Transgender History: Expression, Information and Education

One might claim that transgender history can be followed through the well-known history of gay and LGBT rights, but that wouldn’t be completely true. Transgender history starts with transgender people, but the problem is the term ”transgender” is a very modern word – first used by the psychiatrist, John F. Oliven, in 1965. Even the term ”gender” itself, in relation to identity and role, is fairly new and has its roots in the mid-20th century. The issue remains complex within itself because the word transgender is often used as an umbrella term. Even today, there is no clear consensus on its meaning and definition.

Bust of Elagabalus © José Luiz Bernardes Ribeiro

There is, however, little doubt that transgender history dates back to ancient times. Sumerian and Akkadian texts describes priests who were called galas, as trans men. In ancient Greece and Rome, we also see incidences of priests who were trans women. Antique European and Mediterranean art depicts transgender or transvestite forms. The Roman emperor Elagabalus (Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, c.204 – 222) preferred being called a lady, and even asked for a sex reassignment surgery. Elagabalus is considered one of the earliest trans figures in history. His short reign was marked with sex scandals and religious controversies because he disregarded Roman traditions and sexual taboos.

Hastiin Klah, ’’the one who changes’’ (Navajo). Image via Will Roscoe

Hijras in India and Kathoeys in Thailand were ancient trans feminine/third gender communities, documented in thousand years old documents. These same documents also mention trans men. Arabic Khanith communities have fulfilled the third gender role since the 600s. In pre-colonized America, there were social and ceremonial roles for people whose gender transforms, as it is in the Navajo nádleehi or Zuni ihamana.

Eleanor Rykener, 1395. Image via Marina Amaral, Twitter

Documents from the Middle Ages discuss trans men. Among them is Eleanor Rykener, who was born as John Rykener, a male-bodied Briton. Eleanor was arrested in 1394 while living and doing sex work as a woman. In the Balkans, sworn-virgins (a.k.a. virginas) have been known since the 1400s as females who took roles and the appearance of men when there were no male successors within a family.

Thomas Hall, born as Thomasine Hall, was an intersex person and servant, wearing female wardrobe who provoked public controversy in 1629 in colonial America. The Quarter Court at Jamestown, ruled ”hee is a man and a woeman”, and must dress accordingly, both in ”male and female clothes”. This was considered punishment because prior to Hall’s case the court would allow for an individual to choose the dominant gender and dress/live by their choice. 

Jennie June posing as “A Modern Living Replica of the Ancient Greek Statue of Hermaphroditos.” 1918.
Photo: Public Domain

At the end of the 18th century, we see more historical documentation of trans/intersex individuals (Public Universal Friend, Albert Cashier, James Barry, Joseph Lobdell, Frances Thompson) and at the very end of the 19th century – a transgender advocacy organisation ”The Cercle Hermaphroditos” was founded in New York City “to unite for defense against the world’s bitter persecution”. The public learns about this organisation thanks to Jennie June (born 1874), one of the first transgender autobiographers in the U.S..

At her time, the term transgender was not known, and the words she used to identify herself were androgyne, effeminate man, passive invert and a fairy. June published ”The Autobiography of an Androgyne” in 1918 and ”The Female-Impersonators” in 1922. She was also a member of ”The Cercle Hermaphroditos” and, according to Susan Stryker, this was the first organization in the U.S. to address what we now know as transgender social justice issues.

Lili Elbe: Man into Woman. An Authentic Record of a Change of Sex, 1926
Image via wellcomecollection.org 

At the beginning of the early 1900s, sex reassignment surgeries began. In 1906, Karl M. Baer, an author of a German-Israeli origin, became the first transgender person to undergo sex reassignment surgery. He was also one of the first transgender people to gain full legal recognition of gender identity and the right to marry. Baer collaborated with Magnus Hirschfeld, a German sexologist. With Hirschfeld, Baer shared his experience of growing up under the wrong gender. They published a book called ’’Memoirs of a Man’s Maiden Years’’ using a pseudonym N.O. Body. Hirschfeld also worked with Dora Richter, the first person to undergo male-to-female sex reassignment surgery in 1931, as well as, the Danish painter, Lily Elbe, who had an ovary and uterus transplant.

Christine Jorgensen audio interview, released by J Records in 1958. Image via discogs.com

In the 1952, the media was ablaze with a story about a young person who had gone to Denmark as a man and returned to the U.S. as a woman. The story was about Christine Jorgensen, the first well-known American transgender. In 1951, she went to Copenhagen where she underwent a series of surgeries for sexual reassignment. The media coverage for many transgender Americans was the first time they recognized that there were other people like them.

