12 Trans Women and Non-Binary Activists You Should Have Learned About in History Class
From Danish painter Lili Elbe to actress Coccinelle.
November 13th to 19th is Transgender Awareness Week.
Women have always been a foundational part of history. Yet the idea of “women’s history” as a distinct category is relatively recent. 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 have begun to enter these conversations, even as trans people have always existed in the shadows and sun alike.
Trans womanhood is womanhood, for there are many ways to exist in the constellation of gender.
We are here, beautiful and proud, as women from all walks of life 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 include. 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 sex reassignment surgery, though it’s important to note that not all trans people desire or can afford such procedures, and being trans is not contingent on what surgeries one may or may not have had.
With all that said, these figures fit within a broad history of trans-ness, even as some are virtually unknown. Now, it’s HG’s pleasure to write in a bit of their histories, so they don’t need to be ghosts any longer.
1. Chevalier d’Eon (1728-1810)
The Chevalier d’Eon was many things, but most of all she remains a mystery. Here are a few things we do know: First of all, she served in Louis XV’s network of spies, le Secret du Roi (translation: “the King’s Secret”). As secretary to the ambassador of France, she helped negotiate an end to the Seven Years War between France and Britain. And in 1763, she was named minister plenipotentiary, with the status of ambassador, to the British court. Then, in an epic double-cross, she published a scandalous book detailing all of her diplomatic correspondence as minister, and threatened to reveal even more.
But threatening to spill French tea had consequences, and d’Eon spent a decade living in exile in London. Then, in 1775, King Louis XVI (Louis XV’s son and successor) made d’Eon an extraordinary offer: if d’Eon surrendered all documents related to her spy work, then she could return to France and the king would publicly recognize her as a woman. She took the deal, and most of society hailed her as a heroine à la Joan of Arc. In fact, many illustrations from the period, including this famous portrait in London’s National Portrait Gallery, honor her.
d’Eon lived as a woman for 33 years and died in London in 1810 at 81. 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 that was in patriarchal Europe, she is undeniably a part of trans history and worth remembering.
2. Mary Jones (1784-1864)
One of the earliest recorded stories of a trans woman in America, Mary 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. But on his way back home, 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 that way 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. Adding insult to injury, Jones’ sentence was celebrated in a crude illustration that dubbed her “the man-monster.” Despite the discrimination she faced as a queer sex worker of color, though, Jones refused to give up her identity.
3. Lili Elbe (1882-1931)
One of the most iconic and tragic names in early trans history, Lili Elbe serves as a reminder of both how far we have come and how much we have failed to move forward. A Danish 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. So Gerda asked Elbe to sit for her 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 divorced by then, took the risk, undergoing multiple surgeries. She began living in society as a woman, despite rejection from many who had known her before, and said she wanted to give birth, though tragically she died the year after Hirschfield’s uterus implantation.
4. Lucy Hicks Anderson (1886-1954)
A true unsung pioneer, Lucy Hicks 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 a girl.
Anderson married two men in her lifetime, fighting for her marriages to be accepted as legal and for her to be accepted as a woman—making her an early fighter for both marriage equality and transgender acceptance. However, she was accused of having “lied” under oath during her marriages 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.”
5. Coccinelle (1931- 2006)
Born in Paris in 1931, the actress and showgirl Jacqueline Charlotte Dufresnoy (best known by her stage name Coccinelle, French for “ladybug”) was one of the earliest trans women to undergo sex reassignment surgery. She began hormone therapy in 1952, the year Christine Jorgensen became America’s most visible trans woman, and seven years later underwent a vaginoplasty.
The entertainer quickly became a star, enjoying features in films and performances (like this one). Italian singer Ghigo Agosti even dedicated a song to her, called “Coccinella.” 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 marry. Coccinelle went on to found a number of organizations devoted to helping trans and gender-nonconforming individuals.
6. Christine Jorgensen (1926-1989)
Before Caitlyn Jenner, there was a trans woman with the same initials: Christine Jorgensen. She was a singer and performer from the Bronx, and in 1952, after taking her first steps toward sex reassignment surgery, she catapulted to national attention. Jorgensen’s transformation was often treated as evidence of scientific advances (she was compared to rockets and bombs, for example) rather than an affirmation of trans identity. She was called “America’s First Transsexual”—inaccurate, but indicative of how iconic she was at the time. 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. For example, 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 still clueless about what it might mean to be trans. But they were, at least, aware that trans people existed.
7. Sylvia Rivera (1951-2002)
Born to Puerto Rican and Venezuelan parents in New York in 1951, Sylvia Rivera 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 believed to have been present during the venue’s landmark 1969 Stonewall Riots (though her role in igniting the riots remains unclear).
Kicked out of her home more than once, Rivera co-founded STAR (Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries), a group dedicated to providing housing and support for homeless queer youth and sex workers in New York City. She also challenged gay rights leaders who attempted to exclude drag queens and trans people in gay rights legislation, and fought for inclusion for people across the gender spectrum within mainstream LGBTQ organizations and events. Rivera’s understanding of her gender was fluid, and evolved over the course of her lifetime. Sometimes she identified as a woman. Sometimes she identified as an “effeminate” gay male. Sometimes as both, or as a third gender. But most importantly, we identify her as an important non-binary activist.
8. Marsha P. Johnson (1945-1992)
Like 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 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 LGBTQ support organization STAR.
In the 1980s, Johnson became a tireless AIDS activist, demonstrating with the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) to help build awareness and lower the prices of AIDS medication. She was everywhere—she even appeared in a series of Andy Warhol photographs featuring drag queens. But in July 1992, her dead 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 disagreed, and charged that she had 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.
Johnson, like Rivera, did not fully identify as transfeminine. She often used female pronouns, as did many other drag queens in her circle, and even considered sex reassignment surgery. But she also identified as male, ultimately putting her under a broad, non-binary umbrella.
9. Sir Lady Java (1943-)
For a long time, cross-dressing was banned in much of America, and trans women—who would have simply been dressing—were treated the same as cross-dressers. Sir Lady Java was born in New Orleans, and later moved to Los Angeles where she protested L.A.’s notorious Rule No. 9, which made cross-dressing illegal.
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, which wanted Java’s so-called “cross-dressing” club act stopped, the Redd Foxx Club cancelled her act. So she joined the ACLU to argue that the law was unconstitutional and took away her income. Even though her legal challenge ultimately failed, Java’s story received national attention, particularly from African American and queer publications, which likely played a factor in such laws eventually disappearing.
10. Renée Richards (1934-)
Born in New York in 1934, Renée Richards worked as an ophthalmologist and professional tennis player. Though she underwent sex reassignment surgery in 1975 and played tennis as a woman without incident that year, in 1976 she was outed by the press after a victory at a tennis tournament in California. In response, the U.S. Open introduced a required “genetic” screening for female athletes to bar Richards from playing. So she sued, and in 1977, New York’s Supreme Court ruled in her favor. Thought to be the first transgender woman to play a professional sport, Richards remains one of the most iconic trans athletes.
11. Nong Toom (1981-)
A story for the ages: Parinya Charoenphol (better known as Nong Toom) was born to 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 sex reassignment surgery she’d wanted since she was a child.
In 1999, she underwent surgery and began living full-time as a woman. But Toom quickly became a figure of national controversy for her gender because, at the time, women were prohibited from fighting in kickboxing matches. Having evolved from a way to combat the Burmese to a professional sport, Muay Thai is considered sacrosanct in Thailand, and some argued Toom’s participation in the pastime tarnished it.
Nevertheless, 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.”
12. Angela Morley (1924-2009)
Angela 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 died in 2009, but left an important legacy behind her.
This article has been updated with additional reporting by Kitty Lindsay.