Transgender Communities in the United States in the Late Twentieth Century (2006)
©2006 by Dallas Denny and University of Minnesota Press. Reprinted with permission of U. MN Press.
Source: Denny, Dallas. (2006). Transgender communities in the United States in the late Twentieth Century. In P. Currah, R.M. Juang, & S.P. Minter (Eds), Transgender rights, pp. 171-191. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Transgender Communities in the United States in the Late Twentieth Century
By Dallas Denny
From early times, individuals we might today call transgendered and transsexual have played prominent roles in many societies, including our own (cf Bullough & Bullough, 1993; Dekker & van de Pol, 1989; Feinberg, 1996; Green, 1969 and 1998; Herdt, 1994; Hirschfeld, 1910, 1991; Krafft-Ebing, 1894; Roscoe, 1988, 1990, 1994, 1998); Taylor, 1996; & Williams, 1986). The second half of the twentieth century, however, saw the rise of organized communities of gender-variant persons who began to write and organize around their mutual oppressions. By the end of the century and the close of the millennium, the various arms of this community had merged—or were at least communicating—and had established a political voice and had begun to achieve limited political victories.
What were the historical roots of this larger transgender community, and how did it so quickly arise and so quickly grow? What kept these communities apart for so many years, and what eventually bought them together?
A Community of Crossdressers
The late 1950s saw small numbers of male crossdressers secretly meeting in Los Angeles and the Northeastern United States (Prince, 1979; see Beigel, 1969 and Raynor, 1966 for outsiders’ perspectives). These crossdressing clubs consisted exclusively of heterosexual men, and, when they could be convinced to participate, their female partners. Charles (later, Virginia) Prince was the founder of Los Angeles’ Hose and Heels Club, which was perhaps the first formal support group in the U.S. for heterosexual crossdressers. Prince also founded the Foundation for Personality Expression (FPE), a national organization for heterosexual crossdressers, and was co-founder of Tri-Ess, The Society for the Second Self, which replaced FPE and which still exists. She was the author of several books about crossdressing (1962, 1971, 1976) and was editor of Transvestia, the first nationally circulated magazine for crossdressers (Bullough & Bullough, 1993, Chapter 12).
In the pages of Transvestia, Prince developed a model of male heterosexual crossdressing that downplayed the importance of self-eroticism and homosexuality and described the evolution of a nonsexual “girl within,” a social woman with male anatomy. At the time, (the 1950s and 1960s), crossdressers were assumed by both scientists and the general public to be universally homosexual. Prince demonstrated that this was not so by surveying her readers and publishing the results not only in Transvestia, but also in professional journals (Prince, 1957; Bentler & Prince, 1969).
Due largely to tireless educational efforts by Prince, the small and underground community of heterosexual crossdressers grew slowly; by the 1970s, members of Tri-Ess were engineering newspaper articles and appearances on television in order to popularize and depathologize crossdressing and help isolated heterosexual crossdressers and their wives obtain support.
This support took the form of magazines and newsletters and regional “sororities” that held meetings for socialization and mutual support of both crossdressers and their female partners. Members crossdressed at meetings and would venture out for meals and shopping at locations known to be safe; newcomers were coached so they could learn to present a credible appearance; and invited speakers would educate attendees on hair, makeup, clothing, voice, and mannerisms. Several conferences, notably Dream on the West Coast and Fantasia Fair on Cape Cod, provided male crossdressers with settings in which they could live safely en rôle for as long as ten days.
Unfortunately, Prince enforced her heterosexual model of crossdressing by excluding homosexuals and transsexuals from her organizations. For more than 40 years, those who disagreed with Prince’s philosophy and those who were open about their inclinations toward homosexuality or transsexualism were routinely dismissed from the crossdressing organizations she had founded or co-founded (cf. Denny, 1996; Raynor, 1966). “When pressed… Prince would admit that some homosexual transvestites existed, but she excluded them from her definition of transvestism and, whenever possible, from her groups” (Bullough & Bullough, 1993, p. 281). This policy effectively kept gay crossdressers and transsexuals out of one of the only two visible communities of gender-variant people (the other community was the drag community). Those who did remain tended to keep their issues of sexuality and gender identity to themselves, or to act covertly on those feelings. Denny (1996), citing data from a Tri-Ess survey, has argued that this may have included the majority of members. Certainly, many members of the various crossdressing clubs— including Prince herself—went on to live full-time as members of the non-natal sex, and some eventually came to identity as transsexual (cf Cummings, 1992). As of this writing, however, Tri-Ess, the predominant U.S. organization for male crossdressers, still does not allow full membership for gay men or male-to-female transsexuals.