Coverage included the name of her doctor who received hundreds of letters from people asking for help. Unfortunately, Jorgensen’s fame also made it impossible for her to obtain a regular job due to being transexual. So, she made her living by telling her story over and over again with the goal of educating the public about transexuals.

Cooper Do-nuts cafe. Photo taken from the 1961 film ’’The Exiles’’, by Kent Mackenzie

At the end of the 1950s and a decade before the Stonewall uprising, the fight for trans rights became more visible with trans and gay people confronting the police. Cooper Do-nuts was a cafe in Downtown Los Angeles, which welcomed the LGBT community. In 1950s L.A., it was illegal for a person’s appearance not to match the gender shown on their ID. Needless to say, trans people were especially targeted by the police and discriminated against by the majority of gay bar owners – except Cooper Do-nuts. In 1959, the patrons of Cooper Do-nuts stood up against the persistent police harassment in what became known as the Cooper Do-nuts Riot, which is considered the first modern LGBT uprising. 

Transvestia magazine. Source: Transgender Archives, uvic.ca

In 1960, Virginia Prince published ”Transvestia”. The magazine operated on three basic principles:
“To provide expression for those interested in the subjects of unusual dress and fashion; To provide information to those who, through ignorance, condemn that which they don’t understand; To provide education for those who see evil when none exists”, in order to help the readers” achieve understanding, self-acceptance and peace of mind’’. Prince was the one who popularized the term transgender and was a transgender activist herself. She started the Foundation for Personality Expression (FPE)and later the Society for the Second Self

Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson, The Film Collaborative via vogue.co.uk 

It would be fair to say that the late 60s ended an era and started a new one, when it comes to empowering the LGBT+ rights movement(s), especially considering the aftermath of the Stonewall Riots in 1969. One of the most prominent figures of the Stonewall Uprising was Marsha P. Johnson (who claimed she wasn’t actually present when it all started), and her close friend Sylvia Rivera (who claimed to be the one who started the riot). Regardless of their presence or not on the first day of the uprising, the influence of these two self-identified drag queens and transgender rights activists is undoubtedly recognized in relation to Stonewall. Johnson and Rivera co-founded STAR (Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries), which provided housing and services for homeless LGBT+, and SONDA (Sexual Orientation Non-Discrimination Act) in New York City. In the 70s, Lou Sullivan, an author and activist, began something what will later be known as FTM International (1986), the first organization for trans men in the U.S.. 

During the 1980s, several newsletters and magazines of importance to trans people were launched, but the 90s saw the American Psychiatric Association classifying transgender people as having “gender identity disorder”. The brutal murder of Rita Hester, a black transgender woman, in 1998 led to the establishment of the Transgender Day of Remembrance in 1999 due to the efforts of Gwendolyn Ann Smith, a transgender activist. Trans marches became more common during the 1990s and the 2000s especially around the time of Pride.. In fact, the Transgender Pride Flag was first shown during the 2000 Phoenix, Arizona Pride Parade.

Since the 1990s, Candis Cayne, an American actress and artist, has performed in drag and also became the first transgender actress to play a transgender character when she played Carmelita in 2007’s ’’Dirty Sexy Money’’. In 2013, the term gender identity disorder was replaced with gender dysphoria in the U.S., but it was Denmark that became the first country to declassify transgender as a mental disorder in 2017. Let’s not forget, Caitlyn Jenner coming out as a trans woman in 2015 earning the title of being ’’the most famous trans woman in the world’’. Clearly, the past two decades have witnessed many transgender pioneers and many firsts for the trans community in all fields including politics, sports, art, film, music, fashion, the military and academy.

What this article probably failed to represent in full light is the fact that the history of trans people is the history of struggle, self-determination and community building. The amount of harassment, violence and discrimination, sometimes even within the LGBT community, which trans people experience is a challenge even today. But, the aim was to pay respects to some less well-known names in trans history and to see how a community developed itself over the past decades if not centuries.

To become the community that it is today, the trans community had to overcome something that was a crucial element for it’s initial survival and that was – secrecy. The trans experience nowadays is different from what it was decades ago especially among the youth. There is more information available, support groups and all the things which help a young person not to feel alone, as many trans people did throughout history. But in the end, the struggles of their predecessors paved the road for upcoming generations to – if nothing else – just be what they know they are and to express themselves while educating the world.

Timeline of Transgender history on Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Timeline_of_transgender_history

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