We’ve done it for as long as we’ve known about one another’s existence, and of course, none could cite any guarantee that we would know. But when and where we knew, we gravitated and banded together against a cruel society. It’s only natural that any social animal whose societally imposed norms excluded whole demographics should see such a phenomenon. The support group, which had nurtured transpeople throughout the 20th Century, has declined with the proliferation of Internet and social media despite an initial ascendancy. But we can expect the locally based physical support group to rebound in the 21st Century and that such organizations would require much more than the commonly moderated discussion circle that meets once or twice a month.
In that context we can look back at what has worked in support groups for transpeople and what has not.
Perhaps the first recorded example in the West of transpeople joining together would be 1870 when Earnest Boulton and Frederick Park, known popularly as Stella and Fanny were arrested outside the Strand Theatre on April 28, 1870 while dressed as females. They were charged at the Bow Street Police Station with “Conspiracy to Commit a Felony.” Boulton’s mother testified at trial that her son “had dressed as a girl since age 6, and his favorite role was as parlor maid.” The public saw these excursions as “harmless diversions” and the two were acquitted.1
But while 2 people may begin a support group, Boulton and Park had not achieved the level of a full organization. For such an example we would have to look in the years in New York between 1875 and 1895 on the seedy part of town known as the Bowery. At Paresis Hall 3 people approached intersex individual Jenny June (aka Earl Lind aka Walter Werther). The 3, described as “smooth-faced young men” introduced themselves as Roland Reeves, Manon Lescaut, and Prince Pansy and doubtless these were not their legal names. The story tells that Roland offered this invitation in 1895:
”Mr. Werther–or Jennie June, as doubtless you prefer to be addressed- -I have seen you at the Hotel Comfort, but you were always engaged. A score of us have formed a little club, the Cercle Hermaphroditos. For we need to unite for defense against the world’s bitter persecution of bisexuals. We care to admit only extreme types-such as like to doll themselves up in feminine finery. We sympathize with, but do not care to be intimate with, the mild types, some of whom you see here to-night even wearing a disgusting beard! Of course they do not wear it out of liking. They merely consider it a lesser evil than the horrible razor or excruciating wax-mask.”2
Jennie June, thereafter ran newspaper ads and engaged in written correspondences to others like her to “unite for defense against the world’s bitter persecution.” She later moved to San Francisco, taking her activities with her, and wrote the books Autobiography of an Androgyne (1918) and The Female Impersonators (1922) 3
Most transgender people of the time remained in hiding but a few might in stealth frequent the speakeasy clubs that flourished during the Roaring Twenties. These clubs smiled upon “gayness” as high-brow foppery though a few developed real homosexual ties. Most of these clubs didn’t admit transpeople except perhaps to exploit as back room prostitutes. These mob-driven operations cared more for raking in money during the prohibition years and between repeal, the hardship of the Great Depression, and mass conscription during World War II, largely died out. Most of New York City’s transpeople remained in clusters in the Bowery and Greenwich Village, most particularly at Paresis and Webster Halls. Most drag performers at this time were itinerant.
Clubs catering to drag began a resurgence on both sides of the Atlantic after the war. In New York Pat Patillo opened a series of establishments featuring a drag revue, beginning with The Howdy in 1945. He later opened the more uptown 181 Club on 2nd Street in 1950 and the 82 Club in 1953, the latter of which would host the Jewel Box Revue.4
The club model would appear on the West Coast as well. Finnoccio’s opened in San Francisco with a live band after the war and the Motherlode thereafter opened in the Tenderloin. The Motherlode would be the predecessor of today’s club Divas on Post Street next to the fire station which not only offers 3 floors for weekend entertainment but whose quintessential drag queen the Empress Alexis Miranda opened its facilities for other support and for civil rights.5
Perhaps the most renowned center for transpeople would form in Los Angeles. The actress Mae West invested in a large tract of land along what is now Ventura Boulevard in Studio City. She intended for transpeople to have a place to meet without harassment. The establishment that arose from this was The Queen Mary which offered a show-lounge and a back bar. Beginning in the early 1970’s the Queen Mary was the place for transpeople to congregate. Go to the Queen Mary and it won’t be long before you can find friends and establish your own support network. A picture of Mae West hung in the show-lounge in remembrance of her kindness till the club closed its doors in 2002. The Los Angeles trans community would not meaningfully regroup for years despite an attempt with The Lodge in North Hollywood who in turn closed in 2005. A contingent remains to this day at The Oxwood Inn in the San Fernando Valley. The Oxwood is essentially a lesbian bar that opened its doors to TGCD for regular events, but never fully operated as a non-profit entity.6
What the club model failed to do was provide a lasting infrastructure independent of proprietors seeking a profit. Los Angeles’ heterosexual cross dressers had greater success in 1961 when Virginia Prince organized the Hose and Heels Club. The club would be the forerunner to a larger society that built itself into many chapters nationwide: The Society for the Second Self (Tri-Ess).7
Tri-Ess, by restricting its membership to heterosexual cross dressers and their families did not remain on the cutting edge of transgender issues and change of laws simply because it cut itself off from some important talent but did succeed in orienting its organization to families, something many other organizations failed to do. Herein is the real strength of Tri-Ess.
