“Free Our Siblings, Free Ourselves:” Historicizing Trans Activism in the U.S., 1952–1992
Abram J. Lewis
Recent years have seen a surge in attention to transgender politics. Famously—and controversially—dubbed a “transgender tipping point” by Time
magazine, trans justice is now recognized as a thriving social movement.
In addition to work on issues such as legal recognition, healthcare access, antidiscrimination protections, and increased cultural representation, progressive activists have insisted on the interconnections of trans politics with issues of race, class, immigration, sex work, incarceration, HIV/AIDS, reproductive justice, and disability. The field of trans studies has also expanded dramatically in recent years. Within scholarship, trans politics is given a somewhat longer periodization: scholars typically date this to the early 1990s, when “transgender” was popularized as an umbrella category to encompass all forms of non-normative gender identity and expression. But scholars also routinely acknowledge longer histories of activism by and for gender minority communities, which significantly predate 1990s “transgender” politics.
This article provides a brief survey of that earlier history, dating back to the postwar period, and focusing especially on the 1970s, a period of heightened activity. A basic argument of this piece is that while “transgender” per se is a relatively recent formation, earlier activists also had a strong sense of shared political cause across a range of gender minority identities. Like today’s transgender movement, many older activists built solidarity across communities composed of transsexuals, transvestites, butch lesbians and femme gay men, drag queens and female impersonators, intersex people, and others marginalized on the basis of difference from gender norms. Accordingly, in what follows, I use the characterization “trans” to refer, in an umbrella sense, to pre-90s activism. Additionally, many of these activists had developed an understanding of trans issues as related to, yet distinct from, movements like LGB activism. And like progressive activists today, many of these earlier groups were noteworthy in emphasizing trans politics as always shaped through interlocking political structures.
Early Interventions: The Postwar Period
In 1952, when World War II veteran Christine Jorgensen made headlines as the first public case of sex reassignment surgery in the U.S., it set the stage for the beginnings of trans advocacy. Key to early political consciousness were the efforts of California-based activists Virginia Prince and her mentor, Louise Lawrence. The same year Jorgensen achieved celebrity as a “blonde bombshell,” Lawrence launched Transvestia: The Journal of the American Society for Equality in Dress,
which Susan Stryker has marked “the beginning of the transgender rights movement in the United States.”
In 1960 Prince resumed Lawrence’s work, establishing her own Transvestia,
which became an important site of community formation for self-described “heterosexual transvestites.”
In 1962 Prince founded the country’s first national crossdressing network, the Foundation for Full Personality Expression (FPE) or Phi Pi Epsilon—a nod to Greek letter sororities. Transvestia
and FPE were primarily venues for social networking, not traditional activism. Nonetheless, they were key in politicizing an understanding of “trans” not as medical pathology, but social identity.
Although FPE and Transvestia
were innovations, they were also embedded in the “respectability politics” of the postwar period.
Prince catered to male-identified crossdressers who were mostly white, middle class, and married, and she sought to align crossdressing broadly with white, bourgeois, heterosexual ideals. Prince denounced associations of crossdressing with sexual “deviance,” including homosexuality. In her words, Transvestia
was dedicated to “sexually normal” individuals who simply wished to explore stigmatized forms of personal expression. Transvestia
and FPE should be partly understood within historical context: they emerged after the 1950s Lavender Scare, which saw mass firings of lesbians and gay men from government, and general cultural coding of homosexuality as a social threat.
Additionally, LGBT material circulated through the post was criminalized under obscenity law, and Prince was convicted (but served no prison time) for obscenity.
Given this, the move to distance trans issues from stigmatized sexuality—and reconcile crossdressing with racial and class ideals—was perhaps strategic. Nonetheless, Prince’s work was not representative of trans experience broadly in her time. Like today, many trans people experienced profound economic marginality due to discrimination, often compounded by marginalization on the basis of race. Additionally, many trans people identified as gay, or identified strongly with LGB culture. FPE and Transvestia,
in contrast, cleaved to ideals and material privileges that were unachievable or undesirable for most trans people.
