The Tri-Ess Wars

©2013 by Dallas Denny

I wrote this in mid-2013 and prepared it for publication here, but never actually posted it. Yesterday, I came across it in draft. I gave it a read-through and it’s ready for prime time—or as ready as it’s ever going to get, anyway.


The Tri-Ess Wars

By Dallas Denny


In 1979 I chanced upon a television program that featured members of an organization called The Society for the Second Self. I had been looking for community and  imagined I had found it.

Tri-Ess Rejects Me

The brochure I got in response to contacting the organization disabused me of this notion. The organization served heterosexual crossdressers and their female partners only, and the brochure was clear: only heterosexual crossdressers and their female partners were allowed to be full members. I, a transsexual, would not be allowed to fully participate—and I sensed I wouldn’t be particularly welcome even as a “friend of Tri-Ess.”

In hopes of getting a referral, or at least some information about transsexualism, I wrote again, and was put in touch with Virginia Prince, one of the two co-founders of Tri-Ess.

I typed an overly-dramatical letter to Virginia (I now realize I was following the transsexual script; back then it somehow seemed appropriate to seem more desperate than I actually was). I soon received a reply from Virginia, typed on both sides of a single sheet of paper, with handwritten notes in the margins. It scared the shit out of me.

Virginia was thoughtful enough to return my original letter, so I have both it and her reply. I recently wrote about the experience, reproducing both letters. Take a moment to read them, please. They’ll open in a separate window and you can easily return here.

Did Virginia’s letter scare you, too?

Ten years later I was still searching for community. I had been on hormones for ten years and was tired of tilting at windmills— that is, figuring out transsexualism on my own. Knowing I was unsuitable as a member, I wrote the only organization of which I knew—Tri-Ess— again, and this time I joined.

In mid-1988 I began attending meetings of the Sigma Epsilon chapter of Tri-Ess, which at that time held its meetings in Chattanooga, Tennessee and Charlotte, North Carolina. It was at a meeting in Charlotte that I saw my first issue of IFGE’s TV/TS Tapestry Journal, which provided me with the information I had been looking for. I made contact with the Montgomery Foundation support group in Atlanta and, at long last, got the information I need to transition gender roles. In December of 1989, when I moved from a life as a male in Tennessee to a life as a woman in Atlanta, I had been in charge of the Montgomery Foundation for six months.

At about the time of my transition, Sigma Epsilon calved a new chapter, Kappa Beta, which made its home in Charlotte; Sigma Epsilon, which until then had avoided Atlanta decided it could now be comfortable meeting there, and relocated.

Tri-Ess Accepts Me

Before my transition I had written to the board of Sigma Epsilon, telling them of my transsexualism and saying I felt it would be inappropriate for me to continue to attend meetings. The Board responded by saying I was welcome to full membership for as long as I wished to continue to come.

I did wish to continue to come, for the monthly Sigma Epsilon meetings were a joy. They were based in a hotel not a mile from where the Southern Comfort Conference makes it home today and lasted all weekend, with outings for meals and shopping, and the meetings were open and affirming to everyone. Practically every transsexual and crossdresser in the city made appearances there from time to time, myself included.

This was against the policy of Tri-Ess National, of course, but Sigma Epsilon didn’t much care—for a while. Eventually National began to apply pressure on the officers to conform. It took a couple of years for National to get its way, however, and in the interim the monthly meetings were a delight. Here and here are two posts I wrote in Sigma Epsilon’s newsletter, explaining why I continued to come to meetings.

As Sigma Epsilon’s official transsexual member, group members would come to me in private to talk about their desires to become women. Some, in fact, eventually transitioned. Others wanted to, but felt they couldn’t because of fear, religious convictions, family and job obligations, or their belief they would be unable to pass. Others talked to me about their encounters with men. Eventually I had talked to nearly half the chapter. Nearly one-half of the members had issues which precluded them from full membership!

