Transgender pioneer Holly Boswell died of heart failure over the weekend in Asheville, North Carolina. She was 66 years old.
Boswell, who went by both male and female pronouns at the end of her life, was an influential activist, writer, and leader in the early days of the transgender equality movement. She is also credited with designing one of the first symbols of the nascent trans movement, back in 1993.
Rest in power, Holly Boswell (1950-2017) a transgender advocate and organizer in North Carolina. She created the transgender symbol in 1993. pic.twitter.com/hf5ZGTZzf6
— Queer Art History (@Queer_Arts) August 13, 2017
Studying studied English lit and music composition at Oberlin College, she kept her conflicted feelings about her gender identity to herself. It wasn’t until the early 1980s, when Boswell was in her 30s and living in Asheville, that she began wearing dresses to bars and investigating whether anyone else felt as she did, that their true identity existed somewhere between the binary.
As a gender-curious hippie, Boswell met cross dressers, drag queens, and people who wanted to fully transition, but she couldn’t find much information on those who existed between genders.
“What I finally came up with,” Boswell told The Citizen-Times last year, “is there are as many genders as there are people.”
In 1986, Boswell co-founded Asheville’s Phoenix Transgender Support Group, one of the earliest organizations to welcome people of all gender identities. The organization continues to support the community more than three decades later.
In 1991, she published “The Transgender Alternative” in the Boston magazine Tapestry, in which she’s credited with being one of the earliest adopters of the term “transgender.” (In fact, her work is referenced in the Oxford English Dictionary entry for “transgender.”)
“It was a relief,” Boswell said of finally having language that described her experience. “People could speak about themselves in a more transcendent way.”
She went on to write groundbreaking essays on gender expression, including “The Transgender Paradigm Shift toward Free Expression”, and “The Spirit of Transgender.”
“We need to recognize that each of us, in our own small way, are makers of our culture,” Boswell wrote. “We can exercise that function best by expressing our true selves, not by simply fulfilling our culture’s expectations. We are all in transition.”