Donna Martina Cartwright (born October 4, 1946) is an American journalist and labor activist. She served as a copy editor for The New York Times for about 30 years, transitioning on the job in 1997 and retiring in 2006. She was named to the NLGJA LGBT Journalists Hall of Fame in 2014.
Cartwright was born in Hackensack, New Jersey. Cartwright was also involved in creating and leading some of the most important trans rights organizations, including:
- Pride at Work
- New York Association for Gender Rights Advocacy (NYAGRA)
- Gender Rights Advocacy Association of New Jersey
- National Center for Transgender Equality
- Gender Rights Maryland
2000 media criticism
In 2000, Cartwright published a piece on how cis journalists were “Trivializing and Silencing Transgender People in Queer Media”
Transgender people, long marginalized in the gay and lesbian community and “written out” of its history, have been making a modest comeback in recent years. Many queer organizations routinely recognize our presence through the use of such phrases as “the GLBT community” to describe their missions or constituencies; that some of these “natives” might be capable of uttering words comprehensible to civilized people too often seems beyond the imagination of the “normalized” queer writer. Funny, gays and lesbians were seen in just such terms, not so long ago ….
Both this renewed visibility and its problems are reflected in a recent work of queer history, Dudley Clendinen and Adam Nagourney’s book. Out for Good: The Struggle to Build a Gay Rights Movement in America (Simon & Schuster, 1999) which covers the period from the late 1960’s until the late 1980’s.
Clendinen and Nagourney pay serious attention to many of the controversies over the place of trans- gender people in the queer movement over the last 30 years. Unfortunately, they treat us largely as a disempowered, voiceless “other,” passive objects of history rather than subjects.
DAYS OF FURY
By many accounts, 1973 was a difficult year for transgender queers: a rising tide of separatism in the lesbian/ feminist movements culmi- nated in an explosion of hatred and hysteria at the West Coast Lesbian Conference in Los Angeles in April; two months later, similar tensions erupted at the New York City Pride March.
Out for Good gives a compelling picture of these events: in L.A., Beth Elliott, a lesbian male-to-female transsexual, one of the conference organizers, was scheduled to sing as part of the conference’s opening ceremonies. She had been at the center of a bitter dispute over her transsexuality in the San Francisco chapter of the Daughters of Bilitis in late 1972.
Elliott is a fascinating figure; unfortunately, Clendinen and Nagourney seem oblivious to the pos- sibility that she might have had some- thing of value to contribute to their account. She is not quoted in Out for Good, and she says that they never interviewed her. By her own recollec- tion, she is the first “out” transsexual lesbian feminist. She transitioned at the age of 19, and soon thereafter was invited to join the Bay area Daughters of Bilitis chapter — at that point, the membership felt her transsexuality was not a disqualification.
“Wanting to make the freedom I was experiencing safer and available to more women,” she says, she began doing volunteer work at the chap- ter’s office. After several months, in
by Donna Cartwright
the fall of 1971, she was elected Vice- President in a two-candidate race.
In the summer of ’72, however, trouble appeared in the form of lesbian separatists who began to press their perspective on the chapter as a whole. Tensions rose over various issues, from Elliott’s transsexuality to demands that the editor of the chap- ter newsletter be brought under offi- cial oversight. In the fall of that year, Elliott ran for re-election as Vice- President and was defeated in a cam- paign in which her transgender his- tory may have been a tacit issue. A few months later, in a separate vote, transsexuals were ruled ineligible for membership.
Out for Good skews history a bit in its account of the struggle in the San Francisco D.O.B. The book says Elliott’s “demand to be admitted into the San Francisco chapter of the Daughters of Bilitis had torn the group apart. The D.O.B. had devoted eighteen months to arguing about whether there was a place in the Daughters of Bilitis for a transsexual, before finally and bitterly voting ‘No’.”
But Elliott’s account, which is supported by a look at back copies of Sisters, the San Francisco D.O.B. ‘s magazine, is rather different. The battle took up at most a few months, not 18, and it was not over her “demand to be admitted,” but over her expulsion.
Perhaps Clendinen and Nagourney relied on the recollection of someone involved in the conflict, decades after the fact. All the more reason to have balanced their sources.
