Mercedes Allen

Transgender History: Into the Modern Age (1700s - 1932)

Filed By Mercedes Allen | February 26, 2008 9:55 AM | comments

Filed in: Gay Icons and History, Living, Transgender & Intersex
Tags: Charlotte Clarke, Eugene Schuyler, faggot, Felix Abraham, gay history, gay icons, George Sand, Harry Benjamin Syndrome, Henry Edwards Huntington, James Barry, Jonathan Gilbert, Karl-Heinrich Ulrichs, LGBT community, LGBT history, Lili Elbe, Luddites, Mae West, Magnus Hirschfeld, Marlene Dietrich, Oscar Wilde, Paris is Burning, Rebecca and her daughters, Sir Thomas Lawrence, Thomas Gainsborough, transexual, transgender, transvestite, Virginia Woolf

Transgender History: A 6 Part Series

Don't miss the other five parts of this series.


As society evolved toward the modern age that we know now, trans expression did not disappear, but did become far more subversive. The last surviving remnants of festival behaviour developed into what we now know as Halloween, Mummer's Dances, and Carnaval / Mardi Gras. Several outbreaks of civil disobedience also used transgender motifs, led by groups known as the Abbeys of Misrule (France and northern Italy, where leaders took titles like Mother, Dame and Princess), the Lords of Misrule and Abbots of Unreason (England and Scotland), Mère Folle and her Children, Mère Sotte and her Children, Mère d'Enfance, Madge Wildfire and Lady Skimmington, and later inspired other bands, such as Rebecca and her Daughters. Other military actions were directed by modern Joans of Arc, such as Captain Alice Clark and La Branlaire. It can't be certain if everyone participating in these uprisings were truly transgender in any way or simply relied on crossdressing as a convenient disguise, but the consistency still suggests early peasant-held matriarchal and trans-reverent customs. Some, such as the White Boys of Ireland, also make the claim to be faeries, leading one to wonder if early stories of fee might also indicate early transgressive beliefs and traditions.

We come to a point where things can be put into much more of a chronological order:

1654 -- Queen Christina of Sweden abdicates the throne and takes on a male persona, "Count Dohna."

Early 18th Century -- The epithet "Molly" originates with "molly houses," a term for effeminate gay brothels, noted for the presence of crossdressing. The name itself seems to originate as a combination of the female name Mary with the Latin "mollis," meaning soft, effeminate.

1755 -- The first openly lesbian and transgender person, Charlotte Clarke, comes out by publishing "A Narrative of the Life of Mrs. Charlotte Clarke (Youngest Daughter of Colley Cibber, Esq.)." In the autobiography, Clarke, a flamboyant cross-dressing actress during a time in which male impersonation was a popular form of entertainment (even if still very much taboo), relates many scandalous things, including her relationship with her "wife," "Mrs. Brown." Although quite famous after this publication, Clarke passes away three years later, penniless and destitute.

1777 -- French spy and diplomat Charles-Geneviève-Louis-Auguste-André-Timothée Éon de Beaumont (October 5, 1728 - May 21, 1810), usually known as the Chevalier d'Eon is allowed to return to France on the condition that she live and dress as a woman. Earlier in 1756, the Chevalier had posed as a woman for several years to gain the confidences of Empress Elizabeth of Russia. Throughout her life, there would be ongoing speculation as to the Chevalier's physical gender, which would be determined as male after her death (the predominant opinion had previously been that she was female).

1812 -- Two male workers dress as women, call themselves "General Ludd's wives" and lead an angry crowd of hundreds to destroy steam looms and a factory in Stockton, then attempt to burn down the home of the factory owner in classic Industrial Revolution unrest. As soon as the riot is quelled, it re-ignites in Oldham.

1831 -- George Sand publishes Rose et Blanche in collaboration with Jules Sandeau. Born Amantine Dupin, she takes on a male pen name under the pretense that it would be easier for her to become published and taken seriously with a male moniker. She also adopted male fashion, stating at different times that the clothes helped her move more freely around Paris streets, the clothes were sturdier, and that the clothes granted her access to areas that were off-limits to a woman of her social standing. There is no evidence that Sand identified as male, and biographers are sometimes outraged at the suggestion, but itis also not certain that she wasn't trans in spirit.

1839 to 1843 -- Welsh civil libertarians, protesting toll gates and working conditions, take up female attire and call themselves "Rebecca and her daughters," destroying a number of the mechanisms that the upper class had been using to bleed the poor of what little they could save. Again, this harkens to an earlier peasant tradition, as noted by historian Natalie Zemon: "In fact, the donning of female clothes by men and the adopting of female titles for riots were surprisingly frequent, in the early modern period." As the Rebeccas disappeared, the Molly Maguires and Ribbon Societies emerged to take their place.

