Monday, May 4, 2009

Virginia Prince: The Passing Of A Trans Icon


"She never compromises.
Loves babies and surprises.
Wears high heels when she exercises.
Ain't that beautiful?
Meet Virginia." — Meet Virginia, Train


We got word last night that we lost arguably the most important figures in the our community's history. An innovator. A true pioneer. A queen. A Prince.

Above all, she was the grande dame of the "Transgender" Community — a term she semi-coined. Virginia Prince passed away after a short illness this past month. She was 96. Dr. Richard Docter, who has been compiling her biography, broke the news to the Liberty Conference yesterday in Philadelphia.

Though she was never a lobbyist on Capitol Hill, she was certainly (in my opinion, at least) the pre-cursor to Transgender advocacy. It was ironic, considering that she was only crossdressing when she began this quest. The risk of such public outing of oneself is overwhelmingly anathemic to most crossdressers. Personal impact be-damned though, Virginia Prince was courageously public in educating the psychiatric community, the viewing public and even government administrators and the courts.

And she did it all quite effectively and successfully.

I had the good fortune of meeting and visiting with her a few times: the first time was Juneteenth in Houston (June 19) a decade ago, the most recent was the IFGE conference in Philadelphia, immediately after Pres. George W. Bush began bombing Baghdad. That was about the time she'd decided to move to an assisted living facility. It was both distressing and yet left me resigned that it was a proper decision on her part as her memory was starting to fade slightly.

My first meeting with Virginia was quite the contrary. At 86, Virginia was as sharp as a tack and still quite cantakerous, but was quite solid in promoting the trans community's understanding and advancement. She was actually very supportive of my budding advocacy and activism then, which I hadn't expected. Our only beef was her disagreement with my usage of the word "queer." While I tried to explain the disarming of the term by capturing it for our own, it was still a word with a lot of sting for her history.

We had quite a lengthy and animated chat in 1999, giving me a very generous insight into her. I was shocked that she had much larger breasts than I (especially considering I was transsexual and openly on HRT. She was bemused by my use (and the community's) of the word transgender, and how the story affixed it's authorship to her, even though she'd referred to it as transgenderist as a self-descriptor once she'd moved from occasional crossdressing to living as female, though not transsexual (she was quick to correct that!)

The photos I had with her and me were reflective of her visit in Houston (I always tried to have plenty of photos in those days as I was our local transsexual group's photo-laden newsletter editor.)

"You see, her confidence is tragic
And her intuition magic,
And the shape of her body
is so Unusual." — Meet Virginia, Train


My last meeting with Virginia was quite a bit different. Unlike the previous two meetings, she didn't remember my name this time and seemed notably less focused. Then again, I was also distracted (due to political happenings). Our last visit was nice, but nothing as weighty as previous chats. She even had someone (I can't recall who) that was acting as sort of a handler/caretaker.

Similar to my initial photos, the one photo I have from that meeting was also reflective. One thing that stuck in my mind was her lipstick which was noticeably messed up, and numerous people saying hello, but leaving her to look smeared, kind of clownish. I went over with a tissue and wiped the excess and retouched it, and Mariette Pathy Allen snapped a picture of me wiping her face. Mariette thought it was a touching, poignant moment. It's not one that I ever showed publicly though as I felt it was unflattering to her.

At the time I figured I'd get a chance to see her again on a better day, maybe more like the Virginia of the late 90's or early millennium. But that was my last visit with her. Nevertheless, there's nothing to take away from my memories or her legacy. To paraphrase creatively here, Virginia Prince truly lived a Full Personal Experience in her long life.

I'll end this by tacking on the article I did in 1999 for the TATS (Texas Assn. for Transsexual Support) Newsletter for July, 1999: Meet Virginia ....
Transgenderism's ultimate pioneer, Virginia Prince, paid a rare visit to Houston, June 19 at the Westchase Hilton. She was introducted by Tri-Ess' Jane Ellen Fairfax, who read a passage written about Virginia 'Charles' Prince and giving a stirring requiem of her loss (*there was a false obituary which was circulated at that time, noting the passing of Virginia Prince).

