Though February has passed, there is never a bad time to get reacquainted with African American history makers- the events that shaped our lives, our heroes and “sheroes.” Over the last few years we’ve been paying closer attention to the accomplishments of Black gay and lesbian people such as Bayard Rustin. But there is another group of African Americans who have shaped our people’s history: transgender people.
Transgender African Americans have been active contributors to history, even though they have often been overlooked. Their presence and contributions are not a recent development, but can be traced back through the centuries. Consider the story of Lucy Hicks Anderson, who was born in 1886 in Waddy, KY. She made it quite clear that she was a girl and insisted on wearing dresses to school. The term “transgender” didn’t exist at that time, but the doctor who examined her advised Lucy’s mother to raise her as a girl.
As an adult, Lucy eventually got married and divorced twice while en route to Ventura, CA via Pecos, TX. Her second marriage-to soldier Reuben Anderson in 1944-introduced legal complications that led the Ventura County district attorney to prosecute her for perjury after it was discovered that she was born biologically male. He asserted that Anderson committed perjury when she signed the marriage license application and swore that there were ‘no legal objections’ to the marriage. Lucy expressed her conviction in her gender identity to reporters during the trial. “I defy any doctor in the world to prove that I am not a woman,” Anderson said. “I have lived, dressed, acted just what I am, a woman.” The jury convicted her of the perjury charge, but the judge sentenced her to ten years’ probation rather than send her to prison.
In 1953, while much of America focused on the story of Christine Jorgensen (a White woman who was the first person widely known to have undergone sex reassignment surgery) JET Magazine readers learned about Carlett Brown’s attempt to become the “First Negro Sex Change.” Transgender African Americans actively participated in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, incorporating tactics from those efforts into their own work toward liberation. The gender non-conforming African American youth in Philadelphia, PA who kick-started the Dewey’s Lunch Counter Sit In and Protest in April and May of 1965 were a prime example of such involvement. It was the first protest specifically organized around and concerning trans issues, and preceded both the 1966 Compton’s Cafeteria Riots and the better known 1969 Stonewall Riots in which African American transgender advocates such as Miss Major and Marsha P. Johnson (pictured) were involved.
In 1967, civil rights and transgender advocate Lady Java stood up against discrimination and struck the blows that eventually brought down the odious codes used by the LAPD to harass her and other LGBT people in Los Angeles. Meanwhile, the Johns Hopkins Gender Program in Baltimore opened its doors and welcomed one of its first patients, an African-American transwoman named Avon Wilson. In the 70s, 80s and 90s, Black transpeople played key roles in the emerging trans advocacy movement. A. Dionne Stallworth helped organize and sign the incorporation papers of GenderPac. The late Alexander John Goodrum was not only a founder of TGNet Arizona, but sat on the City of Tucson’s LGBT commission. Lorrainne Sade Baskerville became an award winning leader in Chicago, a role which was eventually picked up by the late Lois Bates.
Dawn Wilson and I were part of a team that founded the National Transgender Advocacy Coalition (NTAC) in 1999, a multicultural trans advocacy organization. Zion Johnson became the first African-American chair of FTMInternational, while Trans People of Color Coalition (TPOCC) founder Kylar Broadus became the board chair of the National Black Justice Coalition. We also can’t forget the people like Justina Williams, Patricia Underwood, KK Logan, Diamond Stylz, Patti Shaw, Diana Taylor, and countless others who stood up for their human rights when they were trampled on by others. They have advanced the movement toward equality for transgender people.
On a sadder note, we can never forget our fallen transpeople. Rita Hester’s 1998 murder was the impetus to organize the now worldwide memorial service we call the Transgender Day of Remembrance. And yes, Black transpeople were (and still are) making breakthroughs inside and outside the LGBT community. Currently four of us, Dawn Wilson (2000) Dr. Marisa Richmond (2002), myself (2006) and Rev. Earline Budd (2010) have won the IFGE Trinity Award, the trans community’s highest award for outstanding service in advocacy. We IFGE Trinity winners, along with countless other heroes and sheroes organizing locally, continue to serve the trans community in various ways and make trans history in the process.
The breakthroughs continue. Kye Allums last year became the first openly trans NCAA Division One athlete. Tona Brown became the first transperson of any ethnicity to perform for a sitting U.S. president. Isis King, Laverne Cox and Janet Mock continue to shine in various fields. Jordana LeSesne, Foxxjazzell, Alyras DeCygne and Katey Red join Tona Brown as trailblazers in various music genres. As for the future, we can hope to see even more Black trans history be made in the second decade of the 21st century and beyond.
Monica Roberts, aka the TransGriot, is a native Houstonian and a trailblazing trans community leader who transitioned in 1994. She’s a writer, award winning blogger, history buff, thinker, lecturer and advocate on trans human rights issues who works diligently at encouraging acceptance of and promoting awareness about trans people.