Dr. Richard Docter announced at dinner last night, here at the Liberty Conference, that Virginia Prince had died at the age of 96. She was in good health and mentally acute until about a month ago when her health began a steep decline. Docter was her biographer as a well as a friend.
I met the grand dame here, in this Philly Airport Hilton hotel, about five years ago, and I am a little surprised by how moved I have been to hear of her passing. She was an imperfect person, as we all are, but rocked where it counted: having the cojones to be an out-transvestite in the 1950s. Her bravery is something we’d be fools, as a community, not to acknowledge.
Imperfect, problematic, heroic. You often don’t get one without the others. We have lost an important pioneer.
—Helen Boyd at en/gender, May 3, 2009
From a Amazon.com description of the biography of her life for the book From Man to Woman: The Transgender Journey of Virginia Prince:
Virginia Prince invented the term “transgender” and has lived full-time as a woman since the age of 55, without transsexual surgery which she strongly opposes.
These are people who have adopted the exterior manifestations of the opposite sex on a full-time basis but without any surgical intervention. Thus they what may rightly be termed “male women.”
Virginia Prince claimed to be a transgenderist her whole life, but even she ended up having surgical intervention: she had breast implants, and she did have her facial hair removed by electrolyis. The “transsexual surgery” that she never did have was genital reconstruction surgery.
The term transgender has evolved over time into a term that Virginia didn’t envision. From the GLAAD Media Guide‘s Transgender Glossary (page 8):
An umbrella term for people whose gender identity and/or gender expression differs from the sex they were assigned at birth. The term may include but is not limited to: transsexuals, cross-dressers, and other gender-variant people.
Transgender people may identify as female-to-male (FTM) or male-to-female (MTF). Use the descriptive term (transgender, transsexual, cross-dresser, FTM or MTF) preferred by the individual. Transgender people may or may not decide to alter their bodies hormonally and/or surgically.
To show how much times have changed since the term transgender was first coined in the late 1970’s, one just needs to look at the transgender flag, and thought behind it.
The pastel pink and pastel blue stripes are infant colors for males and females, and the white stripe is for all those who don’t fit within the binary of male and female. The stripes are positioned in a way that the transgender flag can’t be flown upside down, and that’s because the message of the flag is this: Just as there is no wrong way to fly the transgender flag, there is no wrong way to be gendered.
Monica Helms is the designer of the transgender flag, and she had this to say about Virginia Prince’s passing:
No other person in our community has ever garnered so much praise and so much hate as did Virginia Prince. I met her for the first time in 1984 and even then, I didn’t agree with some of what she said. However, she was a pioneer and someone who has helped our community in ways we are just beginning to understand. She will be missed.
As Monica stated, Virginia Prince is not well loved by all whose genitalia at birth and gender identity weren’t a match. For a sample of one who didn’t mind Virginia Prince’s passing is from the woman who I believe coined the term women-born-transsexual — here’s a sample of what she said in her piece Virginia Prince is Finally Dead:
I thought that hateful old misogynistic man in a dress was going to live forever.
It will probably take 20 more years to undo the damage he did.
…I can already hear the transvestites lining up to sing hymns of praise and create a hagiography about the great debt we owe him for being out in the 1950 thereby giving the heterosexual transvestites credit for something both drag queens and transsexuals had been doing with far more honesty for at least a hundred years…
Yes, Virginia Prince was both loved and hated. Many will miss Virginia, and many will not.
However, the transgender community owes her for the term that defines the community, even if the word doesn’t resemble in definition what Virginia meant by the term to mean when she coined it. Even she didn’t get to control the evolution of the term she created.
* Article: Pioneers of Transgendering: The Life and Work of Virginia Prince