Tapestry Book Reviews #102

Originally appeared in Transgender Tapestry #102, Summer 2003.

Before Stonewall: Activists for Gay and Lesbian Rights in Historical Context

by Vern L. Bullough (Ed.)

Harrington Park Press ? 2002

a book review by C. Jacob Hale

This collection of fascinating biographies dispels myths that locate the Stonewall uprising as central to gay and lesbian activism in the United States. Here we learn about nearly fifty of the many people?gay, lesbian, bisexual, heterosexual, transgendered, non-transgendered?who made a tremendous difference in the quality of life for gays and lesbians in the U.S. today. We learn about the
ideological, personal, intellectual, and pragmatic reasons for their choices of strategies and tactics, and we learn about political disagreements among them.
For several reasons, this book, edited by one of the most important historians of sexuality and sexology, should interest those of us paying attention to transgender activism or transgender history. Many of the controversies?about both aims and methods?within contemporary transgender politics have precedents in earlier activism for gay and lesbian rights. We can learn from the successes and the failures of those who engaged in similar work.

Most captivating for me was reading about some of the ways in which transgendered people have been activists for gay and lesbian rights. Aaron [Holly] Devor?s biography of female-to-male transsexual Reed Erickson (1917-1992) tells the story of Erickson?s generous financial support of ONE, Inc. Founded in Los Angeles in 1952, ONE?s goals included publishing literature, conducting educational activities, supporting research about homosexuality, providing peer counseling, and acquiring property to further these goals
(p. 386). ONE has had many accomplishments, but perhaps that of greatest national significance was the 1958 United States Supreme Court decision in which ONE won the right to send its magazine through the U.S. mails; this was the first gay success before the U.S. Supreme Court (p. 98). Shortly after Erickson started the Erickson Educational Foundation in 1964, he responded to a ONE mail solicitation for donations. This grew into a relationship with ONE and W. Dorr Legg, one of its founders and its driving force through much of its existence?a relationship that lasted for about twenty years. Following Erickson?s advice, ONE established a nonprofit charitable arm, the Institute for the Study of Human Resources, to make it more attractive for potential donors to give to ONE. ISHR?s widely publicized June 1974 Forum on Sex Variant Behavior, held at the ONE Institute in Los Angeles, included Virginia Prince and EEF?s Executive Director, Zelda Suplee. Programs from other ISHR and ONE events, reproduced in Legg?s Homophile Studies in Theory and Practice, add to the record of ONE?s interest in transgender issues, as related by Devor. For example, the buffet luncheon speaker at ONE?s 1969 Midwinter Institute was Richard Green; his title was ?Transvestism, Transsexualism, and Homosexuality.? ISHR?s 1975 seminar ?Sex, Role and Gender? featured separate sessions on sex reassignment and transvestism; Miss Christine Jorgensen was the closing speaker.

Devor recounts ONE?s achievements, facilitated by Erickson?s donations and influence, through 1984. By 1983, the relationship between Erickson and ONE had begun to founder over the rights to the 3.5 acre Milbank Estate, on which was located an elegant twenty-seven room mansion built in 1913 and some smaller buildings. Purchased for $1.9 million by Erickson, this site was to house ONE?s graduate school, libraries, business and community center offices, and the EEF?s offices.

Devor doesn?t make clear the cause (or causes) of the dispute that led Erickson (and his daughter after his death in 1992) and ONE to ten years of court battles over this property, which was ultimately divided between ONE and Erickson?s heirs (pp. 386-390). Wayne R. Dynes? biography of W. Dorr Legg (1904-1994) suggests that at least one cause of the squabble was that Legg did not want to share the property with transsexuals. Dynes adds colorful details to Devor?s biography of Erickson noting, for example, that Erickson paid for the estate with bags of South African gold coins (p. 101).

Biographies of other early Los Angeles homophile activists reveal internal disagreement about how to view transgendered people. In C. Todd White?s biography of ONE co-founder Dale Jennings (1917-2000), we read that Jennings, writing under the pseudonym Jeff Winters in the second issue of ONE (February 1953), chastised Christine Jorgensen: ?You?re not a woman you know . . . those expensive scalpels only gave you the legal right to transvestism? (p. 89). Another ONE co-founder, Don Slater (1923-1997), ?enjoyed the transvestites? in Los Angeles? Main Street bars while he was a student at the University of Southern California during World War Two (p. 104), according to his biographer, Joseph Hansen.

