Remembering Dr. Leah Schaefer, the Sweet Singer-Turned-Psychiatrist Who Healed a Generation of Trans Women

From Huffington Post:


Dr. Leah Cahan Schaefer died this past week at 92. A giant in the fields of transsexualism and female sexuality, she represented the best of the medical profession. During her professional life, as the custodian of the voluminous professional files of Dr. Harry Benjamin, the dean of transsexual medicine in the United States, himself a student of the renowned German scientist Magnus Hirschfeld, she persisted in recognizing transsexualism as a normal human developmental variant, a vision that she lived long enough to see come to fruition in the latest edition of the American Psychiatric Association’s diagnostic manual, the DSM-5, this past December.

I was fortunate to have had the opportunity to collaborate with her in the late ’90s, when I was researching the link between fetal DES (diethylstilbestrol) exposure and transsexualism. The possibility intrigued her, and she supported my work on endocrine disruption before others in the profession were even willing to consider the possibility. She was professional and gracious, which fit with the description others had shared with me.

One of my earliest post-transition relationships was with a woman who knew Dr. Schaefer professionally, and it was clear from her stories that the trans community of New York felt blessed to have her as a counselor and general resource. At a time when most trans women had been excluded from society, receiving just a modicum of kindness would have seemed like a lucky thing. But Dr. Schaefer not only cared deeply for her patients; she offered them hope.

It’s not easy today, even for those of us who lived through those decades, to remember the depth and brutality of the ostracism. For me it was even more intense because my professional colleagues were among the worst. I spent years combing the stacks of my university library and the libraries of the other Ivies whenever I got the chance, to learn about who I was. And everything I discovered in the psychiatric literature during the ’70s and ’80s was uniformly vile and hateful, until I happened across Drs. Harry Benjamin and Leah Schaefer.

It’s hard to believe that physicians, including psychiatrists, could so totally lack compassion and understanding. In one respect, reading the work of Drs. Benjamin and Schaefer highlighted the contrast even more. How could these two be right and everyone else wrong? I won’t comment on the humanity of the majority, but Dr. Schaefer certainly was a woman of compassion and loving kindness. She and her mentor were also scientists, however, and they refused to be overwhelmed by religious sensibilities and the pseudoscience known as Freudianism, which was the cultural consensus among psychiatrists during those years.

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