The other major organization of this period was the Erickson Educational Foundation (EEF), established in 1964 by its eponymous founder: millionaire philanthropist and notoriously eccentric trans man, Reed Erickson. During the 1960s, he began medical transition under Harry Benjamin—then one of few trans health providers. The EEF served a dual mission: to assist where “human potential is limited by physical, mental or social conditions, or where scope of research is too new, controversial, or imaginative to encourage traditionally oriented support.”
The group became an important backer of early gender identity research, and it developed a national referral service, connecting trans people with medical and legal support. Additionally, the EEF Newsletter
was a major community resource, covering national developments around trans issues during a time when trans communities had very little access to information about their own lives.
Like Prince, Erickson was unusual in enjoying exceptional class privilege as a trans person, in addition to his whiteness. But Erickson was more forthright in backing overtly political work, including gay politics. But most distinctive were the initiatives it funded under its nebulous commitment to “new, controversial, or imaginative” work. Alongside trans issues, the EEF supported an eclectic array of countercultural initiatives, including research on dreams, animal communication, hallucinogens, parapsychology, and New Age spirituality. The EEF’s idiosyncratic funding mirrored Erickson’s own personal eccentricities. Erickson was an avid consumer of psychotropics, he had prominent friendships with nonhuman animals, and was committed to a range of alternative spiritual pursuits. Erickson’s creativity and willingness to defy social norms undercut the breadth of his work, and allowed him to situate trans advocacy within an expansive, heterogeneous social imaginary.
Alongside these organizations, the pre-Stonewall years also saw a spate of more informal, militant protests. These ephemeral sites of resistance were driven by trans people who were also variously youth, people of color, homeless and low-income people, and sex workers. Like the Stonewall riots, they occurred mostly in direct response to police abuse. Like today, trans people—especially trans women and people of color—were subject to routine abuse and arrest by law enforcement. Additionally, many cities in the 1960s had anti-crossdressing laws, making trans people even more vulnerable to arrest.
The most significant of these militant responses was the 1966 riot at Compton’s Cafeteria, in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district. Like many historically African American neighborhoods, poverty and homelessness in the Tenderloin were greatly exacerbated by postwar urban renewal, which removed viable economic opportunities and forcibly relocated black and working-class communities in surrounding neighborhoods to the outskirts of the city. The Tenderloin became a hub for criminalized economies like drug trade and sex work. Combined with the area’s reputation as a “haven for outcasts,” it attracted a sizable poor and homeless LGBT population.
One August night, when police arrived to oust a group of queens, one responded by throwing her coffee in an officer’s face. A melee involving scores of patrons and locals ensued. In this case, the riots galvanized ongoing initiatives, including, importantly, coalitions with local anti-poverty work. Opening a few months after the riots, the Central City Anti-Poverty Program Office incorporated a liaison officer to support police relations with the Tenderloin’s gay and trans community. In 1967, trans people began meeting at Glide Memorial Church, out of which Conversion Our Goal was formed to advocate for trans medical care. In 1968, the National Transsexual Counseling Unit was founded.
Also of note was the militant group Vanguard, organized by gay and trans street youth in the Tenderloin from 1966-1969.
While divergent from larger organizations of their time, the Compton’s revolt anticipated LGBT militancy following the 1969 Stonewall riots. Spearheaded by communities for which gender-based discrimination was inextricably linked to racism, capitalism, and heterosexism, these protests also illuminate the cross-fertilizations of early trans protest with movements for racial and economic justice, and programs built in the wake of Compton’s grounded trans issues in the larger milieu of the War on Poverty. These connections, however, would deepen in the decade following the Stonewall riots.
“All Power to Trans Liberation:” the Post-Stonewall Years
In his foundational book, Martin Duberman describes the riots at the Stonewall Inn as “the
emblematic event in modern lesbian and gay history.”
Historians have debated whether Stonewall should be considered a watershed in LGBT community life, but it did radically alter the face of LGBT activism. The pre-Stonewall homophile movement was composed mainly of white, professional-class gay men and lesbians. They prioritized contained reform agendas and generally sought to demonstrate that gay people could be virtuous, contributing members of society. Their investments in social respectability alienated trans people: major groups, for instance, often required that protest attendees wear formal attire reflecting the sex they were assigned at birth.
