Among the more memorable characters in Stephen Sondheim’s great 1979 musical Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is the oily, vainglorious barber Adolfo Pirelli, who, in a heavy Italian accent, introduces himself upon his first appearance as “da so-famous Pirelli,” “da king of da barbers, da barber of kings.” He’s hugely abusive to his young assistant and turns out to be a total phony: he isn’t named Pirelli and isn’t even Italian; he’s an Irishman named O’Higgins.
As it happens, Norway has its own Pirelli. Like Sondheim’s Pirelli, he’s a tower of conceit, he does harm to young people, and he’s made a lucrative career out of a bald-faced hustle. I first became aware of this person some time after moving to Norway in 1999, when I saw him on a talk show, in wig, dress, and make-up. This man, I soon learned, was a prominent physician, real name Esben Benestad, who sometimes presented publicly as himself and sometimes as his female alter ego, Esther Pirelli. Watching Benestad/Perelli in action, you could tell he enjoyed the limelight – and that he was a narcissist of the first order. Many viewers were apparently fond of him – he was a fixture on talk TV – but to me, anyway, he came off as creepy.
How did he explain his double identity? In various ways. In one early 1990s interview he described himself as a non-binary transsexual – a label almost unheard of at the time; seven years later, he called himself a transvestite. On other occasions he would say that he was part male and part female, or that he alternated between the two, or – just as Jesus was at once fully human and fully God – that he was always and ever entirely both. At least once he said that he’d been aware of his female side since he was four years old. Recently, he confessed that he’s taken estrogen and had laser surgery to remove his facial hair, but that his male body parts are intact. Since it was never a secret that Benestad had a wife and two children, I think most Norwegians – back in the days when transgender people were called transsexuals and were vanishingly rare – understood him, as I did, to be, quite simply, a straight guy who gets his kinks out of putting on a dress, like Lou Jacobi in Woody Allen’s classic movie Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Sex (but Were Afraid to Ask). In the 1980s, indeed, Benestad was involved in a research project about heterosexual crossdressers.
In any event, Benestad/Pirelli (in the year 2000, he officially changed his name from Esben Benestad to Esben Esther Pirelli Benestad) has long been a nationwide celebrity. In 2002, his son, Even, made a documentary about him entitled Everything about My Father. In 2007, Benestad – as Pirelli – took part in Skal vi danse?, the Norwegian version of the dance-competition show Dancing with the Stars. Last fall – again as Pirelli – he starred as a transgender Jesus in a play called The Gospel according to Jesus, Queen of Heaven. Performed in a church, the play, written by a Stotswoman named Jo Clifford, gave Benestad – who turned 74 on May 3 – the opportunity to cry out just before the closing curtain: “For he is she! And she is he! And we are them! And they are we! And so will it always be!”
But Benestad was never just a TV sideshow. He was also a big macher in the nation’s medical community – in all of Norway, the go-to man for patients with gender dysphoria. He and his wife, Elsa Almås, who in 2012 were appointed Norway’s very first professors in sexology, trained most of the current staff at the Health Center for Gender and Sexuality in Oslo. In 2013, Benestad served on the government-appointed working group whose recommendations resulted in a new, extremely progressive gender-reassignment law.
And what credentials did he have that suited him for these singular roles? Hardly any. Ordinarily, his sexology professorship would have required a Ph.D. in the field and a CV listing at least 15 relevant articles in scientific journals; Benestad got the job despite lacking the doctorate and having only a single journal article to his name. (Well, a long list of TV credits can go a long way.) Then there’s the fact that his view of transgenderism was radically at odds with the medical consensus of the time. Although it’s now a commonplace among psychologists, sexologists, and physicians that transgenderism isn’t an illness, and that a boy can be a girl and a girl a boy, a few years ago people who said they’d been born in the wrong body were routinely diagnosed as suffering from a mental infirmity known as “gender identity disorder.” But not by Benestad: no, Norway’s most famous practitioner in the field consistently assured his dysphoric patients that, far from having a psychological malady, they’d been gifted with a “trans talent” (a term that he claims to have coined, and that, he brags, is now used worldwide). “What you must know,” he prides himself on telling his patients, “is that I will never believe anything [about you] other than what you believe yourself.” As Jordan Peterson and many other wise individuals have observed, a mental health professional could hardly do anything more irresponsible than to “affirm” a patient’s delusion.
