The Trans Teen Illusion (Part 1)
Teens have been trying to change their sex since the 1960s – with adults’ support
In June of 1995, the New York Times reported on a young man named Alain who’d left home at 13 “to live with a much older boyfriend.” By 19, he was scraping by as a prostitute in Manhattan.
The article wasn’t about child sex trafficking. It was about employment discrimination against transgender people. Alain identified as female and found that the “prejudices everywhere against transgenders is overwhelming." (He’d been “decidedly feminine” at 13, in the reporter’s words.) Thankfully a new nonprofit had been launched in Times Square to help young MTFs like Alain receive “training in data entry” and “instruction in grooming[.]”
American teens have been transitioning since the 1960s, or possibly the 1950s. In today’s post and next week’s I’ll share stories about adolescents who identified as the opposite sex – and the grown ups who affirmed, overlooked, exploited or scorned them.
The title of this post has two meanings. First, I think adults chronically misread these kids. They believe the kids have rough lives because they’re trans, rather than the other way around. Second, younger people tend to be more androgynous – they pass. That makes their identity seem more plausible to the uncritical eye.
Compton’s Cafeteria Riot (San Francisco, 1966)
Compton’s Cafeteria was an all-night diner in San Francisco’s seedy Tenderloin district. Historians describe the prostitutes who hung out there in the 1960s as transgender women and drag queens. But look closer, and some of these people seem to have been drag princesses.
Edit (Feb. 9, 2024): Commenters pointed out that the Compton’s Cafeteria Riot lore hinges too much on the credibility of Susan Stryker. They have a point. But regarding the everyday scene at Compton’s in the 1960s, there’s more corroborating evidence, and that’s what matters to the thesis of this post. I also think it’s interesting to note Stryker’s ridiculous spin and reflect on why other historians haven’t challenged it.
Compton’s Cafeteria is known today as the site of a 1966 riot. MTF historian Susan Stryker sets the scene:
“Over the summer of 1966, tensions had been on the rise at Compton’s between management and customers. As the restaurant’s customers increasingly claimed its turf as their own, the management asserted its property rights and business interests more and more strongly. It instituted a ‘service charge’ for each customer to make up for income lost to tables of young people ‘camping out’ and not buying any food … It hired security guards to harass the street kids and shoo them outside …”
Accounts of the Compton’s crew refer to “street kids” and adult male prostitutes who acted like their “big sisters.” They don’t state the kids’ ages, source of income, or transition status. But Stryker’s 2005 documentary about Compton’s, Screaming Queens, features MTFs Suzan Cooke, who would have been 18 or 19 on the night of the riot, and Tamara Ching, 16 or 17. A Guardian story covers MTFs Donna Personna, who started hanging out at Compton’s around age 17, and Colette LeGrande, who arrived on the block at age 15.
That summer of 1966, disgruntled Tenderloin “street kids” formed an activist group called Vanguard. Stryker portrays it as a youth group. Another historian, Laura Renata Martin, classes it as “organized resistance to the policing of prostitution” which was “made up largely of queer and transgender sex workers and street kids.” Like Stryker, Martin refers to trans sex workers and kids separately, as though they were two distinct populations.
Martin quotes Charles Lewis, a minister who worked with Tenderloin kids:
“When a kid would come to town they came for all kinds of reasons. Sexual abuse at home, discovering that they were gay, and usually kids like that ended up in a specific area of the City where they were hustling.”
Harry Benjamin, the OG gender doctor, practiced in San Francisco at the time. “Harry Benjamin, he gave hormones to everyone,” reminisced an MTF in Screaming Queens.
Benjamin never wrote about his patients’ ages, as far as I know, but he did discuss MTF prostitutes in his 1966 opus The Transsexual Phenomenon. Here’s his description of how one might hide his sex from johns:
“He invites playing with his breasts that have usually been enlarged enough through hormone treatment … This gives him pleasurable sensations and allays any suspicion the customer may have. Much of the existing handicap and danger are compensated for by the enormous satisfaction the transsexual derives from being so thoroughly accepted as a woman.”
Benjamin slept well at night.
“Harry Benjamin, he gave hormones to everyone.”
San Francisco’s street culture wasn’t unique. As far back as 1959, Los Angeles had a doughnut shop that sounds like Compton’s.
Indeed, “many street queens experimented with hormones from the late 1950s on,” according to Joanne Meyerowitz’ How Sex Changed.
An MTF veteran of the Chicago drag world describes pervasive estrogen abuse: “It was a craze … Everybody wanted to go for this look, from being attractive or pretty to being gorgeous.”
