About two weeks ago I uncovered a 1985 article wherein Christine Jorgensen rejects the word “transsexual” and instead chooses to self-identify as being a “transgender” person. While surprising, this discovery seemed somewhat reasonable because, as the current historical narrative goes, “transgender” meant crossdresser in the 1970s and it only began to change as a term to become inclusive of transsexual people sometime in late 1980s.
This common view on the evolution of the word seemed sound in my mind until this evening when I uncovered yet another article in which Jorgensen rejects the word “transsexual” and instead chooses to self-identify as being a “trans-gender” woman. Only this time she is self-identifying as transgender in 1979:
Newsday article reprinted in the Winnipeg Free Press, 1979
The article reads:
As a young man, Jorgensen experienced strong emotional attachments to two male friends, but she says those feelings were never expressed. She admits now that she wasn’t entirely candid in the book. She did have “a couple” of homosexual experiences before she went to Europe to seek a medical solution to her problem, but they only reinforced the feeling that she wanted to relate to men as a woman, not as another man. “If you understand trans-genders,” she says, (the word she prefers to transsexuals), “then you understand that gender doesn’t have to do with bed partners, it has to do with identity.”
The article goes on:
Many of her friends are gay, she says. She knows other trans-genders but none are within her circle of intimates.
I feel that I can’t stress how significant it is that the world’s most famous transsexual was self-identifying as a transgender woman in 1979. If you were transsexual in the 1970s and 1980s, your first introduction to transsexualism was most likely through Christiane Jorgensen. The way Jorgensen chose to self-identify, her opinions about the word “transsexual” and her obvious feelings about the distinction between sex (having “to do with bed partners”) and gender (having “to do with identity”) would have been significant.
As I’ve noted in every article in this series on the historical co-evolution of both language and community, the hallmarks of our current transgender community didn’t just pop into existence on January 1, 1990. Our views, goals and values of the post-1990s era were shaped by the views, goals and values of the pre-1990s era.
While I’ve found books using the term “transgender surgery” when referring to transsexual surgeries dating from the mid-1970s (A Practical Handbook of Psychiatry, 1974), Jorgenson’s pronouncement represents the earliest transsexual leader/opinion shaper to have publicly renounced the “transsexual” label by publicly self-identifying as a post-op MTF transgender woman.
Historical Document Disclaimer:
As I continue to publish historical documents relevant to the debates going on around the term transgender, I will include this disclaimer in hopes that it will cut down on having my position strawmaned to death.
The ideas found within the transgender community came from somewhere; they didn’t magically pop into existence on January 1, 1990. My intent in posting these historical documents is to dispel some historical inaccuracies some within the TS-not-TG group continue to popularize. I continuously find ideas that are purported to have originated within the so-called “transgender Borg”/“slave master” community sometime in the early 1990s and which was then supposedly thrust upon an unsuspecting transsexual community were in fact, championed by transsexuals leaders prior to 1990.
I find that I agree with practically everything those in the moderate TS-not-TG group claim with one major exception. Many assert that the “transgender umbrella” idea doesn’t refer to a group of unique allies who find unity in a common cause; rather, many in the TS-not-TG group simply assert that the term “transgender” robs all transsexuals of their unique experience. In fact, most transsexuals do not feel that the we should be segregated away from all of our allies in our continued fight for equality and, as these historical documents continue to show, transsexual people of history do not see a need to rip the transsexual community away from other communities to go it alone.
For a view that very closely resembles my own views on this issue, check out The Death of the “Transgender Umbrella” by Mercedes Allen. My reservations about this article can be summed up nicely within the comment section by Dr. Jillian Weiss:
Great article, but you can’t create a movement to “not be transgender.” Critique is valuable, but by itself, it can only alter an existing movement, not build one of its own. Movements have to be for something. If we could create a viable “transsexual movement,” I’m for it. But it is unlikely that such a movement can occur at this point in time. Very unlikely. Although I agree with the idea on a theoretical basis, I don’t think it will ever go beyond talk.
So, if you take Allen’s article and combine it with what Weiss had to add, you’d have a near perfect representation of my views concerning the TS-not-TG debate.