The Invention of Gender

Trans History You Never Learned in School

The story of trans people is as old as time — so why have we been written out of history books?

When TIME magazine put Laverne Cox on their cover in 2014, (somewhat infamously) declaring that year “the transgender tipping point,” the notion that visibility itself leads to social change sparked a debate that’s, frankly, never stopped.

And for good reason: According to the HRC, 2020 was the deadliest year on record for violent deaths of trans people, with Black trans women disproportionately targeted. Meanwhile, anti-trans rhetoric has been increasingly normalized in “debates” in the US and the UK about the legal right of trans people to exist in public space and life, whether it’s a public bathroom or a playing field. This year a nationwide campaign of state bills with identical anti-trans language has been seen by many advocates as, in fact, a “coordinated attack” by conservative groups on the trans community.

All of this activity around a population that, according to GLAAD, makes up less than 3% of the US across age groups (earlier polling by the Williams Institute suggests an even lower number: .6%). Regardless, there is clearly a desperate panic driving the legislative violence against trans bodies, especially given the lack of evidence that trans people are disrupting the spaces we’re meant to be barred from (in fact, a 2018 UCLA study showed no link between trans-inclusion policies and increased bathroom safety risks).

Why? Because awareness — and, relatedly, “acceptance” — of trans life is on the rise, especially among younger people.

Why does this make some people so angry? Because we have labored under the false notion that binary gender identity based on genitalia is scientifically valid and “innate,” despite a rich history that tells us otherwise, for centuries.

Young people, liberated from that notion by the rise of trans visibility, are reflecting more gender diversity than any other generation in modern history. New polling indicates that one in six members of Gen Z fall under the LGBT umbrella, with 1.8% identifying themselves as transgender to poll workers (compared to 1.2% of Millennials, and .2% of both Generation X and Baby Boomers).

Transphobic rhetoric, as is typical of conservative thinking, denies that history in favor of the wobbly theory (once similarly applied to LGB youth) that impressionable young people aren’t capable of knowing who they are. “#Wontbeerased,” an online rallying cry by trans activists, highlights the legislative battle to eradicate trans people from culture but also the ongoing project to bury, reappropriate, or otherwise obscure the narratives of gender nonconforming and trans Americans that came before us. This erasure is complicated by mis-gendering, as well as porous borders between classifications of sexuality and gender in archives created and kept by cis gatekeepers (history’s “victors”), along with the reality that modern LGBT history really begins when language caught up with identity in the second half of the twentieth century.

Since 2011, when I began injecting testosterone, I’ve been interested in the legacy of trans bodies that I was never taught in history class. Over the last decade, I’ve compiled and collected stories of trans* and gender nonconforming Americans who were almost always “discovered” upon death or, if they were not so lucky, held up as tabloid spectacles of monstrous difference.

As painful and dehumanizing as many of these accounts have been for me to read, the glimmer that drives my research lies beyond the tawdry framings and in the deeper truth: Trans people have been documented throughout every aspect of American history. Even more, to tell the story of trans history is to unearth a lost history of the politics of gender for all bodies marginalized by culture (and that especially includes cis women).

A few examples:

The Colonies

Public Universal Friend

Public Universal Friend was born Quaker in 1752. In 1775, during a series of fevered illnesses, they (Public Universal Friend did not use pronouns at all, “they” is the closest modern-day designation we have) believed Christ entered their body and directed them to bring ministry to the new country — while simultaneously eradicating gender entirely from their being.

After that day, Public Universal Friend (who was assigned-female-at-birth) refused pronouns and dressed in gender-neutral garments. They became a national sensation by preaching unqualified universal friendship to a devoted cult following, and eventually founded a religious settlement in New York state.

The Gold Rush

One-Eyed Charley Parkhurst was born in 1812 in Vermont. He ran away at 12 to Rhode Island, where he was taken in at a livery stable and treated “like a son” by its owner, who taught him how to care for and drive horses.

Charley Parkhurst

In 1849, in his late-30s, Parkhurst sailed to California following a gold rush. He eventually became a well-known stagecoach driver, ranking “among the finest” of his time. He retired from his dangerous work as railroads gained in popularity, and spent 15 years raising chickens in rural California. He died a a man in 1879. Handlers of his body “discovered” that he was not, in fact, assigned-male-at-birth and (as was common practice until very recently), the media breathlessly rewrote his entire history as a result.

From the January 9, 1880 New York Times:

He was in his day one of the most dexterous and celebrated of the famous California drivers ranking with Foss, Hank Monk, and George Gordon, and it was an honor to be striven for to occupy the spare end of the driver’s seat when the fearless Charley Parkhurst held the reins of a four-or six-in hand… Last Sunday [December 28, 1879], in a little cabin on the Moss Ranch, about six miles from Watsonville, Charley Parkhurst, the famous coachman, the fearless fighter, the industrious farmer and expert woodman died of the cancer on her tongue. She knew that death was approaching, but she did not relax the reticence of her later years other than to express a few wishes as to certain things to be done at her death. Then, when the hands of the kind friends who had ministered to her dying wants came to lay out the dead body of the adventurous Argonaut, a discovery was made that was literally astounding. Charley Parkhurst was a woman.

The story goes on to laud Parkhurt for his unusual ability to “pass” and to “achieve distinction in an occupation above all professions” but nevertheless refuses to see him for what he clearly was until the day he died: A man.

The Puritans

Jennie June aka “Earl Lind” was born into a Puritan family in Connecticut in 1874. She realized who she was at a young age, identifying as an “androgyne” or “invert,” and shifted between gender presentations throughout her life (I will use alternating pronouns to reflect this fact). He sought work as a sex worker, and defended gender and sexual nonconformists, insisting that they were simply born of a different nature, but natural nonetheless.

