Society in Transition: A History of the Trans Movement

JAN 19, 2017

by James Montaño

Christine Jorgensen

There have always been individuals who challenged gendered social norms. But Western social, medical, and political recognition of people who cross the boundaries of gender only truly began in the 20th century. The stories of Trans Scripts are interwoven into this history—a history that is still being written and re-defined today.

One of the earliest attempts to medically define the trans experience came in the early 20th century with the research of Berlin-based physician/sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld. In 1919, Hirschfeld published The Transvestites, outlining his research and treatments for transgender people—then referred to as transvestites. Hirschfeld’s study and advocacy for trans people was rooted in the belief that sex characteristics and erotic desire were among a variety of biological traits, and that society needed to adapt, not the individual. In 1931, he arranged the first male-to-female genital transformation for Dora Richter. The connection of “sex-hormones”—estrogen and testosterone—to physical sexual identifiers was discovered by his Austrian colleague Eugen Steinach. After Adolf Hitler called Hirschfeld “the most dangerous Jew in Germany,” Nazi vigilantes destroyed his Institute in May 1933, burning his entire library.

In the 1940s and 50s, medical and political discourse around transgender lives collided in the US, thanks to the sexuality studies of Karl Bowman of the Langley Porter Psychiatric Clinic at the University of California San Francisco, sexologist Alfred Kinsey, and German-born American sexologist/ endocrinologist Harry Benjamin, a friend of Hirschfeld. These researchers together fought for medical access for transgender people in a court case in California. The state ruled against offering access, essentially making sex-change operations illegal for doctors to perform. Despite this ruling, the UCSF Clinic helped connect trans people and planted the seeds of a movement.

Largely ignored by the general public, trans representation in the US abruptly came to the fore in 1952 with the very public sexual reassignment of Christine Jorgensen in Copenhagen. A Bronx-raised former soldier in the US Army, Jorgenson’s dramatic transformation made the December 1, 1952 cover of the New York Daily News with the headline “Ex-GI Becomes Blond Bombshell,” which raised immediate awareness of the lives of transgender people. Jorgensen became a celebrity of sorts, and, though she was rarely political, she became an example for many who had no reference point or way of defining their identity, including some of the women portrayed in Trans Scripts. This identity also began to evolve as the media struggled to define Jorgensen; some still referred to her as a “hermaphrodite.” It was Harry Benjamin who began to use the term “transsexual” to differentiate between the act of cross-dressing and the medical transformation of gender.

The lack of legal protections for transgender and gay people led to a climate of continued police harassment in public spaces in the US. In several instances, this harassment exploded into acts of resistance. Three specific riots are noted for propelling the modern trans rights movement, as well as the gay rights movement. The first riot was in Los Angeles, at Cooper’s Donuts in May 1959, where gay, trans, and cross-dressing people (mostly Latina/Latino and African American) began to push back at unfair arrests by police. In 1966, a second riot broke out in the Tenderloin district of San Francisco at Compton’s Cafeteria following police harassment. The third riot became the most famous. In June 1969, at the Stonewall Inn in New York City, trans people, gay men and women, and drag queens tussled with police into the early morning hours. Trans activist Sylvia Rivera tells of throwing a beer bottle at police, setting off the melee.)

Activism flourished following the Stonewall riots, establishing an early political voice for sexual minorities. The activist organization STAR, the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries, formed under Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson, an African American trans activist, focusing on the plight of gay and trans youth in New York. The Queer Liberation Front (QLF) was also founded around this time to focus on the visibility of drag queens and trans people in gay events.

Socially, the second-wave feminism of the 1960s and 70s, as well as the pop aesthetic of glam rock and the avant-garde theatricality of artists including the Cockettes and John Waters, challenged traditional social norms. However, it was the HIV/AIDS crisis in the 1980s which united the gay, lesbian, and trans communities into a politically-driven movement. The scourge of HIV/AIDS pushed many in these communities to speak out, with numerous rallies and new organizations rising to confront the challenges of the disease. ACT UP and Transgender Nation made waves in the fight for improved medical access for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people and, eventually, social acceptance.

Medically, 1980 also brought the addition of “Gender Identity Disorder” to the third edition of the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-III). This addition has since proved highly controversial, as it described cross-dressing and transgender experiences as “disordered.” However, the classification as a medical condition also allowed governments and the medical community to view gender- reassignment therapy as a needed medical practice, rather than solely cosmetic. The 2013 update to the DSM (DSM-V) renamed “gender identity disorder” as “gender dysphoria,” removing some of the stigma attached to “disorder” and essentially altering the classification from a pathology to an identity.

The 90s and beyond have been a struggle for social awareness and legal identity. The assaults and murders of trans people in cities across the US, including Rita Hester, murdered in Allston, MA in 1998, caused an outcry for political attention. The first Transgender Day of Remembrance was declared in 1999 following Hester’s murder, and in 2002 the Transgender Law Center began its work pushing for legal protections of trans people. Films, including The Crying Game (1992) and Boys Don’t Cry (1999) helped further the social narrative of the victimization of trans bodies.

Much of the legal recognition and protections for trans individuals have come in the last two decades. The Gender Recognition Act of 2004 in the UK provided legal recognition of change of gender. In 2007, Spain allowed for the documented change of sex with only two years of medical treatment and a doctor’s diagnosis of gender dysphoria. This law is considered one of the most progressive of its kind. In the US that same year, the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, an anti-hate- crimes bill, was blocked in the Senate, though it was eventually passed in 2009. In 2010, the US federal government extended employment protections to transgender people, and in 2012 the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission found discrimination against trans people to be in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. The US military has announced that, starting in 2017, it will open its doors to trans individuals.

More than ever, contemporary media is highlighting a variety of trans stories, from Fox’s “Glee,” to Amazon’s “Transparent,” and Netflix’s “Orange Is the New Black.” But those stories reflect only a small sliver of the myriad experiences of transgender people. Like the women in Trans Scripts, every story is unique and challenges any preconceived notion of a singular “trans experience.” Through its continuing evolutions, the trans movement has fought for the individual dignity of trans lives within a society itself in a state of transition.


James Montaño is a second-year dramaturgy student at the A.R.T. Institute for Advanced Theater Training at Harvard University.

Image Credit:
Christine Jorgensen: Make It Old/Flickr.

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