justout Magazine March 5, 2010
A Time of Transition
The Northwest Gender Alliance celebrates its 30th anniversary this month
By Amanda Waldroupe
The only customers at Southeast Portland’s Hutch Restaurant on Tuesday, February 16 are twenty-five middle-aged women having dinner and drinks at four tables.
Dinner continues with seemingly no other purpose than socializing when halfway through, Susan LaLone stands, silencing everyone with a loud whistle. She begins the monthly regimen of announcements detailing the Northwest Gender Alliance’s latest happenings and events.
Members ask questions and make suggestions. Afterward, LaLone, NWGA’s president, gives a last opportunity for miscellaneous announcements. A younger woman in the back raises her hand and stands up. It is her second NWGA meeting. “Last time, I came as Mike,” she says. “This is my first night as Julie.”
Solid cheering and support for NWGA’s newest member follows. “It was terrifying,” Julie says later. “[But] it was easier than I anticipated. And it felt great.” What made publicly cross-dressing for the first time easy, Julie says, is NWGA’s open and supportive atmosphere.
Encouragement and camaraderie forms the heart of NWGA’s zeitgeist. NWGA was founded in 1980 as a social support group for cross-dressers at a time when, even in Portland, cross-dressers and the rest of the transsexual community could not publicly express their gender identity without fearing for their safety.
Thirty years later, NWGA provides support, resources, friendship, and community to anyone identifying under the eclectic umbrella of transsexualism—cross-dressers, individuals in the midst of transition, or those who have had gender reassignment surgery.
NWGA’s 30th anniversary is not only significant for the organization, but Portland’s entire GLBT community. “The NWGA is one of the longest-running peer support groups for trans people in the country, if not the longest-running,” says Reid Vanderburgh, a transgender therapist.
It is a testament to the NWGA staying true to its core mission of serving cross-dressers and trans people, as well as its members’ deep commitment to an organization that gives them the opportunity to freely express their gender identity, whatever it may be.
Linda Brown is one such member. She joined six years ago, seeking resources and support as she came out as a cross-dresser. Brown likes his life as Greg Brown, but strongly values being a “two-spirited” person, expressing it through cross-dressing.
Standing before NWGA’s members in a black skirt and flowered print shirt, Brown announces LaLone will host people at her home that Saturday to go through scrapbooks, newsletters and other materials to decide what will be displayed at the Q Center during the anniversary celebrations. Brown invites everyone to come, calling it an “art and paste” thing.
One is greeted by what LaLone calls “total confusion” when walking into LaLone’s house in residential Vancouver on a sunny and windy Saturday afternoon.
Paper ream boxes lie open throughout the home, scrapbooks beside them, brought by various people who have kept what amounts to NWGA’s archives in their garages. (NWGA has never had an office). LaLone sits at a computer in the front room, scanning pictures as they come and clearing up logistics through email. LaLone speaks in the same voice she used during the Tuesday meeting, but the absence of a wig reveals short, white hair, and LaLone is dressed as Mike, in cargo pants and a red t-shirt. She is referred to as Susan.
In the next room, all of NWGA’s newsletters are stacked neatly on a dining table. In the living room lie more scrapbooks. In the kitchen, Joan MacNeill, an NWGA member since 2001, stands at the counter, making numbers for each decade of NWGA’s existence using wrapping paper.
A dozen people spend the day going from room to room, picking out pictures, reading newsletters, teaching themselves about NWGA’s history, and reminiscing. Brown delegates tasks, answering questions, and explaining how the Q Center will look. Although Brown is dressed as a man, in jeans and a hoodie, people call him Linda.
Danni Rosen, a member since the early ’80s, says tracking down older members to invite for the anniversary celebrations has proven difficult. Many never shared their real names or other identifying information.
Tracy Whalen, a member since 1998, sits in the living room and flips through photographs. Each time she picks one, she stops to think whether the person would want their picture displayed in public.
From when NWGA was founded in 1980, it served as “the first stop,” Brown says, for people questioning their gender identity. People moved on after getting the resources they needed, making NWGA’s membership fluid. The group currently has around 60 members; the number fluctuates between 50 and 100.
NWGA’s first decade was defined by socialization—meeting at restaurants, forming a bowling team, and a baseball team called the Switch Hitters.
Whalen, who wears a faded Switch Hit newsmagazineters t-shirt, says social outings for cross-dressers were “a novelty” before NWGA existed.
An award from the Portland Community Bowling Association she finds in a scrapbook reads: “In Portland’s dingy-dark alley and rain-filled gutters let the rumor be spread: NWGA has completed an almost nearly successful 1985 season.”
In the 1990s, NWGA began doing outreach and became more politically active, helping establish the Sexual Minorities Roundtable, an advisory group with the Portland Police Bureau.
At the same time, NWGA faced internal problems of its own, almost causing it to collapse. In the mid-’90s, about 25 to 30 hard-core smokers, or a third of the organization, left when smoking was banned from meetings. In the early 2000s, an influx of transsexuals joined NWGA and the board. “Their interests were more prevalent,” Rosen says.
A backlash occurred when more cross-dressers joined the board around 2005. In general, NWGA’s outreach efforts decreased, and members started leaving the organization. “I was ticked off,” says Joyce Colson, who transitioned in 2006. “I was ready to drop out.”
Rosen says NWGA survived by balancing board representation of transsexuals and cross-dressers. NWGA is earnest about being inclusive of the entire transsexual community. But many recognize that work still lies ahead to fulfill that mission.
NWGA’s members are mostly middle-aged men cross-dressing or transitioning to female. Few trans men, young people, and ethnic minorities are involved.
“We never get enough of a representation to have them feel comfortable,” Rosen says. “We would like to change that.”
The arrival of LaLone’s wife signals the day’s work is done. “I’m a frazzle,” Brown says. “This is hard to put together.”
Scrapbooks are packed back into boxes, and MacNeill stacks the completed decade numbers on a chair near the entryway. Looking at the newsletters, LaLone says, “Just leave them there.” There is talk of taking it all down to the Q Center the following Saturday as people say goodbye and leave.
Many credit NWGA for creating a more accepting atmosphere in Portland for a younger cross-dressing and transitioning generation. “They’ve raised consciousness,” says Lauro Calvo, a transgender activist.
NWGA heads into its 30th anniversary with gusto. Members are excited about increasing the level of outreach, and LaLone wants to strengthen ties with the GLBT community.
But it’s unclear, with the absence of a younger generation to pick up the reins, what need NWGA will fill in the future. In the kitchen during lunch, Whalen asks, “What happens when we all die off?”
“It’s hard to tell,” LaLone responds.
“There will always be middle-aged cross dressers who will come out later in life,” says Jenn Burleton, executive director of TransActive. “It’s not something our culture is overcoming.”
LaLone thinks in a perfect world, NWGA would not need to exist in another 30 years because cross-dressers and all trans people would be welcomed in society. “I don’t see that happening,” she says.
Copyright ©2010 - All rights reserved. Updated January 8, 2010
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