During today’s research on this history of clinical psychoanalytic opinions on transgender people, I stumbled across a fascinating article from 1948. Martin Grotjahn’s “Transvestite Fantasy Expressed in a Drawing” (Psychoanalytic Quarterly, 17:340-345) is not unique in its analysis of his patient’s “perversion” – Grotjahn argues that this image is a representation of the trans person’s disavowal of castration through the creation of a fetish (cross-dressing). For example, on left side of the drawing, you can discern the depiction of a scrotum without a penis, on the right, a life-like vagina bloodied and lacking a hymn. He states:
“It is noteworthy in the drawing that the castration is symbolized, but that it is clearly conceived as a literal castration denoted by the bleeding vagina, and testes without a penis. In typical transvestite fashion, the symbolic denial of castration is already implied: the testes may be found behind the curtain (under the clothes). The woman’s clothing becomes a substitute for the missing penis.”
His interpretations aside, what I actually find most captivating about this find, is the drawing itself, that has been preserved through the psychiatrist’s pathologizing clinical report. As Susan Stryker has articulated in the introduction to the first Transgender Studies Reader, it is up to trans studies scholars to return to these histories, combing over their records to uncover and rewrite stories of trans experience. This “Renarration” allows trans people to treat sexologist’s “immense body of clinical work as its archive” (Stryker 14).
This sketch, clearly influenced by surrealism (and it also reminds me of Sybil Lamb’s work), reflects the balance of dream states and reality; fantasy and desire. Broadly, I see negotiations between polarized gendered embodiments, the struggle of the path this “patient” walks, of being observed, of feeling stuck, the shame of being seen or seeing, interiorities and exteriorities (holes and poles), and violence. Yet any analysis of the piece, without a conversation with the artist themselves, will also do much to reflect both the psyche of the one doing the analysis and their particular socio-political context. This is another reason why the medicalized archive to trans people could be of significant use for uncovering the resonant anxieties that have lubricated clinical transphobia. In other words, can we look at medical reports to determine cis people’s defensive responses to gender variance?
The kind of shame surrounding genitals and their medical documentation has always captured my attention. During the early 1990s, all psychiatric reports were accompanied by detailed measurements of the body, and exhaustive descriptions of privileged body parts (forehead, skull, pelvis, clitoris). The truth of mental illness was to be found in the flesh, as biological positivism had a weighty hold.
Trans and intersex people’s anatomies were documented through image and text that measured and compared their corporeal deviations to a measured norm – an all-encompassing phallometrics, obsessively filed and registered.
And despite the undisputable violence of this history, I can’t help but find such profoundly beautiful queer aesthetic in the kinds of sublime mutations captured through scientific record.
That said, I’ll leave you with the final image I found today, a watercolour depiction of a vulva from 1892, housed at St Bartholomew’s Hospital Archives & Museum. The genitals have been scarred by ulceration – which can be the result of any number of factors including STIs, sexual trauma, psoriasis, and fixed drug eruptions. The cause is not documented.
by Leonard Portal Mark, 1892