August 25, 2020

Zagria on Transgender History 4: Living as a Transgender Person

Roverta Cowell, transgender Spitfire pilot and racecar driver.

Zagria is the researcher, writer and editor behind “A Gender Variance Who’s Who”, the most extensive repository for transgender history on the web.  In this part  our interview we look at her own personal history and how that one reflects shifts in the way we think about transgender issues. We also talked about misgendering, the use of pronouns, deadnaming and those who do not transition.

See also:
The Transgender Historian Zagria, Part 1: "A Gender Variance Who's Who"
Zagria on Transgender History, Part 2: Key Concepts and Terms
Zagria on Transgender History 3: Key Transgender People and “The Tipping Point”

The Clarke

The Clarke Institute’s Gender Identity Clinic in Toronto (later known as the Toronto's Centre for Addiction and Mental Health – CAMH) has played a controversial role in recent North American transgender history. 

It was the institution of researchers like Kenneth Zucker and Ray Blanchard, people who have actively contributed to an invalidation and pathologsation of trans men and women, for instance by presenting their identities as “paraphilias”.

Since Zagria did approach The Clarke to get help, she is also a witness to this part of transgender history, so we asked her about her meeting with the institute.

Russell Reid is a retired British psychiatrist who specialized in sexual and gender-related conditions.

You have a rather unusual transition history in first going to The Clarke, and then to Russell Reid. Could you compare and contrast the two?

My interactions with The Clarke was a series of interviews with the different personnel. I was fortunate that Freund was away that week so that I was not asked to experience his Plethysmograph [an instrument used to measure volume changes in body organs].

It is difficult at this length of time to member what each member asked. The major thing that I remember was the marked disinterest in my husband. Being in my mid 30s and working in informatics, I suppose that they assumed that I should not have one. They did have him in for an interview but it was pretty cursory.

The final session was with the entire team. It was like being fired by committee. It was made clear that they would not do anything for me, despite me being able to name others whom they had helped.

Their major comment was that I had not met the right woman yet. As I got up to leave one of them interjected that I should keep in touch as it was a research facility. Fat chance of that! I saw my doctor the next week and he then started me on hormones. I think that he had referred me to test my determination.

Two years later I was in London, and was working as female. I had registered with a doctor who referred me to Charing Cross, but as per standard we had heard nothing back. A member of SHAFT [the UK-based ‘Self Help Association of Transsexuals’] advised me that I could pay for a one-off interview with Russell Reid and jump the queue. This was held at the Hanwell Insane Asylum, one of several places where Reid was on the staff. 

Dr. Russel Reid. (Photo: Getty)
We had a pleasant chat for over a hour, and it was obvious to him that I was very suitable. 

 Shortly afterwards I had an appointment with James Dalrymple (surgeons were not then referred to as doctor) in his chambers on Upper Wimpole St (one over from Harley Street). An appointment was made for surgery in October which would have been 12 months after arriving in England. However I was getting shit at work so I quit.

I phoned Dalrymple’s secretary, explained that I was already approved, and could I bring the date forward. She said that would not be a problem as they had cancellations all the time. So we changed it to July, and all went well.

I was never, at any stage, offered any counselling (except from a voice therapist) – not that I ever wanted any other. I had however spent much time in trans groups and speaking with others, and in fact giving counselling. I think that such experience is better that anything that a non-trans therapist can offer.

In spite of his abusive treatment at the Clarke, my husband has been fully supportive throughout. Recently we celebrated our 48th anniversary.


Any advice on how to cope with misgendering?

Am I read at all? The correct answer is of course: does it matter?

There was the time my doctor sent me for an ultrasound for a possible bladder problem. As soon as the machine was attached to my stomach, the operative said “oh, you are transsexual”, and then continued as per normal.

Or when I signed up for 23 and Me and having sent in spittle DNA. The first email from them said: “You have XY chromosomes. Please confirm that this is correct”.

Applying for my retirement pension was interesting. I had to produce both my birth certificate and my immigration form. I had been through the UK Gender Recognition system and so had my real name (i.e. post transition) on the former. However, I had not even looked at the immigration form for many decades. The clerk who processed me was perplexed that the earlier document, the birth certificate, had the later name while the other did not. However it otherwise went smoothly.

Some of the biographies that I have written have made me suspicious of those who assert that they are never read. The classic case is of course Betty Cowell [photo above] who asserted thus. However when Liz Hodgkinson moved to Richmond, London she heard tell of a man-woman and shortly afterwards spotted Cowell in the Post Office.

If I am read, people are usually too polite to say anything.

In winter, bundled up and being tall, I am often addressed as ‘sir’. A revealing of my face usually gets that corrected.

