How would our thinking change if we knew transgender history? The If We Knew Trans History Project aims to explore the ways transgender history can help activists understand ourselves and re-imagine our future. Through essays, videos, and photographs, If We Knew Trans History shares the stories of transgender people in the United States. This public history project is by and for transgender people and social justice organizers. It also aims to center the impact of Black trans women and trans people of color. Transgender history contains important examples that can shape social movements. Trans people deserve to know our past so that we can fight for our future.
Visit this page to read new posts on the third Thursday of each month or follow If We Knew Trans History on Facebook.
About the Researcher, Joy Michael Ellison
Preoccupied with the past, concerned by the future, and discontent with the present, I am time traveler. I am a white, nonbinary trans person with disabilities and an activist, scholar, and writer. I am a PhD candidate in the Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies department at the Ohio State University. I believe that if we knew transgender history, all of our movements for justice would be stronger.
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You can support my research by becoming a patron on Patreon. I appreciate all your support in all of the forms it takes.
In 1970, Sylvia Rivera started Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR) with her friend Marsha P. Johnson. STAR was an organization by and for trans women aimed at challenging racism, poverty, policing and incarceration, and trans-misogyny. To do so, members of STAR founds ways to support each other. One of the most important ways they did … Continue reading If We Knew Trans History, We would Embrace Trans Rage
1. Our history helps to explain why this attack happened. Many people are trying to advance their own political agendas by providing inaccurate explanations for this horrific shooting. Some are trying to justify increased police funding. Others are spouting Islamophobia. We trans people need to refuse these narratives. If we know our history, then … Continue reading In the Wake of the Orlando Shooting, Three Reasons to Learn Trans History
We know a lot about Omar Mateen, the man accused of the attack on Pulse during Lantix Night. We know he beat his wife. We know he idolized the NYPD and the US army. We know he worked in a juvenile detention center. He was trained by G4S, a major player in the global prison … Continue reading Think twice before blaming Omar Mateen’s Violence on his Sexuality
(Content warning: mention of Johnson’s death) Many people have celebrated Marsha P. Johnson’s life. They say that she was the first person who fight back that fateful night at the Stonewall Inn, and she likely was. Others admire the years she spend caring for queer and transgender youth living on Christopher Street. Others point out … Continue reading If We Knew Trans History, We Would Distrust Nostalgia
If we knew trans history, we would thank Black women for whatever liberation trans people enjoy today. Black trans women have long faced brutal transmisogynistic violence. They have often fought the hardest to resist it. Here are some of the women who deserve our gratitude: Marsha P. Johnson Marsha P. Johnson may have been the … Continue reading If We Knew Trans History, We’d Thank Black Trans Women
On July 4th, 1965, gay activists gathered in Philadelphia for the first “Annual Reminder” picket line. Craig Rodwell, a member of the Mattachine Society (the first gay organization in the United States), organized the Annual Reminder because he wanted to say, loudly and in public, that a large group of Americans were denied “life, liberty, … Continue reading The Annual Reminder Pickets: A Beginning to Trans-Exclusion
I’m wrapping up my first semester at Ohio State University where I am getting my PhD in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. The occasion has me thinking about what it means to be a transgender person and an activist working and studying on a college campus. Image description: Marsha P. Johnson hands out flyers at … Continue reading What Trans History Can Teach Student Activists
A few months ago, I struggled to pay attention while I sat in a stuffy, cramped grad school classroom. A colleague of mine was giving a presentation on the week’s readings. “I noticed,” she offered, “that the author did not consider transgender people in this text.” I smiled because I recognized her question as a … Continue reading Anything but the Present: Reflections on Transgender People as Symbols of the Past and the Future
I’m scared. That’s not new. As a non-binary trans person who is very visibly gender nonconforming, I’m used to being scared. I have been scared in bathrooms. I’ve been scared at airports. I’ve been scared in classrooms, even when I was the one teaching. I’ve been scared to walk down the street. Then Trump’s victory … Continue reading In The Wake of Trump’s Election, Trans History Helps Me Be Brave
Believe it or not, “If We Knew Trans History” is six months old! It’s a good time to pause, reflect, and share my plans for this blog in 2017. So far, my posts have focused on Sylvia Rivera, Marsha P. Johnson, and STAR, the organization they founded together. Sylvia and Marsha inspire me, but I … Continue reading What’s Coming for “If We Knew Trans History” and How Can I Help?
