There have always been plenty of gay and lesbian historical figures, but transgender history can be a little bit trickier to pin down. This is partly because the gender binary is so slippery to begin with. Are there any transgender historical figures? How do we even determine, in some cases, if a person from history was really transgender or not? If a person from history had sexual or romantic relationships with people of the same sex, then we know that person was probably lesbian, gay, or bisexual. Gender expression can take more subtle forms, though, and those forms are often influenced by cultural norms and assumptions about what it means to be masculine or feminine. In Western culture, it has not been uncommon for celebrities and public figures who express their gender in unusual ways to be misunderstood, dismissed as mentally ill, or otherwise marginalized.
Below is a list of transgender historical figures from throughout LGBT history – people who were assigned one gender at birth, and lived their lives (or parts of their lives) conforming to a different one. Some of them were openly transgender, some were genderfluid or nonbinary, and several kept their trans identities secret, sometimes for their entire lives. A few of these famous transgender people in history are open to speculation, and in some cases, these people lived so long ago, in times and places where gender was understood so differently, that we may never know for sure whether they were truly “transgender” or not.
It’s definitely clear, though, that gender dysphoria and radical gender variance aren’t just new phenomena being embraced by trendy teenagers. Transgender and non-binary identities have been around for awhile, even in cultures like America today, where they’ve historically been considered abnormal, and sometimes unacceptable.
Born in 1728, the Chevalier d’Eon had an illustrious career as a French spy and diplomat. After spending roughly the first half of his life as a man, the Chevalier began appearing at Queen Elizabeth’s court dressed as a woman, claiming to have been assigned female at birth, and demanding to be recognized as such by the French government (an autopsy following the Chevalier’s death showed the Chevalier had in fact been assigned male at birth). The Chevalier was such a well-known figure that the term “eonism” enjoyed a brief vogue as a descriptor for those displaying transgender or genderfluid characteristics.see more on Chevalier d’Eon
Albert Cashier was a transgender man who served in the Union Army during the Civil War. Born Jennie Irene Hodgers, Cashier claimed in later life that he began dressing in male clothing as a child, in order to find work. During the war, Cashier fought in approximately 40 battles, and once singlehandedly overpowered a prison guard in order to escape back to his division after being captured.see more on Albert Cashier
Born Laura Maud in May of 1915, Laurence Michel Dillon was the first transgender man ever to undergo a phalloplasty (meaning, basically, a doctor constructed a penis for him from scratch, and grafted it onto his body). He also published a book entitled Self: A Study in Endocrinology and Ethics, which many people consider the first book about transgender identity and gender transitioning. In this book, Dillon described transgender identification as innate and unaffected by psychotherapy, and advocated medical treatment using hormones and surgery as an alternative. Dillon himself aided in the surgical transition of Roberta Cowell, Britain’s first male-to-female transgender person to undergo sexual reassignment surgery.
The French crusader Jean d’Arc (better known to some of you non-French-speakers as Joan of Arc) was tried for heresy by an English court, and was ultimately burned as a heretic. Though the main reason behind her trail was that Jean claimed to hear voices which directed her in battle, a secondary, and nearly as important issue was her insistence on wearing male clothing. She adamantly refused to wear women’s clothing, or to style her hair in the female-appropriate fashion of the time. It’s unclear to modern historians what implications Jean d’Arc’s devotion to cross-dressing may have had regarding her gender identity or sexuality, but this was considered a very serious, blasphemous offense at the time, so the fact that she stuck to it so fiercely has certainly aroused questions. When confronted about her choice to dress exclusively in male attire, Jean reportedly said, “It pleases God for me to wear it.”see more on Jean d’Arc
Lucy Hicks Anderson
Born Tobias Lawson in 1886, Lucy Hicks Anderson married twice, and was repeatedly fined and jailed by the government for alleged fraud (for marrying and receiving benefits reserved for same-sex spouses, even though she was allegedly “male”). 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.
Born in Denmark in 1882, Elbe was not only trans, but also a lesbian. She met her wife, Gerda, at college, and they moved to Paris to be artists together. Elbe first started dressing in women’s clothes to fill in for Gerda’s female models, but was so comfortable in ladies’ attire that she transitioned to doing so full-time. Gerda became modestly famous in the Paris art scene for her portraits of beautiful women in high fashion attire, all of which were modeled by Lili.see more on Lili Elbe
Sylvia 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 was close friends with Marsha P. Johnson, and 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.see more on Sylvia Rivera
Harry Allen was a public figure of great renown in the early American West, popping up in pioneer newspapers with frequency throughout the Northwestern U.S. Openly declaring his identity as a man who was assigned female at birth, Allen was a bit of a roustabout, and was often being arrested for petty crimes such as fist fighting, public drunkenness, “throwing a spittoon at a saloon man,” and occasional prostitution. The news media was rather unfairly vicious to Allen, reporting with salacious glee on his “shameful” lifestyle, which no doubt contributed to his eventual, tragic suicide at age 40.
