Photographs and article by James Loewin
I heard of Leslie before I met her. An issue of Moonshadow, newsletter of the Transsexual Action Organization found its way to Vancouver and I remember reading in the news section that Leslie St. Clair, a counselor at the TS Counseling Unit in SF had undergone sex reassignment surgery at Stanford University. As a young, gay, androgynous male I was intrigued by people with cross gendered experiences and very pleased that some people were bold enough to be publicly out as trans.
In 1974 I visited San Francisco for the first time and stopped by the Nation Transsexual Counseling Unit office, (moved by then to Ellis street I believe.) The office was in the basement of the building, closed when I arrived so I sat and waited on a couch in the outer room. Leslie arrived and what I mean by that was she made a striking entrance, in a long, dark blue denim skirt, a lavender see-through blouse barely concealing beautiful natural breasts, and waist length blonde hair.
We talked easily for a while, she told me about her life growing up in the south, ridiculed in high school for being a feminine boy. She reached into her purse, took a small black and white photo from her wallet and handed it to me. The guy in the photo was a typical high school grad of that era, hair short at the sides, combed across the forehead. Serious, not smiling. “That’s me at graduation,” she said. It was difficult to put the guy in the picture together in my mind with the glamourous Amazon before me, such an amazing transformation! Her mother she said, had been supportive of her transition, making clothes and encouraging her.
She posed for a photo in the office, then we went for a walk to Union Square and shot more photos there and in a department store. When I returned to Vancouver the photo lab I was dealing with lost the negatives to these photos so all that remained of our first photo session were the contact sheets.
Leslie St. Clair, Transsexual Counseling Unit Office, San Francisco 1974 (photo James Loewen)
And so a friendship and collaboration as photographer and model began. I too often wondered how Leslie and I could be friends with such very different views on life, death, politics and race. We also bonded at the movies sharing enjoyment of a wide range of films from many decades.
We had a lot of laughs, and some dark times too. My memories of Leslie and that colourful era and the time spent in San Francisco are as vivid now as if it were yesterday. It’s sad to consider the too early passing of so many people of that time and place. You mentioned Laurie, Diane, and Jan and to that list I add Cherilyn Tabor, another dear friend of Leslie’s.
Leslie was an original, someone who survived the bullying of an abusive father to blossom into a beautiful woman of her own creation. It takes a lot of inner strength to live one’s truth when society is quick to condemn. Leslie navigated that terrain with great skill. On several occasions I saw Leslie charming some new acquaintances, holding them enthralled with her other-worldly aura and southern charm, then reach into her purse and bring out that graduation photo. The effect was always the same. Spellbinding!