If we want liberation, then we need activists, scholars, teachers, and everyone else to teach trans history. That’s why I’m launching a new feature on this blog: teachable trans history. I’ll be sharing primary sources, videos, and other resources that will give you everything you need to learn about transgender liberation movement and teach it … Continue reading Teachable Trans History: Marsha P. Johnson
By now you’ve heard that Vice President Mike Pence believes in “conversion therapy” to “cure” LGBT identities. It’s easy to dismiss him as a religious fanatic, but I’m here to tell you why as a historian, I find his beliefs terrifying. Medical interventions that later became “conversion therapy” were once enshrined in law: In the … Continue reading Why Mike Pence Terrifies Me as a Transgender Historian
Recently, I introduced a new feature called “teachable trans history,” designed to make it easier for community educators, activists, scholars, and classroom teachers to share transgender history. I am compiling primary sources, videos, and other resources you can use to bring transgender history to life. This time, I’m covering Sylvia Rivera. First things first: huge … Continue reading Teachable Trans History: Sylvia Rivera
If there is one thing that transgender history shows us definitively, it is that transgender people rarely agree with each other. When I read through archival sources produced by transgender people, I find debate after debate over what it means to be trans, about who counts as trans, and about how we should respond to … Continue reading If we knew transgender history, we would be more comfortable with differences within our community
This essay was prepared for the Purple Reign Conference at University of Salford. Enjoy! When Prince passed, for my friends there was one lyric that summed him up: “I’m not a woman. I’m not a man. I am something you can never understand.” My friends posted over and over again this meme: Prince in a … Continue reading When Were You Mine? Prince’s Legacy in the Context of Transgender History
Academy Award® nominated director David France’s (How to Survive a Plague) new documentary centers on self-described “street queen” Marsha P. Johnson, legendary fixture in New York City’s gay ghetto, who along with fellow trans icon Sylvia Rivera, founded Street Transvestites Action Revolutionaries (S.T.A.R.), a trans activist group based in the heart of NYC’s Greenwich Village. … Continue reading Why I’m not excited about “The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson”
[Image description: headline from Chicago Tribune reading “Teacher Challenges ‘Drag Law.’” Content warning: policing, transmisogyny, job discrimination On the evening of July 17th 1971, Joy Polley was enjoying a drink in a tavern in the Back of the Yards neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side. Polley was 27 years old, a Southwest Side resident, and a … Continue reading On This Day in Trans History: Trans Woman Joy Polley challenges Chicago’s anti-cross dressing ordinance.
[Image description: A picture from the Chicago Defender of a Black woman named Mrs. Adams. She has short hair and a neutral expression. Content warning: mention of sexual violence in the form of strip searches. misgendering, racism, trans-misogyny] On July 7, 1965, the Chicago Defender newspaper reported on the detention and harassment of Mrs. Darlene … Continue reading Mrs. Adams: What an 1965 Arrest of a Black Woman can tell us about Racism and Transphobia
There are few academic disciplines that can tell us more about making social change than history. At its best, history is the record of how everyday people have come together in social movements and attempted to make change. The stories of these movements can be inspiring. They can also be instructive – if you know … Continue reading How to Read History like an Organizer, Part One
No one should be banned from any job, but not all trans people want to join the military. In fact, opposition to militarism has long been a part of transgender politics. Many transgender activists have argued that ending militarism — both military and colonial interventions abroad and racist, transphobic policing at home — is an … Continue reading Three Times Transgender People Rose Up Against War and Colonialism
History can teach activists so much if we know how to engage with it. In “How to Read History like an Organizer, Part One,” I shared some suggestions for learning from history by reading the manifestos and statements from past organizations. In this section, I provide tips for learning from secondary historical sources. Listen to … Continue reading How to Read History like an Organizer, Part Two
LGBT history didn’t start at the Stonewall Riots. Teaching about Vanguard and the riots at the Compton’s Cafeteria is a great way to place Stonewall in a larger context. As a part of my “Teachable Trans History” series, I’m sharing resources that community organizers and classroom teachers alike can use to start a conversation about … Continue reading Teachable Trans History: Vanguard and The Compton’s Cafeteria Riot