Meyerowitz doesn’t cough up ages, but she refers to an MTF born in 1939, Patricia Morgan, who “started hustling in the mid-1950s as a feminine boy” in New York. She says Sylvia Rivera, born 1952, took hormones in “the mid-1960s” with his friends in NYC. The Smithsonian acknowledges that Rivera was a “teenage sex worker” — but not that he used hormones.
I haven’t found any accounts of “street queens” that state someone was simultaneously (a) on estrogen, (b) a minor, and (c) selling sex. But gluing together the bits and pieces, I think it’s fair to wonder if that void reflects a taboo among historians, not an actual absence of underage transsexual prostitutes.
BTW, one of the MTFs interviewed in Screaming Queens says he decided to pursue genital surgery after his boyfriend left him for a “real girl.”
So, back to Compton’s. One night in August 1966, according to Stryker, Compton’s asked the cops to remove the kids. An officer “grabbed the arm of one of the queens and tried to drag her away. She unexpectedly threw her coffee in his face, and a melee erupted.” The patrons pelted the cops with plates, cups, and shoes. The cops retreated to the sidewalk. In the end, all the restaurant’s windows were smashed out, officers were pounded with handbags, and a nearby “newspaper stand was burned to the ground.”
Stryker narrates Screaming Queens. He repeatedly compares the Compton’s riot to Stonewall, gloating that it occurred three years earlier and implying it’s unfair that Compton’s is less heralded.
I think the reason for Compton’s lower profile is logical: the gays of Stonewall were revolting against dirty cops who took bribes, roughed up gay men, and groped lesbians. The Compton’s kids beat the shit out of regular cops for enforcing the law against trespassing. Also, Stonewall was a crummy mob stronghold that exploited its gay patrons; Compton’s was a beloved local business that just wanted its rowdy customers to buy something.
In Stryker’s words, the queens stood up that night for “their right simply to gather.” They appear in the historical record as freedom fighters — not as abused boys.
Lyle the Transsexual Prodigy (1980s)
Lyle hated wearing “party dresses, Mary Janes, and even girl-styled polo shirts[.]” So her parents took her “from doctor to doctor, looking for explanations for Lyle’s unhappiness and fierce resistance to being treated like a young woman.”
I’m drawing this account from Amy Bloom’s New Yorker article The Body Lies (July 18, 1994 issue) (also available in a collection). That magazine is known for its rigorous fact-checking, but it let Bloom change subjects’ “identifying details” for this piece on FTMs.
Psychiatrist Ira Pauly diagnosed young Lyle with transsexuality. Pauly is quoted in The Transsexual Phenomenon sharing his observations of patients:
“Because of his isolation, the transsexual has not developed interpersonal skills, and frequently presents the picture of a schizoid or inadequate personality.”
So a shrink who “frequently” perceived schizoid people as transsexual diagnosed a tomboy as transsexual. Lyle started hormones at 14, got a double mastectomy at 15, moved to another state so she could hide her sex from peers, and then played on the high school football team, where she incurred an ankle injury that ended her athletic career. This medicalization must have commenced in the early or mid-1980s.
After high school Lyle ran into trouble. “I think maybe I did drugs partly because I was so frustrated at not being able to get my bottom surgery right away.”
At 23 — as soon as her family could afford it — Lyle had a hysterectomy and phalloplasty performed by plastic surgeon Don Laub (the “men want penises” guy).
By 1994 Lyle and her mother were living in a trailer park in Montana, having spent all their money on gender medicine:
“[Phalloplasty] helped me out mentally, not really physically. But it cost so much. Not that Don Laub wasn’t fair–he was. And when it was over, all I wanted to say was ‘Thank you, Dr. Laub, for letting me be reborn.’ But if it hadn’t been for that I’d have a very nice house by now.”
Her mother corrects her: “We’d have two very nice houses.”
The two go on to discuss the next surgery, “to get all the feeling” by excising a nerve from Lyle’s forearm and running it through the pseudo-phallus. If Lyle goes for it, it will cost $40,000 (over $80,000 in today’s dollars).
Lyle’s siblings resent the cash drain. “But what could I do?,” asks her mother. “If your child has a birth defect, you get help.”
Bloom wholeheartedly agrees that Lyle is male:
“Lyle shows me photographs I’ve asked to see. It seems absurd to describe the child I’m looking at as a little girl; there are no pictures like that. He is a sturdy little boy, looking adoringly at his dad while happily playing with his electric train[.]”
I’ve often wondered if the reason no one saw me as a tomboy growing up, despite my ardent love of swords, was my frailty. Apparently that little illusion of mine saved my family tens of thousands of dollars.
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