Devor, H. (1997). “More Than Manly Women: How Female-to-Male Transsexuals Reject Lesbian Identities,” in Bonnie & Vern Bullough, & James Elias (Eds.), Gender Blending (p. 87-102), Amherst, NY: Prometheus.

Click here to order a copy of this bookPlease note:
The title of the chapter in the book is incorrect.
This title listed here is correct. Please correct any copies in your possession.


Forty-five female-to-male transsexuals from diverse backgrounds and at different stages of transition were interviewed in depth about their sexual attractions, sexual practices, and sexual orientation identities prior to their transitions into men. Forty-three participants had been sexually attracted to women at some time prior to their transitions. Thirty-five participants engaged in homosexual activity, 25 of whom adopted lesbian identities before coming to recognize themselves as female-to-male transsexuals. The information provided by participants suggested that they were initially attracted to lesbian identities on the basis of popular images of lesbians as mannish women. However, they later rejected lesbian identities at least partially in response to politicized lesbian-feminist definitions of lesbians as women-loving-women who emphasize womanhood and eschew manliness. Participants adopted identities as female-to-male transsexuals because they believed that such identities more accurately captured the natures of their sex, gender, and sexual orientation identities.

Sexology as a discipline first began to emerge in earnest during the end of the nineteenth and the early years of the twentieth centuries. One of the main projects of sexologists in those early years was the identification and classification of some of the many varieties of human sexuality. It was therefore during this period that characterizations of lesbians were first scientifically specified. A variety of authors, including such luminaries as Havelock Ellis and Richard von Krafft-Ebing, formulated pictures of lesbians as females in whom gender had become pathologically inverted to the point that they behaved sexually and emotionally like men and wanted to be men (Elks 1918; Kraft-Ebing 1965). Thus, the earliest sexological diagnostic criteria for lesbianism were remarkably similar to today’s diagnostic criteria for female-to-male transsexualism.

As the ideas of sexologists commingled with those of members of the public, the image of lesbians as manly women became firmly embedded in the popular imagination. Indeed, the 1928 publication of Radclyffe Hall’s Well of Loneliness was a benchmark in this regard. The book’s protagonist, Stephen Gordon, who was a near-perfect exemplar of the style of lesbian described by the early sexologists, became and remained emblematic of prototypical lesbianism for close to half a century (Newton 1989).

The 1970s marked a major turning point in both clinical and popular North American conceptions of lesbianism. The combined efforts of the gay and women’s liberation movements shifted definitions of lesbianism away from sin and sickness and toward images of health and happiness. The success of the public relations campaigns of these liberatory movements can be noted in two major changes, one clinical and one cultural: the December 1973 removal of homosexuality from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual II (DSM-II) of the American Psychiatric Association (1980), and a noticeable shift from cultural representations of lesbians as mannish women who want to be men to images of lesbians as women-identified-women who revel in their womanhood (Radicalesbians 1970).

Concurrent with these changes in professional and public understandings of the nature of lesbianism was the development of the concept of transsexualism, which was popularly launched by the 1966 publication of Harry Benjamin’s The Transsexual Phenomenon. By the end of the 1970s, there were an estimated three to six thousand post-surgical transsexuals in the United States alone, and approximately forty clinics worldwide that provided sex reassignment surgery. (Harry Benjamin International Gender Dysphoria Association 1990). In 1980, approximately six years after homosexuality was removed from the DSM-I1, female-to-male transsexualism became an officially delineated diagnosis in the next edition of the DSM (American Psychiatric Association 1980). Thus, those women-who-want-to-be-men who were rapidly becoming personae non gratae among woman-identified lesbians were repatriated back into the clinical purview as female-to-male transsexuals.

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the older depiction of lesbianism retained currency while the newer, more radical one gained in definitional muscle. More quietly, but inexorably, the ideas and practices of transsexualism also became public knowledge during this time. Therefore, those female persons who both wanted to be men and felt sexual attractions to women during the 1970s and 1980s had all of these categories available to them as possible explanations for their feelings. However, they were not equally accessible to most people.