Then Virginia took the podium and, quoting Mark Twain, stated: "The reports of my demise are greatly exaggerated." She then mentioned she was here by "special dispensation," quipping, "I always said I'd be more at home in hell than in heaven — there'd be more of my friends there."

Born in 1912, she surmises she felt the first stirrings to crossdress around the age of 12. One incident from her adolescence stood clearloy in her mind. Her parents and she had taken a trans-Atlantic cruise when 'Charles' was 16, and during the cruise she was exhorted by the wife of another passenger to have her dress young Charles as a 16-year old girl. It captured the teen's imagination and ignited stirrings never realized before.

But she didn't do it. She was so wracked with self-guilt and denial that she couldn't release herself.

After receiving her PhD in biochemistry at University of California, she discovered at one of her pharmacology symposiums that one of the other interns was a crossdresser. An epiphany! She badly wanted to contact the individual, but realizing the environment and fearing for her career, she had to think up a moniker [in order to keep her true identity secret].

She chose the name Charles (her father's first name) and Prince (the street she lived on). Later, Virginia evolved from the Charles Prince persona. After contacting this other crossdresser Louise Lawrence, she got the names of others in the Los Angeles area.

Still 'Charles,' she realized there may be some validity to this behavior. Someone once asked her if she'd ever seen a psychiatrist, and she replied: "Yes, I've cured two of 'em!"

It wasn't until she visited a Dr. Bowman from the college she interned at that she got her second epiphany. After spilling her guts, the psychologist put his feet up on a desk drawer and said, "Okay. So what else is new?"

'Charles' was shocked. Hadn't the doctor listened to anything that was just said? Did he not care? Insulted and mad, the doctor then explained that 'Charles' wasn't "alone. There [were] thousands more like you." The doctor related that he knew of at least 350 in New York alone!

"Learn to accept yourself!"

Virginia then moved to L.A. and looked up a person in Long Beach – desperately poor and living in a small shack – and along with seven others, they began a loose-knit crossdressing club. It was there that she got her first idea for "Transvestia."

Transvestia published its first issue in 1960, pre-sold at a (rather hefty for that time) price of four dollars each! The first issues were mimeographed, which was found to be unworkable.

About that time in the early 60's, she formed the Hose & Heels Club, but it was a tense start. Because of rampant paranoia during that time, and also the fact that crossdressing was still outlawed (thus many were afraid to admit to it), the group had a difficult time trying to figure out how to begin.

"You started thinking," Prince remembered, "that the person sitting next to you was with the Sheriff's, and the one sitting across from you was the FBI...."

So they devised a way of safely finding out who was a member.

Each attendee, in those early days, brought two bags. In one was a lunch; in the other, hose and heels. In that tension-filled first meeting, everyone sat in a circle and ate their lunch from the first bag. Then after the contents of the first bag were emptied, Virginia piped up, "now we have to eat the contents of the second bag." The participants put on the hose, and then put on the high heels. That was the telling factor: "if they had shoes that fit, they were a transvestite."

Later, Virginia founded FPE (Full Personality Expression): the pre-cursor to Tri-Ess. There were a number of chapters around the nation, and she recalled a visit to the Houston Chapter. "It was strange, walking the streets of Houston," she mused. The fear was that this was a rednecked city with (as many municipalities) laws against her appearing in public.

During the mid-60's, Carol Beecroft formed Mademoiselle: an open-membership group (such as GCTC - Gulf Coast Transgender Community), that was a conglomeration of crossdressers, transsexuals and drag, hetero an gay alike. Eventually Beecroft left that organization and offered to merge with Prince's group, which became Sorority for the Second Self – or then, Tri-Sigma.

However, there was a real female sorority of the same name, "and when they found out, they were not happy!" After the sorority filed suit, the group decided to rename itself Tri-Ess (S). Since then, Tri-Ess has become the largest and oldest crossdressing organization in the world.