1860 -- Herculine Barbin is studied by her doctor, who discovers that the intersexed woman has a small penis, with testicles inside her body. Barbin is declared legally male against her wishes, becomes the subject of much scandal for having previously taught in a girl's school, moves to Paris but continues to live in poverty, and ultimately commits suicide in 1868.

1865 -- Dr. James Barry dies, and is discovered to have female sexual characteristics. He had been a surgeon with the British Army, and had been passing as male since at least 1809.

1867 -- Karl-Heinrich Ulrichs (who relates in his memoirs that as a child, he wore girls' clothing, wanted to be a girl and most enjoyed playing with other girls) becomes the first "Uranian" (he refers to "Urning" as a male who desires men, and "Dioning" as a male who is attracted to women -- it is not until two years later that Karl-Maria Kertbeny coins the word "homosexual") to speak out publicly in defence of GLBT causes, when pleading at the Congress of German Jurists in Munich for a repeal of anti-homosexual laws. He goes on to self-finance the publication of many advocative works written by himself, before finally retiring in exile, in Italy.

1869 -- Karl Friedrich Otto Westphal publishes the first medical paper on transsexuality, describing two cases of what he termed "die contraire Sexualempfindung" ("contrary sexual feeling"), one being a male transvestite (the other was a lesbian)

1872 -- Eugene Schuyler visits Turkestan and observes that, "here boys and youths specially trained to take the place of the dancing-girls of other countries." The Bacchá are androgynous or cross-dressing Turkish underclass boys, trained in erotic dance, but also available as prostitutes. This tradition continues until around or shortly after WWI.

1895 -- Author and playwright Oscar Wilde is convicted of "gross indecency" and sentenced to two years' hard labour. Wilde had been extensively involved with the Victorian underground, and stories (likely some true, some not) circulated about all manner of homosexual and crossdressing activities, though Wilde himself was chiefly made scandal of by his relationship with Lord Alfred Douglas and other young men.

1907 -- Harry Benjamin (January 12, 1885 - August 24, 1986) meets Magnus Hirschfeld (May 14, 1868 - May 14, 1935) for the first time. Although it would be some time before Benjamin would actively research transsexuality, the two men would become the field's pioneers.

1910 -- Magnus Hirschfeld coins the term "transvestite."

1914 -- In a dictionary of criminal slang published in Portland, Oregon, the word "faggot" is first seen as applied to the GLBT community, with the usage example, "All the fagots (sissies) will be dressed in drag at the ball tonight." The word originally appeared in Modern English in the 13th Century, meaning a bundle of sticks (derived from the French). By 16th Century, it meant bundles used for firewood, for the purpose of burning at the stake. A shortened version "fag" is adopted as a British colloquialism for cigarette, and is later (1923) also adopted in print as an epithet for gay and transgender practices, which at that time are all thought to be interlinked -- the obvious implication reflecting what society at that time should largely do about gay and transgender persons.

1919 -- Magnus Hirschfeld founds the Institute for Sexology in Berlin, Germany. This would be the first clinic to serve transgender people regularily and develop their study.

1920 -- Jonathan Gilbert publishes "Homosexuality and Its Treatment," which includes the story of "H," later revealed to be a Portland physician. Dr. Alan Hart "transitioned" by having a hysterectomy and proceeding to live as male, in 1917. The lesbian community would later proclaim Hart to be a pioneer and classify his decision to live as a man as being an accomodation to social prejudice and coercion by a heterosexual doctor, rather than accepting any explaination of transsexuality. However, an examination of the central characters in Hart's novels reveals many of the common themes and feelings that transsexuals experience.

Although a few surgeons had already carried out some incomplete sex reassignment surgeries previously (primarily removing the existing sex organs, not creating new ones), 1920 also saw the first complete surgeries for MTF transsexuals. These took place at Magnus Hirschfeld's Institute for Sexology by Drs. Ludwig Levy-Lenz and Felix Abraham.

1923 -- Recognizing some of the differences from transvestites, Magnus Hirschfeld introduces the term "transsexual."

1920s -- Violette Morris, a decorated French athlete, sues the Fédération Française Sportive Féminine (French Federation of Feminine Sports) for 100,000 francs for withdrawing her license to wear trousers. Morris was infamous for her variance in lifestyle from traditional women, being openly lesbian and masculine in presentation at a time when swearing and smoking were unheard of for women. The lawsuit and lifestyle issues would later see the FFSF bar her from competing in the 1928 Olympics. Around this time, she also has an elective mastectomy performed, under the pretext that it would help her fit more easily in racecars. She would later become an informant for the Germans, and be put to death by the French Resistence.