I had become aware of a certain level of hypocrisy within Tri-Ess. First and foremost, one of its co-founders had been living as a woman for some twenty years. That would, of course, be Virginia Prince. Second, one of Sigma Epsilon’s members—she became President when Linda Peacock moved away—was also living as a woman.

What, I often wondered, was the difference between a crossdresser who lives full-time as a woman and a transitioned male-to-female transsexual? Despite the “you have a special inner spark” bullshit fed to me by the soon-to-be new president, I didn’t see a difference. Perhaps it’s because I’m behaviorally trained; however forcibly both transsexuals and crossdressers might argue there was a difference, I saw that functionally we were the same.

With the departure of President Linda Peacock (despite the name, she wasn’t a crossdresser, but the wife of a crossdresser) and the subsequent installation of the new President, things went anal. A self-identified transsexual was kicked out of the group by a President who lived entirely as a woman because, duh, she was transsexual (the kicked-out member, that is.).

The individual in question had a number of psychological problems, and needed support badly. She got it at the Gender Explorations Support Group (which I founded in 1990), but she had received support at Sigma Epsilon as well over the year and more of her attendance. I had been hoping her time with crossdressers would ground her and stop her from faking her way into surgery (which she eventually did); after she was ejected, there was no chance of  her having any more learning experiences at Sigma Epsilon.

I had much earlier established a dialogue with Jane Ellen Fairfax at Tri-Ess National, in which I argued against the organization’s exclusionary membership policies. It was possible, I said to her repeatedly in person and wrote repeatedly in letters, to maintain Tri-Ess’ focus on heterosexual crossdressing while maintaining an open membership policy. After all, NAACP maintains its focus on Black Americans while allowing Caucasians to join; the National Organization for Women keeps its focus on women while allowing men to join, and the Human Rights Campaign stays focused on GLBT people despite allowing heterosexuals to join.

Needless to say, Jane Ellen and I didn’t come to an agreement. That would have been that, but she misquoted me (I believe in the pages of Tri-Ess’ Femme Mirror), claming I supported the organization’s exclusionary membership policies.

You can disagree with me and I won’t take offense, but don’t co-opt me! I felt a need to take action.

The Tri-Ess Wars Commence

Transgender Gothic ChrysalisI devoted considerable space in my magazine Chrysalis Quarterly to the hypocrisy of Tri-Ess. I called the issue Transgender Gothic. It appeared in May, 1996.

Yes, those are the heads of Virginia Prince and Harry Benjamin Photoshopped onto the bodies of the dour farmer and his wife in Grant Wood’s painting American Gothic.

My article Heteropocrisy: The Myth of the Heterosexual Crossdresser discussed my experiences at Sigma Epsilon. I argued that a large percentage of the chapter’s members were inclined towards transsexualism (and that in fact, many subsequently transitioned), and many members were engaging in sex with men, justifying it as a heterosexual experience because one or both of them were crossdressed. In an accompanying editorial I took Sigma Epsilon to task for its behavior. I published an article by Terry Murphy, in which he described sexual behavior he had witnessed within Tri-Ess (sorry; it’s not available in electronic format), and to wrap things up I published Diana Amberle’s analysis of data from Tri-Ess’ Alpha Zeta chapter’s survey of its members— which verified everything I had said.

Amberle wrote:

I always take survey results with a grain of salt, but I find it remarkable that a Tri-Ess chapter has 64% of its membership who would like to magically transform themselves into women; 36% who would like to live full-time if circumstances were perfect; 21-24% who have experimented with female hormones or electrolysis; and a huge 73% who have even fantasized about TS surgery. That’s a helluva lot of real and fantasized transforming going on in an organization devoted to the ideal of heterosexual crossdressing without a taint of transsexualism in its ranks. A less diplomatic person than myself might even say this particular sorority of Tri-Ess girls are a bunch of secret transsexuals.

