This is not the Trans 101 people keep telling you to read. This is Transness 101, and it starts where it should start, and it is not a listing of terms or an explanation of meanings. For that, I’ll put up a glossary.
This is a Trans 101 that starts at the beginning. This is a Trans 101 that is more like the thing it gets its name from and less like a quick way to grab some sort of minimal basis. There is no grade here, though. No bell curve to worry about, no pass/fail. There is only the text itself, and from that text, if you want to, you can craft your quizzes and your homework assignments and you can go out and do more research and learn more things, on your own. That doesn’t mean this is a history course, or that it is definitive, or that you will learn everything there is to know here. It is not, in the end, what you want it to be, it is what I chose to make it.
There are no citations here, no footnotes. That learning, that educational effort, is left up to you, the reader, to research. The details are given when needed for you to do so, so that you can check against what you see and learn and grow on your own. This is collated from what I know, and checked with things that are fairly easy to find online, and one of my big things is to place all of this stuff into a context that is already known.
For the most part — and out of respect to other cultures and nations in part — this is going to focus on the United States. I could dig deeper and go further and speak to issues in other cultures, but that is a task I leave to those who are far more competent in those areas than I am. I may have a decent grasp of Malay culture, but the history of Malaysia is not my history, and I would do it a disservice.
However, it would honor me if others, within their nations and cultures, would follow the path I am trying to lay out here, and write that of their people. We need that. We should have that.
I try to tell people that there are few cultural equivalents. That Trans here is not always trans there. That what I describe as a Transgender person in the US does not culturally work with a different culture, as there are gradations and shadings and history. There are no doubt great and massive commonalities, persistent possibilities and deep, wonderful collisions of symmetry, but they are still part of their cultures, and one of the things that is most important about Transcentrism is that we honor and respect those differences even as we celebrate those similarities.
People in the US, especially, have a hard time with that, though. But if I am given those tales, those histories, I will post them here, and I will do what I can to enlighten others, and, most of all, myself.
So here you go: a Transness 101 like no other you’ve seen before. Get a sandwich, some coffee, a comfy chair, and Enjoy.
You’ve got a semester’s worth of stuff to deal with now. In one big ass post that’s a hell of a lot larger than even I thought it would be.
A Reformation of the Spirit
In the mid to late 1800′s, there was a wave of laws that swept across the United States that explicitly outlawed cross dressing. Over a period of about 20 years, these laws passed in the main states, even though most of the nation was still territory.
These laws were in reaction to something. Historically, that’s how such laws are always passed — they are reacting to something that startles, that shakes things up, that “freaks people out”. Much of this happened in the years after the Civil War, a war that was ultimately about many things but is still and always going to be about the right of human beings to freedom, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
It was about slavery, at its core, and it was bloody, and brutal, and it had and continues to have lasting impact on the character and makeup of our nation, our culture, and our society. It involved tens of thousands of people and it was unlike anything that anyone had ever seen at that time. Even the French Revolution pales in comparison.
It would be nearly a hundred years later before we saw that kind of depth in violence, and had to once again deal with the effects of that violence.
Facing one’s imminent death is a changing experience. We write poems about it, we craft intricate tales around it, we mythologize that moment. It has been studied and clarified and considered and quantified and classified.
When you face your death, in a strange and bizarre reaction that to our knowledge right now is a uniquely human thing, you reflect on your life and how you have lived it. And you might see truths in that moment that you did not see before, and should you escape with your life from whatever it is, you might choose to live your life according to things that matter to you, and that might not matter to others.
This was a time when there was note the heavy sort of record keeping that people have today. In this time, you could get on a horse and ride down deeply rutted roads for two days, get off your horse, and start a life with a new name, and never be broadly questioned about it. It was presumed that people were, fundamentally, honest and good and those are still values that we hold today, though many prey on the fears that others have.
Many people did exactly that. When I say many people, I mean around 50,000 of them. These 50,000 for the most part left the more densely packed urban areas of the east coast and went into the more rural areas of what is today known as the mid-west, but back then was just The West.
This particular group of them, however, did something that was different from the tens of thousands of other people who fled places that constantly reminded them of loss, pain, bloodshed, and violence. These people were looking for a little more than room and space and a fresh start.
Some were what people think of as women. Some were what people think of as men. To those who knew them, that’s what they left those reminders as.
When they arrived, however, they were something else. Something different.
Nor were they alone. In Europe, there was the dissolution of the Ottoman empire, the unification of Italy, Germany was struggling against waves of shifting rebellion, France was recovering its own power and struggling to maintain a far-flung empire as it struggled with its age old rival.
It was the Victorian Era. The heart of it, and it wasn’t limited just to the Colonies of the Empire, it affected everyone and everything they encountered, with strict intolerance of variance and very rigid roles for gender that even today we are struggling against.
It may be one of the most strict periods in modern history for gender roles and the system of behaviors, expressions, and expectations that govern the interplay between people.
And they wanted to escape that, as much as they could, because they didn’t belong to those things.
Often, they were suspected or found out or whatever, and this was what led to these laws. They were developed from a history of such things that had grown out of the preceding centuries, cases often forgotten a decade later, only to be sparked by the latest “shocking” revelation of someone who was, otherwise, a fine upstanding pillar of the community, now caught out in an act of flagrant disregarding of the social good.
This was a period of power for the White, Protestant, sometimes Evangelical people who had descended from the colonists that had come and run roughshod and without regard for the lives of the people already living here.
And all of this matters. All of this is important, because at the same time all of this was going on, a handful of people started to study the way people were. Especially in regard to that one thing that Victorian Era values would never allow being discussed.
It was in the midst of all of this that a few men and some women who are, for the most part relegated to footnotes at best, started to examine something in a new way. A way that centered around this particular branch of Philosophy that was being called Science by those mechanical whiz kids in England.
In particular, this thing called the scientific method.
This was the setting for one guy to try and figure out a way to describe how he, and several others of his acquaintance, could be normal people and yet also different in that they were not attracted to the kinds of people to whom they were supposed to be attracted.
This context is important to know. It is also important to know that while those “cross dressers” struggled to hide and live lives in the American West, that these people doing this thinking lived in Germany. Where the cream of the world’s intelligence was gathered: Berlin.
In the 1860′s, Berlin was the center of the educational universe. It would hold that position until world war 1. Paris was where Art flourished, and Berlin was where you went if you wanted to know why art was art, or who that weirdo Galileo was.
Berlin was what the Ivy League aspired to be.
In 1864 and 1865 — the tail end of the Civil War — a series of five booklets were published in Germany under the name “Numa Numantius” by a person named Karl Heinrich Ulrichs. In these booklets, he hypothesized a series of different kinds of people who were not like most other people.
As a young child, Ulrichs had preferred girl’s clothing, playing with other girls, and had wanted to be a girl. He appears to have grown out of that, but it stayed with him in many ways as he became who is generally considered to be one of the most important of the early pioneers in the LGBT Rights movement.
One questions, with reason, what he might have done had it been possible for him to achieve that goal, and how long he held it, but only if one is familiar enough with the trans experience to understand it enough. The point of doing so isn’t to question if he was gay or not (the odds are incredibly in favor of him simply being gay, we know now), but to wonder what might have happened had he come into this world a century later.
He, himself, had come out to his family a few years earlier — a dramatic and startling step that even today can cost someone their life.
He was concerned with letting people know that people like him were natural. They were normal. They might be different, but no more different than a person with blonde hair was from one with brown.
The wide series of terms he coined were very German in origin, and because Berlin was a major center, the word got out quickly, and especially after he collected them in the anonymously published book Forschungen über das Rätsel der mannmännlichen Liebe (Researches on the Riddle of Male-Male Love).
These ideas were greeted in Victorian England by several people who began to do some incredible things with them.
This is important as this happened before another guy wrote about many of the same topics — influenced by Ulrichs, and coined a term in 1869 that is found widely used today: homosexual.
He also coined heterosexual.
He was, himself, heterosexual, according to him, and there’s never been any indication that he wasn’t. He wrote, however, that an anti-sodomy law in Prussia was against human rights, and together with Ulrichs, he began the campaign to overturn it.
His name was Kertbeny. Karl-Maria Kertbeny.
This was the start of the LGBT movement, and while many question the inclusion of it in a history of trans people, it is important to note this, as a seminal moment, when one realizes the nature of trans people, the history of how they are approached by Cis people, and the terminology used by Ulrichs.
anima muliebris virili corpore inclusa
The psyche of a woman within a male body.
The ideas we have about sexual orientation and transness are incorporated and commingled in his work, and this is the birth of the fight for LGBT rights as we know it today. These are the ideas that still influence and affect all the fights we are still going through, culturally, even while science has progressed and marched on long past the point where these truly make sense.
