Shannon Moffat, born Samuel Johnston Moffat and known professionally as S. J. Moffat, transitioned in her 50s and had a long and storied career in her 82 years.
She was born on August 23, 1927 in a small suburb of Pittsburgh. Her parents separated in 1930 and mother and child moved to New York. She graduated high school in 1945, enlisted in the US Navy, where she trained as an electronics technician, and then, for two years, attended the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland.
Beginning in 1948, Shannon attended Amherst College, graduating in 1950. In December 1949, Sam, as she was known before she transitioned, became engaged to Mary Kirkpatrick, a Wisconsin native, and, in August 1950, the couple married.
Shannon’s first job out of college was as the assistant science editor for Henry Holt and Company, publishers in New York City, until 1952. Also, from 1950 to 1952, she served in the U.S. Coast Guard.
The couple’s first son, Samuel Bruce Moffat, was born in February 1953. In a diary entry from March 20, 1954, Shannon/Sam, proudly remarks that Bruce took his first steps alone on March 14.
In late 1954 the family moved to Palo Alto, California, where Shannon worked as a reporter for the Palo Alto Times. Another son, Bennett, called “Ben,” was born in 1956 in Palo Alto. The next year, their third child, a girl, was stillborn.
The first time Shannon/Sam tried on a dress was in 1959 in a New York apartment, possibly her mother’s or her Aunt Mildred’s. She later recalled that her emotions ranged from “compulsive desire to erotic high to anxiety about putting it back in the box to avoid discovery.” Cross-dressing was done at home when possible. Lingerie was especially attractive to Shannon/Sam, but there was much fear of being found out.
After years of growing distance from wife Mary, and despite couple’s therapy in a sincere attempt to keep their marriage intact, the couple separated and were divorced in 1962. Shannon/Sam admitted to a neediness for mental and physical affection that appeared to grow tiresome to Mary over the years. She noted in a journal entry dated Feb. 4, 1962, “…I had not been given much love as a boy [and] I want it most urgently now.”
Shannon/Sam continued to look for loving relationships with women and sought to marry again. Soon a woman named Kay Cranston began to appear frequently in her diary entries, and the two married in 1966. She thought, due to satisfaction in this new marriage, that the impulse to cross-dress would end and she threw the feminine garments and other items away with a sense of regret but also relief that she “had solved the TA problem.”
But the urge to cross-dress was insurmountable. Shannon/Sam found it wasn’t easy to purchase clothes as there wasn’t an opportunity to try them on before buying. She used mail order under the name of “Mrs. Sam Moffat” to buy, exchange, and return items.
Shannon/Sam kept up relationships with sons Bruce and Ben, who were not yet aware of her inner struggle. Shannon/Sam wrote lovingly in diary entries of times spent with them on vacations or just simply seeing a movie. In the mid-1970s, she wrote of seeing the boys off one-by-one to Vassar and later of visits to the campus.
Shannon/Sam had been an information officer at Stanford Medical Center since 1959, but in 1966 established a freelance career as a technical and science writer for general audiences. Working from home, Sam could be Shannon more comfortably while wife Kay was at work. It took a number of years, but by the 1970s Shannon/Sam had worked up the courage to make forays into the world dressed as a woman, although being careful not to be noticed by anyone she knew.
It would take Shannon/Sam three hours to prepare for these forays. Initially, she felt clumsy and awkward with store clerks. She remembered later how “unattractive” she must have been at that stage due to her lack of sophistication with make-up and dress. But she kept at it and grew more confident. She later recalled, “I never had any trouble, but I got scared a lot.” By 1979, she no longer feared discovery in public.
Soon after the second marriage, Kay found women’s clothes in Shannon/Sam’s closet hidden in a box. Shannon/Sam explained the situation away as best as possible without revealing the real reason. By 1973, Shannon/Sam was shaving her legs, which gave her a sense of satisfaction but also guilt. Kay noticed and her calm reaction, Shannon later recalled, was to say, “Oh, you shaved your legs” with no other comment. They were both hiding their feelings.
In 1974, Shannon/Sam read a newly published book, Conundrum, about James Morris’ transition to Jan Morris. After reading the book, Shannon/Sam decided she must be a cross-dresser, not transsexual. About this time, Kay asked Shannon/Sam, “Do you want to be a woman?” The reply was, “No,” but there was real hesitation.
Four years later, Shannon/Sam heard a lecture by Dr. Donald Laub who had performed pioneering work in sex reassignment surgery. The lecture was liberating for Shannon/Sam, who realized that she indeed identified as female. She thought to herself, “You can make it as a woman.”
But Kay couldn’t handle such a transition, saying “I don’t like you as a woman.” Shannon/Sam realized the marriage to Kay was disintegrating, and was devastated. By 1978, Shannon/Sam saw that Kay was drifting towards a relationship with another man. In 1981, the couple divorced. Shannon felt a great loss about this even years later, noting, “…when you separate, divorce, and then embark on a new life in the same gender as the person you still love, your loneliness is multiplied many times over.”
In 1981, Shannon began working for Stanford University again, this time as a technical writer. 1981 was also a signature year because she began sex reassignment surgery, a process completed in 1985. Stanford University’s health care at the time paid for much of the transition.
This doesn’t mean life was all of a sudden a cake walk for Shannon. During the external adjustment to her new life, she remembered that there was not much time or inclination to think about intimacy with another person. But, after that, she wanted intimacy and found herself struggling to find a partner. Her relationship with sons Bruce and Ben was greatly impacted. Although her sons didn’t avoid her altogether, they stayed away more often than before. Times spent with them were not so easy and carefree as they had been.
But Shannon now felt comfortable in her own skin. As she grew older and then retired, she found time to indulge her love of music, theater and dance by volunteering for many California-based organizations, including TheatreWorks, Foothills Park, and the Stanford Library Associates.
On January 23, 2009, Shannon passed away peacefully in Palo Alto, California. Her obituary described her as a “loving friend and parent.” In looking through her papers, especially her diaries, her warmth and generosity come through in abundance.
She donated her papers to the American Heritage Center over a period of years, initially in 1983, with a large amount in 2002, and again in 2008.
The collection, totaling 86 boxes, contains her research and publications as a reporter, medical writer, and science and technical writer, as well as personal diaries beginning in the 1950s.
Also included in the collection are her research subject files, pamphlets, and diaries before and during her transition, which provide a unique look at how gender transition was discussed and presented in the 1970s and 1980s.