In the earlier part of these two decades, the older idea of lesbians as women who want to be men was more widespread than the woman-identified-woman concept, which, in turn, was more readily available than the idea of female-to-male transsexualism. Toward the later end of this timespan the mannish woman concept had lost considerable ground and the idea of transsexualism was well on its way to becoming common knowledge. However, among groups of politically oriented lesbians, the idea of lesbians as mannish women became anathema very early in the 1970s. Likewise, among gender-oriented clinicians, or readers of clinical literature, the diagnostic category of female-to-male transsexualism was readily at hand by the early 1970s (Pauly, 1974).

Thus, female individuals who wanted to be men and found their way to self-consciously organized groups of lesbian women in the 1970s and 1980s would have been likely to find that they no longer fit the in-house definition of lesbianism. Were such individuals to continue their search for identity in libraries or in clinicians’ offices, they would have been likely to find that they did fit the template for female-to-male transsexualism. If by no other means, the fascination of the popular media with transsexualism that exploded in the late 1980s eventually would have introduced them to the idea of female-to-male transsexualism.

In this report, I recount some of the ways in which these social phenomena were played out in the lives of a group of female-to-male transsexuals. In doing so, I trace some of the ways in which they came to first think of themselves as lesbian women and, later, to reject that designation in favor of identities as female-to-male transsexuals.


A total of forty-six self-defined female-to-male transsexuals were interviewed. They ranged from people who had, at the time of first contact, taken no concrete steps toward becoming men, to those who had completed their transition eighteen years before their participation in this research. All participants in this study volunteered their time as a result of hearing about this project through public advertisements or networks within the transsexual community. The sample was therefore probably biased toward those people who were less private about their transsexual status, more socially connected to other transsexuals, and more inclined to educate nontranssexual people about female-to-male transsexuals. One person declined to be included in the data set after completing one interview. He was unwilling to contribute to research conducted from an explicitly feminist perspective.

Although the participants in this study did not constitute a random sample of all female-to-male transsexuals, they did represent a relatively large and diverse group. They were probably more forthcoming than many female-to-male transsexuals, and the sample surely included a disproportionate number of individuals who had been active as transsexual advocates. Some participants had little or no contact with the therapeutic community in regard to their gender issues. Others had sampled all that gender clinics had to offer and were many years into their new lives.

This study was unusual in that it was conducted under nonclinical social relations by a sociologist who had no gatekeeping powers in the lives of any individuals who participated. As such, it seems reasonable to believe that participants’ responses were less tainted by goal-oriented distortions than is usually found in clinically based research. Nonetheless, these data are subject to the usual distortions from which any retrospective account might suffer. The data presented here must be taken with some caution but might also be viewed as providing insights into the lives of female-to-male transsexuals from a perspective different from that of other researchers.


Data were obtained from responses to a detailed interview schedule that I created specifically for a research project leading to a monograph on female-to-male transsexuals. General areas of questioning included (a) demographics; (b) gender issues with family members, peers, in schools, and at work; (c) child abuse; (d) sexuality and romance; (e) physical health and body image; (f) development of gender and transsexual identities; (g) transition experiences; and (h) philosophical questions about sex, gender, and sexuality. This report pertains primarily to question groups (d) and (f), although relevant information may have appeared in a variety of places throughout interviews.


Announcements describing the project goals and my background were posted in places where transsexuals might congregate, distributed at transsexual support-group meetings, distributed by prominent members of transsexual communities, and printed in publications that might be read by female-to-male transsexuals. Potential participants were asked to contact me directly. I obtained written consent and interviewed twenty-three individuals face to face. Another eighteen people were mailed copies of interview questions and either answered the questions in writing or by speaking into an audiotape recorder. In an additional four cases, part of the interviews were conducted face to face and part were self-administered. Face-to-face interviews were audiotaped. All participants completed at least one interview; thirty-one persons completed two interviews. Each interview, when conducted in person, usually lasted between two and three hours. All names, and any other identifying information, are kept in a locked cabinet, to which I have sole access.