Within his work one finds the notions of bisexuality, homosexuality, butch men and butch women, femme men and femme women, and the first modern era calls for people to understand that these people exist and they are not wrong or deformed, and, above all, he created the notion that this is something to think about in terms of science.
And from there, it spread. Oscar Wilde loved it. Uranian was what Ulrichs called one sort, and from there came all the rest.
Ulrichs influenced Kertbeny, who coined terms that were used by another man named Jager although Kertbeny’s contributions to the book were rejected otherwise. Jager’s work influenced another man, and it is here that we return to the US.
The Darkness Reinforced
It is now the era of the Wild West. that slim period between 1875 and 1900 where the Victorian Era’s sway and hold over the coasts gave way to what is romanticized and mythologized as the spirit of American manifest destiny.
By 1890, in nearly every reasonably sized town across the nation, there was a doctor of some sort, and most of them had a copy of a book published in Germany in by a man named Richard von Krafft-Ebing.
The book was Psychopathia Sexualis: eine Klinisch-Forensische Studie (Sexual Psychopathy: A Clinical-Forensic Study).
Psychiatry was a popular field then, as it is now, and so the book, which was essentially the DSM of its day, was used in Universities across the world, was a teaching tool, was a reference, was a way of seeing this new stuff like it had never been seen before, and it was a massively influential tome.
In the United States, most of the vile stuff said about LGBT folks can be traced back to it.
It wasn’t intended to be a source for vile misinformation. Such things rarely are. Intent, however, is not magical, and does not excuse the damage that it did, even though it was also useful.
When you hear about horrible things in Asylums at the turn of the century and in the first few years after, you are hearing about the stuff this book talked about and the ways and efforts sought to cure the problems this book spoke to.
It is from here that we get the terms sadism and masochism. He didn’t coin them but he certainly popularized them. He felt that sex for reasons other than procreation was wrong, and that affected how he wrote about such things.
Through 12 editions, and despite disagreeing with Freud, who popularized Psychotherapy, and ending in 1901, he created one of the most powerful, potent works of science from that era.
Still, some people may wonder about what this has to do with trans people. One must remember, though, that in 1901, trans people were gay. They were just a strange kind of gay person. TO these people there was no difference — and this held for a mighty long time — even until today among the common populace that isn’t familiar with such,
It is a top downstream, from academia into the cultural zeitgeist, and in seeing it, you can also see the birth of the internal, horizontal hostilities.
The trans community was there, all along, though. When some would die and be found out, they were retroactively described as such. But many, they were never found out, and lived quiet lives, and they found ways to do things, and they endured.
We won’t hear about them. Their lives are not discovered, not read, not noted. That doesn’t mean they don’t exist, for as long as we have been people, there have been trans people.
Those people who are not trans people are called Cis people. Where Trans means to cross the deadly river, Cis means to remain on the side you started out on. Trans people make a crossing, while Cis people do not. Cis people are the most common, the most every day, the overwhelming majority of them.
Those 50,000 I noted before are a fraction of the number of Trans people who are statistically speaking likely to have existed in the 1860′s. Like the million or so today in the United States, they are mostly unseen, unknown, unheard, and unmarked.
Yet they live and breathe and exist.
Cis people are among Trans people. For every 1 trans person there are a least 250 Cis people. They are the unmarked, the “normal”, the bell curve.
And the world around us is built for them, without consideration of the needs or challenges of trans people, and that causes harm to trans people.
That, in a nutshell, is what describes Ciscentrism. It is the act of centering in place of others the lives of people who are not Trans, and it is structured to support the lives of people who are not trans, and is built by them, for them, and by them, and most overwhelmingly it is not done on purpose, with malice and intent, but out of ignorance and blindness.
The Absence of a Voice
This history I tell you now is about Cis history. It is the history of trans people as written by them, because there were no voices for trans people yet, this is also where the birth of what we know of today as Trans people begins.
With Ulrichs, writing about the mind of a woman in the body of a man. Not trapped there, simply there.
He was the earliest. He didn’t write about the mind of a woman in the body of a man attracted to women — that didn’t quite make sense to him then, because it hadn’t been separated yet. It hadn’t been placed before him.
This marks our history — our earliest history — as commingled and conflated from the beginning, and it didn’t even start to separate until later.
Some will ask how do we know that trans people lived and died then? How do we know there were trans people then?
One of the most challenging aspects of having your history written for you by people who are oppressing you is the old maxim of “the winners dictate history” in the form of the powerful do so to their own interests. I am not here to argue with people about who “identified” as trans and who did not. I am here to tell you who fits a criteria for trans and who does not based on the way they lived their lives.
There are many tales of Men who died and were “found to be women”, though they were always men right up until that point. There were tales of women who died and were found to be men, as well. Spinsters and married women, wild bachelors who fought with Florence Nightingale and caroused along the back ways of the Old West.
They are out there. They are pirates and soldiers, doctors and lawyers, housewives and miners, farmers and ranchers, thieves and heroes. They may be marked as gay and lesbian, and for their times, that’s as close as one can get to how they might have, possibly, seen themselves in some ways, but they never left much to go off of. They were too busy living their lives to spend inordinate amounts of time examining them.
Learning who they are is an effort for a later course; a trans 102, perhaps, but not a 101.
They are out there if you look. To look for them, you need to know what to look for. Here is what to look for.
Seek out persons who lived a life within the limitations imposed on them by their day, but were found out, revealed, imprisoned, tortured, beaten, and run out of town. Those laws are a good place to start. Look in the news of the weird, the unusual, the out of the ordinary. Seek people who meet this standard:
Transness is the state of awareness or condition in society of someone who does not conform in a majority of aspects to the way their society or culture sees them as behaving and living in relation to their culture’s social construction of physiological sex, usually due to a variance between their physical sex and one or both of their social sex identity and/or internal sex identity. It exists at the same level as awareness of self, and it is, itself, an awareness.
What that means, in detail, is this: look for people who, when left to their own lives, when driven by things they don’t demarcate to those that come after, refused to adhere to the rules of the culture they were raised in for how to dress, how to act, how to look. And to that add people who lived the life they carved for themselves, despite that hostility, and did so in secret and “fooled everyone”.
Don’t look at who they dated or married or fell in lust with. Look at them, at their lives. Because trans people are not defined by who they date or what they have sex with. If you look to those things, you are continuing the very notions that trans people have been fighting for since Ulrich tried to classify everyone.
And you are conflating their sexual orientation, in your own terms, not theirs, with their sense of self. Many people who are hostile to trans people will use this kind of argument, and try to define trans people by who they are attracted to.
It cannot be done with any accuracy, and these are people long dead, so they cannot speak to you of it.
This is important. While they were out there, one will not find tales of those who are both or neither easily. They exist, mind you, but because the society and culture of the day were so restrictive, they were always shunted into one or other and penalized and then that was it. The ones that will be easiest to find are those who crossed and then met the standards of the day in their daily lives, the women and men who became men and women, and then remained that way, for years.
Many people can do it for a short time. Theoretically, a few could even do it for decades. But in most cases, and to most degrees, only trans people are going to live their lives without break or hesitation and then make something of that life in the process.
So that’s what you look for.
Consider this, as well: our standards in this vein are far more relaxed than they were in those days. And even then we still have a reported rate of 41% who fail at suicide.
We don’t know what the success rate is. But we can almost certainly realize that it was much higher back then. There is something notable, however, during this time period.
A Zuni lhamana named We’wha was invited to visit President Grover Cleveland at the White House. A significant part of the role that We’wha had was to serve as a mediator, and a representative of the people in dealings with other tribes. Though “shown” as an anthropological curiosity, it merited mention in some news reports of the day, and is the earliest presently known reference to a trans person entering the White House.
A Voice comes along
In 1892, a young, newly Doctored German traveled the United States, even visiting the world’s fair in Chicago. He was 24 years old, and he was gay, and he was familiar with all the stuff that had been written thus far by those mentioned before. He was angry about not being able to live openly, to be himself and to have to sacrifice his sense of well-being to preserve his reputation both socially and academically.
And, like his heroes, he wasn’t going to put up with it readily.
In 1896, back from his travels, he published a booklet, Sappho and Socrates, wherein he talked about homosexual love, using the newly found word and influenced by Ulrichs.
He was a medical doctor, and he opened a naturopathic practice in Berlin, that same year, and the following year he got together with a publisher and others to start an organization that would provide medical research to support the fight against the anti-sodomy laws in Germany.
He and his group gathered a petition that had 5000 signatures on it from some of the most powerful and well respected people of the day on it, including Kraft-Eberling, the author of that tome found everywhere by the early 1900′s.
