Devor, H. (1997). “How I Became a Sexologist”, in Bonnie Bullough, Vern Bullough, Marilyn Fithian, William Hartman & Randy Klein (Eds.), How I Got Into Sex 87-95: Amherst, NY: Prometheus

It wasn’t easy to be a gay teenager in the 1960s. Just being a lesbian and under the age of twenty-one made me a criminal, a juvenile delinquent who could be locked up or sent off for mandatory psychiatric treatment at the whim of others. My older lovers were guilty of an even greater crime, punishable by imprisonment, simply for the act of sexually loving me. When I read in my parents’ Reader’s Digest a statement by the then head of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover, that “Any citizen of these United States who is not involved in some illegal activity has nothing to fear whatsoever,” I laughed ruefully and clipped it out to post on my door. I knew that something was very wrong. Luckily for me, having been raised Jewish in a society recovering from the holocaust of World War II, I was more inclined to think that the problem lay with those who hated than with those who loved.

That was the beginning of my quest to understand sexuality and how it is shaped and controlled by social forces. I knew that I had done nothing wrong by loving women but that I was, nonetheless, engaged in stigmatized and criminal activities. Back then, when we were called “queer,” it was said with a sneer. There was no pride or rebellion in that term. It was just that we butches were weird sickos.

When the Gay Liberation Front appeared after Stonewall, I was eager to join the fray. When I read Notes from the Second Year of the women’s liberation movement, I was eager to join up. I wanted to be able to live as I was, without fear of incarceration, without social rejection. When I found both fledgling movements in my adopted home of Canada, I became a political activist on both fronts. I spent the early years of the 1970s working full-time to improve the social conditions of women, lesbians, and gays.

As I did so, I read everything that I could (and at that time you could pretty well keep up with things) which might shed some light on why we were the way we were. That is, why we women, lesbians, and gays were the way we were; and why we, as a society, were the way we were. Why did some people have the right to deride other people for being women, butches, queens, lesbians, gays, etc., and why were some people “queer”? These were political questions for me; these were vital questions for me. If I wanted to change the world, I had to know how it was put together. If I wanted to reconstruct, I needed to learn how to deconstruct. Thus, I began my journey into sexological theory.

Having been raised within a society which taught me from a very early age to think about sex, gender, and sexuality in entirely biologically deterministic ways, not to do so required some intellectual effort from me. That effort, however, was one that I was more than willing to undertake in the early 1970s, when I was energetically engaged in the gay and women’s liberation movements. I had been taught that women were born to be inferior to men and I saw it as in my best interests to reject that proposition. Instead, I adopted Simone de Beauvoir’s dictum that “one is not born a woman, but rather becomes a woman. In so doing, I was throwing my weight in with a group whom I was later to learn to call social constructionists. Over the years, I came to temper that position somewhat, although I still retain very strong leanings in that direction. Indeed, as I now conceptually separate sex and gender, I still agree that women are made, not born. However, I would argue that most females are born and that women are generally made from females.

By the end of the 1970s, I was getting pretty hungry being an activist, so I decided to try working for a living. I soon found that my mind also needed more nutrition and I went back to school. After floundering for a few years in a physics program, I decided to work from my strengths. I began tutoring in a women’s studies program, and decided to enter a graduate program in communications. In order to become a graduate student, I had to have a thesis proposal. I asked myself what I thought could hold my interest for a few years. Well, sex and gender had already held my interest for a few years, so I figured that it would probably continue to do so for a few more. That became the subject matter of my M.A. in communications at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver.

I chose as my thesis topic a question which had been personally vexing to me during the previous few years. I, and several women I knew, were feminist butch women who were disinclined to obey patriarchal expectations of femininity. We thought of ourselves as “woman-identified women, but other people who didn’t know us at all seemed to just as often think that we were men. Here we were trying to be really good feminists and really woman-identified and other people thought that we were men. How ironic! That apparent contradiction became my thesis topic. I named us gender-blending females and investigated the phenomenon through indepth interviews with fifteen women who had had extensive experience of that type. That work brought me into contact with a lot of important new (to me) ideas. Although when I had returned to school to pursue graduate studies I did not have any mentors who specialized in the study of sexuality, I did get some very useful guidance and a lot of wholehearted support for what I was doing. One of my supervisors guided me to the works of symbolic interactionists and ethnomethodologists, while another of them sent me off to read about the psychology and biology of sex and gender differences. I found the ideas of George Herbert Mead, Erving Goffman, and Harold Garfinkel to be particularly stimulating. I also read with enthusiasm from Money and Ehrhardt, Nancy Chodorow, Carol Gilligan, Sandra Bern, and Suzanne Kessler and Wendy Mckenna. I learned from these scholars that I need not think of sex and gender as interchangeable concepts and that all meanings which people give to human interactions are socially negotiated within the framework of various sets of social contexts.

