I rarely write a research article about a person or event from a single source, as there is the potential for significant error or bias in doing such. Unfortunately, the history of our people can be very sparse and fragmented, especially prior to the 2000’s. So there are some stories which I cannot eschew writing even though the data may be sparse.
If one wanted to characterize the history of transgender persons prior to December 1, 1952, one might be hard-pressed to arrive at a better moniker than “the dark ages.” Very little is known about transgender persons and their treatment prior to the dawning of the Age of Christine [Jorgensen], with the greatest amount of data being either from medical journals and textbooks, or in the exceedingly rare biographies and autobiographies which exist (such as that of Lili Elbe and Ralph Werther, q.v.).
Many early medical references lump transgender persons in with crossdressers, gay men and lesbians, and others, which sometimes hides this early history. As I’ve acquired thousands of technical and medical articles throughout history, I have some experience with reviewing and interpreting the early reports on transgender persons by medical professionals. I’ve learned to read between the lines and translate the jargon. So in this article I will tell of the very limited information which I have found on a transgender person from these “dark ages.”
Mildred M. (unknown last name) was born male in 1908, a “sickly and frail child.” She was one of three boys and seven girls in her family, and from the very earliest childhood she remembers feeling that she was a girl. She wanted to ask her mother to raise her as a girl, was tormented by boys, and only felt good playing with other girls. In high school she didn’t participate in sports, and hoped that as soon as she graduated she could live as a woman and not “appear conspicuous.” She attempted to have a stable relationship with another woman at age 24, but while it resulted in marriage, the relationship was decidedly unhappy due to her transgender identity. Since that age she said she had been mostly unemployed, earning only a very small amount of money, and mostly dressing and living as a woman.
Mildred’s story, to the tiny extent which it is known, exists only because she came to the University of Illinois Psychiatric Clinic asking for a letter certifying that “he is a she.” Her request was met with suspicion that she was a schizophrenic, but as she didn’t fit that category she was then classified in the following manners.
- The fact that she was meticulous about her makeup and appearance meant she was “narcissistic.”
- Because she took care to wear jewelry, she was “fetishistic.”
- The act of dressing as a woman meant she “sought chastisement” from others, thus she was “masochistic.” Yet at the same time, this was classified as “sadistic” because she didn’t care how her status hurt her wife and others.
- The fact that she was able to stand in front of a large group of medical students and talk about her life “in great detail, without any manifestation of timidity, shame, or other affect” was determined to confirm her narcissism, exhibitionism, and emotionless psychopathy.
- Her composure under fire was reckoned to be a “poverty of emotional equipment” similar to that seen in hardened criminals.
- Her refusal to enlist and enter the national draft of World War II meant that she “rejected all responsibility to society.”
Several other psychiatric diagnoses were given in addition to the above, but really, let’s stop here and discuss. Psychiatrists of the pre-1970’s are notorious for playing the labeling game and qualifying virtually any behavior which does not fit a rigid set of pre-conceived rules as being a mental disorder. Such behaviors as anti-war protesting, atheism, and even interracial marriage were once classified as evidence of mental disorders by established medicine! In this case, the reporting physicians seemed to go out of their way to find fault in every single aspect of her behavior. Composure, good grooming, willingness to discuss her life openly, and compliance with female norms were all cast as being some of the worst psychiatric disorders imaginable!
Needless to say, the physicians who treated Mildred categorically refused to certify her as a woman, and no treatment for transition was reported. Given that there was no medical treatment for transsexuals carried out in the United States until the late 1950’s, even had they accepted her as a woman her physicians could not have helped her begin transition.
I have searched at length and have not found any further information as to who Mildred was, or any other part of her story. It is likely the entirety of her story is contained within the single medical report which I found, which thankfully contains some photographs of her. I’ve copied all of them into this article, although they are poor quality, and I am searching to acquire better copies.
Original caption: “Fig. 1 – Note pose. He manifested no concern of bystanders’ opinions of his change to female attire, denoting emotional stunting. Moreover, his smile portrays complete satisfaction in his exhibitionism and a happy mood. Fig. 2 – He purposefully arrayed himself in this dress to exhibit his “girlish” figure, wearing a built-up brassiere to simulate the female bosom (not shown well in photograph). Note the ensemble of earring, neck lavalliere, breast pin, hair ribbon, bracelet, and patent leather belt. Note also his facial expression of entire satisfaction with his exhibitionism.”
My caption: “Mildred feels safe and comfortable as a woman. She knows how to comport herself well and dress for success.”
Original caption: “Fig. 3 – His posture of the woman at ease with facial expression of contentment. Fig.4 – Pose of a well-dressed, satisfied woman.”
My caption: Looking good, girl!
Original caption: “Fig.5 – He pulled up the skirt to show the rolled-down stocking. Note his expression of entire satisfaction, notwithstanding his ill-shaped ankle. Fig. 6 – Summer dress with Hollywood-like hair style.”
My caption: “Mildred is so comfortable in her female life that she remains confident despite a wardrobe malfunction, and her damaged ankle doesn’t even shake her. When she’s living an authentic life, she is full of confidence and can take on the world.”
Original caption: “Fig.7 – Something was said to displease him. Note the change of expression. Cruelty is spread all over his countenance. Fig. 8 – His pose and facial expression denote dissatisfaction and cruelty, expressions quite at variance with those seen in the accompanying photographs of him in his female attire.”
My caption: “When people act like assholes and say something mean to Mildred, she reacts appropriately. She avoids confrontation via an averted glance, in a very feminine manner. And she really hates photographs of herself in boy mode. Perfectly natural reactions, both.”
See how easy it is to look at a transgender person negatively, and arrive at one conclusion – or to look at them positively, and arrive at a completely different one? My wife read through this article, and commented:
“If they had been given these photos and told that they were of a woman and asked to diagnose anything wrong with her, they wouldn’t have made any of these comments, or diagnosed her as psychopathic. They might have made a mean comment about her ankle, or about her exposing her stocking and built from that, but the only reason they applied these diagnoses at all was because Mildred was born male.
I thought it was an interesting comment on their own state of mind and their attitude towards women at the time that wanting to be seen as female was seen as “seeking chastisement” and “being masochistic”.
Unfortunately, Mildred was born a few decades too early to be supported and given proper psychological care.
I’ll end this report with a few lines from Mildred’s autobiography, as reported to her physicians.
“I am honored to take upon myself the responsibilities and duties of a woman.
I can cook, sew, keep house, everything a woman should know.
My past will serve as sufficient proof of my sincerity.
I am a woman and as such I will live.”
Olkon, D.M. and Sherman, Irene Case. “Eonism with Added Outstanding Psychopathic Features – Presented before the Chicago Neurological Society, October 15, 1942.” The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease 99.2 (1944): 159-167.