Lucy Hicks Anderson: When Sovereignty Trumps Visibility

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 against systemic injustice by introducing you to Lucy Hicks Anderson, one of the first trans women to publicly claim her identity in a U.S. court of law.

Lucy Hicks Anderson

Lucy Hicks Anderson was a Black trans woman who made a life for herself in Oxnard, California after the turn of the 20th century. Her life spanned from post-reconstruction to the post World War II period. That means she lived during a time of intense social change that had profound impacts on trans people – and I’ll be talking us through that context next month. For now, I simply want to encourage you to note that Anderson’s legal status, surprisingly, became more precarious as her life went on.

Anderson was born in 1886 in Waddy, Kentucky and she had a very clear understanding of who she was early in life. Anderson informed her family that she was a girl and that her name was Lucy when she was very young. In a radical departure from norms at the time, a local doctor told her parents to respect her sense of self and raise her as a girl. At 15, she left school and headed West. Soon enough, she was winning baking contests, a skill that would make her famous.

Anderson was a madame and a bootlegger. She was also a socialite, a chef, and a hostess who became well-respected in her community. In fact, Lucy was so well-connected that she was able to use her friends to help her avoid jail time.

One night, the local sheriff arrested Anderson, but Charles Donlon, the town’s biggest banker, immediately bailed her out. Why? He was hosting a huge dinner party that would have failed abysmally if Anderson had remained behind bars.

Anderson, however, was more than a savvy business owner. She was also a powerful self-advocate and advocate for other women like her.

Anderson eventually ran afoul of the law because of the intense policing of sex work. In 1945, a sailor claimed that he caught venereal disease at Anderson’s brothel. The local authorities forced all the women working there to undergo medical examination, including Anderson. When it was revealed that Anderson was assigned male at birth, the Ventura County district attorney chose to try her for perjury and gender impersonation.

Prosecutors argued that Anderson lied about her gender when she applied for a license to marry her husband Rueben Anderson, a GI.

In court, Anderson insisted that she was the woman she had always been. She declared, “I defy any doctor in the world to prove that I am not a woman,” and “I have lived, dressed, acted as just what I am, a woman.”

Anderson spoke clearly about her identity during her trial, but she also refused to answer questions that pried into her personal life. She found clever ways to assert herself, while protecting her privacy.

For example, when the prosecutor asked her if she often wore a wig, she said, “If I think I look better with a wig, I do.”

When asked what part of her body she considered to be the most feminine, she proudly arched her back and said, “For one thing, my chest.”

When asked if her first husband was a man, Anderson answered in a way that drew absurdity to questions about her own gender, saying, “Well, he’s supposed to be.”

Finally, when prosecutors asked, “Do you have male sex organs?” Anderson refused to answer. According to the Afro-American’s report on the trial, the prosecutor rephrased the question several times, but Anderson would not reply.

Anderson’s defiant answers are inspiring, but to me, it’s her refusal to speak, her insistence that she had a right to privacy and to a personhood undefined by the state, that was revolutionary.

Anderson was found guilty, but was sentenced to 10 years of probation instead of jail time. Unfortunately, she later served time when she was found guilty of defrauding the federal government of money, just because she received the financial allotment due to a wife under the GI Bill. She was sentence to a men’s prison and a court order forbade her from wearing women’s clothing.

When Anderson was finally released from prison, the Oxnard chief of police barred her from returning to her home. She and her husband relocated to L.A. where they lived peacefully until Anderson’s death at 68 in 1954.

Anderson’s defiance in the face of laws that refused to recognize her gender deserves to be remembered. She should be hailed for the way she spoke her selfhood clearly, but also for her courageous refusal to speak.

In a time in which many trans people, especially white trans people, are embracing visibility as a primary liberation strategy (and a time in which entertainment companies are happy to profit from this political shift), Anderson’s story can remind us that sometimes the sovereignty of our bodies is more important than visibility.