Friday, September 20, 2019

How We Became Transgender

By Paula Gaikowski, Femulate Contributing Editor

Last century, back in the 80’s, I’d stop at a corner deli on my way into the office in Morristown, New Jersey. In the back of the store was a collection of adult magazines. My eyes would scan the racks past the racier magazines to my favorite monthly The Tranvestian. I’m almost embarrassed to say the name nowadays. In the 80’s, our sources of information were limited. As indelicate as The Tranvestian sounded, it was tame featuring articles and photos we’d see today on many blogs. Of course, there were ads for all types of clothes, makeovers and other “services.”

I have often said that I knew I was transgender before the term even existed. Back then we were transvestites, although other less flattering terms were often used. We then became crossdressers and that term seems to hold a bit more dignity and didn’t have the connotations that transvestite carried.

Today, transgender has entered the mainstream and is used as an umbrella term for our community at large. I like the term and find it comforting and sometimes, when shopping for clothes or makeup, I’ll tell the sales associate that I am transgender so that they know that I am shopping for myself. This typically puts both of us at ease.

So how did we get here? How did we become transgender? Virginia Prince, the founder and publisher of another magazine, Transvestia, was one of the first advocates and activists in our community and is often credited for coining the term transgender.

However, there is empirical evidence that indicates otherwise. The term transgender was used by psychiatrist John F. Oliven of Columbia University in his 1965 reference work Sexual Hygiene and Pathology. In that work, he wrote that the term that had previously been used was transsexualism.

Other terms that were used in the early days of our community were transsexual, transgenderist and transgenderal. The later two were used by Virginia Prince and members of Triess to describe a person who changed genders, but not their physical sex. (Both Virginia Prince and Triess are not without controversy today, but I believe that both should be applauded for all they did for our community and viewed in the context of their times.)

Virginia Prince first used the term transgender in the December 1969 edition of Transvestia. So it was here that the seed was planted in our community. It then appeared in Practical Handbook of Psychiatry (1974) with references to "transgender surgery" and in the April 1970 issue of TV Guide, which published an article referencing a post-operative transsexual movie character as being transgendered. (Often, the word appeared hyphenated as trans-gender.)

In late 90’s, when Internet usage grew exponentially, the term transgender had already taken root amongst the better informed. When online communities began to organically form on the web, we saw the use of this term increase and become more common, although transsexual, crossdresser, transgenderist, transvestite and sex change were used as well.

Many transgender people rejected the term transsexual citing the fact that gender is separate from sex and sexuality. So nowadays, even outside our community, we hear the term transgender used when referring to a person who has undergone gender transition. It has now become the most often used term and the default term when speaking about gender non-conforming peoples. So when did transgender jump from our community into the public domain?

Time magazine published the “The Transgender Tipping Point” in 2014. A generational shift was starting, Millennials saw a wave of transgender persons in the media like Jazz Jennings, Chase Bono, Janet Mock, Laverne Cox and Caitlyn Jenner.

President Obama carefully included the word transgender in his 2015 State of the Union address. This was the first time a President had used the word in such a high-profile speech. Here we seemed to cross a threshold and gain significant momentum. Social monitoring tools recorded a sharp rise in the occurrence of the word by journalists, entertainers and politicians. A this point the word entered the common vocabulary and you could use the word in everyday conversation.

And that, my sisters, is how we became transgender.

Wearing Madeleine

Femulator Terri as she appeared in Transvestia in 1961


  1. Well stated Paula - Thank you.

  2. Paula - thank you for your research, and for stating the time line so clearly. It always helps to know the background of a term so we can use it properly. I will admit, I still have a hard time referring to myself as "transgemder" when I have been a "cross dresser" for SOOOO long. But we learn and we grow.

  3. I remember those days! There was a newsstand on 15th Street, NW in Washington, DC that carried "The Transvestian" and "Transvestia". Until then I could only find occasional lurid articles about female impersonators in the sleazy"Confidential Magazine". This was in the 1950's. The "T" magazines presented us as people who dress as opposed "Confidential's" weird and creepy people.But I already knew my mother did very thorough searches of my room when she cleaned, so I didn't bring the mags home. No privacy in my house!