June wrote the 1919 Autobiography of an Androgyne, now widely considered one of the first “transgender” memoirs ever published. He proudly called herself a ‘fairie,” and had his testes removed at 28.

Reconstruction

Frances Thompson was an enslaved person and the first trans woman to testify before Congress (regarding the Memphis riots of 1866). The riots, which took place after black soldiers, women, and children gathered in public space and were shot at by soldiers, resulted in allegations of murder and rape against white men who attacked freed black women in the days that followed, including Thompson and her housemate, Lucy Smith. Thompson testified that white men broke into their house and asked for food. After they complied, they were raped.

Frances Thompson

In 1876, Thompson was arrested for cross-dressing, and her “biological sex” was confirmed by doctors. Conservatives used this development to undermine her testimony about the rape that occurred 10 years before, and to undermine all black women’s claims of rape at the riots and afterwards, as “propaganda in support of Reconstruction.” Thompson later died of dysentery.

The Wild West

Harry Allen (aka Harry Livingstone) was a bronco-buster, cowboy, sailor, amateur boxer, and tabloid sensation in and around the Pacific Northwest a the turn of the 19th century. Initially celebrated for his refusal to wear “women’s clothes,” he was often on the front page of newspapers, his every petty run-in with the law chronicled.

As “progressive” politics took hold in the wild West, and middle-class (white) values followed, Harry and his friends (and girlfriends) were repeatedly arrested for cross-dressing and related “crimes.” Allen’s photo was on the body of train robber Black Jack Morse when he died, and he was also suspected of involvement in a train robbery led by Bill Miner in 1905, though that robbery was never solved.

Allen always insisted he was a man, except for when he was trying to avoid prison. He spoke to a female anthropologist who visited him in prison and who (in sympathy, perhaps) tried to paint him as a wayward girl from a rough background, and insisted that he was not an “invert” — a fact that the prison warden said was plainly not true, given his popularity with other inmates. Harry’s unapologetic rabble rousing was a surprisingly inspirational tale even in his time to folks mourning the loss of the “wild West,” but his life was marred by tragedy and imprisonment. He died of syphilis at only 40.

Prohibition

Born in 1886 in Kentucky to supportive parents, Lucy Hicks Anderson always knew she was a “girl” — and long before the term “transgender” existed.

Lucy Hicks Anderson

Her parents allowed her to wear dresses to school, and to go by “Lucy.” A skilled chef and well-known socialite, she eventually divorced her second husband in Oxnard, CA but, over the course of the marriage, she’d saved enough money to buy a brothel/drinks establishment with a boarding house front. As a madame, she avoided jail time using her socialite connections.

In 1945, a sailor claimed he contracted veneral disease at her brothel, which led to all the women — including Anderson — being required to undergo a medical exam. As a result of that exam, the DA to tried Anderson for perjury, claiming she lied about who she was on her marriage certificate. This became a foundational case for marriage equality later in the US.

“I defy any doctor in the world to prove that I am not a woman,” she told the court during her trial. “I have lived, dressed, acted just what I am, a woman.” She was found guilty of perjury nevertheless, and she was later charged with fraud for death benefits she received via her GI husband. She was sent to prison and barred from Oxnard. She eventually relocated with her husband to LA, where she lived until her death in 1954.

The New Age

Reed Erickson was a trans man born to a wealthy family in 1917. In 1946, he became the first person assigned female at birth to graduate from LSU’s school of mechanical engineering, and he later took over his family’s business, selling the company in 1969 for $5 million. Erickson was a natural businessman, and his personal fortune ballooned to $40 million.

Reed Erickson

Erickson was also a dedicated philanthropist, deeply interested in transgender health and the new age movement. He founded the Erickson Educational Foundation, and used it to support homeopathy, acupuncture, dream research, and the study of transsexuality. Erickson saw the medical establishment as a way for trans people to have access to life-saving treatments, and as an arena of culture that could potentially “validate” trans experience to the wider world. During the 1960s and 1970s, the EEF funded the creation of the Harry Benjamin Foundation and the early work of John Hopkins University in the study of trans people. The EEF also maintained referral networks for trans patients, and did outreach to law enforcement, clergy, doctors, and academics.

Sadly, Erickson’s last years were painful ones. He died in Mexico at age 74, in 1992, addicted to drugs and a fugitive — perhaps fatigued from having never achieved the widespread acceptance he hoped to see for people like him, despite his money and influence.

Reed Erickson

These examples are stand-in for the countless stories we’ll never see, the lives lived quietly, maybe even peacefully. One can hope.

But to understand American history, you must understand American trans and queer history. The only way to do this is by combing the archives, looking for the individual narratives preserved, however poorly, by the courts and tabloids and cops that attempted at every step to discredit them. Even so, if you look hard enough, our stories shine through. Trans people have always been too irrepressible, too insistent, too transgressive to ever be truly erased.

You could say, rightly, that we have been here — pushed to the fringes but nevertheless always present, illuminating a shadow story of how gender was invented and policed in this culture — not by trans people or our predecessors, but by the structures and systems that would still have you believe we were never here at all.

*I use this word to denote gender nonconformity and cross-dressing, as well as more traditional binary ideas of trans identity, prior to the coinage of the word “transsexual” in 1949 (“transgender,” the term preferred today for its broader umbrella inclusion of trans identities beyond the binary, came into use in 1971).

Writer exploring the relationship between gender, culture, and history. Most recent book: Amateur (Scribner). Essays/reporting: NYT, The Atlantic, GQ, more.

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