Somewhere in the 1920s and early 1930s, drag balls developed in Harlem. They were originally arranged by gay white men, but very quickly became multiracial. They became lavish explorations of liberality, intentionally breaking taboos, but would still suffer some racial elitism. An exclusively black drag ball would break this trend when it developed in the 1960s, and the balls would metamorphosize into a transformative dance culture movement. Profiled in the 1991 documentary, "Paris Is Burning" and co-opted by Madonna and the fashion industry for a time, "Voguing" would marry with hip-hop and thrive among over 100 dance "houses" in modern day.

1920s and 1930s -- Carl Jung proposes the idea of Animus and Anima, that every male has some of the feminine in his unconscious (Anima), and every female has some of the masculine (Animus).

1927 -- The first transgender-themed play, Mae West's "The Drag," debuts in Bridgeport, Connecticut. It moves on to New Jersey, but fails to make it to Broadway, largely because it is forced to close after West's arrest for appearing in her first Broadway hit, Sex. Although West originally defends The Drag by saying that she intended the play to call attention to homosexuality as a "disease," she later becomes a sort-of GLBT activist. The play alludes to the writings of Karl-Heinrich Ulrichs, and West later goes on to famously tell policemen who were raiding a gay bar, "Don't you know you're hitting a woman in a man's body?"

The painting "Pinkie" by Sir Thomas Lawrence is acquired by Henry Edwards Huntington. Along with Thomas Gainsborough's "Blue Boy," which was acquired in 1921, the Huntington Collection becomes the focus of a media circus. Although they had nothing in common other than being expensive notables in the same collection, the paintings are often mistaken as contemporary works by the same artist, and categorized as a kind of "Romeo and Juliette" of Rococo pairing by the Los Angeles Times. They become featured as bookends, plate designs, and other merchandise. From this mass-market assault of imagery, the concept of "pink for girls / blue for boys" motif arises -- until this time, the colours had no fixed gender assignation (although pink had previously sometimes been called a boys' colour).

1928 -- Virginia Woolf's novel "Orlando: A Biography" is published, chronicling the story of a man who decides not to grow old. He doesn't, but he awakes one day in the body of a young woman, and lives out a lifetime as her before waking as another man. The remaining centuries up to the time the book was written are seen through a woman's eyes.

1930 -- Marlene Dietrich moves from German Cabaret to American film with her debut in Morocco. As the '30s progress, she becomes infamous for dressing in male attire, and gradually brings this penchant to fashion and film -- ultimately making it acceptable for women to wear pants and other masculine forms of clothing. Reportedly, she was quite persistent on changing into male attire offstage, and rumors circulated of lesbian relationships -- although she has never been fully established as identifying as male.

1930 also saw the transition of Lili Elbe, formerly Einar Wegener, a Danish painter and the first publically-known recipient of an SRS surgery. This became a major public scandal in Germany and Denmark, and the King of Denmark invalidated her marriage that October. She was fully intent on being someday able to conceive a child, and this drove her surgeons to try far-reaching techniques -- she actually endured five surgeries in this process (the first was to remove the male genitals, the second to transplant ovaries -- although she did have underdeveloped ones of her own -- the third was unspecified, the fourth to remove the ovaries due to serious complications and the fifth being a "vaginaplasty"). She died in 1931, probably from complications from her final surgery, although rumors persisted that she had faked her death in order to live in peace.

1931 -- Dr. Felix Abraham publishes "Genital Reassignment of Two Male Transvestites," detailing those first MTF SRS surgeries in 1923.

1932 -- Harry Benjamin arranges a speaking tour for Magnus Hirschfeld in the United States.

By the early 1930s, an awakening was taking place -- although it did not grant any kind of restored status to transgender people, there were pockets of researchers willing to try to understand the transgender condition. Scientists such as Magnus Hirschfeld became champions of this study, and were notably prolific... although his published research was still relegated to less-dignified magazines, because of it's subject matter. Transgender people were slowly climbing out of the abyss. But the centuries of agendas of hatred and oppression were not over yet.

Partial Bibliography:



Much of this had been compiled over time, and not all the sources have been recorded. Some online sources have been involved as well, although I search for more corroboration in these cases.

