“Our love for you could never change; be assured of this."
Dawn Langley Hall is a rarity in our research, in that she has an autobiography. A writer herself and an experienced biographer, she took on the challenge of summing up her own life not one, but three times. Because of this, we are lucky to have access to fountains of information about her; unfortunately, much of it seems to be more fiction than non.
Her most discussed autobiography is apt in its title; Dawn, a Charleston Legend. A woman who moved from community to community, eventually expelled from each one because of her allegiance with another, there was more than enough gossip on her. Known by many in her new American hometown more by rumours than actual encounters, there is no shortage of mention of her from herself and from others.
Many people from Charleston remember her as almost a mythic figure, her stories told in whispers and as far away from the children as possible. She had come from a mixed background, with a mother from high society and a father who was a chauffeur to Vita-Sackville West. She was surrounded by odd people who made way for her own oddness to bloom, including Virginia Woolf. As she grew older, she said that Woolf’s Orlando seemed to describe her life even before it happened.
She made a splash when she entered American high society, making connections and dropping names almost as fast as she learned them. Known then as a man, she met other artists through her books, including Margaret Rutherford. She was a character actress who, along with her husband, would adopt Dawn first as a son then later, happily, as a daughter.
When she first moved to Charleston, she had come from Canada, where she had been a writer for the Winnipeg Free Press. She also wrote her first novel there, using her experiences in an Ojibway reserve. She had then moved from there to England, and from England to New York. There she met someone who would become a dear friend to her; Isabel Whitney.
The two would eventually make plans to move to Charleston together, but with Whitney’s failing health, the plans were not to be. When Dawn did finally arrive in Charleston, she was mourning a friend and holding a large inheritance.
This inheritance, in addition to her good connections, would allow Dawn to slip easily into a new society. Fortunately for her, it was a very queer time for Charleston. According to the people she shared the community with, homosexuality was allowed if not encouraged with men, as long as they were married to women and had children. But this was not the community for her, and when she got her gender-confirmation surgery from the John Hopkins hospital, the town quickly turned against her.
There were many reasons for this turn. First, she was having gender-confirmation surgery in 1968; an unpopular choice at the time. Second, she announced shortly after that she was marrying a black man. 1968 Charleston did her no favours in that regard either. And lastly, because she had broken the rules, she was allowed to be queer only so long as she looked straight and stopped people from speaking about it. And people definitely spoke about it.
Her story made national headlines; people came from all around America to hear and see what was happening. Hers was not only the first interracial marriage in South Carolina but also one that included a transgender person; the announcement was not taken well.
Upon announcing their marriage, their church quickly had to change course in response to bomb threats and most of high society turned against her. She had broken Charleston's most basic rule of the time; if you are different, be quiet about it.
Through all of this, she had one important pillar that kept her going: her friends and family. They were all overwhelmingly supportive, with her adoptive mother saying simply “We had three adopted sons and one adopted daughter, now we have two of each.”
Her thoughts on the marriage were similarly collected, saying that she was fine with Dawn marrying a black man, but admitting she was slightly disappointed that he was a Baptist.
And from her doctors, she was given unwavering loyalty. When asked for their response, the spokesman of John Hopkins Hospital only said “Miss Hall was a patient. Miss Hall underwent surgery.” They would comment no further.
She was eventually married in a private ceremony that included her two dogs, members of the press, and all of her friends and family.
Here is where it get’s a bit dicier. In reports, Dawn lied about her age and may have misled people in regards to medical transition. Though she claimed to be intersex and used this as an explanation for her transition, this was later contested and was most likely added in hopes of garnering sympathy and understanding.
Later she would stuff pillows under her clothes to mimic pregnancy, and she did eventually return with a child. In truth, the baby was the biological daughter of Dawn's husband's lover. Dawn and her husband named their new daughter Natasha, and she would become one the most loved people in Dawn's life.
In 1982, Dawn divorced her husband; though she loved him and allowed him access to their daughter, she otherwise cut him out of their lives. Dawn later admitted that he had been abusive and cheated on her throughout their marriage;
Dawn would move back and forth for a time, much of her money lost to her husband’s debt and struggled to keep up the appearance of high society. She was eventually forced to move away from Charleston due to violent attacks and sexual assault.
