Remembering JoAnn (With Digression)
©2013 by Dallas Denny
I wrote this upon learning of the death of JoAnn Roberts on 7 June, 2013.
Remembering JoAnn Roberts
I’ve admired JoAnn Roberts since 1990, when she wrote the Gender Bill of Rights. It was a remarkable declaration of our wholeness and worthiness at a time when many of us were mired in shame. I published it in the second issue of my journal Chrysalis Quarterly on crinkly brown paper that mimicked an aged document, as if it were the U.S. Bill of Rights.
At that time I was just launching the nonprofit American Educational Gender Information Service. I was astonished and gratified when Jo sent a check to cover an outside back-page ad for her business Creative Design Services for four issues of AEGIS’ journal, Chrysalis. As I signed the check for deposit I realized I was committed to actually going through with my plans. It felt good when, a year-and-a-half and four issues later, she sent a second check, this time for renewal of the ad.
JoAnn identified as a crossdresser and was happy to be one. I’ve no doubt she would have transitioned if that had been her inclination, but it wasn’t. As a guy she was a short, bald Italian from Philly who drove Corvettes and collected model trains; as JoAnn, she was a glamorous citizen of the world. Thanks to her knowledge of cosmetics and experience performing in drag shows, she was skilled at her feminine presentation. She was fierce! When she talked, though, you knew it was Joe. Jo made no attempt to disguise her voice—although she did publish Alison Laing’s book on feminine voice for those who wished to change theirs.
What I most admired about Jo was her willingness to beard the lion in its den. She did this not with the sword, but with her pen, most often in the form of an editorial in one or another of her publications. Her most frequent target was the nonprofit International Foundation for Gender Education (She once famously titled one of her pieces “International Foundation for Gender Education: None of the Above”). Her criticism was always deserved. Jo was entirely supportive of ethical people and activities, but she didn’t take kindly to ineptitude, secrecy, and financial shenanigans.
Jo did more than write, however. When appropriate, she took direct action. As members of IFGE’s board, for instance, she and Laura Skaer brought a motion forward to have the organization’s finances audited. The reasons were several—to keep the IRS happy, to protect board members from liability, and to ensure the community its money was well spent. Jo and Laura were immediately attacked by other board members who wished to cover up for the ineptitude of staff who I will not name here. This led, somehow, to my involvement in the controversy.
[Begin Digression] One board member assembled a dossier of supposedly damning facts, which she mailed to other IFGE principals. I learned about this one board member sent me a packet through the mail with photocopies inside.
To my surprise, included in the pages was a fax sent to me by Laura Skaer, accepting my invitation to join the board of directors of AEGIS.
When I learned of Jo and Laura’s proposal for an audit of IFGE, and in particular when I learned of the hostile reaction to that proposal, I invited both to serve on AEGIS’ board, for I was board-building and wanted members who would do the right thing and not work to cover my ass. Both accepted; Jo, in fact, became board chair and served wonderfully for four years.
When I didn’t immediately hear from Laura, I figured she wasn’t interested—but in the packet I discovered a one-page fax sent to me by Laura, accepting my offer. For some reason she had sent it to the Holiday Inn where the second (or perhaps third) Southern Comfort conference was being held. I never got it because an IFGE board member (I won’t mention her name) confiscated it and added it to her dossier on Laura.
Needless to say, I was astonished to discover Laura’s fax to me in the photocopied packet of IFGE board materials. I had, after all, never seen it. I immediately phoned Executive Director Merissa Sherrill Lynn, who promptly told me what IFGE did with my mail was none of my business. Thereupon, I land-mailed a copy to every IFGE board member, with an attached letter on AEGIS letterhead saying essentially shame on you. I never received an apology. No doubt most board members, like Merissa, thought I had no business objecting to IFGE’s interception of material sent to me.
Later, in 1998, Jo objected in print to IFGE’s looting—excuse me, did I say looting? I meant to say borrowing—of monies from the never-to-be-touched Winslow Street Fund. I and others also protested; see here for my coverage in AEGIS Online News.
Jo was a community builder. She tied the community together with her writing, her magazines Ladylike and International TransScript, and her publishing company, which sold self-help books and videos. Her Paradise in the Poconos retreats for crossdressers gently helped many in their initial foray into the community.
Jo was a principle in most of the national transgender organizations and co-founder of quite a few. She, along with Angela Gardner, Alison Laing, Trudy Henry, and Melanie Bryant, started the Renaissance Education Association, a community of support groups that is still in existence. She was a founder of the National Transgender Advocacy Coalition, the Congress of Transgender Organizations, the Transgender Alliance for Community, and the ill-rated GenderPac, and served an important role in the second International Congress on Crossdressing, Sex, and Gender.
More than a decade ago Jo took a step back from her work on behalf of the transgender community, but her work endures. This remembrance, for instance, is also published on TG Forum, a platform she and Angela Gardner started.
I not only admired Joann Roberts. I respected her. I’ve missed her for this past decade or so—and now I’ll miss her forever.