Wednesday, 27 May 2009

USA mid-60s: Phyllis Wilson got married

In 1952, Christine Jorgenson made news headlines when her story of a sex-change operation in Denmark was leaked to the US press. Media treatment was described as salacious and lurid. In 1959, the New York Times reported that an engagement to Howard J Knox had been called off, after the couple could not get a marriage licence as Jorgensen was still considered male. And Knox lost his job in Washington, DC when the engagement became public.

By the mid-60s, US public opinion was no more favourably inclined to sex-change surgery. Those wishing the surgery were forced to travel abroad, to Mexico, Europe or Casablanca.

In 1964, reporters got wind of SRS being carried out at The University of California in San Francisco. The UCSF rushed out a defensive press release in order to “forestall the attendant unsavoury publicity” (associated with Christine Jorgensen’s story). It emphasised that only 3 transsex operations had been carried out in over a decade and that its main work was in the intersex arena.

Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore was also, primarily, interested in intersex conditions. John Money (the person who got it wrong with David Reimer) was part of the Hopkins team and badgered the others to do operations on TS people. Johns Hopkins then set up what was meant to be a very small research programme. It was their intention to see not more than two TS patients a month and they expected to carry out even fewer operations.

The university obtained legal clearance to carry out sex-change operations from a Baltimore court in late 1965, and had a formal programme in place, chaired by John E. Hoopes, by July 1966.

In October 1966, a gossip columnist in the New York Daily News wrote the following –

"Making the rounds of Manhattan clubs these nights is a stunning girl who admits she was a male less than one year ago and that she underwent a sex change operation at, of all places, Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. Surprisingly, the hospital confirms the case, saying surgery followed psychotherapy. Such operations, although rare in this country, are neither illegal nor unethical, according to a Johns Hopkins spokesman. Officials at a number of major hospitals here agreed with Johns Hopkins on the legality and ethics of the operations but none could recall such an operation ever having been performed in New York."

This report about this ‘stunning girl’ forced the team at Johns Hopkins to interact with the media. They decided to work through a single reporter at the New York Times in the hope that the prestige of the Times would work in their favour.

On 21st Nov 1966, the New York Times devoted its front page to the story – “The Johns Hopkins Hospital Has Quietly Begun Performing Sex Change Surgery”. This report did not mention the ‘stunning girl’. It made it clear that a small number of sex-change operations had been carried out in the US before the Johns Hopkins programme.

It also flagged up Harry Benjamin as one of the leading authorities in the field, and noted that his book “The Transsexual Phenomenon” had been published earlier in 1966.

But more importantly, this news was repeated across the media of the US.

Johns Hopkins never became a significant centre for sex-change operations.

However, the need was there and public opinion was now favourable, so other centres in the US introduced SRS programmes, and by the end of the sixties, there were 15-20 major centres at work within the US. Over a thousand sex-change operations had now been carried out within the US. While Dr Stanley Biber was now running the first private clinic.

The ‘stunning girl’ worked as a dancer in New York, under the name Avon Wilson, real name Phyllis Wilson. She was the first person to have SRS in the Johns Hopkins programme, and the spark that ignited this u-turn.

And according to Jet Magazine (issue date 13 July 1967), in Baltimore, Maryland, to a Warren Combs, musician, Phyllis Wilson got married.

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