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22 November 2017

Phoebe Smith (1939–) Part I: retail worker

(Phoebe transitioned in Atlanta in the 1960s.   In those days she had great difficulty in finding out about other transsexuals, and in finding any professionals who even knew where to point her, let alone to actually help.   If she were in New York or Paris, she would have had more information even in the 1960s – but she did not know that. Fortunately she was determined.)

James Smith was born to a family of sharecroppers in Irwin County, US Georgia. His relatives referred to him as a ‘sissy’ from an early age, and he was bullied at school, more so because of his disinterest in sports.

In September 1953, the family pickup was hit by a flatbed truck. The father had his left arm crushed and had to give up farming; the mother was in constant pain afterwards. They moved to Atlanta. At the new school Smith was called ‘queer’.

In 1955 a neighbor showed him a magazine article about someone who had a sex-change operation, and asked him why he did not have it also. Smith wrote to a preacher on the radio that he had been listening to, and later phoned him. This was the first time that he ever told someone that he wanted to change sex. The preacher said that he saw nothing wrong or sinful in Smith’s desire, but couldn’t offer any help. In September 1956 Smith attempted suicide by taking his mother’s pain pills. After recovery he insisted on quitting school – he was then seventeen.

After temporary and part-time work, Smith found a position at Rich’s Department Store where he stayed for ten years. Every now and then there would be an article in the news about a transsexual, but when Smith attempted to correspond with a doctor or psychiatrist, he was told that a change of sex was impossible.

In November 1961 Smith was called to report to the Draft Board. He explained himself and was classified 4-F. If questioned he said that this was because of a bad back resulting from the 1953 road crash. Around this time, his father driving a cement mixer was hit by a train on a crossing. Smith’s younger brother joined the US Marines, but was discharged after being diagnosed with chronic bronchitis.

By 1964 Smith had rented a mailbox and was writing letters prolifically: to doctors, to medical universities, to politicians. Many were not answered; some were rudely answered. One, who was helpful, was Amy Larkin, the agony aunt at the Atlanta Constitution (actually a pseudonym for Olive Ann Burns (1924 – 1990) who later became renowned for her novel Cold Sassy Tree). Larkin passed anonymous information about Smith to Harry Benjamin in New York (who was then working with John Money so that the Johns Hopkins Gender Identity Clinic would open the next year). Benjamin wrote back that “there seems very little doubt that this patient is a transsexual”.

Larkin arranged an appointment with a local endocrinologist, but he, despite the letter from Benjamin, maintained that what was wanted could not be done.

Smith wrote to the Governor of Georgia who passed the letter to the Dean of the Medical College of Georgia who replied that the surgery was illegal within Georgia.

Smith contacted Atlanta Constitution journalist, Dick Herbert, who became interested and wrote a sympathetic story (by the standards of the time) using a pseudonym: “Long-Ill Tim Gets New Hope to Solve Endocrine Malady”.

Smith applied to Georgia Vocational Rehabilitation and Georgia Mental Health Institute. They responded with a mixture of ignoring him, giving a run-around and even rudeness. In 1968 Smith saw Christine Jorgensen on the Merv Griffin television show, and wrote to ask for Christine’s address. Christine put Smith in touch with a doctor, who in turn gave the names and addresses of two surgeons: Dr Burou in Casablanca and Dr Barbosa in Tijuana. Smith decided on the latter.

In January 1969, Smith moved out of the family home to stay with a friend; resigned his job; sent a letter to his parents saying for the first time that he was transsexual and asking them to borrow $4,200 against their house to lend to him. Smith paid $200 for a flight to Los Angeles, and then took a train to San Diego, crossed the border into Mexico at 2am. After resting in a hotel, Smith arrived at Dr Barbosa’s office – still in male clothes.

Dr Barbosa examined Smith and then explained that he required a full year of hormone therapy prior to surgery. Further examination discovered a thyroid problem. Dr Barbosa compromised and treatment for the thyroid condition was provided as well as an orchiectomy. While in the clinic, Smith contemplated a female name and decided on Phoebe.

She had brought a mail-order catalogue with her and made her first purchases of female clothing. On return to Atlanta, Phoebe was welcomed by her family and relatives. The mail-order purchases had arrived, and from that day on, she never wore male clothing again.

Continued in Part II.

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