I was struck during the reading of David Cauldwell’s “Psychopathia Transexualis” and Harry Benjamin’s “Transsexualism and Transvestism as Psycho-Somatic and Somato-Psychic Syndromes” by the connection made by both authors between the phenomenon of transgender (termed by the authors as “transsexualism,” “transvestism” or “psychopathis transexualis”) and narcissism. Explicitly, Dr. Cauldwell writes, “[A transsexual subject] was narcissistic and reveled in just seeing and feeling herself (as much when alone as otherwise) in the role of a male,” (43). Dr. Benjamin too writes, “The libido as far as sex activities are concerned is usually low [in transsexualists] and seems to be completely occupied with the sex conversion idea, indicating the close relationship to narcissism,” (47). It is obvious that the medical establishment has attempted for many years to pathologize trans people and their desires for gender intervention, and part of that work has been to construe trans people as generally mentally ill and disorder-ridden. However, it feels to me like a particularly ironic and painful stab on the part of the medical establishment to call trans people narcissistic; not only are trans people considered disturbed for desiring to embody or perform gender differently, but they are considered narcissistic for enjoying a desired embodiment or performance.
Looking for a more technical description of narcissism (and not having the current DSM on hand), I found a site which quotes the DSM IV-TR’s entry for “Narcissistic Personality Disorder”:
Included upon the list of nine symptomatic characteristics are “(2) preoccupied with fantasies of …beauty,” and “(5) a sense of entitlement, i.e., unreasonable expectations of …automatic compliance with his or her expectations.” As quoted above, Cauldwell and Benjamin both discuss their subjects’ sexual fascination with or fantasies about their own embodiment in explicit relation to narcissism- characteristics which seem to align with the second symptom given by the DSM. Beyond this, Benjamin writes, “More than anything else the psychogenetic transvestite wants to see a change in the existing restrictive laws… He [italics in original] does not want to be changed, but wants society’s attitude toward him to change, again revealing narcissistic tendencies,” (49). While this sentiment might appear ridiculous when applied to an oppressed minority group, it supports a diagnosis of narcissism: #5 a sense of entitlement.
While the doctors appear to have gone to lengths to flesh out their diagnosis of trans people as mentally ill, calling a minority group narcissistic for demanding their own acknowledgement is like calling a starving person gluttonous for requesting something to eat. Self-fascination is not egotistical when one’s body or identity is new and changed- and anyway, self-gender is sexualized for everybody! Asking for society to change is not selfish when one belongs to an institutionally oppressed population. Trans people are narcissistic in the same way that any person who has ever wrenched back their self-determination from an oppressive establishment is narcissistic. This situation is the ultimate addition of insult to injury: first trans persons are called mentally ill for wishing to transition, then they are treated to discrimination and prejudice from the medical, legal, and employment institutions, and finally they are called doubly mentally ill for noticing and objecting to their patholigization and persecution. While not the most serious of the problems produced by transphobia, medical professionals calling trans persons narcissistic constitutes an historically humor-less irony.
By Rosalind Rini