They were enough to get the repeal of the law at least considered, but it failed, and the youthful doctor decided that he would start Outing people in the German parliament and then did so. It took two decades more, nevertheless.
It was to him that later people, such as Kinsey and Masters and Johnson, looked on, sometimes in something akin to awe. It was to him that many of the people who in the 1950′s changed the way we think of sex and the way people relate to each other looked for the foundation and premise behind their work.
He was dealing with patients who were not gay in the 1910′s. They seemed gay in some ways, but they weren’t quite what he expected. He listened to them, he spoke to them, he heard them, and he realized something that none of his peers had yet realized: they weren’t gay. They were kind a like gay people, but not really. He especially saw a lot of the ones who seemed like little boys but were really little girls, and he observed how those who “indulged” their children had happier ones and how those who didn’t had sad ones.
He continued the notion of classifying things, and in the end came up with 64 different classifications. Under one set of these types, which he called Transvestit, he included what today we recognize as some of the diversity of the Trans community, including transsexuals.
In 1919 he co-wrote and co-starred in a film starring an actor whose face was the inspiration for the Joker from Batman. The film was a work of resistance to the laws that criminalized sexual relations between gay men and lesbians.
He also purchased a place where he opened what in English is called the Institute for Sexual Research, a first of its kind effort that began to change things for trans people dramatically. Among his employees there was a young woman named Dorchen who served as a sort of secretary and assistant. She was a trans woman, and one of his patients. She was also one of the earliest people to receive what we consider to be SRS in the modern sense. This Institute would become a major source of knowledge for the entire world.
In 1922, he organized a World Congress for Sexual Reform. He was a tireless campaigner, a frequent speaker, and earned the sobriquet “Einstein of Sex”, a nod to his friend and one of the most influential Germans in the world at the time, and also a somewhat mocking way of saying this man talked too much about something that wasn’t to be talked about.
All throughout this time, he traveled, extensively, and frequently to America, where he would lecture and teach as much as he was allowed, and where he was often looked at askance by a population that didn’t know what to make of this man who was saying things that damaged ongoing fights at the time, while helping others.
Fights for the suffrage of women and against the evil scourge that caused all men to be demons and led the immigrant hordes into riot and lawlessness: alcohol.
His name was Magnus Hirschfeld, and he was pro-choice before pro-choice was a thing. He was a man on a mission and his mission was LGBT lives.
Truly: all of them.
In this time, he did something that gained worldwide publicity.
A married couple of painters, Einer and Gerda, who both enjoyed some reasonable success as painters and were of that rare grouping of painters who are popular in their own lives, approached him and his Institute about an interesting thing they had discovered in the process of Einar modeling for Gerda.
He arranged it. He made it possible. Today, what was done we would call an orchiectomy. And so became the man behind the first widely known and well documented sex change in the world. Lili, like many Trans people, wanted to go further than was generally accepted, and although Hirschfeld didn’t supervise, he connected her with the doctor that carried out a penectomy, and the introduction of donated ovaries for transplant. That didn’t work out well for Lili, nor did the following attempt to transplant a uterus so that she could become a mother, and the rejection from the transplant killed her.
It also added valuable information that has saved the lives of countless thousands of other transplant cases. To this day, many trans women long for the ability to have a transplanted uterus for the purpose of being a mother.
One day, it will be possible. The question is now will it be permissible.
Hirschfeld found his life in ruins in 1933, however. With the rise to power of a bar room miscreant named Adolf, his clinic was forced shut and the newsreel footage of Nazi’s burning books is widely held to be the books and materials from the Institute, representing his life work. Their rise to power also destroyed any hope he had of changing the anti-sodomy law.
He spent the rest of his life in effective exile from his homeland, but he never stopped fighting. However, his import is not just limited to the above. He is celebrated today, and has been over those who influenced him (though now they are gaining recognition), and there is, of course, the replacement for his life work: the Magnus Hirschfeld Archive for Sexology, Humboldt University, Berlin
A Passed Torch
In the early 1900′s, he made friends with a fellow medical doctor, and thereby changed the nature of Trans medicine in the United States. An endocrinologist primarily, but also a researcher in sexology, this young doctor was named Harry Benjamin. In the Early 1900′s, he would travel around Berlin with his friend Hirschfeld and he would experience the vibrant nightlife of gay Berlin, and was most entertained by the drag queens and others, who Hirschfeld would educate him about using those 64 different classifications of his.
Two years after getting his doctorate in 1912, he was returning home to Berlin when the ocean liner he was traveling on was turned away due to the outbreak of World War I.
I should point out that there were no transoceanic airlines at this time. He returned to the United States, where he lived for the rest of his life though he traveled frequently. His humble practice in New York City was more a last ditch effort to survive than any real goal of his, but it changed the lives of every trans person alive today.
He reportedly shared infrequent communications with his friend Hirschfeld until his death, and there is no question that the man had a strong influence on Benjamin’s approach and understanding of things that the science of the day was struggling to accept.
In 1941, a new drug was announced and marketed. It was called Premarin. By carefully extracting the estrogenic compounds from pregnant mare urine, researchers found they could provide people with cost effective replacements for women’s hormones.
In 1942, sex researcher Alfred Kinsey approached Benjamin about a young child who wanted to be a girl and their mother was in favor of helping them achieve that. Despite the objections of a team of psychiatrists, Benjamin went ahead and prescribed Premarin for the young girl. He even made arrangements for her to travel to Germany for surgery, but when that failed, he never had contact with them again, which was an enduring regret of his.
It cannot be underestimated just how important his efforts were. Across the United States, the handful of doctors (that is, less than 5, in the entire country) who might help trans people always referred and deferred during the 30′s and 40′s to the quiet, unassuming immigrant in New York. He was he doctor that everyone went to. He developed a specialist practice — the first of its kind in the United States — and he worked with very carefully selected doctors, always mindful of laws in the United States that governed the possibility of doing such surgeries in the US.
During this time, there was a crime that was based on the periodic issue of women who would get so angry at their philandering and/or abuse husbands that they would borrow a kitchen utensil and dismember his manhood.
It was, and is, called mayhem. As a crime, it happens whenever someone decides to dismember a person, in whole or in part. A useful term to know — cut off an arm, that’s mayhem. Lends new interest to the phrase “wreaking mayhem” as well as a great deal more blood. Also explains the phrase “life and limb” used in place of murder and mayhem.
See what odd stuff you can learn?
These statutes were used against doctors the public found unpleasant frequently, and especially in cases where the work being done was considered by politicians and police as “experimental”. There was to be no frankensteining here, ladies and gentlemen.
The import of an electrologist? Martha Foss. Surgeons? Someone who will be talked about in a bit: Georges Borou. Psychiatrists? C.L Ihlenfeld and John Alden.
They became a sort of team of folks who essentially created a standard of care for people that the rest of the world decided were of little or no value and they are, in a real sense, the first people to fully recognize the import of Trans people as part of the rest of society and how their own actions limited or pushed them forward.
They were, in a very real sense, the first Transcentrists. Imperfect, without doubt, but with each generation, we come closer. They decidedly recognized that trans people were fundamentally unique.
They were not, however, widely known. The first famous US Transsexual, Christine Jorgensen, did not initially contact him, according to most accounts, but did encounter him and became his patient for hormone therapy and commiseration, although after her penectomy and famous return, she did ultimately have vaginoplasty under his supervision.
And this is important to note. Sex changes — which generally include a series of operation on a trans woman (orchiectomy, penectomy, vaginoplasty, labiaplasty) or a trans man (hysterectomy, oophorectomy, urethaplasty, scrotoplasty, phalloplasty, metoidioplasty) — are a very socially fickle concept.
The widely announced sex changes in the earliest years (Elbe, Jorgensen) were little more than penectomies, much like historical evidence indicates has been done on people for centuries when it came to trans women, or mastectomies for trans men. That is, for centuries — up through the early 1950′s, a penectomy or mastectomy was enough to qualify as a “sex change” for most purposes and was generally considered acceptable enough in most cases.
Trans people still see this today, and it is still reflected in such things as the stigma of a woman with who has to have her breasts removed or a man who has an “accident” and is suddenly no longer manly enough.
This is readily contrasted with many of the arguments that are made these days in opposition to trans people, where such things are considered not enough any longer.
Often by the same people who say none of it should happen in the first place. I question this, personally, as it is a position that has not effective, practical, or real world merit based on observable, recorded history. Let alone observable events that are readily duplicated.
Even the term, itself — sex change — has acquired a negative connotation in many contexts and so many different alternatives have been proposed or used in place of the catch all terminology, such as Gender reassignment surgery or Gender reaffirmation surgery, or gender correction surgery.
