Gender variance has existed in all times and all cultures of which records remain.
To destroy, to build
to lift up, to put down
are yours, Inanna
To turn man into woman
woman into man
are yours, Inanna
devotional poem – Sumer, 2300 BCE
7th Century BCE: The Greek god Aphroditus – who later came to be called Hermaphroditus – is represented as a female figure with male genitalia. Terracotta figurines of the god lifting her dress to reveal male sexual organs are a popular means of summoning luck and warding off evil.
222 CE: The Roman Emperor Elagabalus is said to have dressed and made up as a woman, and offered riches to any physician who could provide him with female genitalia. He is assassinated at the age of nineteen.
4th Century, Roman Britain: one of the castrated priests of the goddess Cybele is buried near Catterick. In 2002, archaeologists discover her remains, a male skeleton with female ornaments and jewellery. The Cybelene priests wear jet jewellery, brightly coloured female robes, and had female hair styles beneath turbans and tiaras.
13th Century, Damascus: The Islamic scholar and Sunni legal authority Imam An-Nawawi (1234-78 CE) writes that:
“A mukhannath is the one who carries in his movements, in his appearance and in his language the characteristics of a woman. There are two types; the first is the one in whom these characteristics are innate, he did not put them on by himself, and therein is no guilt, no blame and no shame, as long as he does not perform any illicit act or exploit it for money. The second type acts like a woman out of immoral purposes and he is the sinner and blameworthy.”*
*Ref: Rowson EK, The Effeminates of Early Medina, J. Am. Oriental Soc 111 (4): 671-693, 1991
1513, Panama: Pietro Martire D’Anghiera relates the massacre of indigenous trans people by the Spanish conquistador Vasco Nunez de Balboa:
“Vasco discovered that the village of Quarequa was stained by the foulest vice. The king’s brother and a number of other courtiers were dressed as women, and according to the accounts of the neighbours shared the same passion. Vasco ordered forty of them to be torn to pieces by dogs. The Spaniards commonly used their dogs in fighting against these naked people, and the dogs threw themselves upon them as though they were wild boars or timid deer.”
1654, Sweden: Queen Christina ‘walked like a man, sat and rode like a man, and could eat and swear like the roughest soldiers.’ She sometimes identifies herself as Count Dohna after her abdication, and has been claimed variously as lesbian, transgendered, and intersex by historians in search of an angle.
1719, London: One Katherine Jones is acquitted of bigamy at the Old Bailey, after testifying that her second – allegedly unlawful – husband “was no Man, and therefore could not be a Husband; that it was a Monster, a Hermaphrodite, and had been shown as such at Southwark Fair, Smithfield, and several other Places; and called several Witnesses to prove the same; one whereof deposed, that he knew the Mother of it, who brought it up as a Girl in Apparel and at School, and to handle the Needle, till it was 12 Years old, when he turn’d Man and went to sea.”
1747: Hannah Snell (1723-92) enlists as a marine under the name James Gray, and is seriously wounded at the Battle of Devicotta, Hindustan, in 1749. Snell, if anyone, is the first trans celebrity. In 1750 readers Londoners are treated to The Female Soldier, or, The surprising life and adventures of Hannah Snell, a dubious 42-page pot-boiler priced at a shilling, soon followed by sixty stage appearances, songs, portrait sittings, and the opening of a pub called The Female Warrior.
1783, Gujarat India: a temple sacred to the Hindu goddess Bahuchara Mata is built and served by self-castrated priests who dress and live their lives as women.
1728-1810, Paris and London: The Chevalier d’Eon de Beaumont who later styles herself Charlotte-Genevieve-Louise-Auguste-Andree-Timothee d’Eon de Beaumont is a French aristocrat, diplomat, and soldier who lives her first 49 years as a man, but spends the remaining 33 years as a woman. The Beaumont Society, the first open access transgender support group in the UK, (founded in 1966) is named after her.
1862, Berlin: Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, (1825-95) a lawyer, theologian, and pioneer of the modern gay rights movement, describes his own homosexuality as anima muliebris virili corpore inclusa – a female psyche confined in a male body. “I may have a beard, and manly limbs and body,” he writes in Latin “yet confined by these, I am and remain a woman”. Ulrichs’ fusion of gay and gender identities dominates discussion of transsexualism for almost a century, and it remains a widespread popular belief that trans women are gay men dressed in female clothes.
