Dr. Jillian T. Weiss

Yvonne Cook Riley: The Invention of Transgender

Filed By Dr. Jillian T. Weiss | August 16, 2011 11:00 AM | comments

Filed in: Marriage Equality, The Movement, Transgender & Intersex
Tags: IFGE, trans history, trans icons and history, transgender history, Yvonne Cook-Riley

Yvonne_Cook_Riley.jpgI returned yesterday from Kindred Spirits, a transgender spiritual retreat held in Hot Springs, North Carolina, at the old Sunnybank Inn, built in the 1840s. There, several of us sitting around the porch one night, slapping at the gnats, had a fascinating hour-long discussion with Yvonne Cook-Riley. Yvonne was very involved in the trans movement in the 80s and early 90s. She's retired now, and lives a quiet and spiritual life in North Carolina. She was a tireless advocate for the community back in the day, however, and there wasn't any place one could look without seeing her. Something she said about the transgender movement fascinated me.

She said she was the founder of the transgender movement.

That set off a light bulb over my head, as we have recently had some discussion of the history of the term "transgender" and of the "transgender community" here on Bilerico. So here's the one we should thank, or vilify, when we talk about the "transgender community"! She also credited Virginia Prince and Phyllis Frye as co-founders of the movement, as well as a number of others who participated in making it happen.

She agreed to a short interview in the morning, and the audio file (11 minutes long) is at the end of this post.

The hour-long discussion from Saturday night couldn't be replicated in the short 11 minute interview posted here, but I tried to steer the conversation towards the most fascinating part: how did the "transgender movement" get invented?

As a background to this interview, it's important to understand there was no "transgender movement" at the time of which Yvonne speaks. Rather, as I learned when I was coming out in the mid-90s, there were three distinct communities that never mixed: a heterosexual transsexual women's community, a heterosexual transsexual men's community, and a separate heterosexual male crossdresser community. It was considered an oxymoron to be a lesbian transsexual woman (who sought women as partners) or a gay transsexual man (who sought men as partners), though they did exist. But there was no "community" for them, and if they wanted any medical help or sympathy from the rest of the community, they had to be silent about their sexual orientation. It was well-known that there were gay and bisexual crossdressers, but they were not wanted in the crossdressing community. The crossdressing community stressed, with few exceptions, that it was composed entirely of men who liked dressing en femme on a strictly part-time basis, that they desired only women as partners, and that they would not admit anyone who openly stated that they were open to men as sexual partners. The intent was to try to mollify the wives of the members, and to get them to look upon crossdressing as a hobby, rather than a threat to their marriage. In the few meetings that I attended in the 90s, the wives were there in force, and the tactic seemed to be successful. It was equally obvious to me that I was on a completely different path, and that was useful information for me.

The important point of this background is that there was no middle ground. There was no recognized way to transition to living as the opposite sex without surgery. It was for this reason that the term "transgenderist" was coined, which denoted this middle path for which there was no path.

Back to Yvonne Cook-Riley's interview: She was the founding operations manager of the International Foundation for Gender Education (IFGE), which opened in 1987, to advocate for freedom of gender expression. Its tagline is "We promote the understanding and acceptance of All People: Transgender, Transsexual, Crossdresser, Agender, Gender Queer, Intersex, Two Spirit, Hijra, Kathoey, Drag King, Drag Queen, Queer, Lesbian, Gay, Straight, Butch, Femme, Faerie, Homosexual, Bisexual, Heterosexual, and of course - You!" It runs the magazine "Transgender Tapestry." Yvonne noted that she was the one to add the word "transgender" to the title. Prior to that, it was simply known as "Tapestry." The organization is still chugging along, with annual conferences and its Transgender Tapestry magazine.

Yvonne and a few others worked hard to create a "transgender movement" from the few disparate groups whose main goal was to disappear into the woodwork and remain secretive. She worked with a major gay advocacy organization in the early 90s to incorporate the word "transgender" and its associated concepts, and that effort took off into the "transgender movement" that we see today. She had a fascinating response to my question about what she would say to transsexuals concerned about being co-opted into the transgender movement. The flute you hear in the background is my friend Kara, who is an expert shakuhachi player (and YouTubes a lot on her transition experiences), giving an impromptu concert downstairs.

