How historians are documenting the lives of transgender people

The term “transgender” wasn’t coined until the 1960s—but people have always challenged the gender binary. Here’s a look at their history, from ancient civilizations to the modern rights movement.

Christine Jorgensen wears a diamond engagement ring at the Hotel Sahara in Las Vegas. After becoming the first American to undergo gender-confirmation surgery, the U.S. Army veteran became a media sensation—and the public face of transgender identity around the world.
Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

In 1952, a young woman sat down to write a letter to her family. The act itself was nothing remarkable—Christine Jorgensen was 26 and preparing to return to the United States after undergoing some medical procedures in Denmark. But the contents of Jorgensen’s letter were entirely unique.

“I have changed very much,” she told her family, enclosing a few photos. “But I want you to know that I am an extremely happy person...Nature made a mistake, which I have had corrected, and I am now your daughter.”

('This is me as I am': A photographer documents her own gender transition.)

As the first American to undergo gender-confirmation surgery, Jorgensen would arguably become the world’s most famous transgender woman of her era. Her remarkable transition from a male-presenting soldier to a polished, feminine public figure would be a watershed in trans visibility.

The word “transgender” didn’t exist at the time—it wouldn’t be coined for another decade or become widespread until the 1990s—but transgender history began long before Jorgensen brought it into broader public awareness. Documenting that history isn’t always straightforward—but Jules Gill-Peterson, an associate professor of history at Johns Hopkins University, says it’s much more extensive—and joyful—than you might think.

Though stigma, violence, and oppression are parts of trans history, Gill-Peterson says, trans people “still lived really interesting, rich, happy, flourishing trans lives.” And they left plenty of evidence behind, she says. “They generally are hiding in plain sight.”

Early accounts of trans history

There’s ample evidence of gender variance throughout human history. Among the earliest are accounts of gala and galli, priests assigned male at birth who crossed gender boundaries in their worship of a variety of goddesses in ancient Sumer, Akkadia, Greece, and Rome. Other cultures acknowledged a third gender, including two-spirit people within Indigenous communities and Hijra, nonbinary people who inhabit ritual roles in South Asia.

Some who challenged the gender binary occupied official roles. During the short reign of the Roman emperor best known as Elagabalus, who ruled from C.E. 218 to 222., the male-born leader adopted feminine dress, requested to be referred to as “she,” and expressed a desire for genital removal surgery. Shunned and stigmatized, Elagabalus was assassinated at age 18 and thrown into the Tiber River.

(From LGBT to LGBTQIA+: The evolving recognition of identity.)

Albert Cashier, a figure from the 19th century, was more secretive. He served bravely in over 40 battles as a Union Army soldier in the U.S. Civil War—one of at least 250 people who, though assigned a female sex at birth, fought in the war as men. His war record was challenged after he was outed decades later. Though his military comrades defended him and he kept his military pension, Cashier was eventually confined to a mental institution and forced to wear women’s clothing.

Transitioning becomes a possibility

In the early 20th century, medical advances made hormone therapy and gender confirmation surgery possible. Thanks in part to doctor and reformer Magnus Herschfeld’s Institute for Sexual Research in Germany, founded in 1919, medical gender confirmation changed both trans people’s lives and public conceptions of gender. Nonetheless, early surgery attempts were crude. For example, one of the institute’s first gender confirmation patients, German transgender woman Lili Elbe, died in 1931 after a failed uterine transplant.

In the 1950s, Jorgensen, a U.S. Army veteran, sought both hormone therapy and a series of gender affirmation surgeries in Denmark and the U.S. Along the way, she became a sensation, thanks to articles with headlines like “Ex-GI Becomes Blonde Beauty: Bronx Youth is a Happy Woman After 2 Years, 6 Operations.” The publicity all but destroyed Jorgensen’s ability to earn money doing anything but self promotion. As a nightclub performer and wink-wink, nudge-nudge persona, she became the public face of transgender identity around the world.

(Subscriber exclusive: Read our January 2017 issue dedicated to the shifting landscape of gender.)

