6 Black Trans Women Who Made History
March is Women's History Month and we're highlighting six Black trans women who are pioneers in queer history:
Mary Jones (1803-death unknown)
One of the earliest recorded stories of a trans woman in America, Mary Jones was a Black sex worker in New York by way of New Orleans. In 1836, Jones was working one night and met a white man who paid her for sex. On his way home, he discovered that $99 was missing from his wallet. Jones was brought to court for theft, and when the police searched her home, they found dozens of other stolen property. She was sentenced to five years in jail.
The above illustration of Jones dubbed her “the man-monster,” among other names. Despite the discrimination she faced as a queer sex worker of color, though, Jones refused to give up her identity.
Frances Thompson (1840-1877)
Frances Thompson was a freedwoman, an anti-rape activist, and most likely the first trans woman to testify before a congressional committee in the United States. It was in 1866 when the riots in Memphis broke out, white men (including police officers), busted into her home. She was beaten, raped, and robbed. She and her friend, Lucy, testified about this night to a congressional committee.
Ten years later, Thompson was arrested for an unknown reason and outed as being trans in the local newspaper. She was sentenced to the chain gang, where she was forced to dress in men’s clothing and was subjected to continued abuse. She died within the same year of her initial arrest of dysentery. Newspaper reports stated that some in Memphis had understood her to be intersex, and that she had stated she was "of double sex."
Lucy Hicks Anderson (1886-1954)
In a time before the word transgender existed, Lucy Hicks Anderson knew who shew was. And while she may have been assigned male at birth, her parents affirmed her gender. Anderson would eventually marry and become a chef and hostess. It was always her goal to own a brothel, and she did (as well as sell illegal liquor during Prohibition). It was in 1944 that a client of her brothel contracted an STD. All of the women, including Anderson, were required to undergo medical examination. When it was learned from this examination that Anderson had been assigned male at birth, she was charged with perjury.
This was in 1945, one year after Anderson had married soldier Reuben Anderson. Since at the time marriage was only valid between a man and a woman, her marriage was declared invalid. The federal government charged her with fraud for receiving the financial allowances wives of soldiers got under the GI Bill. Taking a stand in court, Anderson said, "I defy any doctor in the world to prove that I am not woman. I have lived, dressed, acted just like what I am, a woman.”
Anderson and her husband served 10 years probation, and she was ordered to refrain from wearing clothes made for women. This is one of the earliest fights for marriage equality.
Miss Major (1940-present)
Miss Major Griffin-Gracy, otherwise known as Miss Major, is a trans activist who got her start in the drag ball scene. She came out in the 1950s as a teen and eventually would make her way to New York City. Miss Major was at Stonewall Inn the night of the 1969 riots, and it's noted in interviews that Stonewall was one of her favorite places to meet others.
She has worked and volunteered for many queer organizations since the Stonewall uprising with a particular focus on women of color. She has helped trans women who were homeless, who have been in prison or who were dealing with addiction. During the 1990s she became very active with organizations that were responding to the AIDS crisis.
Marsha P. Johnson (1945-1992)
Marsha P. Johnson was a trans activist and outspoken advocate for LGBTQIA+ rights. Johnson, Sylvia Rivera, Stormé DeLarverie, and Miss Major have all (at some point) been credited with being a leader during the Stonewall Riots of 1969, though it's uncertain whether Johnson was actually there that night. She went on to become a founding member of the Gay Activists Alliance, later establishing STAR (the Street Transgender Action Revolutionaries). STAR provided housing and social services to the trans community, including homeless youth and people of color. In the 1980s, Johnson became an AIDS activist, working alongside the group AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP).
Tracey "Africa" Norman (1952-present)
Tracey Norman, who often went by Africa, is noted as the first Black trans model. She appeared on a box of Clairol hair dye in the 1970s and landed a contract with Avon. In 1971, she was photographed for Italian Vogue. She was also photographed for Essence in 1980, but when her trans identity was discovered she was blacklisted in the United States. Norman then moved to Paris and signed a six-month contract with Balenciaga. As work became harder to find for her, she became more involved with the trans community by appearing in a burlesque peep show and competing in the ball room community.