March 11, 2011

From "transgenderist" to "transgender" - on Virginia Prince and crossdresser separatism

In my post When four tribes go to war I argued that transgender separatist -- i.e. groups that try to define themselves as substantially different from other transgender people -- become separatists in order to be recognized as normal people.

They want to fit into society as it is, to the best of their ability. In order to do so they have built a wall between themselves and those that do not, in their opinion, pass as normal women or men.

I believe this is why some trans women refuse to be associated with transpeople who do not follow the rules of traditional behavior, being those male to female crossdressers or transsexual women who work as prostitutes. The first group may be defined as fetishistic or paraphilic men; the other may be explained to be sex crazed feminine gay men. The operative term is "men". The very existence of these groups is seen as a threat, as they may undermine the trans women's possibility of being respected as ordinary women.

Classic transsexuals (CTs) define and redefine their definitions in order to keep out trans women associated with the "unclean". The androphilic transkids use science to keep the much coveted natural femininity for themselves. And, as I will show you in this post, crossdresser activists have been feeding this dragon of antagonism as well.

Controlling language

It seems to me this is partly a struggle for control over language.

To give one example:

The classic transsexuals are trying to take control over core terms in order to avoid any suspicion of them being the same as crossdressers and effeminate gay men. They do this by limiting the definition of the word "transgender" to their own taste and by associating it with the groups they despise and want to avoid.

Then they start attacking people who use the term "transgender" in the all encompassing way, arguing that they being included in such a group is insulting. By establishing that the term "transgender" is offensive, they manage to offend the other party while at the same time appearing as the victim.

It is a brilliant ploy, I must admit.

The enemy of my enemy

It can get really bad.

In 2009 one of the CT blogs, Enough Nonsense, revealed the strategy in an amazing post called Allies and a recent skirmish. The post tells the story about the establishment of an Internet group that is to challenge the TG "at every opportunity":

"We are coordinated. We act. We respond. And, we do so consistently, persistently, and reasonably. Our group is growing and we've succeeded in shutting down threads spouting TG [transgender] non-sense... To us, rewriting GLBT [gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender] as GLBT/TS is just a further manifestation of transgender…and is no revision whatsoever.

Any type of political association to transgender…is transgender.

Any defense of transgender strategy…is transgender.

Any alliance whatsoever, on any plane, at any level with the transgender…is transgender.

Any compromise with regard to the transgender…is transgender.

The friend of our adversary…is our adversary.

Our adversary is not our ally…and we certainly know who our adversaries are."

Not only do some of these CT activist resent any association with the hated transgender (or the LGBT movement for that matter), they also systematically trawl web conversations in order to make their adversaries shut up.

A unified enemy image

The tactic revealed in that blog post also shows that they are deliberately constructing a unified enemy image that is to make the reader believe that there truly exists some kind of transgender conspiracy of people. All "transgender" are part of this conspiracy, and its members share a wide set of common beliefs.

Anyone who have followed the discussions at this blog will know that the group the CTs call "transgender" have a lot of different opinions as regards the origins of the crossdreamer condition, the nature of transsexualism, the role of nurture vs. culture and how they look upon Blanchard's theories. Most of them are not affiliated with the LGBT movement, and a minority is gay.

It makes sense in a sick kind of way

Still, I can understand why someone can come to the conclusion that there is a conspiracy uniting Blanchard & Bailey supporters with crossdressers and crossdreamers. They are not making all of this up.

In fact, the idea that both androphilic transkids and gynephilic crossdressers belong to the same tribe makes some kind of sad sense when you read some crossdresser philosophy.

The reason for this is found in the writings of Virginia Prince.

Virginia Prince

I can say a lot of positive things about the late Virginia AKA Charles Prince, the leading crossdresser guru and philosopher of the 20th century.

She did a lot to help crossdressers and crossdreamers find an identity and a voice. She has also helped other transgender groups through her activism. She functioned as an adviser to Harry Benjamin, probably the greatest scientist in the area of transgender and transsexual studies ever.

I believe she was onto something important when she argued that crossdressing is the way the suppressed feminine side of a man find its expression. I also believe she was right in saying that all men and women have both a feminine and a masculine side to their psyche.

Still, there are parts of her writing I find weak and unfounded. What's even worse is the fact that she played her own game of exclusion, which again helped fuel the transgender wars.

I have read some of her published papers, and what I find there explains why some "classic transsexuals" have come to hate the "transgender" as the plague.

It does not matter how much I try to read her text in an understanding manner, the final conclusion is that she did not really respect M2F transsexual women. She did not accept their experience of being complete women as valid.

The femmiphile

I must admit that this may sound strange, given that Prince for large parts of her life lived as a woman. She even modified her body to that effect. She legally registered as a woman. She took hormones. But she refused to define herself as a transsexual.

Instead she developed a elaborate philosophy where she established a new kind of man: the "femmiphilie", a man that manages to transcend the borders between the genders. In earlier papers Prince used the word "Femme-Personator".

In short: She accepted the idea of gender dysphoria (i.e. the idea that a man can have an inner need to express the cultural behavior of women), but she rejected sex dysphoria (i.e. a feeling of having the wrong body that is inborn and not a result of psychological or cultural factors).

