August 2016 marks the 30th anniversary of the death of Harry Benjamin MD. His is not a name that immediately springs to mind in terms of either fame or notoriety. However, he has his place in history, and a remarkable one at that.
This humble and self-effacing man was born in 1885 in Berlin, and was the son of a banker. He studied medicine at the university of Berlin before moving to the US in 1913 where he married in 1925. He was one of the first doctors to work in the field of gender dysphoria, right up to his retirement at the age of 86. He died in August 1985 at the age of 101.
Dr Benjamin was fascinated by the paradox of transgenderism, recognising it as a real human issue (rather than some sexual deviancy which it had hitherto been mostly regarded) and he empathised with sufferers at a correspondingly human level.
He also had great affinity for the gay community, and stated: "If adjustment is necessary, it should be made primarily with regard to the position the homosexual occupies in present day society, and society should more often be treated than the homosexual".
He formed the 'Harry Benjamin International Gender Dysphoria Association', which later changed its name to WPATH (World Professional Association for Transgender Health). This organisation now sets the standard for transgender care worldwide. His publication 'The Transsexual Phenomenon', first published in 1966, brought the plight of the transgender community to the attention of the world.
He is famously quoted as saying: "I ask myself, in mercy, or in common sense, if we cannot alter the conviction to fit the body, should we not, in certain circumstances, alter the body to fit the conviction?"
He was one of the first to understand the beneficial effects of cross sex hormones and sex reassignment surgery on patients suffering with gender dysphoria and in an interview in 1975 said: "When I began my work, there wasn't a reputable hospital in this country that would have dreamed of permitting transsexual surgery. Now there are at least thirty."
The transgender community owes a great deal to this humble doctor.
Thirty years after his death, the plight of the modern patient with gender dysphoria has altered very little. Sufferers are still treated with ignorance and prejudice, not only by the communities in which they live, but also by many of the doctors to whom they turn for help.
Perhaps, as Dr Benjamin suggests, it is society that should change its perspective, and learn a little acceptance, rather than the patient who should change in order to feel accepted.
WPATH's (www.wpath.org) annual symposium takes place in Amsterdam from June 17-21, 2016
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