by Rory Alyn
While “Transgender” didn’t enter the public lexicon until sometime in the late 80s or early 90s, there are historical figures who meet the general criteria to fall under “transgender”. For the uninitiated, transgender means that one does not identify with the gender they were assigned at birth. Cisgender, conversely, means that they do.
Context is important, however, and while the identity of some of these individuals as trans people can be debated (particularly those who have passed and cannot speak for themselves), their badass contributions to the world while transcending gender norms cannot.
Marsha P. Johnson And The Shot Glass Heard Around The World
Who She Was:
Marsha P. “Pay It No Mind” Johnson was a mainstay in the New York queer community in the 60s, 70s and 80s, becoming a visible, unapologetic voice in the fight for equality. An eccentric presence known in the LGBT community for her fabulous hats, glamorous jewelry and outfits, Johnson lived a fearless life that, by virtue of living out loud, paved the way for other trans people to live their truth. Also, I feel like I really need to stress the hats, because:
Johnson fought for gay rights when the gays didn’t have a place for her in their movement. The Stonewall Riots brought attention to ongoing injustices in our world, and Martha P. Johnson is a huge, under-appreciated part of that incredible legacy. It is only recently that numerous documentaries, books and specials have been released honoring her contributions to LGBT visibility and equality.
How Her Actions Bettered Humanity:
On June 28, 1969, violence broke out following the public and extremely questionable arrest of several drag queens, gay men, lesbians, and others attending the Stonewall Inn night club in Greenwich Village. Fed up with being targeted by the very public servants who should have been protecting them from such discrimination, Johnson responded by throwing a shot glass at police and yelling, “I got my civil rights!” That action has become known as “the shot glass heard around the world.”
That action credits her with being an instigator behind the Stonewall Riots, the aftermath of which irreversibly altered the course of LGBT rights in the United States.
Johnson’s contributions to the community were largely overlooked until recently, because she was a transwoman of color. In a recent documentary about Stonewall, Johnson was completely left out, her accomplishments attributed to an anonymous cisgender white man.
Not pictured: Cisgender white man.
In recent years, Johnson has received some much deserved posthumous publicity, because her brave actions in life paved the way for trans women to continue living out loud in a world that would rather we didn’t exist at all. If Marsha had not thrown that shot glass, had not stood her ground and demanded her rights, our movement may have very well started off on a different foot. The entirety of stonewall and its aftermath are thanks to Marsha throwing that shot glass.
Johnson’s legacy outside of Stonewall is in her activism in the New York City scene in the late 60s, 70s, 80s, and early 90s, leading to her tragic murder in 1992. She co-founded one of the first ever trans equality organizations, STAR (Street Transvestite / Transgender Action Revolutionaries) with fellow trans activist Sylvia Rivera, a grassroots organization dedicated to homeless transgender youth in New York City.
Marsha P Johnson was a pioneer, an activist, a lover, a fighter, and one badass rogue. And her hat game was definitely on point.
Dr. James Barry, The Badass Traveling Surgeon
Who He Was:
Dr. James Barry was a prominent and renowned surgeon, serving as the surgeon general of Upper Canada, as well as a top medical officer in the British Army while deployed for ten years in Cape Town, South Africa. One of the most celebrated physicians of the 19th century, Barry is remembered primarily as the first surgeon in the British Empire to perform a successful cesarean operation in which both the infant and mother survived.
"No biggie. That's just how I roll, son."
In addition to his work in South Africa, Barry passionately lobbied for reforms in hygiene, patient care, access to clean drinking water, and hospital ventilation. He worked alongside luminaries like Florence Nightingale. A man well ahead of his time, Barry’s efforts changed hospitals all across the British Empire, and it has been said that he was extraordinarily annoyed that Nightingale received credit for his innovations.
After leaving Cape Town, Barry transferred to Malta where he helped contain a cholera outbreak, for which he received personal thanks from the Duke of Wellington. Most of this was swept under the rug and hidden from history for the better part of a century, after Barry died in 1865 and it was discovered that he was born with lady bits.
How His Contributions Bettered Humanity:
Following a traumatic adolescence, Barry lived his life as a man for the better part of six decades and was only found to have been "assigned female at birth" (AFAB) following his death (Wait ... AFAD?). It has been speculated that Barry’s choice to live as a man was in part so he could attend University of Edinburgh Medical School during a time when only men could pursue such an education.
"You ready for some education? Because I'm about to school you all."
Barry is an especially interesting case, because he is known for several firsts in medical science, but only well after his death were they recognized. His accomplishments are amazing even without the added context of hiding his biological identity for the entirety of his life.
Barry's medical contributions to the British military include enforcing stricter standards for hygiene, improving the diet of sick patients, as well as popularizing a plant-based treatment for syphilis and gonorrhea. Barry eventually earned the title of Inspector General, the second highest ranking medical position in the British Army.
Notice how your doctor washes their hands before touching your bits? You have Dr. James Barry to thank for that.
You Can Thank Lynn Conway For The Modern World
Who She Is:
Lynn Conway is well known for her ground-breaking work in microelectronic chip design and very large scale integrated (VLSI) circuit design. Immediately after completing graduate school, Conway was recruited by IBM and began working on a powerful method of instructional calculation in supercomputers. Completed in 1965, this fundamental component of computer architecture enabled the creation of the first superscalar processor: a single processor CPU that set the groundwork for future microprocessor design. Conway coined her invention “dynamic instruction scheduling” (DIS).