As a matter of personal preference, I generally use SRS, but what anyone calls it after that is their personal preference as well and sex change works as well as any other. Hyphenated or not. In most cases, it suffices as a nicely crude interruption that shocks people out of their daze, especially when reading many thousand word posts best enjoyed whilst curled up with a pleasant pet and a mug of liquid alertness.
Throughout this period, as he worked with thousands of patients, from all over the country and the world, he became much beloved, and also regarded as something of a strange sort. Someone who was “out there” scientifically speaking. He published, he wrote, he toured, he lectured, he taught when he could. His work challenged the existing ideas of the time, and he was, I will note a contemporary of Kinsey and Master’s and Johnson, and his work was as widely disturbing to the general population as theirs.
By 1950, he was generally recognized as the leading authority of Trans people. His work continues to have a profound impact on our lives, in many different ways. He is the source of the majority of the understanding of trans people in the United States scientific community, and he did it carefully slowly, and against great opposition and often at great risk, all of which he shrugged off.
In the 40 years that he was doing that, however, something else happened in America.
The Struggle to Be Seen
People take for granted, today, many of the things we have available to us. Two of them stand out as most notable, for as each movement within either of them has come forward, so has a movement shifted in terms of social justice. The first is changes in transportation. Mobility is a key factor, and despite the hardships that many trans people face today, they are still far more mobile than trans people were just 5 decades ago, let alone at the start of the 20th Century. The second, and more important, is communication. At the turn of the century, in 1900, there were fewer than 20 miles of paved roads in all of the Continental United States. Cars were not ubiquitous, and even by 1910, they were still struggling along as the shift in the nation’s underlying infrastructure began.
The telephone was still a very rare commodity, but it had become such — and instrument essential to people, Telegrams were often faster and there was, of course, always mail. However the mail service was limited because it was monitored for unlawful activity that could include sending immoral materials. Trans lives were deemed immoral.
The constant specter of being “found out” — just “outed” today — loomed over trans people’s lives as it had for decades. There were secret gatherings, always local, and being seen or known was a risk that few could afford to take. A culture began to form, where certain factors allowed some to assume lives congruent to the natures, while other had to make do the best they could and struggle, but there was one area that enabled an escape.
Vaudeville. Here, on stage, a man could play a woman — often comedic in nature — and receive admiration and praise. Even if they were a person of color, though the venues were significantly less posh and considered “improper” and seedy. It was tremendously popular, and very powerful, and nearly every decent sized town in America had a stage on which shows were put on and performers could travel and earn a living, meager as it may have been.
This is a time marked by substantial changes in policies for knowing who was who, and the looseness and freedom that had once marked a chance was slowly closed. There was an underground for information and, as the society was divided by race, so was the underground.
Drag was incredibly risky, unless it was done as part of a show — essentially capitalizing on the exemption sometimes made for Vaudeville. For many early Trans people in this time, Drag was the only outlet, and it was a great equalizer in terms of class and race. Circus performers were not as often trans people, but many did find some solace in them, as well, especially among persons of color.
Arrest meant publicity, and scandal, and the ruination of a life’s endeavors. A schoolteacher in Oklahoma might have to travel suddenly, only to be reported by students in Colorado, to flee to Oregon, and there take rest until having to flee again to California.
It mean having to live at the edge of society — where crime was the easiest solution and where secrets where the foundation of safety. Stealth was not merely a rule, it was a necessity. Being outed and not thinking fast enough could result in all manner of charges — specious and otherwise — being brought, and years served at hard labor in prisons that were, at best, places people went to die more often than serve time.
Revues and Burlesque, Vaudeville was where those who could scrounge up any sort of talent went, and they provided many of the tales and stories in private and their features as they traveled let others know that they were there.
It was secret. Think of it like this. In a town of 1000 people, there are 4 people who are Trans. There are many different kinds of trans people, so they may all not be the same kind of trans people. They may be all women, all men, or some combination of both in their assignments. They could be anywhere from newborn to 90 in age, and any of the various races and social classes present. Lastly, they had to have not taken their own life. That’s a lot of barriers. That’s a lot of walls that served to separate, and if you couldn’t escape that town, you might be lucky enough, fortunate enough, to meet one of them — and then that would be all you could often hope of ever meeting.
Finding another person like you was all but impossible unless you were in a big city. That really meant one of the top ten, as the country, still very much not mobile, was incredibly rural.
That meant the East coast for the most part, save for Los Angeles, Cleveland, Detroit, and Chicago.
Which were also the places that were toured.
You could go to the capitals of the states that were possible, or the port towns where things were often less strict. Portland, Seattle, San Francisco.
Hole up in the area that was for those society cast aside, the ghettos and barrios and slums and places for those people. You didn’t always feel alone, because there were other people — homosexuals, who were close enough even if they weren’t right on — that you could sometimes turn to, and every major city has its share of stories and tales that with each passing day we lose more contact with.
In the US, until Christine Jorgensen, you find very little. A news clipping here, and notice there. You can gain oral histories if you are lucky enough to find someone, but our community tends to think far too young, and far too back, and we still have too few who seek to collect those stories.
I kinda sorta hope that some people will pass some of those stories on to me. I seem to recall tales of a group in Chicago in the 20′s that was trans related, as well as a gay one, but those links have fled from my reach now. I am not a historian, and this is a poor excuse for a history musing, but it is where I’m starting because that’s where it starts. So here I am always interested in help.
Philly was an important city, so was New York. Boston as well. By the 1930′s they were linked by rail transport and roadways, and one could take a ship from Chicago as easily as a train. Transport let people escape, and let people be seen, and once you knew — if you beat all the odds and could find such information, you were sometimes able to do something about it.
There were no newspapers, no magazines, no support groups, no peer meetings, no nights out, no way to learn what was “wrong” with you, why you were different, that you might be able to do something about it, that you weren’t alone in this world.
For many people even today, right now, that still continues, but they at least have the benefit of the world’s fastest communication platform. In those days, you had a phone, a party line or shared line, and then only if you were middle class enough to afford one.
Otherwise, as Prohibition began– brought into place by the same forces that made cross dressing illegal, the same forces that created separate bathrooms, the same forces that criminalized sex work and that today haunt and persecute us — there were speakeasies and illicit alliances, and being that way was a secret that you signaled and you hoped.
It was worse than you are thinking it was, right now. Then came the Crash. Then the depression, and the Dustbowl and the great and massive migration that altered the nation forever. Finally, there came the War.
I opened this piece up with a discussion of war, and of how the violence makes you look at things, makes you think things, makes you question things. Trans people struggle with their lives, and in these days and these times it was even more common for trans women to embrace, as best they could, the role of man, and overcompensate for it in the process. Here was war. The ultimate act of passion, the ultimate event, and just as has happened before, people went off to war and came back and in that time they questioned why they had to deal with stuff.
This time, however, they came home, and they had something still in short supply: money. Money to travel, and while they had been struggling through the years of drought and depression, roads had been built, factories had been opened, and transportation was possible in ways that it hadn’t been just a few years earlier.
It sparked great change, just as World War 1 had sparked great change, just as the Civil war had sparked great change. In the lives of everyday people, in the hearts of people like you and me, and they chose to find a way when they returned to not be the way they had been.
It was not easy, but for Trans people one thing happened that changed everything, and that reached every corner of the nation and that every trans person heard, no matter their race, their class, their situation in life, and suddenly, nearly overnight, there was hope where there had been little to none before…
A Light to find the Way
The 1950′s were a massive change to the way that Trans people saw themselves in the United States, and resulted in a massive shift and an enormous separation that was based in economic class and race. And it started with Christine Jorgensen.
She was famous. She was front page news in an era when celebrity news rarely made the first section. She was as big as who wins an election.
She was huge. by comparison, she was about five times more big than Kim Kardashian is now. That kind of huge. It was gossipy, it was salacious, she was pretty and she was well spoken and she was a nice waspy girl.
Now ask yourself, what was it that could have made the country receptive to such a thing — what was it that could have keyed them up in a way that such an announcement was possible to make?
The answer to that question is the publication of a book in 1948. Traveling the country, a small team of people interviewed thousands of subjects for the purpose of coming to understand how they thought about sexuality, what they did sexually, and related questions.
In the process, they created a pair of tomes that were so incredibly shocking, that they changed the way that America saw sex, and they laid the groundwork for the science of sexology and they were part of the path paved towards the Sexual Revolution.
The book was ”Sexual Behavior in the Human Male”, from Alfred Kinsey.
This was the time period of Scopes, a point in time where scientific information from the last century — Evolution — was on trial and was still struggling hard to be taught in schools in some parts of the country. This was a time when there was a great deal of underlying pressure — decades of Jim Crow laws, the pushing of women out of the factorizes and into the homes, the massive shift in manufacturing, the appearance and propagandizing of prosperity (indeed, propaganda was engaged in regularly by the government), and the massive reality of inequality that was becoming ever more visible by those who had or felt an interest in looking — building up, and it was a time that was nearly as repressed and deeply structured as the Victorian Era.
