As we continue the fight for visibility and equality, it’s important to honor those who blazed a trail for the rest of us to follow.
Below, we pay tribute to five trans activists who showed us how it’s done.
A trans woman whose activism pre-dated Stonewall, Rivera marched in the original Christopher Street Liberation Day March and worked to get New York City’s first gay-rghts bill Bill passed.Later, she and Marsha P. Johnson co-founded Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR), fighting for the rights of this disenfranchised community.
Called the “conscience” of the LGBT community, Rivera was arrested countless times at demonstrations for political causes like Soul Force, the Irish Lesbian and Gay Organization, and the NYC Homeless Coalition, in addition to protests on behalf of transgender rights.
She fought tirelessly to ensure that drag queens, trans men and women, and other non-gender-conforming people wouldn’t be thrown under the bus by assimilationist gays looking for a quick fix.
In her later years, Rivera became an active in the Metropolitan Community Church, directing its food-service and trans-outreach programs. She received lifetime achievement awards from numerous groups and, in 2000, was invited to speak at World Pride in Rome.
Even on her deathbed in 2002, Rivera fought for her community—meeting with members of the Empire State Pride Agenda to push for the inclusion of trans rights in the Sexual Orientation Non-Discrimination bill facing the state Legislature.
Her legacy continues with the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, which protects minority and low-income members of the trans community from discrimination and violence.
Renée RichardsFocus on Sport/Getty Images
In 1976, Richards was primed to play in the women’s division in the U.S. Open, until organizers realized she had been born male. The United States Tennis Association attempted to ban her from the Open, citing a women-born-women policy.
Richards filed suit and, in a landmark verdict, the New York Supreme Court ruled in her favor. Despite the victory, Richards endured public scrutiny, the loss of family and friends, and brutal discrimination from the tennis world.
“It didn’t stop the WTA from trying to Richards her from pro tournaments until she sued, or 25 of the 32 women in the field from withdrawing from the first tournament she played,” ESPN writes. “Crowds rooted against her. If Richards turned on a TV at the time, she could’ve found Johnny Carson and Bob Hope snickering on The Tonight Show that Richards was her own “mixed doubles team.”
Eventually, Richards left tennis and returned to a successful ophthalmology practice in California. But her very public battle blazed a trail for future trans athletes like MMA fighter Fallon Fox and NCAA basketball player Kye Allums.
Born in 1915 to an aristocratic family, Michael Dillon was an Oxford-educated doctor and the first trans man to undergo phalloplasty.
In the 1930s he began receiving testosterone treatments from a sympathetic physician, who also enabled Dillon to change his birth certificate and enroll in medical school at Trinity College under his new legal name, Laurence Michael Dillon.
In 1946 Dillon published Self: A Study in Endocrinology and Ethics, an early book about transsexuality, which he considered a medical condition.
“Where the mind cannot be made to fit the body,” he wrote, “the body should be made to fit, approximately at any rate, to the mind.” Between 1946 and 1949 he underwent a series of procedures to complete his transition.
Dillon didn’t discuss his own experiences in Self, but they came to light in 1958 during a routine background check. Facing unwanted attention, he fled to India and spent years studying Buddhism.
Before his death at age 47 in 1962, Dillon published several books, including Growing Up into Buddhism, a primer for British youth.
April AshleySean Dempsey - WPA Pool/Getty Images
Born in Liverpool in 1935, Ashley was only the ninth person in the world to undergo gender confirmation surgery, in 1960.
She garnered success as an entertainer—modeling for Vogue and landing a small role in the Bing Crosby-Bob Hope vehicle The Road to Hong Kong— but was cruelly outed to the tabloids in 1961.
Two years later, Ashley wed Arthur Corbett, but he had the marriage annulled in 1970 on the grounds that she was born male, despite the fact that Corbett knew her background when they met. The judge ruled Ashley was “not a woman for the purposes of marriage.”
She remained a public personality, though, trying to raise awareness of the trans community, and eventually remarried in the 1980s. After the passage of the Gender Recognition Act in 2004, Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott helped Ashley obtain a new birth certificate.
Now in her 80s, Ashley was appointed Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) in 2012 for her service toward transgender equality. Producers are currently working to bring her story to the big screen.
In 2002 @SFTransFilmFest founder and now ancestor Christopher Lee & current SFTFF artistic director, @ShawnaVirago were the first transgender @SFPride grand marshals. #SFTFF was started in 1997 and is still going strong! Submit your film for #SFTFF2020! https://t.co/wHuuLOjNWt pic.twitter.com/4AKXIkJiyd
— SF Trans Film Fest (@SFTransFilmFest) May 26, 2020
Lee was outspoken as a trans activist and filmmaker, but it was his tragic death that may have had the greatest impact.
The co-founder of San Francisco’s Transgender Film Festival and director of the autobiographical Christopher’s Chronicles, Lee committed suicide in 2012 at age 48. But because he had not received an updated birth certificate, the coroner’s office listed Lee’s gender as “female” on his death certificate.
“It felt like spitting on his grave,” said friend Chino Scott-Chung. “When they put R.I.P. on people’s tombstones it’s “rest in peace.” And I just felt like Christopher’s spirit will not rest in peace with a death certificate that says female.”
As a result, Scott-Chung went to California Assemblywoman Toni Atkins, who introduced the Respect After Death Act, which was passed by the State Assembly and signed by Governor Jerry Brown. It took effect in 2015.
“A person should rest in peace after death as the same person they were during life,” Atkins said in a statement. “This bill is designed to ensure that the wishes of a transgender person regarding their gender identity are respected after they have passed on.”