11 incredible trans people from history you won’t learn about in school
These amazing trans people have helped shape the world we live in today, whether through their activism, visibility or setting new legal precedents.
Schools hardly feature LGBT people in history class – let alone the history of the struggle for LGBT rights – so PinkNews has compiled this list of trans people you won’t read about in school who shaped history.
1. April Ashley
April was outed as a transgender woman by the Sunday People newspaper in 1961 and is one of the earliest British people known to have had gender reassignment surgery.
In her early days she served in the Merchant Navy with future British Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott. Following a suicide attempt, she was given a dishonourable discharge and a second attempt resulted in Ashley being sent to the mental institution in Ormskirk aged 17 for treatments. She eventually transitioned in a seven hour op in Morocco after spending years saving the then huge £3,000 cost.
April went on to be a successful underwear model, appearing in the pages of Vogue and taking considerable amounts of money. However after she was outed as trans, her career disappeared practically overnight and she was subject to intense criticism. In 2012 she was awarded an MBE by the Queen for her services to transgender equality.
2. Sylvia Rivera
Rivera was one of the earliest and most influential transgender rights activists following the Stonewall Inn uprising in 1969, at which she was present.
She spent almost her entire life fighting for civil rights reform, not only for gay and transgender people, but also for African Americans, and as part of the second-wave feminist movement. On her death, one prominent activist cited her as “the Rosa Parks of the modern transgender movement”. Her portrait now hangs in the National Portrait Gallery.
3. Michael Dillon
Dillon became the first transgender man in history to have a phalloplasty (the construction or reconstruction of a penis, or the artificial modification of the penis by surgery).
He later wrote the book Self: A Study in Endocrinology and Ethics, which is considered the very first book on transgender identity, advocating for medical and hormonal help over psychotherapy for trans people.
4. Lucy Hicks Anderson
Anderson faced charges of perjury when prosecutors insisted that she was male, which she was born biologically. They claimed she had attempted to con authorities to claim marital benefits.
In defiance of the charges, Anderson declared, “I defy any doctor in the world to prove that I am not a woman. I have lived, dressed, acted just what I am, a woman.” This happened several years ahead of Stonewall, so many people consider Anderson one of the earliest pioneers for marriage equality.
5. Chevalier d’Eon
Born in 1728, the Chevalier d’Eon had an illustrious career as a French spy and diplomat. The Chevalier began appearing at Queen Elizabeth’s court as a woman, claiming to have been assigned female at birth, and demanding to be recognised as such by the French government
The Chevalier was such a well-known figure that the term “eonism” was for some time a reference to those displaying transgender or genderfluid characteristics.
6. Marsha P. Johnson
Co-founder of STAR (Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries) with her friend Sylvia Rivera, Marsha P. Johnson was one of the first activists to aggressively fight back against institutional prejudice in the wake of the Stonewall uprising.
Famously, when asked by a judge what the initial “P” stood for, Johnson replied “Pay it no mind,” which would become her signature.
Johnson expressed different identities at different times, but was generally referred to as she/her, though wasn’t averse to male pronouns and identified as male in a documentary shortly before dying.
7. Roberta Cowell
Born in 1918, Roberta Cowell was a British fighter pilot. After her service in the British air force had come to a close, Cowell would become the first British woman to undergo gender reassignment surgery.
In March 1954, news of her gender reassignment broke, gaining public interest around the world. In the UK, she was paid a fee of £8000 to tell her story to a magazine (equivalent to more than £200,000 in 2016, when adjusted for inflation). She was a close friend of Michael Dillon, who helped her obtain access to the surgery.
8. Renée Richards
Richards was a successful tennis player in the 1970s, whose transition nearly ended her career. The US Women’s Tennis Association had begun requiring genetic screening of players, and refused Richards entry to the competition.
She challenged the case in the Supreme Court, won, and set an historical precedent against such discrimination. She went on to work as an ophthalmologist in California, where she still lives age 82.
Night club entertainer Coccinelle (AKA Jacqueline Charlotte Dufresnoy) became famous during the late 1950s as one of Europe’s first women to undergo gender reassignment surgery. Already a popular singer and performer, her medical transition in 1958 made her hugely well known.
Alongside her showbiz career, Coccinelle was a dedicated activist. She founded a charity to provide emotional and practical support for those seeking sexual reassignment surgery and campaigned for trans rights. April Ashley worked with Coccinelle in her shows, using the wage to pay for her surgery.
10. Sir Ewan Forbes
Forbes was able to legally re-assign as male in 1952, getting his birth certificate changed. However this caused a huge row for who would inherit the vast family estate and title. Only sons could inherit the estate, and as his elder brothers had all died it was due to go to a male cousin.
A bitter but fairly private legal battle ensued, which Ewan Forbes eventually won. The details of the case were not fully known as it was kept heavily under secrecy to prevent bringing the family name into disrepute, but it was considered a major legal precedent. When he eventually died in 1991 the cousin inherited the estate and his title.
11. Christine Jorgensen
Christine Jorgensen was an American trans woman who was the first person to become widely known in the United States for having sex reassignment surgery. After serving in the US Army, she gained permission to move to Denmark, where she had gender re-assignment surgery
In December 1952, upon her return to America, the New York Daily News splashed Jorgensen across their front page under the headline “Ex GI becomes blonde beauty”, making her instantly famous. She went on to a career as an actress and nightclub performer, and used her publicity to advocate for trans rights.