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social sciences

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Benjamin, Dr. Harry (1885-1986)  

Harry Benjamin was a medical doctor now best remembered for his pioneering work with .

Benjamin was born in Berlin in 1885. While still a university student, his interest in the science of sexuality led to a friendship with Magnus Hirschfeld, the leader of the homosexual emancipation movement and founding director of the Institute for Sexual Science. Benjamin accompanied Hirschfeld on visits to homosexual and bars in Berlin when Hirschfeld was researching and writing Die Transvestiten, the first book-length treatment of transgender phenomena, published in 1910.

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Benjamin completed his medical studies at the University of Tübingen in 1912, and came to the United States in 1913 to work as a doctor on a tuberculosis research project. He attempted to return to Germany in 1914, at the outbreak of World War I, but his ship was intercepted en route from New York and diverted to England. After a brief stay in an internment camp as an enemy alien, Benjamin was allowed to return to New York, where he became a United States citizen and established a successful medical practice.

In the 1920s and 1930s, Benjamin maintained close personal and professional contacts with Hirschfeld and the Viennese endocrinologist Eugen Steinach, a specialist in anti-aging treatments who also conducted the first medical experiments to determine the roles of estrogen and testosterone in the production of secondary sex characteristics. Benjamin himself became known as a prominent "gerontotherapist" who administered hormonal injections designed to rejuvenate the libidos of his aging patients. He returned regularly to Germany and Austria to visit friends and colleagues until the growing power of Nazism made this impossible.

By the 1940s, Benjamin was spending his summers in San Francisco, and it was there, in 1949, that he first took a professional interest in helping a transsexual patient. At the time, doctors in the United States refused to administer hormones or perform genital reconstruction surgery on transgendered people who desired these procedures. Benjamin was instrumental in bringing the less moralizing perspective of the German sexological tradition to bear on transgender issues in the United States.

In the early 1950s, especially after Christine Jorgensen's transsexual surgery in Denmark made headlines around the world in 1952, Benjamin found himself at the center of medical discussions about transsexuality. Although he did not coin the term "transsexual" (that honor goes to David O. Cauldwell in 1949), Benjamin did more than any other individual to bring that word into widespread public use.

Privately, Benjamin prescribed hormones for dozens, if not hundreds, of early transsexuals, and helped arrange genital surgeries for a select few. By 1966, when he published The Transsexual Phenomenon, Benjamin was justly regarded at the world's most prominent expert on the subject.

Benjamin's model for dealing with transgendered people is still the basic paradigm for transsexual medical care. In honor of his pioneering contributions to the field, the association of medical and psychotherapeutic professionals who regulate access to transgender health care is known as the Harry Benjamin International Gender Dysphoria Association (HBIGDA).

Although Harry Benjamin himself is remembered within the transgender community as a compassionate if somewhat paternalistic advocate for his transsexual patients, most contemporary transgender activists consider the so-called "Benjamin Standards of Care," the formal HBIGDA treatment protocols that bear his name, to be offensively patronizing and pathologizing.

Benjamin maintained an active personal and professional life until the early 1980s. He died in New York in 1986, at the age of 101.

Susan Stryker


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Dr. Harry Benjamin as a young man.
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social sciences >> Overview:  Intersexuality

Intersexuality (formerly referred to as hermaphroditism) is a congenital anomaly in which an individual's external genitalia or internal reproductive systems fall outside the norms for either male or female bodies.

social sciences >> Overview:  Transgender

"Transgender" has become an umbrella term representing a political alliance between all gender variant people who do not conform to social norms for typical men and women and who suffer political oppression as a result.

social sciences >> Overview:  Transgender Activism

Since the late nineteenth century, transgendered people have advocated legal and social reforms that would ameliorate the kinds of oppression and discrimination they suffer.

social sciences >> Erickson, Reed

An early female-to-male transsexual, Reed Erickson is best known for his philanthropy, which greatly benefited glbtq causes in the 1960s and 1970s.

social sciences >> Hirschfeld, Magnus

German-born Magnus Hirschfeld deserves recognition as a significant theorist of sexuality and the most prominent advocate of homosexual emancipation of his time.

arts >> Jorgensen, Christine

Actress, singer, and writer Christine Jorgenson was not the first male-to-female transsexual to undergo sex reassignment surgery, but the publicity surrounding her case enabled her to educate the public about the differences between homosexuality, transvestism, and transsexualtiy.


Harry Benjamin Collection. Library and Archives of the Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender, and Reproduction, Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana.

Luther, Betty. The Medical Invention of Gender: Harry Benjamin and Transsexual Surgery, 1949-1966. Unpublished B.A. Honors Thesis, Harvard University, 2003.

Meyerowitz, Joanne. How Sex Changed: A History of Transsexuality in the United States. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002.

Pfaefflin, Friedemann. "Sex Reassignment, Harry Benjamin, and Some European Roots." International Journal of Transgenderism 1.2 (October-December 1997):


    Citation Information
    Author: Stryker, Susan  
    Entry Title: Benjamin, Dr. Harry  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
    Publication Date: 2004  
    Date Last Updated October 23, 2011  
    Web Address  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 2004, glbtq, inc.  


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