She even came up with the term "transgenderist", which applies to M2Fs who adapt their bodies by hormones and other means, but who avoid genital surgery.

She played a central role in establishing one of the first transgender organizations, the Hose and Heels Club, which became the Foundation for Personality Expression (FPE), which later again became part of the Society for the Second Self or Tri-Ess.The FPE was limited to married heterosexual men, and excluded homosexual men, male-to-female transsexuals, and XX women.

The historian Susan Stryker argues that the membership restrictions of the FPE was geared towards "protecting the privileges of predominantly white, middle-class men who used their money and access to private property to create as space in which they could express a stigmatized aspect of themselves in a way that didn't jeopardize their jobs or social standing."

Stryker continues:

"Prince herself took the leading role in driving wedges between transvestite, transsexual, gay and lesbian, and feminist communities, and she did not envisage an inclusive, expansive, progressive, and multifaceted transgender movement." (Susan Stryker: Transgender History, Berkeley 2008)

Transgenderist vs. transgender

As you can see the choice of the word "transgender" as an umbrella term for gender variant people was unfortunate, as the classic transsexuals now can claim that it means the same as the word invented by Price. It clearly doesn't.

"Transgenderist" is a term for a male to female transgender person who lives as a woman, but who does not undergo genital surgery.

"Transgender" is an umbrella term covering a variety of individuals, behaviors, and groups that diverge from the normative gender roles that the surrounding culture expects will follow from the sex of their bodies.

Some say the word transgender was first used in this new sense by the female to male transsexual Leslie Feinberg in 1992, others by Holly Boswell in 1991. They did definitely not define it in the same way as Prince understood the term "transgenderist".

Against surgery

Virginia Prince advised against unnecessary surgery, arguing that these conditions are more a question about cultural gender than biological sex.

According to Prince, "Womanhood is a gender phenomenon not a sexual one and moreover it must be learned by living, whether by a natural born female or by someone newly assigned to that status... Surgery can provide the genital alteration but no psychosurgery exists to construct a woman in the gender sense."

By saying so Prince is actually refuting the idea that there is any kind of inborn femininity (beyond the one that is common for all men and women). This explains partly why so many of the classic transsexuals are so adamant that surgery is needed for someone to be considered a true woman. This is a reaction to Prince saying that such surgery is not needed.

By defining surgery as a prerequisite they are establishing yet another absolute measure for not being a "transgender". After all, Prince was the princess of all "trangender", and she did not want SRS!

There is more to sex than culture

Again: There is no reason to believe that the the "classic" trans women lie when they say that they feel a complete alienation from their male bodies. Heck, I am not a trans woman, but even I feel a complete alienation from my male body.

I have no problem at all sympathizing with their pain, and I truly believe that the most sensible way of describing that feeling is that you are, indeed, a woman trapped in a man's body. One may discuss the cause of this feeling, but the phenomenon itself is well documented.

What Virginia Prince did, was for all practical purposes to deny this experience, arguing that it is impossible due to the fact that gender is a social and psychological construct. It is not inborn.

The sexually inadequate

Prince did say that there is one group that can benefit from sex reassignment surgery, namely sexually and socially inadequate asexual boys:

"Since we have a vertically stratified society, with men above and women below, less is expected of women. Thus surgically reassigning a person like this to the sexual and genderal status of female and woman greatly reduces the disparity between expectation and performance and would probably render the individual a happier and more productive citizen." ("Transsexuals and Pseudotranssexuals", Archives of Sexual Behavior, vol. 7 no. 4 1978)

This paragraph was probably not intended to be as sexist as it sounds today. Virginia was reacting to the social facts of her day. Still, arguing that socially awkward boys are the only ones that will benefit from sex reassignment surgery is a slap in the face of those trans women who are truly alienated from their male sex organs, and who cannot find peace with themselves before this incongruence is rectified.

The idea that less should be expected from women sexually is ... eh... how shall I put this... absolutely ridiculous?

The continuum theory

The core problem is that Prince turns the gender identity question into a purely cultural one.

She wrote:

"Next, let's consider how this gender thing got started. It isn't biological, it's cultural. Animal's don't have gender. While the possibilities of separating and perfecting characteristically different life styles for males and females has theoretically existed since the two different sexes evolved, it had to await the sophisticated development of a thinking and speaking animal to bring it into reality." ("The 'Transcendendts' or 'Trans' People", Transvestia, vol. XVI, no 95, 1978).

Prince believed it was possible for a "transcendent" to move along the continuum between feminine and masculine because it is a cultural construct, and not based in biology:

"When one transcends that restriction, then, how far out along the continuum he or she chooses to go is entirely up to them for they are now free agents--at least as far as that transcendent barrier is concerned."

This paragraph explains at least partly why the classic transsexuals hate the "continuum" narrative of gender identity so much. It seems to leave no room for a trans woman to be a "real" woman or a person that identify 100 percent as a woman because she is born that way and has no choice in the matter.

The fact is that it is possible to develop a complex continuum theory with various combinations of inborn traits that does leave room for transsexual people, i.e. people who identify with the opposite sex, and not with some in-between gender position. But for that to happen you need to anchor at least the core of that sex identity in inborn biology.

