In the mid-90s I found an important phone number in the back of a magazine. These were pre-internet days for me when magazines were a main source of information on most topics. I found this particular magazine in an adult bookstore, despite the fact that it could hardly be considered pornographic. Its offensiveness was simply that it contained pictures and stories of men who liked to dress as women. Still, I was too embarrassed to purchase it, so I memorized the number just long enough to write it down once I got back to my car. The number was for a local chapter of a crossdressing support group called Tri-Ess.

This was also a time before cell phones were ubiquitous, so I had to call Tri-Ess on a weekday from my glass-walled office at work. An elderly-sounding lady named Virginia answered and told me it was her job to interview me before I could attend my first meeting, just to make sure my intentions were honorable. She asked me about my history as a crossdresser and I began answering her in a somewhat hushed tone, so as not to be overheard by my nearby co-workers. Virginia was struggling to hear me and I could tell she was getting frustrated. I felt our connection begin to slip away and this opportunity was far too important to me to let that happen, so I dug deep for courage, raised my voice, and let my personal history pour out. I don’t know if anyone else in the office heard my story, but thankfully Virginia did and she invited me to join the club.

My first Tri-Ess meeting was in a cavernous Holiday Inn conference room. Despite the drab setting, I felt like a debutante at her coming-out ball at the age of 26. It was truly thrilling! My favorite memory from that evening was listening to Virginia’s stories of crossdressing in the 1940s and 50s. She was about the same age as my grandmother and I felt like a bright-eyed young lady attentively soaking up her exciting tales. At the time, I knew she was a crossdressing pioneer who co-founded Tri-Ess, but I didn’t realize how incredibly important she was in blazing the very trail that I was taking my first, high-heeled steps on.

EnFemme Style

Virginia established the roots for Tri-Ess with a crossdressing social group called the Hose and Heels Club, which had its first meeting in a little church in Hollywood, California in 1960. The twelve original members arrived in male dress with a pair of stockings and high heels in a bag. Then they simultaneously put them on so nobody had anything on anyone else. The members quickly became friends and began having fully dressed meetings at each other’s homes.

About the same time, Virginia co-founded Transvestia magazine which published its first issue in 1961. The mission statement for Transvestia was to serve “the needs of those heterosexual persons who have become aware of their ‘other side’ and seek to express it.” The magazine began with 25 subscribers, each of whom contributed four dollars to get the initial issue off the ground. It caught on quickly and could soon be found in adult bookstores throughout the United States. Transvestia was in publication for more than twenty years and for many crossdressers around the country, and later the world, this magazine would be the first time they would ever see pictures and hear stories from others just like them.

Virginia was the editor and subscribers would contribute content by sharing their photos and stories (remind anyone of a website we know?). I recently discovered that the University of Victoria in Canada digitized nearly the entire Transvestia catalog from Virginia’s personal collection and it is available to the public for free. Every issue includes a cover girl and her personal story. I have read many of these profiles and find them endlessly fascinating. They are from a totally different time and world, yet the feelings and emotions expressed are very similar to our own. Some things never change.

Exceptional Voice

Each issue contains dozens of photos, all in dramatic black and white. Personally, I love the fashions from this era. Everyone looks so elegant, feminine and stylish, but beyond the clothes, these ladies get all the details right as well. Their accessories, poses, and carefully chosen settings are all perfectly on point. Striking looks include a housewife in a tailored dress posing in her kitchen, a perky young woman in capri pants, headscarf, and sunglasses aside a tail-finned Cadillac and a chic, sophisticated woman in an evening gown descending a staircase. Across the board, these ladies present their very best and are a true inspiration.

Virginia was not one to rest on her laurels. In 1962, a year after starting Transvetia, she organized its subscribers into a nationwide sorority called Phi Pi Epsilon and the Hose and Heels Club became the Alpha chapter. This was the beginning of what would become the first transvestite organization in history. New chapters rapidly sprung up throughout America. For the first time, in cities all over the county, crossdressers could connect with each other and attend meetings to socialize, make friends and find support.

I’m absolutely floored when I think about the bravery of these women. Imagine how hard it must have been to share your secret in the mid-twentieth century. Simply taking photos presented a risk that they might be caught – they weren’t snapping away on smartphones, they were shooting on film which was often processed and printed by a stranger. As nerve-wracking as that sounds, imagine venturing out dressed in public, even for a walk or a drive. This was a time when crossdressing was actually illegal – both New York City and Los Angeles still had ordinances that made “masquerading” as a woman in public a criminal act. You could not only go to jail, but you could lose your family, friends, and career in the process. There was a great deal at stake and still, these courageous ladies were willing to share their pictures and stories and form connections with each other.

Koala Swim

Virginia was fearless and did a tremendous amount to advance a positive image of crossdressing in the public eye at a time when it was dangerous to do so. She traveled the globe, en femme, speaking on behalf of crossdressers at universities, medical schools, psychiatric conferences, and on more than a hundred radio and television talk shows. She wrote books and published research papers that helped shape much of what we understand about transvestism today. If you want to know more, I urge you all to start with Transvestia issue #100, which is Virginia’s life story in her own words.

