By K.C. Glynn
After 23 years in the Navy, much of it sailing to “exotic ports of call” where I took note of some very strange behavior between both natives and sailors, and then some 20 or so years as a public high school teacher in Los Angeles, I decided to get my Master’s degree in History, with the idea of cementing my resume as an academic.
Upon entering the program at Cal State University, Northridge, the question became one of specialization. I decided to focus on “archival management.” Having been ground down by years of oversized classes crammed with unappreciative teenage louts, I fantasized about working all alone in a quiet, spacious room where I could peruse historical documents while listening to Mozart.
A requirement of the program was to organize and catalogue primary materials for the “Special Collections” division of CSUN’s library which, I discovered, is one of the largest repositories of erotica and pornography in the United States.
CSUN is smack dab in the middle of the San Fernando Valley, the center of American porn production and a freeway drive from the Xanadus of Hugh Hefner and Larry Flynt. Like the feudal barons of the Middle Ages who atoned for careers of rape and pillage by commissioning stained glass windows in cathedrals, it seemed that those who built their castles on sins of the flesh would donate materials to CSUN in the possible hope that someone, someday would transform their otherwise tawdry work into an “archive” for scholarly study and bestow that veneer of respectability they craved. Instead of mere smut, their deeds would become “history.”
The crown jewel of the archive is the “Verne and Bonnie Bullough Collection on Sex and Gender” which (and I quote from the library description):
“…was established by former CSUN faculty member Vern Bullough … starting in 1973. Its purpose is to document social attitudes and studies of sex and gender from ancient times to the present, in support of CSUN curricula and research. The collection is maintained for research and educational purposes, and is comprised of books, periodicals, manuscripts, and archival materials covering such topics as cross-dressing, gender roles in various time periods, the homosexual community in Los Angeles, prostitution, the transgendered community, children and gender, nudism, gender and medicine, fetishism, and pornography.”
I reported to the “Head Archivist,” a quiet, contemplative man who would not have been out of place in a monastery. I was instead directed to organize 16 large boxes marked “The Tri-Ess Society,” a group which billed itself as “The Society of the Second Self, America’s oldest and largest heterosexual cross-dressing organization” founded by one “Virginia Prince” some time in the early 1950’s. Inside the boxes were thousands of letters, pictures, drawings, articles, implements, and artifacts belonging to men, young and old, fathers, brothers, and sons, who all shared a single terrifying secret.
They wanted to become women.
This desire took on different forms. Most had a compulsion simply to dress as women either privately or publically. I discovered a letter written by a World War II B-17 bomber pilot to Virginia Prince in her function as a cross-dressing “Dear Abby. ” He captained a crew that had worked the system to get themselves assigned to the same airplane in the Eighth Air Force. They liked to wear women’s clothes while bombing Germany; it gave them “a sense of comfort” as they fought the flak and fighters somewhere over Dusseldorf. They looked fabulous astride their machine guns in stiletto heels.
Other letters were from “alpha males” who, after retiring from Fortune 500 careers, wanted to make tea and arrange flowers while dressed in Dior and bathed in Chanel No. 5. They seemed exhausted from the competition and run out of testosterone in the corporate rat race. There were doctors, lawyers, priests, politicians, convicts, rich, and poor. An Air Force test pilot based at Edwards Air Force Base worried what would happen to his career should he be stopped by the Highway Patrol on his way home from the transvestite Tupperware party somewhere in Pasadena while still in drag. Some wanted to physically become women and were asking for help or advice. Some wondered if they were homosexuals but were cautioned by Miss Prince that “Tri-Ess” was an organization for heterosexual, not homosexual, transvestites and that they should seek counsel elsewhere, along with the other transsexuals and fetishists who sought admission to her club. Most seemed unhappy with a fate they were at a loss to understand.
I worked on that collection for 18 months, slowly putting together the pieces of the puzzle while drawing some insight into the conundrum of gender identity. I thought about mothers dressing their toddler boys as girls, or boys playing with dolls, or Oedipus, or Freud, or Liberacé. I thought about the theories of “Nature versus Nurture” and watched reruns of “Tootsie” and “Some Like It Hot.”
As I catalogued the collection, the greatest mystery of all remained Virginia Prince herself. Who was she? What was she? Was she still a he? Or had he really become a she? This question had a personal resonance for me.
The first person I met in college was Charlie, in a processional line for freshmen. Charlie seemed to be everything I was not. I was a Long Island suburbanite; Charlie was a stone-cold, Upper East Side, brownstone, private-school, doorman-whistle-taxi Manhattanite. He breathed old money with every puff of the Parliaments he smoked. But even more remarkable, he was married!
In some kind of weird “Romeo and Juliet,” “West Side Story” meets “The Godfather” kind of thing Charlie, rich WASP Manhattan dude, had a torrid love affair with Maria, Italian love-bomb from Brooklyn, and the two, despite their families, had run off and got hitched that summer before going on to their separate college destinations. Now, with about a hundred miles of New York moo-cow farmland between them, they anxiously awaited each others’ embrace.