I also learned to look at the world around me on several different levels at one time. I learned that although genetics and other contributions from our physiological realities may provide some bottom-line limitations on who and what we might be or become, just about everything can be negotiated or manipulated by individuals and/or by social forces. When it comes to sex, gender, and sexuality, one particular quote from Kessler and McKenna pithily sums up one of the important lessons I learned during that stage of my studies. They noted that, “Beards, breasts, and other gender characteristics can be bought in a store.” In other words, in terms of everyday life, as I had learned some years before from the dykes, queens, and transsexuals whom I had known in my gay liberation activist days: gender is a performance, whether individual social actors realize it or not. Furthermore, it is one that can be consciously manipulated and controlled by social actors who understand the rules in their social environments and are sufficiently skillful to effectively present their desired images. I also picked up the concomitant idea that if gender is a performance and can thus become divorced from physiological qualifications, then sex and gender must be related, but distinct, social categories. As Virginia Prince so aptly explained: “Sex is between the legs; gender is between the ears.” However, they do tend to mesh well most of the time.

In the process of finishing off my M.A. thesis, I started to realize that sexuality was very much a part of the equation. However, it wasn’t until I had done some more teaching that I really started to make the connection between sexuality and gender, in particular, when I taught introductory women’s studies courses to male inmates in Canadian federal penitentiaries as part of an in-house university education program for prisoners. The men I met there made it perfectly clear to me that they when they thought about women, they thought about sexuality; and that when they thought about themselves as men, they thought about sexuality. Furthermore, I also taught similar university and nonuniversity introductory women’s studies courses to classes composed entirely of convicted male sex offenders. These courses focused specifically on those men’s understandings of the interactions between their ideas about sexuality, their thoughts and actions concerning women, and their conceptualizations of themselves as men.

If I hadn’t gotten the message before, it came through loud and clear then. As Catherine MacKinnon said, “sexuality is gendered as gender is sexualized. If I wanted to understand issues of gender, I needed to consider their intersection with issues of sexuality. If I wanted to understand sexuality, I needed to look at how gender shapes sexuality. In trying to help those men better to understand women and themselves, I had to talk with them about many of the basic issues of social life. Sexuality and power were of the greatest interest to them and were indivisible from questions of gender.

Around the same time as I was teaching these courses, I was reworking my M.A. thesis to turn it into my first book, Gender Blending: Confronting the Limits of Duality. Taking my new understandings to heart, I added a chapter on sexuality to Gender Blending. I was clearly becoming a sexologist, but I did not yet know the term. Intellectually, I still housed myself under the rubrics of feminism and women’s studies. When I wrote papers, I presented them at feminist conferences and submitted them to feminist journals. My work was well received. People were interested in what I was doing but, in those arenas, I seemed to be the only one doing them. I felt as though I was always starting at the beginning when I talked or wrote about the things that captivated my interest.

Shortly before the publication of Gender Blending, I applied for my first tenuretrack academic appointment at the University of Victoria, British Columbia. For personal reasons, there was really only one job open at the time in which I was seriously interested. The department to which I applied had never previously had any faculty who specialized in sex, gender, and sexuality. Indeed, the entire university was pretty much devoid of such research. I applied for the job on the strength of my work in the field of sex, gender, and sexuality and, interestingly, no one seemed to object to my obvious interest in lesbianism, feminism, or sexuality. Rather, they seemed to have been blinded to my enthusiasm for such topics by the stellar reference letter I received from one of the top academic statisticians in the United States. Thus, I must say that my interest in sexuality research seemed to have been a moot point at the initiation of my academic career. However, it has been absolutely central to my advancement since that time.