Click here for the interview audio file: Voice 002.amr

Here it is in MP3 format if the above doesn't work (thank you Antonia D'Orsay): Interview_With_Yvonne_Cook_Riley.mp3


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Melissa Keiper | August 16, 2011 11:13 AM

The link leads to a long page full of symbols, and no video. Maybe it's me.

As AMR is a cell phone format, for those on a wintel platform, the following link might be useful:


Thanks for the tip, Antonia. It worked on my mac. I'll try that link to see if I can get it converted and uploaded.

It works with Real Player on a PC as well.

Jillian, feel free to delete the comment and this one if you get it converted (which the link above *apparently* does, but I haven't tested it).

Thanks, Antonia. I put up the mp3 on the original post.

Angela Brightfeather | August 16, 2011 2:47 PM

Well, it's about time that someone got to the basics on this. I'm sorry that I wasn't at the circle this year to talk with you also Jillian, but my business needed me more.

I only disagree with one thing that my dear and old friend Yvonne said. I believe that the word Transgender was well rooted in the common public knowledge prior to 1992, due to a number of things, but proven by the first GLB March on DC at that very year.

It is a fact that it was a hard sell to any of the GLB organizations on inclusion. By the time we were successfully fighting for inclusion, the term Transgender was being used most frequently to describe our community as a movement, made up of individuals. The fact that HRC who sponsored the March in '92 left out that word in their march title and all advertising for it, really became a bard in our side and an outright slap in the face to many of us working inside many local GLBT groups. It was an outright affront of the things many of us had been working for, for years before, and we realized that to allow it without comment or protest could not go unanswered. So we gathered at the base of the Washington Monument on the day of the march. Phyllis Randolph Frye had made a banner and there are pictures of that showing a contingent of almost 60 to 70 Transgender people marching behind it.

I knew that the word Transgender had come out of any closet that it was shoved into by HRC, when Phil Donahue got up and shouted it out over the wall and made a point of expressing the word Transgender with special emphasis and bravado and when it was met with a resounding cheer from thousands of inclusive GLB people there, that brought tears to all of our eyes there on the mall waiting to join the march. That moment is historical for our community and is one of the reasons, among many others, that many of us insist that the word Transgender does not co-opt anyone. It is how we are known as a community and how we fought tooth and nail to be known, all of us, that particular day. Had we been smaller groups of special interest, no inclusion would have happened thatere would never have been any cheers of acceptance in the GLBT movement. Speaker after speak followed Donahue adn those who did not include the T usually got a boo-fest from the crowd. It was the day that HRC knew they ahd to fight us or accept us, but that we weren't going to go back into their closet. I mark it as the exact day that we actually became a movement.

And I know that Yvonne would agree with me that many others in our community who appeared numerous times on the Phil Donahue Show and came out to the millions of people who used to add to his viewers during ratings week, were responsible for cementing the word Transgender in the public discourse for the first time. He knew there was a public thirst to try and understand who we were and he and others have capitalized on it ever since for ratings week.

Those of us who went out and spoke at every university and college, every venue available and every opportunity for years before that, used Transgender to describe our community and put it into the political term that it is recognized today. We appealed to the free thinking, young and liberal students and teachers of the Age of Aquaius who beleived that the world could be better for everyone if we just loved each other and understood each other better. Especially those who believed that times were changing and discrimination was being challenged on every front. From college campuses, to riots in the streets, to gatherings like Woodstock, to marches against the Vietnam War, people believed it would get better if we loved one another and that included understanding one another.

Yvonne stated the exact reason why it was created and why it should exist today to describe all of us, but she left out one thing about it. That is the fact that there are hundreds of thousands of hours of activism behind the word that people devoted their lives to making it known and recognized as the term to describe being gender diverse. It has always been a solution to the question of who we are that always leads to another conversation that helps people to understand gender diversity and accept the fact, that there are other options besides just masculine or feminine and those options have equal rights to the pursuit of happiness without discrimination. Taking the word Transgender and using it to create divisions based on sexuality or degrees of validity is simply a travesty when it has little or nothing to do with either of those things. It is just becoming a part of the system that we have been fighting against all these years. It's a sell out and betrayal of a higher ideal. The essence of which is that no GLBTIT, etc. person should suffer discrimination for who they are or how they wish to live their lives.