Gender-Variant Men and Women in the Gay and Lesbian Community
Throughout the twentieth century, many gender-variant individuals found a home in gay and lesbian clubs. Unfortunately, they have left relatively little in the way of published accounts. By this, I mean few wrote or at least managed to have published magazine and journal articles or books (but see Roberts’ (1967) manual for drag performers). However, a rich visual history exists of transgendered entertainers in the form of films, photographs, and program books and playbills from nightclubs and the theatre. Publicity shots of professional impersonators are sought after by private collectors and many images of crossdressed males and females are now part of larger gay and lesbian archives. Baker (1968, 1994) and Moore (1994) have written histories of female impersonation on the stage and screen; Dickens (1984), Montmorency (1970), Willard (1971), and others have collected photographs and biographic information of notable female (and, occasionally, male) impersonators. Less is known about the thousands of gender-variant individuals, male and female, who didn’t entertain, or who did shows but didn’t win fame. Present-day collectors often know little about those pictured in their old photographs and promotional brochures (Davis, 2003). The subjects of biographies and autobiography (e.g. Byng, 1976; Costa, 1960, Maitland, 1986, Slide, 1986) are usually of the more well-known and affluent. We have Paulson’s (1996) study of Seattle’s Garden of Allah, and Newton (1979), a sociologist, studied what we might today call transgendered “club kids,” but scholarly accounts of the drag community are relatively rare.
Historically, the gay and lesbian community has been a haven for transgendered and transsexual individuals and has looked to them for entertainment and fundraising. Gay and lesbian clubs have not always been receptive to gender-variant patrons, however. Women’s bars have frequently excluded those who presented as women but who were judged to be men, and some gay mens’ clubs, even those featuring female impersonation, had “no drag policies.” Until the 1990s, bar owners would sometimes enforce the “three items” rule, requiring even their own entertainers to wear three items that clearly reflected their natal gender). This was initially done in an attempt to stay clear of the law enforcement agencies which routinely raided gay and lesbian bars, but the policy persisted long after the police raids had ceased. Throughout the 1970s, I was denied entrance to Nashville’s gay bars because I was myself deemed to be in drag.
The exclusion of gender-variant people from the clubs increased in the immediate post-Stonewall period (Duberman, 1993). A new gay and lesbian culture emerged, in which stereotypes of feminine gay males and mannish lesbians were replaced by new social constructions of homosexuality in which masculine dress and demeanor were embraced by most gay men, and many lesbians rejected butch identities. Almost immediately, the very gender-variant individuals who had instigated the fighting at the Stonewall Inn were marginalized by the movement because they were visually different from emerging notions of straight-looking, straight-acting gay men and woman-identified lesbians. (Brewster, 1970). Arguments were made by gay men and lesbians that gender-variant people are embarrassments to the movement, holding it back (cf Brewster, 1970), that transsexuals have no commonalities with the gay and lesbian community (Hunter, 1977) or, conversely, that they are gay men or lesbians in denial (cf Varnell, 1996), or are dupes of the patriarchy (Raymond, 1979, 1994). Gender-variant men and women of my acquaintance report having been routinely spat upon by gay and lesbian patrons of bars in Atlanta before the mid 1980s.
Nevertheless, many transgendered and transsexual people found welcome space in gay and lesbian bars. In some instances, they were welcomed as themselves; in others, they were pressured or otherwise found it expedient to adopt public identities as gay men or lesbians. Drag was always popular, but feminine gay men were often the butt of jokes. For natal females, there was a thin line between being fashionably butch and “too” butch); if their presentations grew too masculine, and particularly if they declared themselves female-to-male transsexuals, they would be accused of selling out and branded as undesirable (Halberstam, 1998).
The 1990s brought a new acceptance of transgendered people in the gay/lesbian/bisexual community. By the early 2000s, most national GLB organizations, including Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, The National Gay & Lesbian Task Force, and the Human Rights Campaign, had adopted trans-inclusive names or mission statements and were working actively for transgender rights. Gay and lesbian historical organizations have begun to organize and display their transgender-related materials and have indicated their commitment by adding transgender to their names (see King, 2003). Still, however, bars are uncertain havens for transgendered and transsexual people. While they are rarely denied admission, and while they are valued members in some gay and lesbian settings, they receive but grudging acceptance in others.
Another Transgender Subculture
Transgendered and transsexual people of lower socioeconomic status, and particularly young people and men and women of color, have constituted a separate transgender subculture, one characterized by sex work, alcohol and drug abuse, underground hormones and backroom surgeries, disfiguring silicone injections, high rates of violence and murder, and high risk for HIV and other diseases.
