On the Body: What Transgender History Can Teach us About Censorship

Censorship, Civil Liberties, GLBTQ

By: guest blogger J. M. Ellison

In a black and white photograph, Virginia Prince, a white woman, poses standing. She holds her hands behind her back and turns out one foot. She is wearing a flowered dress, a string of pearls, and heels. She smiles.
Portrait of Virginia Prince. University of Victoria Libraries, Transgender Archives. “In a black and white photograph, Virginia Prince, a white woman, poses standing. She holds her hands behind her back and turns out one foot. She is wearing a flowered dress, a string of pearls, and heels. She smiles.”

When we discuss the dangers of censorship, we usually talk about the importance of ideas and their free circulation. We would be wise to consider also the dangers censorship poses to the body. Restricting intellectual freedom is a means for oppressing communities – for justifying incarceration, for preventing education, for destroying networks, and for thwarting resistance.

Take what happened to transgender activist Virginia Prince. In late 1959, a friend put Virginia Prince in touch with a pen pal. For Prince, exchanging letters with strangers was nothing new. Seven years previous, Prince and a group of friends started a newsletter titled Transvestia: The Journal of the American Society for Equality in Dress. Transvestia was a part of Prince’s work to foster supportive community for people whom she described as “transgenderist.” The correspondence with her new pen pal, however, rapidly grew into something different.

Prince received a photograph from her new correspondent of two women being sexual with each other. Below was the caption “Me and You.” Prince’s pen pal invited her to “ask anything.” Their letters grew more intimate. Prince wrote a letter describing a sexual fantasy between the two of them. This story could have remained nothing more than an analog precursor to cybersex, but in 1960, postal inspectors questioned Prince. Prince was prosecuted for the crime of distributing obscenity through the U.S. post.

It’s impossible to believe that Virginia Prince was the only person exchanging sexy letters at that time. Prince, however, was distinguished by her trans status. Her pen-pal, although Prince did not know it, was trans as well. Their gender and the lesbian content of their letters were what made their correspondence “obscene.” Moreover, Prince’s prominent role in a growing trans community made her a target. Her publication Transvestia is considered by trans historian Susan Stryker to be the first political trans publication in U.S. history. When the Postal Service discovered her letter, they decided to investigate her magazine. When they prosecuted her for a serious crime, the Postal Service was taking steps to repress an entire community and stifle an emerging LGBT political movement.

Transvestia was a part of a growing network of “transvestite” and “homophile” publications, precursors to contemporary transgender and gay communities. Through these publications, trans and queer people were finding support and beginning to develop the analysis that later became the trans and queer freedom struggles. However, Transvestia was a more conservative publication than one might imagine. Stryker writes:

Like the homophile literature it closely resembled, Prince’s Transvestia excluded explicit sexual content and focused on social commentary, educational outreach, self-help advice, and autobiographical vignettes drawn from her own life and the lives of her readers. The magazine significantly shifted the political meaning of transvestitism [the term used at that time], moving it away from being the expression of a criminalized sexual activity toward being a common denominator of a new (and potentially political) identity-based minority community. That shift undoubtedly fueled the determination of federal prosecutors to convict Prince of a felony and to halt the distribution of Transvestia, just as they had tried to halt the distribution of ONE [a prominent homophile magazine] and other homophile publications [Stryker, Transgender History, 2017].

Virginia Prince ended up lucky – thanks, in large part, to her white, middle class privilege. When her case when to trial in a Los Angeles Court in February 1961, she pled guilty to a lesser charge and was granted five years of probation. During that time, she agreed to refrain from publicly dressing as a woman and from using the mail for “indecent” purposes. The Postal Service attempted to band the distribution of Transvestia all together, but the court did not find it obscene, in keeping with its turn toward more lenient definitions of obscenity. That ruling prevented the prosecution of subscribers to the magazine. Prince herself pled her case with the Postal Service further and with their consent, a federal judge ended her probation in 1962.

During the 1950s and 1960s, obscenity laws were wielded against trans and queer communities not because they were somehow more sexual than cisgender and straight people, but as a part of repressing their organizing. At stake during Prince’s trial was not just the free circulation of ideas, but also the freedom of bodies. Prince and her community were facing the possibility of prison. Further, their right to control how they dressed was being restricted. In fact, at stake was how we understand gender itself and whether a person’s self-understandings of their own body would be respected.

For trans and queer people living in the 1960s without Prince’s white, middle class privilege, the impact of censorship was felt in an even more bodily way. Impoverished trans, queer and drag queen people developed loose networks inside large cities. While Prince faced laws against obscenity, these burgeoning communities were daily faced with vice squads. Under the guise of public morality and preventing crime, trans and queer people living on the streets were arrested for wearing the clothes in which they felt comfortable, for loitering, and for survival crimes. In some places, as Black transgender artist and activist Reina Gossett discusses, queer and trans people were not even allowed to touch each other.

Intellectual freedom, at first blush, appears to be a matter of the mind. In fact, free thought and its circulation is intimately tied to bodies. We owe a debt to transgender people who have been at the front of the struggle for both intellectual freedom and bodily autonomy. The best way to repay them is to support the ongoing struggle for transgender liberation.


J. M. EllisonJ.M. Ellison is a writer, a teacher and scholar, and a grassroots, community activist. They are interested in using stories, both fictional and true, to build community, document social movements, and imagine a liberated world. They are a PhD student in Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies at Ohio State University. Their research focuses on transgender political movements in the Midwestern United States during the 1970s. They are the creator of “If We Knew Trans History,” a public history blog. You can follow their work on their website and like If We Knew Trans History on Facebook. J.M. believes that storytelling and history are integral to healing, transformation, resistance, and survival.

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