Thank you again Jillian for exposing the real history behind how we got to where we are today and the true intent of how Transgender became a word that has led us here.

Angela Brightfeather you have said it all. Your view on this topic is simply beautiful. Love it and thank you for stating what i feel in my heat. :)

Kathy Padilla | August 16, 2011 3:39 PM

"Prior to that, it was simply known as "Tapestry.""

I think I remeber it being called the "TV-TS Tapestry" originally. If memory serves, the other language came later.

I used to stop by their bookstore/office often in Waltham often - and was a member of the Wayland house where they were sited prior to that. Merrissa Sherrill Lynne should really be mentioned in that discussion. She was the founder of IFGE, I believe. And original editor of the Tapestry.

She also owned the "group home" where the original office was & where the Tiffany Club of New England (support & social group) operated.

Angela Brightfeather | August 16, 2011 4:25 PM

You are correct about that Kathy. Merissa, who had her degree in Philosphy, was truly a visionary and was the first Director of IFGE. I don't know how much interaction there was betwen Yvonne and Merissa back then. I suspect a great deal, because I first met Yvonne through my aquaintance with Merissa, who I met for the first time at a Joyce Dewhurst Pocono Weekend that was co-hosted by JoAnne Roberts. There were many who had great visions of freedom back then for Transgender people and no one worked harder than Merissa and Yvonne in getting the Tapestry funded, IFGE founded and out to others. I am sure that many lives were saved with the hope that they brought them. There are many people who have worked hard over the years, but I still consider Merissa to be the heart that set the beat for many of us.

Back then, our community was just starting to tap it's resources and talent and people were coming out and getting to know each other through conventions like Fantasia Fair on the East coast and the Esprit' weekend on the West Coast and making firm committments to work together to form a community that would stay in touch and communicate with each other.

As I recall, one of the richest gifts of the Tapestry Magazine was that it had the first free listings of support groups and organizations along with pictures of those who would send them in with a short bio. For many people, those connections made, still live today, and for many more they were the first time they had ever had any personal contact with another person like themselves. A remarkable time in history for furthering human rights.

Kathy Padilla | August 16, 2011 7:56 PM

Things go back long before that. I have some publications with personal ads and support group listings in the 70's & 60's. Cherrystones group in Beantown preceded Tiffany. Hell - I found a support group in rural PA going back to 1882. Trans expression has been a part of Philly via Mummers crewes going back in an organized fashion through at least the 1890's - in unofficial capacities since the City has been here.

Cook-Riley says she spoke to thousands of transgender people while working for IFGE. I would be curious to know what percentage of those were non-white?

It's an interesting interview (although I can't say it told me anything new) but her response of "grow up" at the end was a sour note and didn't make me feel especially warm and fuzzy. I'm not a fan of HBS people myself, but that kind of response just makes things worse for the entire community (such as it is). One identity she left out (along with the fetishists and senior citizen wanting to wear a pink robe) were people who ID as men or women (yet also acknowledge a trans history and experience). Had she done so, I would have had a lot more respect for her sense of inclusiveness.

"Grow up!" - Yvonne Cook Riley

I was going to post a response to this... and here you already have noted it...

This kind of condescension, expressed in contempt for another's rejection of an "invitation" to forced inclusion in a "community" of someone else's design... like the condescension expressed by (some) GL to those B and T, and by (some) straight folks to GL folk, and by (some of) those who practice monogamy to those who do not, and by (some of) those who abstain completely from sex... the most haughty of all?


... and how inappropriate, when addressing an adult person.

I generally concur with Yvonne on most parts except there were quite a few of us who were lesbian feminists as early as 1970 and throughout the 1970s. Otherwise there never would have been the lesbian feminist vs transsexual wars.

Further many of us were more involved in hip culture than and sort of trans-culture. We got SRS and moved on.

Many of us took student loans and Pell grants and went back to school.

This just can't be true. I just checked the Transgender Historical Records and there is no mention of Yvonne Cook Riley. BTW, thanks for publishing this! THANK YOU!

Yvonne was with Tapestry and IFGE from the mid 1980s when I first read the publication.
This is part of the real history as opposed to the historical revisionism.