I also attended a number of formal and informal gatherings of female-to-male transsexuals. Field notes were taken when I was in attendance in an official capacity as a researcher. Transcribed interview materials and field notes were coded and collated for information about sexual attractions, sexual practices, sexual orientation, and transsexual identities.

Results and Discussion

All but two participants (95.5 percent) reported that they had been sexually or romantically attracted to women at some time during their lives as women. Thirty-five of the forty-three participants who had been attracted to women (81 percent) acted upon their inclinations to some degree, all but two of whom established relationships of approximately one year or more in duration. Twenty-five of those who were attracted to women (58 percent) thought of themselves as lesbian for at least a short period of time. Those participants who never took on the title of lesbian thought of their relationships with women as heterosexual ones.

Participants Who Did Not Act upon
Their Attractions to Women

Seventeen participants (39.5 percent) went through periods during which they felt unable to act upon their sexual feelings for women, five of whom (12 percent) never became sexually involved with women while they themselves were still living as women. For all twelve of those participants who later went on to experiment with homosexual relations, their periods of reluctance to act upon their homosexual attractions were confined to their teenaged years. It became clear from the stories of most participants that the generalized homophobia of the decades during which they were children and adolescents (1950s, 1960s, early 1970s) played a significant role in discouraging them from acting upon the adolescent attractions that they felt for females. Homophobia acted to abort their lesbian activities and deflect them from lesbian identities mainly in two ways.

First, information about lesbianism was not readily available. Thus, the only sexual model to which many girls had access was a heterosexual one. Therefore, when they felt sexual desire for other females, the only logical interpretation that they could place on their feelings was that they should be males in order to have such lusts. Furthermore, since they were not males, there was nothing that they could do about their feelings but contain them and bide their time until an opportunity arose to somehow transform themselves into men.

For example, Bruce remembered that she had very explicitly sexual thoughts about women when she was a teenager, but did not act on them:

I used to get out my parents’ Sears catalogue and look at the women in their underwear. I got turned on …. But I thought, I can’t do this the way I am. I have to be a boy because girls don’t like girls …. So, I saw men and women together. So, I thought, that’s what it’s supposed to be, and all the girls liked me because I was a boy …. But I used to put those kinds of feelings behind me, I think, because I felt that I couldn’t . . . be sexual…. It wasn’t allowed. It wasn’t right. Because. how can women be attracted to women?

The second way in which the homophobia of the times acted to deny these participants opportunities to explore their lesbian urges during their teen years was through misinformation. Those participants who had heard of lesbianism had only the most negative of perspectives on the phenomenon. They absorbed the messages that their society wanted them to believe: that lesbians were sick and dangerous people; that lesbian activity was sorely stigmatized and totally taboo. Thus, those individuals who wanted to retain some modicum of self-respect and a decent standing in their society avoided tainting themselves with the stain of lesbianism.

Peter, for instance, thought that her childhood and adolescent attractions to girls meant that she must be “gay,” but Peter did not want to accept that label as appropriate for herself. Peter recalled: “There’s always been the social stigma about being gay. And I would think that probably, for a time when I was an adolescent, that, in that sense, that really backed me off. That kept me really under wraps.”

The participants who were acting under the sway of these kinds of homophobia were left few alternatives. They simply could not act because they could only see their attractions as being heterosexual in form, if not in content. Nevertheless, three participants did think of themselves as lesbian on the basis of their unactualized attractions to women.

Minor Homosexual Involvements
Ten participants (23 percent) went through extended periods during which they had only limited homosexual experiences. These plateaus occurred during the adolescences of all but one such participant. They engaged mostly in kissing and in touching of their partners’ breasts in the context of short-term infatuations. Only two participants thought of themselves as lesbians on the basis of these interactions. Most of these participants also kept their attractions for females relatively in check because of their fear of social stigma. Their anxieties about possible social retribution for transgressions were sufficient to deter them from any extensive homosexual adventures. Many participants had so absorbed the messages of their society that they held opinions that could be interpreted as indicative of internalized homophobia and misogyny.