    Back then some people referred to transvestism as "Eonism", after the infamous Chevalier. Uninformed people called us "morphodites". "Venus Castina" was one of the very few books about us I could find. Watching The Jewel Box Revue at age 13 REALLY OPENED MY EYES! And I learned the distinction between Drag Queens and Transvestites. But the net result back in the 1950's was that we were "the others", outsiders and only the "T" mags treated us with any empathy and dignity. The general public didn't see those mags and treated us like something weird and to be pushed around. In DC I saw people stop their cars to get out and attack people in drag. I saw DC police beat us up right out in the open. But interestingly enough, I actually saw female impersonator acts on TV variety shows on a semi-regular basis.

    Into the 1960's with Paula, magazines about us were still way in the back of that newsstand, and nowhere else as far as I could see. I remember going to The Library of Congress and requesting books on Transvestism. They were kept in a "special" collection and I had to be 21 to request them. The librarian who gave me the books gave me a very nasty "snake eye" and had nasty things to say to me when I was finished with them. Of course, the books could only be read in the "special" room.

    Unlike Paula, I wasn't as certain about my dressing but it was good for an analytical person like me to learn accurately and with empathy about what and sometimes why we do what we do. As we moved through the '60's and into the '70's it was only slightly easier to find more about us. But those regular TV variety show appearances of Drag Queens went away.Occasional drag showed up in a few sitcoms but had to wait for RuPaul to show up to see serious Drag on TV. It's good to have such a wealth of information about ourselves, but it sure took a long time to get it.

    1. You were not the only person to 'get the stink eye' while doing academic research.
      Your recollections or your own 'journey of self discovery' reminded me of a friend who also did academic research and subsequent book publishing 'into sensitive social/sexual topics'.
      He also discovered that OFTEN, 'back then', THE LIBRARIAN was one of the last in a long line of subtle, unauthorized CENSORS, often the censorship was done for no other reason than upset personal sensibilities. Often the censorship he experienced was a subtle action of not purchasing or accepting receipt of
      a book, or a deliberate action of failing to catalog whatever literature/art caused the upset.
      Apparently librarians lacked the obligation of their own published standard of ethics.

  4. Paula,
    Thank you for a wonderful and well reasoned article. You did a good job of pulling things together. Mikki's comments area also well reasoned and on point.
    Transgender as a term covers a lot of ground. It is a label that get put on a very wide spectrum of people. I tend to prefer not using labels since almost by definition they are limiting. To be labeled as a Democrat or Republican or right wing or left wing is often only partially accurate. Labeling people by race, ethnic origin, etc, is sometimes of benefit but can only tell part of the story.
    I am more comfortable describing the acts that I do. When I drive my car I am a driver, when I golf or ski, I am a golfer or skier. When I dress as a woman while still being the guy that I am I engage in the act of cross dressing. Julie's point is quite valid.
    I never get offended by terminology. If I am labeled a transvestite that is OK with me 'trans', 'vestia" is merely the Latin origin of the act of cross dressing...which is what I do.

  5. At the 1984 Democratic National Convention, which was held at the Moscone Center in San Francisco at the height of the AIDS crisis, nominee Walter Mondale was unable to actually utter the word "gay" and/or "lesbian," instead referring obliquely to "the flamboyant."

  6. If you're ever in Victoria BC check out the University of Victoria's Special Collection Library. As part of of one of the world's largest TG collections, they have the full run of "Transvestia" and some of Virginia Prince's personal collections.

  7. Times have changed
    If Terri, in the last picture had walked down a street in the UK she would probably been arrested simply for dressing as a woman
    I believe a lot of places in the US were the same at that time

  8. Interesting history, thanks for posting.

  9. It been 2 Years came out as Black Plus Transgender Woman. Times have changed Back then would probably been arrested simply for dressing as a woman. I'm also going Transgender History and put it page.