[Image description: White trans man Lou Sullivan speaks. He is wearing a blue suit and tie] Transgender history is made up of stories of people whose small actions have led to huge changes. If we knew more about that history, we would have more faith that all our organizing, community-building, and resistance matters. Take, for … Continue reading Lou Sullivan: Out of Small Actions, a Tremendous Legacy
[Image description: RuPaul in drag wearing a red dress with a red flower in a blonde wig. Caption reads “sashay…away.”] You’ve heard the latest. RuPaul says that he would “probably not” let a transitioning queen compete on his show RuPaul’s Drag Race. Trans women have been decrying Ru’s transphobia for years. Drag Race contestant and … Continue reading Ru, Please! Trans women have been a part of drag for DECADES
[Image description: In a black and white photograph, Virginia Prince, a white woman, poses standing. She holds her hands behind her back and turns out one foot. She is wearing a flowered dress, a string of pearls, and heels. She smiles.] I’m really excited to be a guest blogger for the American Library Association’s Intellectual … Continue reading Guest Post for ALA: On the Body: What Transgender History Can Teach us about Censorship
This is in edited version of the talk I gave at the Prince from Minneapolis conference. Some of the juiciest details are left out, as I’m not yet ready to publish them, but you can find a complete version on Patreon. Thanks, patrons! Movie poster for Under the Cherry Moon Under the Cherry Moon has … Continue reading Trans Boys and Girls: Prince’s Under the Cherry Moon in the Context of Minneapolis Transgender History
Trans people have created incredible music in every imaginable genre, but when I read lists of LGBT artists, trans musicians are too often nowhere to be found. Here are a few of my favorite songs by trans creators. I hope they give you strength to fight for our lives. Jackie Shane’s “Sticks and Stones” Few … Continue reading Music by Trans Artists to Get Us Through These Tough Times
Thanks to outcry from the trans community, Scarlett Johansson has decided not to play trans man Dante “Tex” Gill in the upcoming biopic Rub and Tug. Nonetheless, even without ScarJo playing the lead, I think I’ll be skipping Rub and Tug. Rub and Tug is directed by Rupert Sanders, the same direct who cast Johansson … Continue reading Even without ScarJo, I am skipping Rub and Tug. Instead, I want to see Dominique Jackson play Lucy Hicks Anderson
Riley Snorton’s new cultural history Black on Both Sides: A Racial History of Trans Identity is an ambitious, complicated examination of a still understudied subject. Drawing on a rich and varied archive of cultural objects ranging from fugitive slave narratives to contemporary Hollywood films, Snorton traces the intertwined histories of Blackness and transness. His inquiry … Continue reading Book Review: Black on Both Sides by C. Riley Snorton
Recently filmmaker Cheryl Dunye completed Black is Blue, a film starring trans actor Kingston Faraday. In honor of this achievement, I want to take a look back at Dunye’s early work and place her work in the context of Black filmmakers presenting transgender experiences. The Early Works of Cheryl Dunye presents the six first films … Continue reading Homoplace: Livable Worlds in The Early Works of Cheryl Dunye
When we talk about transgender people in romantic relationships, often we focus on non-trans partners. Normalizing cisgender men dating transgender women is one important way to reduce trans-misogynistic violence, but transgender people also deserve to be depicted loving each other. If we knew trans history, we would know that transgender relationships, both romantic and platonic, … Continue reading Trans Love, part one: Sylvia Rivera and Julia Murray
Lately, I’ve been interested in how transgender people survive impossible situations. How have transgender people lived within systems designed to be deadly? How have transgender people persisted despite indifference and abandonment? What strategies, practices, adaptations, relationships, and feelings have sustained transgender people when catastrophe is not a future possibility, but a present reality? These questions … Continue reading Guided by Love: Learning about Surviving the Impossible from CeCe McDonald
Transgender history is made up of people like you, like us. It’s made up of people you would recognize. Very few of us have had power in the conventional sense, though many of us had tremendous class and racial privilege. From the bottom up, we have made change through unexpected ways. For example, I’ve listened … Continue reading If We Knew Transgender History, We Would Know Our Activism Matters
Netflix’s short series Tales of the City is a love-fest: a warm, funny, familiar celebration of queer and trans community. It is also a love letter to queer and trans history – and an extension of that history itself. Tales of the City is based on Armistead Maupin’s novels of the same name, originally published … Continue reading How Accurate is Netflix’s Tales of the City portrayal of the Compton’s Cafeteria Riot?
