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Pioneers of Transgendering:
The Life and Work of Virginia Prince

Dave King,

Department of Sociology, University of Liverpool

Richard Ekins,

Transgender Archive, University of Ulster at Coleraine
Gendys Conference, 2000

 
 
Drs. King and Ekins
are prolific writers
in this area.
For further details
see our bookshop:
Male femaling
and as editor with
Dr. Dave King: Blending Genders

 
Published June 2006, Virginia Prince: Pioneer of Transgendering by Richard Ekins, published by Haworth Press Inc., Paperback: 65 pages £10.83 ISBN: 0789030551
 

Introduction

This is a brief presentation of a longer paper written by us which we hope will evolve as we are able to gather more material on its subject - Virginia Prince.

Possibly only those with some knowledge of the transgender community before about 1980 will be aware of the central role that Prince played in its development. Primarily a staunch promoter of heterosexual transvestism, her activities have had a significant impact on the whole transgender community.

One of her more recent publications (Prince, 1997a), written when she was 82 years old, is entitled Seventy Years in the Trenches of the Gender Wars and the impression that comes across in this and in many of her writings is, indeed, of someone who is a fighter, waging war passionately against "ignorance, intolerance and bigotry" (Prince, 1997a: 469). It is not surprising, therefore, that she has had both devoted followers and bitter enemies. Loved or loathed, though, it is impossible to overestimate her importance, demonstrated in this paper by a brief overview of her story and her philosophy.

 

A Transgendered Career: Virginia Prince

Prince was born a male on November 23rd 1912 in Los Angeles. She began cross-dressing at about the age of twelve, at first using her mother's clothes. She writes that by the time she was in high school, she "had progressed to the point of being a girl in public and passing as such" (1997b: 348). There is a familiar story of the pleasures and attractions of cross-dressing together with feelings of guilt and wondering what was wrong with her; of pursuing it as far as possible, and of giving up altogether (Prince, 1979: 170). She visited, she says, six different psychiatrists (Prince, 1967: 5).

In 1939 she got her PhD in pharmacology from the University of California, San Francisco. At around the same time, she met the woman to whom she would be married, in 1941, with the again familiar thought that she would no longer need to cross-dress, followed by the realisation that nothing had changed in that respect. The couple had a son, but the marriage "failed because of my transvestism" she says (Prince, 1967: 143). This was probably in the mid-late 1940s (Prince's dates are not always clear and do not always make sense).

Just after marrying, she returned to the University of California at San Francisco as a research assistant and lecturer in pharmacology, and used the opportunity of access to the medical library to become acquainted with the (then) small medical literature on transvestism. She also attended some psychiatric case conferences where she first knowingly saw another transvestite. Later making contact with one of the people whose case had been presented, she took on the name of Charles Prince to hide her real identity (Charles was her father's first name and she lived on Prince Street) (Prince, 1997b: 350). It was here that she also encountered Karl Bowman. Bowman was a psychiatrist, one-time president of the American Psychiatric Association, and Director of the Langley Porter Psychiatric Clinic and the California Sex Deviate Research Project (Freedman, 1987). Prince visited Bowman several times seeking help and was surprised when he told her to, "stop fighting it, it isn't so terrible. There are thousands of others like you and always have been. Medical science hasn't been able to do much for them, so the best thing to do is to relax and learn to accept yourself" (Prince, 1967: 5-6).

Prince married again (probably in the late 1940s) and, with her second wife, an Englishwoman, founded and ran a business manufacturing and selling grooming products for humans and dogs. Evidently the second wife was more accepting of Prince's transvestism (Benjamin, Preamble to Prince, 1957: 80) which was thus able to develop; ". . . as time went on and I had more and more opportunities to dress, to go out, to learn more about fashion, grooming and feminine behaviour, I found that my feminine self was beginning to become a real personality in her own right." (Prince, 1969)

By 1956-7, Prince had begun to work out her philosophy of transvestism and had begun her mission to educate the medical profession, transvestites themselves and the rest of the world. As discussed below, this involved the development of the idea of "femmiphilia", or, love of the feminine. Prince preferred to call herself a femmiphile (FP) rather than a transvestite.