Lee’s comments illustrated this type of thinking:

I knew that queers existed …. Things like that weren’t talked about …. That was almost like Mafia. They’s just dirt road people or something. So, that was a bad word. You didn’t want to be that …. You knew it wasn’t accepted …. You knew it wasn’t right in the eyes of everybody . . . . It makes me sound stupid, but I didn’t just sit down and think about things like that. I just did it. You knew that it wasn’t right . . . but it’s something you enjoyed.

It seems plausible that, had these participants lived in a time when information about lesbianism was both more readily available and more salutary, most of them would probably have been more homosexually active. In a climate more conducive to positive lesbian identity, many of them might well have more avidly adopted a lesbian identity and cleaved to it more persistently. Be that as it may, gender identity is a different matter from sexual orientation. Later, more extensive homosexual experience and lesbian identity did not banish, but only obscured, underlying male identities. Experimentation with lesbianism for most participants was one step in the process of clarifying that a male identity was the most suitable one for them.

Major Homosexual Relationships

Thirty-five participants (81 percent) became involved in ongoing genitally sexual relationships with other females during their pretransition years. Due to the explicitly sexual and nonfleeting nature of these unions, they could not be dismissed as merely affectionate or experimental. Thus, these liaisons forced participants to confront issues of sexual identity and, by extension, issues of gender identity.

Some of these unions were undertaken by both partners with the understanding that they were, at least in all apparent aspects, lesbian relationships. In other cases participants, but not necessarily their partners, maintained the belief that they were men, and that therefore their relationships were, de facto, heterosexual ones. A few relationships foreshadowed what was to come in that both partners agreed from the start that, in their own eyes, they were in heterosexual relationships. In other cases, particular relationships became redefined as they progressed and as participants went through stages wherein they came to have better insights into themselves and into the nature of lesbianism. As they did so, they generally moved more toward the rejection of the label of lesbian and of the womanhood implicit in that title.

When participants did think of themselves as lesbian women, they did so principally for two reasons. In the first place, they were faced with the unmistakable evidence of their own, and their lovers’, bodies. They knew that the definition of lesbian therefore technically included them. Some participants were also persuaded by the popular conception that lesbians are women who want to be men. As that was precisely how participants felt, they uneasily accepted the appellation of lesbian, despite the fact that it required them to acquiesce to being women. However, only a very few participants easily accepted that their intimate relationships with women fully qualified as lesbian ones. More commonly, participants recognized a superficial similarity between their own relationships and those of lesbian women, but retained a sense of themselves as different.

As participants used their intimate relationships with women as testing grounds for their sex, gender, and sexual identities, they found that their homosexual relations did not allow them to express their identities adequately. After some initial delight at the increased tolerance for their masculinity that they found among lesbian women, participants began to encounter some limitations. They found that the social and sexual values of lesbian women did not align as well with their own as they might have wished. Eventually the disjunctures between their own self-images and the images they held of what lesbian women were like became too disquieting to them and they concluded that they were not lesbian women. When they reckoned that they were beyond the range of what constituted lesbian thoughts and deeds, they became receptive to the possibilities of transsexualism as a means of realigning themselves with their social worlds.

Avoiding Lesbian Communities

Thirteen participants (30 percent) went through periods of their lives during which they were homosexually active but stayed away from places where homosexual women congregated. During those periods of their lives, they fell in love and built relationships with women, but six of them (46 percent) resisted accepting identities as lesbian women. They conceived of their partners as being attracted to them for their manly qualities and did what they could to nurture their mutual conceptualizations of their relationships as straight ones.

These participants found ways, outside of established lesbian environments, to meet women with whom they could establish sexual/romantic relationships. One result of their making contact with their lovers independently of communities of similarly disposed women was that they had only popular models of the nature of lesbianism against which to measure themselves. By the time that they were making such comparisons, lesbian-feminist definitions had begun to move definitions of lesbians away from the “mannish woman” typology popular before the 1970s and toward a “woman-loving-woman” characterization that has become more dominant since then (Faderman 1991; Sedgewick 1990). As a group, they found the latter definition less acceptable than the arguably more stigmatized former one, and so they eventually rejected the label of lesbian in favor of more obtusely acceptable identities as men.