Recently, I completed a major milestone in my academic career: I published for the first time in an scholarly journal. My article, co-authored with my dear friend Nick Hoffman, is entitled “The Afterward: Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson in the Medieval Imaginary” and you can download it, for free. All academic articles are curious … Continue reading “The Afterward: Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson in the Medieval Imaginary” – celebrating my first article in an academic journal
On August 15, 2017, the Gerber/Hart Library and Archive posted a black and white photograph of a drag queen named Miss Tillie to the popular social media site Instagram. In this photograph, Miss Tillie smiles with tight lips and bright eyes. Her hair is coiffed into a bouffant. Her eyes and lips are lined with … Continue reading Domestic Drag: The #TillieTuesday Archive (part 1)
It’s Billy Tipton’s 105th birthday today. Tipton was a jazz musician. In his life, he was modestly successful as a pianist and saxophonist, a band leader, and talent broker. Upon his death, his assigned birth gender was exposed to the public. In the years following his death, Billy Tipton’s reasons for living as a man … Continue reading Happy Birthday, Billy: A reflection on Billy Tipton’s place in history
Over the last week, as President Trump brought our country to the brink of out-right war with Iran, I found myself missing a transgender warrior for peace: Leslie Feinberg. [Image: Leslie Feinberg toward the end of hir life, standing on a busy street corner. Photo credit: Feinberg] Leslie Feinberg was a transgender writer and organizer … Continue reading As Trump foments war, learning from Leslie Feinberg’s protests against imperialism
Recently, I wrote about the photographs of legendary Chicago drag queen Miss Tillie posted by the Gerber/Hart Library and Archive on Instagram.I call these photographs the #TillieTuesday Archive and I’ll be discussing them in my forthcoming dissertation, but I want to give you a preview now. In my previous post, I wrote about how the … Continue reading Domestic Drag: The #TillieTuesday Archive (part 2)
It is just about the only way you can understand Kramer on his own terms. Please know that everything in The Normal Heart happened. – Larry Kramer Larry Kramer, the man who started ACT UP and New York’s first AIDS-related social service agency, is dead. After spending his lifetime trying to ensure that queer people … Continue reading ACT UP Founder Larry Kramer wrote a play called The Normal Heart and you can watch it now.
Pose is back! The second season of the hit TV show just dropped on Netflix and it takes history SERIOUSLY. Set during the height of the HIV/AIDS crisis, this season is filled with historical references – and mostly they are impressively accurate. Here are some highlights to look out for as you watch (and rewatch) … Continue reading Yes, they covered a house in a condom: a run-down of the historical references in the second season of Pose
As a disabled, transgender person, I don’t have a lot of role models. To understand what it means resist ableism and transphobia at the same time, I started researching the history of our community. Here are four disabled, transgender people in whom I take pride. Read the rest on Rooted in Rights!
This month, I’m starting a discussion of the connections between anti-Black racism and trans identity. In this two-part sub-series, I’m going to explain how anti-Blackness shapes the very way we understand gender itself, much in the same way settler colonialism does. To begin, I want to introduce you to a remarkable woman named Mary Jones. … Continue reading What Mary Jones Teaches us about the Racist Roots of Transphobia – and the Survival of Black Trans Women
We’ve been talking about how racism and settler colonialism form part of the basis for systemic transphobia. We’ve already covered how the intersections of racism, sexism, and transphobia made it difficult for Black trans women, like Mary Jones, to survive. Now I want to talk about some of the ways that Black trans women fought … Continue reading Lucy Hicks Anderson: When Sovereignty Trumps Visibility
When we think about gender history prior to the mid-1800s, we must confront the fact that generalizing about the treatment of gender non-normative people is not possible. Individuals experienced profoundly different treatment based on their race or Indigeneity, as we have already discussed. Likewise, class had profound impacts on how gender differences were treated and … Continue reading What was it like to be intersex and white in the 1600s?
