March is Women’s History Month, which celebrates the contribution of women to global history and encourages the sharing of women’s stories, which are often less well known than those of their male counterparts.
With this in mind, I wanted to honour some transgender women who made a notable impact on their communities and whose stories inspire me to stand up for what I believe in, and to proudly show my true self to the world.
There are a great many women I could have included here, but these five stories found a special place in my heart and show a wide diversity of experience from Victorian England through to present day New Zealand.
Stella Boulton and Fanny Park – tried in 1871
Stella and Fanny were a theatrical double act who shocked Victorian England by attending theatres and social events in women’s clothing.
Historians usually refer to the duo – christened Thomas and Frederick – as cross-dressing gay men but their story aligns much more with narratives around gender non-conformity than it does with the arrests of homosexual men at that time. Of course, the word ‘transgender’ did not exist in 1870, and it would be inappropriate to make assumptions about their gender identity posthumously. However, we do know that Stella dressed and referred to herself as a girl from early childhood, with Fanny joining her in this when they met as teenagers. Both of them used she/her pronouns amongst friends and family and were gifted dresses from supportive relatives from a young age.
What fascinates me most about their story is how much their arrest and trial mirrors present day transphobic tropes. Fanny and Stella were arrested at the Strand Theatre in 1870, after Fanny entered a women’s bathroom to fix her dress. The toilet attendant was questioned by police and they were both thrown into jail, where they were subjected to a humiliating and invasive medical examination. Men came forward to testify against them, including one who claimed to have been tricked by their gender and who attempted to publicly expose them in a fit of rage.
They were tried in court for disturbing the peace and ‘inspiring and inciting persons to commit an unnatural offence’ but were acquitted due to lack of evidence that sodomy had taken place – much helped, no doubt, by their privileged backgrounds and their ability to pay lawyers and medical experts to defend them.
Cross-dressing was not an offence in Victorian England but their trial nonetheless rocked the boat and was subject to huge amounts of public interest. The duo’s bold and fearless assertion of self strikes me as remarkably progressive for the time, as does one major newspapers use of she/ her pronouns throughout its coverage of the trial; something that modern day newspapers have struggled to do until very recently.
In an interview with Another Magazine, Neil Bartlett – author of the play ‘Stella,’ which dramatises Stella Boulton’s life says;
“Every baby comes out of hospital with a whole lot of invisible labels tied to its ankle saying, ‘You’re this gender, you’re this colour, you’re this class et cetera.’ And one of the great gifts that the Stellas of the world give us is saying, ‘Take all these labels off, look at yourself in the mirror and say, who are you?’ And it’s not just about living your own life, it’s about realising that everyone has the right to be themselves and then getting on and doing something about that.”
Stella and Fanny © Faber and Faber
Lucy Hicks Anderson 1886 – 1954
Lucy Hicks Anderson was a socialite, chef and brothel owner who stood up for her rights as a transgender woman long before the word ‘transgender’ even existed.
From an early age, Lucy insisted that she was a girl and her supportive parents and doctor reaffirmed her in living as one. By the age of 15, she had changed her name and left home, working as a domestic servant until she married her first husband Clarence Hicks in 1920.
The couple moved to Oxnard, California where Lucy became a well-respected member of the community, winning awards for her cooking and hosting lavish dinner parties for the wealthy families in town. Her marriage to Clarence did not last long, but she was able to raise enough capital on her own to purchase a boarding house, where she ran a brothel and speakeasy.
She continued to lead a happy and vibrant life until in 1945 – a year after her second marriage to retired solider Reuben Anderson – an STI outbreak in the Navy was traced back to her brothel. As part of the legal investigation, every woman in the brothel, including Lucy, was required to be tested for venereal disease. During his examination, the local doctor discovered that Lucy was trans and publicly outed her.
Following this, both Anderson and her husband were arrested and tried for perjury and fraud. Lucy became the first trans woman on record to defend herself in court, saying “I defy any doctor in the world to prove that I am not a woman. I have lived, dressed and acted just what I am – a woman.” I am awestruck by the fact that, way back in 1945, Lucy Hicks Anderson was standing up in court hailing ‘trans women are women!’
She served some time in jail, with 10 years probation and was forbidden to wear women’s clothes or return to Oxnard upon her release. Lucy and her husband relocated to Los Angeles and lived a quiet life until her death in 1954. Although not a wholly happy ending, Lucy’s story is a bolstering reminder that trans women have always existed and her unwavering determination to live life on her own terms is something I find incredibly inspiring.
Lucy Hicks Anderson from ‘Oxnard: 1941-2004’. Arcadia Publishing, 2005.
April Ashley 1935 –
April Ashely is a model turned activist who was awarded an MBE in 2012 for her services to transgender equality.
April was born in Liverpool to a poor, working class family and experienced a great deal of bullying, assault and ridicule growing up. Visibly feminine, she says she was made aware of her difference every single day and, by the age of 15, decided to join the navy in attempt to escape her situation and fit in with the gender roles expected of her.
Her naval career was short lived, however, and, after two suicide attempts, she was dishonourably discharged and sent to Ormskirk mental institution, where she was subjected to electric shock therapy and male hormone injections.
From the late 1950s, life started to get much better for April. She moved to Paris, worked in a Cabaret, made friends with other trans women and started living as herself. In 1960, she became one of the first British people to receive gender reassignment surgery, which she says made her feel like “the happiest person on the planet.”
After her surgery, she returned to England where she became a successful fashion model, appearing in Vogue and landing herself a small film role. Heartbreakingly, her career came to an abrupt end in 1961, when she was outed as transgender in the Sunday People and no company would work with her again.