1865, London and Corfu: Dr James Barry, a reforming military surgeon joins the British army in 1813, and is only discovered to have female anatomy after his death. Perhaps named Margaret Ann Bulkley at birth, his tombstone in Kensal Rise Cemetery recalls him only as Dr James Barry, Inspector General of Hospitals.
1865, USA: Mary Edwards Walker (1832-1919) a Union army surgeon of the American Civil War, becomes the only perceived woman ever to receive the United States’ highest military decoration, the Medal of Honor. There are surviving photographs of the hero wearing male clothing, and Walker is said to have been arrested for impersonating a man.
1897, Berlin: The Scientific-Humanitarian Committee is set up by Dr Magnus Hirschfeld to campaign for the rights and welfare of gay and trans people. At its height, the Committee’s work is supported by Albert Einstein, and the novelists Thomas Mann, Herman Hesse, and Lev Tolstoy, but the Committee comes to an abrupt end when its base at the Institute of Sexual Science (Institut fur Sexualwissenschaft) is sacked by militant Nazi students in 1933.
1903, Germany: Daniel Paul Schreber, (1842-1911) a respected judge, publishes Memoirs of My Nervous Illness, an account of a psychotic breakdown in which he believes that God is transforming him into a woman so that he can become the sole object of God’s sexual desire. Schreber relates that he awoke one morning with the idea that he should give in to the pleasure of having sexual intercourse as a woman. He dies in a mental institution, and would now be forgotten, had not Sigmund Freud used the Memoirs as case material for his psychoanalytic system – a system of thought that comes to frustrate and suffocate trans people seeking psychiatric help for fifty years.
1910, Berlin: Magnus Hirschfeld publishes his ground-breaking study of gender variant people Die Transvestiten a title which literally translates as ‘the transvestites’, but is used by Hirschfeld to denote a much wider understanding of sexual and gender variation than the erotic cross-dressing which the term often implies today.
1917, USA: Dr Alan L. Hart, (1890-1962) an American TB specialist, becomes one of the first female-to-male transsexuals to undergo hysterectomy and gonadectomy for the relief of gender dysphoria. Named Alberta Lucille Hart at birth, Hart lives the rest of his life as a man following the surgery.
1928, London: fictional trans man Stephen Gordon becomes the first gender variant character to be given the central role in a significant work of literature, Radclyffe Hall’s novel The Well of Loneliness. The Sunday Express campaigns against it, its editor James Douglas writing that he “would rather give a healthy boy or a healthy girl a phial of prussic acid than this novel.” Despite the novel’s complete absence of descriptive sex, a court judges the book obscene on the ground that it defended ‘unnatural practises between women.’
1931, Berlin: In June 1931, Dora R, (b. ~ 1891) who starts life as Rudolph R, becomes the first trans woman of whom records remain to undergo vaginoplasty. According to Dr Felix Abraham, a psychiatrist working at the Institute for Sexual Science, where Dora is employed as a domestic servant, her “first step to feminization was made by means of castration” in 1922. “After this there was a long pause, until the beginning of the year 1931, when the penis amputation was done and in June, the here described surgery” – a highly experimental vaginoplasty performed by Dr Erwin Gohrbandt, (1890-1965) who later becomes a decorated surgeon-general in the Luftwaffe.