For example, Stan feared being branded as a lesbian. Although Stan remembered always having had “feelings about [women] like guys do,” as a woman she felt exceptionally guilty about these feelings even as she was having several years of otherwise satisfying relationships with women. As she tried to work through this contradiction, she became so depressed at the thought that she might be lesbian that she ended up spending several months hospitalized for mental problems. Stan also reported that she later destroyed one of her relationships with the heavy drinking and marijuana smoking that she used to help her cope with her extreme aversion to being known as a lesbian woman. As was probably common among many homosexual women who came out in the 1970s, Stan seemed to have two different views of what it meant to be a lesbian woman. On the one hand, Stan had held a more traditional view of lesbian women as sinful and sick. On the other hand, Stan had also been exposed, through the media, to a more feminist version of lesbianism. When I asked Stan about it, he described lesbians this way:

I knew about lesbians but it just didn’t occur to me that’s what it was …. What I knew about lesbians was that two women can be together and it’s okay if you are a lesbian …. It was something they did on the coast in the big cities, more liberal people did. I just didn’t consider myself that liberal, that open minded . . . . To get into being a lesbian, like, you have to march for things, and you gotta go to caucuses, you gotta hate men, you gotta dress butch, and you gotta get into all that stuff, and I didn’t want to do that. I didn’t want to get into all that stuff.

Stan, like others who were unable to accept lesbian identities as appropriate for themselves, later enthusiastically latched onto the normalizing potential of female-to-male transsexualism.

Moving through Lesbian Communities

Another twenty-two participants (51 percent) who were homosexually active as women went through stages wherein they initially threw themselves wholeheartedly into lesbianism. They became friends with other homosexual women and participated in social or political activities with them. They were thus exposed to socialization processes that taught them something of what lesbian subcultures expected from women who were lesbian.

In some cases, these communities were highly politicized ones whose members espoused lesbian-feminist ideologies concerning the nature of lesbianism. In other instances, they were communities of women who came together at bars or ball games and who were less heavily influenced by feminist political analyses of lesbian identity. Eighteen of these twenty-two participants (82 percent), at some time during their lives, accepted the label “lesbian” as descriptive of themselves, only to later reject it as inadequate to the task. They came to their conclusions after making comparisons between their senses of themselves and their visions of how they believed that lesbians thought and acted.

Aaron’s story illustrated how this happened. Aaron started to think of herself as “probably gay” when she was a woman of twenty-five and her psychiatrist diagnosed her as homosexual. Aaron accepted that label as descriptive of herself because, at that time, in the early 1960s, “the only image I could think of was women that fell in love with women, and women that dressed and wanted to be men and acted masculine. I figured that was what a gay woman was.” However, when Aaron became divorced from her husband three years after this diagnosis, she decided to remain celibate and separate from other gay women because “frankly, I wouldn’t have kept my kids if I wasn’t.” Nonetheless, during that fifteen-year period Aaron recalled, “I was living primarily in male clothing . . . [people] just assumed I was a dyke.”

At the end of the 1970s, two days after Aaron’s youngest daughter reached legal adulthood, Aaron started having a series of affairs with lesbian women at the university where she was taking courses. A number of brief affairs and one longer relationship demonstrated to Aaron that she was not like other gay women. Aaron described two aspects of her process of discovery. On the one hand, she found herself at odds with the lesbian community in which she was situated:


Let’s face it . . . they saw the woman’s body, and figured I was a gay woman, and I went along with that to the point where they expected me to be female . . . . It means sticking up for the female when you get into a discussion with a bunch of women on wife beating, or sticking up for the feminist role when you get with a bunch of women and no men around, or . . . preferring the company of women …. I was trying to get along with these women; I was trying to love some of these women . . . but I didn’t fit. And the longer I was with them, the more I realized I didn’t fit. When I got involved with gay women and found out how frigging different I was it was obvious. Up until that point I thought other gay females were the same as me, they wanted to be male. And when I found out that was not true, that no matter how masculine they acted, they had female identities, I realized I don’t quite fit in here, but I fit in closer here than I ever had.