Most gender-variant people, and particularly those who have transitioned gender roles, have difficulty in finding and keeping employment. Young people, in particular, often find themselves on the street without resources after having been kicked out of their homes (Denny, 1999a). In desperate financial straits, many transgendered and transsexual women turn to sex work, an occupation fraught with special danger for the transgendered. The Remembering our Dead website tracks violence against transgendered and transsexual people; male-to-female sex workers and persons of color, usually under 30 years of age, make up a disproportionate number of the murders (see www.gender.org/remember, which reports that in 2003, transgender-related murders averaged two per month).
Injections of liquid silicone promise “instant curves” which can enhance the marketability of sex workers. Unfortunately, the dangers of silicone injection are manifold, and the long-term results disfiguring (GEA, 2003). Nonetheless, silicone is used in large quantities by many transgendered women (Anderton, 2003).
Human sex hormones are circulated among this community, often in injectable form. Re-use of syringes for hormone and silicone injection constitutes a grave health risk, as it can transmit HIV, hepatitis, and other infections (Gattari et al., 1991). Unscrupulous surgeons like the now-incarcerated John Ronald Brown have disfigured the genitals hundreds of transsexual women (Ciotti, 1999; Forum, 1986).
Transgendered sex workers may be more likely than nontransgendered sex workers to forego protective measures. Rates of HIV seropositivity are high in transgendered sex workers; one study shows an HIV rate of nearly 75% of transgendered sex workers in Atlanta (Elifson et al., 1993).
The University of Minnesota, the Gender Identity Project at the Gay & Lesbian Community Service Center of New York, and other organizations have attempted to address these and other transgender health problems via education, free needle exchange, free condoms, and free or low cost health clinics (cf Blumenstein, Warren, & Walker, 1998; Bockting & Kirk, 2001; Bockting, Rosser, & Coleman, 1993; see also the website of San Francisco Dept. of Public Health for information about Transgender Tuesday, held since 1993 at the Tom Waddell Clinic <http://www.dph.sf.ca.us/chn/HlthCtrs/transgender.htm>.
Fortunately, the health and other needs of this community are becoming known via studies of HIV and needs assessment surveys (cf Transgender Health Action Coalition, 1997); however, the voices of these transgendered men and women rarely find their way into print.
Enter Christine Jorgensen
During the first half of the 20th century a few individuals began quietly enlisting the aid of physicians to help them alter their bodies to more closely resemble those of the non-natal sex (c.f. Abraham, 1931; Hodgkinson, 1989). In the early 1950s ex-G.I. George Jorgensen sought such medical assistance in Denmark. In 1953, Jorgensen returned to the U.S. as the glamorous Christine. News of her sex reassignment caused a media sensation and the idea that it might be possible for a human being to change sex became immediately and firmly rooted in the popular imagination (New York Daily News, 1 December, 1952, pp. 1,3, 28; see also Bullough & Bullough, 1993, 1998, and Denny, 1998a).
Jorgensen’s was not the first “sex change,” as male genitals had been surgically altered since ancient times (O’Hartigan, 1993; Roscoe, 1994), and sex reassignment using modern surgical techniques had been attempted as early as the 1930s (Abraham, 1931; Hoyer, 1933; see Meyerowitz, 2002, for a thorough history of sex change in the first eight decades of the 20th century). Small numbers of men and women, including Michael Dillon and Roberta Cowell (Cowell, 1954; Dillon, 1946; Hodgkinson, 1989) were Jorgensen’s contemporaries; Dillon had actually preceded her in sex reassignment, but without achieving Jorgensen’s level of notoriety.
To thousands of desperate men and women struggling with gender identity issues, Jorgensen served as a role model. Following the news of her sex reassignment, hundreds wrote to her and her physicians to request sex reassignment (Hamburger, 1953). Harry Benjamin, a New York endocrinologist with a second office in San Francisco, began treating many of those seeking sex reassignment, providing hormonal therapy and referrals for surgery. By the late 1950s, he was calling his gender-variant patients “transsexuals” (Benjamin, 1956). In 1966, he published a text, The Transsexual Phenomenon, in which he defined the “syndrome” of transsexualism. Benjamin, an empathic soul who seemed to like his transsexual patients, described them as profoundly miserable in their gender of original assignment, so much so that they were often unable to function in society and were at considerable risk of taking their own lives. Benjamin noted that medical science was unable to rid them of their compelling desire to change their sex or give them peace of mind in their original bodies. Surely, he argued, the humane thing in select cases was to give transsexuals relief from their suffering by altering their bodies with hormones and surgery and helping them to live as members of the other sex. Benjamin pointed out the success of his own patients who had had sex reassignment.
