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By K.C. Glynn

[dropcap1]A[/dropcap1]fter 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with unappreciative teenage louts, I fantasized about working all alone in a quiet, spacious room where I could peruse historical documents while listening to Mozart.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.

____

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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:  kglaca@gmail.com.

 

 

 

 

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By Susanna (Whitmore) Fránek

[dropcap1]I[/dropcap1]t was a cold dark morning and somewhere out in the Sonoran desert the Tres Estrellas de Oro bus I had boarded hours earlier in Tijuana came to a halt, the motor switched off. It was 2:30 AM.

As the only gringa onboard, I had to exit the bus, alone, and go into an immigration office; a rickety wooden shack big enough to fit two desks and folding chairs. Inside the shack, two disheveled, yet intimidating Mexican immigration officers sat like vultures waiting for something to happen. I stumbled off the bus, my heart thumping. This is it, I thought; I’ve been caught.

It was 1968. I was 16 and running away from home. With suitcase, sewing machine and two guitars in tow, I was headed to Guadalajara to become a child bride. Back home in Studio City, my mom was realizing I was gone. I was the last of four siblings living at home; my rebellious nature was wearing her down.

That previous summer, she had sent me to study at the School of Fine Arts at the University of Guadalajara, where I met Oscar. Magic was in the air with muralists up on their scaffolding, sculptors welding abstract forms in the garden, and folklórico dancers kicking up dust in the central patio; the thought of returning to the San Fernando Valley – the place where I’d grown up – depressed me. I, a precocious and rebellious teen, was a misfit and needed room to breathe and grow. The linear grid of the San Fernando Valley stifled me; the orange groves turned into track homes felt sterile. My classmates at the time were heavily influenced by the drug scene and frequently dropped LSD before attending classes. I preferred boys. But sneaking out my bedroom window at night to meet up with friends, mostly guys, was no longer an option; I kept getting caught and grounded. Being a good little girl never came easy. The friction between my mom and me became unbearable.

Earlier that day, I barely passed the scrutiny of the American immigration officials. Their questions came at me like machine gunfire. How old was I? Why was I alone? Where was I going? Why Guadalajara? Who did I know there? Had I visited before? I bluffed my way through, using my sister’s name. She was twenty-five at the time. I had come across her birth certificate just before leaving Los Angeles and had brought it with me just in case. When the U.S. officials emptied the contents of my purse and came across a letter from Oscar addressed to me, it prompted them to question why I had two different first names. The thought of being caught and sent back made me sweat and shake. My voice quivered as I lied. But they let me through and I made my way across the border into Tijuana where Oscar was waiting for me.

At this point my mom hired a detective to look for me. He had been an L.A. cop, trained to find runaway kids. He failed to come up with any leads since I misled them by leaving clues on our phone bill so they’d think I went north instead of south. I also created a fake diary, purposefully left behind with notes about how much I desired to go up to San Francisco. It was the late 60s when the counterculture movement was in full swing. It never occurred to my mom or the detective that I’d do something as crazy as crossing the border illegally, risking so much just to go back to Mexico.

But my friend Kathy, who I’d met in Guadalajara, was still in L.A. visiting her mom, and she became an accomplice to my getaway. I was grateful she could translate the letters from Oscar; his English was worse than my flawed Spanish. So I communicated with my husband-to-be through an interpreter and thus we knew little about each other. We had no clue if we shared interests or basic values. There was very little time to become acquainted with each other’s quirks and habits. Nor was our nine-year age difference a consideration.

That day in mid-September, Kathy showed up as planned. She picked me up from North Hollywood High in her rickety VW bug, 15 minutes after my mom had dropped me off. It was meant to be my first day of high school. I never stepped foot on campus. From there she dropped me at the house of another friend, who drove me to the border two days later.

While some girls my age were preparing for their Sweet Sixteen parties in frilly dresses, I was planning an unlawful international border crossing.

For me, the experience standing in that ramshackle immigration hut was a turning point; a symbolic passage into maturity while still a child. I had fast forwarded into an uncertain future, assuming I’d be better off once I escaped the Valley and a home where I felt invisible. I replaced one challenging home life for another. I married an alcoholic Mexicano, who I later discovered was gallivanting around with other women as I grew plump.

Four months later, while in my third month of pregnancy, I called my mom to let her know where I was. With raised voice, but relieved I was alive, she asked, “How could you have done this to me. We thought you were dead. Where did I go wrong?” But she was a pragmatist, something I later came to admire, and asked me what I wanted to do.

“Get married to Oscar and have the baby,” I replied.

I needed her written permission to do so since I was a minor. She agreed, though she wanted more than anything for me to come home and put the baby up for adoption. On July 21, 1969, during my eighth month of pregnancy, Oscar and I were married. At that moment, Neil Armstrong was stepping foot on the moon; our guests had been watching the moon landing and arrived three hours late.

Later I learned the Catholic Archdiocese in Guadalajara had phoned the local Catholic Church in Studio City. They were able to locate my mom through my cousin, who had coincidentally celebrated her wedding there; they wanted to alert her that I was in Guadalajara. The preparation for my wedding in the Catholic church, required taking catechism classes with an American priest who taught theology assuming I was a university grad student, not a 16-year old high school drop out. I guess I blew my cover. They were double-checking to confirm the legitimacy of my written permission to marry.

So, there I stood before the Mexican immigration officials that next morning after crossing into Tijuana. I turned and looked back. People on the bus, including Oscar, were staring at me. When the officers mumbled “Tarjeta de turista,” even with my limited Spanish I understood. They pushed a pen toward me. I quickly forged my sister’s signature, my hand shaking uncontrollably. That signature – which looked more like chicken scratch – stayed imprinted on my psyche.   The fear of crossing borders haunted me; that shack in the middle of nowhere lingered for years, no matter where I travelled in the world, or which border I was crossing.

But the officers barely noticed, and could not have cared less. They just wanted to go home.

____

 Susanna (Whitmore) Fránek is a proud, native poblador descendent of the city of Los Angeles. She is a cultural anthropologist and has her own business conducting consumer research among mostly Latino immigrants and their second generation offspring. Passionate about writing her memoirs, she hopes to eventually publish these short stories in a book. She paints and plays Persian percussion when she isn’t writing.
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