Key Moments From The Fight For Transgender Rights

The past few years have seen a major shift when it comes to issues of transgender visibility and rights.

From the rise of transgender celebrities, to the federal government's affirmation that transgender people are protected by law, equality is — if not yet a reality — more achievable than ever.

But trans rights didn't appear out of nowhere. Nor did they only show up once we had begun to achieve victories for gay and lesbian equality. Transgender individuals and allies have been fighting for their rights and their futures for decades, building a foundation for those who are continuing to speak out today.

Refinery29 has collected some of those historical building blocks — from individuals to movements — that have helped build the push for transgender rights that we have today. We'll be adding a new moment every week, so check back to see what else you ought to know.

Click through to read some of the most important moments in transgender history. And please share moments or individuals you think should be considered for inclusion in the comments below.

The First Transgender White House Staffer Is Appointed

In 2015, the White House appointed its very first openly transgender staffer, Raffi Freedman-Gurspan, to work as an outreach and recruitment director in the presidential personnel office. Notably, Freedman-Gurspan is also Latina, making her the first trans woman of color appointed by the administration.

Valerie Jarrett, a senior advisor to President Obama, told The Advocate that her appointment was an example of “the kind of leadership this administration champions,” citing Freedman-Gurspan’s previous work advocating for trans rights as an activist, as well as with the Massachusetts state house.

It’s work that has served her well. In March, Freedman-Gurspan became the White House’s liaison for LGBT issues — she is the first transgender individual to hold that position. Her new title is outreach and recruitment director for presidential personnel and associate director for public engagement, and she serves as the primary point of contact for LGBT issues for the White House.
Photo: Rana Sajid Hussain/ Pacific Press/Corbis/ Getty Images.
First Transgender Day Of Remembrance

In 1999, the first Transgender Day of Remembrance was held in honor of Rita Hester, a transgender woman who was killed in 1998. In the intervening 17 years, the day, held annually on November 20, has grown into a national marker to memorialize those lost in the previous year.

Though it is a marker for those lost, it's not a celebration.

"The Transgender Day of Remembrance is not an event for fundraisers and beer busts. It’s not an event we 'celebrate,'" founder Gwendolyn Ann Smith wrote in The Huffington Post in November 2012. "It is not a quick and easy one-day way for organizations to get credit for their support of the transgender community. It’s not something to trot out on the 20th of November and forget about. We should be working every day for all of us, living and dead."

This photo from 2014 shows a candlelighting ceremony in Pakistan.
Photo: Courtesy of Pete Souza/ Official White House Photo.
Federal Contractors Are Prohibited From Discrimination Based On Sexual Orientation Or Gender Identity

In 2014, LGBTQ individuals who work for the federal government, or a company that contracts with the government, got a new measure of security when President Obama signed executive order 13672, prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity.

“Many of you have worked for a long time to see this day coming,” the president said as he signed the order.

The order amended a previous executive order issued in 1965, adding sexual orientation and gender identity to the list of protected classes under the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

It was a huge step in the right direction — but for those who aren't federal contractors or employed by them, there’s still a long way to go. According to the ACLU, only 18 states, plus the District of Columbia, have laws on the books protecting trans people from discrimination in the workforce. In the rest, it’s still possible for trans people to legally lose their jobs over their gender identities.
Photo: Focus on Sport/Getty Images.
Renée Richards, MD, Wins The Right To Compete As A Woman In The U.S. Open

Way before former Olympic decathlete Caitlyn Jenner announced that she was a trans woman, there was another trailblazing trans athlete.

In 1977, Dr. Richards won her right to compete as a female athlete, two years after her gender reassignment surgery and 36 years before the American Psychiatric Association stopped calling being transgender a "disorder" in 2013.

Dr. Richards, who had played tennis before her reassignment surgery, applied to enter the U.S. Open as a woman in 1976, but refused to take the chromosome test that had been implemented by the U.S. Tennis Association that year. Instead, Dr. Richards sued, alleging gender discrimination in violation of New York State law. In 1977, the court ruled in her favor, marking a landmark shift in the legal rights of trans individuals.

In recent years, Dr. Richards has been reticent about being viewed as an icon. "I was not an activist. It was a private act for my own self-betterment, for what I wanted to do. I wanted to go and play tennis," she told GQ in 2015. "And I wanted to stand up and say what I was. That, too. But it was private."
Photo: Robert Willett/Raleigh News & Observer/TNS via Getty Images
North Carolina Passes Its Infamous "Bathroom Bill"

In March of 2016, North Carolina passed a wildly controversial law that eliminated protections for LGBTQ individuals across the state.

The law, which was pushed through so quickly that many lawmakers said they hadn't been able to review it, overturned nondiscrimination laws protecting individuals on the local level. But the most talked about provision was the requirement that transgender individuals use the bathroom that corresponds with their sex at birth, rather than their gender identity.

Backlash against the law was swift and public. State lawmakers walked out in protest, the ACLU announced it would sue Gov. Pat McCrory over the bill, and international businesses canceled plans to expand in the state. The United Kingdom even issued a travel warning to LGBTQ citizens who planned on visiting the states.

The controversial bill also prompted what could be good news for trans or gender-nonconforming individuals in other states. In May, the federal government issued a directive to public schools that students must be allowed to use the bathroom of their choice.

In response, 11 states sued the government, accusing the Obama administration of overstepping bounds and using schools as a "social experiment." The case has not yet gone to court.
Photographed by Jessica Nash.
Dr. Harry Benjamin Proposes Gender Reassignment Surgery

Transgender individuals had new doors opened for them when pioneering doctor, Harry Benjamin, first proposed gender reassignment surgery as a way to treat those who felt they were born in the wrong body.