It should be noted that both the physicians and transsexuals of the time tended to follow Benjamin’s model, interpreting the experience of transsexualism almost entirely in terms of misery and anguish. While they still struggle with guilt and shame and fear, fewer of today’s transsexuals view their experience in this way. In an age of ready information, transsexuals are less likely to suffer in isolation until they can stand it no longer; more and more, they research their options and present to medical and psychological professionals not as desperate and uninformed, but as thoughtful and knowledgeable consumers.
Also in 1966, the prestigious Johns Hopkins University announced a program for the treatment of persons with gender identity issues (Money & Schwartz, 1969). Three years later, in 1969, Richard Green and John Money published an edited textbook which established a medical protocol for sex reassignment, based on their experiences at Hopkins. Now there was not only a model for transsexualism, but a protocol for sex reassignment from one of the most prestigious medical schools in the U.S. Other university-affiliated gender programs soon sprang up, following the Hopkins model; within 10 years, there were more than 40 such clinics scattered across the U.S. (Denny, 1992), accepting small numbers of patients for sex reassignment and producing a prodigious number of journal articles.
The universities disassociated themselves from their programs in the early 1980s, following the 1979 release of a report by Jon Meyer and Donna Reter which showed “no objective improvement” following male-to-female sex reassignment. Meyer and Reter’s report came under immediate attack (cf. Fleming, Steinman, & Bocknek, 1980) and was eventually revealed to be contrived and possibly fraudulent (Denny 1992; McHugh, 1992, Ogas, 1994).
The ending of surgery at the GIC now appears to have been orchestrated by certain figures at Hopkins who, for personal rather than scientific reasons, staunchly opposed any form of sex reassignment.
—Ogas, 1994, p. 10
The clinics nonetheless closed, except for several which continued as private for-profit centers, and the program at the University of Minnesota, which came under the control of the Program for Human Sexuality after its original departmental sponsor disassociated itself (Walter Bockting, 1995, personal communication). The only other university-based gender program to have continued with university affiliation seems to have been at the University of Virginia, apparently persisting until the late 1980s.
The closing of the clinics resulted in the development of a market-driven sex-change industry (Denny, 1992), in which transsexuals sought services like hormonal therapy, plastic surgery, and genital reconstructive surgery from enterprising private providers. This made sex reassignment more widely available than ever before, frustrating those like psychiatrist Paul McHugh, who had had a hand in orchestrating the closing of the gender programs in hopes of doing away with sex reassignment in the United States: “It was my intention, when I arrived in Baltimore in 1975, to help end [sex-reassignment surgery at Hopkins]” (McHugh, 1992, from Ogas, 1994).
McHugh achieved his goal—but his scheme ultimately backfired, as the closing of the gender clinics led to the development of a market-driven sex change economy which has made professional services available to practically anyone in the U.S. who desires to change his or her sex and who has the financial means to do so.
Being a “Good” Transsexual
The Benjamin model resulted in a narrow definition of transsexualism. Those who varied from the prescribed characteristics were at risk of not getting treatment—in fact, of being declared nontranssexual by medical professionals and by their peers (cf. Newman & Stoller, 1974). This persisted in many gender programs throughout the 1990s (Petersen & Dickey, 1995). and doubtless, endures today in some quarters. To qualify for treatment, it was important that applicants report that their gender dysphoria manifested at an early age; that they have a history of playing with dolls as a child, if born male, or trucks and guns, if born female; that their sexual attraction was exclusively to the same biological sex; that they have a history of failure at endeavors undertaken while in the original gender role; and that they pass or had potential to pass successfully as a member of the desired sex (Denny, 1992). Applicants were turned away or denied hormones or surgery for reasons that today seem ridiculous: because they were “too successful” in their natal gender roles; because they were married; because they had read too much about transsexualism, because they had the “wrong” sexual orientation, because clinic staff didn’t consider them sexually attractive in the cross-gender role, or because they wouldn’t comply with lifestyle requirements imposed on them by the clinics:
Finally, it was time to hear the results of all the tests. I went into the room and sat down. The staff was making small talk. It was as if I weren’t there. They were good at making you feel like you didn’t exist. Finally, the head guy cleared his throat and said, “Frankly, we’re worried because you’ve read so much on the subject of transsexualism. We have grave doubts as to whether, by seeking a sex change, you’re embarking on the right course. Also, you’ll have trouble passing. Because of that, and because of your age (I was eighteen), we do not feel comfortable with prescribing hormones for you.
—Margaux, in Denny, 1992, p. 15
Those who were accepted for treatment were often counseled to avoid socializing with other transsexuals, or even required to do so (Denny, 1992). After surgery, they were told by the doctors at the clinic that they were now normal men and women and should blend into society; most did (Denny, 1992). Those who were turned away by the gender programs had no sources for treatment other than the black market, with its questionable hormones and surgeries. This resulted in small groups of transsexuals who shared knowledge and strategies for gaining access to the clinics (Stone, 1991).
