Why are transgender people suddenly everywhere?
As a trans activist, I get this question a lot. Keep in mind, less than one percent of American adults openly identify as trans. According to a recent GLAAD survey, about 16 percent of non-trans Americans claim to know a trans person in real life. So for the other 84 percent, this may seem like a new topic. But trans people are not new. Gender variance is older than you think, and trans people are part of that legacy.
From central Africa to South America to the Pacific Islands and beyond, there have been populations who recognize multiple genders, and they go way back. The hijra of India and Pakistan, for example, have been cited as far back as 2,000 years ago in the Kama Sutra. Indigenous American nations each have their own terms, but most share the umbrella term "two-spirit." They saw gender-variant people as shamans and healers in their communities, and it wasn't until the spread of colonialism that they were taught to think otherwise.
Now, in researching trans history, we look for both trans people and trans practices. Take, for example, the women who presented as men so they could fight in the US Civil War. After the war, most resumed their lives as women, but some, like Albert Cashier, continued to live as men. Albert was eventually confined to an asylum and forced to wear a dress for the rest of his life.
Around 1895, a group of self-described androgynes formed the Cercle Hermaphroditos. Their mission was to unite for defense against the world's bitter persecution. And in doing that, they became one of the earliest trans support groups. By the '40s and '50s, medical researchers were starting to study trans medicine, but they were aided by their trans patients, like Louise Lawrence, a trans woman who had corresponded extensively with people who had been arrested for public cross-dressing. She introduced sexual researchers like Alfred Kinsey to a massive trans network. Other early figures would follow, like Virginia Prince, Reed Erickson and the famous Christine Jorgensen, who made headlines with her very public transition in 1952.
But while white trans suburbanites were forming their own support networks, many trans people of color had to carve their own path. Some, like Miss Major Griffin-Gracy, walked in drag balls. Others were the so-called "street queens," who were often targeted by police for their gender expression and found themselves on the forefront of seminal events in the LGBT rights movement.
This brings us to the riots at Cooper Do-nuts in 1959, Compton's Cafeteria in 1966 and the famous Stonewall Inn in 1969. In 1970, Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson, two veterans of Stonewall, established STAR: Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries. Trans people continued to fight for equal treatment under the law, even as they faced higher rates of discrimination, unemployment, arrests, and the looming AIDS epidemic.
For as long as we've been around, those in power have sought to disenfranchise trans people for daring to live lives that are ours. This motion picture still, taken in Berlin in 1933, is sometimes used in history textbooks to illustrate how the Nazis burned works they considered un-German. But what's rarely mentioned is that included in this massive pile are works from the Institute for Sexual Research. See, I just recapped the trans movement in America, but Magnus Hirschfeld and his peers in Germany had us beat by a few decades. Magnus Hirschfeld was an early advocate for LGBT people. He wrote the first book-length account of trans individuals. He helped them obtain medical services and IDs. He worked with the Berlin Police Department to end discrimination of LGBT people, and he hired them at the Institute. So when the Nazi Party burned his library, it had devastating implications for trans research around the world. This was a deliberate attempt to erase trans people, and it was neither the first nor the last.
So whenever people ask me why trans people are suddenly everywhere, I just want to tell them that we've been here. These stories have to be told, along with the countless others that have been buried by time. Not only were our lives not celebrated, but our struggles have been forgotten and, yeah, to some people, that makes trans issues seem new. Today, I meet a lot of people who think that our movement is just a phase that will pass, but I also hear well-intentioned allies telling us all to be patient, because our movement is "still new." Imagine how the conversation would shift if we acknowledge just how long trans people have been demanding equality.
Are we still overreacting? Should we continue to wait? Or should we, for example, do something about the trans women of color who are murdered and whose killers never see justice? Do our circumstances seem dire to you yet? (Sighs)
Finally, I want other trans people to realize they're not alone. I grew up thinking my identity was an anomaly that would die with me. People drilled this idea of otherness into my mind, and I bought it because I didn't know anyone else like me. Maybe if I had known my ancestors sooner, it wouldn't have taken me so long to find a source of pride in my identity and in my community. Because I belong to an amazing, vibrant community of people that uplift each other even when others won't, that take care of each other even when we are struggling, that somehow, despite it all, still find cause to celebrate each other, to love each other, to look one another in the eyes and say, "You are not alone. You have us. And we're not going anywhere."