Carlett Brown: The Extreme Marginalization of Transwomen of Color
By Katie Bruno
Christine Jorgensen embodies the idea of American transgender history in the 1950s but there were transpeople unnoticed by the majority population possibly because of lack of publicity for certain matters of marginalization. Very few know the story of Carlett Angialee Brown, who was a 26 year old “shake dancer” and U.S. Navy veteran earning $10-15 a night in nightclubs wanting to become a biological woman. When white faces have been on the front covers of magazines and newspapers it is difficult to find the news on people of color. This is particularly true with further marginalized groups like transgender people of color and it becomes difficult to find any records of their lives. Many transpeople are documented by articles on their arrests, with a lack of attention on their gender identity and who they are as individuals. The lives of many transgender people from the 1950s and 1960s are mostly seen as a record of arrests and comments on their “deviant” dress habits, including transwomen of color like Carlett Brown, Avon Wilson, and Delissa Newton. These women’s stories are marginalized greatly and their stories are barely mentioned compared to white transwomen like Christine Jorgenson, who became a media sensation. In the 1950s, the idea of crossing gender lines was seen as very deviant. However, when there are white transwomen why do we not also see transpeople of color in the news? When Carlett Brown tried getting her surgery from male to female she faced many challenges like citizenship, access to proper and affordable surgery, and arrest. The experiences of transwomen of color were a result of their occupation of several marginalized categories and that leads to challenges in their lives. Carlett Brown was a black transwoman who only wanted to get sex reassignment surgery and marry the man she loved.
Carlett had a strong desire to become a woman. From physical exams Carlett Brown was found to be intersex, but instead of removing the feminine characteristics, Carlett wanted to have sex reassignment surgery in order to become fully female. Carlett faced great issues while trying to get her sex reassignment surgery. One major issue was revoking her rights of citizenship in order to get her sex reassignment surgery, SRS. Carlett found that she could get the proper surgery she wanted but it was not possible for her to get it in the United States. Carlett would have to travel to Denmark or Germany to get such a surgery. When Carlett was selling her blood for five dollars a pint to pay for food and rent, it seems unimaginable that she could afford these costly procedures for hormone treatment and SRS. In Denmark there was also the issue of who the surgery was offered to. Carlett was planning on getting her surgery done by Christine Jorgenson’s SRS doctor in Denmark. However, Denmark only offered their sex reassignment surgery to Danish nationals. Carlett told Jet Magazine, “I just want to come a woman as quickly as possible, that’s all. […] I’ll become a citizen of any where I can receive that treatment I need and be operated on". This was in reference to becoming a citizen of West Germany or Denmark and giving up her rights of citizenship in the United States in order to get her surgery. Carlett was more than eager to do such a thing. Carlett was in love and ready to marry a Sergeant in the United States military, Eugene Martin, who was stationed in Germany. The two of them had known each other since they were children and had been corresponding with one another while Sgt. Martin had been overseas for 2 ½ years. Carlett’s sex reassignment surgery and legally becoming a woman would give her access to a partnership with Sgt. Martin. Carlett told Jet Magazine, “I regret leaving the United States, but after the Christine Jorgenson affair, the United States refuses to give an American citizen permission to alter his sex. I want to become a woman as quickly as possible so I can marry ‘old man’ Sgt. Eugene Martin of Weareham, Mass, who is now stationed in Frankfort, Germany". Carlett’s decision to give up her rights of citizenship raises an interesting point of identity. Carlett giving up her identity of country and residence to pursue her identity within her gender, shows that her gender identity was far more to her important than her citizenship and country. In the June 25th article of Jet Magazine Carlett is seen shopping for her wedding dress in a department store in Boston. Brown was ejected from the store by the police after the workers in the store witnessed Brown shopping. Brown’s plans to leave the United States for her surgery were interrupted when the U.S. government would not let Brown leave the States because of back taxes she still owed. She faced a lot of issues with getting her sex reassignment surgery and a lot of the outcome is still not known from documentation. However, the importance of it to her is shown through what she was willing to give up for it.
The sections about Carlett’s impending surgery and marriage were minimized in the article. The articles on Carlett are no more than half to a page long about her invading the space of women. The articles talk about the shock of Carlett wearing what are deemed “women’s clothes” and Carlett’s intrusion into the space that is set aside for women. These are still common reactions for transpeople to face today. The lives of transpeople are turned into a spectacle, almost a display for others to watch and be fascinated by. Then the transpeople are told they are deviant and occupying the wrong space and are taken away to jail. This happened to Carlett Brown but Carlett was unable to pay her five dollar bail that was set. Carlett could barely pay for her food and rent. When people of color tend to be so excluded and marginalized in terms of opportunity and employment, particularly in the 1950s prior to the achievements of the Civil Rights Movement, they are left without many options on how to live. Carlett was a shake dancer who sold her blood in order to live. So when she was arrested for the “crimes” of being a transperson and occupying the space that was said to be for biological females she was unable to pay for the costs and her manager paid for her. Barely having money to pay for food and rent, Carlett was still determined to get her sex reassignment surgery, showing just how important Carlett’s sexual identity was to her. However, the last known Jet Magazine article on Carlett indicated her taking a job at a fraternity house as a cook, where Carlett would accept bookings at night clubs during the evenings in order to pay about $1,200 in back taxes to the U.S. government before being able to leave the U.S. for her surgery. Unfortunately information on Carlett’s life after this article are not known so it is difficult to know if Carlett did end up leaving the United States and receive her sex reassignment surgery.
In the end it seems as though all Carlett wanted was to be able to get her sex reassignment surgery and be with the man that she loved. The inaccessibility of surgeries for all transpeople of this time in the United States was debilitating for a lot of people, to not be who they felt they were. “I feel that female impersonators are being denied their right of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness when they are arrested for wearing female clothes – especially when they are minding their own business.” Because of Jet Magazine, Carlett’s story can still be found, but it is difficult to say if Carlett was able to pay off her back taxes and make it to Europe for her SRS and to be reunited with Sgt. Eugene Martin.
- "Jail Male Shake Dancer for Posing as a Women in Boston." Jet Magazine, July 9, 1953.
- "Male Shake Dancer Plans to Change Sex, Wed GI in Europe." Jet Magazine, June 18, 1953.
- "Male Dancer Becomes Danish Citizen to Change his Sex." Jet Magazine, June 25, 1953.
- "Jail Male Shake Dancer for Posing as a Woman in Boston." Jet Magazine, July 9, 1953.
- "Tax Snag Halts Male Dancer's Trip for Sex Change." Jet Magazine, October 15, 1953.