But if pre-Stonewall activism prioritized inclusion within dominant mores, the gay liberation movement rejected mainstream orders altogether. The overall “mood” of LGBT activism following the riots swung from civility to militancy. Gay liberation groups were also distinct in their coalitional investments in radical feminism, Black Power and antiracist organizing, anti-war efforts, and anticolonial movements in the global south. These movements laid groundwork for radical dissent around LGBT issues that Stonewall then inexorably sparked. And like the trans-led revolts of prior years, Stonewall should be understood not so much as a proud declaration of gay selfhood (as it is sometimes memorialized), but a site of collective resistance to conditions of state violence, specifically, law enforcement abuse.
Buoyed by the transformations in gay activism, the 1970s saw a surge in organizing by and for trans communities. Likely the first post-Stonewall organization was the Queens Liberation Front, founded by Lee Brewster in New York in 1969. Catering to transsexuals, drag queens, female impersonators, and transvestites of all sexualities, QLF was an early group that advanced an “umbrella” understanding of trans politics. Despite its militant name, QLF was often oriented towards liberal reform: its main early effort, for example, was overturning New York City’s anti-crossdressing law.
In the same local milieu, 1970 saw the emergence of Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR), a radical collective of queer and trans street youth, spearheaded by Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson, respectively, Latinx and African American trans women sex workers. Rivera and Johnson, in fact, had been informally organizing trans people in years prior, but with STAR, they expanded efforts to include solidarity work, appearing not just at gay protests but also actions with the Communist, Young Lords, and Black Panther parties.
They established “STAR House” in the East Village, providing trans people with free shelter, hustling tips, and a safer environment in which to use drugs. STAR and QLF would became part of a larger national network. In 1970, Angela Douglas founded the Transexual Action Organization (TAO) in L.A., which she relocated to Miami Beach in 1972.
The group grew into an international network of local chapters. Douglas herself was white, but due to its location in Miami Beach, TAO developed a strong membership of low-income Latinx trans women.
Another major participant in this network was Philadelphia’s Radical Queens, formed around 1972 by Tommi Avicolli Mecca, a white working-class fem, and Cei Bell, an African American trans woman. They shared the antiracist and anticapitalist sensibilities of STAR and TAO, with a more-mixed class membership, including trans people radicalized in college. Like its contemporaries, Radical Queens emerged in a complicated political milieu: they were developing a progressive platform to advance trans issues, they saw trans politics as interconnected with gender politics in gay and women’s activism, and they claimed solidarity with these movements. But they also faced mixed, sometimes hostile, responses from gay and feminist factions they sought to align with. This engendered complex critical parsing of the interwoven politics of gender nonconformity, heteronormativity, and patriarchy.
These activists, however, would face mounting challenges as the 1970s progressed. This included not just general backlash against the mass movements, but also growing animosity from gay and women’s liberation. This shift can be partly attributed to gains that trans activists made in drawing attention to their causes, and to the fraught consequences of mainstream visibility. The 1970s threw trans issues into the popular spotlight as well, with films like Myra Breckenridge
and Rocky Horror Picture Show.
Images of gender nonconformity proliferated with icons like David Bowie; and Andy Warhol and John Waters established cult followings for trans actors like Divine, Candy Darling, Holly Woodlawn, and others. While trans people were experiencing heightened visibility, gay and feminist groups were gaining political traction, and moving to seek sanction of major social institutions, like law enforcement and medicine—institutions that were newly accepting of certain cis gay men and lesbians, but less prepared to countenance trans people.
As a result, trans communities were increasingly regarded more as a problem than a object of solidarity. This produced concerted efforts by gay and feminist activists to distance themselves from and denounce trans issues.
At the same time, gays working to pass early antidiscrimination bills quickly adopted language specifying that sexual orientation protections did not include “standards of attire or dress.”
Similarly, gays campaigning to declassify homosexuality as a mental illness in 1973 built a case partly around the argument that homosexuality was wholly unrelated to transvestism and transsexuality: they argued that while gay people were not
mentally ill, trans people were,
but psychiatrists should not conflate those distinct groups. The introduction of “Gender Identity Disorder” as a new diagnostic category in 1980 occurred partly in response to these arguments.
The later 1970s also saw the first court cases establishing that trans people were not covered by sex discrimination protections under Title VII, including Paula Grossman’s case, which upheld her firing as a public school teacher.
