(Reposted with permission from CDH author Marie Chandler)
In the mid-90s I found an important phone number in the back of a magazine. These were pre-internet days for me when magazines were a main source of information on most topics. I found this particular magazine in an adult bookstore, despite the fact that it could hardly be considered pornographic. Its offensiveness was simply that it contained pictures and stories of men who liked to dress as women. Still, I was too embarrassed to purchase it, so I memorized the number just long enough to write it down once I got back to my car. The number was for a local chapter of a crossdressing support group called Tri-Ess.
This was also a time before cell phones were ubiquitous, so I had to call Tri-Ess on a weekday from my glass-walled office at work. An elderly-sounding lady named Virginia answered and told me it was her job to interview me before I could attend my first meeting, just to make sure my intentions were honorable. She asked me about my history as a crossdresser and I began answering her in a somewhat hushed tone, so as not to be overheard by my nearby co-workers. Virginia was struggling to hear me and I could tell she was getting frustrated. I felt our connection begin to slip away and this opportunity was far too important to me to let that happen, so I dug deep for courage, raised my voice, and let my personal history pour out. I don’t know if anyone else in the office heard my story, but thankfully Virginia did and she invited me to join the club.
My first Tri-Ess meeting was in a cavernous Holiday Inn conference room. Despite the drab setting, I felt like a debutante at her coming-out ball at the age of 26. It was truly thrilling! My favorite memory from that evening was listening to Virginia’s stories of crossdressing in the 1940s and 50s. She was about the same age as my grandmother and I felt like a bright-eyed young lady attentively soaking up her exciting tales. At the time, I knew she was a crossdressing pioneer who co-founded Tri-Ess, but I didn’t realize how incredibly important she was in blazing the very trail that I was taking my first, high-heeled steps on.
Virginia established the roots for Tri-Ess with a crossdressing social group called the Hose and Heels Club, which had its first meeting in a little church in Hollywood, California in 1960. The twelve original members arrived in male dress with a pair of stockings and high heels in a bag. Then they simultaneously put them on so nobody had anything on anyone else. The members quickly became friends and began having fully dressed meetings at each other’s homes.
About the same time, Virginia co-founded Transvestia magazine which published its first issue in 1961. The mission statement for Transvestia was to serve “the needs of those heterosexual persons who have become aware of their ‘other side’ and seek to express it.” The magazine began with 25 subscribers, each of whom contributed four dollars to get the initial issue off the ground. It caught on quickly and could soon be found in adult bookstores throughout the United States. Transvestia was in publication for more than twenty years and for many crossdressers around the country, and later the world, this magazine would be the first time they would ever see pictures and hear stories from others just like them.
Virginia was the editor and subscribers would contribute content by sharing their photos and stories (remind anyone of a website we know?). I recently discovered that the University of Victoria in Canada digitized nearly the entire Transvestia catalog from Virginia’s personal collection and it is available to the public for free. Every issue includes a cover girl and her personal story. I have read many of these profiles and find them endlessly fascinating. They are from a totally different time and in the world, yet the feelings and emotions expressed are very similar to our own. Some things never change.
Each issue contains dozens of photos, all in dramatic black and white. Personally, I love the fashions from this era. Everyone looks so elegant, feminine, and stylish, but beyond the clothes, these ladies get all the details right as well. Their accessories, poses, and carefully chosen settings are all perfectly on point. Striking looks include a housewife in a tailored dress posing in her kitchen, a perky young woman in capri pants, a head scarf, and sunglasses aside from a tail-finned Cadillac, and a chic, sophisticated woman in an evening gown descending a staircase. Across the board, these ladies present their very best and are a true inspiration.
Virginia was not one to rest on her laurels. In 1962, a year after starting Transvetia, she organized its subscribers into a nationwide sorority called Phi Pi Epsilon and the Hose and Heels Club became the Alpha chapter. This was the beginning of what would become the first transvestite organization in history. New chapters rapidly sprung up throughout America. For the first time, in cities all over the county, crossdressers could connect with each other and attend meetings to socialize, make friends and find support.
I’m absolutely floored when I think about the bravery of these women. Imagine how hard it must have been to share your secret in the mid-twentieth century. Simply taking photos presented a risk that they might be caught – they weren’t snapping away on smartphones, they were shooting on film which was often processed and printed by a stranger. As nerve-wracking as that sounds, imagine venturing out dressed in public, even for a walk or a drive. This was a time when crossdressing was actually illegal – both New York City and Los Angeles still had ordinances that made “masquerading” as a woman in public a criminal act. You could not only go to jail, but you could lose your family, friends and career in the process. There was a great deal at stake and still, these courageous ladies were willing to share their pictures and stories and form connections with each other.
Virginia was fearless and did a tremendous amount to advance a positive image of crossdressing in the public eye at a time when it was dangerous to do so. She traveled the globe, en femme, speaking on behalf of crossdressers at universities, medical schools, psychiatric conferences, and on more than a hundred radio and television talk shows. She wrote books and published research papers that helped shape much of what we understand about transvestism today. If you want to know more, I urge you all to start with Transvestia issue #100, which is Virginia’s life story in her own words.
I certainly will never forget sharing my personal story for the first time and I feel fortunate that it was Virginia on the other end of that call. I see now that I was adding my story to the hundreds of stories that Virginia had been told over the decades. The pages of Transvestia hold many of these stories for us to read and acknowledge today, and with every new story that we share on CDH, we are adding to the fabric of that glamorous tapestry. I believe that connecting with the generations that came before us and leaving a record for the ones yet to come is something we should all strive to do for the sisterhood!
*(The portrait of Virginia courtesy of University of Victoria Libraries, Transgender Archives.)