9 Amazing Transgender Women Who Changed History

Photo: Justin Sutcliffe/AP Photo.
Think back to high school history class. Who were the most prominent people featured? We're willing to bet that they were mostly white and (assumed) straight men. Even when our history books did mention women, they were almost all white and straight. They were definitely all cisgender (meaning: not transgender).
So this Women's History Month, we're taking time to celebrate the accomplishments of transgender women. The following nine women may not have called themselves transgender, because language is always evolving and in their time, words like "transsexual" or "queen" might have made more sense. But no matter what they called themselves, these are women who paved the way for transgender and gender non-conforming people who came after them.
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They were pioneers, "mothers," and activists, simply for being brave enough to live. Read on for their stories, but remember that this is not an exhaustive list. There are plenty more transgender women we don't know about who had a hand in making the world a more interesting and inclusive place.
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Photo: Courtesy of Netflix.
Marsha P. Johnson: 1945-1992

Marsha P. Johnson, along with Sylvia Rivera and other transgender and gender non-conforming people of color, has been credited with starting the infamous Stonewall Uprising of 1969. When police raided the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in New York City, in June of that year — as they had many times before — Johnson and others who were there that night decided they'd had enough and fought back. The ensuing protest lasted six days and is considered the start of the modern LGBTQ+ rights movement. The first Pride parade was held in June of the following year to commemorate the uprising.

After Stonewall, Johnson continued her activist work and co-founded the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR) House with Rivera. The two women, who were both sex workers and homeless for much of their lives, saw that the needs of gender non-conforming and homeless youth weren't being met by gay rights groups of the day and started STAR House in response. It was the first LGBTQ+ youth shelter in the U.S. and the first organization led by trans women of color.

In the wake of the HIV/AIDS crisis in the 1980s, Johnson became caregiver to friend and fellow activist Randy Wicker's lover. Her connection to the community led Johnson to attend early meetings of AIDS advocacy group ACT UP. She was an outspoken activist for people with AIDS, transgender people, and homeless youth until her death in 1992.
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Photo: Justin Sutcliffe/AP Photo.
Sylvia Rivera: 1951-2002

Like Johnson, Sylvia Rivera was at the Stonewall Uprising in 1969 and credited with being one of the first to confront the police. She and Johnson later started STAR House to offer support and shelter to young, transgender and gender non-conforming people who were living on the streets.

"Marsha and I just decided it was time to help each other and help our other kids," Rivera told Leslie Feinberg for her 1998 book, Trans Liberation. "We fed people and clothed people. We kept the building going." She and Johnson funded Star House through sex work, and were able to keep it going for a few years before the landlord eventually threw them out.

After Star House fell, Rivera continued to be a strong voice for transgender people of color. She fought against transgender exclusion in New York's Sexual Orientation Non-Discrimination Act (and unfortunately lost — SONDA does not protect people based on gender identity), and she spoke out against systemic poverty, racism, homophobia, and gender discrimination.

Rivera died in 2002, but her legacy lives on in the work of the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, an organization dedicated to "increasing the political voice and visibility of low-income people and people of color who are transgender, intersex, or gender non-conforming."
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Photo: Fred Morgan/NY Daily News Archive/Getty Images.
Christine Jorgensen: 1926-1989

In 1952, Christine Jorgensen became the first person to publicly transition from male to female in the United States. She was born and raised in the Bronx and served as an Army clerk pre-transition, according to her New York Times obituary.

In the early 1950s, Jorgensen learned about a Danish doctor, Christian Hamburger, who was experimenting with gender therapy using hormones. She began taking hormone injections and traveled to Denmark a couple of years later where Dr. Hamburger performed gender confirmation surgery on Jorgensen. She named herself after the doctor, choosing to call herself Christine in honor of him.

When Jorgensen came back from Denmark, she made national news. "Ex-GI Becomes Blonde Beauty" read the headline in Jorgensen's hometown paper, New York Daily News. She was a tabloid sensation overnight, and rather than shying away from the publicity, Jorgensen embraced it. She began singing in a nightclub. Her theme song? "I Enjoy Being A Girl."

''I decided if they wanted to see me, they would have to pay for it,'' she said, according to the New York Times.

Jorgensen died from cancer in 1989 at 62 years old.
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Lili Elbe: 1882-1931

While Christine Jorgensen was the first to publicly transition from male to female in the U.S., Danish painter Lili Elbe was the first to have gender confirmation surgery in Denmark — and she did it decades before Jorgensen.

As she writes in her autobiography, Man Into Woman, Elbe's feelings of gender dysphoria were unlocked when she posed as a woman for her wife, Gerda, who was also a painter. When a model didn't show up to sit for Gerda, Elbe took her place and felt at home wearing women's clothing. She continued to model as a woman for Gerda and later began wearing women's clothing even when she wasn't modeling. In the 1920s and 30s, Elbe regularly dressed in women's clothing outside of the house and to entertain guests. She was sometimes introduced as her own sister.