The literature reported that transsexuals were manipulative and had high levels of psychopathology (c.f. Stone, 1977); had narrow and stereotyped notions of masculinity and femininity and conformed to those stereotypes in their personal presentations; had a desire to disappear into the larger society after surgery, passing as nontranssexual; and viewed themselves as having been born into the wrong body because of some sort of birth defect or horrible joke of nature (Bolin, 1988). Money & Primrose (1968) even reported that transsexuals had a tendency to read up on transsexualism, as if that were a symptom of their psychopathology.
Most transsexuals do not, of course display the astonishing variety of personality and character disturbances attributed to them. The literature which suggests that they do reflects the bias and sexism of the psychologists and physicians who wrote it in keeping with the values of the dominant culture of the time (Denny, 1998b). Consider the following:
The severity and intensity of some patients’ psychopathology and acting out were… revealed within the group, for example, two members brought loaded guns into the group (One member had to be forcibly restrained from using it!); auto- and mutual masturbation; exposure of breasts; an attempted kidnapping; several near-violent confrontations among group members which carried over outside the group (in which patients threatened each other physically and one patient drew a knife); innumerable sexual overtures to the therapists; patients bringing in pets (two dogs and a menagerie of land crabs); serious psychosomatic symptoms (including ulcerative, arthritic, hyperventilative, and cardiac distress).
—Lothstein, 1979, p. 73
Lothstein describes a veritable circus and attributes it to “the severity and intensity of some patients’ psychopathology and acting out;” more likely, the troubles of the group were due to poor management skills on the part of the facilitators and the draconian selection criteria of Case Western Reserve Gender Identity Clinic (Lothstein, 1983, pp. 87-91; reproduced in Denny, 1992).
Challenges to The Benjamin Model
Although the Benjamin model of transsexualism was attacked on a number of fronts, those who challenged it didn’t offer suitable alternative models, and it held supreme until the early 1990s. Attacks came from psychiatrists like Charles Socarides (1969), who argued bitterly that the proper way to treat a mental illness was by curing it, not giving in to it; from feminists, who considered it patriarchal and anti-woman (see especially Raymond, 1979); and from those who identified the cultural bias and sexism inherent in a dichotomous understanding of gender (cf. Kessler & McKenna, 1978). Perhaps the most cogent critic was Sandy Stone, whose 1991 essay “The Empire Strikes Back: A Posttranssexual Manifesto” questioned the accuracy of the clinical literature which stereotyped transsexuals. Stone pointed out that because clinicians were looking for “true transsexuals” who fit narrow diagnostic criteria, transsexuals learned to lie to their doctors, telling them whatever was necessary in order to qualify for medical treatment. Transsexuals, Stone argued, worked hard to fit the description of what they were supposed to be—by following a transsexual script, if you will. This had also been recognized and discussed in detail by Kessler & McKenna (1978) and Bolin (1988).
The medical model of transsexualism supposed that there were but two sexes, and that the only alternative to remaining unhappily in the original gender role was to work hard to conform to the only available alternative. That is, one “changed sex,” going from male to female or from female to male. The model didn’t question the society which created such restrictive gender roles or examine the possibility of living somewhere outside those binary roles. Those who weren’t interested in going from one polar extreme to the other were typically diagnosed as nontranssexual and presumed to be crossdressers, even when they were profoundly gender dysphoric (cf. Newman & Stoller, 1974). Transsexualism itself was considered a liminal state, a transitory phase, to be negotiated as rapidly as possible on one’s way to becoming a “normal” man or “normal” woman.
The Transgender Paradigm Shift
Under the medical/psychological model of transsexualism, communication among transsexuals in gender programs had been discouraged because of considerations of confidentiality, and because of the pressure to assimilate after surgery (i.e, pass as nontranssexual in the larger society). This kept transsexuals from communicating with each other and ensured there were no transsexual elders to pass on their accumulated wisdom.
This changed with the closing of the gender clinics, when transsexuals began to interact with other transsexuals and nontranssexual transgendered people. As soon as they established the necessary level of comfort, many transsexuals began to admit to one another that they were less than politically correct by Harry Benjamin’s standards.
The establishment of the International Foundation for Gender Education in 1984 marked the first time transsexuals and crossdressers came together in significant numbers, at the organization’s annual conference and in the pages of IFGE’s journal Tapestry (now Transgender Tapestry Journal). IFGE and other open organizations of the late 1980s— including the Phoenix Support Group in Asheville, NC, Denver’s Gender Identity Project, Seattle’s IngersollCenter, and groups in New York and San Francisco, welcomed both transsexuals and crossdressers, as did the Midwest’s Be All You Can Be conference. For the first time, not only did transsexuals and crossdressers come into regular communication, but transsexuals, who had been largely unwelcome in the gay/lesbian and heterosexual crossdressing communities began to talk and correspond with one another.
