Elmer Belt Residence | Los Angeles Conservancy
Photo by Laura Dominguez/L.A. Conservancy

Elmer Belt Residence

Born in Chicago, Illinois, Dr. Elmer Belt (1893-1980) was an internationally renowned surgeon and a pioneer in medical care for transgendered individuals (then referred to as transsexuals).

He lived in this 1929 French Provincial residence in Los Feliz while practicing medicine, though little is known about the home. 

Dr. Belt earned his bachelor's degree from UC Berkeley in 1916, his master's degree from UC Berkeley in 1917, and his doctorate in 1920. For many years, he served as a clinical professor of surgery in urology at UCLA.

In the 1950s, Dr. Belt became one of a handful of doctors in the United States to perform sex reassignment procedures. His work was predicated on his contact with famous sexologist and endocrinologist Dr. Harry Benjamin, who was widely known for his clinical work with transsexual patients. 

Dr. Belt's contribution to the fields of urology, surgery, and the literature on transsexualism were influential in the creation of UCLA Medical School. 

When Dr. Elmer Belt began performing sex reassignment procedures in the 1950s, the concept of transsexuality was changing dramatically and was constantly being contested.

"Transsexual," a term that has fallen out of use, referred to a person who felt that he or she belonged to the opposite sex. Transsexual individuals desired to live life as a person of the opposite sex and did not want this identity to be merely physical. 

Though the term originated in 1925, American physician David O. Cauldwell became the first medical professional to use the term "transsexual" in this context in 1949. German-born physician Harry Benjamin would later distinguish transsexual individuals from transvestites (those who merely wanted to appear as the opposite sex). 

A contemporary of Dr. Belt, Dr. Benjamin did not view transsexualism as a mental illness. This is in contrast to many other physicians, including Dr. Cauldwell, who viewed transsexualism not only as a form of mental illness, but also saw sex reassignment procedures as a form of mutilation.

During this time, physicians were deeply divided around concepts of gender and sex. Many clinicians held the conventional belief that transsexualism was a form of mental illness, based on the idea that an individual's biological sex dictated their gender identity.

This viewpoint greatly differed from physicans such as Dr. Belt and Dr. Benjamin, who believed that a person's biological sex identity and their gender identity were two separate entities.

It is under Dr. Belt's and Dr. Benjamin's logic that the concept of gender was no longer deemed a biological matter, but a series of social expectations that are assigned to an individual based on their biological sex.

Yet because this perspective was seen as too progressive for the conservative social landscape of the time, it was considered taboo and potentially unethical for a physician to openly perform sex reassignment procedures.

Photo by Adrian Scott Fine/L.A. Conservancy

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