The First UK Transgender Conferences, 1974 and 1975
Dr. Dave King
Senior Lecturer, School of Sociology and Social Policy, University of Liverpool
Prof. of Sociology and Cultural Studies, University of Ulster at Coleraine
Most readers will probably be aware of the Gendys conferences organised by Alice Purnell between 1990 and 2004 and also the more recent ones organised by Barbara Ross in Norwich. The basic rationale for these conferences has been to bring together a range of people with both personal and professional interest in the transgender field and to provide an opportunity to exchange views and information as well as a chance to mingle socially. Few readers will be aware that in 1974 and 1975 two other conferences were held which had similar aims. At these conferences, there was talk that would take some 20 years to become widespread: of transsexuals seeking 'gender alignment'; of 'trans-gender' and 'trans.people' [sic] used as umbrella terms to include both TVs and TSs. On the other hand, there was much talk of TV and TS being 'conditions', of being 'compulsive behaviour patterns', and of 'militant action' by TVs and TSs being inappropriate(1)
The First National TV TS Conference 1974
In 1974, over the weekend of March 15th-17th, a conference was held at the University of Leeds. It was titled 'Transvestism and Transsexualism in Modern Society' and was billed as the First National TV TS Conference. It seems it was right to lay claim to being a first certainly in the UK and, possibly, in the world. Although there had been a medical 'expert' conference in the UK in 1969, the conference in 1974 was the first as far as we are aware that was set up by members of the transgender community to bring together other members, medical and other professionals and anyone else who might be interested. The main organisers were Caroline Robertson, a postgraduate student at Leeds University and June Willmott, the local Beaumont Society organiser.
The conference was aimed at "tvs and tss and the medical and social workers who come into frequent contact with them" (Conference Report, 1974, p1). There was an explicit attempt to gain publicity with the aim of the "promotion of better understanding of transvestism and transsexualism, by the many social welfare and medical workers who regularly come into contact with these phenomena, and also by the general public" (p4). So the main aim was an educational one. As June said in her opening remarks, "We want to show people that we haven't got two heads."
She continued, "We hope, most fervently, that such better understanding may ultimately mean that the transvestite and the transsexual can walk freely abroad in Society, offending no-one, better understood by some, and, we hope, tolerated by all. That then is the prime purpose of the conference, to bring together both the individuals concerned, and those bodies who seek to help us achieve a better understanding, both they of us and we of ourselves."
The maximum attendance at the conference itself was 102 on the Saturday afternoon with 185 people attending the inevitable disco on the Saturday evening. A number of organisations were represented at the conference. Apart from the Beaumont Society and the Transsexual Action Organisation, there were people from Friend (the Campaign for Homosexual Equality counselling service), another counselling organisation called A.C.C.E.S.S and the Gay Liberation Front. Local representatives of the Marriage guidance council, the probation service and the Samaritans were present and for some reason Nottingham's council of Social Services and Family Welfare Committee sent people along. There were also representatives from groups called Icebreakers, a gay support organisation set up in London in 1973. There was also listed an organisation called TVSG (which we presume stands for Transvestite support group). The organisers had invited the police and specialists from the medical profession but they were not able to attend.
The first Saturday morning speaker was Margaret Williams, the public relations officer of the Beaumont Society who gave a talk on 'The Psychology of Transvestism and Transsexualism'. She was followed by Julia Tonner, UK representative of the Transsexual Action Organisation who spoke on 'Fit or Misfit - The Position of the Transsexual in Modern Society'. The third speaker of the morning was Della Aleksander described as "something of a celebrity" following her appearance on a BBC2 Open Door programme. In the afternoon, social worker and counsellor Doreen Cordell began with a talk entitled 'Know Thyself' and then finally there was a Dr Elizabeth Ferris who according to the proceedings was conducting research in conjunction with the GIC at Charing Cross. Her paper was called 'Transvestism and transsexualism: The Origins and Problems of Coping with these Conditions'.
Following the Saturday afternoon speakers, there was a showing of a film called The Queen - a 1968 behind the scenes look at an American drag contest. Some delegates were evidently unhappy at the choice of film but the organisers said it was the only one they could obtain that was relevant to the theme of the conference. The organisers had tried without success to hire a copy of 'I want what I want', the film of Geoff Brown's novel about a transsexual.
The reports of the speaker's talks and from the discussion groups which were held on Sunday morning covered many topics. The main themes that come through to us are; attempts to clarify terms and to speculate on the nature of transvestism and transsexualism; an airing of the problems faced by transvestites and transsexuals (problems with the police and toilets seemed particularly in evidence); the relationship between these two groups; the role of transvestite and transsexual organisations; and the role of medical, counselling and other professions.
A Guardian report of the conference described June and Caroline as representing the conservative and radical wings in the debate on the future of transvestism. It said that Caroline was critical of the "anti-homosexual stance of the Beaumont Society which she characterised as a 'bit of a tea and lace curtains society with men puffing on pipes and calling themselves Alice and Sandra'." She is also quoted as saying that "transvestism should not stop at dressing up as a woman for an hour or so. It should mean becoming a radical feminist. I have a feeling that most of these transvestites will go out for the night dressed as women and come back expecting their wives to act as slaves." June reportedly rejected the idea that the BS was anti-homosexual but pointed out that 90% of the society's members were married and made faithful, helpful husbands whose wives would take a poor view of some of the radical attitudes of people like Caroline.