By 1981, a federal report developed in consultation with Janice Raymond, an ardently anti-trans feminist, advised that trans-related surgeries be considered strictly “experimental.”
While trans people had previously accessed care through Medicaid and private insurance, the report became precedent-setting in establishing trans healthcare exclusion as a national standard.
In popular discussion today, it is commonplace to regard trans issues—and gender identity broadly—as distinct from LGB issues and matters of sexuality. This distinction, however, had to be created: it was not firmly in place prior to the 1970s, when activists and the general public closely associated sexual and gender non-conformity. And the history of this categorical distinction stems not just from trans people’s efforts to clarify their own identities, but also from hostile initiatives to exclude trans identities and issues from gay and feminist politics.
It is important to note, however, that precisely because trans communities were barred from major reform efforts, the strategies they developed to support their lives and work often occurred outside of formal organizations. At times, these strategies do not look like conventional activism at all. Even before relations with gays and feminists became fraught, trans activists prioritized self-determination within their own communities. And rather than seeking access to dominant support structures, informal survival services and mutual aid were priorities, reflected especially in initiatives like STAR House. As the decade progressed, trans activists mostly declined the conciliatory partnerships that gay and feminist groups sought with law enforcement and medical authorities—in this, they retained critiques of statist and structural violence that outlasted the “mainstreaming” of gay and feminist politics.
And importantly, these groups conducted familiar forms of activism as part of a more unusual—yet creative and expansive—political imaginary. TAO, Radical Queens, and EEF all envisioned trans people not only in relation to other marginalized humans, but also other species, forces, and beings—suggested in the EEF’s dedication to interspecies communication, for instance. Radical Queens imagined possibilities for gendered transformation gleaned from the animal kingdom, or as they called it, the animal “queendom;” they also penned meditations on how witchcraft and Satanism might serve trans politics.
TAO collated a distinctly idiosyncratic, countercultural praxis: the group solicited extraterrestrials as allies on more than one occasion, on the grounds that most humans regard trans people on par with “space people.”
From the vantage point of today, these efforts are amongst their most confounding. If acknowledged at all by historians, they are usually chalked up to mental illness or distilled as countercultural loopiness—not part of proper “political” work. However, in their time, these communities were materially under-resourced, negotiating routinized interpersonal and institutional violence, and generally bereft of legal recognition or protections. They were gradually rejected by political allies, who barred them from normative forms of political participation. Within this context, it is arguably not so surprising that activists looked altogether beyond human and worldly planes for political support. Today, when trans communities are again experiencing a conjuncture of heightened visibility—and facing the mixed consequences of visibility—1970s activists may even have a lot to teach us in their imaginative engagements with the mysterious, obscure, and unearthly.
The Pre-“Posttranssexual” 1980s
Notwithstanding activists’ ingenuity in negotiating hostile political landscapes, trans activism dwindled significantly by the 1980s. Already reeling from the preceding decade’s setbacks, the AIDS epidemic was devastating for trans politics, and indeed, trans communities broadly—with trans women, then and now, experiencing some of the highest seroprevalence rates in the country. Deeply exacerbating the damage wrought by HIV/AIDS was the massive defunding of public service under Reagan, which made trans communities even more vulnerable and under-resourced. The urgency of the AIDS crisis, however, reconciled some divisions between gay and trans activists, especially as militant groups like ACT/UP returned to the coalitional politics of gay liberation, and rejected appeals to gender conformity espoused by major groups of the late 1970s.
Drag and camp became prominent fixtures of AIDS activism’s political theater, with groups like the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence appearing at protests in nun-inspired drag.
And while they did not always participate formally in groups like ACT/UP, trans community members often worked behind the scenes to support people living with AIDS, including organizing drag performances as fundraisers, or participating in early direct services initiatives like NYC’s God’s Love We Deliver.
There were, however, exceptions to this decade’s relative dearth of political activity. In particular, the 1980s were noteworthy in seeing unprecedented visibility for transmasculine communities. In 1982, Toronto-based activist Rupert Raj established Metamorphisis
magazine as a resource “exclusively for F-M men.”
In 1986, Lou Sullivan—an HIV-positive, gay trans man—established the first major organization for trans men, FTM International, which remains active today.
