Looking Back at Transgender History in the US

A great deal of the population (especially those in older generations) sees transgender rights and issues as a very contemporary topic with very little history behind it. That chunk of people is very, very wrong. Infuriatingly, “history is written by the victors,” as articulated by LGBTQ Nation, so the vast majority of transgender history has been lost to cis-normative time. Many ancient cultures are thought to have revered transgender and intersex people as being on a different level of wisdom than cis people. But that way of thinking has shifted and changed quite a bit through the centuries, and so much information has been lost.

The United States is an interesting case in this matter. Being a relatively young country, it’s slightly easier to track transgender history. At the very least, it’s easier to go back a couple hundred years than a couple thousand. So, without further ado, here is a brief overview of some historical transgender milestones in the US.



As late as this decade, prominent “Two-Spirit” people can be noted in Native American tribes. Two-Spirit is a blanket term for all who fall under the LGBTQ, intersex, and generally non-binary umbrella. Two-Spirit people were heavily respected because their body was thought to contain two different souls instead of one.



Harry Benjamin, a German-born doctor working in the US began treating transsexual individuals with hormone therapy in the interim before they were able to go abroad for surgery. His work went against nearly all of the medical field at the time, where electrocution and lobotomies were commonplace “treatments” for transgender people.



The first recorded American to have a sex change was Christine Jorgensen, who had to go to Denmark for the surgery and hormones (and was a patient of Harry Benjamin). She was the subject of a massive amount of media attention, but seeing an opportunity, she took the reigns and used her newfound fame to spearhead her activism for the transgender community.



In June of this year, a police raid on the Stonewall Inn in NYC was the final straw for some LGBTQ folks and sparked six days of protests and more violence. This series of demonstrations would become known as the Stonewall Riots. The History Channel calls this event a “catalyst” for gay and transgender rights movements in the United States.



Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson (shown below) form the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR) in New York City to address the needs of transgender youth. They later opened their first STAR House, “the first LGBT youth center in North America.”


Houston, Texas hosts the first International Conference on Transgender Law and Employment Policy (ICTLEP) in August of this year. Attendees were legal professionals and interested members of the transgender community. The conference stated that, “Disadvantage in the law and loss of employment are the biggest problems of transgendered persons,” and sought to rectify that.



Gwendolyn Ann Smith holds first Transgender Day of Remembrance (TDOR) in honor of Rita Hester, one of tragically many unsolved anti-transgender murders. TDOR’s website lists several goals for the remembrance day, such as raising public awareness  expressing love, respect, and honor for “our brothers and sisters who might otherwise be forgotten”.



Barack Obama signs into effect the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, providing federal funding and assistance to “state, local, and tribal jurisdictions to help them more effectively investigate and prosecute hate crimes.” Matthew Shepard was a 21-year-old who was brutally murdered by two men for reasons many attribute to Shepard’s sexual orientation. The Obama-era act was put in place to ensure crimes like that against Shepard do not get swept under the rug.



Between these years, several transgender firsts occurred. Oregon elected the first openly transgender mayor in the US, Stu Rasmussen, in 2008. Dylan Orr and Amanda Simpson became the first openly transgender federal appointees in 2009 in the Department of Labor and the Bureau of Industry and Security respectively. In 2010, Houston swore in Phyllis R. Frye, making her America’s first openly transgender judge. Also in 2010, Kye Allums, a basketball player from George Washington University came out as transgender making him the first openly transgender college basketball player.



Within two consecutive months, Laverne Cox of “Orange is the New Black” becomes the first transgender person to grace the cover of Time magazine as well as the first transgender person to be nominated for an Emmy.


The Academy Awards has their first openly transgender presenter in the history of the ceremony. Daniela Vega, who starred in the Chilean film, “A Fantastic Woman”, introduced the best original song performance by Sufjan Stevens. Vega’s film, centered around a trans woman coping with the death of her partner while being cast under suspicion for his death, took home the prize for best foreign language film.


In recent years, it may feel like we’ve been undoing progress for transgender rights what with the bathroom controversy and a presidential administration that is explicitly anti-trans. However, it is so important to remember and recognize milestones like these listed and those that will come in the future.


Other Information Sources: 1, 2

Image Sources: 1, 2, 3