Alongside the consolidation of her cross-dressing and the emergence of 'Virginia' as a real personality, the 1950s also apparently saw Prince develop her contacts with other transvestites. In addition to the contact made through Bowman's clinic, she was also contacted by others after her cross-dressing was publicised during the reporting of her first divorce case (Bullough and Bullough, 1993: 284).

It is important to emphasise that at this time, in both America and Britain, there was nothing like the level of information and support which is available to the transgender community today. A few people managed to make contact with others but, by and large, in the 1950s transvestism and transsexualism (few would even have been aware of these terms then) were solitary affairs accompanied by guilt, ignorance and secrecy. Little information was available in print, even in the medical literature, and most people's 'knowledge' would have been gleaned from newspapers such as the British People and News of the World.

One of the things which contributed to a change in this state of affairs was the appearance in 1960 of Prince's magazine Transvestia which was published by Prince's Chevalier Publications and was sold by subscription and through adult bookshops. The message on the inside cover read: "Transvestia is dedicated to the needs of those heterosexual persons who have become aware of their 'other side' and seek to express it."

In 1961 Prince got together some of the subscribers to Transvestia who began to meet in the Los Angeles area. Known initially as the Hose and Heels club, this evolved around 1962 into a national organisation called the Foundation for Full Personality Expression, (FPE or Phi Pi Epsilon) with a magazine for members called Femme Mirror (Prince, 1997b: 352). FPE was clearly aimed at those cross-dressers who, like Prince (at that time), were heterosexual and married: homosexuals and transsexuals were not admitted.

Transvestia gradually recruited subscribers from outside the United States, particularly, England, Scandinavia and Australia, some of whom joined FPE. In 1965, a European group of FPE was formed. In autumn 1966, the three UK and Irish members of FPE contacted each other to form a British branch . As Alice L100 (1991: 37) puts it: "We chose the name Beaumont Society - after the Chevalier d'Eon de Beaumont - a French 'travesti', who died in England in 1810." At about the same time, FPE (Northern Europe) was formed and is still in existence (as, of course, is the British Beaumont Society).

Over the years Chevalier Publications also published transvestite fiction, some of it written by Prince herself. At some stage in her career she also began to market various aids such as artificial breasts.

In the mid 1960s, Prince was arrested and found guilty of sending obscene material through the post (Prince, 1997b: 353). She was placed on probation for five years and was, apparently, in danger of being imprisoned if she cross-dressed in public. Her lawyer persuaded the court to include educating the public about cross-dressing as part of the probation order so that she could cross-dress legitimately (Bullough and Bullough: 1996: 285; Prince, 1997b: 354). This she did and in 1968 had her first television appearance (Prince, 1997b: 354). So, as she put it, her "'career' as friend, counsellor, philosopher and publicist for the CD [cross-dressing] community got under way" (Prince, 1997b: 355).

The second marriage ended in divorce in 1968 for reasons, she says, unrelated to her transvestism (Prince, 1967: 143). She sold the business at about the same time and, as she wrote in 1979: "I was then free to live my life as I wanted having no domestic or business responsibilities. I therefore crossed the line completely and have lived as a woman full time ever since. I am therefore to be classified as a 'transgenderist' now and no longer as an FP."(Prince, 1979: 172)

In the same publication she also reported that "I have had my beard removed by electrolysis and . . . as a result of a course of hormone therapy I now possess a nice pair of 38B breasts" (Prince, 1979: 172).

