19 March 2007
In 1931, Norma Jackson was the most famous 'transvestite' in England:
Norma Jackson was raised in St Helens, Lancashire, by parents who called her Austin Hall. Austin's parents treated him much like a girl: he did the housework and took female roles in theatricals. Austin left school at 14 and worked for a while as a haulage hand at a local colliery. From age 16 Austin experimented with dressing as a woman, for which he was cautioned by the local police and thrashed by his parents. Even dressed as a man, Austin was often taken to be a woman. People followed and stared at him. At the age of 16, when returning from church on a Sunday, he was arrested and taken to the police station where he was stripped on the supposition that he was a woman masquerading as a man.
When when in a convalescent home at Grange-over-Sands, the nurses reported him to the doctors on suspicion of being a woman. He later, at his trial, agreed that he did like to pass as a woman. He spoke in a light feminine voice.
In January 1931, as Norma, she met George Burrows, an unemployed labourer. By mid-February they moved into a bed-sitting room in St Helens and lived as man and wife. In June they moved to London, initially living in the sex-segregated hostels of the Church Army. She then claimed that she had found a position as a lady’s companion, but George found out that she was scrubbing floors at 10/- a week. They agreed to return to St Helens, but Norma then disappeared, although she wrote to him from Edinburgh.
George started asking around in St Helens, discovered her parents, and indeed that she was Austin Hall. He went to the police, and Norma was tracked down and arrested in Blackpool in September. In November she was tried with 'procuring another to commit a gross indecency', with George as the major witness. To the titillation of the press, the judge made the defendant appear in her female clothes until the prosecution case was completed. As George testified that he never realized that Norma was not a woman, the resident medical officer at the prison argued that gross indecency could hardly have taken place. The visiting psychiatrist described Hull as ‘an invert and not a pervert’.
However ‘Austin Hull’ was convicted and sentenced to 18 months hard labour. She burst into tears and then fainted. Mr Hull, the father of Norma, was so shaken by the trial, that he was admitted to a mental hospital, and his wife and the other children were forced onto relief. There had been sufficient publicity about the case that ‘Austin Hull’ was adopted by the sex-reform movement who argued that she should be treated in a hospital, not in a prison. They raised a petition and wrote articles in the press, especially the Week-End Review. They were successful to the extent that Hull was transferred to HMP Wormwood Scrubs, so that he could attend the Tavistock Clinic three times a week for psychotherapy. Even so he was accompanied by two uniformed warders, to one of whom he was always handcuffed.
After release Norma/Austin disappeared from view.
Norma's story can be read in various newspapers from 1931. It is also told, with different emphases from my summary, as chapter 9, 'Transvestites' of Angus McLaren's The Trials of Masculinity: Policing Sexual Boundaries 1870-1930, published in 1997. Thank you to Angus Mclaren for doing the research, but there does seem to be a problem. With modern hindsight, it seems fairly obvious that Norma was transsexual, not a transvestite. And more than that, she was a primary transsexual, and a natural beauty. McLaren concedes this point in his text, but denies it with his chapter title. And surely what McLaren needed for the thesis of his book is a transvestite as opposed to a transsexual, for his thesis is the testing of the social construction of masculinity. There is no indication that McLaren - despite teaching at the same university as Aaron Devor, the author of FTM: Female-to-Male Transsexuals in Society - actually knows any transgender persons. His chapter is typical of a quick reading of standard books in the field, without the depth that comes from meeting real people. He refers to Lili Elvenes (Elbe) using only male pronouns; and includes Janice Raymond in his survey of theorists without seeing through her paranoia.
What are we to make of Norma's story? Let us start with George Burrows. Could he be that naive? McLaren reminds us of Marie Stopes, the pioneer feminist and birth control advocate. A university-educated woman, it took her some months to realize that her first marriage had not been consummated. In later decades we know that there are transy prostitutes who can go with tricks without the trick ever knowing. But I don't think that Norma would have known such skills. It could be that George had realized Norma's sex, but denied it for otherwise he also would be guilty of 'gross indecency', and worse than that, he would be 'homosexual'.
The 18 months hard labour is of course completely outrageous. That is a punishment for an unmitigated villain. It is difficult to even argue that George was a victim in some sense. It certainly widened his experience. Young men who play with young women, and often leave them with a baby, almost never draw such a punishment.
From our time perspective, the sex-reform progressives are amazingly conservative. It shows how far we have come. Still their appeal for psychotherapy rather than imprisonment with hard labour is a step forward. However we should remember that the pioneering sex-change operations on Lili Elvenes (Elbe) and Dorchen Richter had already been done in Berlin by 1931.
Norma managed to stay away from the attentions of authorities after she was released in 1933. The centenary of her birth was last year. One hopes that she was able to return to being Norma, but is afraid that the trauma may have persuaded her to impersonate a man afterwards. In the early 1950s, when sex-change operations first became available in England, she was in her 40s. One hopes that with whatever name she was going by at that time, she was able to obtain one.