Now, if you think Tri-Ess took offense at this, you’re correct. In July, AEGIS Board members received a letter from Tri-Ess co-founder Carol Beecroft, Board Chair  Jane Ellen Fairfax, and Sigma Epsilon President Lauren Hester. They took me to task for creating divisiveness (it already existed, and didn’t originate with me!) and poor journalism (not verifying facts, despite my having included a summary of their own membership survey which backed me up), and asked the AEGIS Board to counsel with me about “standards of mature behavior.” It was clear Tri-Ess didn’t want it’s membership policy challenged.

1996-07-15, Letter from National Tri-Ess (2) (PDF)

I had a talk with Board Chair Marisa Richmond, in which I pointed out that I had indeed verified my facts. Bless her heart, her response to Tri-Ess read, in part:

[If Dallas is] stating unsubstantiated facts, we also greatly appreciate knowing which statements are unsubstantiated and can be solidly refuted…. In addition, it is not exactly clear what action we are supposed to take if we find Dallas’ personal opinions are unsubstantiated, unfair, or have done any damage. We are sure that you would agree that we are a diverse community with a wide array of personal viewpoints, and even Dallas is free to express her opinion in editorials as she sees fit.

1996, 09-08, Letter from AEGIS Board Chair to Tri-Ess National

I also received a letter to the editor from Lauren, which I’m sure I ran (I can’t say definitely, as I am nowhere near that issue of Chrysalis as I write). Let me just say my recollection of events differs significantly from hers.

1996-08-15, Letter from Sigma Epsilon Chapter of Tri-Ess

Tri-Ess Rejects Me

Devil that I am, I took it upon myself to again call Tri-Ess on its hypocrisy. Jane Ellen had told me—and I knew it was untrue—Tri-Ess wouldn’t question any potential member who self-identified as a heterosexual crossdresser. And so I called her bluff. I sent in a membership form claiming I was a heterosexual crossdresser and asking for full membership—and of course I sent a press release to every organization on AEGIS’ mailing list.

One response was just pissy. In December, I got a letter from Sigma Epsilon newsletter editor Stephanie Simmons, cutting off its newsletter exchange with AEGIS. I kept Sigma Epsilon on our list, of course. They continued to receive Chrysalis, AEGIS News, Transgender Treatment Bulletin, and our assorted flyers, bulletins, and advisories.

1996, Sigma Epsilon Cuts Off Newsletter

Two days earlier I had received a letter from Tri-Ess National Administrative Director Samantha Walls, letting me know (why wasn’t I surprised?) I would no longer be welcome at Sigma Epsilon meetings.

1996-11029, Letter from Samantha Walls, National Tri-Ess

And no surprise, I wasn’t given full membership in Tri-Ess. Instead, I was sent a friend of  Tri-Ess membership card.

1996, My Friend of Tri-Ess Card

All’s Quiet on the Western Front

All has since been quiet. In the 16 or so years that have passed, I’ve not heard from Jane Ellen, and I imagine she’s happy not to have heard from me—and I’ve not since been to a Sigma Epsilon meeting. When I meet Lauren (at least the several times I’ve suspected someone I saw in public was Lauren), she doesn’t acknowledge me and I follow her lead. Sigma Epsilon continues its rigid enforcement of National Tri-Ess’ exclusionary rules. Tri-Ess National has clearly not changed its polities.

I still maintain Tri-Ess need to be intellectually honest. It’s important for the organization to acknowledge the issues many of their members have with gender identity and sexuality so they can properly serve them. Certainly, selective membership and ejection of members who cross whatever imaginary line is in effect at the moment of their supposed infraction is no solution. It’s important that Tri-Ess come to grips with the fundamental intellectual dishonesty of having a founder and any number of chapter presidents who live full-time as women while maintaining a non-transsexuals policy. It’s time to realize it’s fucked-up to discriminate against gay people and transsexuals in an America which is mostly tolerant of them. And it’s time for the organization to acknowledge it’s possible to keep its focus without having an exclusionary membership policies.

And me? I didn’t at all mind making Tri-Ess uncomfortable. At some risk to myself, I did what I believed was in the best interest of its members. In the end, nothing changed, but that says a lot about Tri-Ess and not all that much about me.