The Fountainheads: Lucy Hicks Anderson, Mother of Marriage Equality and Transgender Rights

A notorious bootlegger and madam, Hicks Anderson became the first transgender person to go to court to fight for her rights and her marriage.

This is a weekly series profiling queer people who have inspired styles, opinions, and entire movements.

A wise, Technicolor woman once said, “Girls. They wanna have fun. They just wanna. They just. Wan-naaaaaaaa.” One Miss Cynthia Ann Stephanie Lauper probably didn’t know anything about one Mrs. Lucy Hicks Anderson, but the sentiment nevertheless rings true. Hicks Anderson was the doyenne of booze and bordellos in Oxnard, Calif., during Prohibition.

According to a rather condescending 1945 Time magazine article on the scandal that would come to define her life, Hicks Anderson is described as a valued member of the town, famous for her cooking and her charity, all the while sidestepping the infamy of her less reputable endeavors:

Lucy was accepted by easygoing Oxnard as commercially, not personally, involved in the operation of her bordellos. She not only kept on cooking in Oxnard’s big houses, but tended children, helped dress many an Oxnard daughter for parties. The town thought little of seeing fat and prosperous Oxnard dames driving to Lucy’s house to borrow one of her legendary recipes. When a new Catholic priest came to town, Lucy prepared the barbecue with which the parish welcomed him. She gave generously to the Red Cross, the Boy Scouts and charities….

When the U.S. went to war, Lucy gave expensive going-away parties for the sons of prominent families, served the best of champagne. When an Oxnard boy was killed in action, Lucy would visit the bereaved family and bawl like a cow with a thistle in its throat. When President Roosevelt died, Oxnard newspapers carried a paragraph of solemn comment from Lucy as well as from churchmen and other civic leaders.

Strict, wartime regulations which shut down most of the West Coast’s bawdy-houses bothered Lucy not at all. Her local fame and her knowledge of town secrets had long since made her just about immune to the law. By V-J day she had purchased almost $50,000 in war bonds.

Mrs. Hicks Anderson was so well-connected that, after being arrested by the local sheriff for trafficking in illegal liquor, the town’s most prominent banker, Charles Donlon, wasted no time in bailing her out. See, Donlon was hosting an elaborate dinner party that would’ve been absolutely ruined if Lucy was too busy being incarcerated to cater it. But little did the Oxnardians know the bootlegging, recipe-toting, bordello-owning pillar of their community had lived an equally colorful life before she settled in Ventura County.

In 1886 in the small town of Waddy, Ky., Mr. and Mrs. Lawson welcomed a son, who, from an early age, insisted on dressing, acting and being treated as a girl, re-christening herself Lucy in the process. Lucy’s parents consulted the family doctor over what to do and—remarkably—he suggested they heed the child’s gender identity, before such a term or concept even existed. And also rather remarkably, they agreed. Lucy’s parents lost a son but gained a daughter.

At 15, Lucy left school, became a domestic servant, and in her 20s headed west, eventually settling in Pecos, Texas, where she worked at a hotel for a decade. In 1920, she married Clarence Hicks in Silver City, N.M., and moved to Oxnard. Though she continued working as a domestic, Lucy also saved up her money and bought some property near the middle of town, which she turned into her first brothel. In what can only be described as the fulfillment of the American Dream, she went on to expand on the one house, filling nearly half a block to service the horny hamlet and its bawdily abutting burbs.

Lucy divorced Hicks in 1929, only to remarry in 1944, this time to Ruben Anderson, a soldier stationed in Long Island, N.Y. Mrs. Hicks Anderson’s luck began to run out the following year, however, when the Navy traced an outbreak of venereal disease back to one of her establishments. The attending doctor examined Lucy’s girls and Lucy herself, despite the madam being “commercially, not personally, involved in the operation of her bordellos.” Upon her exam, the jig, as it were, was up. As a result, Lucy Hicks Anderson became the first transgender person to go to court to defend her rights and her marriage.

In 1945 and 1946 she stood trial twice, first locally by Ventura County, and then by the federal government. In Ventura, she was charged with impersonating a woman and for perjury for identifying as a woman on her marriage license. The federal government, however, was more interested in the army allotment checks she had received from her husbands and charged her with fraud. In spite of the embarrassing nature of the trials, Mrs. Hicks Anderson retained her composure, style, and sense of humor.

A December 1945 article from the black newspaper The Afro-American (as reprinted in C. Riley Snorton’s Black on Both Sides) details some of the more outlandish moments from the first trial. When asked if her first husband was a man, Lucy rebounded, “Well, he’s supposed to be.” Asked what part of her body she considered “feminine” she said her chest…and then flashed the jury. Asked if she often wore wigs, she replied, simply, “If I think I look better with a wig, I do.”

Lucy’s most famous (and most badass) pronouncement, however, was in defense of her womanhood. “I defy any doctor in the world to prove that I am not a woman,” she told those assembled in the courthouse. “I have dressed and acted just as I am: a woman.”

Regardless, Ventura County found Lucy guilty of impersonation and perjury, but the judge only sentenced her to 10 years probation. The federal government was less lenient, and sentenced Lucy, her husband Ruben Anderson, and her ex-husband Clarence Hicks to jail time. Lucy was forced into the men’s section of the Federal House of Detention where she was forbidden from wearing women’s clothes. After they had served their time, Lucy and Ruben tried to return to Oxnard, but they were told she could face further prosecution, so they relocated to Los Angeles. There they lived out the rest of their days until Lucy died in 1954.

By any standards, Lucy Hicks Anderson lived an incredible life; a life she lived on her own terms as a black, transgender woman at a time when all three of those identities were ignored, maligned, and abused by the law. By standing up for who she was and saying that her marriage was just as real as anyone else’s, and that she was as much a woman as any other, she planted a seed of revolution that is still bearing fruit.

Lester Fabian Brathwaite is a Brooklyn-based writer, editor, bon vivant and all-around sassbag. He's formerly Senior Editor of Out Magazine and is currently hungry.