In the wake of public cases like Jorgensen’s, the term “transgender” entered the lexicon. Scholars have tracked the term’s origins to the 1960s, when it was used both in medicine and by trans activists like Jorgensen and Virginia Prince. It came into widespread use during the 1990s alongside the burgeoning trans pride movement.

Today, the term “transgender” is used as what Transgender Archives founder Christan Williams calls “an umbrella term for describing a range of gender-variant identities and communities.”

A trans rights movement emerges

Starting in the mid-20th century, trans activists began pushing for wider societal acceptance—and were instrumental in some of the earliest attempts to gain civil rights for LGBTQ Americans. In 1959, trans people, drag queens, and others fought back against Los Angeles police who had been targeting trans women in random arrests at Cooper Do-nuts, a café popular with the LGBTQ community. Dubbed a riot, the incident involved LGBTQ people throwing doughnuts and other items at police in an effort to stop the harassment.

Other early organizing efforts included an uprising by San Francisco drag queens at Compton’s Cafeteria in 1966, and the establishment of Transvestia, a magazine that served the transgender and gender-nonconforming community for decades. And trans and gender-nonconforming people like Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera participated at the 1969 Stonewall uprising, which stoked the broader gay pride movement.

(12 historic LGBTQ figures who changed the world.)

But though figures like Johnson and Rivera fought systemic injustice against LGBTQ people, they often found themselves defending their rights within their own community. At the 1973 Pride parade, Rivera was told she wouldn’t be allowed to speak—and was booed off the stage after she grabbed the microphone anyway.

However, trans people continued to fight societal prejudice and persecution on many different fronts, challenging laws forbidding them from marrying, enabling discrimination, and threatening their right to live openly in society. They did so even in the face of violence, banding together to form communities of mutual support in the name of trans liberation. “Look at us. We are battling for survival,” wrote transmasculine author Leslie Feinberg in 1992. “We are struggling to be heard.”

In 1999, trans activist Monica Helms designed a symbol that would come to define a movement: the transgender pride flag. Using blue and pink stripes—colors with deep connections to gender assignment—the flag also featured a white stripe to represent people who are intersex, transitioning, or nonbinary.

The modern transgender rights movement

Despite the burgeoning transgender pride movement and unprecedented awareness of trans people in the U.S., the marginalization of trans and nonbinary people continues. In 2021 alone, the Human Rights Campaign estimates, 50 trans and nonbinary people were murdered. A whopping 82 percent of transgender people report having considered suicide, and 56 percent of trans youth surveyed in one 2022 study said they’d attempted it in the past. The National Center for Transgender Equality reports that more than one in four trans people has experienced a bias-driven assault; those rates are even higher rates for trans women and people of color.

The push for equality and visibility extends into academia, where historians like Gill-Peterson are working to document trans lives. Stories of trans people were passed along from elders and handed down via oral histories. “We’ve always been our own historians,” says Gill-Peterson.

And those who would punish or diminish transgender people often inadvertently preserved their stories. Historians draw on extensive evidence in medical literature, court records, and police reports—sources that, though biased, capture how transgender people lived and expressed themselves in in the past.

“As a historian, the biggest issue I face is not how hard it is to find materials—it’s that there’s too much to write about,” Gill-Peterson says, “I don’t have enough time in my career.”

But as historians know, it can be tricky to apply modern concepts to the past. Should historians use terms like “transgender” when they refer to people who lived before the word existed? And how should they write about people who didn’t have the option of sharing their pronouns, or may not have wanted to come out as gender-divergent?

Ultimately, just as there is no single transgender experience, there was no one way to be trans in the past—and there’s no handbook for approaching transgender history. Gill-Peterson says these questions reflect modern preoccupations with labels. Instead, she says, historians should unearth the many stories of people who challenged the binary, letting their lives speak for themselves.

First, though, says Gill-Peterson, historians and the public alike must turn their back on the idea that the existence of trans people is a recent phenomenon—and learn how to find their stories. “LGBT history is not physically hidden from us,” she says. “It’s hidden from our imagination about the past.”

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