Virginia Prince: The Curmudgeon We Needed by Melanie Yarborough

| Jun 1, 2009
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When I think of Virginia Prince, I’m reminded of the famous Lil Abner cartoonist Al Capp. Al started his career as a figure of the 1930s New Deal Left, lampooning the conservative establishment with biting satire. But he ended his career in the 1970s as a figure of the Nixon Right, attacking hippies and antiwar protesters with sarcastic and belittling commentary. He explained this turnabout by saying that the Left had moved, not he. Likewise, Virginia had strong personal ideas on transgender issues, which were radical for the early 1960’s. And she stuck to these ideas, even when the Transgender community she helped form grew into something larger and more complex. I say this purely as an observation, and not as any kind of criticism.

I first learned about Virginia in the late 1980s the same way many of us in those pre-internet days did: through furtive readings of transgender books at public libraries. (I got to know the HQ 70 books really well. Of course, I always had one eye looking over my shoulder to make sure nobody snuck up on me and caught me reading them!)  I learned that she published a magazine called Transvestia in the 1960s. She created the Hose and Heels club in Los Angeles, and later wrote a book entitled How to Be a Woman though Male. And finally, she had helped found the Foundation for Full Personality Expression, which later became the national organization Tri-Ess.

When I joined the Transgender community in 1993, I had the opportunity to meet her-albeit on only a handful of occasions and fleetingly. Virginia was then in her early 80s. The general consensus seemed to be that she was something of a dinosaur. Even her friends gave her grudging respect, the key word here being “grudging.” She was said to have been instrumental in organizing the crossdressing community in the 1960s and 1970s, but that her glory days were now past. Her alleged transphobic and homophobic sentiments were said to have no place in the “modern” transgender community.

But before this image of Virginia becomes set in stone, I want to offer a counter-image for our community to remember her:  as “The Curmudgeon We Needed.”

A curmudgeon is usually defined as a crusty, irascible, cantankerous old person full of stubborn ideas. Some of the great curmudgeons of recent history were HL Mencken, Dorothy Parker, and WC Fields. But curmudgeons aren’t just angry, bitter people. They don’t hate humanity, just humanity’s excesses. They don’t believe in putting up an agreeable false front, as that would be hypocrisy. They also don’t believe in changing their opinions just to suit changing times, as they feel that’s self betrayal. They’re sharp observers, who back up their views with years of life experiences. They often tell us the unvarnished truth, and we hate them for it.

Virginia’s stance that transsexuals should not be members of the organization was a controversial one. I’m guessing this came from her personal experience of losing several marriages, the first one to crossdressing. She felt the specter of Christine Jorgensen would scare away wives and girlfriends. Getting the support of this important constituency was crucial. Moreover, crossdressers were then a small and nascent group, who needed all the cohesion they could get. It was felt that they couldn’t afford the divisiveness of taking transsexual issues on board. Nowadays, social groups like the Rainbow Coalition look towards inclusion as a basic principle. But in the 1960s and 1970s, many social groups  thought more in terms of homogeneity. We may think this is right, or we may think this is wrong, but that was the political reality of the time.

Virginia’s stance on homosexuals was equally contentious. She saw how crossdressers were too easily lumped together with homosexuals, then one of the most reviled groups in American society.  She felt that the only way to gain crossdresser social acceptance was distance from the gay community. In this, Virginia ironically had something in common with several mid 1960s Gay Rights organizations. They also had an assimilationist wing, who felt that homosexuals could gain greater social tolerance if they dressed and acted “straight.” In a harsh social climate, a mere decade from the McCarthy era witch hunts, it seemed a sound strategy.

When Virginia came out in the early 1960s, anyone who wanted to survive as openly transgendered needed a thick skin — a firm vision and perhaps overweening self-confidence. Virginia either had, or quickly developed, that thick skin. One of Virginia’s memorable lines, which I’ve never forgotten, was “I’m not a deviant. I’m just statistically rare.”

When I look at some of the sheer ire that Virginia’s views aroused, I’m reminded of a famous quote often attributed to Henry Kissinger: “Academic politics are so vicious precisely because the stakes are so small.” The transgender community, like other marginalized subcultures, sometimes suffers from what’s called HORIZONTAL HATRED. Under our own tent, we sadly use against each other the same phobias straight culture uses against us. Grudges over actual or perceived slights becomes the norm. Venomous hairsplitting debates over arcane gender or sexual issues becomes common. It still goes on today. It’s funny how crossdressers ask wives and girlfriends to accept us “warts and all,” yet some didn’t believe in giving that same courtesy to Virginia Prince.

In terms of my own personal memories of Virginia, I have two:

At the February 1995 International Conference on Gender, Crossdressing, and Sex Issues, hosted by California State University at Northridge, Virginia poked fun at her own well known opposition to transsexual surgery. On a panel with a physician who performed the procedure, she quipped something to the effect of “People have me all wrong. All I’m trying to do is just keep the good doctor from being overworked!” My feeling at the time was that if Virginia could laugh at herself, she couldn’t possibly be the virago she’d been portrayed.

In June 1999, I had the honor of giving the keynote speech at California Dreaming on “Our Transgender Family.” Virginia later commented to me — perhaps with mild disdain — that all I’d done was give a “grab bag” of different types of people: crossdressers, transsexuals, drag queens, the intersexed, etc. Virginia and I had very different perspectives, each being equally valid. Mine reflected my background in Political Science. I saw the transgender community as a heterogenous but marginalized liberation group, who need to form a coherent, mutually supportive organization. Virginia’s view perhaps reflected her background as a biochemist. She may have seen these same starkly different elements as chemicals which might react against each other.

I sometimes wonder if this was the key to understanding Virginia. Scientists look at the world differently than the rest of us. They see the world-and by extension people — in terms of equations and natural laws. Everything is supposed to operate based on a logic, and anything that is illogical has to be discounted.

Around 1996 or so, Neutral Corner in San Diego invited Virginia to speak at one of our monthly meetings. Because she was such a controversial speaker, we had to issue a lot of caveats when publicizing the event. Some even feared that her detractors (transsexual or just plain in disagreement with her) would disrupt the speech. Fortunately it went off well. I was so very proud that our group gave Virginia a deserved opportunity to express herself,  either to enlighten or to challenge our membership.

I think that Virginia’s longevity became her supreme irony: She lived long enough to see the community she helped establish become a visible and influential social movement. But it mutated into something she didn’t expect it to become, and may not have even wanted it to become. Like they say, “Be careful what you wish for, you may get it.”

Virginia Prince lived to the age of 96. Another famous person who lived to that same age was Katherine Hepburn. “The Great Kate” once said, “If you always do what interests you, at least one person is pleased.” Virginia may not have pleased everyone, but she certainly pleased herself — and in doing so, helped create the community which sustains us today. Virginia was the curmudgeon we needed. I don’t know if it would be a good thing to have many of them, but every community needs at least one. They keep us honest.

Permission to reprint given, provided no abridgment in text, and that credit is given to Melanie Yarborough and Neutral Corner, San Diego California.

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About the Author ()

Angela Gardner is a founding member of The Renaissance Transgender Assoc., Inc., former editor of its newsletter and magazine, Transgender Community News. She was the Diva of Dish for TGF in the late 1990s and Editor of LadyLike magazine until its untimely demise. She has appeared in film and television shows portraying TG characters, as well as representing Renaissance on numerous talk shows.

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