In San Francisco, outreach became a staple begun by a drag queen Jose Sarria who understood the value of serendipity. In 1964 the San Francisco Chronicle ran a promotional game featuring one of San Francisco’s zaniest historical figures and 19th Century tourist attraction, Emperor Joshua Norton who as a pauper declared himself to be the Emperor of the United States and Defender of Mexico. The Chronicle’s game featured daily quizzes concerning Emperor Norton by which its readers could earn “ducats”. Jose Sarria seized upon this in a performance in which she declared that she had a vision of Emperor Norton and that she was his widow. The hoopla that arose from her outrageously campy declaration renewed the mythos of Emperor Norton and she who became the Absolute Emperess Jose built a charitable organization of “royalty” which survives today worldwide as the Imperial Court. The success of the Imperial court lay in its charitable outreach and this would mark a significant change in transgender support structures.8
The shift to social consciousness would become marked with the Stonewall Uprising. The ones at the forefront of the uprising, Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnsson were known to have taken in transgender youth that had been rejected by their families. Sylvia, despite living in a cardboard box spent her time feeding the homeless. Both organized to work for political and social change in the form of the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR), activities that continued till their separate deaths.9
Their example would not be lost upon other post-Stonewall organizations.
In 1980 JoAnn Roberts came out as a heterosexual cross dresser in Pennsylvania. She rose rapidly as a notable representative of cross dressers and led contingents of cross dressers on some episodes of the Phil Donahue Show.10 She and another heterosexual cross dresser Angela Gardener organized Renaissance, a non-profit support organization that would spawn several chapters of its own with emphasis upon education. Renaissance differed from Tri-Ess in that they admitted transsexuals as members even though its emphasis remained with the cross dresser of whatever sexual orientation.11
But the 2 of them didn’t stop there. They would later act in cooperation with another group that was forming about the same time in San Francisco.
In 1982 Joanie Sheldon and Ginny Knuth began what would become a locally massive support group, the Educational TV Channel (ETVC). ETVC incorporated as a non-profit in 1989 and in 1998 accepted a large donation with the stipulation that the club change its name to the more inclusive Transgender San Francisco (TGSF). This club proved itself incredibly dynamic because of its level of social consciousness being made part of its organizational structure and its acceptance of everyone associated with transpeople including family members. Its Executive Committee (ExCom) not only consisted of the usual President, Secretary, and Treasurer as necessary for a California corporation, it also featured Education, Outreach, and Social Chairpersons, each charged with expanding understanding of transpeople internally, reaching out to the public, and making TGSF the group to go to through regular events. In its heyday TGSF amassed about 450 members and spawned numerous other support groups in the Bay Area and throughout Northern California.12
TGSF also offered a pool of people who would rise up to advance civil rights for transpeople, most notably Theresa Sparks who worked with San Francisco’s Human Rights Commission to organize the Transgender Civil Rights Implementation Task Force, and later teamed up with Supervisor-turned-Assemblymember Mark Leno to advance civil rights legislation for transpeople statewide. Another member of TGSF, the tech-savvy Jamie Faye Fenton would work with JoAnn Roberts and Angela Gardener to administer the online-based TG Forum.13
TG Forum, using the Meow System developed by Jamie Faye, became the mother of all online support groups. International barriers fell with TG Forum. Male to female and female to male cross dressers, transsexuals, drag queens and kings, intersex people, and gender non-conforming types exchanged information in real time through a network that often cooked with activity. TG Forum, true to JoAnn Robert’s publications for Creative Design Services (CDS) promoted transgender support groups of all types throughout North America and beyond, and regularly updated its database. TG Forum continues today, howbeit without the Meow System, and after the format of other online forums that lacked the real time component of the Meow System and its size has diminished from its heyday. That real time component that worked for TG Forum for so long has only been equaled by services like Facebook and Twitter through their systems of notification.14
This outreach component strengthened local ties as well as cooperation with other support organizations that did not develop through Tri-Ess, Renaissance, TGSF or any of the clubs, namely FTM International (1986)15, The Intersex Society of North America (1993)16, and a plethora of organizations begun by Riki Wilchins like GenderPAC, Transsexual Menace, Camp Trans, Hermaphrodites With Attitude, the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom, and others.17 Other leaders would also rise up to make the organizations we see today, too numerous to cite in this article.