Allowance needs to be made for those who knew you before and have the habit of referring to you by your previous name and pronouns. Some will do so, utter ‘oops’ or ‘sorry’ and move on. More serious are those who insist on apologizing – an act that attracts more attention than the faux-pas itself. One of course smiles and says ‘no problem’. In most cases they will self-correct and not repeat.

As for misgendering by strangers: Remember that cis persons are misgendered now and then. Try to react as a cis person would. A query cough with an appropriate expression is often enough. The other person is usually not sure – don’t confirm that you are trans by making a fuss. 

The non-transitioning trangender people

Could you talk about those who do not transition?

Completion is not, of course, a requirement. While one does not choose to have trans yearnings, one does choose when and if to transition, and then later whether or not to seek completion surgery (unless prevented by financial or medical constraints).

Involuntary transition almost always comes to a bad end, often suicide: Camille Barbin, Greer Langton, David Reimer.

So much has been written about the trans women in New York in the early 1970s. Ironically very few of them went for completion: Viki West, Lee Brewster, Sylvia, Marsha, Jayne, Holly, Candy, Bubbles, Bambi.

Sylvia Rivera (with Christina Hayworth and Julia Murray) | by Luis Carle |Gelatin, National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

However some did: Barbara de Lamere (Bunny Eisenhower), Judy Bowen, Deborah Hartin, Diane Kearny.

It is ironic that the two iconic leaders of US trans activism, Virginia Prince and Sylvia Rivera, who were so different in so many ways, both decided against completion.

Two types of trans?

Some argue strongly that there are two types of trans persons. What is your take on this?

There is an old saying: "there are two types of persons: those who say that there are two types of persons, and those who don't”. Obviously trans people can be very different, and there are many ways we can divide into types.
Zagria (private photo)

There is an obvious and intuitive distinction between on one hand the early transitioner who is ready by university at latest; and on the other the late transitioner who either makes a heterosexual marriage, has children and waits till 40 or later, or spends a significant amount of time as a gay man or as a lesbian. 

This simple distinction was messed up by the system developed by Freund, renamed by Blanchard and popularised by Bailey ["autogynephilia" vs. "homosexual transsexual"]. 

By their aligning each type to a sexual orientation and recycling dated concepts of fetish and perversion they ruined the conversation and brought anguish to both kinds. Not to mention the many who do not fit into the dichotomy.

Another common distinction is between those who would pass quietly, and those who seek attention. These are often labelled "trans" and "drag queen". No so much now, but in earlier years, many did a Blanchard and insisted that if straight [attracted to women], you were a transvestite/cross dresser and if gay [attracted to men]  you were a drag queen whether nor you sought attention. Of course there were  drag queens who were attracted to women and  transvestites who were attracted to men.

A third distinction is between those who need or at least benefit from therapy, and those for whom any such requirement is an irritant to be strongly avoided. Unfortunately most gatekeepers cannot tell the difference.

Another is the one between those in comfortable jobs which they wish to keep, and those who must rely on sex work or welfare to survive.

Or between those who go for completion surgery, and the non-binaries and others who decide against surgery.

Those who have children and those who don’t.

Those trans women with children who are regarded as mother, and those who are regarded as fathers; likewise for trans men. Etc.


What about  pronoun usage?

Historically sex/gender has been taken to be determined by:

  • Genitals
  • Gonads
  • Chromosomes
  • Gender Identity
  • Presentation

Only the last is known to other people. (A) can be determined by one being stripped e.g at a police station. (B) & (C) can be determined by medical examination. (D) can be determined by asking, if the person is alive or has left relevant writing. This is often not the case for persons in the past.

While simple politeness tells us to refer to a person by his/her choice of pronouns, (D) and (E) may be in conflict, especially in a person who will transition sooner or later. His/her choice of pronouns may oscillate, especially if still working in the original gender. If you know her by her weekend gender and happen to encounter her male persona at work it is an enormous no-no to refer to ‘she’ with the co-workers.

Some trans people really don’t care which pronouns are used. There are far more important things in life.

The English gendered pronoun ‘she’ may signify:
  • a cis woman
  • a trans man before transition.
  • a trans woman from transition onwards
  • a female impersonator when in role
  • a gender fluid person while in a female phase
There are disagreements whether a gendered pronoun should reflect a person’s Gender (how she presents to the world) or Gender Identity (which she feels she really is). Some insist that the pronoun corresponding to a person’s post-transition gender should be used when narrating that person’s pre-transition life (e.g. she went to a boys’ school, was in an all-male regiment and was a freemason. She married as a man and fathered three children.) This school of thought is rarely consistently applied. 

 In addition complications obviously arise with persons who detransition.

In writing a biography there are reasons to use the pronouns of presentation. That was how he/she wanted to be referred to at that time. It is also a shorthand way to tell the reader how he/she was presenting on that day or event, and what mental image they should be holding.

The latter is particularly important when a person is oscillating or living two lives. 