Charlie and Maria somehow survived the Ashley Madisons and Lotharios of college to graduate and soon got jobs in New York City only to fall prey to corporate temptations. One day, Charlie called me and wanted to meet for lunch. He told me that Maria was having an affair with her boss and that they were divorcing. Shocked, I expressed a hope that we could still remain friends. He replied that I could be friends either with him or with Maria but not both. Resenting being pressed into a corner, I chose Maria. He angrily got up from the table and left to disappear into the. As for Maria, I pressed her about what went wrong. She hinted at “irreconcilable differences” but would not elaborate.
Thirty years later, as I worked in CSUN’s archives, a rumor surfaced at the college class reunion. A clerk at the transcript office had communicated a story to a member of the reunion committee that a woman had requested a transcript under a man’s name. Charlie was now “Charlene.”
Back in the bowels of the library, I dug deep into the boxes of material trying to find some clues. Maybe Charlie was somewhere in there. It became like the search for the origin of “Rosebud” in “Citizen Kane.” I sifted through the Tri-Ess Executive Committee minutes overseeing their transvestite “sororities” across America, I read the Central Intelligence Agency’s assessment of the security risk of transvestites to the Space Race, I read smuggled letters from “Kalina” in Moscow about zeks cracking rocks in the Gulag Archipelago (apparently, the Politburo considered cross-dressing communists as counter-revolutionaries). I pored over back issues of “Guys in Gowns,” “Transvestia,” and “Bizarre.” Until Bingo! I found a pamphlet by Virginia Prince titled “Everything You Wanted to Know About Cross-dressing but Didn’t Know Who to Ask.” The pamphlet itself, a primer on transvestism as an expression of man’s feminine nature, was opaque as to her origins, but inside was a yellowed newsletter commentary whose Rosetta Stone-like contents made me reach for the nearest seat.
Virginia Prince had been a student at my school!
Arnold Lowman, Class of 1932, Los Angeles High, where I have been teaching since 1995.
I went to our Ray Bradbury Library (another illustrious alumni) and found the yearbook collection. And there he was! A slimly built member of the Junior Varsity Track team! Chemistry club anddebate team andsecretary of This and That.In the depths of the Depression, Arnold Lowman, who had apparently first began cross-dressing at the age of twelve, went on to the University of California, Berkeley where he earned his Ph.D in pharmacology, got married, had children, got divorced, got married again, but then reinvented himself as Virginia Prince, Transvestite Queen, and begin a movement that would culminate not only in the transfiguration of Bruce Jenner, Olympic Decathlete and Wheaties Icon, into Caitlyn Jenner, America’s Sweetheart, but in the announcement by the University of California that this year’s college application will have six possible boxes to check off in the “gender” category.
Virginia, nee’ Arnold, died in 2009, aged 91, having gone to meet her maker in a dress. It was no ordinary life. And one done against great odds. My hat’s off to you, Arnold/Virginia.
As for Charlie/Charlene, he called me up out of the blue one evening a year or so later, after he read something about me in the “class notes” section from our alumni newsmagazine. Although he was pretty hammered, we caught up with each other. We talked about the class reunion. The rumor of “Charlene” came up and when it did, the timbre of his voice changed from baritone to alto. It was true, he said. He was now a she. I had a drink. She had a drink. Maybe some more. Charlene told me that (like Arnold) she knew something didn’t fit by the age of twelve, but didn’t know what it was. Charlie had married Maria, got caught trying to become Maria, divorced Maria, married again for ten years but, his second wife, exasperated from finding her husband borrowing her clothes, divorced him.
Charlie withdrew into alcohol and despair and psychoanalysis but took the plunge and became Charlene. I did not want to know just how deep the end of the pool was when he jumped in, but Charlene told me that other people found her quite attractive. She said she was happy. Thinking of Charlie all those many years ago standing in that processional line as a freshman I wondered if that might be true. However, I did not want her to send me a picture. She was living with another woman, “Tiffany,” somewhere in Baltimore. Did that make her a lesbian? Going through all that to find you still loved women?
I thought of Baltimore’s famous film maker John Waters. Charlie and I had seen “Pink Flamingoes” starring its notorious drag diva, Divine, in our freshman year at some Halloween midnight show. I kept my eyes shut most of the time for fear of seeing something I shouldn’t, couldn’t, dare not see.
Charlie’s eyes were probably wide open all the way.
A year or so after graduating to go return to the still unappreciative teenage louts lurking in my classroom, I visited the CSUN archive and its chief monk. As we chatted in his office, a well-dressed young man pored over reference materials at one of the archival computers.
“He’s a visiting scholar doing research,” the chief monk said, “he’s been looking at your work.”
I observed him intent at his work, making notes and taking pictures with small, manicured hands. He was slightly built with glossy hair and a meticulously trimmed silky goatee.
I felt surprise, perhaps mixed with a twinge of relief, thinking that my own unrequested exploration of the unexpected would not be consigned to some dusty academic dead end, but might, instead, light some candle for others to peer into those mysterious dark corners as we continue to wonder what it means to be human.
K.C. Glynn is a sailor and a writer who teaches Social Studies and Shakespeare at Los Angeles High School. His debut novel, “Tyrannosaurus Sex,” now available on Amazon and Barnes & Noble, tries to make sense of it all. Contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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