7 Realities Of Being Trans Back Before You Knew We Existed
If you think there's been some sort of boom in the number of transgender people lately, you're not alone. You're also not correct: Trans folks were not invented by George Soros in 2006 as part of a nefarious conspiracy (sorry, Breitbart). They've been here all along. It's just that most trans people old enough to have known, say, the '80s, are either dead, or still hiding. But not Allison Washington. She's an author and survivor of the "trans dark ages," and she has one hell of a story to tell.
Norway Has Always Been Surprisingly Chill
Our source for this article, Allison, was a transgender girl in the 1960s. She had the fortune of growing up in Europe with a very open-minded mother:
"I made her aware [I was trans] when I was approximately 4 years old, and um, y'know, prior to that one doesn't really express a gender ... [I was] playing with her dresses, putting on her clothing and so forth."
Allison thinks her mom was "just being indulgent, initially." But Allison "made rather a point that I was like her" and "I remained insistent over time."
A kid playing dress-up is common enough; a 4-year-old really sticking to something is a bit rarer.
However she may have felt about it, Allison's mom rolled with the punches. It turns out a bit of family history might've tipped her off. Allison thinks, "Her mother [Allison's grandmother] may have been transmasculine, it's hard to say. Her mother always presented as male. And we're talking the 1920s, when her mother actually wore a suit and tie to go to engineering school. In the 1920s, if you can believe this!"
Trans people in the modern age still face extreme adversity. It's hard to imagine a trans man going to college in the goddamn '20s, when just being Irish was basically considered blasphemy. But that's America: In Europe, the '20s were a golden age of trans research and study. In 1897, Magnus Hirschfeld had established the Scientific-Humanitarian Committee. Hirschfeld, a standard physicist/sexologist, created the first gay/lesbian/transgender rights organization in the world. And then Nazis happened. Isn't that always the way? In fact, this infamous picture of a Nazi book-burning ...
A pastime that's just always looked back on as a good idea.
... is actually a picture of Nazis burning the library of Hirschfeld's Institute For Sexual Science. Many of those books were filled with irreplaceable interviews and research on trans men and women. The Nazis put an end to an early "golden age" for trans activism, and pushed transgender folks back into a "dark age" that's only now starting to clear.
Allison didn't know any of that when she was a little trans girl trying to enroll in school in France. Progress had taken a dark turn by then and, "There was kind of a scene. I wouldn't wear a boy's uniform, I went to the girl's washroom ... [my mother] withdrew me from school after a couple weeks because it was clear there was a problem."
Allison was homeschooled in France, and then the UK, before she and her mother moved to Norway, where things were surprisingly chill: "Even back then Norwegian society was more egalitarian. And for example, girls would take wood shop, boys would take home economics, that sort of thing. And this is around 1970. It's rather odd really, because I must have been marked as male in paperwork at the school but, umm, in Norway there were no school uniforms. This was the end of the 1960s, and at that point girls wore trousers ... I didn't really get any grief about it."
So even back in the '60s, Scandinavia had their tolerance game on point. Way to make the rest of us look bad, you gigantic, beautiful bastards.
America Beat Me Until I Transitioned Back
Allison's father was an American, and eventually, when her mother was unable to support her, she had to move in with him. In 1971, at the age of 14, she traveled to the land of freedom and apple pie (but only for those with the "correct" sexual preferences. And race. And religion. And ... )
"Oh god, yes, it was dreadful. I arrived with long blond hair and, let's just say, highly feminized speech and mannerisms, as one might expect." Allison described her father as an "abusive narcissist" -- so yeah, he didn't take it like a Norwegian. "And so he went about it in a rather violent way, sort of trying to mold me after himself. Let's just say I got hit many times ... he called it my 'prancing around,' what it was, was normal female behavior. So I got hit a lot."
During Allison's first couple weeks of school "... in the gymnasium locker rooms. I recall a particular incident in which the boys decided to find out what I really was. I found myself attacked by at least a half-dozen boys and stripped naked [and beaten] ... all I remember was being curled up on the floor."
She referred to these as the "dark ages" for a reason.
Fortunately, after a year Allison's father "gave up on [her]," and kicked her out of the house at age 17. She was homeless for a time, until she won admittance to a school of performing arts, which is basically the queer-70s equivalent of calling "Base!".
"Even though I was marked as a male I was able to kind of survive in the performing arts community, probably everyone thought I was super gay, but I was able to get away with wearing women's clothes and so forth."