 For example in 1966 Virginia Prince (she) had been advising Harry Benjamin on his seminal book, but wife Doreen was suing the male persona, Arnold Lowman, for divorce, and he was selling his share of Cardinal Industries.

I wrote of Jack Bee Garland [FTM journalist and soldier] in the US invasion of the Philippines: “At first he was a young man working his way across. But when he ran into problems she revealed her sex and was put off in Hawai'i.” 
Jack Bee Garland

 In writing up his adventures for the San Francisco Examiner, Garland wrote: 

“A newspaper woman and the daughter of an army officer, all my ambition and interest and inclination naturally gave me the fever to go to Manila when things were at their liveliest there”.

Renée Richards [American ophthalmologist and former tennis player] intermittently wrote of her two selves in the third person in her two autobiographies. When she wrote of her male self, for clarity and other reasons she wrote ‘he’.

When Patrick Califia summarized the first autobiography in Sex Changes, Transgender Politics, he changed the pronoun to ‘she’ except in direct quotations. Is this respecting the person’s choice of pronouns? 

 Incidentally, while Califia announces (but only in endnote 18 to chapter 1) that post-transition pronouns will be used throughout, he inconsistently does not do so for [Chevalier] D’Eon or for Virginia Prince.

Here is an account of the funeral of murdered trans lawyer Sonia Burgess: 

 “Sonia's funeral was held at St Martin-in-the Fields, Trafalgar Square on 17 November, attended by around 600 persons, a mixture of lawyers, former asylum seekers and trans persons. The three children delivered a eulogy about the father they had known, slipping easily between female and male pronouns.”

Then there is the intriguing case of Ken Olsen, family man and grandfather, but who for about 15 years from his mid-teens lived and was much photographed as his female persona Kim Christy. Almost everyone uses female pronouns for Kim.

Kim Christy (left) with mother (right) 1969.


Many police forces, insensitively and often openly transphobic, would refer to a murdered trans person only by their pre-transition name, and not give their real name at all (that is the name they choose to use). This was referred to as Deadnaming.

Later any use of one’s pre-transition name became unacceptable. The implication is that one’s Dead name should never be uttered – even by well-meaning friends and family, and to do so is aggressive.

The term attempts to pre-empt one’s decision about whether or not to be open about one’s own pre-transition name. Some trans persons are quite open about their previous name, especially if they have achievements under that name, had published books, had a professional reputation etc. It remains common practice in autobiographies and biographies to mention the person’s birth name, and any temporary names or stage names taken before transition.

A particularly pernicious practice with regard to persons in showbiz, is to give the male birth name and the stage name, but to suppress the person’s Real Name. 

 Vern Bullough tells us that Coccinelle, the star of Le Carrousel was born Jacques Dufresnoy, but refuses to tell us that offstage she was Jacqueline Dufresnoy. 

Jacqueline-Charlotte Dufresnoy, French actress, entertainer and singer.

Most accounts of International Chrysis tell us that she started as Billy Schmacher, but do not tell us her offstage name. 

An afternote about Chrysis. Before s/he died s/he starting telling friends that “I should have just been a gay man”, and referring to her presentation as ‘drag’. On the other hand she was obviously a transkid and an earlier transitioner. So if we should use the pronouns of the person’s final gender identity should Chrysis be ‘he’ or ‘she’? 

Salvador Dali and drag queen and entertainer International Chrysis.

There are cis women who refer to having to wear make-up, high heels etc as ‘drag’ and come to resent having to do so. In Kris Kirk’s Men in Frocks, 1984. on page 48 he writes: 

“Whatever their reason for donning drag in the first place, dragging up soon became 'just a job' for most of the regular Pub Queens. One of the many ironies of professional drag is that, for many performers, what began as a giggle or as a pleasure soon became a chore. And then drag queens come to realise what women have always known: that the fun of dressing up quickly evaporates when you feel obliged to do it." 

I have included a few articles about trans women who reverted for exactly this reason. It became a chore. The answer of course is that, partly because of feminism, women may dress casually, in sensible shoes, without makeup etc. Many do so, but some trans women seem to be unable to give themselves this freedom. Glamour is not the same as being female. Does this describe Chrysis at the end?


  1. James Cantor has thankfully been fired recently closing even further the caustic chapter of bullying and derogatory thinking around trans people and trying to label them as paraphilic. The Blanchardian school is biting the dust and none to soon.

    The Clarke institute and its approach will go down in history as an anachronistic school of thought before we knew any better. It was mostly propelled by self hating gay and trans people born in the 1940's and 50's

  2. It seems to me Zagria was rejected by The Clarke, because she did not fit the two type model: She was supposed to love women and had no right to be married. That says a lot about the "science" of these people.

    1. yes it does Jack. Their approach was to come up with a conclusion and then reject those cases which don't align with it. The opposite of best practice.


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