Other histories

Lessons from the Past

Gay and lesbian history has some surprising parallels with trans history. Why, we can almost see where we’re going.

First published in Triple Echo v. 3 no 4, 2002

Most trans people do not spend much time thinking about the paper trail (or nowadays more likely a byte trail) that they leave behind them as they live their lives. And yet this trail is the stuff that future historians will look at to piece together the type of lives we lived at the beginning of the 21st century. Reconstructing the past lives of trans people is not an easy task, as most of our history is unrecoverable. Invisible people rarely leave evidence of their existence for future generations to ponder. This is our loss, of course, as there is much to learn and much self-affirmation in knowing that we have a long history behind us.

1927 drag ball held in Harlem. Photographer James VanDerZee created this portrait of one of the participants. (Photo from Donna VanDerZee.)

To flesh out some aspects of trans history and to learn where we might possibly be going, it is instructive to have a look at gay and lesbian history. While our objectives as trans people often differ fundamentally from those of gays and lesbians, nevertheless the social history of gays and lesbians and their struggle for rights and respect has numerous parallels to our own situation.

For everyone who is tired of all the infighting in the trans community, perhaps the most encouraging fact we can take away from gay and lesbian history is that they didn’t particularly get along with each other either. It is easy to think that gays and lesbians have secured more rights for themselves by presenting a unified front to the world. Well, hardly! Throughout their history, gays and lesbians have fractured along policy, class, race, gender, and even transgender lines.

The major division that occurred, and continues to occur, is relevant for trans people because it involves gender conformity. During the 1950s, many homosexual rights organizations operated beneath the radar of mainstream society. Their focus was primarily to convince the general population that homosexuals were just like everyone else, for the most part anyway. They emphasized education and homosexual assimilation, and did so in a non-confrontational manner. This emphasis on “normalcy” was not especially welcoming to the gay transvestite, who was the absolute stereotype of all things gay in the 1950s and therefore a symbol to be shunned. In a decade that put a lot of stock in conformity, homosexuals were conforming as much as possible. It may seem a self-defeating strategy to repress as much as possible large segments of the gay population and to hope that society notices only the “respectable”. homosexuals, but it was very much a product of its time. The goal was not so much to overthrow your oppression as it was to achieve a little breathing room in a repressive society.

During the 1950s, the names of the dominant American gay and lesbian organizations were so vague that it was impossible to determine just what it was they stood for. The average American, upon hearing of the Mattachine Society, would never know it was a male homosexual organization, no more than he could imagine that the Daughters of Bilitis represented lesbians. The Mattachine Society was named after the masked jesters who spoke out against authority in medieval times. Meanwhile, the Daughters of Bilitis took their name from an even more impossibly arcane source: a poem by a nineteenth century French writer whose “Songs of Bilitis” were supposedly those of a poetess who lived on Lesbos at the time of Sappho. One of the founders said, “Bilitis would mean something to us, but not to any outsider. If anyone asked us, we could always say we belonged to a poetry club.”

If this seems ludicrous today, well, one should only consider the times. Consider also the name of one of the first trans organizations that appeared in the 1960s: Tri Sigma. Tri Sigma is of course Tri-Ess, which is of course the Society for the Second Self, which of course is the famous heterosexual crossdressers organization started by Virginia Prince. The levels of obscurity are so vast and arcane that the average person would never know what Tri-Ess stood for simply from hearing the name.

The parallels don’t stop there. The focus for Tri-Ess was to emphasize that transvestites were just normal, heterosexual males who wished to express the “woman within”. Considering the dearth of trans organizations in the 1960s, it is highly likely that more than a few of these “normal” heterosexual males were actually transsexuals. From time to time, Tri-Ess publications Transvestia and Femme Mirror published articles encouraging transvestites not to forget their “male side”. Other articles argued against sex reassignment surgery. While this advice was probably beneficial to some of Tri-Ess’s membership, nevertheless the frequency with which it appeared suggests that not all of the membership was so certain of its “normal” male heterosexual persona. Tri-Ess, under the guidance of Virginia Prince, also discouraged talk about sex, let alone bondage, sadism, masochism and fetishism. For Tri-Ess to convince people that transvestites were “normal’ fellas, it was necessary to present a “normal” facade. (In presenting a “normal” facade, Tri-Ess was in fact being very much like mainstream society, which as we’ve discovered in subsequent years ain’t nearly so normal as it pretends to be) ,