Everyone's there to play a role already. Who's gonna give a shit if you choose to take yours offstage.
And so for years, until age 31, Allison lived as a somewhat effeminate man. She went to University in Europe, then took a job in the tech industry. And, in 1988 ...
I Only Learned Being Trans Was A Thing Because Of An Abortion Clinic
"I have a friend who needs an abortion. So I'm going to lend her support ... and while she's having her [procedure] I'm in the waiting room and they have some literature on the wall."
At this stage in her life Allison experienced what she called "gender crises" on a regular basis. "Every few years my life would come apart and I would start behaving and looking strangely 'for a man' ... I was described as looking rather like David Bowie ... I was desperate to feel comfortable in my dress and behavior ... I was approaching one of these crises at this time and I came across this pamphlet on gender dysphoria in the waiting room. I don't know why they had it there ... but there it was. By the time [my friend] gets out, I can hardly pay attention to her situation because I am freaking out. This thing out of nowhere describes me perfectly and lays out the fact that there's a solution, which had never occurred to me, that there was a way to fix this. I just figured I was mad. It took me a couple of weeks of phone calls to find an organization in my city that provided support for people like me. And within weeks I was in therapy and on hormones."
In the late 1980s, the process of finding help as a trans person was actually quite familiar:
"Ok, now I knew this could be solved but to whom do I go to solve it? I tried looking up and calling these organizations [listed on the pamphlet] ... as I recall they either were defunct or they didn't really lead anywhere."
She made dozens of calls, where people would say, "'oh I don't know about that, but maybe so-and-so does' ... so I would call so-and-so ... it was like a daisy chain of phone calls, just a week or two of calling people all over the bloody world to be honest. Finally I called someone in San Francisco who knew somebody in the country that I was in."
By the end, her dialing finger was strong enough to stab through a phone book.
Yep, as a trans person in the '80s, finding a doctor was even harder than finding a decent acid connection today (although Allison didn't have to put up with fucking Tony and his watered down vials). Anyway, Allison eventually found a contact that put her in touch with a VERY secretive support group: "There was a very small kind of semi-underground support group of trans people, for trans people. And I finally got connected to them and went to my first meeting, scared to death. It was like half a dozen women meeting in the evening at this kind of office. And that was the first time I'd ever seen trans people."
These people gave her the names of the doctors who worked with trans folks in their city. Allison noted that, in a city of over a million people, there were "three psychotherapists and two endocrinologists" willing to help with her gender transition. They didn't exactly advertise these services, for the same reason Allison and her support group all left their meetings separately, and at different times. Being trans back then was way more dangerous than carrying a buttful of illegal drugs around today.
Which is not to say being trans nowadays is particularly safe.
You Would Absolutely Be Fired For Transitioning
Allison worked for a major tech company right at the start of the first big tech boom. She was an engineer, at the head of an extremely advanced project, and her expertise made her irreplaceable. Even so, coming out to her co-workers required a lot of strategy:
"That was one of the toughest weeks of my life ... I was relatively well known in my company ... I was actually an engineer / scientist, and um, I was working on a fairly high profile project."
Allison didn't go into detail about her project, but her company was advanced enough that, in 1989, she and her colleagues all had email:
"I wrote an email describing my situation and the fact that I was transitioning to female and I sent it to a half dozen people I trusted, knowing full well this would explode."
Email may have been primitive in 1989, but could still spread office gossip like its modern day counterpart.
While the tech people she worked with were open-minded nerds, senior management was "more traditional," and Allison felt HR would immediately send her packing if she approached them. That's why she emailed her co-workers first, "... the people who absolutely depended on me for the survival of this project. I let them know what was happening, that I would be transitioning ... and reminded them I was indispensable. And within hours ... this was out to 4,000 [people]."
She only met with HR once the cat was fully out of the bag and pissing on their rugs. "They were absolutely incensed ... but by the time I got frog-marched into HR it was too late."
They yelled at her for having the gall to exist, but thanks to a "tug-of-war" between management and the nerds who made their project run, Allison's job was secure.
"How DARE you possess the skills and experience to create a profitable product?!"
It's worth noting that, at this point, Allison's support group knew of only one other transgender woman, in the country, who had managed to openly transition.
"She did a sort of similar thing, so we sort of modeled my plan off of her."