At one point, Virginia was actually arrested for mailing pornographic materials during the U.S. Postal Service's crackdown on homosexuality. "We all know how effective that was!" she quipped.

But the arrest inspired two things. First she was sentenced to 3 years probation – meaning no crossdressing for that period (keeping in mind it was still illegal.) However, her attorney mentioned she could perhaps do seminars as a kind of "release." He mentioned his involvement in Kiwanis Club, and Victoria agreed to do it.

The first presentation on "pseudohermaphroditism" went so well that she was asked to another, then another. Before long she was touting and giving lectures on the subject, which brought her to Washington DC for a TV (pun intended) interview. As an aside, Virginia claims origination of the acronym TV, coined so she could talk about the subject in public without openly referring to it.

While in Washington, acting on information she'd received from an attorney frind, she spoke with the Postal Inspector General, and long story short, was instrumental in helping halt the Post Office's heavy-handed censorship of the mail and overturned her probation. She was free to live as Virginia full-time again, and never looked back.

At one point this Tri-Ess founder had actually sexual reassignment surgery! It was immediately after hearing about Christine Jorgensen. "When she hit the newspapers," Virginia related, "if I'd had $5,000, I'd have been on the next boat to Denmark!"

The fact that Christine didn't have to worry about a permit to wear women's clothing and appear in public captured her initial fancy. But in the end, Virginia said, "I was flad I was broke at the time. It would've been the greatest mistake of my life." At one point, she got a chance to meet Christine and her mother as she was performing in L.A. Jorgensen was a curiosity, but Virginia had no impression of her otherwise.

Someone once referred to Virginia as a "pre-op." – a term she said had no meaning to her. To back up her view, she quipped, "we're all pre-dead! What does that mean?"

In her view, if you're not a transsexual, you're a transgenderist – a term she coined and uses to identify herself. In fact, she considers sexual reassignment surgery a mistake for anyone, and doesn't really understand one's identification with transsexuality.

She also disagreed with another term finding usage in the GLBT community: "queer." In her view, it is as defined in the dictionary: a derogatory term meaning unusual or odd (or as Webster's defines it, mildly insane.) While understanding the need for a term to identify the entire GLBT spectrum, she prefers the search for a more positive connotation.

On gays, lesbians and transgenders, Virginia proffered that we "all have the same enemy: ignorance!" She then mentioned that she'd like to see the gay / lesbian community confront societal attitudes, to tell America, "what damn difference does it make? It doesn't affect what a person does. It doesn't affect anybody else. It's no one else's business unless they make it their business!"

"Why can't we give people the choice to be who it is, or what is is they want to be? And why does society get upset about males who wear dresses?"


Virginia related she was also good friends with Dr. Harry Benjamin, who in fact gave her her first prescription for estrogen. She then related a story of how Dr. Benjamin lived to be over 100 years old. At about the time he was to turn 100, one of his friends asked him: "What's the first thing you're going to do when you turn 100?"

Dr. Benjamin thought for a few seconds and answered: "I'm gonna look in the mirror." After the friend asked why, Benjamin replied: "because I've never seen a 100 year old man before."

Said Virginia, one of her goals is "to live to be 100, so I can look in the mirror. Because I've never seen a 100 year old crossdresser before!"

Stumbling a bit at one point, Virginia quipped, "I can't think ... I can't remember.... The important thing is to remember to think!"

Summing things up, Virginia mentioned we needed, "to get involved, in whatever fashion." She also exhorted the members of groups and organizations of the need to get actively involved, and to do their part to help their groups stay alive.

Sage advice indeed.

"Well she wants to be the queen,
And she thinks about her scene.
Well she wants to live her life.
And she thinks about her life." — Meet Virginia, Train

7 comments:

dyssonance said...

Wonderful article :)

One slight issue -- "Train" recorded Meet Virginia.

