Myths and Misconceptions Part I

Jacob Hale—  “Trans lives were lived, therefore trans lives were livable.”

I read a piece over on Questioning Transphobia written by Kittyburger:

See also:

There is an assertion made in the second paragraph that displays a fictitious set of mythology that is divorced from the historical reality of the situations and manner in which people with transsexualism or with what is now referred to as transgenderism negotiated their lives during the  period  following World War II to the early 1980s.

The original standards of care forced the transsexual to lie constantly. They forced you to lie if you were bisexual or a lesbian; they forced you to lie if you didn’t care to wear skirts or dresses or makeup; they forced you to lie if you were a feminist; they forced you to lie if your interests lay outside of traditional homemaking and “feminine” pursuits; they forced you to lie if you were so badly off that you felt you would die if you didn’t get treatment right this minute, right this second. Trans women were routinely forced to quit rewarding, well-paying “masculine” careers and take up “feminine” jobs that paid a fraction what they were making pre-transition. And they forced you to begin presenting as a woman for an indefinite period of a year or more before receiving the hormones that most trans women need to be able to both feel at one with our bodies and pass successfully in society. In short, you were required to be a 1950s stereotype of femininity, that was even outdated THEN.

There are so many mistaken assumptions I’m not sure where to start.  Hopefully what I am  writing will start a discourse and further the understanding of our history.   I don’t want to  start another counter productive flame war.

Since meeting Susan Stryker and Jacob Hale in the mid-1990s I have become aware of my part in history and how my involvement over the last nearly 50 years has made me a repository of a good deal of transhistory.

In the early days one had to be an autodidact who scoured libraries and connected random bits of information from obscure  sources in order to get the medical treatment we needed.  One also had to advocate and educate the doctors as to what we needed to get their assistance in changing sex.

I use the phrase changing sex and sex change operation rather than all the current “gender” language because we didn’t much think in terms of gender.  Indeed I tend to view gender theory with the same skepticism as I view other religions.

In the comment thread at Questioning Transphobia Lisa Harney gave me pause to think that perhaps the old days that some refer to now happened in the post-1980 time frame when GID entered the DSM and the accompanying Benjamin Standards of Care. In this particular piece I’m going to take us to about the mid 1970s.

As I said in my entry “Friday Night Fun and Culture”, I am currently reading April Ashley’s second biography The First Lady.  A few months back I read Aleshia Brevard’s book, The Woman I was Not Born To Be.  April Ashley got her SRS from Dr Burou in 1960.  She went to Casablanca for it and claims to have been his 9th patient.  Aleshia Brevard got hers around the same time.  Add to that Roberta Cowell’s biography, Coccinelle’s, Hedy Jo Star’s and Patricia Morgan’s along with Christine Jorgensen’s and you find a cross section of the people who got SRS before the John’s Hopkins announcement in 1966 and Dr. Benjamin’s book in 1967.

Let’s look at society and gender during that period.  Homosexuality, in spite of Kinsey’s study was firmly in the closet or underground.  There were small activist groups such as the Mattachine Society, One and the Daughters of Bilitis as well as the bar scene.  One could find information of the gay and lesbian world in pulp paper backs and scandal magazines and tabloids but it was the love that dared not speak its name in serious novels or in movies.  (even in the pulp paperbacks the gay was often more subtext than graphic).

As early as Lili Elbe (1882 – 1931)  sisters did not conform to the attracted to men only paradigm.  Lili was married to a woman prior to getting treatment and SRS.

Further… Prior to coming out they did not necessarily conform to the mythical assertion of always being obviously feminine individuals.

When the news of Christine Jorgensen’s sex change operation broke the tabloid headlines blared “Ex GI become Blonde Beauty”.  This implies that at least during the draft anyone days of WW II she was masculine enough to not be considered too queer for the military.  Roberta Cowell was a fighter pilot during WW II and raced cars after wards.  I think she was married to a woman prior to her transition and SRS.  Hedy Jo Star, Aleshia Brevard, Coccinelle and April Ashley were drag performers.  Although even there, is the biographical detail from April Ashley of a stint in the British Merchant Marines. Patricia Morgan hustled.  Sisters did what they had to do to find their own paths to getting surgery.

Even in a world where information was rare and obscure these sisters were able to find it.  And they were able to locate doctors who were willing to treat them.  They also managed to find each other in the drag queen and transvestite undergrounds that later evolved into the transsexual and transgender network of support and advocacy groups of today.

In 1960 women wore skirts and dresses.  If they wore pant those pants went by a different name such as capris, slacks etc.  All this was prior to Betty Friedan publishing The Feminine Mystique.  For what it is worth when I came out in 1969 classified ads were still separated into “Help Wanted-Men” and “Help Wanted-Women”.  When the Mattachine Society picketed the Capitol in the the mid-1960s demanding civil rights for gay and lesbian people the gay men wore suits and ties while the lesbian women wore skirts or dresses.

The pop culture/hippie culture of the mid to late 1960s introduced  more androgynous looking clothes for both men and women.  Zippers on women’s pants had been in back or on the hip and wearing front fly zipped pants were used as reason to harass and arrest lesbians for being in drag up until the late 1960s.

Transsexual and transgender sisters had to live in ghettos such as the Tenderloin in San Francisco.  Up until the late 1960s being obvious and daring to venture beyond the ghettos was asking for police harassment and arrest.  Passing equaled surviving.  Prior to coming out I was too obviously different.  My appearance confused people regarding my sex/gender in 1968 I was both assaulted on the street by a stranger and was arrested and charged with impersonation while dressed in masculine male clothing.  Initially the police thought I was a dyke.  (I was living in the Haight Ashbury rather than the ghetto of the Tenderloin)

I came out in 1969.  Supposedly the bad old days.  I was living in a radical left hippie commune/cadre.  We had moved across the bay to Berkeley.  I applied for Welfare in drag using as reason my being transsexual, needing help and not having the documents that would permit me to get a job.