What this means is that “new” was both exciting, interesting, and also frightening once people started to think about it.
The book came out in 1948, and it was a bestseller. Copies of it are still available today. Time magazine, at that time one of the major and most influential publications in the nation (think WSJ today – or all three of the major over the air broadcasts plus FOX and MSNBC today), said nothing had been seen like this since Gone With The Wind — the book, not the film that had to be made because the book was so successful.
In 1953 he published ”Sexual Behavior in the Human Female”, and it became even more shocking, scandalous, and popular, and in between these two things, a former soldier stepped off a plane in New York City and told hundreds of thousands of people across the world that it was possible to do something they could only wish for otherwise.
More importantly, it said to many that they weren’t alone, even if they couldn’t see anyone near them. In this, it is important to never underestimate the importance of visibility. Here, for the first time in the United States, a Trans person was being celebrated in all forms of media. There were undercurrents of hostility, but they were, at that time, mostly still just undercurrents, and as a whole they were brilliant and happy and exciting, otherwise.
I have often said, and will continue to say, that Stealth — the act of hiding one’s past, of not being known as a trans person, of “melting into the pot”, the idea of being invisible — is inimical to the effort to secure rights, to ensure liberty, and to provide hope and knowledge to future generations. I will say that going stealth (or woodworking), partially or completely, is still a decent enough think for people to consider, because while I may feel they have a debt to those who came before them to let those who come after know they lived, they may not.
But with each decade since the mid 1800′s, it has become more and more difficult to achieve. The loopholes tighten more each year, the interconnectedness of lives increases, the web of relationships increases, and especially in times of economic stress, the need to rely on others who grasp your challenges is greater.
I don’t condemn those who choose to go stealth in this. In my opinion, they condemn themselves, as the effort to maintain that invisibility will only cause them greater grief than if they were to be open and out. I say that from experience, though it may come from a different space, and an experience that, like stealth was, often found itself expressed as important to others.
This was the 1950′s, though. She stepped off that plane into celebrity, famous essentially for being famous, linked to a sex scandal, and she was the toast of the town.
She wasn’t the first American to have had a sex change. That honor essentially belongs to Pussy Katt, who was 16 at the time and in the mid 1940′s, when Howard Hughes paid for her to have such and then Kept her. (as in, Kept Woman — she was taken care of financially in return for being available to him when he wanted her.)
She had planned to marry one person, but it fell through. Her second hope for marriage also collapsed, and this time the man she’d fallen in love with lost his job because of her — the stigma was still there, and it was made worse by the times. That no longer exists so much today, but it is still present, still prevalent. Often it seems as if there is a risk to the livelihoods of those we join with, even while our own lives are at risk, and there is no question that on some occasions, their lives are at risk as well.
It was an era of great prosperity and also deep mistrust. Lavender Menace. Red Scare. Cold War. This was the era that saw Labor day moved from the first day of May to the first Monday in September because they didn’t want a very American holiday to be confused with that most un-American nation’s celebration on the same day. This was the era when they added “under God” to the Pledge. This was an era of Us versus Them, and what followed always follows such times. Reaction, catastrophe, violence.
This was an era of fear, when children in 1st grade were schooled to climb under their desks in case the missiles came down. We may have come out of the war victorious, but we also came out of it terrified.
Among those who had gone off to war was Christine Jorgensen. She came home and seemed somewhat aimless, and so sought out the help she could find, and that help led her to more, and then off she went. As a radio host described it, “she went abroad and came back a broad”.
Her importance in the United States is so crucial that a history of trans people which ignores her, even if it focuses on people of color, is going to miss it, and do a disservice to Trans people in the US. We owe to her many phrases and turns that we still struggle with, but that were apt for the times in which she lived. We could have asked for better, but we don’t get to do that. In an oddness of fairness, no one does.
She was the force that moved and shaped generations, and if you are of a certain age, or from a certain era, she was your heroine — and for many, still is.
The knowledge that she lived and had done something and wasn’t completely shot as she walked off the plane emboldened many trans people in small ways.
Among those emboldened in such a way was a woman named Louise Lawrence. A networker of sorts, she had gone full time in the mid 1940′s and managed a house for working women in San Francisco.
I want to point out what that means. She ran a house that was intended to allow single women who held jobs to have a place to live. They would rent apartments, and this was always considered temporary, as they were ultimately expected to give up their jobs and find a man to marry, whereon they would move out and proceed to have babies and take care of their man.
It was segregated living, socially expected. Segregation was the normative pattern for this time.
Louise was a strong willed woman who was going to live her life on her terms, and she was very careful in how she did it, but her passion was in educating doctors interested in trans people. Her efforts here led her to encounter Alfred Kinsey, and Kinsey, in turn, introduced her to Harry Benjamin.
The wise among you will note the way all of this starts to cycle back again to seminal figures, and why they are so important.
She was very much the sort who would walk up to a trans person and let them know she cared. Through her contacts with doctors, she developed an address book that by all rights should be in the Smithsonian as an artifact of great importance, as it was the first time that we know of that a collection of people who were not entirely local to a particular space were all able to be contacted.
It was a mailing list. A Trans mailing list. And as far as we know, it was the first one in the United States that covered the country.
For the first time, people felt it was safe-ish to talk to others like themselves.
Some will argue that she was merely a cross dresser, a transvestite. I won’t argue with them, because the details of the particular kind of trans person are unimportant. As far as the society, and more importantly, as far as the trans people themselves thought, they were all the same thing as gay for the most part, and these distinctions aren’t present in any great degree in the milieu of the average person.
Nor do they become so until later.
Structurally — that is, in terms of Structure, or the systems that exist around us to govern and influence our thoughts, ideas, and opportunities in life — there was nothing but punishment. To speak to how someone lived their life in such a period — a time when arrest was violence and the scandal could destroy 50 years’ worth of goodwill even if everything was false overnight — as if those factors had no weight on them ignores the very nature of Structure, and gives to them far greater Agency than was possible.
Today, often, we stress over how friends and family will react, and many of my brothers and sisters and siblings will choose not to transition or to hold it off until the kids are grown for the purpose of these people they love, and they are often attacked as if they aren’t strong enough or if they don’t have the power, and yet they are actually exercising a tremendous amount of Agency that simply wasn’t even available to them in the 1950′s. To be able to think of those things as reasons not to transition is, ultimately, a luxury. One that people died in the pursuit of making possible.
No one can say how she would have lived her life today — including her. What we can do is recognize that she was able to do some things, and so she did them.
Many of her documents are currently preserved at the Kinsey Institute, for those who want to do more in depth study.
Louise was a key person, a sort of lynchpin, and she met another person in the early 50′s, and together they started a magazine called Transvestia.
The person was Virginia Prince. Prince did not coin anything she’s given credited for these days, in regards to terminology, and is a presently a very controversial figure within the Trans Community.
But she did use that mailing list of people Lawrence had found, and from that evolved what was, essentially, the first trans support group in the United States, and spread much information about it in a way that wasn’t possible before.
Prince allowed her own biases, over the years, to affect her efforts, and shifted towards the cross dressing scale early (she, like all of us, dealt with deeply internalized stigma, and while we can condemn how she chose to handle it, we must also remember the power that it has).
Prince, herself, also had contacts with people, stemming from her very public divorce trial for being a homosexual man with a propensity for women’s clothing.
The newsletter only lasted two issue, and fortunately missed being challenged under the laws by the post office.
In the early 1950′s, a Los Angeles Doctor named Elmer Belt, who knew the preceding women and had contact with Harry Benjamin and Kinsey, decided to start performing the sex changes in America. HE was the first Surgeon to do so, and used a procedure where he moved the testes into the abdominal cavity, for the purpose of avoiding those charges of Mayhem that could be devastating.
He had to stop in the mid 1950′s when he came under scrutiny and his work was decided to be improper, but he later started up again, stopping only in the mid 1960′s.
All of this was very much happening in California, and much of it centered around Los Angeles. Prince met Christine Jorgensen there — and admitted in her personal letters that had she possessed the money then, she would have gone.
Divisions By Circumstance
The community of people at this level was small, and tended to be confined to people who were in the news, who were public to an extent, and who struggled hard against many different social pressures.
But it was a start, and their efforts crossed over those lines in society, and while the information didn’t always come across the same, it still got through.
These people were only slightly separate from the Drag culture that still thrived, even though the burlesque and vaudeville days had long passed. Bars where “homosexuals” would congregate were raided — and often the basis for such was the presence of trans people of various sorts.