On a more intimate level, Aaron further found that she did not respond to her lesbian lover in the ways that both of them believed were characteristic of lesbians. Aaron drew this picture of the issues involved:


Basically she wanted a woman. At the nitty gritty deep level I wasn’t a woman . … Okay, concrete example.. . our lovemaking. She would resent it when I got too masculine …. When I became too aggressive and too demanding, too macho, whatever, it ruined it for her . . . . Hey, I want to be on top part of the time . . . figuratively and literally. And it would turn her off more, it would slow her response down and turn her off right when mine was speeding up. We didn’t match.

Aaron construed these events as evidence that she did not belong among lesbians and concluded that she was a female-to-male transsexual. Another participant, Howie, summed up well the way in which these people deduced that they were men rather than lesbian women. At first Howie thought that she and her lover were lesbian but then,


Later . . . upon closer investigation I realized that lesbians enjoyed their womanhood and didn’t want to change their bodies surgically. They were simply women who loved women. I realized I didn’t fit that mould at all …. A lesbian is a woman, who is glad she’s a woman, who happens to relate sexually to other women. She does not wish to be male. In fact, she rejoices in her femaleness and wants to be with other females …. I knew that wasn’t for me …. I often wish I could have accepted myself as gay, or identified as gay, because it is infinitely easier than changing.

Ron also became embedded in a lesbian community and came to be extensively committed to lesbian-feminist activities. Like Aaron and Howie, Ron also concluded, on the basis of her knowledge of lesbian social and sexual mores, that she was neither a lesbian nor a woman, and that she was better suited to being a man. Ron remembered:


For one thing, sexual[ity] definitely played a big role …. I had to go through and analyze for myself whether I was just a strong female, or whether I was a male. Whether I just didn’t fit into the stereotypical female sexist kind of role ….

For instance, being with women . . . the love I got was toward the woman, the physical woman. And for me, that was a conflict sexually . . . I was not making love as a woman with a woman. From my heart, it was that I was a male . . . . It’s a completely different dynamic …. There is a different approach from a woman to her man than the approach from one woman to another woman who are lovers . . . . There were a lot of needs that I could not express with lesbians, because the lesbians that I was having relationships with were not open to anything that had anything to do with males.

Hal, too, made a profound commitment to lesbianism. Even though Hal felt like “a man in a woman’s body,” she had a number of homosexual relationships, including a thirteen-year-long lesbian relationship. Hal called herself a lesbian and functioned well within a lesbian-feminist community. Hal discussed how she handled her co-identities as a man and as a lesbian:


When a transsexual goes into the lesbian community it’s because they get support there for wearing the clothes they want, relating to women . . . as sex partners. For being strong …. What happened was that I thought for a long long time that, although I knew inside that I was male, it was okay for me to identify [as a lesbian]. I never was homophobic or embarrassed about being a lesbian, so it was okay for me . . . as long as my lover understood that I was male, and some of my friends understood that I was male …. I went along like that for many, many years …. I felt the pressure of the [ 1970s’ and 1980s’ ] lesbian doctrine. I was trying to be a “strong, handsome woman,” and not a man in a woman’s body after all …. I put off [starting a transition] for at least ten years out of a fear of rejection, fear of the risks, and fear of making a political mistake with respect to my lesbian-feminism.

However, Hal reached a point in her life when, despite the critique of gender roles offered to her by lesbian-feminism of the late 1980s, she could no longer find a way to see herself as a woman.

These participants entered into communities of lesbian women at times during which lesbian-feminists of the 1970s and 1980s were dedicated to a redefinition of lesbianism away from the depiction of lesbians as mannish women. Instead, lesbian-feminists promoted the idea that lesbians were “women-identified-women.” Participants felt excluded by that definition and therefore were left to search in other quarters for labels that more snugly fit their self-images. When they discovered female-to-male transsexualism they embraced it as both an escape and a homecoming.

