Trans-Spotting | Our Town | Chicago Reader

Trans-Spotting 

A collector finds a home for her gender-bending memorabilia at an Oak Park shop for cross-dressers.

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"This is Julian Eltinge," says Jill, pointing to a photo of a stout, coquettish woman in a large Edwardian hat. "Eltinge was very big in vaudeville. 'Women went into ecstasy over him. Men went into the smoking room'--that's what W.C. Fields said about him."

The portrait is an item in Jill's collection of transsexual and transvestite memorabilia, some of which is on display at a small gallery inside Transformations, a clothing store at 146 N. Oak Park Boulevard in Oak Park that serves mainly cross-dressing and transgendered clients. The shop offers a large selection of dresses, skirts, blouses, wigs, and rubbery fake breasts, with part of the basement given over to the gallery.

Jill (not her real name) began collecting the memorabilia two years ago, and now it includes posters, engravings, publicity photos, and recordings of American, British, and European cross-dressers and transsexuals. "The more I collected the more I wanted," she says. "Much of it I bought on eBay--you'd be surprised what you can get on eBay."

Among the things on display is some sheet music from the 20s featuring photos of Karyl Norman. "She was known as the 'Creole Fashion Plate,'" says Jill, pointing to the sassy, feminine eyes and lips. "Gorgeous. She achieved that without surgery, without drugs."

Jill knows how difficult that can be--she's a biological male who's turning herself into a woman. The hormones haven't completely softened her features.

Some of the items in Jill's memorabilia collection are 200 years old, but most are from the 20th century. "This is Francis Renault," she says, pointing at a publicity photo of a man dressed like singer and sex symbol Lillian Russell. "Renault used to bill himself as 'The Original Slave of Fashion.' He discovered a young performer named Archibald Leach--he later became Cary Grant. They were very good friends. Some say they were even lovers. But when Grant went to Hollywood he closed the door, so to speak, on all that."

Also in the gallery, carefully wrapped in plastic, is a paperback book titled Man Into Woman, a translation of Lili Elbe's diaries from the 20s and 30s, which recount her experiments with sexuality and her attempts to change her sex. "Lili was the first successful sex change," says Jill. "Her doctor was Magnus Hirschfeld. He was the one who coined the phrase 'transsexual,' in 1922. Lili supposedly had three, four, five surgeries." Elbe died after a procedure that was intended to allow her to bear children. Says Jill, "They actually implanted ovaries into her."

Next to Man Into Woman is an album cover with a blond in a long, tight dress leaning close to an early-60s microphone. The LP, titled Christine Jorgensen Reveals, consists of an extended interview with Jorgensen about her sex-change operations. Next to the album is a yellowing copy of a New York Post with the front-page headline "EX-GI BECOMES BLONDE BEAUTY: OPERATIONS TRANSFORM BRONX YOUTH."

Jill's collection was taking over her home by the time she asked Transformations' owner, Rori Scheffler, to store part of it. Scheffler was happy to oblige. She'd had a few cross-dressers among her clients when she started her clothing and makeup business in the late 80s, and after she moved to an Oak Park storefront in 1992, those clients followed. Word about the shop spread beyond Oak Park, often referred to as the "gayest suburb" in the metropolitan area, and once Scheffler saw that her store was attracting more and more transgendered customers she made it a place where they would feel welcome to hang out. She even converted the basement into a party room with a bar and mirrors and began hosting private parties for her favorite customers. "We had a bridal party last June," she says. "It's a fantasy of a lot of people to wear a bridal gown. We had wedding music. We had a nondenominational minister who gave a lovely service. We had so many brides and bridesmaids."

"Before Transformations you'd go into a store and pretend you were getting something for a sweetheart or a wife or whatever," says one middle-aged customer in full drag. "Most of us were in the closet before Transforma-tions opened. I was scared to death to come out. When I first came here I thought, 'Oh my God!'"

"Rori is a legend in this community," says Jill, who hangs out a lot at Transformations. "Anyone who knows anything about the transgendered community knows about Rori."

For a long time Jill's memorabilia sat in a storeroom in Transformations' basement. Then one day last winter Scheffler had the idea for a gallery. "I thought it was a shame," she says, "all those beautiful posters, all those gorgeous women hidden away."

Scheffler and Jill spent the next six months planning the exhibit and hanging the artifacts. The gallery opened to the public in late June. "This show is in tribute to all of my sisters, and to the few brothers I know who are female-to-male," says Jill. "Wherever you are on the spectrum--whether you are homosexual or postop, or preop, or nonop but considering--this is our life. This is our experience."

She begins to tear up. "I have to do this interview anonymously because I have to make a living. The only way I can make money is to satisfy straight society. And if I step out of bounds they're going to say, 'You are not in our club anymore.' But that's going to change one day, and when it does, this collection will be an artifact showing how we used to live."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Lloyd DeGrane.

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