But the big revues were popular — if lowbrow — entertainment. Hollywood celebrities would go to them (the earlier mention of Pussy Katt and Howard Hughes happened at such a place), and if you were really good in them you didn’t stay in the states because the big money was in Paris.
Those revues were less segregated in many ways, though. Not always, not universally, but even a person of color could perform in them. And from those places the word and the news and the whispers were overheard and sometimes even spoken directly, a and then it would filter into the street, into the dark corners and the places where things were less savory not because of the people in them, but because of the forces that made them so.
There, in the streets, the lines were less well marked. Race mattered less because how you can hate your friend? Class mattered less because who cared about class when you were struggling to keep a roof over your head.
It was, mostly, the poorest of the poor, and that meant, in those days, people of color and immigrants. A mélange of culturally segregated “towns” within the poorest, most neglected, most overlooked parts of whatever major city you were in.
Sundowning was still going on — entire towns erased overnight. In areas that supposedly prided themselves on being progressive and open minded even — meanwhile, children were being burned in churches and women and men were being found hanging from trees and dragged behind trucks and the whole of it was kept local, kept narrow, and yet it was all feeding into a powder keg and now the fuse was lit.
It started small — after hours meetings, get together. Police presence late at night, after the bars had closed, was minimal. There weren’t people to harass, and so you could go out and be yourself for the most part and the worst that might happen was an attack and one or two of you might get killed, but you could live more openly than you cold during the day.
Let us not forget as well that often, that was when you made your money, as well.
From New Orleans to Chicago, New York to Los Angeles, there were low ways and back ways that led you to anything you might desire, and plenty desired it then, just as plenty desired it now. If you worked the revues you knew musicians and you knew waitresses and you knew the people that could make the city work.
You could move now, buses and airplanes and trains and if you were in a great place you could even get there on your own in your own car. Gas was more than milk delivered to your door, but not that much more.
You could get phone numbers and make contacts and if you worked a circuit you could see the world, or at least as much of it as mattered to you at that time, and you could expand your network and get new info and bring it back and spread it and slowly the two cultures divided by a combination of race and class divided.
Only poverty made you cross those lines. It was the great equalizer.
And throughout the 1950′s the pressure built among those who were left out. A firebrand spoke out here, a heartfelt and spiritual preacher there. Tupperware parties and other mlm style efforts linked women’s networks and allowed for more than just talking about the latest gadget of the strange TV show, but also how incredibly daft their husbands were being and it was as if they didn’t think women could do anything and would you mind bringing in a few more of those lovely rolls, Jemimah, dear?
By the time the 1960′s hit, the Churches were full of people who were tired of being treated like dirt, and they had a bunch of strong voices and one in particular was rising above the others.
Meanwhile, they were still among Trans people, and as ever, they still chose not to see them.
In the early 1960′s, in San Francisco, a group of trans people of various sorts were being too boisterous and too loud for the tastes of a manager of an all-night cafeteria that was part of the chain Compton’s.
Things got out of hand when the police came, and one of them grabbed one the trans people.
The Compton Cafeteria Riot began, lasting three nights and forcing a change in the way that the city had to deal with these people, these folks who were flooding into the nice conservative little bay side harbor.
In 1966, Harry Benjamin collected all the many different papers he’d written over the last several decades and edited them into a book for a wider audience, but still with an eye to other medical practitioners. Titled The Transsexual Phenomenon, it was a popular and well received book that marked the first time the term Transsexual was used in a popular setting as a description of a certain “kind” of person.
The book was a watershed of sorts, a moment of collected information that spoke to his peers and said “here’s something we need to take a little more seriously, and here’s why”. It was well researched, the data was sound, and criticism of the book was almost entirely from outside any of the fields that mattered. That same year, Human Sexual Response was released, by Masters and Johnson, and doctors everywhere were widely prescribing the Pill.
The Sexual Revolution was on.
Revolutionary Spirits and Radical Souls
In 1963, a young man who would be named Reed Erickson was a patient of Dr. Benjamin’s, and he was a very different sort of patient in only one way. It was, however, a way that mattered tremendously.
Reed Erickson was the child of wealthy parents in the smelting business. Graduating as the first “woman” from LSU with a degree in mechanical engineering, he was also brilliant. His father, having died in 1962, had essentially left him the family company, which he sold and then went into other ventures and proceeded to amass a huge fortune estimated to be around 40 million dollars at the time. That’s roughly equivalent (according to the quick calculator I found online) to over 250 million dollars today.
Reed is important because after his sex change, he used that money to support research into transsexualism. He funded the Harry Benjamin Foundation, and in the 70′s he provided the operational funds for the Johns Hopkins Gender Clinic. He supported research into trans issues in a way that had never ever been done before. He also helped to create information resources and establish referral systems, and essentially connected and provided the needs of psychiatrists, doctors, and medical organizations so that a network of sorts was created across the United States.
In the ten years between 1966 and 1976, he provided the majority of the funding and ultimately saw the creation of the very first standard of care for trans people, created by the organization that he helped to fund and create. An organization today known as WPATH. He helped to fund the Johns Hopkins Gender Clinic in Baltimore, where surgeries were begun in the United States in the mid 1960′s. If you were white, wealthy, and connected enough, and you could at least fake what they expected of you.
Meanwhile, Philly, Los Angeles, Chicago, New York all saw constant, unending harassment of “those faggots”, the “homosexuals” who were a disease and a threat. New Orleans was hopping with jazz f a kind never heard before, and it was cracking down on the unsavory areas so the tourists could bring in more dollars as they flocked to it and would shut up their whining and complaining about how unsafe these places were.
Riots were crackling across the country, even clashing with peaceful protests, turning two mobs into one, turning ugly at the drop of a hate, the forced desegregation rules and the defiant authorities north and south and east and west all calling this a rampant wave of lawlessness and incredibly threats to the natural order of things.
People were demanding to be married to someone of a different race, others were marrying outside their religion, others were openly flaunting their deviant lifestyle in the daytime, in front of the children for God’s sake! Religious attendance was dropping and the world was in chaos and at any minute those evil communists are going to fire their missiles at us from Cuba and the world is going to end.
More than a few Trans people are likely to have thought or said I don’t care if the world ends, because what is it to me?
Militant efforts for Black Justice sprang up everywhere. They agitated, they refused to back down, they spoke their minds.
Militant efforts for equal pay for women, for the right to have an abortion, for the right to marry a person you love, and if we can fight for the rights of Black people, why can’t we pass an Equal Rights Amendment for women? Look at how we are treated as objects and property and merely there for the pleasure of men without them ever once thinking of us as people — see, here, read this book about your precious Playboy Clubs.
Socialism has been around for years and its working in Europe. Israel is occupying this, war here, war there, bring our brothers home!
Blood ran in the streets.
And then, one night, at the tail end of the 1960′s, at a little mafia owned establishment that had two buckets for sinks and a restroom with a half assed door to it that never seemed to be empty when you needed it for one or two because it was being used for three, the world for Trans people was changed.
Stonewall was not the first LGBT riot. It wasn’t the last one, either. It happened in a city where the Chief of Police and the Mayor had sworn they were going to clean it up, get rid of undesirables. It was the largest city in the United States, the center of shipping, the heart of the financial system, source of best and finest in wealthy entertainments like Broadway, the publishing center of the country, the singularly most important city in the nation — more so than even Washington D.C. in terms of the social impact that it had — and has, still, to this day.
That’s why in the 21st century it was targeted for attack, after all.
They wanted those damned homosexuals out of New York City. The problem is how does one know what a homosexual looks like. Places that everyone knew were homosexual hangouts for those who were white enough, and well off enough, were more than aware. They were careful, they bribed and they had people in positions, and so when raids hit there, there was none of the stuff that was expected. They weren’t wearing the wrong clothes, they weren’t dancing cheek to cheek with people of the same sex. They were adult and orderly and seemingly law abiding and they weren’t scared or intimidated, they just went along, quietly kings and queens of the world, it seemed.
It just made the haters angrier.
They started going after the poorer places. Especially in the neighborhoods where people of color might go. Because those sorts never really knew the score, never really mattered. Hell, you saw the way they had to be hosed not too long ago, right?
Serves them right their leader was assassinated. Who the hell do they think they are getting someone like that when we’ve lost JFK?
It was located across the street from a park that was a home to many of the LGBT youth at night, without homes, and to those who worked the streets turning tricks of all sorts, but mostly men, including a few of those from those more respectable, more careful, more willing to appease and supplicate.
In early every major story talking about the Stonewall Riots, trans people are reduced at best, and ignored entirely. It is often celebrated as something long since gone and passed, and yet, there are many trans people who were there, who live today, who are active today.