Summary and Conclusions

By far the strongest pattern that emerged from the stories offered by participants was one of participants’ earnest attempts to fit themselves to the available social roles of their times. Forty-three participants (95.5 percent) had been sexually attracted to women at some point in their pretransition lives. Thirty-five of them (81 percent) established relationships of some duration with women during their pretransition years, two participants (5 percent) had only minor sexual involvements, and another six participants (14 percent) were attracted to women but never acted upon their emotions. Drawn as these forty-three participants were to being lovers of women, they were confronted with a difficult-to-deny characterization of their love as lesbian.

More than half of these participants who were sexually attracted to women (58 percent) passed through periods during which they thought of themselves as gay or lesbian women. They were originally attracted to making such identifications because of their awareness of the common social definition of lesbians as women who want to be men or as mannish women who are sexually interested in other omen. However, over time, they came to make more finely sifted distinctions.

Two major issues became important to participants in their process of moving out of lesbian identities. Both of the axes on which participants judged themselves to be men rather than lesbian women were products of a particular historical period wherein the definitions of lesbianism constituted contested territory. On the one hand, all participants who once considered themselves to be lesbian ceased doing so during the 1970s and 1980s. These were years during which the proponents of lesbian-feminism were waging campaigns to supplant the idea that lesbians are mannish women with images of lesbians as women-identified-women who celebrate their womanhood with other women. On the other hand, these decades were also those during which female-to-male transsexualism was being defined as a treatable medical condition, similar to, but distinct from, lesbianism and characterized by the persistent desire of females to become males. Thus, participants searching for viable words to use to identify themselves were caught up in these shifting boundaries.

Participants who lived part of their lives as lesbian women were thus often in the position of having been drawn to lesbian identities on the basis of older definitions of lesbians as women who want to be men, only to discover that the lesbian pride movements of the 1970s and 1980s required them to reject those characterizations. When participants tried to measure themselves against the more woman-centered images promulgated by lesbian-feminists they found themselves lacking on two points. First, they were ashamed, embarrassed, or disgusted by the specifically female aspects of their bodies and therefore had little desire to join with their companions in the glorification of their womanhood. Second, they were generally not interested in having their sexual partners enjoy their femaleness or attempt to provide them with pleasures in specifically female ways. In other words, when participants compared themselves to both generalized and specific lesbian others, they were struck more by the contrasts than by the similarities. It therefore became apparent to these participants that they had more in common with straight men than with lesbian women. Eventually, their discomfort with being included in the lesbian camp was alleviated by their discovery of the increasingly socially available concept of female-to-male transsexualism, which offered them a conceptually simple, and more apt, solution to their extreme gender dysphoria. Once they knew themselves to be female-to-male transsexuals, they were eager to move beyond wishing to and into actually becoming men.

Thus, in the end, participants gradually exhausted their possibilities as women. Each probed the roles for women that were available to them. As each alternative was weighed and found wanting, the field of possibilities narrowed to that which was perhaps ultimately the most suitable but also seemingly the most unobtainable: to become men. Until participants happened upon the option called female-to-male transsexualism, they were relegated to forever feeling like bizarre misfits–even among those sexual minorities who already inhabited the fringes of society. Female-to-male transsexualism offered them a way out of their dilemmas: a path toward integration and self-actualization.



First and foremost I wish to express my thanks to the people who volunteered their time to become involved in this research project and to teach me something of their way of life. My thanks to Lynn Greenhough for helpful comments on early drafts of this paper and to my research assistants Noreen Begoray, Bev Copes, Sheila Pederson, and Sandra Winfield. Portions of this research were funded by the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada and the University of Victoria, Canada.



1. I use the term “female-to-male transsexuals” rather than “transsexual men” because I do not wish to distinguish between individuals at various stages of transition. I have included in this category anyone who so designated themselves to me. I use the term “lesbian” to refer to sexual/romantic relationships between two persons who have gender identities as women regardless of their anatomical sexes. I use the term “homosexual” to refer to sexual relations between persons of the same anatomical sex regardless of their gender identities. For further discussion of my use of the language of gendered sexuality see Devor 1993.
2. Consider that Krafft-Ebing described “the extreme grade of degenerative homosexuality” as “hermaphroditism” wherein “the woman of this type possesses of the feminine qualities only the genital organs; thought, sentiment, action, even external appearance are those of the man . . . the[ir] desire to adopt the active role towards the beloved person of the same sex seems to invite the use of the priapus” (264-65). Compare Krafft-Ebing’s description of mannish lesbians with the diagnostic criteria for adult Gender Identity Disorder from the DSM-IV: “a stated desire to be the other sex, frequent passing as the other sex, desire to live or be treated as the other sex, or the conviction that he or she has the typical feelings and reactions of the other sex” (1994, 537).