Not that this incident is exactly unknown territory for queer writers. Pat Califia, in her book Sex Changes (1997) quotes a member of the chap- ter who “had actually been present at the stormy meeting where [Elliott] was ousted …
“This doesn’t feel okay to me/ she said. ‘She worked harder than anyone else in D.O.B. She gave a lot to that organization. There was no good reason to kick her out. She hadn’t done anything wrong except be a transsexual. You wouldn’t believe some of the vile and vicious things other women said to her. And she just sat and listened to all of it, kept her dignity and answered them back without losing her temper or calling anybody names/”
A few months later, some of Elliott’s enemies in the San Francisco battle attended the conference in L. A. and created an uproar when she went on stage to sing. They demand- ed that she leave, the performance was brought to a halt, and the issue was debated for hours and ultimate- ly put to a vote.
Out for Good says there was a slim majority in favor of allowing Elliott to sing, but according to contemporary sources, the margin was overwhelming. Barbara McLean’s “Diary of a Mad Organizer” in the Lesbian Tide confer- ence issue says the women voted three to one to hear Elliott, while The Advocate (May 9, 1973) also calls the vote “overwhelming.” The separatists and some others in the audience walked out. According to The heritage of sexual sophistication.”
Advocate, Elliott later received a standing ovation from “most of the 1,200 women present.”
The next day, Robin Morgan, the writer and editor who later became a leading figure in the rightward drift of radical feminism, devoted part of her keynote address to a vicious, hateful attack on transgender women. In it, she suggested that we enjoy being harassed on the street (doesn’t that sound sickeningly familiar?), said that we “parody female oppression,” accused us of “leeching off women” and demanded that we be excluded from women’s space.
In a three-page account of the controversy at the conference. Out for Good quotes Morgan at length, and, somewhat more briefly, Jeanne Cordova (editorial coordinator of Lesbian Tide and an organizer of the conference) in Elliott’s defense. But neither Elliott nor any other transsex- ual is quoted; are we not up to speak- ing for ourselves? Elliott still lives in California, and eventually managed to become active again in the lesbian and leather communities; surely she might have been asked about her feelings concerning that day. And it is not exactly a daunting task to reach her; this writer managed it without great difficulty.
And Out for Good is not exactly neutral in tone. In addition to the factual errors and omissions, consider this description of Elliott: “She might have been the only woman in the room wearing a skirt or a gown — except for the fact that Beth Elliott
wasn’t a woman. Beth Elliott was a preoperative transsexual, a man in the process of trying to become a woman, who, to complicate things, claimed to be a lesbian.”
At another point. Out for Good refers to “the near-riot that Beth Elliott had caused.” Well, it takes more than one person to cause a riot, and all Beth Elliott did was accept an invitation to sing. It was who she was, not what she said or did, that “caused” the near-riot.
Elliott, who was also a founding member of the Alice B. Toklas Democratic Club and who played an active role in the California Committee for Sexual Law Reform, paints an interesting picture of the early post-Stonewall queer move- ment. She says that many lesbians “judged individual transsexual women on the content of their character,” adding that “there were a lot of lesbians who had no interest in the legendary political correctness of the 1970’s.”
She also notes that many of the early-70’s lesbian communities were “very sex-positive … and the ‘sex purity’ movement never managed to control the lesbian community as a whole. Yet this stereotype has been used to manipulate lesbians unaware that they have a right to claim a
Tapestry article (2004)
In 2004, Dallas Denny published an exposé about “autogynephilia” activist Anne Lawrence in Transgender Tapestry. In it, Denny revealed that Cartwright had a similar inappropriate experience as I did with Lawrence. Cartwright and I were both hit on after being invited to Lawrence’s home under the pretense of taking vaginoplasty result photos for her consumer site:
James also describes an incident of alleged inappropriate boundary crossing in Lawrence’s photography of James’ genitals for Lawrence’s website www.annelawrence.com. James says Lawrence was inappropriately seductive while James had her clothes off. Lawrence denies this.
There’s more to the story. A year or so ago, Donna Cartwright, another transsexual woman, described to Tapestry an experience virtually identical to that reported by James. At that time we chose not to go forward with an unverified allegation. This allegation has now been substantiated in the form of James’ complaint. Lawrence denies this incident also.
For a more detailed account, see Anne Lawrence incident with Donna Cartwright.
Staff report (July 23, 2014). NLGJA names LGBT Journalist Hall of Famers, Excellence honorees. http://www.windycitymediagroup.com/lgbt/NLGJA-names-LGBT-Journalist-Hall-of-Famers-Excellence-honorees/48421.html
[Editors] (2004). Concerns about Dr. Anne Lawrence. Transgender Tapestry #105, p. 13. https://archive.org/details/transgendertapes1052unse/page/12
Digital Transgender Archive (digitaltransgenderarchive.net)
- Intersectionality and Divergence – My Life in the LGBT and Labor Movements (2018)
–Donna Cartwright speech (2019) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5BWBm0k8Y0M