In preparation for LGBT History Month, we have prepared a short guide to UK trans* history which includes information about UK historical trans* figures and events, and a brief discussion of the difficulties in collating and recording trans* history.
Who are trans* people?
People are trans* if they do not fully identify with the gender they were assigned at birth.
Who were trans* people in the past?
We can see evidence of trans* people in all cultures and periods for which we have sufficient evidence to study gender identity. The terminology used to describe gender identity and presentation has changed significantly between different societies and over time, as has what it means to be a man, a woman, or another gender.
Despite this we can see that there have always been people who did not fully identify with or present as the gender they were assigned at birth. These people would fit our current conceptualisation of what it means to be trans*, although this is a label that they would probably be unfamiliar with. Throughout history, trans* people have been rich and poor, rulers and slaves, artists and farmers. In short trans* people in the past were a diverse bunch!
Why are trans* people often erased from history?
Although trans* people have been found in all the societies we learn about as children, they are often ignored by schools, textbooks and historians. The reasons for this are complex and multiple. One issue is that trans* people are seen in a negative light in our current culture. This means it is not seen as valuable for us to learn their history.
Few people have studied and written about trans* history, compared to the histories of other groups. This is something of a catch 22, little is written about trans* people, so few people read about them, so few people choose to study them further, so little is written about them. It is vital that we break this cycle and write and learn about trans* people in history.
Another issue is that LGB identities and trans* identities have not been considered as distinct throughout history. The concept of “sexual inversion” as developed by sexologists in the late 19th and early 20th centuries is an interesting example. Kraft-Ebing referred to female inverts as “the masculine soul, heaving in the female bosom”, whilst Havelock Ellis’ conceptualisation of the term is closer to our modern understanding of homosexuality. Because of this, people such as the author Radclyffe Hall, who self-defined as an invert, has since been claimed by LGB people as part of lesbian history rather than of trans* history.
Some Interesting Trans* People and Events From Modern British History
James Barry (1789-1865)
James was a military surgeon and a pioneer in caesarian sections. He performed what may have been the first ever caesarian in which both mother and child survived. He also worked to improve conditions in military and civilian hospitals in South Africa. He met Florence Nightingale through his work, but the pair did not get on. He began living as a man around 1809, just before beginning his medical training. It seems his colleagues were unaware that he was trans* until after his death.
Mary Mudge (1814-1889)
Mary was a very poor woman who lived in a small village in Devon. She never married and worked as a dairymaid. She died in a workhouse at the age of 85, and her trans status was only discovered after her death. The discovery was then widely reported in newspapers. Her story tells us that trans* people may be found in all walks of life, and that many trans* people live normal lives as members of their chosen gender. People such as these must often go unnoticed by their communities and by future historians.
The Rebecca Riots (1839-1843)
The Rebecca Riots were a series of riots in south- and mid-Wales, protesting unfair taxation imposed by the English government, and related poverty. Most participants in the riots dressed in women’s clothing, and although many donned such clothing only during the riots, there is evidence to suggest that some of the leaders lived as women more widely.
Stella Boulton and Fanny Park (tried in 1871)
Stella and Fanny were put on trial in Victorian London, accused of ‘conspiring and inciting persons to commit an unnatural offence’. This charge shows the contemporary attitude that trans* people were a dangerous threat to the morality of others. The prosecution was unable to prove that any offence had been committed, but Stella’s partner, Lord Arthur Clinton, killed himself during the trial. Stella had lived as a girl since early childhood, and Fanny began living as a woman after meeting Stella as a teenager. The pair worked as a theatrical double act.
Drag Ball Riot, Hulme (1880)
A police raid led by detective Jerome Caminada on what has been named by historians as a “drag ball” in Hulme, Manchester, resulted in a riot in 1880. The subsequent trial of the people involved was detailed in newspapers at the time and scandalised the Victorian middle classes.
Michael Dillon/Sramanera Jivaka (1915-1962)
Michael/Sramanera was a doctor, author and the first trans* man in the UK to undergo phalloplasty (penis construction). His 1946 book, ‘Self: A Study in Endocrinology and Ethics’, made the case that trans* people should be offered medical transition rather than being treated for mental illness. He fled to India after his trans* status was discovered, where he converted to Buddhism, changed his name to Sramanera, and published on Buddhist practices for British children.
‘The body should be made to fit, approximately at any rate, to the mind.’ – Michael Dillion
Roberta Cowell (1918-2011)
Roberta was a racing driver who competed in the 1939 Grand Prix. She became a fighter pilot in the second world war, and was captured and became a German prisoner of war, suffering solitary confinement and starvation. She was liberated in 1945. Back in England, she suffered from PTSD and sought the help of a psychiatrist. With his support she began transition. She went on to become the first trans* woman in the UK to undergo vaginoplasty (vagina construction). Her surgeries were carried out both by the surgeon who operated on Dillon, and by Dillon himself. She was not allowed to compete in the Grand Prix again following her transition, but she remained an active part of UK motor racing.
Trans* People banned from Marrying (1967)
In the case of Talbot (otherwise Poyntz) Vs. Talbot, Judge Ormerod ruled that trans* people were not permitted to marry under British law.
‘Marriage is a relationship which depends on sex, not on gender.’ – Judge Benjamin Ormerod
Jan Morris (born 1926 – age 88)
Jan is a Welsh historian, author and travel writer. In 1953 she was part of the first British team to successfully climb Mount Everest. She transitioned in the 1960s and chose to undergo surgery abroad, as doing it in the UK would have meant the government forced her to divorce her wife. They were ultimately forced to divorce anyway, but remained together and entered a civil partnership in 2008. She accepted a CBE in 1999, but says she did it only to be polite and that she remains a Welsh nationalist republican. In 2008 The Times named her one of the 15 greatest writers since the war.
The Self Help Association for Transexuals (formed 1980)
SHAFT was formed in 1980, as a mutual aid organisation through which trans* people could collect and share useful information.
Legal Rights for Trans* People (2002-today)
It was not until 2002 that the UK government stated that ‘transexualism is not a mental illness’. It was not until 2005 that trans* people in the UK were able to change their legal gender. There still exists complex and time-consuming bureaucracy that trans* people must navigate in order to achieve this. Cuts made to the NHS and other public services under the current government have meant that waiting lists for trans* people to get life-saving medical treatments are now measured in years rather than months.
Transgender Day of Remembrance (1999-today)
Since 1999, on November 20th, trans* people around the world have gathered to remember those killed as a result of transphobia, especially those murdered in hate crimes. Each year, there is at least one memorial in Manchester, which is organised by the local trans* community. It is an important time for the community to remember those they have lost and that the fight for trans* rights is far from over.
Further Reading and Research
There are few high quality resources on trans* history. Those that do exist may conflate trans* and LGB people and/or may not respect the prefered pronouns of trans* people.
More research and awareness is urgently needed!
A good starting point is to use search engines to research the people and events outlined in this document. You may also find the links below useful.
You can get in touch with Action for Trans* Health for more information about trans* history or if you have any improvements, comments or suggestions for this guide: email us at publications[at]actionfortranshealth.org.uk