This was early in the cycle of Second Wave feminism and the main professions open to women were teaching, nursing, sales and office.  Then you had the entertainment field.  Loosely interpreted the entertainment field also includes things like waitressing and sex work.

I was part of a particular class of transkids.  My peers included the runaways and throwaways.  The hippie queens and recent high school graduates out there looking for a space where they could be themselves.  When it came to employment we kidded among ourselves that our career choices were hustling, hair dressing or performing.

But as early as 1966 the queens and transsexuals of the Tenderloin were trying to break out of that rut.  In 1966, nearly 3 years prior to Stonewall there was a riot at Compton’s Cafeteria in the heart of the Tenderloin by TS/TG sisters who were fed up with being pushed around.  The sisters involved got together afterward and started organizing.  One of those organizations turned into the National Transsexual Counseling Unit that I co-ran from mid 1971 through early 1973.

Some of the goals of that original group were to gain medical access and to help us mainstream our lives by using the War on Poverty and anti-discrimination push to help us gain us access to legitimate careers and a way out of the permanent underclass.  This was the early 1970s and while the Office of Economic Opportunity was open to helping us get job training the opportunities for training for underclass women both cis and trans were still in the help wanted male/help wanted female mindset.  So yes our career options were still stereotypical.  They were for all underclass women.

Let us touch on the idea that we had to lie and could only like men.  Most of us in San Francisco liked or had boyfriends.  Having a boyfriend offered a certain level of protection.  But even in the feminist circles of cis women many lesbians were still identifying as heterosexual.  At the same time many of us were in relationships with each other and there were militant lesbians.

We were all going to the same clinics and we were all being fairly honest about our sexuality As we saw it at that point and time.  The fact that it was often more fluid or that we might not settle into heterosexuality after SRS and might like women both cis and trans didn’t necessarily occur to us.  Context is important, we were part of society that was in tremendous upheaval.

Some of the larger collections of myths surround our group sessions at the Gender Clinics.  I attended the one at Stanford where I got my sex change operation.  Yes, that is what we called it prior to our indoctrination into post-modern new-speak and euphemisms.

They may have been different before and they may have been different later but in many ways they more closely resembled cis-women’s consciousness raising sessions within the feminist movement than they did the myths I hear taken as gospel today. One of the details that has been spoken about in a manner that gives it the worst possible spin is how we showed the results of our surgery to each other and to sisters who were scheduled for surgery in the near future. Sisters who had their SRS before us reassured us we were healing normally, sisters coming soon after us received graphic details regarding what they faced.  We didn’t have our version of Our Bodies, Ourselves to tell us what to expect.  Some sisters had never seen a naked female.

We talked about jobs, school, family relationships, relationships with friends and lovers.  Hopes and aspirations.  Those of us who held the stereotype of the young, pretty and attracted to men paradigm as what transsexualism was all about met sisters who were middle aged, married and attracted to women as well as having fathered children.  We saw them showing the same dedication to the goal of SRS that we were showing.  We also got something from them.  Many of them were engineers working in the aerospace or the newly emerging Silicon Valley.  Eventually many of us went on to receive training and build careers in the computer field.

We saw that not every sister was a “diva”, that we come in all shapes and sizes.  We learned that some who claim to be like us are truly insane and not transsexual at all.  We saw there was a difference between how those of us who got SRS dealt with life and how those who live as women without SRS dealt with life.  Perhaps because we were dealing with each other face to face we were able to be more aware of each others humanity than many seem to be in the on-line world of today

Yes we saw stealth as pretty much the only viable option.  In the early 1970s many of us were living underground with cobbled together identification papers and name change via common usage.  We were unable to change our names legally until after SRS and obtaining a California ID Card or Driver’s License that reflected your new name required both that legal name change and a letter from your surgeon attesting to the completion of SRS.  Other things were easier to change.

Nonetheless among sister it was shared common wisdom that keeping your mouth shut about your medical history was the wisest course of action in most situations.  Here again our individual mileage varied considerably.  Some were always more open than others.

The greatest pressure to conform to stealth, and appropriate culturally sanctioned current heterosexual female norms came from other sisters.  The idea that we were as a whole terribly anachronistic in our ideals or image of what was appropriate female behavior was something that seemed more common in the TV/TG arena.

When I came out as lesbian some sister reacted badly yet others treated me like the L-Word’s Shane and looked to me for their “lesbian” experience and for me to tell them their pussy looked and tasted right.

This is a good place to end this particular post but not this subject.  I realize some will claim I am using anecdotal evidence based on biography rather than academic based on the articles of scholars but I think our stories have more validity than the studies of us.  It is our history and it is time we own it.


Ashley, April with Duncan Fallowell  April Ashley’s Odyssey 1983

Ashley, April  The First Lady 2006

Benjamin,  Dr. Harry The Transsexual Phenomena 1967

Brevard, Aleshia The Woman I was not Born to be 2001

Costa, Mario A.   Reverse Sex 1962

Cowell, Roberta  Roberta Cowell’s Story 1954

Driscoll, James  Transsexuals  Transactions of the  _____  circa 1970

Jorgensen, Christine  Christine Jorgensen: A Personal Autobiography 1967

Meyerowitz, Joanne How Sex Changed: A History of Transsexuality in the United States 2004

Morgan, Patricia  The Man-Maid Doll 1973

Rechy, John  City of Night 1963

Star, Hedy Jo  I Changed My Sex 1963

Star, Hedy Jo  My Unique Change 1965