When Gender Blending came out, it received almost entirely positive reviews in both academic and popular journals. However, I soon discovered that when one writes about topics of sex, gender, and sexuality, readers can take it very much to heart. When discussions of sexuality, sex, and gender are combined with feminism, people can react with a lot of heat. Whereas one reviewer took me to task for being too feminist, another criticized me for not being feminist enough. In the more critical of these two reviews, the reviewer’s assumptions about my own sexuality seemed to color her ability to understand and interpret my comments about sexuality. Another ironic twist: I had refrained from writing about my own experiences as a gender-blending female or a butch lesbian because of fears that, at such an early stage of my career, such disclosures might stymie my advancement. Having made that defensive choice, I subsequently found myself assumed to have written Gender Blending as a hypercritical outsider rather than as a sympathetic and insightful participant observer. Happily, the tone of critical response to Gender Blending was overwhelmingly and enthusiastically positive.

While working on a related topic for my Ph.D. in sociology, I began working on my second book, FTM: Female-to-Male Transsexuals in Society. By this time, it was entirely clear to me that I could not study issues of sex and gender identity without also studying sexuality. In my mind, the three were inextricably mixed. However, it wasn’t until I attended the Tenth World Congress on Sexuality in Amsterdam in the summer of 1991 that I began to think of myself as a sexologist. Finally, I was among the people whose works I had been reading for years. Finally, I did not have to start my discussions at step one. We could debate and discuss, argue and engage. Here were people from whom I could learn. I had found my niche.

From that point onward, I have focused my energies in the community of scholars known as sexologists. I have attended other World Association of Sexology conferences, become a member of the Society for the Scientific Study of Sexuality, the Harry Benjamin International Gender Dysphoria Association, and the International Academy of Sex Researchers. As I have continued my sexological research, there have been certain general principles which have guided me in my intellectual life and work. Most of them are moral and political in nature, and a few are more abstract intellectual ideas which have inspired my thoughts as a sexologist. Either way, they have been my working principles as a researcher, as a teacher, and as a citizen.

To begin with, feminist values inform my work. To me, that means a number of things about how I conduct research, about how I write about what I do, and how I disseminate the knowledge which I acquire. It means that generally I do what Glaser and Strauss called grounded theory. I assume that the best experts on any subject are those who know about it from the inside out. When I want to understand something, I start by going to the people who live it and finding out from them how they understand their experiences. My insights are built on theirs.

Thus, when I try to trace my intellectual roots, I come up with mentors from “the field” as often as I find them among my professional peers. When I think back to moments of epiphany which mark times when theoretical vistas started to open up for me, the ones that stand out most prominently for me are experiential ones. Meeting Merissa Sheryl Lynn, Yvonne Cook-Riley, Ari Kane, Sheila Kirk, Virginia Prince, and Dallas Denny at my first IFGE (International Foundation for Gender Education) convention are such markers for me. Debating sex, gender, and sexuality with them; working on the board of directors of the IFGE with them; partying in the wee hours of the morning with them, all taught me as much or more about sex, gender, and sexuality than could innumerable academic treatises. Making the acquaintance of many female-to-male people who took me into their confidence and showed me some of their secrets, and becoming friends with Jason Cromwell, Rupert Raj, and James Green have enriched my life first as a human being and second as a researcher. These people have taught me about their lives by taking me into their worlds and letting me live among them for a little while, as I have shared some of my life with them.

My feminist principles also show up in my assumption that I have substantial obligations to the people who have been generous enough to help me with my explorations. I try directly to give them voice in what I write and say about their lives. I write in language which I hope will be accessible to most of the people in the communities who were the subjects of my research, and I try to publish some of my work in outlets which might reach those whose interest in it is personal. I quote the people who have helped me as often and as completely as I am able. I take what I write to members of the communities who have helped me and ask for their advice and as much approval as they can offer. I count their endorsement as ultimately more important than those of other “professionals” and “experts.”

One result of having such policies is that it forces me to be as scrupulous and as thorough in my research as possible. There are always people among those who participate in my research who become my friends, and other people whose paths I cross in other capacities. I have to face these people again. I know that I have the power to define their lives in print. I take that power seriously and do my best to be as accurate and as respectful as I can be. I know that I will have to answer for what I say for years to come. I try to do it in such a way that I will able to make those answers while looking real people in the eye.