1931: Lili Ilse Elvenes, (1882-1931) a Danish painter, better known today by the pseudonym ‘Lili Elbe’ becomes the second trans woman to benefit from Gohrbandt’s vaginoplasty technique in 1931. Her castration and penectomy had been performed by Dr Ludwig Levy-Lenz (1889-1966) the previous year. These preliminaries have sometimes caused confusion over the date of Lili’s ‘sex change’ which – like all other gender transitions – is not so much a single event as a process extended in time. Gohrbandt’s surgery deliberately leaves remnants of the scrotum intact, with a view to modifying these into labia at a later date, but for reasons that are unclear, but are perhaps related to Lili’s love of publicity, he does not perform this further procedure himself. Instead, Elvenes’ case is taken over by the media-friendly Nazi party member Dr Kurt Warnekros (1882-1949) at the Dresden Women’s Clinic. Here, the labiaplasty and a subsequent surgical revision leads, in that pre-antibiotic age, to Lili’s death from infection in September 1931. The pseudonym ‘Lili Elbe’ is first used in sensationalist Danish newspaper articles as pre-publicity for the publication of the pot-boiling book From Male to Female – Lili Elbe’s Confessions (Fra Mand til Kvinde – Lili Elbe Bekendelser*) where many of the myths and inaccuracies about Elvenes’ life story begin. Lili, the flamboyant publicity-loving artist, becomes a legend, while Dora R, the domestic servant who is probably the first trans woman to undergo vaginoplasty, becomes one of the countless ‘deviants’ who simply vanished in Germany after 1933. The ritual book-burning at the Institute for Sexual Science by Nazi students in May 1933, the obliteration of the Dresden Women’s Clinic and its records in the Allied bombing raids of February 1945, and the myth-making process itself, has left gaps and inconsistencies in the Lili Elbe narrative that may never be resolved.
* Fra Mand til Kvinde – Lili Elbe Bekendelser, ed. Niels Hoyer, Hage & Clausen, Copenhagen, 1931.
1936, London: ‘Woman Turns Into Man: Miss Mary is now Mr. Mark’ – Daily Express. ‘”Girl” Athlete’s New Life After Changing Sex.’ – News of the World – Headlines greeting the ‘sex change’ of Olympic champion Mary Louise Edith Weston, (b. ~1906) who becomes known as Mark Weston following genital surgery by Charing Cross Hospital’s Sir Lennox Broster. (see 1943 below)
1936, Russia: Dr. N. Bogoras publishes details of his first attempts at total phalloplasty using skin grafts (Bogoras N. Uber die volle plastische Wiederherstellung eines zum Koitus fahigen Penis (Peniplastica totalis). Zentralbl Chir 1936; 22: 1271.)
1939, London: By the end of the 1930s, a total of twenty-five sensational ‘sex change’ stories have appeared in British newspapers. Of these, thirteen stories tell of female-to-male transition, and just three of male-to-female. Eleven stories report ‘sex changes’ in Britain, while the rest were mainly European.*
* Fisher, Kate and Toulanan, Sarah: Bodies, Sex and Desire from the Renaissance to the Present, Basingstoke, Palgrave, 2011. p. 107.
1943, London: Sir Lennox Ross Broster OBE, (1888-1965) Harley Street surgeon and endocrinologist, is claimed to have performed ‘sex change’ operations by The News of the World, though this has been denied by Dr Clifford Allen, the psychiatrist who worked with Broster at that time. Broster does, however, perform numerous genital operations on intersex patients. But in the 1950s, he collaborates with Charing Cross Hospital psychiatrist John Randell in the treatment of patients described as ‘transvestites’, but who would now be called transsexuals. While the other pioneers of gender confirming surgery in the 1930s and 40s – Erwin Gohrbandt, Kurt Warnekros, Harold Gillies, and Milosh Kilcka – perform only a very few virtuoso genital procedures before directing their skills elsewhere, Broster performs several hundred such operations over his long career.
1946-49: Laurence Michael Dillon, (1915-62) previously Laura Maud Dillon, a medical student, becomes the first first female-to-male transsexual to undergo phalloplasty in a series of thirteen operations performed by Sir Harold Gillies, a pioneer in reconstructive surgery. Dillon likens himself to Stephen Gordon,* the ‘masculine invert’ of Radclyffe Hall’s banned novel, The Well of Loneliness.
* In: Dillon, Michael, Self: A Study in Ethics and Endocrinology, William Heinemann, London, 1946
1951, London: Roberta Cowell, a former RAF pilot, racing driver, and father of two, undergoes vaginoplasty, though the publicity and publication surrounding her transition does not occur until after the sensational media reports of the Christine Jorgensen ‘sex change’ in the USA in 1952-53. As a result, Cowell is able to distance herself from Jorgensen, whom she considers a ‘transvestite,’ while defining her own situation as ‘intersex.’ (1) “I was a freak. I had an operation and I’m not a freak any more. I had female chromosome make-up, XX. The people who have followed me have often been those with male chromosomes, XY. So they’ve been normal people who’ve turned themselves into freaks by means of the operation.” (2)
(1) In Cowell R., Roberta Cowell’s Story, British Book Centre, Inc., New York, 1954
(2)Roberta Cowell, interviewed by Michael Bateman, The Sunday Times, March 12, 1972.