Membership of FPE could be applied for after having subscribed to and read 5 or more issues of Transvestia. Acceptance was then dependent on approval of the application form, payment of dues and personal interview with an area counsellor (Transvestia, 1972, vol. XII, no. 72). According to Feinbloom (1976: 62), interviewers were cautioned against accepting "bondage or masochistic people, amateur investigators, curiosity seekers, homosexuals, transsexuals or emotionally disturbed people." In addition to the emphasis on keeping out those who were not seen as 'real' transvestites, great emphasis was placed on maintaining members' privacy and secrecy.

FPE continued until 1975/6 when it merged with a Southern Californian transvestite group, Mamselle, to become the Society for the Second Self, or 'Tri-Sigma' for short. Tri Sigma followed the pattern of FPE: it was, said Prince in 1976, "an organisation limited to heterosexual cross dressers and to those who are not involved in other such behaviour patterns as bondage, punishment, fetishism for rubber, leather, or other, or domination and humiliation." (Prince, 1976: 41)

Transsexuals were also discouraged from seeking to join and the emphasis on security and the involvement of members' wives continued. But applications to join could be made after purchasing only three copies of Transvestia or Prince's book Understanding Cross Dressing and there is no mention of an interview (Prince, 1976: 42-43).

Prince continued her activities until 1980 when (as she puts it) "I retired both it [Transvestia] and myself" (Prince, 1997b: 351).

Prince's Philosophy

In the pages of her magazines Transvestia and Femme Mirror and in occasional articles in the professional literature, Prince has forcefully expounded her views on transvestism. The psychiatrist, Hugo Beigel, referring to her as a 'prophet', wrote that "transvestism is her creed and its acceptance by the world her mission" (1969: 118-119). Benjamin (1966: 36), in a discussion of Prince's work, refers to her as "teacher, mentor and spokesman for the transvestite 'sorority'".

Prince (1976: 3) claims to have been the first person to abbreviate the term transvestite to 'TV' in about 1955. She also claims to have 'coined the words "transgenderism" and "transgenderist" as nouns describing people like myself who have breasts and live full time as a woman, but who have no intention of having genital surgery' (Prince, 1997a: 469).

The distinction of three types of males who may share (in a beautifully dated phrase) "the desire to wear feminine attire" (Prince, 1957: 82) is the main point of her first short piece in the professional literature in 1957. Pointing out that Havelock Ellis and Hirschfeld had distinguished transvestism from homosexuality almost 50 years earlier, she argued that there was still a tendency to confuse the two. The picture, she said, was further complicated by the discovery of transsexualism and the possibility of sex reassignment surgery.

She distinguishes the homosexual and the transsexual from what she calls the "true transvestite" (Prince, 1957: 84). The true transvestites are "exclusively heterosexual. Frequently they are married and often fathers." She continues, "The transvestite values his male organs, enjoys using them and does not desire them removed"(1957: 85). She later began to call the true transvestite a "femmiphile" (FP), defined as "lover of the feminine" (Prince, 1973: 22).

By 1967, Prince was evidently familiar with the gender terminology and concepts which are taken for granted today. In an article written under the pseudonym Virginia Bruce, she points out that sex is anatomical and physiological whilst gender is psycho-social. Transvestism or femmiphilia, for Prince, is very firmly about gender (Bruce, 1967).

She argues that sex - the division into male and female - is something we share with other animals. Gender - the division of masculine and feminine - is, on the other hand, "a human invention" and "not the inevitable result of biological necessity" (Bruce, 1967: 129). But in their socialisation, children are pushed in one or the other gender direction and consequently anything associated with the other gender has to be suppressed, particularly in the case of males. Transvestism is the expression of this suppressed femininity.

In 1967 Prince published her first book, The Transvestite and his Wife, repeating much of what she had written elsewhere alongside some material from Transvestia in an explicit attempt to 'educate' the wife who was less than happy with her husband's behaviour. The wife was clearly seen as the problem. Her husband was fortunate to be able to express his whole personality: "the only stumbling block to their fortune", writes Prince, "is the fact that YOU, someone very dear to them, do not share in this understanding and experience" (Prince 1967: 37). As Bullough and Bullough (1993: 348) point out, compared to the prevailing psychiatric literature, "Prince's approach furnished a more positive alternative, but how helpful it was to wives is debatable".

