Road to Recognition: A Brief History of the Transgender Rights Movement

The Beginnings of the Transgender Rights Movement

Magnus Hirshfield and Virginia Prince

Hirshfeld Transgender scholar
By This file comes from Wellcome Images, a website operated by Wellcome Trust,

The term ‘transsexual’ dates back to an article written by Magnus Hirshfield in 1923, titled ‘The Intersexual Constitution’. It was the first inkling of recognition for the transgender community in modern America. Up until that point, many who experienced gender dysphoria did not know their own identity because of this mass obliviousness. Gender Dysphoria is the discomfort one feels when they perceive a disconnect between their biological sex and their gender identity. It took a pivotal century for America to acknowledge the transgender rights movement, even with important figures like Hirshfield.

  In 1952, another pioneer, Virginia Prince, published “Transvestia: The Journal of the American Society for Equality in Dress” along with others of her activist circles. Featuring letters, advice, and life-stories from other crossdressers of the time kept the magazine going. They made roughly 100 issues, all dedicated to “…help… readers achieve understanding, self-acceptance, [and] peace of mind”.

Cooper Do-nuts Riots


  Though these publications by Hirshfield and Prince were the first sources that a curious or questioning reader could look to, the transgender rights movement did not emerge until 1959 in the Cooper Do-nuts Riots. Though the shop was a particularly popular hang out for transgender people, all members of the LGBT acronym were there to protest police harassment. Some even consider this event to be the first queer uprising within America. Police detained men and women if their outward appearance did not match the gender marker on their identification. When they attempted this at Cooper Do-nuts, several of the patrons threw coffee, donuts, and trash at them, until they fled empty-handed.

Compton Cafeteria Riots and Vanguard against Transgender People

In congruence with police harassment, several institutions did not accept the LGBT community. The Compton Cafeteria was one such place. The proprietors did not welcome the transgender crowd that would frequent their business. In 1966, a picket launched over the Compton Cafeteria’s bigotry when they called police on these “loiterers”. As they arrested the participants, one trans woman threw her coffee in a police man’s face. This led to throwing food, furniture, and breaking the store window’s glass, twice. After the riot, support networks of the transgender rights movement suddenly began sprouting. Especially in San Francisco, where the riot took place. One network, a queer youth group known as Vanguard, organized several political activities that brought awareness to the general mistreatment of transgender people.

Harry Benjamin

In that same year, endocrinologist Harry Benjamin published ‘The Transexual Phenomenon”. The book revolutionized the medical field’s understanding of transgender patients because it was the first to detail the steps one would take to transition surgically as well as hormonally. This can be related to Benjamin’s previous work in 1949 when he was one of the pioneers in hormonal treatment. He advocated for this treatment instead of other dangerous methods such as electroconvulsive therapy, lobotomy, and conversion therapy. Benjamin’s work resonates with the medical and transgender community as one of the first methods to look to while transitioning.

The Stonewall Riots

Transgender Rights movement
Davies, Diana, 1938-, Photographer. Stonewall Inn. Image ID: 1582272

  The next event in LGBT-activist history is the most well-known: the Stonewall Riots. On the early morning of June 28th, 1969, police raided the Stonewall Inn of Manhattan, New York City. They did this for two reasons. Their first justification was that at that time, the inn was owned by the Mafia, and they were extorting their more affluential customers. It should be said that the Stonewall Inn was also known to take in the most marginalized characters of the LGBT acronym, such as drag queens, gay homeless youth, butch lesbians, and others. And so, the police had another reason that morning, because LGBT establishments were often subject to police raids. The difference between this raid and the countless others of its time was that for one of the first times, the police received massive backlash from the patrons of the inn. 

Police instructed the 205 patrons of the inn to line the perimeter and present their identification. It was also a procedure for female officers to strip-check the sex of transgender women in the restrooms before detaining them. Many of them refused, and several others denied to produce their identifications. This gradually escalated the situation while they waited for patrol wagons to take the arrestees to the station. As they released certain people through the front doors of the inn, a crowd gathered. Many of them mocked the police with limp salutes and phrases like, “Pig!”, but this was not the true source of the outbreak. A woman, described as a “Dyke-stone butch”, got into a scuffle with a policeman. They hit her over the head with a baton, which pushed the crowd over its limit.

