Louise Lawrence (Courtesy of Kinsey Institute, Indiana University.)
She was an organizer that proved invaluable to an entire generation of trans people. She helped to launch a magazine by and for non-gender conforming people. She's the reason Dr. Alfred Kinsey's landmark research into human sexual behavior included individuals living beyond the binary. And she never once stopped to take credit for any of it.
Her name was Louise Lawrence.
Born in 1912, and despite having always enjoyed wearing feminine attire at home, Louise tried for the first 30 years of her life to embrace being "Lew," a responsible and low key young man. She found work as a bank clerk at the age of 18, and married twice—first in her teens, then once more after the death of her first wife. It was only after her divorce that Lawrence fully embraced who she knew she was on the inside, and began living full-time as a woman. And she moved from Berkeley to San Francisco to do so.
Unconsciously, she had been quietly preparing for this moment for years. Even while married, she regularly scoured newspapers for reports about public cross-dressing, and then reached out to the people who'd been arrested. In addition, she placed personal ads in the backs of magazines to find other trans and gender non-conforming people. Once in San Francisco, she made friends with drag performers at legendary North Beach club Finocchio's, and later got involved with the city's chapter of the Mattachine Society—one of the earliest LGBT organizations in America.
Such was her determination that, during a time when a great many trans and cross-dressing people felt obliged by law to live private lives, Lawrence saw fit to start lecturing doctors at UCSF, and assisting at its Langley Porter Clinic, with the goal of helping the medical profession understand that being transgender was not, in fact, a mental disorder.
Later, after Christine Jorgensen underwent high profile gender reassignment surgery in Denmark in 1952, Lawrence was said to have remarked, "If only some of these American medical men could… not continually imagine that their own penis was removed when Christine’s was, maybe we would see some sound thoughtful, imaginative progress made in this field.”
Despite her frustration at not being able to break down barriers to healthcare more quickly, her work at UCSF is what led her, in 1948, to first come into contact with Dr. Alfred Kinsey—at the time the focus of national uproar for his book, Sexual Behavior in the Human Male. By then, Lawrence had built a network of almost 200 other trans people across America and decided to share some of their stories with Kinsey. Gender variance, after all, had been glaringly absent from the sexologist's landmark work. Lawrence didn't just encourage Kinsey to include trans people in his 1953 follow-up—Sexual Behavior in the Human Female—she helped directly to facilitate it.
In talking to Dr. Kinsey, I brought up… my interest in transvestism, and to my surprise he said that he thought the problem was relatively rare... I am very sure that it is much more common than most of us, even prominent doctors, are willing or able to admit. I was going to try and prove to [Kinsey] that I was right, and he encouraged me by saying that any facts or figures I could contribute would be valuable.
In the same paper, Lawrence also describes how she got her gender non-conforming friends to agree to interviews. “I try to point out the value of it, the sincerity of Dr. Kinsey, the complete anonymity," she said, "as well as the personal pleasure they will get from the interview itself."
By 1950, Lawrence had become invaluable to Kinsey; he employed her to transcribe life histories, interviews and transvestite fiction that erred on the side of kink. Lawrence, in turn, provided Kinsey with trans stories and novels, as well as her own personal correspondence, diaries and scrapbooks "filled with articles about same-sex couples living as man and woman." Were it not for Lawrence's contribution, it's probable that "transexuals" would not have made it into Kinsey's final works at all.
In addition, she also worked directly with, and informed the work of, pioneering endocrinologist and sexologist Harry Benjamin, for whom she had an enormous amount of respect. Lawrence once described Benjamin as: “one of the few medical men in this country who has any understanding of this problem.” It was he that encouraged her, in 1951, to publish an article in the International Journal of Sexology titled "Transvestism: An Empirical Study." (As usual, Lawrence shied away from the spotlight, writing it under a pseudonym, Janet Thompson.)
Still, for Lawrence, it wasn't enough to merely reach the academics. In 1952, Lawrence co-founded the independent paper Transvestia—most closely associated with Virginia Prince, who went on to edit it for over 20 years—with the aim of bringing wider "knowledge, acceptance [and] understanding" to the community. Importantly, it was Lawrence's extensive network of LGBTQ+ people that raised enough money to get the publication off the ground in the first place.
In the short documentary Safety in Numbers: A Trans History, Aaron Devor, chair of Transgender Studies at the University of Victoria, explains: "Transvestia became a lifeline for people to communicate with each other, to learn that there were others like them. It also had a section at the back where people could put in ads for pen pals... and they could communicate with other people. So they could build community in that way."
Louise Lawrence's dedication to her own community was unsurpassed. Not only is she remembered for leaving her door open to individuals who traveled to San Francisco seeking gender reassignment surgery, she is known to have counseled them too. It speaks volumes that both WPATH (the World Professional Association for Transgender Health) and Tri-Ess (an organization for heterosexual cross-dressers and their loved ones) are said to have been started in her kitchen in the very same year, 1972.
To be labeled as a trans or gender non-conforming person during the period Lawrence did her most outspoken work was to risk losing it all. Yet she never shied away from the difficult task of carving out space for herself and the multitude of others like her.
"I consider Louise to be my true identity even though the birth records say differently," she wrote in the 1950s. "And on this I will stand. For to me, as to most people who know me, I AM Louise."
Editor's Note: Some terms used in this story are rooted in a particular historical context. We've included words Louise used to describe herself and her community throughout her life, as referenced in historical accounts. If you'd like to learn more, see GLAAD's Media Reference Guide.
For stories on other Rebel Girls from Bay Area History, click here.
For arts stories you won’t read anywhere else, come to KQED’s Arts and Culture desk.