Recently, watching some of Benestad’s TV interviews, I was struck by his consistent dishonesty on the topic of transgenderism. He has said, for example, that “very, very few” children who think they’re trans change their mind after puberty; in fact, a sizable majority do. He has claimed, falsely, that it’s no big deal to block puberty and then start it up again two or three years afterward. And when asked about patients who later regret having their penis removed, he’s asked sarcastically: did anyone ever regret having an appendix taken out?
Last October, TV journalist Helene Sandvik interviewed a beefy, hulking, and very feminine gay guy – think Pat McCormick, if you remember him – who thinks he’s a transgender woman. He told her that a psychologist at the National Hospital had rejected him for treatment, saying that he seemed likely to be nothing other than “a very feminine gay boy”; returning to the hospital months later, he was sent on his way again – all of which increased my already considerable regard for the National Hospital. But who “rescued” him and put him on estrogen? None other than Dr. Benestad, of course. After Benestad talked with his patient by Skype, Sandvik asked him whether it was true that when self-identifying trans patients are turned away by the public health system, they come to him, and he treats them. Yes, said Benestad.
Benestad’s entire life, in short, was a scandal waiting to break – as it finally did on February 1 of this year, when it emerged that Helsedirektoratet (the Norwegian Health Authority) had revoked Benestad’s medical license. The official explanation, which ran to 42 pages, basically boiled down to the charge that he has a very long record of gross professional irresponsibility. Benestad reacted by complaining that Helsedirektoratet “doesn’t understand that you can be an activist and a professional at the same time.” Claiming that health officials had “terrorized” him for years, Benestad professed to fret that their action against him would negatively affect his patients who “experience gender incongruence” and who otherwise have “no place to go.”
That’s pretty much where things stood until the other day, when VG, Norway’s largest newspaper, ran a long, eye-opening piece that, after decades of Benestad’s tiresome schtick, finally pulled the curtain back on his whole reprehensible racket. I would have found the article valuable enough if it had only captured – as it did – the man’s sheer egomania: over the years, reported VG, he’s maintained that he’s “the world’s best” trans specialist, that he’s “saved many lives,” and that “nobody in Norway or in the rest of the world can offer higher competence” than he can “when it comes to gender-affirmative treatment.” In an interview with VG for its article, he boasted that he has a huge “international network” and proudly listed places around the world where he’s given lectures about “gender and identity.”
All of which rings rather hollow when considered in light of the story VG told about a teenage girl who, two months after walking into an Oslo clinic and saying she felt like a boy, had her breasts surgically removed on the advice of Benestad – who had never met her. The girl, who regretted the surgery five years later, isn’t an isolated case. That 42-page Helsevesenet report noted, according to VG, that Benestad prescribed morphine to a former drug addict, put another addict on addictive opioids, and gave “gender-affirmative” hormones to some poor soul whom he’d spoken with only twice – an action that shocked the patient’s family members, who described the patient as “confused” and as constantly “changing his mind” and therefore not the ideal candidate for irreversible gender “therapy.” But such hasty moves are hardly unusual for Benestad, who has prescribed puberty blockers to children as young as eleven after only three chats on Skype. Then there are the mastectomies on female-to-male patients – at least three of them – that he falsely recorded as being necessitated by “back and neck pain” so that they’d be covered by public health insurance.
Why, in the larger scheme of things, does any of this matter? In 2023, after all, Benestad is just one of thousands of medical practitioners around the world whose appalling position on transgenderism is dictated not by firmly established biological facts but by a half-baked, fifteen-minute-old ideology, whose voodoo hormonal and surgical interventions should be considered the worst kind of malpractice, and who should be sent to prison for the rest of their lives. But when it comes to blurring the lines separating gender dysphoria from cross-dressing – and separating both of these phenomena from the kind of attention-seeking that has led countless young people in recent years to call themselves trans – Benestad was a pioneer. I haven’t often had occasion to praise both VG and Helsevesenet, but I’ll give both of them a big tip of the hat for exposing Benestad (however belatedly) as the conceited grifter that he is. At the same time, the decision-makers in the Norwegian academy, media, and medical establishment who gave Benestad undeserved power, influence, and attention – and thereby helped promote some very dangerous ideas about gender identity over a long period of time – deserve nothing but contempt.
As for Benestad himself, it’s amazing to contemplate how much damage this one man has done to an entire country. What Dr. Fauci is to the science of COVID in the U.S., Dr. Benestad is to the science of gender in Norway. May his decertification be only the beginning of a period of reckoning for all of the physicians, sexologists, psychologists, social workers, teachers, and parents who have responded to the emotional confusion of young people by pushing them on board the transgender “treatment” train – a vehicle whose only destination is the gates of hell.