Prince's second book, published in 1971, was called How to be a Woman though Male, and the title immediately draws attention to the distinction between sex and gender which Prince underlines at various points in the book as well as in a dedicated chapter. The book is primarily a guide to changing gender for the femmiphile, and includes a wealth of information about women's clothing, make-up and so on, of thirty years ago. Some of this information is extremely detailed; there are, for example, five pages devoted to shoe styles, three to hosiery and one to gloves. There is also much information specific to FPs on such things as wigs, and how to deal with beard growth and false breasts. There is also instruction on how to behave appropriately as a woman. This, as seen below, involves Prince in presenting what now looks like a very dated, traditional view of women and men.

Prince writes of her awareness of the fact that she is presenting a stereotype of womanhood and that she agrees with the feminist criticism of some aspects of it but she argues that this is how things are, not as they should be and this is what it takes to be a woman in our culture (Prince, 1971: 116).

As in so much of Prince's writing, the style of her second book is a lecturing one; she is not just presenting information for her readers to use if they so wish - she is telling them what they should do, how they should dress, and how they should behave and look. So Prince wags a finger at her readers and tells them; "if you are going to appear in society as a woman, don't just be a woman, be a lady" (Prince, 1971: 135), and "it is the best in womanhood that the FP seeks to emulate, not the common. Be the LADY in the crowd if you are going to be a woman at all, not the scrubwoman or a clerk. It is the beauty, delicacy, grace, loveliness, charm and freedom of expression of the feminine world that you are seeking to experience and enjoy, so 'live it up' - be as pretty, charming and graceful as you can." (Prince, 1971: 137).

Prince's philosophy remained essentially the same, expanded and elaborated somewhat, and reflecting the themes of the times. During the 1970s the influence of feminism was apparent and Prince makes more reference to the hierarchical ordering of men and women. This is seen as part of the reason why there are few or no female transvestites. Girls and women, being at the bottom of the hierarchy, are not so constrained as boys and men about expressing their total personality because society cares less about what they do and also they can only move upwards in expressing their masculine side (Prince, 1976: 15). Linking in to the same theme Prince argues that, by expressing this suppressed half of their humanness, transvestites are, "one of the leading edges of male liberation" (Prince, 1976: 27) and are ahead of their time, precursors of an age in which we will, "become more totally expressive of our whole humanness, become more whole persons" (ibid.: 30).

Although she admits to being attracted by the idea of sex reassignment for herself at the time of the publicity given to the case of Christine Jorgensen (Prince, 1978: 271), the development of her philosophy that the issues were to do with gender (psycho-social) and not sex (the body) led her to the view that it was "perfectly possible to . . . be a woman without having sex surgery" (Prince, 1978: 268).

However, Prince not only described her own solution, she spoke out forcefully against sex reassignment surgery and must have upset quite a few people by arguing that it is not appropriate for about 90% of those requesting it, writing of "so-called" or "pseudo" transsexuals. "Sex reassignment surgery is a communicable disease", she has asserted (Prince, 1978: 271), arguing that susceptible transvestites are seduced, by the publicity given to the topic, into thinking it is the solution to their problems.

On the topic of sex reassignment, the style which underlies all of Prince's writings comes to the surface: she does not raise points for the reader to consider, rather she tells you what is what; if you disagree, it is because you don't understand, not because she is wrong; there is nothing tentative about her writing.

Conclusion

Prince's approach and philosophy has attracted fierce criticism over the years, both from within and without the transgender community. It has been depicted as homophobic and sexist and has been criticised for its failure to engage with the issues of sexual politics raised by the women's and gay movements. The stance on surgery has alienated many transsexuals and it has completely failed to address the needs of transmen, despite their presence in some Prince-influenced organisations. Nevertheless, Prince's contribution has been significant.