Although Virginia Prince started what was to become Tri-Ess around 1960, before the liberation movements of that decade, nevertheless trans groups were at least a decade or two behind their gay and lesbian colleagues. During the 1960s, gay and lesbian activists spurned the strategy of assimilation that their predecessors had advanced. In a demand your rights decade, this strategy seemed ineffectual, and indeed contemptible. Michael Brown of the Gay Liberation Front said, “The older groups are oriented toward getting accepted by the Establishment, but what the Establishment has to offer is not worth my time.” Many young gays and lesbians considered the older gay activists to be “Uncle Toms”.

New York, October 1962. Police often raided drag balls and charged participants with “masquerading”. (Photo from Becoming Visible, by Molly McGarry and Fred Wasserman.)

While this accusation is hardly fair and could be regarded as youthful intemperance, nevertheless older gay activists often did not see that the times were indeed “a changin'”. Not everyone was happy that gays and lesbians fought back against the New York City Police when they raided the Stonewall Inn on June 28, 1969. One member of the Mattachine Society said that the sight “of screaming queens forming chorus lines and kicking went against everything that I wanted people to think about homosexuals … that we were a bunch of drag queens in the Village acting disorderly and tacky and cheap.” This comment is also interesting in that it highlights the often difficult accommodation that trans people had within the gay community. (Considering how difficult it was to put the T in GLBT and the whining of some gays when they see a trannie in a Pride Parade, this uneasy accommodation continues for many gays and lesbians.)

As the voice for gay liberation became stronger, paradoxically the unity of the movement began to fracture. Many lesbians felt sexism within the gay community was not being addressed and split off to form their own groups to fight both sexism and homophobia. Similarly, gay people of colour formed their own organization to confront their dual oppressions of racism and homophobia. And in New York, Sylvia Rivera, Marsha P. Johnson, and others formed STAR (Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries). Sylvia Rivera said: “The (gay) community is always embarrassed by the drag queens … but you’ve got to be who you are. Passing for straight is like a light skinned black woman or man passing for white. I refuse to pass.”

With this historical context, it’s not so surprising that trans groups, usually a catch all of trans identities in the early years, would also split into more rigidly defined categories. And like the fractured gay groups of the 1970s, relations between trans organizations often haven’t been friendly. While undoubtedly there are good reasons for the existence of separate groups for, say, heterosexual transvestites and transsexuals, nevertheless the coolness of one group for the other often exists because of this quaint pursuit for “normalcy”.

Although the heterosexual transvestite is currently a beleaguered member of the trans community, nevertheless his social standing as a usually married-male-with-children permits his claim to “normalcy” (a la Tri-Ess). His fear of transsexuals is that they are people who will likely freak out his wife.

Transsexuals, meanwhile, in claiming that they are really women and not just men in dresses, seek out the holy grail of normalcy: complete acceptance in society as the sex and gender that they truly are. While this pursuit of legitimacy through appearing as “normal” as possible is understandable in the context of our current place in society, it is nevertheless a strategy that will only take you so far. Both the so-called normal heterosexual transvestite and the transsexual fear discovery and the revelation that they are not so “normal” as they pretend. There has to be an element of the “out and proud” trans person in the mainstream community or there is no social progress. Gay and lesbian history demonstrates this clearly.

This is not to say that the old education and assimilation strategies were as bankrupt as the activists of the 1960s and 70s supposed. Indeed, after the radicalism of those decades, which could not possibly be sustained, gay liberation evolved into a legal and reform movement that, but for being bolder, was in some ways not far removed from the earlier vision. It was only AIDS that radicalized gays once more, a not unnatural byproduct of watching your friends and lovers dying while the rest of society appears largely indifferent.

Having bypassed the radical 60s and 70s altogether, trans activism has moved in the direction of reform and legal rights. In this country, we have three examples that made national headlines. In British Columbia, Kimberly Nixon fought a controversial battle to be allowed to volunteer for a woman’s shelter. In Quebec, Micheline Montreuil is battling to have her name legally recognized without having to have a sex change; and Michelle Josef, former drummer for Prairie Oyster, is taking on the Ontario government for delisting sex change surgery from the province’s medical plan. While it is encouraging when trans people win their court cases, the fact is gays and lesbians have lost many times and have still moved forward. It may seem trite, but engaging in the battle is, in the long term, as important as winning.