At the same time, just as the AIDS crisis created the conditions for “queer” politics in the 1990s, so too did this milieu advance critical thought on trans issues. In 1987, Sandy Stone published her foundational, “The Empire
Strikes Back: A Posttranssexual Manifesto” which would become a defining text of trans scholarship and politics in subsequent decade.
In sum, the upheavals of HIV/AIDS set the scene for emergence of a full-fledged transgender movement by the early 1990s, with Leslie Feinberg’s 1992 pamphlet, “Transgender Liberation: A Movement Whose Time Has Come,” often cited as an inaugural document.
But as anthropologist David Valentine has noted, although the ascendance of “transgender” as a new category is owed largely to the interventions of community activists, it was also abetted by institutional forces. As Valentine argues, “transgender” achieved rapid traction across law, medicine, and service providers partly because during the 1980s, trans women became newly intelligible as a distinct “at risk” population for the spread of the virus.
To an extent, this crystallization of “transgender” as a new category—distinct from sexual identity—furthered the mixed history of partitioning trans from gay politics, and constructing lesbian and gay identity as presumptively gender-normative. But as no political movement is wholly insulated from dominant discourses, the fact that “transgender’s” popularization was facilitated by dominant structures should not eclipse the rich and expansive landscape of community activism that unfolded under “transgender’s” aegis in the 1990s.
Collectively, trans activist history unsettles the novelty sometimes accorded to trans politics in popular discussion today. U.S. trans communities are inheritors of an expansive, robust tradition of resistance that spans over half a century. Like progressive groups today, most noteworthy of these older factions were those that recognized, and put into praxis, an analysis of how LGBT and feminist liberation was inextricably tied to racial, economic, and disability justice. However, as trans politics in the “tipping point” era begins to garner institutional traction that harkens to earlier developments in lesbian and gay politics, it behooves scholars and advocates to attend to the mixed consequences of these institutionalizing forces—just as progressive trans activists in the 1970s- 80s recognized. Perhaps the greatest resource these activist traditions offer to contemporary critics is their ingenuity in fashioning worldmaking strategies that did not require them to center the most privileged or respectable community members. In particular, trans activists’ commitments to self-determination, mutual aid, and their critiques of statist and other structural sources of violence—strategies often centered in lieu of appeals to representation or visibility—offer important models for building an intersectional program for trans justice. And indeed, many progressive activists are turning precisely to these historical traditions. To borrow activist Tourmaline Gossett’s appropriation of a Black Power-era chant, radical trans activists have gathered these histories of resistance behind their imperative today: “Free Our Siblings, Free Our Selves.”
Abram J. Lewis is a postdoctoral fellow in Gender, Women's and Sexuality studies at Grinnell college. His writing and teaching focuses on progressive queer and feminist activists movements since the Civil Rights era. Lewis is also a founder of the NYC Trans Oral History project, a community archive built in partnership with the New York Public Library.
Katy Steinmetz, “The Transgender Tipping Point: America’s next civil rights frontier,” Time, May 29, 2014.
Susan Stryker, Transgender History 125.
Susan Stryker, “Transgender Activism,” in GLBTQ: An Encyclopedia of Gay Lesbian Bisexual Transgender and Queer Culture, ed. CJ Summers (2004).
Robert S. Hill, “We Share a Sacred Secret: Gender, Domesticity, and Containment in ‘Transvestias Histories’ and Letters from Crossdressers and their Wives,” Journal of Social History, 44 (Spring 2011), 731.
Richard Ekins and Dave King, The Transgender Phenomenon (2015), Kindle Edition.
Hill, "We Share a Sacred Secret," 731.
Quoted in Joanne Meyerowitz, “Sex Research at the Borders of Gender: Transvestites, Transsexuals, and Alfred C. Kinsey,” Bulletin of the History of Medicine, 75 (Spring 2001), 78.
See David K. Johnson, The Lavender Scare: The Cold War Persecution of Gays and Lesbians in the Federal Government (2009).
Stryker, Transgender History, 85.
“Statement of Policy,” EEF Newsletter, 5 (Spring 1972), 1.
Joanne Meyerowitz, How Sex Changed: A History of Transsexuality in the United States (2009), 215.
