While some assert that the transsexual community was victimized through a forced assimilation into a group that works hand-in-glove with crossdressers and drag queens, what does the historical record have to say?
As I move forward in this article, I will use the word "community" to refer to a group of diverse constituent members who work together in common cause. In other words, I am defining the term "community", using the dictionary definition of the word:
Let's take a look at some of the important questions that are circulating about the transgender community.
Consider this plea from a national transsexual organization to the transvestite and drag community in 1975 (click to enlarge the picture on the left):
"... The courts and legislative people refuse to rule in favor of transsexual persons even when they are legally right. These so-called professional people act solely on the basis of their own emotions and repulsions rather than medical or legal reasons. We consider their actions to be arbitrary, capricious and prejudicial by denying people their God-given right to live in happiness and peace as a human being.
Chrysalis, an organization of transsexual persons, has decided to fight. In order to do this we need your help and support. You may not consider this your fight. However, whenever any person of any sexual minority is denied their right, we all begin to lose those things we have. It wasn't long ago that none of us could be proud and stand up for what we are.
Consider the following words of a transsexual woman in this second article from the same 1975 issue of Drag Magazine (click to enlarge the picture on the right):
Throughout the 1970s, community groups inclusive of all types of people of non-cisgender history, expression and/or experience were formed. One was called the United Transvestite and Transsexual Society (UTTS). Years before that in 1970, the Transvestite/Transsexual Action Organization formed and later renamed itself the Transsexual Action Organization while still continuing its mission to be inclusive of transvestites (see below).
In 1971, the "Androgynous Organization" set up a "transsexual help center" that was sponsored by the Gay Liberation Front. In the mid-1970s, a Los Angeles political group called the "Transsexual/Trans-Gender Rap Group" was formed. Another 1970s group called themselves simply "Transsexuals and Transvestites". Additionally, there was the long, yet explicitly inclusively named "Transvestite, Transsexual, Female Impersonator and Gender Identity Program of Gay Community Services" in California.
In fact, in 1974, UTTS said, "None of us want to split the transvestite and transsexuals from within..."
Consider what the Transsexual Action Organization had to say about this question in 1972 (emphasis added)(click to enlarge the picture on the right):
Later, in the 1980s, consider what this transsexual dreamed of for the "gender community" (click to enlarge picture on the right):
"From The Editor's Pen:
One thing that I do a lot of lately is dream about the way it could be for us in the gender community. There are so many possible ways to get the eyes of the world opened so that we can go live our lives the way we choose, not by anybody else's rules. So here is my little wish list. It's my Future View of where we could be and should be going.
• Guaranteed equal protection under the law against discrimination on the basis of gender-role, not physical sex or sexual preference.
• A gender-oriented BBS with a 1-800 toll free number.
• A national gender-oriented newspaper, without sex. Start out monthly and then eventually move to weekly.
• A national gender archive for books, articles, cartoons, other printed matter, videos, tapes, etc.
• A program to help TV and TS prostitutes get off the street. Teach job skills and provide job placement with sympathetic and knowledgeable employers.
• A voice in setting guidelines for TS reassignment.
• A proactive campaign against exploitation of our community.
• Removal of transvestism and transsexualism from the DSM-III. We are NOT mentally ill.
• A video tape produced by the community about the community for use on Public Television stations.
• More communication with the lesbian, gay and feminist groups so that we can learn more about ourselves and each other.
• More leaders, less rulers.
-- TV/TS Tapestry, 1986
Compare the sentiments of this transsexual woman in 1986 with those of another transsexual woman in the 1972 article (above, "Looking Towards The Future").
Are there similarities, and are these similarities to be found in today's version of the "gender community"?
Were We United?
Now, let's turn back to 1973 and see how another group sought to form community with those represented by both the "transvestite" and "transsexual" taxonomy.
Here is what the United Transvestite and Transsexual Society (formed in 1973) had to say about community building. As you're reading the following announcement, remember that this was a national organization that helped give rise to a community of trans people that went on to pass their goals and values on to a later trans generation. While the terminology is certainly quaint and even offensive by today's standards, try to focus on the message and compare that message to the things you hear in the modern "transgender community".
"A New TV/TS Society Formed
This is to announce the formation of a new organization dedicated to promoting the interests of transvestites and transexuals. The name of the group is United Transvestite and Transexual Society.
The society is headed by Sussie Collins and who with five other people are dedicated to the interests of our readers.
Sussie received so many cries for help in setting up meetings for people in the field that it seemed the only way to get the job done would be to set up some sort of an organization and this will be accomplished by setting up regional chapters.
As the idea progressed it seemed logical to go all the way into a complete service including free ad publishing in a free monthly newsletter - free information service... setting up a telephone help line service.
In the newsletter it is planned to have help articles and to carry news for all local chapters. A TV consumer report for products relative to the members.
This is not to replace or take over the other TV organizations, but to work hand and hand with them... to make them stronger through publicity and any other means that can be developed through Sussie's connections with most of the other TV and TS publications.
For instance, Jamie Howell of TVIS, the largest TV - TS organization is one of Sussie Collins' primary backers in this new group.