This is particularly so when one considers the number of times gays and lesbians have endured societal backlash. For example, gay social life in the United States was more diverse and visible in the early part of the twentieth century than it was in later decades, It was in fact its visibility and the Depression (which fostered an attitude that homosexuality was a symbol for the deterioration of society that inevitably brought on hard times) that caused the gay life to become closeted once more. It has hardly been a steady progression toward more rights. Even in the 1970s, after gays and lesbians had made significant gains, Anita Bryant (of Florida orange juice fame) started a campaign that scored significant successes in overturning gay rights legislation. In the spring of 1978 alone, gay ordinances were repealed in St. Paul, Minnesota; Wichita, Kansas; and Eugene, Oregon. Alarmed by these defeats, gay and lesbians rallied in November of that year to defeat California’s Proposition 6, an initiative to ban gays and lesbians from teaching in the public school system and to prohibit any teacher or school employee from saying anything positive about homosexuals. Sadly, celebration of this victory was brief, as that same month openly gay San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk was murdered by Supervisor Dan White in what today we would consider a classic example of a hate crime. The road to gay and lesbian acceptance has hardly been an easy one, which might be a cautionary tale for all trans people.

Of course, our histories cannot be entirely similar. The trans life is more one of personal transformation than is the gay and lesbian life. While both homosexuality, and transgenderism have been regarded as mental illnesses and the progress of their medicalization has been similar, gays and lesbians were unanimous in their support to remove homosexuality from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Psychiatric Disorders (DSM). The existence of transsexuality in the DSM has implications for treatment, however, and causes us to be complicit with a diagnosis that is hardly self-affirming.

The personal nature of transgenderism and our immature quest for “normalcy” are also responsible for the relative lack of vitality within the trans community. While we have been at the organizational stage for about two decades, we still lack the broad cultural, sporting and social institutions that gays and lesbians enjoy. From bars to bowling leagues to professional organizations for gay lawyers and lesbian doctors, gays and lesbians have countless opportunities to engage in a fully rounded life. Their cultural life in particular has had a significant effect on mainstream society and it is interesting to speculate how great an effect this in turn has had on increasing acceptance of gays and lesbians.

Unfortunately, in most cities one can’t even find a trans bar or cafe, surely one of the most basic of social institutions. This is severely to our detriment, but I suspect we need to go further along the path we are travelling before we see the kind of diversity in our groups that gays and lesbians currently enjoy.

Many American Cities had prohibitions against crossdressing on the books until the 1960s. This trannie was nabbed – and was still smiling! – in New York near Battery Park in 1941. Battery Park was a popular cruising area during the 1930s and 40s. (From Becoming Visible, Penguin Studio, 1988.)

For this reason alone, it is important for us not to discard the papers, publications and photos that have marked our journey thus far. If we are still not so visible in the broad strokes of society, we should take care to preserve the details of our existence. One of the more evocative remnants of lesbian history that I came across was a Daughters of Biitis newsletter from 1959 called Gab ‘n Java. It advertised a meeting that was taking place in a member’s home, included instructions on how to get there and had on the agenda the discussion topic “Should Lesbians Wear Skirts?”. What touched me most about it was how powerless and isolated they were from society and yet how brave and motivated they were to improve their lot in whatever way they could. It also reminded me of the fledgling trans discussion groups that I attended in the past that provided a little companionship and at least the sense that we were doing something to improve our lives. From such modest beginnings great movements grow.

When I see an old photograph of a trans person that lived long ago, there is a poignancy to the photo that makes me wonder what that person’s life was like. In fifty years time, the photos we have taken of our friends (and we do take lot of photos!) will surely have the same effect on trans people of the future.

We should never underestimate the power of history to further our quest for dignity. While we fight the good fight to improve our own lives, we also leave a legacy for those trans people who follow us and who will likely face many of the same challenges. The accumulation of all the minor and major battles we fight, individually and in groups, forms the foundation upon which future generations will make their stand to change the world for trans people.


Much of the research on gay and lesbian history for this article was taken from Becoming Visible: An Illustrated History of Lesbian and Gay Life in Twentieth Century America, by Molly McGarry and Fred Wasserman (New York Public Library and Penguin Studio, 1998.)