15 trans women and non-binary activists you should be learning about in history class

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March is Women’s History Month and, to honor the occasion, we’d like to create a space for all the women history forgot. For the women who deserve a place in our textbooks. For the women whose voices should echo. This piece — just one in a series — is for them. 

We have always been a foundational part of history, yet the idea of “Women’s History” as a distinct category is relatively recent. Like Black History Month, Women’s History Month has wide-ranging origins. But both had their clearest beginnings in the early nineteenth century when there began to appear days and events designed to commemorate the achievements of our marginalized groups, most notably International Women’s Day. In 1980, President Carter issued the country’s first presidential statement on Women’s History Week when he attempted to add a constitutional amendment — which was never ratified — barring sex-based discrimination. Two years later, Reagan wrote a proclamation for Women’s History Week. Then, in 1987, the year I was born, Women’s History Week expanded into a month.

But which women? Womanhood is broad, complex. There is a long history of women of certain complexions or faiths or sexual orientations being denied their full humanity relative to other women. And it is only recently that trans women, like me, have begun to enter these conversations, even as trans people have always existed in the shadows and sun alike.

Transwomanhood is womanhood, for there are many ways to exist in the constellations of gender. And acknowledging trans women as part of Women’s History Month is important, for it does what Women’s History Month itself is designed to do: To reclaim the importance of women so often lost, erased, made more ghost than girl, by the patriarchal pen that’s written most of history.

We are here, beautiful and proud, as women from all diverse walks of experience should be. Yet we frequently only hear one or two names as our historical representatives: Lili Elbe and Christine Jorgensen. Of course, today, we are blessed with figures like Janet Mock, Jennifer Finney Boylan, Laverne Cox, and so many others. But there are many more, spanning eras and oceans.

And so, here are some wonderful trans women the history books often don’t contain. Many of these figures existed before the word “transgender” even did, and we must be careful not to assume that labels of the present always define people of the past as they might for us today. Many also underwent reassignment surgery — yet it’s important to note that not all trans people desire or can afford such procedures, and being trans is not equivalent to what surgeries one may or may not have had.

With all that said, these figures, to me, fit within a broad history of trans-ness, even as some are virtually unknown. Now, it’s my pleasure to write in a bit of their histories, so they don’t need to be ghosts any longer.

1Chevalier d’Eon (1728-1810)

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Spy, diplomat, fencer, enigma: The Chevalier d’Eon was many things, but most of all she remains a mystery. She helped negotiate an end to a seven-year war between France and Britain in 1763. Later, King Louis XVI, fearing blackmail from d’Eon — she had been recalled from London to France by the king, then threatened to reveal French plans to invade England if she wasn’t allowed to stay — made an extraordinary order: That d’Eon could remain in Britain, but only if she lived full-time as a woman. D’Eon, who was already known for presenting as female, encouraged the idea, taking the name Mademoiselle de Beaumont.

She appears in many illustrations from the period, but is most famously immortalized in a portrait in London’s National Gallery. It’s difficult to know for sure if she would identify, today, as transgender, but given her desire to live full-time as a woman despite how disempowering it was in patriarchal England, she is undeniably a part of our history worth remembering.

2Mary Jones(1784-1864)

One of the earliest recorded stories of a trans woman in America, Jones was a black sex worker in New York. One night in 1836, Robert Haslem, a white mason worker, found her in an alley and decided to pay her for sex; on his way back, he discovered he was missing $99. Jones was brought to court for theft, and despite the constant jeers, she arrived in elegant women’s clothing each day. She testified that she always dressed like that in New Orleans and amongst other people of color. After days of insults and jokes at her expense, the court sentenced Jones to five years in prison, and she was commemorated in an illustration that crassly called her “the man-monster.”

Despite the discrimination she faced as a queer sex worker of color, Mary Jones refused to give up her identity. Though the court system challenged her and wanted her to conform to standards that weren’t in line with what she believed, Mary stood strong. With this in mind, she not only made her mark on history — but also remains an important example in court records.

3Lili Elbe (1882-1931)

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One of the most iconic and tragic names in our early history, the Danish trans woman Lili Elbe is a reminder both of how far we have come and how far we have failed to move forward. A painter married to another painter, Elbe’s story began, according to her own account, when one of her wife Gerda’s models failed to show. Gerda had Elbe model instead. The moment was astonishing to Elbe: It just felt right to dress in women’s clothes, to be depicted as one. She continued to do so in private at Gerda’s encouragement. But she was also confused by these feelings.

The dysphoria was overwhelming and inexplicable for her. Doctors shook their heads at her, and Elbe became despairingly convinced that “my case has never been known in the history of medical art.” In 1930, she planned to kill herself. The legendary doctor Magnus Hirschfield — who was working on determining how sex, sexual orientation, and gender were connected —briefly saved her, claiming he could implant a womb into Elbe using new experimental procedures. Elbe, who was by then divorced, took the risk, undergoing multiple surgeries. She began living in society as Elbe, despite rejection from many who had known her before, and said she wanted to give birth. Unfortunately, she died the following year after Hirschfiled’s uterus implant, but, at least briefly, she was an incredible figure for her time.

