Gwendolyn Smith’s Historical Revisionism

There is an actual history of the early transsexual community history in San Francisco.  One that is documented by James Driscoll 1, Susan Stryker 2, Joanne Meyerowitz 3, and others including the film “Screaming Queens”.

There are also people who are still alive (not many anymore) who were part of the San Francisco Bay Area Transsexual Community.  I believe some of their oral history’s can be found at The San Francisco LGBT History Archives.

There is a difference between history and mythology.

For one thing history implies at least an attempt at correct chronology.

In Gwen Smith’s latest offering in the Bay Area Reporter she manages to both fail to give credit to the major Transsexual Organization that was at its time one of the biggest in the country if not the biggest and instead gives credit to CATS which consisted of two people, a transsexual woman and her husband who had splintered from the main organization and were considered pariahs due to the husband’s extorting of sexual favors from newbees in exchange for information.

Perhaps the enmity between Gwen and myself makes her loathe to mention the Transsexual Counseling Center in either its original incarnation or in its latter as the National Transsexual Counseling Unit.

Her piece is Titled: At 40

The following is complete and utter Bullshit from start to finish.  Not only isn’t it good San Francisco Bay Area Transsexual History, it isn’t even good Transgender History.

Consider what it was like for transgender people in 1971, when the B.A.R. was but a fledgling newspaper.

The “community” was very different then. There were a couple early groups that catered to people we might call transgender or transsexual today, but these were few and far between, and in many ways hard to come by. Here in San Francisco, you had the California Association of Transsexuals, born out of an earlier group called Conversion Our Goal that met at Glide Memorial Church in the late 1960s.

Being a transperson then, from the accounts I have read, was a somewhat clandestine operation. The university system largely forbade you from talking to other transfolks, and would remove you from the system for doing so. Meanwhile crossdressers and others would also meet in secret, for fear of societal repercussions – including arrest. It was only a few years after the Compton’s Cafeteria riot in the Tenderloin, and being publicly crossdressed was very much against the law in many parts of the country.

Transsexuals, once considered a part of the “Gay rights” movement – indeed several were involved with the Stonewall riots in New York City in 1969 – found themselves pushed out in the early 1970s, with transgender people uninvited to women’s music events and gay Pride parades within the first few years of the decade. Transsexuality was viewed as undesirable, a byproduct of the old-school, closed gay community of the pre-Stonewall era.

Hormone treatments were hard to come by, and genital reassignment was even rarer. Many resorted to back-alley practitioners to get surgery done, like the infamous Dr. John Ronald Brown, a former physician who, until his death last May, served time for one of his botched surgeries. Many died or were mutilated in their quest for surgical reassignment.

Of course, there was also no Internet then, either.

Information was scarce, even when you could find it. Christine Jorgensen’s much-publicized reassignment surgery was less than 20 years previous, and Dr. Harry Benjamin’s groundbreaking The Transsexual Phenomenon was still relatively new. It would be decades before Kate Bornstein’s Gender Outlaws , Les Feinberg’s Stone Butch Blues , or Loren Cameron’s Body Alchemy would ignite a new generation, and just as long before the radical notions of the Lesbian Avengers or Queer Nation would help lead to early transgender activism groups like Transgender Nation and the Transexual Menace.

Actually San Francisco was a wonderful place to be a transsexual in the years between 1968 and 1974 when I was there.

James Driscoll’s article in “Transactions: The Journal of the Sociology” documents the turning point of the era circa 1967 which followed the riot at Compton’s Cafeteria. (If anyone wishes a copy send me an e-mail                         ( )).

Part of the process of coming out as transsexual was separating oneself from the queen/transgender community that existed in the Tenderloin. I sometimes think the whole idea of stealth was born of the reality of that era.  You see in San Francisco prior to the organizing of Transsexuals into the Transsexual Counseling Service with its working arrangement with the police department and other authorities the police kept obvious Transsexual and Transgender sisters confined to the Tenderloin.  If you didn’t pass your employment opportunities were pretty much limited to sex work.  If you passed and could be stealth you had other options.

The politics of the Transsexual Counseling Service were ostensibly conservative and assimilationist.  For those people who had come out as transsexual the goals of assimilating into ordinary society as ordinary women were quite radical. The university (To be precise Stanford University Medical Center’s Gender Clinic) did not forbid you from talking to other “transfolks”.  We didn’t associate with queens because they were trouble.  We were close friends with and associated with each other, however if you weren’t living in the ghetto of the Tenderloin you didn’t want obvious queens coming around where you worked or lived because they would endanger everything you were working to achieve.

One of the pluses of dissociation from the queens who stuck to the drag/hustle bars of the Tenderloin was that we could go out and play whether at the Stud, Hamburger Mary’s or the Haven up on Polk St.  We went to movies together, we went clubbing together.  Indeed Stanford encouraged these friendships. (my friend Leslie, who died last year ran the Center after I left.  We were friends from our Stanford days.)