The events that transpired then made history. Two bloody nights of rioting at the Stonewall Inn impacted not only the transgender rights movement but the entire LGBT community as well.

Street Transvestites Action Revolutionaries

This type of impact is seen in 1970 when Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera founded Street Transvestites Action Revolutionaries (STAR). The organization became a model for other LGBT support groups because it was one of the first to accept the more discriminated against members of the community. This included housing sex workers, queer youth, and other “street queens” of color. Despite it ending a year later, STAR housing had lasting effects that proved the worth of all homeless people.

Renee Richards

Renee Richards challenged the traditional outlook of transgender people and sports when she fought as a transgender woman to compete with other women in the 1976 US Open. Her actions sparked a necessary contradiction that made tennis enthusiasts and players alike question their original stances on competitive play. Her fight lasted a year, until the New York Supreme Court ruled in her favor. The question of this event still lingers today for many sports competitors, should transgender people be able to compete with cisgender athletes?

American Psychiatric Association

As the transgender rights movement became more well known, the American Psychiatric Association added the new term, “Gender Identity Disorder”, to “The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders”. They defined it as “a disorder in which an individual exhibits marked and persistent identification with the opposite sex and persistent discomfort (dysphoria) with his or her own sex or sense of inappropriateness in the gender role of that sex.”

  Today, the controversy over this definition is still being waged. While the majority of the medical field believes dysphoria is required to be a transgender individual, another part believes gender expression and gender “euphoria” alone are enough to determine the authenticity of a person’s transition. Gender euphoria is the comfort one feels when expressing their true identity. No matter the correct definition, transgender resources such as hormones that go towards surgery are limited, and should only be taken if that individual is absolutely certain about their decision.

Brandon Teena Murdered for being Transgender

The case of American transgender male Brandon Teena is the basis for the prolific films Boys Don’t Cry (1999) and The Brandon Teena Story (1998). He experienced discrimination from the legal system, medical professionals, and friends. This eventually led to his violent death in 1993. When he moved to Falls City, Nebraska, and began dating Lana Tisdel, he met with ex-convicts John Lotter and Marvin ‘Tom’ Nissen. After the authorities associated him with the two, they arrested him, charging him with forgery of written checks. When a local paper published this, they used his incorrect pronouns and given birth-name. Lotter and Nissen learned Brandon’s birth identity after reading the newspaper article. Police released him after Tisdel paid his bail.

  One night at a Christmas party, Lotter and Nissen demanded Brandon take off his pants in front of Tisdel to prove he had a vagina. Afterward, they forced him into a car and took him to an isolated area, where they gang-raped him. They ordered him to take a shower and threatened to “silence him permanently” if he reported the incident to the police. While in Nissen’s bathroom, Brandon escaped via the window. He filed a police report almost immediately. However, the policeman he spoke with was concerned more with the victim’s gender identity than the actual crime itself.  Later, the hospital misplaced his rape kit.

  The police believed that this was a substantial piece of evidence. Without it, they took no further action but to question Lotter and Nissen. After they learned of Brandon’s report, they drove to Lisa Lambert’s house, who at the time was housing him and Tisdel’s sister’s boyfriend, Philip DeVine. Brandon was hiding when they entered, and Lambert refused to tell them where he was. They inquired if anyone else was in the house. She told them that DeVine was staying there as well. On December 31st, 1993, they shot and killed Brandon, Lambert, and DeVine in front of Lambert’s toddler. Brandon’s final resting place is in the Lincoln Memorial Cemetery, where feminine pronouns and his birth name are inscribed. Even so, the court took legal actions against Nissen and sentenced him to life in prison. The judge gave Lotter the death penalty.

The tragedy that occurred still echoes the serious issues befalling the transgender rights movement today. When Brandon Teena’s case first came out, many of the journalists chose to use incorrect pronouns and his birth name. Since then, some reporters have expressed remorse for that choice. There were several takes on Brandon Teena, but this incident remains an imperative warning for LGBT people everywhere.

While these individuals may have felt alone in their own times, the culmination of their stories changed the face of American society. It took the efforts of thousands of people to foster the transgender rights movement into what it is today- a prospering community interlinked with the body of LGBT people that should be given equal and unwavering respect.

Written by Khalila Sherrod

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