It was only by the end of her life that she was able to return to the city that she loved. She died in Charleston in 2000 due to Parkinson’s and passed away in her daughter’s house surrounded by her grandchildren.
Dawn was a lucky woman, in that she got to experience many types of love throughout her life. A woman who started out as a child of a disinterested mother found an adoptive family that adored her. She had close, dear friends who supported and cared for her in every way they were able. She had romantic love, dysfunctional love, intense love that braved bomb threats, and motherly love that she was able to pass on to her own daughter and grandchildren.
Though she went through much in her storied life, there were always people who had something kind to say about her. Whether it was a neighbor boy who lived across the street or her childhood friend, Nigel Nicolson, who would avoid her as an adult but later said, regretfully, “There is not a word of reproach for me in her book. Like everything else about [Dawn], it is gallant, resilient and unfailingly generous.”
To end our article about one incredible woman, we have a quote from another. In response to a letter from Dawn coming out, Margaret Rutherford wrote:
“Our love for you could never change; be assured of this."
[Disclaimer: Some of the sources may contain triggering material.]
David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library. "Guide to the Dawn Langley Simmons Papers, 1848- 2001, 2012-2014 and undated, bulk 1969-2000." Finding Aid. 2007. Digital Transgender Archive, https://www.digitaltransgenderarchive.net/files/ng451h549.
Gilbreth, Edward M. “Dawn Langley Simmons Story Still Makes Waves.” Post and Courier, Evening Post Industries, 6 June 2012, www.postandcourier.com/news/local_state_news/dawn-langley-simmons-story-still-makes-waves/article_2ba4d9b9-facf-5bc6-8c55-64415cbd4c89.html.
Hitt, Jack. “Dawn.” This American Life, WBEZ Chicago, 28 Feb. 1996, www.thisamericanlife.org/15/dawn.
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. "Sex Altered, Author Plans to Wed Butler." Clipping. 1968. Digital Transgender Archive, https://www.digitaltransgenderarchive.net/files/td96k2649.
Potter, Caroline. “All For Love: The Legend Of Dawn Langley Simmons.” A Sketch Of The Past, 4 Apr. 2014, asketchofthepast.com/2014/04/04/all-for-love-the-legend-of-dawn-langley-simmons/.
Smith, Dinitia. “Dawn Langley Simmons, Flamboyant Writer, Dies at 77.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 23 Sept. 2000, www.nytimes.com/2000/09/24/nyregion/dawn-langley-simmons-flamboyant-writer-dies-at-77.html.
The Associated Press. "A Miracle Child? Former Male Claims Motherhood; Impossible, Say Doctors." Newspaper. 1960. Digital Transgender Archive, https://www.digitaltransgenderarchive.net/files/8k71nh29n.
The Associated Press. "He's A She, Will Marry." Clipping. 1968. Digital Transgender Archive, https://www.digitaltransgenderarchive.net/files/5t34sj726.
The Associated Press. "Man Who Changed Sex to Wed Negro." Clipping. 1968. Digital Transgender Archive, https://www.digitaltransgenderarchive.net/files/8910jt737.
Unknown. "Newspaper Clipping of Dawn Langley Hall and John Paul Simmons' Wedding." Photograph. 1969. Digital Transgender Archive, https://www.digitaltransgenderarchive.net/files/x059c7621.
The News and Courier. "British Writer Married Here After Sex Change." Clipping. 1969. Digital Transgender Archive, https://www.digitaltransgenderarchive.net/files/z890rt37v.
United Press International. "Dawn Pepita Hall Hopes to Have 3 Children." Clipping. 1969. Digital Transgender Archive, https://www.digitaltransgenderarchive.net/files/pv63g040t.
United Press International. "Former 'He' to Wed Negro Butler Tonight." Clipping. 1968. Digital Transgender Archive, https://www.digitaltransgenderarchive.net/files/3197xm20x.
Zagria. “Dawn Langley Simmons (1922 – 2000) Part 2: Wife and Mother.” A Gender Variance Who's Who, 23 Oct. 2009, zagria.blogspot.ca/2009/10/dawn-langley-simmons-1922-2000-part-2.html#.Wlu025Oplp_.