When Queen Elizabeth was crowned, it was, as ever, news. And the high fashions and the royal presence struck many within the drag community as it always had, and it gave birth within the street scene to a community of drag folks who were not gay men doing it, but rather were Queens.
Call them drag queens, call them drama queens, call them anything as long as you recognized that they were Queens and they were not going to put up with your peasantry any longer.
Queens, they were, and they were there, and they were there with Butch lesbians and really femmy gay men and they all called themselves Gay.
Lesbian, as a term, had been around, but wasn’t widely used yet as it hadn’t gotten out that far into the sub-culture where those who refused to follow the stupid rules had been pushed. They were in the darkness, on the edges, in the modern day equivalent of those wild west era spaces where what you could eke out on your own was what mattered and damn the rest of them.
As much of the country mourned the death of a celebrity or talked about the advent of landing on the moon or wondered how in the hell people could survive in Vietnam given the stories that were coming out of there, the LGBT community — which called itself the gay Community then — found a moment to stand up to the Structure and exercise Agency against it in a set of riots that lasted nearly a week and scared the living hell out of the most powerful people in the most important city in the nation.
The Modern Era Begins
Stonewall is well covered, the most this can add is that you need to look up and research the people there, but two of them are important right off the bat, although others, like Miss Major, will become important later on in this 101.
Those two are a Puerto Rican firebrand loving the radical and anti-establishment ideas that floated through the bohemian parts of the city, and a much loved and cherished Black Mother figure who could smile and laugh even as she was doing everything she could to not do what you told her to do and still make you think she was.
Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P Johnson were close friends, both of them products of the streets, both struggling to get by in the best ways they could come up with and neither of them wanting to see others have to deal with it.
Sylvia was the more political of the pair, Marsha the more social of the pair. They were an odd set to see, by all accounts. Together they rented a run-down building and started the first house known to this recorder that provided a safe haven for trans people to live, and they called STAR House, with the star standing for Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries.
To pay for the stuff there, they turned tricks. They did it so those they helped wouldn’t have to, and could find a better way.
The first major militant gay group was formed in New York City. It really marks the start of the modern era of LGBT rights struggles, as it was a marked departure from the older efforts that centered mostly on getting them to just leave people alone, on appeasing, on assimilation and invisibility.
Like Magnus Hirschfeld in the late 1800′s in Germany, they were tired of the crap and wanted it changed, and they were going to fight for it.
It was called the Gay Liberation Front. Front and center among its members were people that went on to have incredible impact on the modern struggle for gay rights.
But for the Trans community, two people stood out: Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P Johnson.
There, at the start.
Tensions within the group that centered on issues of assimilation and a strong tendency towards extremely radical thoughts popular at the time (which I happen to share in many ways, but not all) were aggravated by the differences between trans people and Cis people.
As a result, if fractured, and the GAA was formed. The GAA was the Gay Activists Alliance.
The division was the first thing that really started to demonstrate the growing rift. As the word spread into the streets about Benjamin’s book, and the efforts of Erickson to create a network of providers and the establishment of the first set of standards of care, the rifts began within the communities, and Sylvia and Marsha were at the front of it.
Meanwhile, Christine Jorgensen was doing stage shows and performing, traveling to make a living, occasionally called out for interviews, and an optometrist found out that she was really pretty damned good at playing tennis.
Acceptance of trans lives wasn’t great, but it was a damn sight better than it had been for years. The earliest efforts towards a decent standard of care were being developed out, competing studies, there was funding and there was interest and there was awareness and this wasn’t “homosexual”, it was something else, and it was sold that way, marketed that way, an assimilation model that worked well for those who could afford it and meet the often strict and always variable criteria of whatever group they happened to find themselves in contact with. Be a girly girl, be straight, be secret — the rules to get them to help were their rules, so it was always on their terms and they were always men.
In 1973, as the 3 year long fight to delist homosexuality was reaching its apex, as Sylvia Rivera was being thrown out of the very organizations she’d help start, as radical feminism finally decided it really didn’t like these transsexuals, in a year that the Battle of the Sexes was being played out between Bobby Riggs and Billie Jean King, a trans woman wanted to play tennis against other women on a full stage.
Between the publication of the Transsexual Phenomenon and the formation of the GAA, a lot went on culturally relating to Trans people in the US.
For 20 years, the new and amazing medium of communication called Television was sharing the images and ideas of transness in the households of millions of people instead of thousands, and this new idea, and this thing called sex changes may not have been the talk of the evening news a lot, but the concepts and ideas were successfully in the minds of people all across the country.
There was a new “respectability” to all of it, in the days and times, and those that were seen were very much a mass of pale skinned, very waspy women. Women were the focus. In the same period, the second wave of the feminist movement was pushing forward, and even came to an idea that was, for all intents and purposes, radical for the times, and they had a cause, and they had a magazine, and they were changing the status quo.
Women, at this time, were all but ignored if they went into banks. To get a loan, to have a credit card, they had to have a co-signer. They were culturally relegated to roles of children — or at least, that’s the tale of those who were in power and that’s how they told it.
It was servitude, and there was a massive fight to end it.
The country was in turmoil as the repercussions of the Civil Rights act and the Loving ruling began to be felt at the street level. Counterculture had a place and a power that was unrivaled in history, and reaction was often the order of the day, even as an unimaginably unpopular war was being fought and the nation was being led stalwarts who were reinventing politics and destroying the nation’s faith in the institutions that served them.
In the midst of all this chaos and social uncertainty — this period of liminoid and liminal social upheaval — the idea of people who changed their sex because they needed to, and that doctors were helping them, reached into American homes.
And while not accepted, was, in a startlingly way, tolerated. As long as it was over there. As long as it wasn’t seen. As long as they met the rules that were set for them by people who knew better. Dress this way, act this way, be this kind of person, this sort of acceptable.
For some, that meant they had to move away, end all contact with family, start anew. For others, it meant change jobs, professions, lives. For others, it meant drop all contact with those undesirables.
There was a strong sense that trans people were not the same as gay people, and now they had a word for it: transsexual. It was a word that bore the weight of medical authority, a word that had respect at that time, and while there was another word used in some places but not in others, a strange word “transgender”, it wasn’t the mainline, and it was still pocketed like many others.
Communities of trans people had grown up, and within them a series of rules went around, passed as oral lore, that bespoke the ways to get past the doctors and psychiatrists and people of that area, and that spread the word, and that enabled folks who could get through these hoops to do so.
Not everyone could. The Daylight test, arising decades earlier in Drag culture, had moved into the sub-cultures mainstream. Finding out and being what you were often changed the way you understood who you were attracted to.
Many trans people were discouraged from doing anything. Often, they became the ones that fought for recognition in the wider world, while those who could meet the criteria that often changed from place to place, that learned and reacted from and to each other, would disappear into the world, assimilating.
Palo Alto, California. San Francisco. Los Angeles. Chicago. Boston. New York. Baltimore.
The GLF split was a hostile one, driven by interpersonal conflicts and deep seated prejudices. The people involved with the Mattachine Society, an assimilation group founded for gay men, had come to these radical, anti-authoritarian people and they tried to make a team.
Angela Douglas, Sylvia Rivera, and Marsha P. Johnson were all driven out because of their skin color, their cultural heritage, their loudness.
They went off and formed the GAA, and they coalesced around a single issue format, which had proved extremely useful in the past (it got Suffrage and Prohibition through), and they also, most importantly, worked on creating the first ordinance effort of the new Era.
To their surprise, while they had worked hard on the bill, when it was finally introduced, they had to listen to people tell them that fighting for trans people was too radical, and too hard. SO trans issues were stripped from the very first bill by the time it was introduced.
They had started that effort, and they had been key to the development and creation of the group in the first place. Trans women were there at the beginning, when all there was this Gay, when the acronym was just G, because G was the default for everyone.
Meanwhile, as this fight was brewing, so was another one, and this one drew in Lesbians to the cause of women’s liberation, and there were marches and protests and struggles — and make no mistake: trans people were there, as well. Including Sylvia and Marsha and Angela. The many social shifts had led to a cross fertilization of ideas, often prompted by tracts written by famed radicals, and tactics and ideas were adopted by many groups and many efforts, because the goal was to overturn the powers that were.
Some of these new feminists — these radical feminists — were of a mindset that women needed to separate entirely from Men. They were, and to this day, still are, not representative of the wider ideas of radical feminism (that’s still best exemplified by Steinem), but in no small part that was because the mainstream effort of feminism — radical and otherwise — ignored them and considered them too weird, too radical, to strange. They felt that because they did not share in that underlying experience of all women that was essential. They were, after all, those filthy homosexuals. What could they have possibly known about the lives and experiences of regular women? Real women, not women that pretended to be men with their poor choice of clothing and short haircuts and weird little perverted lives.