Her supportive co-workers viewed her as "sort of a unique unicorn." The common "good" response was, "'ok, that's really weird, but whatever.'" Allison feels she was "tolerated" as "kind of a freak, but a very valuable freak." Though most people offered only "outright hostility":
"After that email I went to the cafeteria ... at lunch time, probably a thousand people sitting. A thousand people conversing, you know what that sounds like. And I walked in and the place fell utterly silent. I'm sort of standing there with my food and everyone's looking at me."
"Nobody move while I drop this. I've always wanted to try it."
She kept working for another 18 months, for six months after her transition was complete. But ultimately the pressure didn't ease up, and Allison was gone from the office, but not forgotten. "For the year or so following transition, some information came back to me and there were apparently three other women in that company who transitioned after I did. And one of them made contact and told me ... that she was only able to do it because of my example."
There Was Strict Medical Criteria For Transitioning At All
Allison was lucky in that she had a well-paying job, and was valuable enough that she couldn't be fired right away. Being able to transition, openly, in 1989, was about as rare as a dry bedsheet in Donald Trump's hotel room.
"Within the support groups and so forth ... I was only the second one we knew about."
So for those keeping score at home, that's two for "Openly Trans" and 12 for "Walked On The Fucking Moon."
That's not in her city, or her state, that's in the entire country. We won't say which country, specifically, at her request. But at the time she transitioned, you could probably count the number of openly transitioned trans women in the English-speaking world on your hands. And transitioning was not a simple thing. The medical standards of care for trans people were established by the Harry Benjamin Association (which now goes by WPATH). Harry Benjamin was a researcher at that institute the Nazis destroyed. He survived, and the organization he founded helped guide doctors and trans people through the dark ages. Their advice was very much tailored to the problems of their time.
"You had to live one year as your proper gender before you have surgery."
This wasn't the law. It was a rule the doctors (whom Allison described as "gatekeepers" of transition) followed, to make sure they didn't perform surgery on someone who wasn't committed, and couldn't already "pass" as a woman.
"Everyone that I knew personally who transitioned at that time is what we'd call cisnormative, cis-passing. ["Cis" being the term for people whose gender identity matches the sex they were assigned at birth.] And in fact it was not possible at that time to get hormones unless you already looked pretty fucking good. The gatekeepers pretty much required you to present as a convincing woman of heterosexual nature in order to get treatment at all."
As if there weren't enough body issues going on inside your head already.
That sounds insane, but it was also practical. Those doctors were worried that a patient of theirs who couldn't pass would get murdered. Even today, roughly two thirds of hate crime murder victims are transgender women. In the 1980s, traveling through most active war zones was probably safer than being identified as trans: "It was bloody terrifying at times. I was very lucky -- there was an awful term back then; 'good job' versus 'bad job' -- if you were a good job, you could get treatment and you could not get in too much public danger. If you were a bad job ... you were in a really sorry state ... you had to be a good job to survive."
It wasn't a fun transition process. Allison says that she "escaped being beaten but only just. I personally was cornered a couple of times by groups of men who wanted to 'do me over'. I managed to get away."
Once her surgery was done, though, the 1980s actually did her a favor. She went to get her gender changed on all of her legal documents including, retroactively, her birth certificate. And once all that was done, there was no government record anywhere in the world of her previous life as a man, because there was no real internet: "If you were to do a public document search on me there's no evidence whatsoever that I was ever anything but what I am now. That would be hard to do nowadays."
That selfie stick is looking more ominous by the minute.
Once You Transitioned, You Had To Disappear
There was no real transgender community in Allison's day. You transitioned, and then you got "woodworked," as Allison put it: you hid your past. The modern term for this is "stealth," and the term for successfully presenting as cisgender is "passing." Allison isn't a fan ...
"It sort of sounds like you're trying to get away with something, alright? Like, um by blending in with society you're sort of sneaking around stealthily ... and that's really not how I feel about it. I like the term woodwork, because what it feels like is society forces you into the woodwork, whether you want it or not."
Nice if you want to escape into the anonymity of a crowd; less nice if you liked who you were.
The goal was "assimilation." Finish your surgery, and start a new life. That was, "the expectation, not just by trans women but by the doctors that helped us and so forth, that there really wasn't any other consideration."
You had to be ready to pack up and move your entire life at the drop of a hat.
"That was the plan ... you basically leave your family and friends behind, you relocate to a different city, you take your new documents and take up a new life as this woman, as cis, as if this had never happened. The idea was to carry on as if this had never happened. That was expected by the caretakers, that was expected by society, that was expected by the legal sort of structure ... everyone expected you to disappear, including yourself."
Sort of like Witness Protection, except for your genitals.
