JUDGING by the popular media in the last couple of years, you would think transgenderism is something that has just appeared out of thin air–that it never existed before Laveme Cox appeared on the cover of Time magazine, but just the opposite is true: as long as there have been people on Earth, there have been transgender individuals. Some of the earliest examples in recorded history were found in Native American tribes, where we were known as two-spirit people. During the Civil War, hundreds of women wore men’s clothing in order to fight on the front lines–and then continued to live as transgender men for the rest of their lives.
The 1900s brought a budding awareness of transgender individuals and issues, though both were kept tightly under wraps for fear of repercussions, such as social or familial rejection–or even violence. Still, there were transgender individuals who struggled to make their voices heard and fought for acceptance and visibility. One of them was Jennie June, who had been assigned the male gender upon birth in 1874. She went on to publish The Autobiography of an Androgyne (1918) and The Female Impersonators (1922), both memoirs in which she referred to herself as a person with a male physical body but the sexual constitution of a female. Expressing such ideas at the time was, understandably, revolutionary.
However, not all transgender men and women in the early 20th century were able, or willing, to be so open about their experiences. For instance, Billy Tipton, a noted American jazz musician, was assigned female at birth in 1914, but began presenting as male in his teens and 20s for performances. By 1940, “he” was living as a man full time, and no one ever knew except for two of his close cousins. Though he was living as his authentic self and with his chosen gender presentation, he never was at liberty to share his truth with anyone else because to do so would have jeopardized the career he had worked so long and hard to build. Tipton’s secret was discovered only upon his death in 1989 and, although he had chosen not to reveal his gender identity during his lifetime, his family, succumbing to offers of financial compensation, publicized it widely once he was gone. It was as if, in the end, all his life amounted to was some tabloid fodder.
This has been the way people in general have treated transgender individuals throughout history: when they have not reacted with outright hatred and violence, they have pointed fingers and laughed and looked upon us as spectacles simply for, it seems, their lurid entertainment.
In many ways, this was how the public reacted to Christine Jorgensen, a transwoman, assigned male at birth, who, in 1951, became the first person to undergo a publicized sex reassignment surgery. While Jorgensen was quite active in speaking out about her transitioning, using it as a platform to promote understanding and acceptance of transgender individuals, not everyone saw her message in such a positive light. One of the popular jokes of the time was “Christine Jorgensen went abroad and came back a broad” (as her surgeries had taken place in Denmark). She appeared on “The Dick Cavett Show,” but ended up walking off the set when the host asked what she deemed inappropriate questions about her sex life–a situation we saw similarly repeated in 2014 with transgender activist Janet Mock on the “Piers Morgan Live” show.
Regardless, transgender individuals have soldiered on. What other choice do we have? We were born into this world just like every other human being; some of us lived our lives in hiding while others were blessed with the ability to express their true selves. Others were endowed not only with that ability, but the courage to step out on behalf of others, to speak for those who could not, for whatever reason, speak for themselves.
They demanded rights; they commanded justice; and they did so loudly in the streets. Most widely known among these demonstrations were the 1969 New York Stonewall riots, led, in part, by transgender activist Sylvia Rivera. … Read Full Article at USA Today