Yes, that really happened. If it sounds familiar to you, then you have an idea of where much of the broader stuff trans women have been seeing today comes from.
Lesbian Separatists is what they were called. Radical feminists that weren’t accepted by the mainstream but still fought anyways. They were young, baby boomers in an age where their generation was everywhere, in everything.
At some points, if you were a lesbian, you were denied membership in the larger groups fighting for women’s rights. You were not allowed to speak at women’s gatherings. The same applied to people of color, to other women — this was a struggle for heterosexual white women still at this time, who felt they knew what was right and best and it was very much an exclusive club.
Trans women were everywhere. Even in lesbian organizations and groups. One young woman named Beth Elliot, a singer, had worked with and for the Daughters of Bilitis, the women’s version of the Mattachine society, for years after her transition.
The had a gathering, a fundraiser, for the organization, which was working for women’s liberation, and she was secretary of the local chapter at that time. She had a performance on stage at the fundraiser, and a small group of lesbian women had a cow that “a man” was playing on the stage at an event for women.
Beth Elliot had to sit on the stage as the audience was whipped into a frenzy of hostility and her ability just to be there and play was “voted” on. One of the women involved was a loud, abrasive, strong willed gal who called herself BevJo.
To this day, they are bitter enemies. Forty Years.
Beth won the vote, by the way. She performed, but the experience was humiliating. She left immediately after. The multi-day event, a sort of Woodstock inspired thing, also had a keynote speaker the following day.
A married woman stood on stage, and brought up the events of the previous day, and labeled Beth a Transvestite and a rapist.
BevJo and Beth had been friends in college. From that point on, BevJo began a campaign that blacklisted Beth, had her removed from her position and even ended up stripping her of her membership. When Beth wrote or appeared, it was almost inevitable that the vociferous BevJo would show up.
The Daughters of Bilitis has a recent connection as well. Del and Phyllis were the first couple to get married in the window that allowed 18,000 to do so in California. They were among the founders of DOB.
Many of those who did this were taking their lead from a young theologian professor at Boston College. Her name was Mary Daly, and she embraced the early ides of Radical feminism, even though it didn’t embrace her. She spoke to lesbians, and she was, without any doubt, one of many people who contributed to the notion that the G should become the GL, because women were tired of being erased and ignored in the movement for gay rights. She didn’t do this singlehandedly — she was just one of many, but her voice and passion spoke very strongly to those women who were not waspy, but still very white.
Because she spoke from a Catholic background, in an era where the impact of Vatican II had left many catholic women upset and less inclined to follow the Church.
Across the nation, while Beth Elliot was fighting, Sylvia Rivera was fighting as well. At a gathering that was part of something that was founded as a direct result of the Stonewall Riots — one of the earliest version of the larger Pride (and keep in mind that Pride marches are a remembrance of that fight, and that Trans people were part of it) — she was heckled, booed, and then abruptly forced offstage by the person that followed her and her supporters. A firebrand of the era, this woman stood up and in front of a crowd called Sylvia an impersonator, and exploiting women’s lives for her own profit.
The same Sylvia who was also housing trans women of color in a house.
The Backlash had begun as they always do. At the grassroots level, among the streets and in the gatherings.
Trans women didn’t give up, though. As the ideas and struggles of these any movements spread across the country, so did Trans women. Suspicion and mistrust developed, and as things began to get more heated, the speeches and impassioned calls to solidarity among the various, sometimes competing efforts for those within them became infested as well with calls to purity and ideals that were incredibly limited as they came from those who were removed from much of the strife.
As this all happened, that Tennis playing woman had managed to rise up through the ranks, and decided she wanted to play at the US Open.
Her name was Renee Richards. She was told no unless she allowed them to test her chromosomes, at her cost, and, like most women today but few women then, she wasn’t going to take no for an answer and so she sued the US Tennis Association and in 1977 she won the right to play. She did very well, and played against Martina Navratilova in doubles, but lost. She would later go on to coach Martina Navratilova to her victories.
It was a well-publicized event in the sports world, and a massive shift in the idea of trans people and it seriously angered many in the Lesbian Separatist movement who had come to follow Daly. It infuriated Daly. It angered many fans of sport, especially in the dominant class in power, who had already had to deal with those damned blacks getting all up in their sports and a black man who was unremittingly proud and damned good at what he did keeping and holding and then just because he could, getting back again the title of Heavyweight champion of the world.
The Backlash hit the mainstream, and the Biggest blows were about to come.
The Hammer Blows
A moral panic is a situation where a particular group are placed in the situation of being considered a threat to the social order. Homosexuality, Blackness, Asianity, even abortion are all examples of this happening to groups.
Moral panics are part and parcel of the social schema — right now, today, there is a moral panic among many regarding the nature of the Republican party.
As the 60′s and early 70′s had driven people into a state of social upheaval from the overly controlling and morally reductive 1950′s, there was a great sense of moral panic among the population, and there was also a large set of groups and efforts that needed a way to come together across lines that didn’t exist yet.
Then two women, both of them lesbian separatists who belonged to the idea of radical feminism, both of them white and very much part of their times (espousing ethnocentric ideas and often in a hostile sense) published their works.
Part of the key to a moral panic is not to create rational, honest arguments, but to play on the fears and insecurities of the population at large, to toy with the things they do not understand well and to use their mistrust — especially things they worry about.
These two works did that. Both came from women who had the respectability of education, meaning they came from backgrounds where such was possible. Both shared common ideas, and came from similar backgrounds.
Mary Daly’s Gyn/Ecology and Janice Raymond’s The Transsexual Menace came out a little more than a decade after Benjamin’s work, and they shifted the conversation about trans lives through their popularity within the mainstream.
Boston College gained tremendous wealth in its publishing group as a result of these two books, which became required reading among the Radical feminist sphere and they marked a shift toward a less exclusive form of radical feminism towards one that was more inclusive — but on exclusive terms. Lesbians had fought to be part of the movement, and these two books essentially brought them into it. Because the second wave *is* radical feminism in the United States.
The books were really only of significant popularity in the US — outside it, and in particular, in Europe, Feminism took different directions and was influenced by a very different set of forces and ideas (notably Luce Irigray, for one).
Audre Lorde hated the book. In gentle terms, she essentially called it racist. She never got around to Raymond, though.
In the two books, the two authors reference each other’s work, a circling supportive system that only allows for their views to be presented.
Daly leaves a legacy behind her of radical feminists hating men, of a desire to reverse the system, with women governing, not seeking equality, and of the persistent argument that trans people are false beings.
Raymond, Daly’s protégé, would, not long after, be requested to deliver a white paper to a select committee of congress. The white paper was influential in the effort towards removal of federal funding for medical research and efforts on behalf of Trans people.
But it was not all of what happened.
At the same time that these books were rolling throughout the popular culture, in the scientific culture, blowback against Benjamin’s work was coming from Jon Meyer and Paul R. McHugh. Meyer’s work characterized the efficacy of surgical intervention, and McHugh (who even today works as a professional shill for the Catholic Church) was bound and determined to shut down the gender clinic that he took over: the one at Johns Hopkins University.
The Clinic went through many leaders, some of them famous for other things, and the work done there changed for the better countless lives as well as gave to the whole effort a level of respectability, as Johns Hopkins was an incredibly well respected organization.
But McHugh, a psychiatrist who had opposed the delisting of homosexuality, felt that surgery was somehow horrible, and publicly gave many interviews and wrote wide spread papers that essentially linked Transness back to homosexuality and asserted that doing the operations was the worst thing one could do.
He even went to say that surgery for them was like giving liposuction to an anorexic person.
He was the one who directed the research by Meyer and his efforts had just as much impact on the decisions in federal policy making — if not more. We owe the calling of SRS “experimental” to him.
McHugh is possibly one of the early sources for the concept of “sissy boy syndrome” that later became the foundation for gender identity disorder in children, and in the minds of many essentially made homosexuality in children a pathological condition, providing the earliest excuses for reparative therapy.
I should note that few people will speak openly of how hostile McHugh is to trans people in the way I have. He is extremely well respected professionally, and so long as it stays away from crossing his personal hot button points (that is, pretty much anything having to do with sex or women), he is very competent.
The effect of these multiple, widely spread, vicious, hostile efforts against Trans people, and based in what purported to be academia from both liberal and conservative sides, had a devastating effect on the community of trans people, essentially driving the visible, open part underground, closing down gender clinic after gender clinic, and effectively killing off the possibility for research and overall improvement, as well as shifting the entire way that people thought about and discussed the issues of trans people.
It wasn’t merely a setback. It was a reset.
D’orsay, A. E., 2013, “Transness 101”,
Dyssonance.com, Phoenix, Arizona, Retrieved on
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