Within five years, these new interactions had resulted in the development of a worldwide transgender community and had led to the emergence of a new model of gender variance. By 1990, both crossdressers and transsexuals were questioning the accuracy of their diagnostic labels and there was ongoing dialogue about descriptive terminology. The American Educational Gender Information Service, IFGE, Renaissance Education Association, and many other transgender community organizations—too numerous to list here—actively encouraged new ways of looking at crossdressing and transsexualism. From this crucible there soon emerged a new way of thinking about those who were differently-gendered—a paradigm shift, in the truest sense (Kuhn, 1962; Denny, 1995).
The change of viewpoint was rapid and pervasive. In the late 1980s, anthropologist Anne Bolin had studied a transgender support group in the American Midwest (Bolin, 1988). She found members were required to declare whether they were crossdressers or transsexuals. There were no other available options, and members were expected to follow the script dictated by their labels: transsexuals were to pursue counseling, hormonal therapy, crossliving, and eventually sex reassignment surgery; crossdressers were dissuaded from following such a transsexual “career path.”
In 1994, barely five years after her initial report, Bolin published a paper noting profound changes in the transgender community. She discovered the crossdresser/transsexual dichotomy had been replaced by a model in which individuals could structure their lives, appearances, and genders along a continuum, according to their individual wishes. New options were available.
Bolin was describing the result of a revolution in thinking within the community of gender-variant people. As with other paradigm shifts, there were multiple causative factors, but a 1991 article by Holly Boswell, published simultaneously in the journals Chrysalis Quarterly and Tapestry, was seminal.
Boswell argued that the best “fit” for many gender-variant people was a path intermediate between crossdressing and transsexualism. Boswell’s article provided a starting point for a new model of gender variance, one which came not from the medical community, but direct from the source—transgendered and transsexual people themselves. By postulating an essential transgender essence—a healthy need to vary from often unhealthy gender stereotypes and norms— the model broke both from the medical model of transsexualism and from Prince’s model of heterosexual crossdressing.
Boswell was not the first to use the term transgender—Prince had coined the word in the 1970s, to describe her personal accommodation to her transvestism—but after the publication of Boswell’s article and books by Bornstein (1994) and Rothblatt (1994), the term transgender, which had until then been used only sporadically, came into widespread use. Soon it was appearing not only in magazines and newsletters for crossdressers and transsexuals, but in gay and lesbian newspapers, and, by 1995 or so, in mainstream publications.
The transgender model minimized the differences between gay and straight crossdressers and transsexuals and helped the transgender community confront and work through its not inconsiderable homophobia. The model was brought to the attention of the gay, lesbian, and bisexual community by an awakening transgender political movement, by the publication of Leslie Feinberg’s 1993 novel Stone Butch Blues, in which the protagonist rejected transsexualism in favor of an essential transgender identity, and by political demands for transgender inclusion at the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, the 1993 March on Washington and the Gay Games (Southern Voice, 6 August, 1998). Feinberg’s work, especially, resonated with lesbians. A number of prominent gay authors acknowledged, embraced, and wrote about their female sides (cf. Blumenfeld, 1997; Rotello, 1996), and butch again became chic among lesbians (Burana, Roxxie, Due, 1994; Nestle, 1992).
By the opening of the new century, the transgender model had been integrated into the sensibilities of hundreds of thousands of gender-variant and non-gender-variant people in the United States, and had begun to impact gender-variant communities outside the U.S. (cf. Wickman, 2001). The electronic journal of the Harry Benjamin International Gender Dysphoria Association <www.symposion.com/ijt> had been named “The International Journal of Transgenderism,” transgender studies had become an accepted field in a number of U.S. colleges and universities (cf. Wilson, 1998), and all major U.S. gay and lesbian organizations had included transgender either in their name or mission statement. Although there’s still confusion in some quarters about this relatively new term, it’s clear transgender is here to stay.
Even though the term transgender has met with widespread acceptance, not everyone favors it. Some transsexuals resent a descriptor that places them in the company of crossdressers. Other transsexuals simply consider transgender shorthand for “transgressively gendered” (see Bornstein, 1994), which aptly describes both crossdressers and transsexuals). In deference to transsexuals who don’t identify as transgendered, the Gender Identity Project of the New York Gay & Lesbian Community Services Center uses the inclusive “transsexual and transgendered”—as do I, much of the time.