For her amazing, groundbreaking contributions to the field, IBM thanked Conway by firing her in 1968 when they learned that she was transgender and undergoing transition.
"But I didn't get you anything! Wait, could you use two middle fingers?"
How Her Contributions Bettered Humanity:
For decades Lynn Conway’s contributions to the modern world were largely overlooked. She paved the way for chips that held enough transistors (pun intended, so suck it) for entire superscalar computers to be held on single units, allowing for much more powerful processors than would have been otherwise possible without her innovation.
Until quite recently, most researchers were under the impression that Conway’s invention, DIS, was the cumulative result of decades of work, generalized into a compound theorem, unaware that it had been singularly invented by Conway in 1965.
Every time your game doesn't lag, you owe Lynn a nod of appreciation.
Without anybody knowing of her contributions to the field, Conway went “stealth mode” and established a promising career as an engineer. In 1999, her connection with DIS was becoming known, and rather than be outed yet again, she published her story on a personal website (now located at University of Michigan's website) so she could retake control of her legacy.
Since coming out, Conway has worked as a consultant with a number of tech firms, providing insight on equal opportunity hiring and employment protections for transgender workers. Companies like Apple, Intel, Verizon and even IBM have in recent years adopted practices to encourage and protect transgender workers, to thrive in an industry that in some sectors still holds onto its “boys’ club” status.
Alan L. Hart, The First Transman To Undergo Sex Reassignment Surgery
Who He Was:
Alan L. Hart was an AFAB transman and physician known for his work with x-ray photography in tuberculosis detection. The TB screening programs pioneered by Hart saved thousands of lives.
Hart devoted much of his career into researching and treating tuberculosis during a time when the disease was the #1 cause of mortality. Hart was among the first physicians to document how TB spreads via the circulatory system. He pioneered and deployed early detection and treatment and spent the rest of his life lobbying for these practices. His work is often credited with helping to contain the spread of tuberculosis in America in the 19th century.
Plus, he rocked a sweet pair of round glasses and smoked the hell out of a pipe.
Product note: Invent a pipe with a full sword hidden inside.
How His Contributions Bettered Humanity:
Even outside of the TB research, Hart’s case is unique, because he was the first documented female to male transition in the United States. Hart lived as a woman until adulthood, seeking psychiatric counseling and radical, practically unheard-of surgeries so he could live as a man. Hart’s transition set a medical and legal precedent for transitioning, forever altering the scope of how medical science regarded gender identity and sexual transition.
In 1917 Hart requested surgery to eliminate menstruation and the possibility of pregnancy. Upon verifying that Hart was of sound mind, surgeon Joshua Allen Gilbert agreed that living as a man was the only path for Hart to live happily. This was the first case in which a psychiatrist advocated for the extraction of healthy organ tissue based solely upon an individual’s gender identity. Hart’s surgery was completed at the University of Oregon Medical School, after which he legally changed his name.
Hart’s bravery and insistence paved the way for trans people in the future to seek safe, necessary procedures to help align their bodies with their minds.
Renee Richards Brought Her Discrimination Case To The New York Supreme Court And Won
Who She Was:
Richards is a prominent trans figure who stood strong in the face of oppression. She became front-page news when it was reported that she was a man masquerading as a woman, insinuating that she had transitioned solely so she could compete in women’s tennis.
"I will now read my prepared statement: Dear, morons ..."
When the officials of the tennis governing bodies told her that she would not be allowed to participate in major championships for women because of her past, that did not sit well. Richards says that she had never been an activist, but after receiving community support urging her to play, she reluctantly took on the role as a trans rights visionary.
Upon seeing how Richards was being treated, friend Gene Scott invited her to play in a New Jersey based tennis tournament. When she accepted, 23 female players boycotted. Richards was very visibly in the news yet again, simply for existing and trying to do what she was best at.
When Richards’ winning streak came to an end in the New Jersey semi-finals, losing against Lea Antonopolis, she decided to continue her rise and compete in the US Opens. After all, it was proven that she could be beaten by a woman, so those complaints were now seemingly void. Transphobia doesn’t follow logic, however. I mean ... that's what makes it a "phobia".
1977 was a memorable summer for Tennis. Renee Richards first entered the men’s US Nationals in 1953. Twenty-four years later (and two years following her transition) Renee was getting ready to play her first match as a woman at the same event, now known as the US Open. Forced to undergo chromosome tests, player boycotts and intense media scrutiny, Richards again made headlines when she was banned from competing in the event.
How Her Contributions Bettered Humanity:
Richards took her newfound activism to the next level and challenged the ban in front of the New York Supreme Court.
"You're going to make me transplain, aren't you? ... SIGH"
Of the ban, Richard says, "I never had any intention of playing in the US Open ... but when they said, 'You're not allowed to play,' that changed everything. I said, 'You can't tell me what I can or cannot do -- I'm a woman and if I want to play in the US Open as a woman I'm going to do it.”
With the odds stacked well against her, Richards took the Tennis Association to task and sued them for gender discrimination. During the case The Tennis Association brought in multiple witnesseses who said she shouldn't be able to play. Richards’ team only presented one witness: Billie Jean King, a legendary queer, cisgender, female tennis player who famously won “The Battle of the Sexes” in a match against former men’s champion Bobby Riggs.
Richards’ lawyer handed over an affidavit from Billie Jean King that said she had met Richards, that she was a woman, entitled to play, and that she couldn’t be denied from competing. And then the New York Supreme Court ruled in Renee Richards favor.
This monumental win established a legal precedent against such discrimination, allowing trans people to compete in sports at the professional level without fear.