Picture of Virginia Prince 1948, from A Gender Variance Who is Who. Plate 1 in JJ Allen, The Man in the Red Velvet Dress.

Why did Prince leave out biology?

Why doesn't Prince do that? Her inner urge to become a woman -- and not some in-between gender variant -- must have been very strong. She did after all end up living as a woman, and not an androgynous person.

The answer to this I do not know. There were psychoanalysts in her day that would have told her that gender identity is purely a cultural and psychological phenomenon. She was also inspired by feminists, and some of them would have told her the same thing.

The fact that she excluded trans women and a "homosexual" crossdressers from her club, may indicate that she was trying to create a space that would make it possible to unite the world of the All-American heterosexual married male with the option of expressing the inner woman. In order to reassure conservative friends and family members, she might have chosen to announce that she was not one of the outcasts. Separatism might have been seen as the solution to the problem of gaining social acceptance.

Prince's problem, however, is that she is unable to give a good explanation for why only some male bodied persons feel the drive towards becoming "femmiphile" ('lover of the feminine').

She argues that the "non-boy" or the "girl within" the femmiphile "was forced to reject in the process of growing up, asserts herself later on and demands attention and opportunity to exist--to live." That makes sense to me, but why does she appear in some men, and not in others?

Male women

If this is a cultural phenomenon and all men and women potentially can express the whole gender continuum, why don't all men become "femmiphile"? And why do some men feel the need to transcend the gender barrier completely and become "transgenderists", who Prince call "male women"?

She wrote:

"In the moments immediately following their decision to renounce manhood for womanhood the tendency is to go as far into the feminine direction as possible both as an escape from and a flight into. However, as they mature in the new situation, most of us come to realize that our masculine past is still alive and well in the back of our head and actually provides the cerebral mechanisms and experience on which we must build on since we have not yet acquired much of the opposite kind."

This sounds like common sense, but Prince fails to take into consideration that many trans women have felt like women all their lives. They have not felt like "male women", but as women, and it is this sense of identity that has made them take the long and hard journey towards getting a woman's body.

No wonder they do not want to be put in the same box as Prince.

The so-called transsexuals

Prince developed a typology of "so-called transsexuals". The first group are "those males who have been practicing homosexuals prior to surgery."

Prince's description is very much the same as the one given by Blanchard and Bailey. She in essence telling them that they do not stop being homosexual males because of a sex change operation. And to top it all:

"Since sex is the biggest motivation for change in such people, many of them were and remain prostitutes."

This is exactly the same argument as the one made by Michael Bailey in his "Queen" book. Androphilic trans women are basically sex hungry effeminate gay men. No wonder they get offended.

The second group of Prince's is the sexually and genderally inadequate men, which I have already mentioned.

The third group is those that were acknowledged heterosexuals prior to surgery, often married and with children.

Here's Prince again:

"In my personal opinion these people seek surgery because of a faulty understanding of the differences between sex and gender. Raised as boys and men, they have imbibed that male concept of women as sex objects to which Women's Lib so rightly and vigorously objects. That is, they see the definition of a woman as primarily a person with an orifice between her legs."

Again, this is the same argument as the one of Blanchard and Bailey.

So the main reason for the CT Party believing that the transkids, Blanchard and me belong to the same tribe is that the leading transgender activist of the 1950's, 60's and 70's made the same arguments as Blanchard, labeling both androphilic and gynephilic trans women sex driven perverts. Since she was a crossdresser and coined the term "transgenderist" she has become the main authority of the transgender philosophy to them.

But the fact is: Virginia Prince was not a transgender activist. She was a separatist, just like the CTs and the transkids.


Update March 2012


For an updated and very comprehensive review of the historical use of the terms transgender, transgenderist and transsexual, see Cristan William's post on Tracking Transgender, the Historical Truth.

Update 2013

The spelling of the term trans woman has been changed from transwoman to trans woman.


Selected litterature

C.V. Prince (AKA Virginia Prince): "Homosexuality, Transvestism, and Transsexuality: Reflections on their Etiology and Differentiation." The American Journal of Psychotherapy, Vol 11, 1957.
Virginia Prince: "The 'Transcendents' or 'Trans People'", Transvestia, vol XVI, No. 95, 1978.
Virginia Prince: "Transsexuals and Pseudotranssexuals", Archives of Sexual Behavior, Vol. 7, No. 4, 1978.
Virginia Bruce (AKA Virginia Prince): "The Expression of Femininity in the Male", The Journal of Sex Research, Vol. 2, No. 2, 1967.
Richard Ekins and Dave King: "Virginia Prince: Pioneer of Transgendering", International Journal of Transgenderism, Vol 8, No. 4, 2005.
Some of these articles can be found in: Richard Ekins and Dave King: Virginia Prince: Pioneer of Transgendering, The Haworth Press, 2005.
You can download these articles from the library of ANITW.
See also A Gender Variance Who is Who on Virginia Prince and Trans Political: Virginia Prince, The Passing of a Trans Icon.

Discuss crossdreamer and transgender issues!