The Impact of the Transgender Model
By the mid-1990s, most gender-variant people in the U.S. were looking at themselves in a new way. Rather than being ashamed and guilt-ridden, they were taking pride in the very fact of their difference, and shifting the locus of pathology from themselves to a society which could not accept difference. The term transgender had emerged as an umbrella for the entire constellation of differently-gendered people, including crossdressers, trangenderists, and transsexuals, who comprised what had come to be known as the transgender community.
Those who subscribe to the transgender model tend to see themselves as both man and woman, or neither, or as something else entirely. Moreover, there is no “proper” sexual orientation. Under this model, the in-between state somewhere between maleness and femaleness, unthinkable in both the medical and Prince models, becomes a goal for which to strive, or at least a comfortable place at which to rest. Most importantly, the transgender model allows both transsexuals and nontranssexual transgendered people to view themselves as healthy and whole.
The transgender model legitimized those who had not fit comfortably into the limited number of categories which had been previously open to them. Gender-variant people were no longer forced to choose restrictive transsexual or crossdresser or drag queen/king roles, each with its own behavioral and sartorial script. Suddenly it was possible to transition gender roles without a goal of genital surgery, to acknowledge one’s gender dysphoria and yet remain in one’s original gender role, to take hormones for a while and then stop, to be a woman with breasts and a penis or a man with a vagina, to blend genders as if from a palette. It was possible, and even preferable, to be out and proud, rather than fearful and closeted. Not surprisingly, this new and improved self-concept soon led to demands for political equality and justice.
Soon, transgender had become an identity in and of itself. Individuals who formerly identified as crossdressers or as transsexual now called themselves transgendered, or, in some cases, transgenders. With the artificial boundaries of sexual orientation and surgery erased, the various transgender communities began to socialize and work with one another toward a common political end. Transgendered and transsexual men and women began to take leadership roles not previously open to them—no longer limited to transgender-specific organizations, they began to participate in nominally gay and lesbian organizations such as Pride and HIV organizations in a variety of cities and national organizations like the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.
The 1990s saw several watershed events which altered transgender consciousness and brought organized response. The first was the 1991 expulsion from the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival of Nancy Burkholder, a post-operative transsexual woman (Query, 1993). This resulted in “Camp Trans,” a site outside the festival proper, in which transgender education classes were held, and in challenges at the gate and within the festival proper (Wilchins, 1994). In 1992, for instance, transgender activists passed out to festival goers thousands of buttons which read “I might be transsexual.” (Walworth, 1993).
Two other galvanizing events were the deaths of Brandon Teena and Tyra Hunter. Teena was murdered in 1995 in Humboldt, Nebraska (Konigsberg, 1995); Hunter was denied medical treatment by D.C. firefighters when they cut away her clothing and saw her penis (Bowles, 1996). The deaths shocked and angered the transgender community; Hunter’s case, in particular, resulted in the formation of an alliance of social justice groups, of which transgender activists were an integral part. Teena’s murder resulted in several books and films, including Director Kimberly Pierce’s “Boys Don’t Cry” (1999), which resulted in an Academy Award for Best Actress for Hillary Swank.
By the mid-1990s, transgendered individuals and groups were protesting when their peers were murdered, lobbying Capitol Hill and state legislatures for civil rights previously denied them, and engaging in vigorous letter-writing campaigns and political demonstrations when they were slandered or slighted by those in power (see <www.gender.org/remember> for a litany of transgender dead). The Washington lobbying effort was spearheaded by Phyllis Frye and Jane Fee; the Fall 1998 cover of Transgender Tapestry Journal featured more than 100 transsexual and transgendered lobbyists on the steps of the U.S. capitol. Positive television, film, and print coverage of transgender political issues increased dramatically (cf “Transsexual Menace, Rosa von Praunheim, Dir., Germany 1996). By 2003, civil rights protections for transgendered people had been achieved in four states and some 50 cities throughout the U.S (see Currah, Minter, & Green, 2000; visit <www.ngltf.org/downloads/transinclusivelaws.pdf> for an updated list of legal protections).
The 1990s also saw the appearance of transgender voices in the professional literature; they had previously been excluded (see Denny, 1997). Espeically notable was the previously mentioned essay by Alluquere Rosanne (“Sandy”) Stone, which addressed the psychomedical treatment of transsexualism (Stone, 1991). Transsexuals began to run for and be elected to public office (Bingham, 1999), and transsexuals and nontranssexual transgendered men and women in prominent positions in a variety of professions embraced their gender-variant status and were valued for it (cf. Wilson, 1998). For instance, Susan Kimberly, who had been prominent in Minneapolis city government before her sex reassignment, was appointed to an important post by a conservative mayor whose prime consideration was that she was the right person for the job, (Grow, 1998; Rybin, 1999). Academicians like Drs. Michael Gilbert, Dierdre McCloskey, and Jacob Hale received positive press coverage (Wilson, 1998), and colleges and universities began to be responsive to the needs of their transgendered and transsexual students (Beemyn, 2003).