I also feel a more tangible obligation to repay the people who open their lives to me. I do what work I can as an advocate for the interests of those people whom I study. In particular, I have served for three years on the board of directors of IFGE. During this time, I have worked in conjunction with the IFGE and leaders of the female-to-male transsexual community to establish representative participation by female-to-male persons in the IFGE and to build political ties between male-to-female and female-to-male communities. Within professional organizations, in my writing for professionals, in my public speaking, and in my contacts with the mass media, I try to build empathetic understanding of the lives of the people whom I study. I try to advocate for their rights, and to make my peers and the general public see our human similarities and honor our very important differences. My work is empty unless it helps to improve the lives of those who made it possible. In the final analysis I see no other legitimate reason for it.

On a more abstract intellectual level, there have been a few ideas which have informed almost all the work I have done. As I, and my work, have matured, they have become more clear to me and more pronounced in how I conduct and write about my research. The idea that social meanings are negotiated on an ongoing basis at all levels of social interaction continues to be one of my basic intellectual assumptions. I owe a debt to symbolic interactionists and ethnomethodologists for these ideas and also to historians of sexuality such as Laqueur, Foucault, and Weeks.

Another important idea that has been part of my thinking is that sex, gender, and sexuality are best understood as three distinct, but related, phenomena. Although this thought is certainly not new to me, I have become an ardent advocate of it. On an academic level, Money and Ehrhardt first alerted me to the conceptual distinction between sex and gender’s (although the male-to-female transsexuals and drag queens whom I had known in the early 1970s certainly demonstrated the idea clearly enough in their everyday lives). The work of Kessler and McKenna and David Grimm, among others, further drove home this point.

However, it was not until I met a couple named Josephine and Linda at an IFGE convention that the whole thing started to really fall into place for me. Josephine and Linda were two people who had male bodies but who lived full-time as women. They lived together as lovers and considered themselves to be lesbian women. In the discussions which I had with them, and with Virginia Prince, I started to see more clearly that sexuality seems to be more intrinsically tied to persons’ gender identities than to their sex identities; and that there are often gaps between persons’ own identities and the attributions made about them by other people. Josephine and Linda maintained that they were lesbian women, many of their women friends thought of them as lesbian women, Virginia Prince and some lesbian women called them homosexual males.

These discussions led to my work on gendered sexuality, wherein I argue against simplistic assumptions that sex, gender, and sexuality will always align as per the dictates of dominant gender schema. Rather, it is my contention that thoroughgoing understandings of sexuality require that sex, gender, and sexual identities and attributions must all be taken into account, along with considerations of actual and attributed sexual fantasies, desires, and practices.

It was in my work with female-to-male people that I became most completely convinced of the necessity to approach sexuality in this way. What I learned from female-to-male transsexual persons convinced me that, to paraphrase Woody Allen, the brain is the largest sex organ in the body. The stories which female-to-male people told me about their own and their partners’ sexuality demonstrated to me that sexuality is far more intricately tied to issues of gender identity and attribution than it is to questions of bodily sex. The female-to-male people whom I have known have made it clear to me that it is far more important that genders and sexualities fit together comfortably than that particular body parts be present or absent from sexual encounters.

Thus, once again, I found that people negotiate their meanings within the limits of their own imaginations and within the contexts of their social environments. As I had learned from my study of gender-blending females, I again found that, in social relations, physical bodies are symbolic markers which can be called upon to confirm or invalidate genders, or which can be made subservient to other social cues. Thus, I had come full circle. I began by studying gender identity and attribution. In the course of doing so, I came to see that gender cannot be understood without delving into sexuality, and that interpersonal sexuality cannot be played out without being imbedded within a framework of gender identities and attributions. Sexualities may be enacted using sexed body parts, but sexualities are created by gendered selves.

As I go on with my work, and as I look back upon the steps which brought me to this point of my career, I count myself as very lucky to have become a sexologist when and where I have. I have benefited greatly from having had the opportunity to spend years of my life studying questions which are personally important to me and whose elucidation has the potential to improve the lives of other people. I have been fortunate to work in Canada during a time when sex research has not been held in disrepute. In Victoria, I have enjoyed the mixed blessing of relative isolation from other scholars with similar interests. My location has permitted me to feel especially free from peer pressures and fads, and to think independently, while I still have been able to attend important meetings and to stay in touch through phone, fax, and e-mail.