4Lucy Hicks Anderson (1886-1954)

A true unsung pioneer, Anderson was born in 1886 in Kentucky. From a young age, she wanted to present as female and said she wished to be called Lucy rather than her birth name, Tobias, which worried her mother. Astonishingly for the time, a physician advised that Lucy be raised as a girl.

Anderson married two men in her life, fighting for her marriages to be accepted as legal and for her to be accepted as a woman — making her both an early fighter for marriage equality and for transgender acceptance. However, she was accused of having “lied” under oath during her marriage by not disclosing that she was assigned “male” at birth. Her response, while not accepted, was powerful. “I defy any doctor in the world to prove that I am not a woman,” she told reporters. “I have lived, dressed, acted just what I am, a woman.”

5Coccinelle (1931- 2006)

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Born in Paris in 1931, the actress and showgirl Jacqueline Dufresnoy (best known by her stage name Coccinelle) was one of the earliest trans women to undergo reassignment surgery. She began taking hormone therapy in 1952, the year Christine Jorgensen became America’s most visible trans women, and seven years later got a vaginoplasty.

The entertainer soon became a star, being featured in films and performances (like this), and Italian singer Ghigo Agosti even dedicated a song called “Coccinella” to her. Her surgery and subsequent marriage in France led to the country amending its laws so that the gender on one’s birth certificate could be amended after a similar surgery; it also led to France allowing trans citizens to legally get married. Coccinelle went on to found a number of organizations devoted to helping trans and gender-nonconforming individuals.

6Christine Jorgensen (1926-1989)

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Before Caitlyn Jenner, there was a trans woman with the same initials: Christine Jorgensen. She was from the Bronx, and, in 1952, after her first steps towards reassignment surgery, she catapulted to national attention. “Ex-G.I. Becomes Blonde Beauty,” the New York Daily News announced. Jorgensen’s transformation was often treated as evidence of scientific advances rather than an affirmation of trans identity; she was compared to rockets and nuclear bombs. She was called “America’s First Transsexual” — inaccurate, but indicative of how iconic she was. She was glitzy and glamorous and performed for $12,500 a week in Hollywood.

Despite Jorgensen’s fame, she also attracted fury and fear, especially when the American public began to learn more about what transitioning entailed; many Americans initially thought Jorgensen could menstruate and give birth and reacted negatively when they learned she could not. Jorgensen died in 1989 with both fame and infamy, with many cisgender Americans unfortunately still clueless about what it might mean to be trans. But now, they were at least aware that we existed.

7Carlett Brown (1927—)

“I just want to become a woman as quickly as possible, that’s all,” Carlett Brown, an African-American vet, said after the story of Christine Jorgensen’s reassignment surgery broke. “I’ll become a citizen of any country that will allow me the treatment that I need and be operated on,” she continued, as gender reassignment was not then legal in the United States.

Brown was intersex. While her physicians suggested she undergo surgery to become more “typically male,” Brown wanted the opposite. A year after Jorgensen made headlines, Jet Magazine put Brown on its cover to spotlight her then-revolutionary story, and she was, albeit cringingly, described as “The First Negro Sex Change.” But before she could travel, she was arrested for “cross-dressing,” then held for not paying taxes. Soon after, she seems to have disappeared.

8Sylvia Rivera (1951-2002)

Sylvia Rivera, born in New York of Puerto Rican and Venezuelan descent in 1951, was an iconic LGBTQ activist. As a child, she was bullied due to “effeminate” behavior; as an adult, Rivera frequented the famous Stonewall Inn and is cited to have been present at the landmark Stonewall Riots of 1969 at New York’s Stonewall Inn, where queer people famously fought off the police who had attempted an anti-LGBTQ raid on the bar (though there is disagreement as to whether or not Rivera actually was there).

She was kicked out of her home more than once and co-founded STAR, a group dedicated to protecting drag queens and trans women. She protested against gay rights leaders, who had been attempting to push aside drag queens and women by portraying gay rights as hyper-masculine, and fought for inclusion in all LGBTQ organizations and events. Rivera’s sense of her gender was fluid, evolving over the course of her life; she sometimes identified as a woman, sometimes as an “effeminate” gay male, sometimes as both or as a third gender, so she, ultimately, was also an important non-binary activist.

9Marsha P. Johnson (1945-1992)

Like Sylvia Rivera, Marsha P. Johnson is an iconic figure of color in queer liberation. Born in New Jersey, Johnson became accustomed to anti-LGBTQ bigotry as a child. In 1967, she moved to the West Village in New York to escape the brunt of this discrimination. She was present at the legendary Stonewall Riots, and is said to have thrown the first brick on that historic evening. After Stonewall, she befriended Rivera, with whom she co-founded the influential organization STAR. This group worked to empower and help trans women, with a special interest in homeless trans women of color.