The 1990s saw the emergence of homosexuality as a mainstream political issue. President Bill Clinton’s attempt to end the gay ban in the U.S. military was a widely-heard shot in what Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia has called a kulturkampf (cultural war) (UPI, 1 July, 2001). On one side of this cultural divide is the radical Christian right and other traditionalists; on the other side is the newly combined gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender community and its allies. Since the struggle for gay and lesbian civil rights took the main stage in American politics, battles have raged along a number of fronts: gays in the military, gay and lesbian marriage, sodomy laws, ordinances banning discrimination against gender and sexual minorities, hate crimes laws, and marriage, custody, adoption, and inheritance issues (cf Blackwood, 2001; Doering, 2003; The Advocate, 2003, respectively). Transsexual and other transgender identities have been intimately entwined with these issues of gay rights.
Transsexuals have begun to criticize the medical literature which has and often still does view them as mentally ill, and many transsexuals reject the medical model of transsexualism which has been in the public consciousness for the more than 50 years since the news of Christine Jorgensen’s sex reassignment shocked the world. At issue is the Gender Identity Disorders section of the DSM-IV-TR (2000). The call for reform of the diagnostic category Gender Identity Disorder of Childhood has been of particular concern, since it is sometimes used to institutionalize gender-variant homosexual boys and girls (see Burke, 1996; and Scholinski, 1997). Also at issue are the Harry Benjamin Standards of Care, which place restrictions on access to body-altering medical treatment even though there is no empirical evidence that such restrictions are necessary or even advisable (see <www.hbigda.org>).
The rise of the transgender model and postmodern gender theory (cf. Butler, 1990, 1993; Foucault, 1979) has provided a new lexicon for the discussion of transgender issues (Wilchins, 1997). The careful reader will notice that throughout this section there has been no mention of gender identity disorder (except when naming the diagnostic categories in the DSM), or other language which would dispose the reader to view transsexual and other transgendered persons as mentally ill or otherwise deficient. When resorting to the traditional medical model, it is virtually impossible to discuss gender-variant people or their issues without the use of terms which overtly state or at least imply pathology and reinforce the omnipotence of the medical professional.
It’s notable that the transgender model arose not from the medical community, which had been studying crossdressers and transsexuals for 150 years, but from the transgender community, and only five years after its inception. The labels transvestite and transsexual, gender dysphoria, and gender identity disorder were bestowed by the medical community and are in a sense slave names (Denny, 1999b); the word transgender was coined by a gender-variant individual and the transgender model has been popularized by gender-variant people. Despite its grassroots origin, however, the transgender model makes great sense from a treatment standpoint, as it doesn’t require intrusive medical procedures the individual does not want (under the medical model, transsexuals were often required to have genital surgery as a condition for acceptance to gender programs; i.e., one had to commit to invasive genital surgery in order to obtain more benign and less intrusive medical treatments like hormones; see Denny, 1992).
The new model has been embraced by many professionals. Talks on the transgender model by Holly Devor and Walter Williams set the tone for the 15th Harry Benjamin International Gender Dysphoria Association Symposium in Vancouver, British Columbia, in 1997. Conversely, it must be noted that as recently as 1997, medical and psychological professionals have been held liable by persons who received sex reassignment surgery and later regretted that decision. Given this precedent, it’s unlikely that self-protective professional standards will be eliminated in the near future. Full freedom of gender expression (and free access to medical services which foster it) will come as transsexuals succeed in gaining recognition from society as fully autonomous, personally responsible adults.
As the 21st century gets under way, one is struck by the degree to which gender roles and sartorial styles have changed in only one hundred years. From an era in which women wore nearly twenty pounds of clothing, were not allowed to vote, and were routinely arrested if they appeared on the streets wearing trousers (cf “Girl dressed in male attire escorted to club for drink” and “Dressed in men’s clothes, chorus speeders arrested,” Atlanta Constitution, 20 and 26 February, respectively), we have arrived at a time in which the gender norms of 1900 are transgressed daily by practically every American citizen, including those stridently opposed to those who are pushing the frontiers of acceptance today. Perhaps we will eventually arrive at a time in which people can wear whatever they want and alter their bodies in whatever way they wish without causing a fuss.
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Dallas Denny is an author and activist who lives in tiny Pine Lake, GA, pop. 610. She is editor of IFGE’s Transgender Tapestry Journal and Director of Fantasia Fair, a week-long conference held every October at the tip of Cape Cod. She is the author of, among other things, Gender Dysphoria: A Guide to Research (1994, Garland) and Current Concepts in Transgender Identity (1998, Garland).