As we all know by now, Caitlyn Jenner bravely came out as transgender during an interview with Diane Sawyer late last week. On this week’s episode of Braless, Laci Green discusses five things America learned from Caitlyn when she came out of the closet "looking sharp and kicking America’s ass on transgender issues."
Coming out as transgender required extra bravery for Caitlyn Jenner because she’s so famous, but as she mentioned in the interview, the bravery of many transgender activists who’ve come before her helped to pave the way for her journey. It’s important to remember that not all transgender people are famous, and that transgender activists across the U.S. work hard every day to make the world safer for the entire transgender community.
“Never in my life have I seen such accessible, clear, and thoroughly humanized explanations of widely held myths about gender and sexuality on a national TV event,” Laci says. “It was momentous, it was beautiful. I mean, I may have shed a few tears.”
We've come a long way in terms how society and the media talk about transgender people. Here are just nine examples of the many, many transgender activists who’ve helped us get where we are today.
Christine Jorgensen was born in 1926 in the Bronx, New York City. After a stint in the U.S. Army during World War II, Jorgensen traveled to Europe for gender-affirming surgery. When she returned to the U.S. in the early 1950s, Jorgensen told her story very publicly and became a celebrity, using her fame to advocate for transgender people.
In her autobiography, Jorgensen included a letter she had written to her friends that said, "As you can see by the enclosed photos, taken just before the operation, I have changed a great deal. But it is the other changes that are so much more important. Remember the shy, miserable person who left America? Well, that person is no more and, as you can see, I'm in marvelous spirits."
Brendon Teena was a transgender man who was raped and murdered at the age of 21 in Nebraska in 1993. His life and death were the subject of the Academy Award-winning film “Boys Don’t Cry.” Although Brandon was outed against his will, his story went a long way toward furthering trans visibility and sparked lobbying for transgender inclusion in hate crimes laws.
Four years ago, Amanda Simpson became the first openly transgender person to be appointed to a role within a presidential administration. Simpson now works as the Executive Director of the U.S. Army Office of Energy Initiatives (OEI).
"Mostly, just believe in yourself," Simpson told Refinery29 in a March, 2015 interview. "If I’m talking to a twenty-something or even someone in their teens, I’d say it looks immensely difficult to break out of the path that society, your parents, your teachers, your mentors have defined for you. But, try... Try to do something different."
Sylvia Rivera is often referred to as the Rosa Parks of the modern transgender movement. She was instrumental in the Stonewall Riots in New York City in 1969, when police raided a gay bar called Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village (homosexuality was still illegal in every state but Illinois at the time), and LGBT activists fought back, sparking 6 days of protests and demonstrations that launched the gay civil rights movement into the public eye. In 2005, the corner of Christopher and Hudson streets in Greenwich Village was renamed “Rivera Way” to honor her memory.
In a 1998 interview for Workers World Sylvia said, “All of us were working for so many movements at that time. Everyone was involved with the women's movement, the peace movement, the civil-rights movement. We were all radicals. I believe that's what brought it around...You get tired of being just pushed around.”
When she accepted the HRC Visibility Award in 2012 Lana said, “When I told my mom what was going on, she jumped on a plane immediately. It was this big, tear-soaked baptism, and she confessed that she had been afraid to arrive and grieve the loss of her son. But when she arrived she found it wasn’t so much a death as it was a discovery. That there was this other part of me, an unseen part, and she felt it was like a gift because now she could get to know that part of me.”
Chelsea Manning is a U.S. Army private who was sentenced to 35 years in prison after leaking hundreds of classified documents (including videos that showed soldiers intentionally killing unarmed civilians) to Wikileaks. Her sentencing has been condemned by civil liberties advocates, and her bravery in coming out as transgender during such a difficult and highly publicized time in her life has been praised for bringing attention to the tens of thousands of transgender veterans and soldiers serving in the U.S. Army--despite the fact that they’re forbidden from serving openly.
“When you’re a kid dreaming, anything seems possible," Chelsea told Cosmopolitan in a recent interview. "I think a lot of opportunities would have come easier to me if I had felt more comfortable and confident in my own skin, and not terrified of the world around me.”
As the only child of Sonny and Cher, Chaz was very visible in the public eye when he came out as transgender. He appeared on "Entertainment Tonight" in 2009 to talk about his transition, and his experience was documented in a film called "Becoming Chaz." In 2011, he was a competitor on the 13th season of "Dancing with the Stars," making him the first out transgender man to star in a TV show for something that wasn't all about his transgender status. His 2012 memoir, Transition: Becoming Who I Was Always Meant to Be, became a New York Times bestseller.
“Until I really accepted this about myself and got over any of my own transphobia that I had, I really felt like I wouldn't be accepted," Chaz wrote in his memoir. "I thought I would ruin my life.”
Renee Richards is a former professional tennis player who made history by winning a case against the United Tennis Association after they denied her entry into the 1976 US Open competition because she hadn’t been assigned female at birth. By publicly fighting for her right to play as female (the gender she identifies as), she became an early spokesperson for transgender rights.
"I was certainly the one in the world of sports," Richards told Reuters in a March, 2015 interview. "But there have been others. There have been great strides made by other courageous people."
William Lee “Billy” Tipton was an American jazz musician who was born in 1914. Until his death in 1989, the public had no idea that he had been assigned the gender of female at birth. Understandably, Tipton didn’t feel safe enough come out as transgender, but he is admired for his bravery in insisting on living as a man despite all the risks.