Virginia Prince (1912-2009)
Dave King and Richard Ekins
In the last issue of the Gendys Journal, Alice announced in her editorial that Virginia Prince had died on May 2nd 2009, aged 96. At the Gendys Conference at Manchester in 2000, we gave a paper entitled 'Pioneer of Transgendering: the Life and Work of Virginia Prince'. That paper was one of a series of presentations and publications in which we documented the contribution of a number of 'transgender pioneers'. The online Oxford Dictionary gives the following definition of a pioneer, 'a person who goes before others to prepare or open up the way' and that applies exactly to Virginia Prince. Prince had both devoted followers and bitter enemies but what she achieved, as Alice pointed out in her editorial, was to 'plant the seed of transpride' and enable 'the trans groups to meet and to organise'. Primarily a staunch promoter of heterosexual transvestism, her activities have had a significant impact on the whole transgender community.
What follows is a shorter and slightly altered version of the paper we gave at the 2000 Manchester conference. It was developed and published alongside some of Prince's own publications (Ekins and King, 2005). More details of Prince's life can be found in Richard Docter's biography (Docter, 2004).
A Transgendered Career
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' (1997: 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 received a 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). The marriage ended in divorce in 1951 (Docter, 2004: 31).
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, 1997: 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. 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 in 1956 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 (Docter, 2004) which was thus able to develop;
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. 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:
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, 1997: 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 Region group of FPE was formed based in London and called the Beaumont Society. An independent British Beaumont Society, affiliated to FPE was formed in 1967 with a caucus of 7 members. 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 charged with 'mailing obscene matter' (Prince, 1997: 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: 1993: 285; Prince, 1997: 354). This she did and in 1968 had her first television appearance (Prince, 1997: 354). So, as she put it, her '"career" as friend, counselor, philosopher and publicist for the CD [cross-dressing]community got under way' (Prince, 1997: 355).
The second marriage ended in divorce in 1966 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:
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 counselor (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,
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: 42-3).
Prince continued her activities until 1980 when (as she puts it) 'I retired both it (Transvestia - DK, RE) and myself' (Prince, 1997: 351).
In 1987, Prince's contribution was recognised when she became the first recipient of the Virginia Prince Lifetime Service Award, sponsored by the International Foundation for Gender Education (IFGE).
Although, in a sense 'retired', Prince continued to maintain an involvement with the transgender scene until a few years ago and occasionally, addressed various conferences and other gatherings.
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. Her promotion of heterosexual transvestism and her belief that surgical reassignment was the answer in only a very few instances alienated many transsexuals and she 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, 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.
Web page copyright GENDYS Network. Text copyright of the authors. Last amended 14.09.09