Well, friends, I keep promising you cross-dressing cowboys and trans-feminine lumberjacks, but once again, I’ve been distracted by earlier events in trans history. This time I’m not even going to apologize for this digression because I think you’re in for a treat. I’m going to talk about one of the most distinctive figures in 18th … Continue reading Nonbinary Identity in the 1700s? – The Public Universal Friend, Part One
Last month, I began describing the life of one of U.S. history’s most distinctive figures: the Public Universal Friend. The P.U.F., like me, was raised Quaker and embraced a genderless identity. The context in which the P.U.F. lived is fascinating and I’m excited to continue talking about this incredible life. This month, I’ll be talking … Continue reading Nonbinary Identity in the 1700s? – The Public Universal Friend, Part Two
Transgender history is filled with examples of transgender people helping each other survive. These projects of mutual support are some of our community’s most powerful forms of resistance. Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson are two such revolutionaries whose thinking can guide our movement. Together, Rivera and Johnson founded the organization STAR, which remains an … Continue reading Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson, Guiding Stars
You might not be able to tell, but this month’s Pride celebrations commemorate the Stonewall Riots, a protest against police harassment. In the wee hours of June 28th, 1969, Black trans woman Marsha P. Johnson threw a shot glass after a cop asked her for her I.D. That night, the transgender and queer patrons of … Continue reading White Queer People Yelling at Trans Women of Color during Pride Celebrations: An Incomplete History
I’ve written before about Marsha P. Johnson’s resistance in the wee hours of June 29th, 1969, the night of the Stonewall Riots. When a police officer approached her and demanded her ID, she threw a shot glass at a mirror and shouted, “I got my civil rights.” While Miss Major Griffin-Gracie was undoubtedly right … Continue reading I Got my Civil Rights and My People are Free: Marsha P. Johnson and Harriet Tubman’s Freedom Invocations
When we talk about trans people and romantic relationships, we usually focus on cisgender partners. We celebrate those partners that accept trans people, that embrace our transitions, that examine themselves and their own genders and desires and co-create strong relationships with us. There’s a long history of transgender and gender non-normative people seeking out those … Continue reading Trans 4 Trans in the 1970s: Trans Love Part Two
Before the arrival of white people on what Indigenous people call Turtle Island, Indigenous nations had their own rich understandings of gender and sexuality. In many Indigenous societies the people whose gender and sexuality seemed the strangest to white European settlers were at all “non-conforming” within their own cultures. They were accepted and respected in … Continue reading Gender and Sexuality in the Indigenous Americas Before and After Colonization
The Stonewall Riots are often described as the beginning of the LGBT movement, but nothing could be further from the truth. Transgender and queer people have been resisting state violence long before 1968. Here are five ways that transgender and queer people in New York City supported each other and resisted state violence before the … Continue reading Four ways that Transgender and Queer People Supported Each Other before Stonewall
Between 1889 and 1920, the Minneapolis/Saint Paul era, home to the Dakhóta Oyáte, Ojbwe people, and other Indigenous nations, swelled with European immigrants. Many very employed in lumber, grain, and mining industries, all jobs that employed almost exclusively people assigned male at birth. Most of these workers were unmarried, creating a unique social environment we … Continue reading What crossdressing lumberjacks teach us about gender and settler colonialism
You’ve heard of the Stonewall Riots, which took place in New York City. You may know about the riots at Gene Compton’s Cafeteria, in San Francisco. If you’re really interested in transgender history, then maybe you’ve even read about the sit-ins at Dewey’s Lunch Counter in Philadelphia. But can you name a single event in … Continue reading The Midwest Matters: Two Events that Prove that the Midwest is Central to U.S. Transgender History
Last month, I discussed the story of Mary Jones, the first woman known to be transgender in U.S. history. Jones’ story vividly illustrates how racism, transphobia, and sexism combine to shape the lives of Black transgender women. This month, I’m answering a question I posed at the end of that article: how does anti-Blackness shape … Continue reading How does anti-Blackness shape the ways we understand gender itself?