In 1948, Benjamin, a specialist in sexuality, encountered a patient who was born male, but identified as female. At the time, the standard treatment for transsexual individuals was psychoanalytic therapy intended to “[make] the mind fit the body.” Instead, Benjamin believed the more sensible treatment was to change the body to fit the mind. He sent his patient to Europe, where doctors performed one of the first gender reassignment surgeries.

In his 1986 obituary in The New York Times, a former patient recounted his comment after meeting with her. "I ask myself, in mercy, or in common sense, if we cannot alter the conviction to fit the body, should we not, in certain circumstances, alter the body to fit the conviction?'' he reportedly said.

In the decades to come, Benjamin helped to distinguish transsexuality as distinct from both transvestitism and homosexuality, promoting care that made his patients content in their bodies. He argued that attempts to make transsexual individuals accept the bodies they were born in only made them miserable. In 1978, he formed the Harry Benjamin International Gender Dysphoria Association (now called World Professional Association for Transgender Health), to promote the understanding of gender identity and promote a standard of care for transsexual and gender nonconforming individuals.
Photo: Mandel Ngan-Pool/Getty Images.
Trans Individuals Are Acknowledged In The State Of The Union Address

In January of 2015, President Obama made history by being the first president to say the word "transgender" in his State of the Union speech. In his remarks, Obama condemned persecution and abuse, specifically acknowledging the LGBTQ community.

"As Americans, we respect human dignity," he said. "That's why we defend free speech, and advocate for political prisoners, and condemn the persecution of women, or religious minorities, or people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender."

Obama was the first president to say the word "gay" in a State of the Union speech back in 2013, but the 2015 speech was the first time that transgender individuals were specifically recognized. Former NFL player and LGBTQ activist Wade Davis II told NBC New York at the time that the distinction was huge. "The struggle of someone being gay is not…representative of the struggles of someone who is bisexual or transgender. Gay is not this universal term that stands for lesbians, bisexual, and transgender," he said.
Photo: NY Daily News Archive/Getty Images.
The Stonewall Riots

The Stonewall Riots, the infamous clashes that launched LGBTQ rights into the public awareness, have long been thought of as a pivotal turning point for gay history, but less frequently do we recognize the crucial role trans people played.

According to some accounts, it was trans women who pushed the bar-goers into action after police raided the Stonewall Inn. Two of the prominent figures in the riots were transgender activists, Marsha P. Johnson, and Sylvia Rivera, whose gender identity varied throughout her life. A Village Voice article at the time cited the moment that three “drag queens” were arrested as the moment when the anger in the crowd turned into a full-scale riot.

The riots marked a turning point for how gay individuals were treated by mainstream society, but in its aftermath, many in the trans community were upset that their efforts weren't reflected. When the Stonewall Inn was landmarked in 2013, activists decried the proposed memorial plaque’s wording for its use of “gay” as an umbrella term. A 2015 film about the riots, Stonewall, was also criticized over its elimination of transgender individuals from the film.
Photo: Courtesy of Vanity Fair.
Caitlyn Jenner Comes Out As Trans

Caitlyn Jenner’s transition was one of the most talked about and highly publicized transitions, ever, thanks to her role as a member of the Kardashian clan, and staple on the family’s reality TV show, Keeping Up With the Kardashians. Jenner’s public persona led some to call her the most famous trans woman in the world. Her public coming out — which was made official with a Vanity Fair cover shoot that took a page out of classic Hollywood — lent an air of confidence and glamour to what, for others, could be a difficult or secretive experience.

However, Jenner’s transition wasn’t without criticism. Trans activists have pointed out that Jenner is still privileged via her wealth and race, and some say they don’t want Jenner as a representative for their community.
Sweden Allows Changing Of Legal Gender

Leave it to the Scandinavians to take the lead on gender equality. The same year that the United States passed Title IX, which ended discrimination based on sex in American education, Sweden began to allow transgender individuals to change the gender marker on official documentation. In 2013, Sweden made it even easier for transgender individuals to change their gender, eliminating requirements that individuals be unmarried or undergo sterilization.

But, according to the Swedes, there’s still a long way to go. The official English website for Sweden says that it would be “smug” to say there’s no room for improvement. “The legal benchmarks are steps, not the final goal, in Sweden’s strive towards equality,” it reads.
Photo: Fred Morgan/NY Daily News Archive/ Getty Images.
First High-Profile American Has A Successful Sex Change

Long before we began discussing trans rights, there were trans men and women pushing things forward on their own terms. Like Christine Jorgensen, a former U.S. service member who became the first open (and famous) American to undergo a sex-change operation. Jorgensen traveled to Denmark, where she underwent two years of hormone therapy and an operation. Upon her return to the United States, she was sensationalized, with headlines reading, “Bronx GI Becomes A Woman!” According to The New York Times, she turned that notoriety into a performance career, including a nightclub act where she sang, “I Enjoy Being A Girl.”

According to the BBC, her parents were ultimately supportive. In a letter written after her operation, Jorgensen told her parents nature had made a mistake that she had corrected. "Now I am your daughter," she wrote.

Though it proved difficult in her romantic life (she was denied a license to marry in 1959 because her birth certificate still listed her as male), she never went back on her decision. The New York Times wrote in her obituary that, in an interview the year before she died, "She said she never regretted her decision to change sexes."
Photo: Via YouTube.
First Out Trans Person Is Elected To Public Office

In 2012, Stacie Laughton was elected to the New Hampshire House of Representatives, making her the first openly trans individual to be elected to public office. During her run, she told the Nashua Patch site that she believed her run would “bring more acceptance to the trans community and interest them in being involved.”

However, Laughton never held office. Shortly after her election, a criminal record and history of incarceration became public, including felony fraud convictions. Laughton announced on November 30, 2012, that she would resign her elected post.
Show More Comments...