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17 January 2013

Yvonne Sinclair (1934 – 2013) sailor, changeback, activist, actor.

I previously wrote about Yvonne in June 2008.  This is much expanded.

Sinclair was born in the Old Kent Road, London, and was cross-dressing by the age of three. One of the sisters assisted in this. After experimenting with men, Sinclair married a girlfriend when she became pregnant, but the marriage did not last.

After a period in the Merchant Navy, Sinclair was increasingly Yvonne. She worked on stage, but often had to revert to her male persona to obtain work. She later described herself as a 'lapsed transsexual': she was once within 14 days of the operation, but then changed her mind.

The TV/TS Group (sometimes called Friend TV/TS Group) started in 1976 as an offshoot of London Friend, which in turn was an offshoot of the Campaign for Homosexual Equality. London Friend sublet space at 274 Upper St. Soon Yvonne took over the running, supposedly for a month at first.

By then the Gay Liberation Front Transvestite, Transsexual and Drag Queen Group and Bethnal Rouge were defunct. The almost forgotten UK branch of the Transsexual Action Organization (TAO) had broken away from its US parent and shortly afterwards had ceased to exist. The other group with a US parent, The Beaumont Society was then still under the influence of Virginia Prince and thus restrictive (no gays, no transsexuals, no trans men) and worked from a Post Office Box Number and required vetting. SHAFT (Self-Help Association For Transsexuals) was not founded until 1980.

Men in Frocks, p76
Thus, apart from the Porchester Hall Drag Balls, held every three months, the TV/TS Group was the only venue where a trans person could just turn up for a small admission fee (at first £2.00), no questions asked, and the doors were open every weekend. The premises consisted of two small rooms and a single toilet on the first floor and a changing room on the top floor. Food and drink were provided, but more importantly advice, straight talking and the chance to meet other trans people. There was of course a telephone support line.

From 1982 onwards drag balls were run at the Tudor Lodge and continued until 1995. They were different from the Porchester Balls in that the East End location attracted fewer professional drag artistes and gays, and was less high spirited. Also in 1982 Yvonne organised two boat trips on the Thames to raise money for the group: "the guests including trannies, drag queens, gays, wives, partners and anyone who just wanted to be there really. It was great fun."

The same years a membership was formed with the idea of running a dress shop with meeting rooms attached. The group's magazine, The Glad Rag, was started, and the office was open five days a week. The aim was to own or lease their own building. The group was now more so a collective effort, but it was Yvonne who was the most visible, and who appeared on radio programs and became the name given out by newspaper agony aunts.

Kris Kirk and Ed Heath who were developing what became their seminal book, Men In Frocks, 1984, came to the group to meet people, and Yvonne and several others are featured in it.

The 36 page booklet, Transvestism within a partnership of marriage and families, also 1984, was written by Yvonne with contributions from a couple of others. This was the first English book on the topic (another pamphlet was issued a few years later by the Wives of the Beaumont Society WOBS). Woodhouse compares Sinclair's booklet with Virginia Prince's 1967 book The Transvestite and His Wife, which she regards as "the wishful projections of some transvestites who want it all their own way". Sinclair recognises that a transvestite can harm "those whom they least wish to hurt". Three wives recount their experiences. Sinclair admonishes a transvestite not to abuse his wife's acceptance:
"Putting on a frock is not being a woman. Most of the time, for the average woman, the routine is pretty boring, and housework a drudge. It might be fun for you to tie a scarf around your wig and then start dusting the shelves and mop the floor; she will have to follow you round afterwards and do it properly. She scrubs the floor in an old dress; not like you, in a pretty print dress and high heels that are more suited to the local tea dance."
By 1985 London Friend knew that the lease at 274 Upper St was about to expire and that both groups must find new premises. The TV/TS Group was registered as a charity. After a couple of prospects falling through, Yvonne found the building at 2 French Place in Shoreditch, and signed a 12 year lease. Much work needed to be done. Fortunately one member, Christina, was a builder, and gave up a month's work to make the building liveable. A member who was a plumber fitted the central heating. Others pitched in to do the physical work, and the doors were opened 5 July 1986.

A Partners' Support Group was set up in 1986 at the initiative of a couple of wives, and even set up their own phone line. It ran into problems in that their husbands did not always respect privacy and even walked into the meeting. Some felt threatened by a group that excluded them. The wives reasonably concentrated on mutual support of each other rather than prioritising support for their husbands, but this became a contention with the larger group. At this time Annie Woodhouse was developing her book, Fantastic Women, 1989, and met with both the wives and the transvestites.

One special event was a discussion with psychiatrist Russell Reid, who helped so many transsexuals on their way. Yvonne continued to appear on radio and television programs and was interviewed by newspapers and magazines. In 1987 the group ran a TV/TS conference in Scarborough, and made a profit on the event.

However when she took a break later that year, an anti-Yvonne clique developed, and Yvonne decided in June 1988 that she had had enough, and left the group. The group was then co-ordinated by Vic Sherman and Janette Scott (later on the executive of the Beaumont Society). In 1990 the Co-ordinator's job went to Derek Shaw-Larkman, who had previously run Obstretric Practioners Ltd. The Group finally closed in February 1992. In 1988 the Group had £35,000 in bank deposits and an annual turnover of £50,000. When it closed it had zero assets.

Yvonne continued offering a change-away service, but after thefts and the building being trashed, she closed the operation in 1996. She suffered a mild stroke in 2004, but still made it to transvestite events.

She was one of the contributors to Surya Monro's Gender Politics.

Yvonne died aged 78.

*Not the 1930s actress, nor the gospel singer, nor the marriage counsellor.
  • Yvonne Sinclair. Transvestism within a partnership of marriage and families. Transvestite /Transsexual Social Group. 36 pp. 1984. Online.
  • Kris Kirk and Ed Heath. Men In Frocks. Gay Men's Press. 159pp 1984: 74,76,80-1.
  • Annie Woodhouse. Fantastic Women: Sex, Gender, and Transvestism. Rutgers University Press, 1989: 49-51, 124, 130-1.
  • Virginia Ironside. "Dilemmas: Is he also Shirley from Purley?". The Independent, 03 March 1994.
  • Surya Monro. Gender Politics:  Citizenship, Activism, and Sexual Diversity. London: Pluto Press, 2005: 17, 111, 205.

I attended the group in 1988, but was naively unaware of the politics going on.

Yvonne claims the 1987 conference as a first, but this is to ignore the Leeds 1974 conference and the Leicester 1975 conference organized by Della Aleksander.

Apart from an unexplained 1-line reference in Male Femaling, there is no mention at all of Yvonne in the Richard Ekins books.  However what she did fits right in with what Ekins was writing about.  The lack should be explained.


chris1 said...

FYI Yvonne died 6th August 2013 probably of another stroke

Brenda Lana Smith R af D said...

R.I.P. Yvonne...

Molly Cutpurse said...

R.I.P. Yvonne