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. (A documentary called, Pay It No Mind, about Johnson’s life and work was released in 2012.)see more on Marsha P. Johnson
They can’t all be winners, and no example of this truism is more striking than that of Valerie Arkell-Smith. A member of Italy’s Fascist party during the 1920s, Arkell-Smith went by the name Victor Barker and attempted intermittently to marry and live life as a man. After a brief stint in prison for theft, fraud, and failure to appear in court, Arkell-Smith lived for several years under the names John Hill and Jeffrey Norton, ultimately dying in poverty and obscurity.see more on Valerie Arkell-Smith
Willmer “Little Ax” Broadnax
Born in Houston in 1916, “Little Ax” was a gospel singer known for his tiny stature and huge voice. Broadnax performed with several gospel groups, including the Southern Gospel Singers, the Five Trumpets, the Golden Echoes, the Spirit of Memphis Quartet, and most famously, the Five Blind Boys of Mississippi. Continuing to perform well into his ’70s, it wasn’t until an autopsy was performed, following his death, that it was revealed Broadnax had been assigned female at birth.see more on Willmer “Little Ax” Broadnax
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. She was a close friend of Michael Dillon, who helped her obtain access to the surgery.see more on Roberta Cowell
Born in 1926, Christine Jorgensen is often cited as the first American woman to successfully undergo gender reassignment surgery. In reality, though hers was one of the earliest cases, Jorgensen’s surgery followed on the heels of at least a few other people. She was, however, the first person to become widely recognized as a transgender woman, and was generally a good sport about giving interviews and responding gracefully to media interest. Jorgensen was a hot topic of debate in the news for many months following her transition, and inspired a slew of popular books and films (including, reportedly, cult director Ed Wood’s infamously cheesy, Glen or Glenda?)see more on Christine Jorgensen
Probably the most bizarre Roman Emperor of all time, save for Caligula, Elagabalus ascended dubiously to this leadership role when he was just 14 years old. It’s hard to really pin down any finite understanding about his gender identity or sexuality, since like Caligula, he was known for being outrageously decadent, and was pretty much all over the board in this regard. He was married five different times, to both men and women, and is sometimes cited as an example of a person with a possible transgender or genderfluid identity, since he often appeared in court wearing women’s cosmetics and dressed in fashion typical for women of the time period. Elagabalus also reportedly offered a large amount of money to any doctor who could surgically equip him with female genitalia.see more on Elagabalus
Born in 1812 and raised in an orphanage, Charley Parkhurst moved to California and became a stagecoach driver. Charley was assigned female at birth, but lived his life as a man, and was successful as a rancher, coach driver, and farmer. His gender assignment at birth was unknown to most of his friends and associates until after his death.see more on Charley Parkhurst
Renee Richards is a tennis player, best known for being denied entry to the U.S. Open in 1976 due to having been assigned male at birth. Richards was of the opinion that this prejudicial attitude was a big pile of BS, and openly challenged the ban in front of the New York Supreme Court. The court ruled in Richards’s favor, establishing a legal precedent against such discrimination. She became a role model and spokesperson for the transgender community.see more on Renée Richards
Night club entertainer Coccinelle 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 was highly publicized internationally. She spent much of her later life advocating for transgender rights, establishing the Center for Aid, Research, and Information for Transsexuality and Gender Identity, and the French organization Devenir Femme.
We’wha was a member of the Zuni tribe who was profiled by, and interacted heavily with, white anthropologists. They were a Ihamana, or “Two-spirit,” a commonly understood Zuni gender designation separate from the male/female binary. We’wha was frequently interpreted by Westerners as a cisgendered woman, but had in fact been assigned male at birth.see more on We’wha
Alan L. Hart
Born in 1890, Hart was an accomplished radiologist and medical researcher, and was one of the first Americans to undergo a hysterectomy for the purpose of gender reassignment therapy. Hart pioneered the use of X-ray technology in tuberculosis screening, and his application of the technology helped to save thousands of lives. He was also a novelist and short story writer.see more on Alan L. Hart
Born in 1914, Tipton was a popular jazz musician who was assigned female at birth, but lived his life as a man. Though Tipton began, at an early age, to dress and act as a man, he initially lived for several years as a lesbian. Like many other transgender people of his time, Tipton kept his gender assignment at birth secret from all but his most intimate acquaintances, and it wasn’t discovered until after his death.see more on Billy Tipton
Born in 1912, Virginia Prince was one of the earliest transgender rights activists and organizers. She published the magazine Transvestiastarting in 1960, and founded the Society for the Second Self. Prince originally identified as a transvestite, and insisted she was in fact a man who merely enjoyed dressing in women’s clothes, but later she changed her affiliation and began using she/her pronouns.see more on Virginia Prince
Angela Morley was a classical composer who also became famous for her work as a soundtrack artist for television and film. She was nominated for two Academy Awards, and several Emmy nominations for her work on popular TV shows like Dallas and Dynasty. She worked for many years under the name Walter Stott, and returned to the industry following gender reassignment therapy, continuing her successful career.see more on Angela Morley
Carlett A. Brown
As a naval officer during the 1950s, Carlett Brown discovered during a routine physical that she had been born intersexed. She later applied for Danish citizenship, planning to move to Denmark and have gender reassignment surgery. Brown’s plan was to marry her boyfriend, who was stationed in Germany at the time, but her plans were thwarted by the bigoted and nosy American government, which arrested her for cross-dressing (which apparently was illegal in the ’50s?!?!) and fined her a massive amount of money. It’s unconfirmed, but there is some possibility that Brown was eventually able to get gender reassignment surgery, in which case she would have been the first black woman ever to medically transition.
Sir Ewan Forbes, 11th Baronet
Forbes’s case is an interesting story. Assigned female at birth, Forbes legally re-registered as male in 1952. As a man, he stood to inherit his older brother’s estate and titles, however, Forbes’s cousin legally challenged the inheritance by insisting Forbes’s legal gender was invalid. (This all happened under cover of great secrecy, though, in order to avoid a scandal that would reflect badly on the entire family.) Ultimately the judge decided Forbes’s cousin was just being a crybaby, and awarded the baronetcy to Forbes as originally planned.