Within the collection of poetry of “The Work of a Common Woman” by Judy Grahn, “The Psychoanalysis of Edward the Dyke” really stands out to me as a unique poem. Written more like prose, the poem is a satirical story which points out the ridiculousness of the medical community’s treatment of transgender people, and LGBT people more generally. There was a lot of overlap between this story’s themes and Susan Stryker’s second chapter of “Transgender History,” in which Stryker talks about some of the prejudices LGBT people face in getting the medical treatment they need. Because these two pieces of writing are in such strong conversation with one another, I thought it would be worth examining how they compliment each other, in order to understand why Grahn’s poem is so effective in shedding light on some of the unfortunate realities that Stryker points out in “Transgender History.”
As Stryker notes in the section “The Social Power of Medicine,” the advancement of surgery so that it was not a death sentence was very significant to transgender people who felt compelled to physically change their bodies to better reflect their identities. However, in the middle decades of the 19th century, there was really no concept of these “elective surgeries” as we may call them today. As such, surgeries at this time required a pre-requisite of “sickness.” This created a dilemma among transgender people, where they had an opportunity to receive the operation they needed, but in order to do so needed to accept the medical (and societal) diagnosis that transgender people were “mentally ill” in order to receive treatment, a diagnosis that was absolutely false.
Though the later research of Ulrich, Kertbeny, and Hirschfield have contributed to a better understanding of the biological realities of transgender people, many of the prejudices and generalizations still remain. The prejudiced psychoanalysis of Edward by the doctor within the story is meant to represent a long-standing trend for not just transgender/LGBT people, but other minorities as well. The poem is characterized by the doctor’s shortness and quick generalization of Edward without listening to the whole story, treating her more as a case study than as a person. His diagnoses are not painted by his evaluation of Edward, but by his views of LGBT people based on long standing stereotypes, like when he assumes that Edward has multiple lovers, that she has penis envy, and that she exhibits the Freudian idea that she wants “to kill her mother.”
The fact that these attitudes could still be held by medical/psychiatric professionals when Grahn wrote her poetry collection in the 1960’s and 1970’s, well after the origins of widespread transgender medical prejudices that seemingly began in the middle of the 19th century or perhaps even earlier, shows just how deeply systemic discrimination can impact minority livelihoods. Though her poem is obviously slightly exaggerated for satirical effect, what Grahn is trying to get at is just how much these prejudices can persist in a community even after they’ve been disproven, and how harmful these prejudices can be towards LGBT people who are trying to discover their unique identities. This is brought home by Edward’s declaration towards the end of the poem about herself that she is “vile,” because whenever she turns to someone like the doctor in the poem for help, they tell her she’s suffering from a “deadly affliction” and that she’s “sick.” Taken within the context of the LGBT history Stryker examines, Grahn is shedding a light on the systemic issues that have persisted over time for LGBT people that need to be rectified.