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TG History — Girls Night Out, The Early Support Groups

| May 18, 2009
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“I’m Comin’ Up So You Better Get This Party Started” — Pink

People love to think of history in terms of “firsts” — the first person to invent something, the first discovery of someplace, the first time something ever happened before. “Firsts” help give each generation its sense of place in the world — and after all, doesn’t everything have to start somewhere? Let’s apply that in trying to figure out the beginnings of the first organized transgendered support groups.

It’s a fundamental human need to seek out the companionship of like-minded people who share a common interest, be it chess or model trains — or crossdressing. Yet tracking down the history of early crossdressing groups presents some very, very unique challenges to the researcher. Think about it — first you’re dealing with a group of people for whom secrecy was everything. They met in different, secretive locations. They often screened potential members using private interviews conducted at neutral locations. It wasn’t unheard of for members to sign loyalty pledges not to reveal names or information about the group.Members could know each other for years yet have no idea where someone lived or details about their private life. Also, these were groups whose members didn’t even use their real names, going instead by feminine names — and even those were subject to change. And to top that off — since they were crossdressed members tended to look a whole lot different from the way they normally looked. Tracking them down sounds like a job for all the CSIs with the CIA or KGB thrown in for good measure. So to trace the beginnings of America’s early crossdressing groups we have to first go back to their roots.


At first glance you’d think the answer would be sometime in the Sixties when crossdressing groups began springing up in numbers. But actually it was the Nineties.

The Gay Nineties.

The year 1893 to be exact — back when we had only 44 states and the immortal Benjamin Harrison (who?) was President. That’s right — American crossdressing groups go back to the 19th Century.

But it’s where they met that’s especially interesting. If you were a crossdresser in the late 19th century and wanted to meet in privacy there was only one sure place to go — you headed to the black side of town. One CH Hughes wrote Postscript to Paper on ‘Erotopathia — An Organization of Colored Erotopaths based on his learning of a group of crossdressers meeting in Washington DC.  At first he believed only black crossdressers were involved, writing:

“I am credibly informed that there is, in the city of Washington, D.C., an annual convocation of men called the drag dance, which is an orgie (sic) of lascivious debauchery beyond pen power of description. I am likewise informed that a similar organization was lately suppressed by the police of New York City.

“In this sable performance of sexual perversion all of these men are lasciviously dressed in womanly attired, short sleeves, low-necked dresses and the usual ballroom decorations and ornaments of women, feathered and ribboned head-dresses, garters, frills, flowers, ruffles, etc., and deport themselves as women.

“Among those who annually assemble in this strange libidinous display are cooks, barbers, waiters and other employes (sic) of Washington families, some even higher in the social scale — some being employed as subordinate in the Government departments.”

Yet crossdressing events weren’t limited to drag balls — there was another crossdresser venue going on back then. We refer, of course, to coffee-clatches.

Wait a minute, here: coffee-clatches? Absolutely. In an 1896 article for the American Journal of Psychology, Colin Scott reported of:  “Coffee-clatches, where the members dress themselves with aprons, etc., and knit, gossip and crochet.”

But it was the black drag balls (with numerous white attendees) that were the big crossdressing events of their day and they weren’t limited to Washington DC. Other writers soon noted similar groups had begun gathering in earnest (not to mention New York, Atlanta, Louisville, etc…). Hughes himself later discovered another such group, writing a second article titled The Homosexual Complexion Perverts in St. Louis — and as you may have guessed from this he wasn’t exactly a liberal thinker. So imagine his surprise when he finally discovered that several of the crossdressers attending these events were actually white and not everybody attending was necessarily gay. One reason, besides his own prejudice, that Hughes didn’t catch on at first was that the police had raided the Washington DC gathering yet only arrested the black patrons while letting the unnamed white crossdressers discretely slip away. Fortunately, all the arrested black crossdressers were later freed on bonds put up by their white patrons. Yet these black drag balls still led some writers like Hughes to conclude that crossdressing must have originated in Africa — for surely reputable white people didn’t do such things. They were all dead wrong, of course — drag balls actually went back centuries in Europe.

Still, in a way, crossdressing groups were ahead of their time. At a time of Jim Crow laws when the races were strictly segregated, drag balls and other crossdressering gatherings were among the first American groups to integrate.  It’s kind of nice to know that.

“Postscript to Paper on ‘Erotopathia — An Organization of Colored Erotopaths” Alienist and Neurologist, October, 1893, Charles H. Hughes
“Sex and Art” American Journal of Psychology, January, 1896 Colin A. Scott
“The Homosexual Complexion Perverts in St. Louis” Alienist and Neurologist, November, 1907, Charles H. Hughes
Crossdressing, Sex, and Gender, Vern & Bonnie Bullough
An American Obsession, Jennifer Terry
Sex Research at the Borders of Gender: Transvestites, Transsexuals, and Alfred C. Kinsey,  Joanne Meyerowitz
Transgender Warriors, Making History From Joan of Arc to RuPaul,  Leslie Feinberg

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Category: Transgender History


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  1. cena cena says:

    Very interesting historically speaking! Love your reseach, hon!

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