Some of the terminology used at the conference would take some twenty years to become widespread. As far as we are aware, the first use of the term trans.people (sic) was when Julia Tonner referred to "the two worlds of the trans.people" (ie transsexuals and transvestites). In addition, there was also talk of transsexuals seeking 'gender alignment' and of 'trans-gender' also used as an umbrella term. On the other hand, there was much more talk of TV and TS being 'conditions', of being 'compulsive behaviour patterns'; and of 'militant action' by TVs and TSs being inappropriate.
June Willmott died in 1978. In an obituary in the Beaumont Bulletin, Rosemary King wrote of the 1974 conference, "For many who attended the conference it was a weekend of "firsts" - the first meeting with others of the same type, the first opportunity to be dressed outside one's own bedroom and for a whole day, the first meal in a public restaurant, the first time one could discuss the state with others and to find out what sort of people we were. And all of this we owed to June." (BB 10:2 p 27).
The Beaumont Society Conference 1975
A year later on the 4th-6th April 1975 there was another conference. This time it was at Leicester University and it was organised under the auspices of the Beaumont Society. The title of the conference was 'A Study of Transvestism and Allied States in the Family and Society'. The introduction to the conference report said that it was felt that transvestism had had a "somewhat minority hearing" at the Leeds conference and this had led to the suggestion that the Beaumont Society should organise its own conference. Approximately 85 people attended - 32 were described as "medical and social workers and journalists."
In her introduction, Sylvia Carter, the BS vice-president (Alga Campbell, the president was unable to attend) said "Ten years ago, when the Beaumont Society was formed, it just didn't seem possible that we would grow so big, or that society would change so much to increase their tolerance of us, that we could get together in a University with other transvestites, doctors, social workers and journalists, meeting to discuss this subject which ten years ago was something we hardly dared admit even to ourselves."
Again the theme of educating people - particularly the professions - was dominant. The introduction to the proceedings states, "It is "obvious that there are many misconceptions and it was felt that a Conference aimed at medical, social, legal and religious professions might go a long way to filling a gap in present day knowledge" (1975, p 10)
In terms of the image of the society, Rosemary King, the Society's public relations officer, pointed out that (p 31) "Continually when discussing transvestism, we find that we have to dispel two false beliefs in the minds of other people. The first is the one that most transvestites are homosexual . . . The second error, and this has been made much worse by some publicity last spring, is the mistaken belief that all who want to cross-dress are transsexuals."
Presumably by 'publicity last spring', she was referring to that surrounding the publication of Jan Morris's autobiography. At that time the Beaumont Society was promoting a particular image of cross-dressing which it had taken over from Virginia Prince and which maintained clear boundaries between transvestites, transsexuals and homosexuals.
Unlike the conference in Leeds, residential facilities were provided in the University which set the pattern for the later conferences. Also unlike Leeds, there was no disco but instead there was a semi-formal dinner followed by a film. The organisers had, like those in Leeds, tried to get hold of a copy of 'I want what I want' but it was said to be too expensive to hire. Instead the film shown was 'Who's Minding the Mint?' a comedy whose only connection with the theme of the conference is that at some point one of the male characters dresses in women's clothes. There is no record of anyone being offended by it.
Obviously the focus was on transvestism although one of the seminar group discussions was on the use of hormones. In contrast to the Leeds conference, the majority of the speakers were non-trans professionals. Apart from an opening address by the Beaumont Society's vice-president, Sylvia Carter, a talk on 'Transvestism in the Family Situation' by Caroline Scott and one by Rosemary King on 'Transvestism and the Work of the Beaumont Society', the other presentations were by an agony aunt, a lawyer, a social worker and there were two presentations by psychiatrists.
The inclusion of an 'agony aunt' as a speaker is an interesting one. But, of course, at that time the agony aunt columns of newspapers and magazines were one of the few places where problems concerning transvestism and transsexualism could be aired and information obtained.
There were a number of seminars on the following topics: the problems of public transvestism; the use of hormones by transvestites and transsexuals; reincarnation and transvestism; the role of agony columns and helping agencies; the development of gender identity and role; transvestism and the family; transvestism and the young married couple; gender identity, role and the law and the role of the Beaumont Society
The conclusion to the conference report remarked on a number of issues which had arisen during the conference particularly in relation to the role of the Beaumont Society.
Firstly it was noted that (as the report put it) "The Beaumont Society's greatest deficiency is that it has not yet become very widely known in spite of some two years fairly intensive activity by our Public Relations Officer." Some delegates had never heard of the Society until news of the Conference appeared in their journals.
Secondly the social workers present commented that the Society was not accessible enough and there was a need for a central office or telephone number.
Thirdly there was also some strong criticism of the Beaumont Society for excluding transsexuals and those cross-dressers who were gay or bisexual or who cross-dressed for sexual reasons.
There was' also, as the report put it "Talk of us 'standing up to be counted'". Some of the more radical delegates wanted the society and its members to be less secretive and to follow the more aggressive and radical model of the gay liberation movement.
Apparently the 'go-ahead' was given for another Beaumont Society conference although as far as we know it never went ahead for whatever reason. We are not aware of any similar conferences in the late 70s or through the 1980s. The medical conferences continued biennially initially mostly in the US but taking turns with Europe in the 1980s and metamorphosing into the HBIGDA (now WPATH) symposia. There was also a conference for professionals organised by the Charing Cross GIC in 1986 but for the next conference designed for the whole transgender field we have to go forward to 1990 when Alice Purnell organised the first of the Manchester conferences under the auspices of the Beaumont Trust.
This is an edited version of a paper presented at the Transgender 07 conference, University of East Anglia, June 2007.
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