Safety in Numbers: A Trans History

Different kinds of communities start in different ways and so the trans community in order to start had to overcome secrecy. And the secrecy was a matter of survival. There have to be a few brave souls who are willing to put their heads up and say here I am. One by one by one they started to build connections and started to realize that there are numbers and that there were power in numbers. And we can harness those power in numbers to build something better for ourselves.

(group chattering) The experience of being a young transperson today is radically different in many ways. Young people today do not go through that period of thinking they’re the only ones in the world. – The first memory I had when I discovered that something was not quite sis about me. I was actually through a social media website where I found somebody else who was trans and I didn’t know what the definition meant. So I looked it up and immediately felt like maybe there was some sort of word to describe the way I had been feeling. – I wrote my parents a letter. I basically told them, hey, read this, and I ran upstairs and then they were totally fine with it. It took a little bit of adjusting but it was okay. – I told my mom and it was met with a lot of… You’re sick, you’re not a boy, you’re hanging out with the wrong people. I just think she did a lot of growing too as I grew through my transitions she also grew a lot too. She’s come a long way, yeah. Mom’s like the best number one ally now.

Yeah, it’s like a 360, like, not 360, 180? Yeah, 360’s going back. – Yeah. – Okay, no, we don’t wanna go back. 180. – If we go back in history what we’ll find is that the experience of transpeople is very very different from what we see today. If you talk to most people who are adults today what you will find is that pretty much every single one of them will tell you that they passed most of their lives feeling that they were the only one in the world who was like them. – I knew at age three that I really was a boy. But I didn’t know there was anyone else on the planet like myself. I didn’t know the word transexual or gay or lesbian or homosexual.

So I didn’t really have anyone to talk to. I felt suicidal in I think when I was around 13. – I felt like I was probably the only person and continued to feel that way for obviously a very long time. I couldn’t at that point dress the way I wanted to and I didn’t know there was surgery available or any other thing and I thought what is the rest of my life going to be like? – My earliest memories were I wanted to be a girl. I couldn’t sort of say to my parents or my mother, you know, I’d like to be a girl. Something like that just wouldn’t be available to me because I knew it was forbidden basically. – For people who grew up thinking they were the only one in the world, really the only thing you can conclude is that you are unimaginable freak.

– When I was younger I was mortified every single day by what I had to wear. I would carry bags of clothing, boys clothing, to school with me to change in the restroom. – If we look back and ask transpeople did you know anything about being trans. What they’ll tell you is that they did occasionally see something come up in the media. – The first person I heard about who was transsexual as an expression used, was Christine Jorgensen. (upbeat classic music) – In 1952 a story broke that a young person had gone off to Denmark as a man and had come back to the United States to New York City as a woman. A glamorous woman. Many people of the generation have told me that that was the first time they realized that there was somebody else in the world like them and it also meant to them it was something that there was something that could be done about it.

And so the physician who was named in some of the media reports received hundreds and hundreds of letters from people desperately asking can you help me too? Part of her story also is after that great moment of fame she was not able to ever have a life that was not completely overshadowed by the fact that she was a transsexual. She could never get a regular job. And she spent the rest of her life performing in various ways. Some of them speaking in universities, some of them going on media, and a lot of her time was spent making a living by having a nightclub act where she sang and told her story.

She was a survivor and she said, okay, if this is the only work I can get I’m gonna use it to educate people. Virginia Prince was another somewhat reluctant activist. And in the very early 1960s she was already a fairly longterm cross dresser. The Hose and Heel club was one of the first actual organizations that brought together transpeople and again this was cross dressers for the purpose of a support group. There was concern that they might be infiltrated by undercover police officers. Because remember, what they’re doing is illegal. And so the idea was you would come to the appointed meeting location and you would bring with you a brown paper bag, the type that you might carry your lunch in. And in the brown paper bag would be your heels, your high-heeled shoes and your hose, stockings.