For the rest of this story, and many more, buy this book! My only complaint is the unevenness of the autobiographies. They vary considerably in length, and the brevity of some, especially those of Christine Jorgensen and Virginia Prince, left me wanting to know more about how their public personae advanced the struggle for gay and lesbian rights. Some chapters are written by the partners of their subjects; for example, Daughters of Bilitis co-founders Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon wrote the
biographies of one another. Hence, these biographies tend to be overly celebratory, in contrast to most of the others, which present the failures and foibles of their subjects as well as their successes and charms. I would have enjoyed learning more about the attitudes of gay and lesbian activists toward transgendered people and causes, but this is not the book?s intended focus, so it gives no grounds for complaint. All in all, these are fascinating personal stories that enrich immeasurably our understanding of the
pre-Stonewall lives of gays and lesbians.

Reference: Legg, W. Dorr (Ed.). (1994). Homophile Studies in Theory and Practice. San Francisco: ONE Institute Press and GLB Publishers.


Omnigender: A Trans-religious Approach

The Pilgrim Press - 2002

a book review by David R. Gillespie

Professor Mollenkott envisions a society in which the gender construct of male-female is replaced by an omnigender one, a world in which the Apostle Paul?s words are fully realized: ?There is no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female.?

Referencing the work of Martine Rothblatt, Mollenkott characterizes this world as one in which, for example, falling in love with another person is predicated not on their genitals, but rather on that person?s entire being; a world where categories of sexual identity are vanquished; a society in which an individual?s right to express their understood gender identity is guaranteed.

In Mollenkott?s own words, this is an ?attempt to move beyond the binary gender construct in order to set forth a new gender paradigm, which seeks to include and offer
liberation to everyone who has been oppressed by the old model.?

In doing so, Mollenkott sets forth a case bolstered primarily by an examination of various religious models of and approaches to gender, returning often to her own understanding of the Judeo-Christian writings contained in the Bible. While focusing on Judeo-Christian teachings, she also provides a chapter which overviews other religious expressions, including eastern traditions and primitive approaches.

Mollenkott argues that this binary concept of gender?that there is nothing but male and female with no categories in-between?flies in the face of reality. For example, there are straight men who exhibit typically feminine traits and heterosexual women who are far more butch than most of their peers.

She argues also that as one examines assorted cultural/societal models, it quickly becomes apparent that there is no singular, overreaching notion of what it means to be a man or a woman, that
people hold to a binary formula she labels as ?essentialist assumptions,? the accepted notion that masculinity and femininity are universal, Platonic ideals if you will, behind what we see and expect.

Against this, she writes, ?I am instead asserting that male=masculine, female=feminine, and normal=heterosexual form a bipolar social construct that has seemed accurate only because so many were intimidated into making silent efforts to confirm it.?

In this statement is contained what may be one of the books two greatest flaws. Is it necessary or even helpful to tie the discussions of sexual desire (to wit, homo, hetero, and bi sexuality) to those concerning gender expression? Are these not perhaps better handled as two distinct
discussions? Would it not be better to talk about how one acts or is perceived (masculine or feminine or somewhere in-between) in appearance and mannerisms, and leave sexual behavior for a separate discussion?

Mollenkott?s analysis of Judeo-Christian teachings might also shed some light on those questions. The case can be made, for example, that much of what lies behind the Bible?s teachings concerning homosexual behavior has its roots not in questions of gender, but in a prohibition against non-reproductive sex. This was developed fully by Augustine and Aquinas. Sex, a gift from God to be sure, is nevertheless for the sole purpose of producing offspring, what some have jokingly called bedroom evangelism. Therefore, any sexual activity on the part of a man which does not result in or have the potential for resulting in
children (for instance, masturbation, homosexual behavior, sex with a woman while she is menstruating) is frowned upon.

The other possible flaw in Professor Mollenkott?s work is her failure to allow contemporary conservative Christian scholars to speak for themselves, other than including a brief and somewhat jaundiced treatment of Richard Hayes? The Moral Vision of the New Testament and a few other
passing remarks from others. Regarding homosexuality, which seems to be of far greater concern to the religious right than the way people look or act, there has been much serious and honest work done by scholars like Marion L. Soards of Louisville Presbyterian Seminary (Scripture and Homosexuality), the late Greg Bahnsen (Homosexuality: A Biblical View), and James B. DeYoung (Homosexuality).

At one point, Mollenkott engages in the very same scare tactics some lesser opponents of homosexuality might use when she writes, ?...some Christians have proudly announced that if a ?gay gene? is ever isolated and can be determined in utero, they will seek to abort such fetuses.? Who said this? Where? Was it a serious scholar, or some ranting, backwoods preacher?

Despite minor shortcomings and fallacies of argument, Mollenkott?s work is a welcome and helpful addition to the literature, of use in our ongoing quest to understand
ourselves as humans and our striving to understand our existence as gendered beings. It can help us move into a mode of thinking which genuinely allows for a full-blown acceptance of an infinite variety of gender expressions.

David R. Gillespie is a former Presbyterian minister. Author of numerous nonfiction articles and essays, he has recently turned his attention to writing fiction. He lives in Anderson, South Carolina.