I certainly will never forget sharing my personal story for the first time and I feel fortunate that it was Virginia on the other end of that call. I see now that I was adding my story to the hundreds of stories that Virginia had been told over the decades. The pages of Transvestia hold many of these stories for us to read and acknowledge today, and with every new story that we share on CDH, we are adding to the fabric of that glamorous tapestry. I believe that connecting with the generations that came before us and leaving a record for the ones yet to come is something we should all strive to do for the sisterhood!

Here are a few questions from my editor to spark discussion:

  • Are you familiar with some early history of crossdressing?
  • Have you met in person with others at crossdresser meetings or conventions and how was your experience?
  • Imagine how brave you must have been to come out of the closet as a crossdresser back in the 1950s or 1960s?

Thank you girls for taking the time to read my article and I encourage you to look up Virginia’s Transvestia magazine editions on line.

Visit Transgender Heaven

And please take the time to send in either a comment to my article or to answer one or more of the questions we’ve posed to you above!

Sincerely, Marie

(The portrait of Virginia courtesy of University of Victoria Libraries, Transgender Archives.)

 

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Sabrina (Brina) MacTavish
Managing Editor
Trusted Member
1 month ago

From Carly Holoway TGH:

I remember….late at night in 1968, lying in bed listening to a radio talk show on my fave station. Dr. Prince was being interviewed, and told her story. Tears began to flow. For the first time in my young life, there was someone like me. She provided my with a framework to begin to understand myself. I am profoundly thankful for this woman, whose life paved the way for us…..one of the original pioneers of our time..

Julia Bowie
Julia Bowie(@juliabowie)
1 month ago

A great article – thanks.

I have a vague appreciation for the history of cross-dressing but I must confess that I hadn’t heard of Virginia Prince until I read your article.

Raquel Smith
Raquel Smith(@raquelsmith03)
1 month ago

Fascinating story. Thanks, Marie. I can’t imagine the moxie that Virginia and other pioneers mentioned in the responses must have had. If the movement had relied on me, who’s scared of friends and family finding out my secret, it never would have gotten off the ground. I have only been able to admit to myself and call myself a crossdresser for a few years. And finding CDH, just several months ago, have finally been able to connect with my sisters in a way, I never could have imagined. The shared experiences here, and the stories told, and the support given,… Read more »

Gabriela Romani
Managing Ambassador
Trusted Member
Gabriela Romani(@gabrielainamor)
1 month ago

Marie, Thank you for this story. Sometimes I wonder how life would have been if all the resources available now had been within reach when I was a child/teenager/young adult. Having grown up in Mexico there were even less resources than those you describe here. All/any references to crossdressing included words like “perverted” and many times “murdered”. I remember I enjoyed visiting my grandma’s place because one of my aunts was in college, majoring in psychology, so I got the chance to look at some of her books… (and dare I say, look inside her closet? 😉 and there were… Read more »

Michelle Davis
Duchess
Michelle Davis(@michellemybell)
29 days ago

Your well written tribute to a great lady brought back a lot of memories for me. In the 70’s I took the train to work in downtown Chicago. There was a small adult book store on the way to the downtown station and at night on my way home I would stop in and look for the latest issue of Transvestia. I would be so excited when it came in and would grab a copy and nervously bring it to the checkout counter avoiding eye contact with anyone. I would then take a seat in the back of the train… Read more »

Patricia Marie Allen
Active Member
27 days ago

Ahhh, fond memories.   Yes, I’m familiar with Virginia Prince and Tri-Ess. When I became clear to me that this cross-dressing thing I was doing wasn’t going away, I determined to discover all I could about it. Beings it was pre-internet days, (late 70s) that meant hours spent in the library. Anyone else remember going to the library to do research?   It was thanks to the movie “Psycho” that I had a word to look up. Until the closing scene of that movie, I’d never heard the word “transvestite”. I’d been living under the impression that I was unique… Read more »

Bobbi
Member
Bobbi(@bobbiw)
4 days ago

Hi Marie, Thank you for writing such a wonderful article in tribute to Virginia Prince. I have heard of Tri-Ess, but was not aware she was the founder or the group’s history in general. You gave us such great insight into a crucially important person in the recent history of crossdressing. Some people, myself included, have been content to stay in the closet. People like Virginia demonstrate the courage to try opening others minds to something different by creating a safe place and allowing individuals to express themselves without fear of judgment. Growing up in the sixties and seventies, it… Read more »

Lisa Wilson
Lisa Wilson(@lisaw)
3 days ago

Nice article Marie. I also remember meeting Virginia Prince a couple times, I think in the early 90’s ? She and others like her were brave and true trailblazers for our community. Things have changed dramatically in the 30 years I’ve been going out. We are so much more accepted today than when I first headed out. My guess is people like Virginia would have had the exact same feeling back in 90’s, that I do know. She probably looked at us then, and thought you have it so easy now. Time changes everything, and we need to be thankful… Read more »

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