In the context of the 1950s and early 1960s it was a major achievement simply to bring transgendered people together. Prince provided the means for such people to contact others without jeopardising privacy and security. Prince's organisations and their off-shoots provided a safe space within which a person could explore and express their transgender feelings.

Prince's writings provided a positive philosophy of cross-dressing which aimed at encouraging in her readers (as the inside cover of Transvestia puts it), "understanding, self acceptance peace of mind in place of the loneliness, fear and self condemnation they have known for too long". Prince's philosophy was not only a positive one, she promoted the acceptable face of transvestism; it was purged of anything that might offend, particularly anything sexual.

Prince also began in the 1950s, as we have seen, to enter into a dialogue with leading members of the medical profession in this area, such as Benjamin. One of the consequences of this, as Bullough and Bullough (1993: 302) point out, was that the medical perspective on transvestism became framed in line with Prince's views, even to the extent of incorporating them into the various editions of the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual.

This is where the main problem arises with Prince's approach. In affirming one type of transgender experience, others were implicitly and sometimes explicitly denigrated. However the conflicts and disagreements which this has engendered have led to the expansion and diversification of the community.

In 1987, Prince's contribution was marked when she became the first recipient of the Virginia Prince Lifetime Service Award, sponsored by the International Foundation for Gender Education (IFGE).

Acknowledgement

We thank Wendy Saunderson for assistance with this paper.

References

  1. Alice, L100 (1991), A History of the Beaumont Society, Beaumont Bulletin, 23 (3): 37-39.
  2. Beigel, H. (1969), A Weekend in Alice's Wonderland, Journal of Sex Research, 5: 108-122.
  3. Bullough,V. L. and Bullough, B. (1993), Cross Dressing, Sex, and Gender, University of Pennysylvania Press, Philadelphia.
  4. Bruce, V. [aka Prince, V.] (1967), The Expression of Femininity in the Male, Journal of Sex Research, 3: 129-139.
  5. Feinbloom, D. H. (1976), Transvestites and Transsexuals: Mixed Views, Dell, New York.
  6. Freedman, E. B. (1987), 'Uncontrolled Desires': The Response to the Sexual Psychopath, 1920-1960, The Journal of American History, 74: 83-106.
  7. Prince, C. V. (1957), Homosexuality, Transvestism and Transsexualism, American Journal of Psychotherapy, 11: 80-85.
  8. Prince, V. (1967), The Transvestite and his Wife, Argyle, Los Angeles.
  9. Prince, V. (1969), Men who Choose to be Women, Sexology, 36: February.
  10. Prince, V. (1971), How to be a Woman Though Male, Chevalier, Los Angeles.
  11. Prince, V. (1973), Sex vs Gender, in Laub, D. R. and Gandy, P. (eds), Proceedings of the Second Interdisciplinary Symposium on Gender Dysphoria Syndrome, Stanford University Medical Center, Stanford, California.
  12. Prince, V. (1976), Understanding Cross Dressing, Chevalier, Los Angeles.
  13. Prince, V. (1978), Transsexuals and Pseudotranssexuals, Archives of Sexual Behavior, 7: 263-273.
  14. Prince, V. (1979), Charles to Virginia: Sex Research as a Personal Experience, in Bullough, V. L. (ed), The Frontiers of Sex Research, Prometheus Books, New York.
  15. Prince, V. (1997a), Seventy Years in the Trenches of the Gender Wars, in Bullough, V., Bullough, B., and Elias, J. (eds), Gender Blending, Prometheus Books, New York.
  16. Prince, V. (1997b), My Accidental Career, in Bullough, B. et al (eds), How I Got Into Sex, Prometheus Books, New York.
TOP Citation:King, D., Ekins, R., (2000), Pioneers of Transgendering: The Life and Work of Virginia Prince,GENDYS 2k, The Sixth International Gender Dysphoria Conference, Manchester England.
 
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