1952, Scotland: Sir Ewan Forbes of Craigievar, (1912-91) previously Elizabeth Forbes-Sempill, succeeds in re-registering his birth as male without drawing public attention, a procedure then allowed in exceptional cases. The official murk and embarrassment surrounding his brother, the high-level traitor William Forbes-Sempill, helps protect Ewan’s privacy and gender history until his brother’s death in 1965, when the contested gender issues around Ewan’s succession to the Baronetcy of Craigevar are partly made public. Only after ‘the April Ashley case’ – Corbett v. Corbett (1970) – will Forbes’ and Roberta Cowell’s kind of discrete gender change be firmly excluded by law.
1952-3, Denmark and USA: Christine Jorgensen (1926-89). On December 1st, the New York Daily News carries a sensational front-page story – “Ex-GI Becomes Blonde Beauty”- claiming that Jorgensen (who was then in Denmark) has become the recipient of the first “sex change” This is not a vaginoplasty, as often stated, but a cosmetic vulvoplasty, her Danish surgeon Christian Hamburger not wishing to facilitate illegal penetrative homosexual sex, as the laws of the time – and lack of gender recognition – would perceive it. After her return to the United States on 13th February 1953, Jorgensen most certainly becomes the first American transsexual celebrity, the subject of books, newsreels, magazine articles, and stage performances, not all of the publicity favourable. For example, she is denied entry to Las Vegas, on the ground that she was ‘a female impersonator’.
1954, UK: Roberta Cowell takes on the role of unreliable narrator in her autobiography ‘Roberta Cowell’s Story’ There is a slew of sensational newspaper publicity, which includes an interview with unhappy former spouse, Mrs Zelma Paul. (Sunday Express, 7th March 1954)
1955, USA: John Money (1921-2006) a sexologist and psychologist introduces the concept of ‘gender role’ into the transsexual debate. Money will later be heavily criticised over the suicide of David Reimer, (1965-2004) a Canadian man who was reassigned as female after his penis was destroyed in infancy by botched circumcision.
1956, Morocco: Dr Georges Burou, (1910-87) a French gynaecologist, develops a new type of male-to-female gender confirmation surgery – the pedicled skin inversion vaginoplasty – which uses live penile skin grafts to construct the neo-vagina. In 1957, the news magazine France Dimanche carries a story about a French carpenter treated by Burou, and the publicity draws patients to the Casablanca clinic from all over the world. Over the next thirty years, 3,000 trans patients pass through the doors of the Clinique du Parc, amongst them the model April Ashley MBE, and the Welsh writer Jan Morris CBE. In 1973, Burou famously tells a medical conference at Stanford University that “I do not transform men into women. I transform male genitals into genitals that have a feminine aspect. All the rest is in the patient’s head.”
1960, London: Charing Cross Hospital psychiatrist John Randell (1918-82) reports in his MD thesis that he saw 61 male and 16 female cases of transvestism and transsexualism over the course of the 1950s.
1961, April Ashley, (b. 1935) a successful fashion model, and former patient of Dr Georges Burou, is exposed by a Sunday tabloid. (‘Her secret is out’ The extraordinary case of top model April Ashley – The People, 19th November 1961) As with many trans folk since, the hostile publicity destroys her career.
1965, USA: The word ‘transgenderism’ is first used in a medical text by Dr John F. Oliven, where he uses it is to mean transsexualism.* It is given quite a different meaning and popularized by Virginia Prince (1913-2009) in the 1970s. Prince claims to have invented the word herself, and uses it to define people who live full time in their chosen gender, without necessarily having had, or even wanting to have, gender confirming surgery. The difference in meaning between Oliven’s and Prince’s use of this word creates discontent and divisions in some sections of the trans community to this day.