SHEMALE will be the official publication of UTTS.
This magazine will be dedicated to real life TV and TS rather than the so called professionals that are featured in most of the other female impersonator magazines.
The UTTS will be supported by contributions only. The contribution will guarantee 12 issues of the UTTS Newsletter and all other services the society offers. The suggested contribution is $12.50 for one year."
Today, terms such as "shemale" and "transvestite" are largely regarded as porn industry buzz words, and are generally seen as offensive when used to describe trans people in America today. Forty years ago, however, these terms were commonly used in the American trans community. It's likely, if history is any indicator, that many of the terms we currently use will be seen as quaint, inaccurate and possibly offensive forty years from now.
Instead of focusing on outdated terminology, consider the explicit inclusionary vision and goals this national organization had. Consider that while this national organization was forming, there was already another national "TV - TS organization". Note how this more established organization gave rise to UTTS. How are these qualities of community reflected in the current trans community?
In this 1973 notice, Jamie Howell was referenced as being a significant supporter of UTTS. This bit of information provides an interesting example of how the various constituent groupings of gender diversity have worked in collaboration to form what is nowadays known as the "transgender community".
On February 14, 1971, Howell formed the Transvestite Information Service (TVIS) with the support of the Reed Erickson Foundation. Reed Erickson, an FTM transsexual, personally approved each new group his Foundation supported. This transsexual-backed "Transvestite Information Service" organization was one of the first to do some practical research on behalf of the community. For instance, TVIS conducted the first ever national and international survey of local crossdressing ordinances:
While some jurisdictions stonewalled Howell, many did not, and our community's first legal database was created and shared with all trans people.
In this historical example of the evolution of our community we see that:
• Transsexuals supported the creation of a "TV - TS organization" known as the "Transvestite Information Service";
• This organization went on to create a valuable resource that benefited all trans people;
• This organization then went on to help start a new national trans organization with the goal of bringing the various local trans groups together.
UTTS went on to form other groups throughout the nation, and supported the Transsexual Action Organization (TAO), which later became an international support organization for transsexual people.
TAO went on to inspire Stephen Whittle (a transsexual law professor) through his work with that organization, and he went on to become a significant figure in the modern transgender community.
Consider how the following community group is explicitly inclusive of the various types of constituent community members and seeks to create a taxonomy in the form of a single word with which to talk about all types of "trans people":
-- Houston, 1976. (Note that even then, we were one politically active community.)
And in a 1979 letter to the Houston Gay Political Caucus, the idea of having a taxonomy that was representative of all types of trans people is expounded:
It is significant that both of these documents were written by a transsexual woman. It is also significant to note that even though transsexuals aligned themselves with transvestites, Houston's crossdressing ordinance was overturned just a couple of years after the above letter was written. Houston's experience seems to mirror the experiences of the 1975 Detroit transsexuals and transvestites when, working together, they overturned the Detroit crossdressing ordinance.
Even though there was a push toward community building in the 1970s and 80s, was there any recognition that the constituent groupings were distinctively different types of groups who still, nonetheless shared commonality?
Consider what one self-identified "female impersonator" had to say in a 1971 copy of Female Mimics magazine (click to enlarge picture on right):
I'm sure you realize that cross-dressing is a complicated phenomenen [sic]. A dragqueen is not the same thing as a transsexual; a tranvestite [sic] and an underwear fetishist are just barely in the same boat.
There are heterosexual cross-dressers, gay ones, and cross-dressers that don't fit in any category. Some are upfront, some never act out their fantasies - keeping them bottled up, ready to explode someday.
Some do it in the privacy of the bedroom, other make a living out of it. You know the saying that the most beautiful women in the world are men in drag? It's true, too.
And so, the new service. I'm here to help if help is needed, and I want you to think of me as a friend you've known for a long time.
Whatever your bag is, I'm ready and willing to help as I can. Straight - gay - fetishes of all kinds - if you need advice or just somebody to correspond with, if you're lonely, or blaming yourself for something you should be proud of, drop me a note."
The "Transgender" Community
The above section reviewed the composition and context of the "gender community." Now consider the composition and context of the "transgender community" described in this following 1984 article:
Next, here is one of the articles from the magazine: The 'Origins' and 'Cures' for Transgender Behavior, by Roger E. Peo, PhD (click to enlarge pictures on the left and right) (emphasis added). It's a long quote, but note how the author uses the words "transgender," "transgendered," "transsexual" and "transvestite."
"Just about every transgendered person I have ever talked to or heard about had at some time or or another been very concerned about how s/he 'got that way'. For some it is an obsession - to find out at all cost - why they feel the way they do. Others have an equally strong drive to 'cure' their behavior and stop the feelings of wanting, sometimes, to be the 'other' sex. The reasons for these driven searches are many fold. In some cases it is to 'please' a partner who is unable to deal with a behavior that seems so at odds with what society considers 'normal'. Others find the dichotomy between their physical being and their mental/emotional state is so painful that relief, in any form, seems better than existing in some never-never world. Most transgender situations where there is pain seem to be ones in which the person has not been able to resolve the 'split' in their existence.