And at the appointed moment, everyone will open up their brown paper bag, take out their hose and heels, and put them on. And if you were willing to do that in front of everyone else the presumption was you were not an undercover police officer. (upbeat music) She started a magazine called Transvestia. And it ran for more than 20 years. Transvestia became a lifeline for people to communicate with each other to learn that there were others like them. It also had a section at the back where people could put in ads for pen pals, for the loss of another word. And they could communicate with other people so they could build community in that way as well. (upbeat music) In the 1980s, we started to see transpeople show up on television shows. (upbeat music) – So I went on the Donahue show and I said, one of the main things I wanted to do is to make sure we have an address where people who see this show can respond directly to me rather than go through the program. The show went on. We had a whole hour. The audience that he had was these little old housewives from middle America who never saw somebody like me before.

He goads them every so often saying, now, what do you think about that? And so they say, well, what do you think about that? And then, you know, I’d say my five words of wisdom and that was the end of that. – Usually on talk shows where they were the butt of the joke they were brought in for everybody to laugh at and as a freak show. The brave souls that were willing to do that however, got the message out to the fairly large audience that those shows had.

– We got 8,000 letters back. We got information out to all those people some of whom were cross dressers who never heard of Fantasia Fair. – [Aaron] Fantasia Fair started in 1974 and is still going today. It started as kind of a country retreat for cross dressers. – We actually picked the site and we started the elements of the program. And that’s the real important thing. What kind of elements of this program could we have that would be of interest to the average cross dresser who would be willing to come down and pay 300-400 bucks for room and board plus good food and a chance to parade around in their heels and whatever. And work. So in the first fair it was like (sighs) hell’s a poppin’.

Community was only one of the things and the other thing was information. Most of these people were thinking about hormones because they didn’t know who to talk to. They couldn’t go to your doctor and say, I want some female hormones. So we had a program like that. We had a program about what clothes to wear. Let me tell you, it was absolutely supremely important. It started in 1975 and continues to this day and a testament to the veracity of one area.

So there. – It wasn’t until the 90s that trans community and organizing really started to take off. Because all those isolated transpeople started to be able to find each other through the internet. (hopeful music) The start of the internet allowed transpeople to start to find each other and started to organize. The next development was it allowed transpeople to take control to some degree of the public conversation about them.

You go onto the internet and you type into Google what you want to know and often a lot what comes back is actually written by transpeople. Is actually created by transpeople. What you’re getting, what you’re learning, largely comes from the community rather than from the experts or from traditional media. And that’s a huge change. – Ether and I entrust in time however in terms of diversity around gender identity, sexual orientation, with the benefit of the internet and so on. There’s greater opportunities to learn about diverse communities and come together.

Virtually or in person. And hopefully broaden the mind and the heart and break down bigotries and so on and that’s a wonderful opportunity. We didn’t have that in the 50s or 60s or 70s. Or we forged that ourselves so I think that’s a real boon. – I suppose in a sense I think all of us can be inspirations to people because you don’t have to be a, no, it’s not just about being transsexual. It’s about anything that you are. And I think that’s what all of us should be, really. To be an inspiration and stand up and be, this is who I am and this is who you can be. – We have been able to learn a bunch about trans pioneers and stuff like that. And while doing my own research I did some but I’m nowhere close to understanding the full extent of what it was like back then. – They’re definitely like why we are here today. – I feel really glad that they kind of paved the way for us like he said.

I’m glad that I don’t have to fight those battles. Generally, my trans experience is not nearly as hard as it could have been and I want everybody’s experience to be like that. – I want it to be normal for people to be experimenting with their gender at a very young age and it to be completely normalized in social media and in society and in health care and I want it to be easier for people who come after me to go through this experience. (group chattering) – It’s wonderful to see how far we’ve come. It’s wonderful to see a generation of young people growing into a world that has a lot of room for them. That in many ways embraces the full spectrum of gender because there were great pioneers who took big risks who sacrificed a lot. To start the ball rolling. To initiate change. And to make the changes that allow the young people today to pick up that ball and keep playing with it.