In 1930, Elbe traveled to Germany for a then very experimental gender confirmation surgery — making her one of the first people on record to ever get one. She died a year later, after an attempt to give Elbe a transplanted uterus went wrong.
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Photo: Keystone­France/Gamma­Rapho/Getty Images.
Coccinelle: 1931-2006

Jacqueline Charlotte Dufresnoy was a French actress and singer. She took the stage name Coccinelle in 1953 when she began performing in drag at a nightclub where her mother sold flowers.

A few years later, in 1958, she travelled to Casablanca to have gender confirmation surgery and became a sensation when she returned to France. Like Jorgensen and Elbe, she was the first in her country to publicly transition from male to female. After her transition, Coccinelle continued to sing and became a movie star as well, staring in six films between 1959 and 1968.

Coccinelle legally married three different men over her lifetime and died in 2006 at 75 years old.
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Photo: Off White Prod./Kobal/REX/Shutterstock.
Angie Xtravaganza: 1964-1993

Even though she was only 28 when she died, Angie Xtravaganza rose to the top of one of the houses in New York City's drag ball culture: The house of Xtravaganza. As house mother, Xtravaganza acted as a role model to other transgender women and gay men in her house.

She and other house mothers were featured in the 1990 documentary Paris Is Burning. In the documentary, she talks about the dangers of living as a "transexual" (what we'd probably call transgender today) in New York City, after a friend and drag daughter of hers was murdered. Only a few years after her drag daughter was killed, Xtravaganza died of complications from AIDS in 1993.

"She’d lived for over ten years as her own creation," author Michael Cunningham wrote of Xtravaganza after her death. "A ferocious maternal force who turned tricks in hotel rooms over a bar called the Cock Ring and who made chicken soup for the gaggle of friends she called her kids after they came home from a long night on the town."
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Photo: Off White Prod./Kobal/REX/Shutterstock.
Dorian Corey: 1937-1993

Dorian Corey was another drag mother in New York City, and one whom Angie Xtravaganza cited as her inspiration. She founded and led the voguing house of Corey and won more than 50 grand prizes in voguing balls over her lifetime.

Corey was featured in Paris Is Burning alongside Xtravaganza and other drag mothers. "Everyone wants to leave something behind them," she said in the film. "Some impression, some mark upon the world. But then you think, you've left a mark on the world if you just get through it and a few people remember your name."

Corey died of complications from AIDS in 1993, and certainly left her mark on the world. A few months after her death, police discovered the partially mummified body of a convicted rapist inside a trunk in her apartment. He had been shot in the head at least 20 years prior. The wild story has since inspired multiple plays.
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Photo: Hulton­Deutsch/Corbis/Getty Images.
Roberta Cowell: 1918-2011

Roberta Cowell is credited as "Britain's first transexual woman," because she, like Elbe and Jorgensen, was one of the first people to ever undergo a gender confirmation surgery. But she also had an incredible life before her transition.

Cowell was a race car driver and pilot. She served as an airman in the military, was shot down, and became a prisoner of war in 1944 during World War 2. Cowell and several other prisoners were rescued several months later in 1945, and she repatriated to the U.K.

Just a few years after the war, Cowell left her family (a wife and two daughters) to seek help for depression. Working with psychiatrists, she eventually realized that her "unconscious mind was predominantly female." She began taking large doses of estrogen, and later met transgender medical student Michael Dillon, who would perform her first gender confirmation surgery.

Cowell returned to racing and flying after her transition in the 1950s, and lived a long life. She died in 2011 at the age of 93.
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Photo: Gaffney/Liaison.
Renee Richards: 1934 - present

Long before Caitlyn Jenner came out, pro-tennis player Renee Richards shook up the sports world when she came out as a transgender woman. She made even greater waves later, when she returned to tennis and sued the United States Tennis Association, the Women's Tennis Association, and the United States Open Committee for her right to compete as a woman.

Although she was one of the first to take on that battle (and win!), Richards doesn't consider herself a pioneer. She told GQ in 2015 that if anything, she was a "reluctant pioneer."

"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, you know? And I wanted to stand up and say what I was... The gay world considers me a pioneer, and I’m proud that they do. But do I lie in bed thinking that I was a pioneer? No, I don’t."

As Richards told GQ, being a transgender woman isn't her whole identity, and she doesn't want it to be. "I have no doubt that when I die, the obituary headline is gonna be 'Transsexual Tennis Player Renée Richards Dies,'" she said. "I realize that being the pioneer for other transsexual people or for other downtrodden, disenfranchised people of any type is very important, but it’s really a very small part of my life."
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