FYI Jude Patton, Carol Katz and Joanna Clark of Renaissance in SoCal used Transgender for people who lived full time without SRS in 1976. It gradually pushed out the use of "queen" for the same people.

The "Umbrella" was a 1990s invention.

My post here is NOT intended to take anything away from Yvonne, or from the incredibly important and valuable work she did for all of us in the early 1990s.

But there is FAR more to the story, many other people, as well.

It was Merissa Sheryl Lynn who initially founded and funded IFGE - Yvonne was obviously a tremendous asset to the early growth of the organization.

There were many individuals, all across America, who worked tirelessly to create a trans-community. And many differing viewpoints, which over time came together in the spirit of working together for a common goal.

Phyllis Frye's International Conference on Transgender Law & Employment Policy was, for seven years starting in 1991/2, one of those places where the various trans community viewpoints came together to work for a common good. I know, because I presented at 6 of those 7 conferences, and worked with every late night committee that formed during those conferences each year.

I personally was doing TG/TS education in the middle 1980s, especially in Colorado and Wyoming, and I also worked to establish and to grow several T-support groups in this part of America during that timeframe. The Gender Identity Center of Colorado, a 501(c)3 non-profit, was founded in 1978, by Sonia Smith, I was an active member of that organization from its beginnings ...

And yes, the budding TG/TS communities were virtually all very homophobic, at the time.... wanting total separation from the GL communities for fear of guilt by association; we mostly managed to avoid that in Denver at the time.

Tri-Ess, was founded by Virginia Prince as a nationwide sorority of support groups for M2F cross-dressers and their wives. TriEss helped many wives to overcome their fear of what was going to happen next, re transition. For example.

TriEss DID indeed establish a middle pathway, for living totally en femme without surgery; Virginia Prince herself proved the model throughout her life.

Ariadne Kane established the first real physical gathering of TG/TS people from around the nation, in her Fantasia Fair, an event which continues to this day in Provincetown Mass.

Yes -- Yvonne was a tireless activist, who always seemed to be everywhere there was a significant gathering of trans people.
Yes - she contributed heavily to the formation of the trans communities and the movement.

We need to not overlook others who also worked tirelessly in that same time period, and through the years since.

Beautiful! This is great! I already had taped Phyllis a couple of years ago and this complements that video beautifully! Unless you object, I'd like to add this clip to the archive.

Great work!

Angela Brightfeather | August 17, 2011 12:32 AM

There is some jockying around here, but there are also a lot of truths noted. Those who remember the word Transgender being used prior to 1987 are 100% correct. As Yvonne noted, it took time to formulate the community from the word, which came well before the community. Like any large group of individuals straining for national leadership that reached beyond the local support group meeting or the forward looking and small organizations that were forming in cities across America such as Dainna's, another banner activist, the community needed a name, a purpose and a plan and IFGE and it's members provided just that.

It was IFGE that formed the first Congrerss of Transgender Organizations at their first convention in Chicago and supported the idea of getting the grass roots organized behind the issues that still affect our lives as T people. While Merissa Cheryl Lynn was the heart of the organization, like many visionaries, she lacked the organizational skills in some areas that were desperatly needed back then and that is where Yvonne shined the most. As said by a few poeple in these remarks, Yvonne was everywhere in the budding community at once, always spreading the mantra of organization and support. Yvonne, along with JoAnne Roberts, Shiela Kirk and a small contingent of Trans people were the first to raise the funds necessary to have display booths at the APA National conferences. But it was Yvonne who was the steady hand that negotiated and manipulated ego's to get everyone pulling in the same direction on many occassions. No little feat in a budding community where everyone wanted to be considered the source of definitive wisdom.

As to Yvonne's remark about TS's "growing up... welcome to vintage Yvonne speak. What she actually meant was, that TS's should stop complaining about being considered Transgender and simply move on with their lives if they don't want to work with others for the benefit of the entire gender diverse community. After all, she was hired by the members of the Tansgender Community (TS's included) and supported by them in IFGE for the singular purpose of forming the Transgender Community. If your going to pay for someone to do a job and they do it, it does little good to complain about their accomplishing what you hired them for.