Otherwise, this woman of consequence, with such a mixed past, helped to shape all that we do, and helped define what exists for us today.

You do her justice.

pmbrent said...

I knew Virginia, loved her, hated her. She was one tough old bird, but on the same wavelength.

In Chicago at an En Fom there were maybe 400 of us. I had requested the waitress to see if she could find me a glass of milk, easy enough. 30 minutes later the waitress came back with 2 glasses, remembering me but could not figure out who the other one was for. Well I ran into Virginia no mater where I turned so I said "ask the white haired lady" if it was for her. Sure enough it was. But that was just the way the things went with her at times. Seated next to me was a friend (Sharon Overby) who one day became my husband, that Virginia did not like.

Pauline Overby

social worker said...

Virginia was my mentor, friend, and role model. The first book I bought was her's; How To Be A Woman Though Male. I served on the Board of Directors of TRIESS with her for seven years. I shared a room at the SPICE Conference, I went on cruises with her, and I toured Naussa with her. We argued about the millineum transition but we respected each other. She once said, "I always know it is you by either your cowboy hat or your laugh." This is truely a loss for all of us but she will live forever in our hearts as she will in mine.
Josephine P Tittsworth

radicalbitch said...

This praise of Prince demonstrates with crystal clarity the gulf between those with classic transsexuality and transgender people.

To us Prince was a monster...pure and simple. He hated transsexuals, denied our very existence, denied that SRS cures transsexuality. He spouted the most transsexualpbobic words imaginable his entire life. He personally did infinitely more damage to transsexual women than Jessie Helms, Janice Raymond and Mary Daly could even dream of combined.

To us he represented the source of almost EVERY anti-transsexual position ever taken from Stoller's smothering mother garbage to Blanchard and Bailey's autogynophilia garbage.

If you praise him, understand once and for all that there is NO "umbrella" under this homophobic, transphobic, gynophobic's term and that naming the highest award of the trans community after him is on a par with the NAACP giving out a David Dukes lifetime achievement award from our persecptive.

I will not use female pronouns for this person because I am a proud feminist and he was as far as it is possible to get from that.

I'm glad he's dead and wish his harm died with him.

ginasf said...

Admit I'm not a 'fan' of Virginia Prince. I don't like her homophobic attitudes,don't like her attitudes about transwomen and srs and don't like her sexist attitudes towards women. Nor do I like the word "transgender" although it's less objectionable if used the way she intended it to be used... for non-ops and people who transition mostly because of issues of gender expression. I can't mourn her passing without acknowledging that. She was a gutsy, brave and forceful person who fought for crossdressing men when no one else would, and for that, I do give her respect. But I don't want her seen as representing 'our' community because, for myself as a transwoman, she didn't. Complex characters leave complex legacies.

Haveavoice said...

I met Virginia at Alpha Omega near Cleveland when I was just coming out. I told her I knew of her for years and she called me "dangerous." I took that as an honor as I was as honored to meet her as I would be a rock star and in a way she was a rock star.

In memory of her passing- may she indeed rest in peace. We have lost a great one.

ginasf said...

radicalB,

While I share a lot of your negative feelings about Prince, I also recognize his/her activism for a very particular group of people at a time when it was problematic and even dangerous to do so. Virginia Prince created a structured community where there was none. Whether you or I are members of that community which benefitted from this (sounds as if neither of us is are) isn't the point, we can still see the value to the participants involved while still criticizing many of his/her other beliefs and problematic actions along the way. The reason the award is in Virginia Prince's name is because crossdressers are still the largest and best-heeled (literally) group that goes to gender conferences (and one of the reasons I don't find those conferences terribly compelling). As heterosexual men, they retain the greatest earning power of those under the transgender umbrella (yes, I know you hate that term, so do I). Money talks. Prince will continue to be a highly controversial figure among those stuffed into the transgender community, but as long as awards are given out at gender conferences, the name of this polarizing figure will continue to be pasted onto honors which are supposed to express our community togetherness.