In addition to all of this, I have had the pleasure to see my years of contribution to political activism bear fruit in the form of a social and intellectual climate in which I not only could research sexuality, but I could do so as an open lesbian and an avowed feminist. In such a climate, I have been able to fully enjoy the benefit of a wise and loving partner who has intellectually and emotionally supported me in my work. Furthermore, I have been able to take my interest in sexology into my classrooms and develop and teach curricula on human sexuality, and on gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered people. My study and teaching of sexology have therefore been deeply gratifying to me by giving me the tools, and the opportunity, to liberate a few more minds from prejudice and shame, and to inspire a few more budding young sexologists to join me in the work of sexology. The rewards have been great.


1. Notes from the Second Year (1970), Archives, June Mazer Lesbian Collection, West Hollywood, Calif.
2. Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex (New York: Bantam, 1952).

3. Radicalesbians, “The Woman Identified Woman,” in Radical Feminism, ed. Anne Koedt, Ellen Levine, and Rita Rapone (New York: Quadrangle Books, 1970), pp. 240-45

4. Anselm Strauss, ed., The Social Psychology of George Herbert Mead (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1962); Erving Goffman, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (New York: Doubleday, 1959); Erving Goffman, Stigma: Notes on Management of a Spoiled Identity (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1963); Erving Goffman, Behavior in Public Placer: Note on the Social Organization of Gatherings (New York: Free Press, 1963); Erving Goffman, Gender Advertisements (London: Macmillan, 1978); Harold Garfinkel, Studies in Ethnomethodology (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1967).

5. John Money and Anke Ehrhardt, Man and Woman, Boy and Girl: The Differentiation and Dimorphism of Gender Identity from Conception to Maturity (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1972); Nancy Chodorow, The Reproduction of Mothering: Psychoanalysis and the Sociology of Gender (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1978); Carol Gilligan, In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women’s Development (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1982); Suzanne Kessler and Wendy McKenna, Gender: An Ethnomethodological Approach (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1978); Sandra L. Bern, “Gender Schematic Theory and Its Implications for Child Development: Raising Gender-Aschematic Children in a Gender-Schematic Society,” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 8 (1983): 598-616; Sandra L. Bern, “Gender Schema Theory: A Cognitive Account of Sex Typing,” Psychological Review 88 (1981), 155-62.

6. Kessler and McKenna, Gender: An Ethnomethodogical Approach, p. 68.

7. Virginia Prince, “Sex versus Gender,” Proceedings of the 2nd Interdisciplinary Symposium on Gender Dysphoria Syndrome (Stanford, Calif., 1973), pp. 20-24.

8. Catherine MacKinnon, “Feminism, Marxism, Method and the State: Toward a Feminist Jurisprudence,” Signs 8 (1983): 635-58, p. 635.

9. For more about this work, see H. Devor “Teaching Women’s Studies to Male Inmates,” Women’s Studies International Forum 11 (1988): 2354; H. Devor “Teaching Women’s Studies to Convicted Sex Offenders,” The Yearbook of Correctional Education 1 (1989): 129-54.

10. H. Devor FTM: Female-to-Male Transsexuals in Society (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, forthcoming).

11. Barney Glaser and Anselm Strauss, The Discovery of Grounded Theory: Strategies for Qualitative Research (Chicago: Aldine, 1967).

12. The International Foundation for Gender Education, P.O. Box 229, Waltham, Mass., 02154-0229.

13. Thomas Laqueur, Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1990); Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, traps. Robert Hurley (New York: Pantheon, 1978); Jeffrey Weeks, Sex, Politics and Society: The Regulation of Sexuality Since 1800, 2d ed. (London: Longman, 1989).

14. Money and Ehrhardt, Man and Woman, Boy and Girl.

15. Kessler and McKenna, Gender: An Ethnomethodogical Approach; David Grimm, “Toward a Theory of Gender: Transsexualism, Gender, Sexuality, and Relationships,” The American Behavioral Scientist 31 (1987): 66-85.

16. For a discussion of the idea of gendered sexuality see H. Devor “Toward a Taxonomy of Gendered Sexuality,” Journal of Psychology and Human Sexuality 6, no. 1 (1993): 23-55. For a discussion of the dominant gender schema see H. Devor Gender Blending: Confronting the Limits of Duality (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989).

17. In the film Sleeper, Woody Allen said: “My brain, it’s my second favorite organ.”

18. See H. Devor FTM; H. Devor “Sexual Orientation Identities, Attractions and Practices of Female-to-Male Transsexuals,” Journal of Sex Research 30 (1993): 303-15.

19. The Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada has been especially generous in supporting my sexological research.