At 40

  • by Gwendolyn Ann Smith
  • Wednesday April 6, 2011
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Illustration: Christine Smith
Illustration: Christine Smith

In 1999, a young, somewhat idealistic transgender woman had a guest opinion piece published in the Bay Area Reporter . The piece – focusing on the murders of transgender people that went virtually ignored between the much more prominent murders in 1998 of Matthew Shepard and early 1999 of Billy Jack Gaither – was the start of what would be a long partnership.

It was the fall of 2000 that the idea for this column was born. It was not the first time a transgender columnist would be in an LGBT newspaper on a regular basis: many had before, though few actually wrote about transgender specific topics, and some were even fully in the closet about their transgender status. So while I can't claim "firsties," I do know that this is the longest-running transgender column of its kind. The first Transmissions was published in the B.A.R. on November 2, 2000.

It was largely an introduction to me, and the sort of column I intended to write. I've actually stayed fairly close to what I intended in that first piece, combining current news with education about the issues and interests of transgender people like myself.

The B.A.R. has now hit the big Four-Oh. While I am very much honored to have been a part of the paper for a bit more than a quarter of its life to date, I can't help but look back at how the world has changed in those years.

Consider what it was like for transgender people in 1971, when the B.A.R. was but a fledgling newspaper.

The "community" was very different then. There were a couple early groups that catered to people we might call transgender or transsexual today, but these were few and far between, and in many ways hard to come by. Here in San Francisco, you had the California Association of Transsexuals, born out of an earlier group called Conversion Our Goal that met at Glide Memorial Church in the late 1960s.

Being a transperson then, from the accounts I have read, was a somewhat clandestine operation. The university system largely forbade you from talking to other transfolks, and would remove you from the system for doing so. Meanwhile crossdressers and others would also meet in secret, for fear of societal repercussions – including arrest. It was only a few years after the Compton's Cafeteria riot in the Tenderloin, and being publicly crossdressed was very much against the law in many parts of the country.

Transsexuals, once considered a part of the "Gay rights" movement – indeed several were involved with the Stonewall riots in New York City in 1969 – found themselves pushed out in the early 1970s, with transgender people uninvited to women's music events and gay Pride parades within the first few years of the decade. Transsexuality was viewed as undesirable, a byproduct of the old-school, closed gay community of the pre-Stonewall era.

Hormone treatments were hard to come by, and genital reassignment was even rarer. Many resorted to back-alley practitioners to get surgery done, like the infamous Dr. John Ronald Brown, a former physician who, until his death last May, served time for one of his botched surgeries. Many died or were mutilated in their quest for surgical reassignment.

Of course, there was also no Internet then, either.

Information was scarce, even when you could find it. Christine Jorgensen's much-publicized reassignment surgery was less than 20 years previous, and Dr. Harry Benjamin's groundbreaking The Transsexual Phenomenon was still relatively new. It would be decades before Kate Bornstein's Gender Outlaws , Les Feinberg's Stone Butch Blues , or Loren Cameron's Body Alchemy would ignite a new generation, and just as long before the radical notions of the Lesbian Avengers or Queer Nation would help lead to early transgender activism groups like Transgender Nation and the Transexual Menace.

This is what the B.A.R. has witnessed. While it watched the horrible rise of AIDS in the 1980s and the struggles for rights and acceptance for gay, lesbian, and bisexual people before and since, it also witnessed transgender people right alongside.

It was there when the first transgender civil rights task force happened in San Francisco in 1994, and has watched the workings of later implementation groups. The B.A.R. has seen the transgender community go from powerless, to today, where transgender people can seek – and even gain – elected office.

It's been there for the high-profile murder of transgender teenager Gwen Araujo in Newark, California, and was there for the outcry after there was a hung jury in the first trial of her murderers. While this was far from the transgender community's Milk-Moscone murders, and nowhere near the rage of the White Night riot, it was a moment of change for our local community.

It has been an honor to bring a voice to the transgender community within the B.A.R. for the last 11 years. I am also very proud to work for a paper that does appreciate the needs of transgender people. It is all-too-common that one will find transgender issues forgotten, shunted to the side in favor of more "mainstream" (read gay- and lesbian-centric) news within the LGBT press.

The B.A.R., however, has in my experience, strived to provide accurate and complete coverage of transgender issues, well beyond that of its contemporaries. It has employed other transgender and gender variant staff members, including Christine Smith, who has illustrated Transmissions since the fourth column. It has presented news specific to the transgender community for decades, often when other papers were unwilling to even use the "T" word within their publications.

Thank you, B.A.R. and congratulations on your 40th. I hope to be with you for many years to come, and continue to witness history with you.

Gwen Smith also wishes to congratulate Christine Smith on her 40th birthday. You can find Gwen online at