientists and medical professionals so I will confine my remarks to research activities.
IMHO basic and applied science at Dartmouth needs more funding and support in order to maintain excellence in undergraduate and graduate education. The Geisel school has been successful in maintaining excellence by raising support through grants, some of which are the “big science” type. The same approach obtains at Princeton and Georgia Tech where I have taught. They are not afraid to get grants from DOD and DHS and the infrastructure and quality of the research greatly improve the educational experience for undergraduate and graduate students. Such grants also help defray overhead costs.
What do you hope for Dartmouth and transgender people in the future?
I hope that Dartmouth can be a leader in increasing research and education of the TSTG phenomena in order to improve understanding and tolerance. DGALA seems to be doing a good job of spreading the word on diversity but courseware and research needs to be supported.
I hope that the trend continues for TSTG to be encouraged to identify themselves in childhood. This requires both cultural and parental tolerance. TSTG can now get early counseling to assure them that they are not abnormal and to help them explore an authentic life. A new option for those who believe they are TS is to block the onset of puberty until they can decide whether to transition at age 16. This is far better than waiting until after puberty or waiting until later life, with unwanted physiological and mental effects. Believe me, I know about those effects. I have had every hair on my face zapped by an electrologist and some hairs more than once.
I hope that religious, political leaders and hate mongers will stop demonizing TSTG. I hope that they will realize that the contribution of some 1-2% of the population is reduced by lack of authenticity and that TSTG sex workers represent a public health hazard that needs to be addressed through understanding and social work, rather than persecution.
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