Yvonne did speak to thousands of Transgender people when she was working for IFGE. After years of working on the phones and answering the calls from person after person, 90% of which were asking the same questions back then...how do I find a doctor that does SRS? Are there any psychaitrists in my area that can get me my letter for the operation? Where can I attend a meeting? Desparate people, on the edge of their seats on the other end of the phone, waiting for some hope that they could find a connection, there is no doubt that Yvonne was there to help them and she talked to literally thousands for those years, let alone the one's that she talked to or met at meetings and conventions. Yvonne and Merissa set standards for our community like the Virginia Prince Award and the Tiffany Awards programs, the highest recognition that our community could award, to many of those who worked so hard for our community and paved the way for others.

The modern history of our community for the past 50 years is just beginning to be told and transcribed for others and if people like Yvonne Cook Riley are not mentioned in the history your reading, then I think your reading the wrong book.

I was one of the thousands of people Yvonne supported in the mid-1980s. I was a stranger in the strange land that was Reagan-era Boise, Idaho, and deep in the closet. The first human voice I ever heard from someone like me was Yvonne's. She was my first contact in the community, and her calm reassurance was a lifeline for me. In the decades that followed, I've been honored to be the first contact for others. Each time reminded me how fortunate I was that Yvonne had been there to answer the phone, when I needed to know that I was not alone. Thank you, Yvonnne.

Let us not forget the transmen who are often left out of the "transgender" movement/history archives/conversations.


Checkout this amazing resource for learning about the transmen in the movement then & now - http://ai.eecs.umich.edu/people/conway/TSsuccesses/TransMen.html

That article is not a perspective. It is blatant revisionism.

Those organisations were blatantly homphobic and vehmently anti sex reasignment surgery.

Up to the mid 80s they vehemently opposed sex reasignment surgery, to the point of writing to psychiatrists, clinics and lawmakers trying to get SRS stopped.

Some of them actively wrote letters to the DSM committees vehmently oppossing the delisting of homosexuality from the DSM in 73.

As for transgender. Prince on several terms used the terms transgender, transgenderist and transgendered when making speeches back in the 70's, contrary to the lies perpetrated today. Prince used all three of those terms in the late 60's in speeches.

It is very convenient of the author to start her revisionist piece of porpaganda in the mid 80's leaving out the history. That way anything that is inconvenient is left out.

The article is a good whitewashing.

Christan Williams, Jillian Weiss and Yvonne Cook-Riley should apply for jobs in Fox News as story writers. They would do well.

Andrea, you say that "those organizations" were blatantly homophobic and vehemently anti-sex reassignment surgery, and make specific allegations about their actions in writing to psychiatrists, clinics and lawmakers trying to get SRS stopped, and writing to the DSM committee to oppose removal of homosexuality from the DSM. If true, these are extremely important points? Do you have any sources that we can look at regarding this information?

Kathy Padilla | August 18, 2011 12:27 PM

"Those organisations were blatantly homphobic and vehmently anti sex reasignment surgery.

Up to the mid 80s they vehemently opposed sex reasignment surgery, to the point of writing to psychiatrists, clinics and lawmakers trying to get SRS stopped.

Some of them actively wrote letters to the DSM committees vehmently oppossing the delisting of homosexuality from the DSM in 73."

The IFGE was not in existence then - nor was it homophobic. Though - Tri-Ess certainly had issues with both gay and transsexual people.

As to not supporting SRS - the IFGE supported many people in their journeys beyond SRS - from referrals - to the information provided in their bookstore - to the conferences they put on that brought information and service providers to the public - to Dr. Sheila Kirk having an office there in retirement to help people with those needs.

Andrea -

You said that Prince used the term "transgender" in the 1960s. Could you please cite a source that could verify this assertion? I'd very much appreciate coming across something like that.



I assume you can read.

Is that inconvenient enough for you with the description of how to obtain it pre world wide web which you were in full knowledge of how to obtain anyway:)

Let the incovenience lead to much shredding :)

PS: It is all copied in various archives so shredding all of it is not possible, but you can try in all futility:)

"And the beat goes on, and the beat goes on. Drums keep poundin' rhythm to the brain. Lah dee dah dee dee, La dee dah dee dah."

"And the beat goes on, (and the beat goes on). Yeah the beat goes on, (and the beat goes on). And the beat goes on, on, on, on..."