5 Transgender Activists Who Blazed A Trail For The LGBT Community

We stand on their shoulders.

The trans community has seen increased visibility in recent years—from Laverne Cox becoming a major Hollywood player to Raffi Freedman-Gurspan becoming the first trans person to become a White House aide.

Sadly that spotlight has been accompanied by an increase in discrimination, institutional opposition and even violence. (2016 is on track to be the deadliest on record for trans Americans.)

Whatever progress we have made has been built on the shoulders of those who came before.
Below, we honor five transgender activists who blazed a trail for all of us.

  1. Michael Dillon

    michael dillon

    Born in 1915 to an aristocratic family, Dillon was an Oxford-educated doctor and the first trans man to undergo phalloplasty.

    He began passing as male in the late 1930s and received testosterone treatments from a sympathetic physician, who also enabled Dillon to change his birth certificate and enroll in medical school at Trinity College in Dublin under the 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.

  2. Renée Richards


    In 1976, Richards was primed to play in the U.S. Open until the United States Tennis Association attempted to ban her, 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.

    The court cast “didn’t stop the WTA from trying to Richards her from pro tournaments until she sued,” wrote ESPN. “Or 25 of the 32 women in the field from withdrawing from the first tournament she played, at age 41. Crowds rooted against her.”

    If Richards turned on a TV, she would’ve heard Johnny Carson and Bob Hope snickering that she was her own “mixed doubles team” and Howard Cosell asking, “Is she a man or is she a woman?”

    Eventually she 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.

  3. April Ashley

    april ashley

    Born in Liverpool in 1935, Ashley was only the ninth person in the world to undergo gender-reassignment 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 by a friend 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 stated Ashley was “not a woman for the purposes of marriage.”

    She remained a public personality, though, trying to bring understanding of the trans community, and eventually remarrying 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.

    Ashley, now 79, 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.

  4. Sylvia Rivera

    Sylvia Rivera

    Rivera started her activism at the 1969 Stonewall riots and never stopped: In 1970 she marched in the original Christopher Street Liberation Day March and worked to get the New York City Gay Rights Bill passed.

    In the years that followed, she and Marsha P. Johnson co-founded Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR), fighting for the rights of the disenfranchised queer community.

    smithsonian sylvia rivera
    National Portrait Gallery

    Called the conscience of the LGBT community, Rivera was arrested countless times demonstrating with groups like Soul Force, the Irish Lesbian and Gay Organization and the NYC Homeless Coalition. She fought tirelessly to ensure that trans men and women, drag queens and other non-gender-conforming people wouldn’t be thrown under the bus by assimilationists.

    sylvia rivera

    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 met with members of the Empire State Pride Agenda to push for trans rights in the Sexual Orientation Non-Discrimination bill facing the New York State Legislature.

    Sylvia Rivera Way
    Wiki Commons

    Her legacy continues with a street named in her honor and the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, which protects the trans community from discrimination and violence.

  5. Christopher Lee

    christopher lee

    Lee was an outspoken activist and filmmaker in his lifetime, but it was his tragic death that had had the greatest impact.

    The co-founder of San Francisco’s Transgender Film Festival and director of the autobiographical film Christopher’s Chronicles, Lee committed suicide in 2012 at age 48.

    Because he had not received an updated birth certificate, though, the coroner listed his gender as “female” on his death certificate.

    “It felt like spitting on his grave,” said friend Chino Scott-Chung. “When they put RIP 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.’”

    Scott-Chung went to California Assemblywoman Toni Atkins, who introduced the Respect After Death Act, which would establish directives to help file accurate death certificates for transgender people.

    “A person should rest in peace after death as the same person they were during life,” Atkins said in a statement.

    The measure was signed into law in September 2014.