3. My comments on this topic are partially based upon my own recollections and partially upon my analysis of the data reported herein and elsewhere.

4. Consider this extract from Martin and Lyon:

It is those women who feel that they are “born butch” who tend to ape all the least desirable characteristics of men. In this case one may as well say to those butch, “Up against the wall, male chauvinist pig!” For to consider oneself a heterosexual, to stress that male and female are opposites which presumably, attract, is to accept the entire male-imposed doctrine that woman’s place is indeed in the home serving the male (1972, 74).

5. The book is tentatively titled Making Men: Female-to-Male Transsexuals in Society, and is to be published by Indiana University Press.

6. All percentages subsequently reported are proportions of the forty-three participants who had been attracted to women.

7. In 1921 the English Parliament attempted to introduce a law that would make lesbianism a crime. Speaking against the proposition Lord Desart said, “You are going to tell the whole world that there is such an offence, to bring it to the notice of women who have never heard of it, never thought of it, never dreamt of it. I think that is a very great mischief ” (quoted in Weeks 1989, 105). Clearly, many young women were still laboring under such ignorance more than fifty years later.

8. I have given all participants pseudonymous men’s names and, for the sake of continuity and clarity, have used them when referring to participants at any age.

9. I have tried to remain true-to the gender of the persons involved in this research project. When referring to a man telling a story about when he was a girl or woman, I have used gender pronouns that reflect the gender of the subject in each time frame, e.g., “He remembered that as a girl, she was a tomboy.”

10. In addition, two participants who had been involved with lesbian communities also took this tack. One other participant was involved in a more-than-twenty-year homosexual relationship that both parties framed as a relationship between two gay men.


American Psychiatric Association. 1980. Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders. 3d ed. Washington, D.C.: American Psychiatric Association. 1994. Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders. 4th ed. Washington, D.C.: American Psychiatric Association.

Benjamin, H. 1966. The transsexual phenomenon. New York: Julian Press.

Devor H. 1993. Toward a taxonomy of gendered sexuality. Journal of Psychology and Human Sexuality 6: 23-55.

Ellis, H. 1918. Studies in the psychology of sex. Vol. 2. Sexual inversion. Philadelphia: F. A. Davis.

Faderman, L. 1991. Odd girls and twilight lovers: A history of lesbian life in twentieth century America. New York: Penguin.

Hall, R. [1928] 1986. The well of loneliness. London: Hutchinson.

Harry Benjamin International Gender Dysphoria Association. 1990. Standards of care. Available from The Harry Benjamin International Gender Dysphoria Association, Inc., P.O. Box 1718, Sonoma, CA 95476.

Krafft-Ebing, R. von. [1906] 1965. Psychopathia sexualis with especial reference to the antipathic sexual instinct. A medico forensic study. Translated by F. S. Klaf. New York: Stein & Day.

Martin, D., and P. Lyon. 1972. Lesbian/woman. San Francisco: Glide.

Newton. E. 1989. The mythic mannish lesbian: Radclyffe Hall and the new woman. In Hidden from history: Reclaiming the gay and lesbian past, edited by M. Duberman, M. Vicinus, and G. Chauncey, Jr., 281-93. New York: NAL.

Pauly, I. 1974. Female transsexualism: Parts I and 11. Archives of Sexual Behavior 3: 487-525.

Radicalesbians. 1970. The woman identified woman. In Radical feminism, edited by A. Koedt, E. Levine, and A. Rapone, 240-45. New York: Quadrangle.

Sedgewick, E. 1990. The epistemology of the closet. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Weeks, J. 1989. Sex, politics and society: The regulation of sexuality since 1800. 2d ed. London: Longman.