Heterosexual cross dressers weren’t of our realm.  We did have friends, who were in the parlance of the early 1970s, queens.  However their commitment to living their lives as women coupled with everything but SRS would make them transgender in today’s terminology.

We were not part of the Gay Liberation Movement.  At least not Transsexuals.  The transgender people who were part of the Gay Liberation Movement were the queens, the same people who form the Imperial Courts.  Perhaps the Cockettes although I knew at least one of the Cockettes who was in the Stanford Program.

Hormone treatments were hard to come by…  Say what?  I came out in Berkeley in February 1969 when I got welfare.  It took me a grand total of four weeks to get hormones.  First I went to a clinic in Berkeley, they gave me an appointment to see a counselor, she didn’t know where but suggested I speak to the people at SIR and Mattachine Society.  I went to SIR and the guy at the desk told me to talk with someone at Mattachine who knew about those things.  The contact at Mattachine told me about the Center For Special Problems on Van Ness, Dr. Fong in Oakland and gave me the number of CATS.  I made an appointment to go to the Center because it was free.  I saw Ron Lee, a case worker who told me what I could expect from the hormones and  as well as mentioning the Transsexual Counseling Unit.  I was given an appointment a week later to see Dr. Liebermann.  He gave me a quick physical, told me I wouldn’t have any problems since I was pretty and passed easily.

Passing equaled survival outside of the Tenderloin.

There was also Fort Help run by Dr. Joel Fort and Laura Cunningham (?), which had a reputation of being more rigid than the Center for Special Problem.

Getting the surgery from a legitimate source was relatively easy for those disciplined enough follow the particular protocols of the various programs. In 1972 there were over two dozen places in the US where one could get SRS from a certified, skilled surgeon.  There was also Dr. Barbosa in Tijuana who was one of the major pioneers of M to F SRS along with Dr. Burou in Casablanca.

Contrary to popular opinion there were quite a few post-SRS women involved with the lesbian movement besides Beth Elliott and Sandy Stone.  The problem is their public trashing is the only story that gets heard.  Beth was writing for The Lesbian Tide when she was trashed, yet I wound up working with them a few years later. (Had the same thing happened to me I would have sworn the women of the Tide Collective didn’t know just to spare them)

Even the banning from Women’s Music Festivals was more limited than the impression given by Gwen.  Robin Tyler utilized a transsexual woman, who was in the Fire Department in Southern California in charge of fire control at her festival(s) she staged in California.

In the early 1970s we were all over the place and there were dozens of biographies.  Dr. Benjamin’s book was less useful then Green and Money’s “Transsexualism and Sex Reassignment”, which had more details regarding the process including hormone administration.  We used that book to educate doctors.

BTW Dr. Benjamin had an office at the Medical Building on Sutter near Powell.

Dr. Brown rolled into SF in the summer of 1973.  He was cheap and had zero standards.  He would operate on the crazy and those so strung out they were lucky the anesthesia didn’t kill them.  He operated in garages and kitchens. Within a couple of years he was on the lam and had lost his license.

There were some really stupid TS/TG people, real kamikazes in those days and there still are considering the articles about silicone pumping.

By the mid-1970s modern TS/TG groups were forming. In part because the Tenderloin ghetto was no longer enforced and we were a freer society.  IFGE and Tapestry was publishing a newsletter that became Tapestry.  Transgender was starting to be used for those who lived full time without SRS.

One of the major issues that wasn’t addressed was substance abuse.  The other was that when Nixon killed The  War on Poverty, he ended programs that helped sisters escape from sex work by giving them job training and placement.

Gwen… You need to read Joanne Meyerowitz’ book and Susan Stryker’s too.  The actual history has this incredible depth and texture of various communities often working in parallel with little knowledge of each other that is lost in this mythology.

1.  James Driscoll:  The Transsexuals  Transactions 1971

2. Susan Stryker:  Transgender History 2008; Transgender Reader 2006; Gay by the Bay 1996

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

4 Responses to “Gwendolyn Smith’s Historical Revisionism”

  1. Zoe Brain Says:

    That explains a lot that had puzzled me.

  2. Karen Says:

    While i was in SF back in 1999 for trip, i met Gwen in person once … we argued for an hour! 😉

    Whatever history may be, times now are thankfully different.. Even if you don’t pass 100%, while it does make things significantly harder and does hurt your career, you are not necessarily shut of even professional employment.

    BTW i think may who were not alive or too young to remember the 60’s and early 70’s have no idea how different society as a whole was back then as compared to now in so many ways.

    They interpret history though the societal context of today, which results in a lot of wrong conclusions about motivations. politics and possibilities.

    • Suzan Says:

      People who came of age in the US since 1980 never experienced the heady freedom we had in the 1960s and 70s. What Obama considers “excesses” that were corrected by his hero Reagan.

  3. Andrea B. Says:

    @ Suzan,

    In the LGBT circles and transsexual groups, history is revised every 2 to 3 years. Look at what PFC presents these days.

    People are written out of those histories and new people are written in so as to fit in with the newly decided newspeak.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: