A Crash Course in Trans History through the Ages

Because of the work of many transgender activists and the visibility of important transgender figures in the media, increased by Caitlyn Jenner’s very publicized transition, transgender visibility in America is at an all-time high. However, trans people continue to be erased from history all over the world. To combat the historic erasure of trans people and trans identity, here are nine important transgender figures throughout history that you should know.

***Words that are italicized in the biographies are included in a glossary at the end of the post***

Elagabalus became emperor of Rome in 218 AD when they were just 14 years old. While there is no definite information about their gender identity or sexuality, there are many clues that suggest that Elagabalus was not cisgender and heterosexual. They were married five different times, to both men and women, although their marriages never lasted for long. They were known for having affairs with young boys and masquerading as a sex worker then purposely setting themselves up to be caught and beaten by a male guard. They often appeared in court wearing makeup and women’s clothing. Elagabalus also reportedly offered a large sum of money to any doctor who could surgically equip them with female genitalia.

Born in 1728, the Chevalier d’Eon was a French soldier and diplomat who had a key role in negotiating the Peace of Paris which ended the Seven Years War. While working in London, the Chevalier began appearing at Queen Elizabeth’s court dressed as a woman, claiming to be a cisgender woman, and demanding to be recognized as such by the French government. Following the war, she was recalled to France, but, happy with her life in London, she refused to return. She blackmailed the French crown by threatening to sell secrets about France’s plan to invade England to the British, so King Louis XVI of France allowed her to stay in London as long as she lived the rest of her life as a woman. Louis XVI believed that forcing d’Eon to live as a woman would disempower her. The Chevalier became so popular that the term “eonism” was briefly used to describe those displaying transgender or genderfluid characteristics. In 2012, a portrait that was previously believed to be of a cisgender woman was discovered to actually be a painting of the Chevalier.

Born in Denmark in 1882, Lili Elbe was a lesbian trans woman who discovered her identity while modeling for her wife, Gerda. She met Gerda in college, and soon they moved to Paris to be artists together. Elbe first started dressing in women’s clothes to fill in for Gerda’s female models but became so comfortable in ladies’ attire that she decided to present as female full-time. Sadly, due to lack of experience and medical precedent, surgeons had difficulty fulfilling Elbe’s wish to physically transition. After undergoing four risky surgical procedures to transform her body from male to female, Elbe died from post-operative complications in Dresden, Germany, just shy of her 49th birthday. Elbe’s life was the inspiration for the book and movie, The Danish Girl.

Born in 1890, Alan L. Hart was an accomplished radiologist and medical researcher, and,  in 1917, he became one of the first Americans to undergo a hysterectomy for the purpose of gender confirmation therapy. Hart pioneered the use of X-ray technology in tuberculosis screening, which became instrumental in saving thousands of lives. In addition to saving lives with his scientific innovation, he also wrote novels and short stories.

  Laurence Michael Dillon, a British man born in 1915, was the first transgender man in the world to undergo a gender reassignment surgery. In order to do so, he gave up his relationship with his family,  his claim to nobility, and his career in medicine. He also published a book titled Self: A Study in Endocrinology and Ethics, which many people consider the first book about transgender identity and gender transitioning. In this book, Dillon described transgender identification as innate and advocated medical treatment using hormones and surgery to allow people to transition as an alternative to the conversion therapy used at the time to “cure” people of their gender dysphoria. Dillon himself aided in the surgical transition of Roberta Cowell, Britain’s first male-to-female transgender person to undergo sexual reassignment surgery and Dillon’s close friend.

Born in 1945, Marsha P. Johnson was a drag queen, sex worker  and transgender activist. She was the first to throw a brick at the Stonewall Riot that started the LGBT Pride Movement. Along with Sylvia Rivera, she founded Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR) which became a community for homeless and runaway transgender people. She also worked with the Gay Liberation Front. She is known as the mother of all drag queens and the pioneer of the Pride movement. On July 6, 1992, Johnson’s body was found in the Hudson River in New York. Her death was ruled a suicide, but those close to her insist she was not suicidal.

Born in 1995 in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Andreja Pejić is considered the most recognizable transgender model in the world. She was discovered before her transition while working at a McDonald’s in Australia. Initially, she modeled both male and female clothing, and became known as the first completely androgynous supermodel. She completed her transition in 2013. Since then, she has become the first openly transgender model to have a feature in Vogue and the first ever trans woman to sign a cosmetics contract.

Who will be next?

Hopefully, this wave of transgender visibility in the United States will overflow to the rest of the world and create a new generation of trans pioneers across the globe. Now is the time for millennials to secure their place in the history books of the generations to come. 

Glossary of Terms

Cisgender vs transgender: Being cisgender means that someone’s gender identity aligns with their sex at birth. Being transgender means that their gender identity does not align with their sex at birth. Trans identity exists on a spectrum and there are various identities within that spectrum, including genderqueer, non-binary, genderfluid, and transgender.

