Transgender: Some Cultural Context

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In a previous article, I wrote about how the non-trans community used the term “transgender” in the 1970s and 80s. In 1975 the term was used to describe the rock star Alice Cooper and the need for gender-neutral pronouns. Today I wanted to add a few more articles I’ve come across to illuminate how the non-trans, non-psych and non-medical community worked with this term in the 1970s and 80s.

While I think it is important to look at how the (to use the 1970s taxonomy) “gender community” used the term, I think it is also important to check how the non-gender community/non-psychiatric community used the term. As I said in an earlier post:

Virginia Prince may have coined the term, but our American culture defined it.

Consider  how the TV Guide chose to apply this term in 1970:

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[R]aquel Welch (left), moviedom’s sex queen soon to be seen as the heroine/hero of Gore Vidal’s transgendered “Myra Breckinridge”…

-TV Guide, Sunday, April 26, 1970

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On November 5, 1981 the Boston Globe published a review for a play:

Johnson recently directed a “transgender Salome,’ ” which should give you a hint of what to expect here. Wearing a man’s suit for most of the play, Bolger runs a Newbury street men’s clothing store which she seems to think is successful and classy. The funniest thing about this funny production is that all the clothes look dreadfully tacky.

The morning’s first customer, a “Mrs. Higgs” – Maya Silverthorne again, smashing in drag – breezes in, ostensibly to buy a present for “her” brother. Higgs and the owner exchange banal pleasantries about fashion – playwright Johnson has written some hilarious schlock-speak that includes tawdry gems like “Fashion is like a lover: In one year, out the next” – and soon they exchange clothes as well.


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The best of these “transgender dressing”, she points out, is a man’s suit beneath an oversized coat.

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- Winnipeg Free Press, Thursday, Sept. 13, 1984


When reviewing, debating and/or discussing the word, “transgender” I think it is beneficial to check the way the “gender community”, the psychiatric and medical communities as well as the non-trans, non-psych and non-medical community applied this term when conveying ideas.

Future posts will focus on the way the medical and psychiatric communities worked with this term.


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 are 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 about the TS-not-TG debate.

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