Josephine Tittsworth has been an unsung hero of the Houston LGBTQ movement.
By Kim Hogstrom
Photo by Eric Edward Schell
Josephine Tittsworth says her hometown of Pasadena didn’t exactly provide an affirming environment in which to blossom.
“Every bad thing you’ve heard about Pasadena was true,” says Tittsworth, who was born in 1950. “It was packed with white Christian bigots. There was a Ku Klux Klan storefront in open sight on Red Bluff Road. It took me a long time to recover from that exposure. I have recovered, but it took a lot of work to overcome it.”
When Tittsworth finally recovered, she did so in grand fashion—becoming a pioneering transgender activist in Houston.
In the early 1980s, long before she realized she was transgender, Tittsworth helped launch the first Texas chapter of The Society for the Second Self, or TRI-ESS, a national group that offers support to heterosexual cross-dressers and their families. Thirty years later, in 2009, she founded the Texas Transgender Nondiscrimination Summit.
At 68, Tittsworth remains a tireless activist who speaks at colleges, businesses, and organizations in addition to lobbying on behalf of trans equality in Austin and Washington DC.
On June 23, Tittsworth will serve as honorary grand marshal of the Houston Pride parade.
“When our nominating committee met to decide on Pride marshals this year, I didn’t even finish my sentence when I submitted Josephine for consideration,” says Pride Houston secretary Jeremy Fain. “The committee was enthusiastically in support. She has done so much good for the LGBTQ community. She’s never sought attention for it, but she’s certainly earned the recognition.”
After enlisting at age 22, Tittsworth served for four years in the Coast Guard. During her successful military career, she was granted top security clearance, rose to the rank of petty officer second class, and was awarded the Good Conduct Medal.
“The thing is, I wore women’s clothing under my service gear whenever possible,” Tittsworth says. “I would paint my toenails, put on my uniform, and go to work.
“Today, my Good Conduct Medal means a lot to me,” she adds. “I call it my ‘never-got-caught’ medal. I got out of the service without ever getting caught.”
In 1977, Tittsworth went to work for IBM wearing suits and ties to her office each day, with female clothing underneath.
But by 1981 she was drowning in desperation, so she contacted the editor at Playboy magazine. She explained her situation and asked if there were others like her—anywhere—to whom she could speak. Playboy put her in touch with Carol Beecroft, founder of TRI-ESS.
Beecroft shared the names and contact numbers of people in Houston, and Tittsworth wasted no time inviting them to gather at a local hotel.
“TRI-ESS, and the friends I made in it, saved my life,” Tittsworth says. “I was so lost by then that I mean that literally: they saved my life.”
In 2000, MSNBC Investigates aired a documentary called The Secret Wardrobe, chronicling Tittsworth and her challenges as a crossdresser. Tittworth’s only sibling, a sister to whom she was not out, stumbled onto the show.
“There were many days of painful conversations after that,” Tittsworth recalls. “My sister felt betrayed and abandoned, as she always viewed me as her protector. We worked through it, and today we are loving, supportive siblings.”
That same year, Tittsworth entered psychotherapy. In the safety of her therapist’s office, and buttressed by his support, she fully realized her gender identity. “Finally, the puzzle pieces started to fall together,” she says, basking in relief at the memory.
Shortly thereafter, she began her two-year transition. Today, she says she is “100 percent female, inside and out” and has no regrets.
After retiring from IBM in 1999, Tittsworth enrolled at the University of Houston-Clear Lake to seek a degree in social work. But she quickly realized that she faced discrimination on campus that was negatively impacting her education.
A natural organizer, Tittsworth began to lobby administrators to add trans protections to the school’s nondiscrimination policy. In 2006, she succeeded. Later, while studying for her master’s degree at UH’s main campus, Tittsworth accomplished the same thing. And in 2014, UH’s Student Government Association passed the Josephine Tittsworth Act that further ensures the safety of trans students on campus.
“A lot of people do not realize what Josephine’s impact has been,” says fellow trans activist Monica Roberts. “She has received so many accolades, there is no way to list them all.”
Roberts says that when Tittsworth founded the Texas Transgender Nondiscrimination Summit and served as its first executive director, only three universities in Texas had trans-inclusive nondiscrimination policies.
“Thanks to Josephine, there are now 38 universities and five Texas school districts on the list, and more are being added,” Roberts says. “Josephine deserves the credit.”
This article appears in the June 2018 edition of OutSmart magazine.