From this point onwards, April’s life was often headline news, including the story of her divorce from Arthur Corbett in 1970, where the judge ruled that April remained a biological man and therefore the marriage was invalid and annulled.
In the 1990s, Ashley became an activist for transgender rights, campaigning tirelessly for reforms that would allow trans people to legally change their gender, despite ongoing harassment and ridicule from the press. In 2004, the Gender Recognition Act was finally passed, and April was able to be legally recognised as a woman. She now lives in Fulham with an MBE, a Lifetime Achievement honour from the European Diversity Awards and an absolutely iconic wardrobe.
April Ashley © Vic Singh, Rex Features.
Marsha P. Johnson 1945 – 1992
Marsha P. Johnson was a New York activist, drag artist and sex worker, who played a vital role in key moments of LGBTQ+ liberation, such as the Stonewall Riots in 1969.
Perhaps one of the most important figures in queer history, it is not entirely clear how Marsha identified – the P. in her name stood for ‘Pay It No Mind’, which is what Marsha would say when asked questions about her gender. However, we do know that her feminine presentation was the cause of both abuse and adoration since her childhood and that her dedication and commitment to fighting for LGBTQ+ rights left a legacy that must never be forgotten.
After a brief stint in the navy, Marsha moved to New York’s Greenwich Village at the age of 17, where she quickly became a prominent figure in the LGBTQ+ community, serving as a ‘drag mother,’ through which she helped homeless and struggling queer youth, and touring the world as a successful drag queen with Hot Peaches.
In June 1969, when Marsha was 23 years old, police raided a NYC gay bar called The Stonewall Inn, forcing 200 people out onto the streets and using excessive violence against them. Police raids on gay bars were routine in the 1960s, but this one hit differently, sparking an uprising of LGBTQ+ people, of which Marsha was at the centre. In the days that followed, Johnson and others protested the raid, with the aim of seeing “gay people liberated and free to have equal rights that other people have in America” (Marsha P. Johnson, 1972)
Following this, Marsha and her friend Sylvia Rivera co-founded the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR), who held meetings, attended demonstrations and provided housing for homeless LGBTQ+ youth in STAR House, a four bedroom apartment that was funded through a combination of sex work and fundraising dances.
In a 1998 interview with Leslie Feinberg at Worker’s World, Sylvia Riviera said, “STAR was for the street gay people, the street homeless people and anybody that needed help at that time. Marsha and I had always sneaked people into our hotel rooms. Marsha and I decided to get a building. We were trying to get away from the Mafia’s control at the bars.”
In July 1992, Marsha’s body was found in the Hudson River and police ruled that she had committed suicide, despite claims from friends the local community that she showed no signs of suicidality. Twenty-five years later, the case was reopened, as shown in the Netflix documentary ‘The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson’, which makes for a fascinating and emotional watch.
Marsha P. Johnson did not see the liberation she so fervently fought for happen in her lifetime, and was subject to much abuse and exclusion within the LGBTQ+ community, particularly from the white gay men who dominated the Gay Liberation Front. However, she made huge waves in pushing forward gay and trans rights, setting the stage for future generations to fight in her wake and leaving a legacy that has been memorialised in art, monuments, documentaries and in the lives of queer people everywhere.
Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera by Rudy Grillo, © 1989-90. The Rudy Grillo Collection, The LGBT Community Center National History Archive.
Georgina Beyer 1957 –
Georgina Beyer is a New Zealand politician and former actress and sex worker, who became the world’s first openly transgender Member of Parliament in 1999.
Of Maori descent, she displayed her femininity outwardly from an early age; leading to parental conflict, bullying at school and, in turn, attempts to suppress her true self. She found freedom through amateur dramatics and, at the age of sixteen, left home to pursue a career in acting.
During this time, she began to rediscover herself as a woman, working as a drag queen and sex worker in Wellington and Australia, before returning to acting in the early 1980s. She had a successful career, starring, most notably, as the title character in the TV film ‘Jewel’s Darl,’ for which she was nominated Best Actress in the New Zealand GOFTA Awards.
She felt limited by typecasting, however, so moved to work as a radio presenter and, in the 1990s, began to also tip her toe into politics. She started off as the member of a school board and, by 1995, was the world’s first openly transgender Mayor for Carterton. After gaining huge popularity and a re-election with 90% of the vote, she was recruited by the Labour Party and surprised political commentators by winning the typically right-leaning Wairarapa electorate with a 3,033 vote majority and becoming the first openly transgender MP in the world.
During her eight years in Parliament, she did much to push forward LGBTQ+ equality and sex workers’ rights.
The Prostitution Reform Act of 2003 decriminalised consensual adult sex work and is the most progressive sex work legislation to date, providing a blueprint for sex workers’ rights campaigners all over the world. In an independent review, it was found that over 90% of New Zealand sex workers believed the PRA gave them better employment, legal and health and safety rights – notably allowing sex workers to testify against their abusers in court. Beyer is credited with influencing wavering MPs to vote for the bill, through her deeply moving parliamentary speech, in which she drew on her experiences as a street-based sex worker and the violence she experienced due to lack of safety. She also campaigned for marriage equality and a bill in her name was drawn to prohibit discrimination on the basis of gender identity.
In the 2020 Queen’s Birthday Honours, she was appointed a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit, for services to LGBTQIA+ rights.
Whilst her political career is not without fault, she has left a powerful legacy, illustrating, through her incredible journey to parliament, what she calls ‘the art of the possible.’
Georgina Beyer © Ross Giblin
Sources and Further Reading
‘Two Women Walk into A Bathroom: The Fanny and Stella Trials as Trans Narrative’ – Victorian Review, Volume 44. victorianreview.org
The Life And Death of Marsha P Johnson – Netflix