For International Women's Day, we've put together a brief history of some of the most influential transwomen in the world.
Jacqueline Charlotte Dufresnoy, also known as Coccinelle, was a French actress and singer. She made her debut as a showgirl in 1953 performing at Le Carrousel de Paris. Hers was the first publicized gender affirmation surgery in post-war Europe, and she became an international celebrity. She later founded Devenir Femme (To Become Woman), an organization to provide support for those seeking to transition. She helped establish the Center for Aid, Research and Information for Transexuality and Gender Identity, and her marriage to journalist Francis Bonnet was the first transgender union to be officially acknowledged by the government of France. Truly a pioneer.
Carlett Brown was born in Pittsburgh in 1927. She joined the navy to receive medical treatment for internal bleeding. During her examinations she was diagnosed with a “serious mental illness” for wanting to be female. Following medical examinations discovered that she was intersex. Doctors recommended removing the “female glands", she refused, and chose to pursue gender affirmation surgery. She sought out to physicians in various European countries, only to find that she would have to be a citizen of their countries to receive the treatment and procedure. Determined, she gained citizenship in Germany and renounced her American citizenship. Before she could board the boat to her new life, the American government ordered that she stay in the U.S. until she paid $1200 in back taxes. She took a job at Iowa State College to come up with the money, and that's the last that we know of her story. It is unclear if she ever made it to Germany, or if she is still alive today. If she made her trip, she is the first African American to undergo gender affirmation surgery.
Sylvia Rivera was a founding member of the Gay Liberation Front, Gay Activists Alliance, and Street Transvestites Action Revolutionaries (STAR). Of Puerto Rican and Venezuelan descent, she was born in NYC, abandoned by her father as an infant, and then orphaned at age 3 when her mother committed suicide. Her grandmother took her in for a time, but disapproved of Rivera’s effeminate behavior. At age 11 she wound up living on the streets. She was taken in by a community of local drag queens who gave her the name Sylvia. Outspoken and passionate, she was involved in numerous social causes and movements, including the Civil Rights movement, the Anti-War movement, Second Wave Feminism, the Stonewall Riots, and the Black Panthers.
Sir Lady Java
A trans-rights activist and performer, Sir Lady Java is still influential in LA and in the African American LGBTQ community today. She was born in New Orleans and transitioned at a young age with the help of her mother. Performing in local nightclubs, she moved to LA in her early 20s where she met such artists as Richard Pryor, Sammy Davis Jr., and Don Rickles. In 1967 the LAPD shut down her widely popular performances, citing an ordinance that prevents “impersonation by means of costume or dress of a person of the opposite sex,” and threatened to close the clubs where she performed. She enlisted the help of ACLU to try to make a case, but it wasn’t picked up by the court system because only the clubs themselves had a right to sue, and none would. In 1969 she began performing at Geneva’s Lounge in Portland, Oregon where she was absolutely beloved. Since the 80’s Sir Lady Java has kept a low profile, but was a guest of honor at the 18th Annual Trans Pride LA festival in 2016.
Jowelle de Souza is a hairdresser and community organizer in Trinidad and Tobago. She has spent her life as an activist for gay and trans rights, and animal welfare. She was the first person to undergo gender affirmation surgery in Trinidad, and became the first transwoman to sue the government for harassment. She was unfairly imprisoned and searched for pushing a photographer who was taking pictures without her permission. In this incident, male police officers insisted on searching her even though all of her identification and her appearance indicated that she was female. They relented and decided instead that a woman should search her. Jowelle’s case against the government claimed that it was unjust and unnecessary because she didn’t assault or even harm the photographer. She won the case and donated all of her awarded money to charity.
Raffi Freedman-Gurspan is an American trans-rights activist, and the first openly transgender person to work in the White House. Born in Honduras, she was adopted by an American family as an infant and raised in Massachusetts. In 2014 she was hired as the Policy Advisor at the National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE) and moved to Washington DC. One year later, President Barack Obama hired her as Outreach and Recruitment Director for the White House, then subsequently as the primary LGBTQ Liason in 2016 where she served until January 6, 2017. Raffi has returned to the NCTE as Director of External Relations, a role she holds to this day.
Janet Mock is a writer, prominent TV personality and host, and trans-rights and sex worker-rights activist. She began transitioning in her youth and funded her medical treatments by working as a sex worker. She earned a Bachelor of Arts in Fashion Merchandising from the University of Hawaii at Manoa, then continued to get a Masters of Arts in Journalism from NYU. She’s been presented with awards from GSLEN, the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, and her book Redefining Realness received the Stonewall Book award.
Tracey “Africa” Norman is an African American model, and the first black transwoman to work as a model for Clairol in the 1970s. She came out to her family the day she graduated high school and was accepted with open arms. By chance, she was hired as a model for Clairol and became part of the “Born Beautiful” campaign. She worked with Avon and was photographed for Italian Vogue, but during a shoot for Essence magazine she was outed as transgender, virtually ending her modeling career. In 2015, New York Magazine’s The Cut wrote a biographical piece about her, and Clairol reached out to have her return as the face of another campaign. In a statement, Clairol said they were "honored to bring back Tracey Norman as a woman who no longer has to hide her truth."
Christine Burns MBE is a political activist in the UK, best known for her work with Press for Change (PFC). PFC won a court case in 1996 securing anti-discriminatory employment rights for transgender people, the first law of its kind in the world. Christine was a key negotiator in the passing of the Gender Recognition Act. Her social victories for the LGBTQ community have been numerous, and she was at the cutting edge of podcasts in the early 2000’s with her podcast Just Plain Sense.
Nong Toom is a thai boxer and a kathoey, a Thai third gender with a female identity. Aware of her identity from a young age, she had a short stint as a monk, but ended up training as a Muay Thai boxer to help pay for her transition and support her family. In 1999 she announced her retirement from kickboxing and her intention to undergo transitional treatment and surgery. 2006 marked her return to boxing and in 2010 opened a boxing camp in Pranburi, Thailand. She currently teaches at the Baan Poo Yai School where she teaches children aerobics and Muay Thai.
Know an inspiring transwoman that we didn't list here? Post on social media with #IntersectionalWomensDay and say their names!