Genderqueer: Genderqueer is an umbrella term used to describe people who do not identify as cisgender. Someone who is genderqueer can fall anywhere on the trans spectrum.

They/them/themselves pronouns: Gender neutral pronouns such as they, hir, ze or zir are often preferred by people who reject the gender binary. These pronouns are used in place of he/him/himself and she/her/herself. Gender neutral pronouns can also be used when someone’s preferred pronouns are unclear.

Genderfluid: According to genderdiversity.org, “Gender fluid people do not feel confined by restrictive boundaries of stereotypical expectations of women and men. For some people, gender fluidity extends beyond behavior and interests, and actually serves to specifically define their gender identity. In other words, a person may feel they are more female on some days and more male on others, or possibly feel that neither term describes them accurately. Their identity is seen as being gender fluid.” The website also includes helpful definitions for other trans-related terminology.

Hysterectomy: A hysterectomy is an operation to remove someone’s uterus.

Gender dysphoria: Gender dysphoria is the psychological term used to refer to feeling line one’s gender identity does not match one’s physical body. For years, gender dysphoria has been regarded as a disease, and it is still common that transgender people must be diagnosed with gender dysphoria before they are allowed to physically transition.

Drag queen vs cross-dresser vs transgender: Being a drag queen, cross-dressing and being transgender are all very different things that frequently get conflated. Being a drag queen is a job. Drag has evolved over time and become more complex and nuanced, but at its core drag is about dressing up in a highly feminine way and performing. Cross-dressing is simply dressing as a different gender. There is not necessarily a performance implied with cross-dressing, whereas a drag queen is an entertainer. Cross-dressing also does not indicate gender identity. There is a difference between gender presentation and gender identity. The way people present themselves to the world may not align with their gender identity. What sets being transgender apart is that cross-dressing and drag are actions, whereas being trans is a state of being. Someone can identify as trans without altering the way they dress. Someone can also cross-dress or do drag while being trans, but cross-dressing and doing drag do not automatically make someone transgender.

Stonewall Riots: The Stonewall Riots happened in New York City in 1969 at the Stonewall Inn in response to police raiding gay bars throughout the city. The people at Stonewall Inn, tired of facing constant harassment from the NYPD, finally decided to fight back. It was their rioting and marching that began the modern LGBT Pride Movement.

Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR): Following the 1969 Stonewall Riots, trans sex workers Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P Johnson founded Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR). STAR started following a sit-in at Weinstein Hall at New York University in 1970 to protest school administrators canceling a dance because it was sponsored by a gay organization. The sit-in brought together many gay groups, including Gay Liberation Front and Radicalesbians. They were successful in regaining the venue for the dance, however, during the sit-in, Rivera and Johnson saw that the needs of street youth and trans youth were not being taken into account by other early gay power groups, so they founded STAR to fill this gap. STAR opened their first STAR House in a parked trailer truck in a Greenwich Village parking lot later that year. It functioned as a shelter and social space for trans sex workers and other LGBT street youth. After arriving to see the shelter being towed with around 20 LGBT youth sleeping inside, Rivera and Johnson got a building in the East Village and paid the rent by doing street sex work at night. STAR House was the first LGBT youth shelter in North America and the first organization in the U.S. led by trans women of color. STAR branched out to a few other cities but eventually dissolved in the mid-70s. The original STAR House is now home to Durden’s, a popular bar among NYU students.

Gay Liberation Front (GLF): The Gay Liberation Front started in Britain in October of 1970 with 19 people, led by Aubrey Walter and Bob Mellor, meeting in a basement at the London School of Economics. In an article he wrote for the Guardian, GLF activist, Peter Tatchell, says “we shared a radical idealism – a dream of what the world could and should be – free from not just homophobia but the whole sex-shame culture, which oppressed straights as much as LGBTs. We were sexual liberationists and social revolutionaries, out to turn the world upside down… Although against homophobic discrimination, GLF’s main aim was never equality within the status quo. We saw society as fundamentally unjust and sought to change it, to end the oppression of LGBTs – and of everyone else.” The GLF was most active from 1970-1973. Activity fizzled out in the mid-70s, largely due to internal disagreements. However, many other LGBT rights organizations came out of GLF. These organizations were instrumental in the fight against the AIDS crisis of the 1980s and 90s.

Transition: A trans person’s “transition” is the period of time when they go from one biological sex to the other. A transition is not a change in gender identity, but a change of the body. Transitioning often includes gender dysphoria therapy, hormone replacement therapy, and can include a variety of surgeries such as breast augmentation or reduction (top surgery), sex reassignment surgery (bottom surgery), or facial feminization/masculinization surgery. Not all transgender people choose to transition, and not all transgender people who transition by taking hormones decide to surgically modify their body. A person’s transition is very personal, and it is considered inappropriate to ask someone about the details of their transition.

Androgynous: Androgynous is an identity on the spectrum of gender expression. Androgyny is a combination of masculine and feminine characteristics that might make one’s gender ambiguous. Tilda Swinton, Prince, and David Bowie have all been described as androgynous.










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