Bullough, Vern: Homosexuality: A History From Ancient Greece to Gay Liberation
Califia, Patrick: Sex Changes: The Politics of Transgenderism
Colapinto, John: As Nature Made Him: The Story of a Boy Who Was Raised as a Girl
Currah, Paisley; Richard M. Juang and Shannon Price Minter: Transgender Rights
Feinberg, Leslie: TransGender Warriors
Fletcher, Lynne Yamaguchi: The First Gay Pope (and other records)
Kessler, Suzanne; and McKenna, Wendy: Gender: An Ethnomethodological Approach
Rudacille, Deborah: The Riddle of Gender
Walker, Barbara: various writings
Williams, Walter: The Spirit and the Flesh


Transgender History: A 6 Part Series

Don't miss the other five parts of this series.


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It is fitting that this section of Trans-History breaks with the Nazi era and the time of the Hilter's infamous Strumabteilung (SA), or better known as the "brown shirt" stormtroopers. I would suggest study and gaining an understanding of who they were, of what origin they were comprised, and the political agenda they espoused and carried out would serve well here. What took place in the Cabaret and 30's Berlin** was the start of atrocity beyond imagination. And the pattern of it is festering this very day. I am hoping that the next segment of Mercedes Allen's "Transgender History" will paint a clear trail of that era to the embers of this very day. It is no accident, nor is it any less of a real threat, which is being orchestrated before our eyes.

Thanks Mercedes!

(** The evidence of which has been most carefully concealed and time forgotten.)

I love this series. I'm learning so much - and I'm a history buff to start with. Thanks Mercedes!

Of course, you can't really speak of people being "transgender" during this, and earlier time periods. The term "transgender" was not coined until 1969, and did not come into common use until some time after that.

The problem is, "transgender" has no objective meaning. Unless someone specifically identifies as transgender, you cannot accurately refer to them in that manner.

And there is some question as to who actually coined the term "transsexual." Most attribute it to Harry Benjamin, and not Hirschfeld. Others claim that it originated with David O. Cauldwell, who coined the term psychopathia transexualis, and referred to such people as psychopathic transexuals.

It should also be noted that when Christine Jorgensen's case was written up in JAMA, she was referred to as a "transvestite," and not a transsexual. This was after Hirschfeld, and before Benjamin.

In the 40's and 50's or so, the term used was Transvestic Fetishist, for those who wanted to be of the opposite gender. The treatment for young people who exhibited the symptoms was aversion therapy.

That is what scared me straight for so many years. I had read about it in one of my parents psychology books when I was young, and did not want to go through the torture of aversion therapy, so I shut up about how I felt and tried my best to forget about the whole thing.

In the field of therapy and psychology, the term transgender does have an objective meaning. It is an umbrella term for those who exhibit behaviors beyond the gender normative roles of society. This includes cross dressers, transvestities, transexuals and all flavor of the gender queer.

Saying it ain't so don't make it so. To your therapist, psychologist and psychitrist, you are transgendered if you are a transexual.

Welcome to the fold.

Aversion Therapy, if you wish to call it that, was a court inflicted treatment in many locals up into the 80's. And even now, some institutions still are carrying out that procedure in private practice. For those who do not know what it entails, it is horrific and cruel. A sock is placed on the penis and electrical shocks are given at the first sign of arousal. The patient,... err, ginea pig is shown porn and other tactics to raise the pulse so that the shocks can be given. This can go on for years. Many who wee arrested for crossdressing are on the sex offender lists, and also found themselves in jail for a year or two. Understand that when one who is identified as Transgender is sent to the bull pen, the bulls line up for gang rape. Quite a punishment for using a ladies restroom.

It is still taking place!

Actually, diddlygrl, you just made my point for me as to why "transgender" is a highly subjective term. Why do you draw the line. How far beyond the gender normative role does one have to be to be "transgender?" And what of those who reject the term? I am a post-op woman with Harry Benjamin Syndrome (a term that I prefer to transsexualism). I do not identify as transgender. And yes, that does mean that I am not transgender. Transgender is not a diagnostic term. It is not included in either the DSM-IV, or the ICD-10. It is exactly what I said. It is an artificial political/social construct that is totally subjective. And it is badly misused.

Jennifer is correct in the broad use of Transgender. It like the close association with the greater GLBt paints a picture that all trans people are gay, or are in the same bed if you will with the gay community. Nothing could be further from the truth as many of us consider ourselves straight (Good luck in defining that!). Further, Transsexuals are closer to the world of endocrin and bioneurological physiology and anomaly, some even exhibiting Intersex, than they are to the social culture of the GLBt.

Yes, I think simply Benjamin's Syndrome is much better, even though I feel the standards of care he promoted is very out of date and lacking.