Almost any book one chooses to read on the subject offers some explanation on the origin of transgender feelings. One theory says that prenatal hormonal effects sensitize the individual so that a later environmental situation will trigger the latent transgender feelings. Another theory says that early environmental and/or social situations 'force' the individual into the behavior. There is no evidence that any of these theories explain ALL the various types of transgender behavior that have been observed. It is not even clear whether transvestism and transsexualism are different aspects of the same phenomenon or completely different phenomena. A new book, Sex and the Brain by Durden-Smith and Desimone does not deal directly with transgender behaviors, but the authors do offer same interesting speculation on human sexuality. The main theme of the book is that male and female brains are structurally and functionally different. These differences seem broader and more deeply ingrained in humans than had been suspected. It is hypothesized that these dissimilarities were, and still are, necessary for the two different reproductive functions that males and females perform. If evolution and research are any indicators, these disparate functions have been enhanced as humans evolved to their present state of development. It can be shown (in lower mammals) that these different brain structures can be achieved by altering hormone levels in critical periods during gestation. As a result, genetic males can be given varying degrees of female brain structure and genetic females can be given varying degrees of male brain structure. Either will then function in a manner more like the other sex.
From their research results one could draw the conclusion that transgender feelings are a result of prenatal alteration of an individual's brain toward the other sex's structure even though the obvious biological characteristics of the individual do appear to be different from people who do not have transgender feelings rather than an environmental/social one.
Suppose all of the foregoing assumptions/theories are correct? - SO WHAT? How does that help the adult (or even teenage) transgender person? It is far too late to change (physically) the brain structures that 'cause' the 'problem', even if we had the slightest idea of how to go about it. The real problem, as I see it, is our society's unwillingness to accept forms of behavior that fall outside of the stereotypical 'normal' male and female models. Not all societies on this earth are so rigid - but again, that doesn't help the person with transgender feelings. To change our society requires broad and in-depth general education on human sexuality that begins with our children and teaches more than reproductive facts. Until this happens, the transgender person will still be ostracized and misunderstood. They will perceive themselves as misfits and heap upon themselves much guilt and rejection. Is there a realistic solution given the above situations? Yes! Most of what has to be done has to be done by the transgendered person with help from others in the transgender community. First, such a person has to stop looking for a scapegoat - whether that scapegoat is a biological structure or a societal structure. If her/his biology really causes the 'problem', short of reassignment surgery, there is not much that can be done. If society is the issue, then choices are few and most will opt to stay in the society they know, even if it rejects them. As a result, one has to 'pick themselves up by their bootstraps' and see themselves as worthy, responsible and lovable human beings. This can not be accomplished alone and that is where the community comes in. Through organizations such as the Tiffany Club and concerned professionals, the person who is struggling with transgender feelings can begin to put aside the guilt and fear, then go on to find the unique solution for their own life that provides them relief from the pain while not hurting those around them.
The above sounds simplistic - but it isn't. Coming to terms with yourself and seeing yourself as a person of worth is probably the most difficult 'birth' that any human being ever makes. In the end, it is the cure that is truly possible, for the only person we can really change is ourself."
Note the way in which the author assumes that the reader understands the term. Is it significant that, in 1984, the author assumes that the definition of "transgender'" is already fully formed the reader's mind?
How do the ideas of this 1984 article mirror ideas found within the "transgender community" today? In what way does this historical record fit the historical narratives favored by some in the TS separatist movement? Might one consider this article representative of one branch in the term's evolutionary process?
Note that the author seems to be using the term in a way that is generally thought to exist only in the post-1990s era:
"There is no evidence that any of these theories explain ALL the various types of transgender behavior that have been observed. It is not even clear whether transvestism and transsexualism are different aspects of the same phenomenon or completely different phenomena."
The author seems to be using the term "transgender" to refer to all the constituent groupings captured under the "transvestism and transsexualism" taxonomy. Is this particular context from 1984 represented in the way the term is generally used today?
The Complexities of History
My hope is that these historical documents will assist our community in dealing with the cultural and historical context of the various "transgender debates" currently going on around the internet. I personally feel that the historical record shows that the co-evolution of the term "transgender" and the push to form a "transgender community" is a bit more complex than is sometimes portrayed.
Even what is presented in this single post is but a glimpse into the ways in which the historical "gender community," medical/psychological community and non-trans community related to this term. Books could be written deconstructing and debating each of the questions I've presented in this article. My hope is that this short review of the historical record may inspire some to begin to consider the myriad of complex historical forces that went into bringing us to this point in our shared history.
Lastly, I would like to thank the Houston Transgender Archive for ensuring that the documentation presented in this article has been preserved. For me, when I am able to explore the archive, it is quite an amazing experience to be surrounded with thousands of years of trans history from every corner of the world.
I would be remiss if I didn't acknowledge that the archive is always looking to save and preserve more of our history. So, you know all those dusty newsletters, picture albums, pageant sashes and doodles you wrote on the back of Harry Benjamin's business card you forgot about and is currently rotting away in your attic? Please consider donating it to the Archive so that it can be preserved.
image sources: courtesy Houston Transgender Archive