In the 1980s, Johnson became an iconic AIDS activist, demonstrating with the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power to help build awareness and to lower the prices of AIDS medication. She was everywhere — she even appeared in a series of Andy Warhol photographs featuring drag queens. But her life suddenly came to an end in July 1992, when her body was pulled, fully clothed, from the Hudson River near Christopher Street. Officials initially claimed the case was a suicide. Johnson’s family and friends, by contrast, said she had likely been murdered, as she had often been harassed by people around the pier. The case was changed from a suicide to “undetermined,” where it remains today, despite having been reopened in 2012. A new documentary also hopes to investigate Johnson’s untimely death.

Johnson, like Rivera, did not fully identify as transfeminine. She often used female pronouns, as many other drag queens in her circle did, and even considered reassignment surgery. But she also identified as male, putting her under a broader spectrum of non-binary gender identity.

10Sir Lady Java (1943—)

For a long time, cross-dressing was illegal in much of America, and trans women — who would have simply been dressing — were treated the same as cross-dressers. Sir Lady Java, who was born in New Orleans and later moved to Los Angeles, protested L.A.’s notorious Rule No. 9, which banned cross-dressing.

Java, who worked as both a waitress and “female impersonator” at the Redd Foxx Club and who claimed to have dated Sammy Davis, Jr., was profiled in Jet Magazine for her curvaceous beauty and her persistent picketing. Bowing to pressure from the LAPD, who wanted Java’s act at the club stopped, Redd Foxx fired her, and she joined the ACLU to protest. While her claim was ultimately rejected, Java received national attention, particularly from African-American and queer publications, and was undoubtedly a factor in such laws ultimately disappearing.

11Renée Richards (1934-Present)

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After Christine Jorgensen, Renée Richards may have been America’s most famous trans woman. Born in New York in 1934, Richards was an ophthalmologist and tennis player. She underwent reassignment surgery in 1975, but was denied entry into the U.S. Open by The United States Tennis Association when she returned to tennis the following year. The Association began requiring “genetic” screening for female athletes after Richards’ transition, but she claimed the policy was illegal, and, in 1977, New York’s Supreme Court ruled in her favor. Richards went on to become one of the most iconic trans athletes.

12Mianne Bagger (1966-Present)

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Another groundbreaking trans athlete, Mianne Bagger was born in Copenhagen in 1966, then moved with her family to Australia when she was 12. She began playing golf, and, in 2004, she became the first openly trans woman to compete in the Women’s Australian Open. With this, she helped initiate more trans-inclusive policies among a number of golfing organizations. However, organizations like the Ladies Professional Golfing Association refused her entry, while others required that trans athletes undergo extreme psychiatric screening procedures that Bagger and many other trans sportswomen consider demeaning. Particularly in the sports world at large, there is still a ways to go when it comes to trans acceptance.

13Jowelle de Souza (1974-Present)

Born in Trinidad, Jowelle de Souza is an iconic Caribbean trans woman. De Souza was the first Trinidadian to undergo reassignment surgery, and she also became the first openly trans person to run for political office on the island. Ironically, gay people are not legally allowed to travel to Trinidad, even though the law is not regularly enforced. It is also not possible to change one’s gender legally there, so de Souza’s story seems almost miraculous.

Being openly trans on the island (and on other Caribbean islands) can be difficult and dangerous, and the strong de Souza has experienced a mix of encouraging support and bigoted criticism. Although she lost her bid for office, she remains an important symbol and advocate for trans rights on our islands, but she is perhaps best known, ideologically, for her support of animal rights.

14Nong Toom (1981-Present)

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A story for the ages: Parinya Charoenphol (better known as Nong Toom) was born in a family of nomads in a poor village in Thailand and was expelled from a monastery as a child. At age 12, she began training to become a muay thai kickboxer — and became a champion, winning 20 out of 22 matches — so she could afford the extravagant fees of the gender reassignment surgery she’d wanted since she was a child.

In 1999, she underwent surgery and began living full-time as female. But Toom became a figure of national controversy for her gender — for women were prohibited from entering kickboxing arenas; the sport is sacred in Thailand, having evolved as a way to combat the Burmese, and Toom was condemned for “tarnishing” the sport. Yet she persisted, and she is an icon for it. “She’s such a person of contradictions,” Ekachai Uekrongtham, the director of a film about her, said in 2005. “She set out to master the most masculine activity in order to achieve total femininity.”

15Angela Morley (1924-2009)

Morley stands out not only as a female composer — itself, unfortunately, relatively rare — but as one of the only openly trans composers anywhere. Born in Yorkshire in 1924, Morley transitioned in 1972 and won two Emmys for her musical arrangements. She was also the first openly trans person to be nominated for an Academy Award. Morley passed away in 2009, but left an important legacy behind her.

Ultimately, this list is by no means conclusive. There are far too many wonderful names to mention from across the globe — and, of course, there are many trans women whose names we may, unfortunately, never know. But I hope this list helps stir up interest in these women — all of whom are important parts of Women’s History, yet who are too rarely acknowledged as such — who have been confined to separate rooms of their own, or not given rooms at all.

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