Bioethics: Sexual Transformation in Germany

The session I attended during the Bioethics, Sexuality, Gender Identity National Conference was called “Whose Body Is It Any Way?: Sexual Transformation in Germany, 1890-1933.” The name of the speaker was Sander L. Gilman, professor of Psychiatry at Emory University. Respondent, Max Cavitch, is an associate professor in the department of English.

One central claim made by Sander Gilman is that the ideas of sexual ambiguity and sexual transformation were present in the German public sphere in the 1900s prior to and following the first world war.  Prior to WWI, discussion of sexual transformation was uniquely German. Gilman started off his talk by discussing a German named Karl M. Baer (1885-1956), born female and named Martha Baer. He was one of the first, in 1906, to undergo sexual transformation surgery. He was also one of the first to gain full legal recognition of his gender identity when he was issued a new birth certificate reflecting his new gender. Ideas of gender and sexual identity appeared on the front pages of German newspapers and were open to the public. Several pieces of literature about biographies of individuals undergoing sexual transformation- that could not be published in France or England- were published in Germany, including Baer’s “Man’s Years as a Young Girl” (1907), published under the pseudonym “N.O. Body.”

One interesting fact stated by Gilman was that the Germans believed, like Freud, that operating on the body was designed to heal the mind, and the feelings of one’s body are what drive medicine. I feel that these ideas still apply in today’s world. Gilman also mentioned Freud’s thought that surgery was designed to transform someone’s mental state from hysterical misery to common unhappiness.  I found this statement very interesting because it implies that unhappiness is a standard experience for all, that it is expected.

Gilman’s responder, Max Cavitch, made one provocative point that particularly caught my attention. He stated that the historical stories discussed by Gilman all revolved around the idea of “qualifications.” History revolves around one’s ability to qualify- to qualify for a certain group or regime, financial requirement, nationality, or ethnic identity. Similarly, ideas regarding sexual transformations apply to this term of “qualifications-” feeling qualified for erotic life, fear of erotic qualifications, and qualifications of medical professionals to make decisions on behalf of the patient being “transformed.”

Gilman’s presentation can easily be related to what we talked about in class this Monday. During the 1900s, and today, the process of gender construction in one’s life is a process of socialization. During this time in history, socialization drove social organization, organization of people according to their race, ethnicity, religion, economic class, and gender. These social statuses created a division of groups that followed a hierarchical relationship. It is interesting to think about how different things were in the 1900s, but how these same exact social aspects of the socialization of gender identity still existed during that time.

My question is: Why do these patterns of social organization continue to be passed on from one generation to the next? Why do we feel such a strong need to categorize people and create this ranking system? Are we, like Freud says, causing our own “common unhappiness” by living life this way?

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