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15 January 2012
The GLF Transvestite, Transsexual and Drag Queen group, 1972
It is now 40 years later. Some things have changed enormously. There is the Gender Recognition Act and the Equality Acts. The trans woman who thought that she was the only one in the world until she learnt a word by watching Psycho, is very much of her time. There is so much today about trans persons on television and in the press, that one can no longer not know.
However basic issues like passing and the attitudes of other people have hardly changed at all.
Note the use of sex changes as a a noun – that is almost never said any more. There is no attempt by the transsexuals to say that they are not transvestites, or vice versa. This was GLF though. You could also go to The Beaumont Society, which was formed as a Princian group for heterosexual transvestites only, and was much more homophobic and transsexual-phobic in 1972 than it became in later years. And shortly afterwards Charlotte Bach started giving weekly talks in a friend’s flat, but most interested people never heard about it, and after that the UK offshoot of Angela Douglas’ TAO (which Stephen Whittle identifies as when transsexuals started to talk about being a separate group). Yvonne Sinclair started the TV-TS Support Group in 1976. Judy Cousins established SHAFT in 1980, and Press For Change was formed in 1992.
Note the rejection of ‘a woman trapped in a man's body’ as a stereotype imposed by outsiders.
60,000 taking sex hormones by 1972. I am surprised by that statistic.
The Transvestite, Transsexual and Drag Queen group has been meeting for several weeks. So far about forty people have called or visited. Some have come regularly, some have drifted off. Almost all have been women — people born males who live as women, or more commonly, dress as women whenever they get the chance. Transvestite men — people born female who live or dress as men (if the language confuses you it confuses us too, it's not meant to include us) have so far not come forth. We're working to break down these barriers, but for now this article will be the experience of transvestite women. Not an article really, just some notes of things we've learned talking to each other. How many of us are there? Nobody knows, or has any real statistics, but there are 60,000 people in the United Kingdom taking sex hormones. Add to this the people who want them but the doctors won't give them, the people who want them but are afraid to ask, and all the transvestites who at the moment aren't interested in hormones. The amazing thing is, most of us think we're a tiny minority. One TV thought she was the only person in the world who did this strange thing until she saw the movie Psycho in which the detective uses the word 'transvestite', and she thought, 'There's a word for it!
When we're alone we tend to accept the stereotypes. By getting together we've discovered how ridiculous they really are. No one in the group has ever said, 'What horrible trick of nature has made me a woman trapped in a man's body?' We just don't think that way. The psychiatrists who electro-shock us think we're pathetic or tragic, but even those who are very much in the closet enjoy being transvestite as long as there's some outlet. We don't follow any single profession. Recently a GLF brother said he thought most transvestites were upper-class and in the art world. At one meeting we had, among others, a student, a house cleaner, an office worker, an engineer, a prostitute, a pub entertainer, and a taxi driver. Most of all, we are not heavily rouged, teased-hair parodies of anybody's traditional role. Some of us dress that way — why not? some 'regular' women dress that way — but we're just people and our taste covers the whole spectrum, from middle-aged matron to hot pants to maxi-skirt, even to butch.
The whole question of roles needs to be examined, and particularly what we as transvestites, transsexuals and drag queens can contribute to a new understanding of how they operate. Some of us are opposed to roles because they can limit self-discovery. We don't want to discard the male role just to take on the female role. Others think that transvestites can show people that roles can be fun, if you're free to take the ones you want and discard them when you don't want them any more. The important thing is, no one should tell you, as a man or a woman, this is the role you have to play, and you have to play it all the time. One TV, when told by a regular woman, 'You're just parodying my role', replied, 'Who said it's your role?'
There are many questions we are just beginning to examine. Why is Danny La Rue a West End institution, when we get kicked out of our flats for wearing a skirt? Apparently it's all right if you're doing it for money, but perverted if you do it for personal satisfaction.
A more central question is how to relate to other women. When we talk about our hopes and fantasies, it becomes apparent that what we want above all is to be accepted as women, primarily by other women. But will we achieve this by looking for ways in which we share experience with regular women or by developing a unique transvestite consciousness?
Sometimes the second approach seems real militant and proud, at other times it seems a cop-out, accepting the prejudiced view that we're not women, that we're some freaky third sex (or fourth or fifth?). Possibly we can find some light by considering the situation of black women and gay women, who develop black pride and gay pride, but still explore their feelings as women. Think how much more inspiring and beautiful the women's revolution will be when it joyously includes all women. Think of a Holloway demo with transvestite, transsexual and drag-queen women, gay women and heterosexual women, black, yellow, brown and white women, mothers, daughters, poor women, rich women, working women, housewives and career women. Certainly, whatever course we take as transvestites, transsexuals and drag queens, we must first destroy the trap wherein regular women set up standards by which they accept or reject us.
A similar question, perhaps even more immediate, is the question of passing. Transvestites have always sought to pass as regular women by disguising their voice, walking right, etc. Certainly it's a thrill to have a salesgirl say, 'Can I help you, madam?' But do we give up too much? How can we escape the feeling of being just an illusion, something that can't be touched or looked at too closely? And we become so paranoid when we're worried people will read us. Also, one transsexual said, you don't become the woman you are, but the woman you can pass as — which means you may feel like maxi-skirts and scarlet capes, but you wear brown midis so people notice you less. So many sex-changes live in constant fear people will discover their pasts. One sex-change said she's torn between two desires, one to disappear and be accepted as a regular woman after struggling so many years, the other to shout up and down the street how beautiful it is to be transsexual. If you're young and haven't suffered as much, you're quick to say be militant, don't hide. Those who came out long ago are often the proudest because they've been themselves the longest. But they also know that if you pass you're treated as a human being, if you don't you're treated as a pervert or a roadshow.
Yet there are also thrills to not passing, or more precisely, not caring if you pass. You dress, comb your hair, use make-up to suit yourself, not to go unnoticed. And you discover yourself developing street instincts: how to handle crowds, how to judge people approaching you, what to do about police. One sister always carries an Italian women's magazine on the tube so if someone speaks to her she can wave the magazine and pretend she doesn't speak English. You learn to laugh at people before they laugh at you. You become your own street theatre. Two transvestites can conquer a whole department store of uptight straight people.
Certainly one thing becomes more and more clear as we come together; pass or not pass, we can't let anybody tell us what we are. One sister said that after six months of psychiatric treatment she discovered that no one knew her like herself. We can't let anybody tell us we're men, when we know we're women. As Holly Woodlawn once said in New York, 'Don't call me mister, you fucking beast!'
Some people whose ideas or experience are reflected in this article are: Roz, Paula, Rachel, Delia, Edith, Susan, Perry, Patty, Christine.