Joey Plaster, “Imagined Conversations and Activist Lineages: Public Histories of Queer Homeless Youth Organizing and the Policing of Public Space in San Francisco’s Tenderloin, 1960s and Present,” Radical History Review, 113 (Spring 2012), 101.
For an exhaustive treatment of Compton’s, see Victor Silverman and Susan Stryker, Screaming Queens: The Riot at Compton’s Cafeteria (2005).
Martin Duberman, Stonewall (1994), xvii.
See Marc Stein, Rethinking the Gay and Lesbian Movement (2012), 77. Also corroborated in: Jay Toole, interview by Abram J. Lewis for the NYC Trans Oral History Project, Nov. 24, 2017.
I am indebted to Christina Hanhardt for this diagnosis. Christina Handhardt, Safe Space: Gay Neighborhood History and the Politics of Violence (2013), 1.
Stein, Rethinking the Gay and Lesbian Movement, 103.
On Rivera and Johnson’s activities prior to Stonewall, see Miss Major Griffin-Gracy, interview by Abram J. Lewis for the NYC Trans Oral History Project, Dec. 16, 2017. On STAR generally, see Jessi Gan, “Still at the Back of the Bus: Sylvia’s Struggle,” CENTRO Journal, 19 (Spring 2007), 124-139; Samuel Galen Ng, “Trans Power! Sylvia Lee Rivera’s STAR and the Black Panther Party,” Left History, 17 (Spring-Summer 2013), 11-41; Stephan L. Cohen, The Gay Liberation Youth Movement in New York (2008), 89-164; Lewis, “Trans History in a Moment of Danger,” 57-85.
On TAO, see especially Susana Peña, “Gender and Sexuality in Latina/o Miami: Documenting Latina Transsexual Activists,” Gender & History, 22 (2010), 755-772.
On this shift from institutional critique by gay and lesbian activists towards efforts at conciliatory partnerships with policing and medical institutions, see, e.g., Hanhardt, Safe Space and Abram J. Lewis, “’We Are Certain of Our Own Insanity:’ Antipsychiatry and the Gay Liberation Movement, 1968-1980,” Journal of the History of Sexuality, 25 (Jan. 2016), 89-98.
See Int. no. 554, City Council of New York, June 20, 1974, 2. Box 99, folder 15, National Gay and Lesbian Task Force Records, Human Sexuality Collection, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY.
Lewis, “We Are Certain of Our Own Insanity,” 91, 97-98.
Mark E. Berghausen, “Intersex Employment and Discrimination: Title VII and Anatomical Sex Nonconformity,” Northwestern University Law Review, 105 (no. 3, 2011), 1295-1296.
Janice Raymond, “Paper Prepared for the National Center for Health Care Technology [NCHCT] on the Social and Ethical Aspects of Transsexual Surgery, June 1980,” manuscript in National Transgender Library and Archives, Labadie Collection, University of Michigan Library, Ann Arbor. See Department of Health and Human Services, Appellate Division, NCD 140.3, Transsexual Surgery, No. A-13-87, May 30, 2014.
Sandra Mesics, interview by Abram J. Lewis for the New York City Trans Oral History Project, January 14, 2019.
“The Animal Queendom,” The Radical Queen, 4 (n.d., ca. 1973), 12; “Pagan Page,” ibid., 6.
Angela Douglas, “UFOs, TSs, and Extra-Ts,” Mirage, (March-April 1974), 24.
Shannon Harrington, interview by Abram J. Lewis,
See, e.g., Melissa Wilcox, Queer Nuns: Religion, Activism, and Serious Parody (2018).
Shannon Harrington, interview by Abram J. Lewis
Metamorphosis, 1 (Feb. 1982), 1.
On Sullivan and FTMI, see Brice D. Smith, Lou Sullivan: Daring to Be a Man Among Men (2017).
Sandy Stone, “The Empire Strikes Back: A Posttranssexual Manifesto,” in The Transgender Studies Reader, ed. Susan Stryker and Stephen Whittle (2006), 221-235.
Leslie Feinberg, “Transgender Liberation: A Movement Whose Time Has Come,” in The Transgender Studies Reader, ed. Susan Stryker and Stephen Whittle (2006), 205-220.
David Valentine, Imagining Transgender: An Ethnography of a Category (2006).