I returned yesterday from Kindred Spirits, a transgender spiritual retreat held in Hot Springs, North Carolina, at the old Sunnybank Inn, built in the 1840s. There, several of us sitting around the porch one night, slapping at the gnats, had a fascinating hour-long discussion with Yvonne Cook-Riley. Yvonne was very involved in the trans movement in the 80s and early 90s. She's retired now, and lives a quiet and spiritual life in North Carolina. She was a tireless advocate for the community back in the day, however, and there wasn't any place one could look without seeing her. Something she said about the transgender movement fascinated me.
She said she was the founder of the transgender movement.
That set off a light bulb over my head, as we have recently had some discussion of the history of the term "transgender" and of the "transgender community" here on Bilerico. So here's the one we should thank, or vilify, when we talk about the "transgender community"! She also credited Virginia Prince and Phyllis Frye as co-founders of the movement, as well as a number of others who participated in making it happen.
She agreed to a short interview in the morning, and the audio file (11 minutes long) is at the end of this post.
The hour-long discussion from Saturday night couldn't be replicated in the short 11 minute interview posted here, but I tried to steer the conversation towards the most fascinating part: how did the "transgender movement" get invented?
As a background to this interview, it's important to understand there was no "transgender movement" at the time of which Yvonne speaks. Rather, as I learned when I was coming out in the mid-90s, there were three distinct communities that never mixed: a heterosexual transsexual women's community, a heterosexual transsexual men's community, and a separate heterosexual male crossdresser community. It was considered an oxymoron to be a lesbian transsexual woman (who sought women as partners) or a gay transsexual man (who sought men as partners), though they did exist. But there was no "community" for them, and if they wanted any medical help or sympathy from the rest of the community, they had to be silent about their sexual orientation. It was well-known that there were gay and bisexual crossdressers, but they were not wanted in the crossdressing community. The crossdressing community stressed, with few exceptions, that it was composed entirely of men who liked dressing en femme on a strictly part-time basis, that they desired only women as partners, and that they would not admit anyone who openly stated that they were open to men as sexual partners. The intent was to try to mollify the wives of the members, and to get them to look upon crossdressing as a hobby, rather than a threat to their marriage. In the few meetings that I attended in the 90s, the wives were there in force, and the tactic seemed to be successful. It was equally obvious to me that I was on a completely different path, and that was useful information for me.
The important point of this background is that there was no middle ground. There was no recognized way to transition to living as the opposite sex without surgery. It was for this reason that the term "transgenderist" was coined, which denoted this middle path for which there was no path.
Back to Yvonne Cook-Riley's interview: She was the founding operations manager of the International Foundation for Gender Education (IFGE), which opened in 1987, to advocate for freedom of gender expression. Its tagline is "We promote the understanding and acceptance of All People: Transgender, Transsexual, Crossdresser, Agender, Gender Queer, Intersex, Two Spirit, Hijra, Kathoey, Drag King, Drag Queen, Queer, Lesbian, Gay, Straight, Butch, Femme, Faerie, Homosexual, Bisexual, Heterosexual, and of course - You!" It runs the magazine "Transgender Tapestry." Yvonne noted that she was the one to add the word "transgender" to the title. Prior to that, it was simply known as "Tapestry." The organization is still chugging along, with annual conferences and its Transgender Tapestry magazine.
Yvonne and a few others worked hard to create a "transgender movement" from the few disparate groups whose main goal was to disappear into the woodwork and remain secretive. She worked with a major gay advocacy organization in the early 90s to incorporate the word "transgender" and its associated concepts, and that effort took off into the "transgender movement" that we see today. She had a fascinating response to my question about what she would say to transsexuals concerned about being co-opted into the transgender movement. The flute you hear in the background is my friend Kara, who is an expert shakuhachi player (and YouTubes a lot on her transition experiences), giving an impromptu concert downstairs.
Click here for the interview audio file: Voice 002.amr
Here it is in MP3 format if the above doesn't work (thank you Antonia D'Orsay): Interview_With_Yvonne_Cook_Riley.mp3