* Oliven JF, Sexual hygiene and pathology: a manual for the physician and the professions, Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1965, p. 514
Circa 1965, Russia: gender confirming surgery begins under the auspices of Professor Aron Belkin, director of the Moscow Center of Psychiatric Endocrinology.
1966, Baltimore, USA: The term ‘gender identity’ is first used in a press release, 21st November 1966, to publicize a new clinic for transsexuals at The Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland. The concept is picked up by the media, and quickly becomes common currency around the world.
1969, New York: trans women Sylvia Rivera (1951-2002) and Marsha P. Johnson are ringleaders of the Stonewall Riot. Rivera is a founding member of both the Gay Liberation Front and Gay Activists Alliance, but the role of Rivera and her Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR) in helping to initiate the modern gay rights movement is quickly forgotten as gay activists seek to enter the mainstream. .
1969, London: The First International Symposium on Gender Identity is convened in July. The symposium is funded and organised by the Albany Trust and the Erickson Educational Foundation, a philanthropic body set up by American millionaire trans man Reed Erickson (1912-92) in 1964. News reporting of the symposium points to moral panic over the number of ‘sex changes’ performed in Britain: BRITAIN’S SEX CHANGE TOLL (Kent Evening Post, 28/7/69). 41 HAD CHANGE OF SEX (The Guardian, 28/7/69). 1,000 SEX CHANGES IN 20 YEARS (The Times, 28/7/69)
1970, London: April Ashley’s husband, Hon. Arthur Cameron Corbett, later 3rd Baron Rowallan (1919-93) goes to law to annul their marriage on the ground that April is not a woman, but a man, with whom no lawful marriage could exist. Lord Justice Ormrod (Sir Roger Fray Greenwood Ormrod 1911-92) takes evidence from Charing Cross psychiatrist John Randell who states, unfavourably, that he ‘considered that [April Ashley] is properly classified as a male homosexual transsexualist.’ In making his judgement allowing the annulment, Ormrod rules that sex was to be determined by chromosomal, gonadal and genital features at birth. The fact that Corbett had full knowledge of Ashley’s transsexual history when he married her is not considered relevant to the legal status of the marriage. Ormrod does not go so far as asserting that Ashely is a man, but rules that she is not a woman, a precedent that will bar British transsexuals from enjoying full legal and civil rights – including the right to marry in their preferred gender – until the passage of the Gender Recognition Act 34 years later.
1980, London: The News of the World claims that psychiatrist John Randell and Charing Cross consultant surgeon Peter Forbes Philip have made London the ‘sex-change capital of the world’ (News of the World, 12th October 1980). By the time of his retirement, Randell has seen 1768 male-to-female and 670 female-to-male trans patients at Charing Cross Hospital – considerably more than the populist German-American psychiatrist Harry Benjamin, who saw only 1560 trans patients across his entire career from 1938 until 1979.
1981: Sun Page 3 Girl, and Playboy model Caroline Cossey (b. 1954) who uses the stage name Tula, is outed by the News of the World after appearing as an extra in the James Bond film For Your Eyes Only. Cossey had undergone gender confirmation surgery at Charing Cross Hospital in 1974. In 1990, after seven years of legal process, Cossey is ultimately unsuccessful in her petition to the European Court of Human Rights for changes in the UK law concerning transsexuals.
1992, The Crying Game, a film written and directed by Neil Jordan, portrays the relationship between a transsexual woman and an IRA fighter in London.
1993, Nebraska, USA: The brutal murder of trans man Brandon Teena (1972-93) becomes a cause celebre and the subject of an influential 1999 feature film, Boys Don’t Cry, where the role of Teena is played by Hilary Swank.
2004, UK: The Gender Recognition Act 2004 allows transsexual people to change their legal gender if they wish to do so, and can accept the bureaucracy and medical scrutiny of the Gender Recognition Panels to which they must submit themselves. The Act comes into force on 4th April 2005, but take-up of Gender Recognition Certificates remains very much lower than anticipated.
2010, Europe: Thomas Hammarberg, Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights in Strasbourg, opposes the mental disorder classification of gender dysphoria, and the sterilisation of trans people as a requirement for legal gender change.
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