Five Questions With… Richard Docter

Dr. Richard Docter is a clinical psychologist and gender researcher from Los Angeles with 20 years of experience in the transgender community. Together with Virginia Prince, he is co-author of the largest survey of cross dressers ever published. In 1988 he published the book Transvestites and Transsexuals. He continues to be a frequent contributor to transgender conventions throughout the nation.
richard docter, christine jorgensen1) Your Transvestites & Transsexuals was one of the only books (other than Mariette Pathy Allen’s Transformations) that actually mentioned spouses when I was looking for information nearly a decade ago. What encouraged you to include spouses?
< Dr. Richard Docter with Christine Jorgensen, 1987. (Photo by Mariette Pathy Allen.)
There were a number of published articles about the concerns of wives published prior to 1988. I was interested in the views of wives because important family dynamics are almost always affected by cross dressing. Few wives were totally rejecting, but few had worked out an accomodation that felt good for both. The wives who seem most interesting to me are people like you, Helen, who defy the societal view that all of this is sick, sick, sick. Instead, some wives, as you point out, not only put shame on the back burner, but find ways to enjoy the joy of cross dressing that means so much to their husband. I hope you will keep collecting their stories so they can be shared with both husbands and wives.
2) Do you think, if you asked spouses the same questions that you asked then, that their answers would be any different? That is, do you think it has become any easier being the spouse of a transperson?
I believe there has been an enormous and highly positive opening up of information through media stories about transgender people over the past two decades. There have been several feature films that painted a sympathetic picture of these persons, and took it out of the realm of illness or danger. The sitcoms seem unable to create any sort of plot that fails to include either a gay male or a transgender individual. The important thing is not that these are usually comedic figures, playing roles only one step from vaudeville shows, but they are also being presented without pathology or social harm. The result is a softening of the view of transgender men are persons to be avoided at any cost. It will take a long time for America to change some sexual attitudes, and I suspect that the idea that cross dressers must be gay helps to propel suspicion and fear. We shall have to be patient, and we shall also have to work for the civil rights of gays, lesbians, and everybody else. Our federal policies toward military personnel who are gay or lesbian are obviously deplorable.
3) You seem to be doing some interesting historical work on famous trans people, first with your bio about Virginia Prince and now with the bio of Christine Jorgensen. Why do you think chronicling these individuals’ lives might achieve?
Prince was not as influential as Jorgensen by a long shot, but had you been one of the 1960 era cross dressers who found Transvestia Magazine and then joined Tri Ess, you would have probably thought you had gone to Heaven. Prince gave the cross dresser not only a connection to others, she also provided a non-sexualized rational with emphasis on the heterosexuality of her organization. In fact, Prince knew very well that a substantial component of the reward factor in cross dressing has sexual roots in adolescence, but for her own reasons she sold her program with little said about the joy of sex. Perhaps she saw few alternatives in 1960.
Christine Jorgensen was an accidental icon for transsexualism who provided a place, a word, and much respectability for what were then called the “sex changes.” Her ghost written 1967 autobiography is a little misleading, and there are important parts of her life that she chose not to reveal. This included the true story of how she happened to make international headlines in December 1952. I tell this story, for the first time, Like Virginia, she broke new ground by making transsexuality a topic for newspaper editorials, church sermons, and dinner table conversations. She dragged the topic of sexuality and transsexuality out of the shadows whether her enemies liked it or not. Christine became moderately rich at several times in her life and one of these was the publication of her book. It sold over 450,000 copies. She was highly important as one who added fuel to the fires of the so-called sexual revolution, and although she was not an organizer, she emboldened gay and lesbian leaders to start their early organizational efforts. Now, almost two decades following her death in 1989 the younger folks don’t even know her name. I hope my biography will put a footprint in the sand that reminds us not only of what an interesting and talented woman she was, but of her unusual contributions to the GLBT movements.
4) What is Virginia Prince really like? She is said by some to be a hypocrite of the worst sort, and by others she is a heroine without equal. Which is it?
I don’t think of Virginia Prince as either a hypocrite or a heroine. I think of her as a highly skillful organizer of the cross dressers of the world, many of whom didn’t want to get organized, and a risk-taking publicist for the normalization of transgender behavior. She was telephoning radio and television talk show hosts at about the time Oprah was born. Many leaders are somewhat difficult personalities (of course, not including ourselves), and Virginia loves to argue about practically any topic. Hence, part of her considerable legacy is the view that she is too opinionated. Perhaps so. But as Vern Bullough has noted, this may be one of the qualities it takes to get out in front of a misunderstood topic, such as cross dressing, and become a real leader. It is true that Virginia enjoyed a more active sex life than she advertised in Transvestia Magazine, but it’s also true that she decided to tell all about herself including much sexual history when I wrote her biography. People will forget her peculiar tendency to sound off. Her effectiveness as a leader, I think, will endure. (Readers can contact me if they want to buy the Prince biography.)
5) As far as I know, you’re not trans yourself. What drew you to transvestism and transsexualism as topics of study?
Prior to 1979 I had only met about three somewhat needy transsexuals when I was on the faculty of the Department of Psychiatry at UCLA Medical School. I didn’t get to know any of these folks. Nor did I take part in Robert Stoller’s bi-monthly transgender study group. I was working on drug addiction research. In 1979, in one of my psychology classes, I met the oldest transsexual in terms of her age at the time of SRS. I wrote a case history outlining her story. This led to collecting data in the Los Angeles area, meeting Virginia Prince, and gradually extending my survey project throughout the nation.
I have been interested in a question that most people don’t seem to care about. I am interested in the problem of how to conceptualize and measure gender identity. I am also interested in the role played by the so-called pleasure systems of the brain as reinforcers for transgender ideation and behavior. My guess is that a lot of transgender expressions will turn out to be built on brain-based propensities.