The Lure of Origins: Sexology and the Trans Autobiographical Mandate

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This dissertation, The Lure of Origins: Sexology and the Trans Autobiographical Mandate, intervenes in the conundrum I call “the trans autobiographical mandate” that characterizes the relationship between U.S. Trans studies and sexological genres of trans autobiography. The conundrum is as follows: some forms of trans self-representation—namely, those found in sexological archives—have been understood by Trans Studies to be oppressive and too mired in anti-trans ideologies and discourses to allow for trans people’s agency. This has meant that, to do justice to the trans authors of these autobiographies, Trans Studies critics have been compelled to read the past through the enabling perspective of a trans affirming present, where what is found in the archive is given new shape through contemporary lexicons of trans identity. At the same time, other forms of trans self-representation, including those found on the presumed “outside” of medicine, have been endowed with a liberatory potential to challenge, disrupt, overcome, and rewrite the norms and ideologies of medicalization that have historically defined trans life in limited and limiting ways. In The Lure of Origins, I argue against three tendencies that have characterized the dominant position of Trans Studies in its attempt to resolve the conundrum of the trans autobiographical mandate: I contest the idea that trans medicalization only represses trans life, which has established the assumption that the field already knows both what can be found in the medical archive and how to read what we find there; I resist the idea that there exist forms of trans autobiography that are free from the constraints of medicalization and pathologization; and I refuse the burden that this bifurcation in modes of autobiographical reading and writing places on trans people to know ourselves and each other, to be able to author and authorize our own stories, and to do so in terms which are imagined to be our own. To these ends, I reopen an anonymous case study I call “the case of the metamorphosing physician,” which arrives to us in the Trans Studies present as definitively trans, in order to retell the story of how the case arrives here. I construct an account of the multiplicity that this case carries in its enmeshment in discourse, interpretation, and the desires of those who have gone back to read and re-read it while offering pathologizing frames for understanding its true meaning. Over four chapters, I follow the case study’s successive resignification in the course of the long twentieth century sexological canon: as a “Stage of Transition to Metamorphosis Sexualis Paranoica” in Krafft-Ebing (1892); a case of delusional cross-dressing for Magnus Hirschfeld (1910); an illustration of the difference between same-sex desire and cross-gender identity in Havelock Ellis (1913); and finally as the original autobiography of a transsexual in Richard Green (1966). In each chapter, I examine how the meaning of this paradigmatic case study evolves by changing sets of sexological hermeneutics which transform how the autobiography is read. I call attention to the multiple diagnostic inheritances buried within the contemporary signifier “trans,” including those that carry a pathologizing history with which the field has sought to dispense, and argue against reading this case within the singular “true” meaning of a trans origin offered by Trans Studies today. By attending to each scene of its medicalization, I consider how “trans” harbors a complex history of pathologizing frameworks from which it is still not free. I also show how the notion of a self-defining trans person who knows themselves does not emerge apart from the history of trans medicalization, but rather as a product of medicalization itself, which has demanded an equation between health and self-certainty as a prerequisite for trans inclusion. I insist on the importance of attending to the complex archive of pathology that troubles Trans Studies from the inside, not to recuperate pathology for more liberatory ends, but to disrupt the fantasy of the trans autobiographical mandate which demands a self-authorizing and self-knowing trans subject. I argue for a de-exceptionalizing story of the trans “origin” which refuses to pull this figure from the past into the self-conscious form that Trans Studies now desires. Ultimately, I rethink the terms by which trans affirmation has been made equivalent to the insistence that trans must be disarticulated from categories associated with insanity, particularly paranoia and psychosis, in order to be legitimate. By refusing this disarticulation or the assumptions in which it is grounded—which would only permit the freedom of transition to subjects who are presumed, by medicine’s own standards, to be sane—I insist on reading “trans” within a broader context in which its formation is unthinkable outside of its enmeshment with pathologizing histories. In doing so, I offer a mode of storytelling that historizes “trans” while resisting the demand to prove trans sanity through the articulation of true trans selves in transparent, autobiographical speech.






Fischer, Julien E. (2023). The Lure of Origins: Sexology and the Trans Autobiographical Mandate. Dissertation, Duke University. Retrieved from


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