Today’s trans community would mostly be found online where individuals could maintain a healthy distance from predatory elements. Facebook, Twitter, and GooglePlus have become principal centers of trans activity and outreach. This trend has been a mixed bag. While we have increasingly relied upon online connections through these large social networks the local support groups have often declined. The decline has resulted not only from the proliferation of these large social networks, but also economic strain by which many of the services formerly relied upon can no longer sustain themselves. That economic factor resulted in the implosion of TG Forum from what it once was. The rise of free social media groups, advances in legal protections, and declining budgets also made TGSF a shadow of what it had been over a decade ago.18
Once more the trans community is facing the prospect of change through the political climate of the United States who had been key to the development of the trans community since Stonewall. The election of Donald Trump and the concurrent proliferation of anti-transgender legislation has had an immediately chilling effect upon prospects for transition or even mutual support. The reversal of insurance coverage of transition due to religio-political pressure threatens many transsexuals, especially trans youth. Some have even talked about the possibility of transgender people being criminalized and incarcerated or worse, though to date this has been in the realm of speculation and fake news sources.
But such a hostile course can by no means be dismissed as “out of the question.” The Russian Federation’s 2013 law prohibiting “gay propaganda”19 could at any time become a model for similar legislation in a United States run by Evangelical Dominionists. Conceivably, the large social networks, already monitored by the National Security Agency (NSA), could easily become an Achilles’ heel for the trans community. If indeed the online community becomes perceived as too dangerous, marked by a legal roundup of trans leaders and other prominent transpeople, the role of the localized support group would necessarily return. That would in turn require local leaders of such groups to re-evaluate and enact directives for those groups respective missions to ensure their continuance.
To summarize, then those attributes that favor the continuance of support groups would include:
- Open-ended support. Trans support groups generally do better when they embrace the large diversity of the trans demographic including those closely associated with transpeople, and educate their members concerning them, thereby expanding their talent pool.
- Carefulness with budgets. If any support group over-extends itself with a project beyond the resources of the group, certain individuals end up picking up the tab, leading to disgruntled factions.
- Safeguards of confidentiality. This has long been practiced by support groups who utilize mail, having separate entries for preferred name and pronouns from entries for addressees in the mail. These lists must be kept in secure locations by secretaries.
- Limitations on public identities. Only those already publicly known as transpeople should be offered as a public spokesperson, if indeed societal conditions allow even that much.
- Emphasis on social consciousness. Without a moral imperative to work together for good a support group settles into stagnation as a discussion group, losing its vitality.
- Attention to service through education. Transpeople need to grow and develop. Support groups can do a great job by providing instruction on the process of transition, personal conduct, and general tutorial services in any array of subjects not exclusive to transgenderism.
- Attention to service through outreach. No support group can grow without reaching out to the world in some way. Even in oppressive political climates, this can be done through allied peoples, through publication, or personal contact as far as societal conditions allow.
- Regular interaction. No support group ever thrived without its people meeting together as often as can be managed.
- Humility. No support group ever thrived when one part of its membership looks down on another. In the future there will be no room for the classic friction between cross dresser and transsexual. We need one another.