This sense of secrecy extended to her relationships: Allison has not told her past romantic partners that she was transgender.
"If I could date a man and tell him my history and have everything be lovely, I would certainly prefer to do that." Hiding this part of her life "puts me in a truly awful position ... on the other hand, I know almost nobody who's been successful at telling a cis man 'yeah, I used to have a penis, but I'm a woman' and having that work. If he freaks out, who's he gonna talk to? If you disclose to someone, and it's a mistake, your whole life can unravel around you."
It can even be deadly: The trans panic defense (claiming you murdered someone because the sudden reveal of their trans-ness made you uncontrollably violent) is still used in court today.
But at least there are state bans. Or ban, that is, since there's exactly one state where you can't argue "phobic insanity" in court.
Allison also doesn't feel like the question of whether or not to tell a partner is even a fair one:
"It's like ... I had a carbuncle removed. I had a medical thing happen three decades ago ... it wasn't my fault, I was just born that way ... I got it fixed, here I am half a lifetime later and all I want to do is go out on a date. And do I get to, if I tell the truth about that thing, way back there? ... So yeah, I've never had the guts to tell."
As tough as it's been for Allison, she had it a lot easier than many trans women:
"The girls who couldn't pass, I don't know what they did. I can't imagine what kind of life they ended up with. It seems to me like for a lot of people it's different now. But even today, I can't imagine going through my day-to-day life with people knowing my background ... I rather suspect a lot of us didn't make it."
That does appear to be the grim reality.
But now it's 2017! There are prominent transgender actresses, and transgender pride parades! Things are better. Only ...
Things Are Better Today ... But Not By As Much As You Think
So, let's preface this entry by pointing out that Allison hasn't exactly been following transgender activism like a hawk since 1989.
"I didn't hear the term transgender until this year." (2016)
Remember, "gender dysphoria" was the term that introduced the whole basic concept of being trans to Allison. The polite slang back then was "transsexuals" --"so those were the terms I knew." And then she transitioned, lost herself in the woodwork, and lived her life for thirty years without thinking about it until, last year, she marched in a transgender pride parade.
"I honestly myself don't really understand it. I'm rather astonished that I did that because it's so much against my nature. I don't know what the hell I thought I was doing."
The road to that march, for Allison, started when she watched a music video from one of her favorite bands, Axis Of Awesome ...
"They were getting ready to start a new tour ... and they posted a video of the opening number of their tour and they called it the Elephant In The Room. And their lead singer, Jordan, comes out ... Jordan always had a full beard, Jordan comes out in a dress and they do this number ... and I'm like, holy fuck what the hell is this? And it turns out Jordan is a trans woman and she transitioned in the year they were not on tour."
Allison found Jordan's coming-out video, which introduced her to the whole concept of coming-out videos. Can you imagine the whiplash of going from "flee town as soon as you transition" to "post a cute video about it!"
Even the comments are positive on those. Positive YouTube comments. Somewhere, Hell just froze rock solid.
Allison: "My head exploded, right? I felt like I was on an alien planet. It was so strange."
Allison was visiting Seattle when she met some people who told her about the concept of trans pride, and an upcoming trans pride parade. She went from zero to parade in no time flat.
"It was just the most bizarre thing I've ever done. There was that feeling in the moment, in the march, watching people cheer and so forth I was sobbing for part of it, quite literally, because I did have that feeling that maybe everything was going to be alright after all."
"That did not last."
Sadly, the list of problems that can be solved with a parade is pretty short.
"I'm in contact with a couple dozen, something over a dozen women of my generation and we all feel the same way; this has not been a good thing for us. In the long run, I think it'll be a necessarily adjustment ... it'll probably be OK, but in the meantime ... we have never been under attack the way we are now. I didn't worry about going to the ladies room for 25 years and now, all of a sudden, I get that little catch. Like, am I OK?"
For most trans women, "bad jobs" included, Allison thinks things have probably gotten better.
"I know a lot of people who are successfully transitioning and don't pass, and that was not a thing thirty years ago. Those people were just completely ... I know how fucking privileged I am. Because almost nobody got what I got, y'know? For every one of me, there's a thousand dead women out there somewhere. I know that. I really know that."
Allison Washington writes stories about her life and essays on trans issues. Discover this story, in Allison's own words, right here.
Robert Evans has a book about all the vices that built human civilization.
For more insider perspectives, check out 5 Shocking Realities Of Being Transgender The Media Ignores and I Was Transgender And Didn't Know It: 6 Weird Realities.
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