- Beware the personality cult. This is related to humility but with a more specific concern. Any support group that relies upon a single individual (trans or not) for its support, administration, or inspiration will pass away with the passing of that individual. Worse yet, if such an individual presents as a hero for a group that harbors a fan base can anticipate partisan divisions sooner or later. Support groups take many voices, all working together to fulfill the group’s mission.
Centuries of persecution has not eliminated transpeople, even though many would claim this in their efforts to erase our histories in favor of a religious cult-centered narrative. Continuing the fires of yearning for liberty and respite is something we owe to future generations of transpeople. When the storms of oppression rage so that we turn inward, our outreach must also change. The current conditions are a good time for support groups to assess their mission and methodology, to permit the highest and best course they could take for all of us.
- Chermayeff, Catherine; David, Jonathan; and Richardson, Drag Diaries, (1995) Umbra Editions, Inc. NY., Chronicle Books, San Francisco. ISBN: 0-8118-0895-5, p. 25
- Katz, Jonathan Ned. Earl Lind: The Cercle Hermaphroditos, c. 1895 from Sell, Randall. Encountering Earl Lind, Ralph Werther, Jennie June(n.d.) Web: Out History: http://outhistory.org/exhibits/show/earl-lind/related/cercle-hermaphroditos. Retrieved December 1, 2016.
- Fleisher, Julian. The Drag Queens of New York (1996) Riverhead Books, Berkley Publishing Company, NY. ISBN: 1-57322-552-5, p. 29-31.
- The writer is witness to the fact that Alexis Miranda invited both Divas and committees of San Francisco’s Transgender Civil Rights Implementation Task Force to use the Divas facility.
- The writer relies upon her own memory of these events having herself made her own connections through these establishments.
- Fairfax, Jane Ellen. A Brief History of Tri-Ess (January 26, 2006) Web: Tri-Ess: http://www.tri-ess.org/history.html. Retrieved 11/30/2016.
- (n.a.) Founder (n.d.) Web: Imperial Court: http://www.imperialcouncilsf.org/founder.html. Retrieved 11/29/2016. The connection to the contest run by the San Francisco Chronicle connecting Sarria’s declaration remains an oral tradition in San Francisco told to the writer.
- Winnike, Lee. LGBTQ History #14: S.T.A.R. is founded by Marsha P. Johnson (sic) and Sylvia Rivera (October 23, 2014) Web: Tagg Magazine: http://taggmagazine.com/lifestyle/lgbtq-history-14-s-t-r-founded-marsha-p-johnson-sylvia-rivera/. Retrieved December 1, 2016.
- Geek, Johnathan. Donahue with Crossdressers Featuring JoAnn Roberts and Tri-Ess Part 3 (July 23, 2012) Web: YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dDCiPBo_lhc. Retrieved November 30, 2016.
- The writer relies upon her personal knowledge of JoAnn Roberts and Angela Gardener. Details concerning Renaissance can be found at www.ren.org
- The writer was a member of TGSF and attended many of the meetings of the ExCom in 1999 and 2000 and so is familiar with the facts of that organization as a witness. Details on the history of TGSF can be found at www.tgsf.org.
- The writer served with the Transgender Civil Rights Implementation Task Force in 2000 at the invitation of fellow TGSF member Theresa Sparks and knew Jamie Faye Fenton as a friend.
- The writer was a member of TG Forum till 2004. The current TG Forum can be found at www.tgforum.com.
- (n.a.) F2M International (2016) Web: F2M International website http://www.ftmi.org/. Retrieved December 1, 2016.
- (n.a.) Cheryl Chase (Bo Laurent) (2008) Web: Intersex Society of North America, website: http://www.isna.org/about/chase. Retrieved December 12, 2016.
- As other former members had described to the writer what happened.
- Ginelle, Lela. Riki Wilchins: A Queer Titan Looks Back (October 17, 2013) Web: PQ Monthly: http://www.pqmonthly.com/riki-wilchins-queer-titan-looks-back/17064. Retrieved December 1, 2016.
- Elder, Miriam. Russia passes law banning gay ‘propaganda’ (June 11, 2013) Web: The Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/jun/11/russia-law-banning-gay-propaganda. Retrieved December 1, 2016.