Trans Awareness Week 2020: Trans Feminine Icons
Laverne Cox (29th May 1972)
Born in Alabama and raised by her single mother and grandmother, Cox was assigned male at birth and has an identical twin brother. Cox was bullied at school for not acting “...the way someone assigned male at birth was supposed to act...” which lead to a suicide attempt aged just 11.
After school, Cox graduated from the Alabama School of Fine Arts, but switched to dance (specifically ballet) before switching again to acting.
Following her studies, Cox appeared on a show called ‘I Want to Work for Diddy’ after which she was approached by VH1 for show ideas. She went on to become the first African-American transgender person to star in, and produce, her own show which was called ‘TRANSform me’. Both ‘I Want to Work for Diddy’ and ‘TRANSform me’ were nominated for GLAAD media awards for outstanding reality program.
Cox's 'big break' came in 2013 when she began her role as Sophia Burset, a trans woman, on Netflix's ‘Orange is the New Black’. The role saw her nominated for a Primetime Emmy Award making her the first openly transgender person to be nominated in this category. Cox also appeared on the cover of ‘Time' Magazine making her the first openly transgender person to appear on the cover.
Later in 2014 Cox produced and narrated ‘Laverne Cox presents: The T word’ for which she won a daytime Emmy, becoming the first openly transgender woman to win a daytime Emmy as an executive producer.
Cox was one of 15 women to be chosen by Meghan Duchess of Sussex to appear on the cover of the September 2019 British Vogue issue, making her the first openly transgender person to appear on the cover of British Vogue.
Laverne Cox is often noted by her peers for being a trailblazer for the transgender community, her impact has also lead to discussions on how being transgender intersects with being a person of colour.
Marsha P. Johnson (August 24th 1945 - July 6th 1992)
Marsha P Johnson was an American gay liberation activist and self identified drag queen.
Born in New Jersey, Johnson had six siblings, and began wearing dresses at the age of five, but stopped due to harassment from fellow children.
Johnson felt that being gay was “some sort of dream” so chose to remain celibate until the age of 17 when she moved to New York, taking with her just $15 and a bag of clothes. Johnson began to wait on tables, and meeting other gay people meant that she felt able to come out as gay.
After coming out, Johnson initially used the name ‘Black Marsha’ but later changed to her drag queen name of Marsha P Johnson. She identified as gay, a transvestite, and as a queen (drag queen). The term transgender wasn't yet widely used but we do know that Marsha usually used female pronouns for herself.
Due to limited funds Johnson’s style of drag wasn’t ‘high drag’ or ‘show drag’. She was known for wearing crowns of fresh flowers which she would take from the leftover flowers left on tables in the flower district of Manhattan, an area she often slept in. Most of Johnson’s drag performances were with grassroots groups, and often comedic or political. She sang with the Hot Peaches, a drag performance troupe, from 1972-1990s and was also photographed by famous American artist Andy Warhol.
As well as their drag performances Johnson was also an activist. She was one of the first drag queens to go to the Stonewall Inn after it began allowing women and drag queens in.
In the early hours of 28th June 1969 the Stonewall uprising began. Although Johnson has often been said to have helped start the riots she recalled arriving at around 2am and that “the riots had already started...Stonewall building was on fire”.
After the Stonewall Uprising Johnson joined the ‘Gay Liberation Front’ and was active in their drag queen caucus. Along with close friend Sylvia Rivera she founded the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR). They both became a visible presence at gay liberation marches and political rallies. In 1973 they were banned from gay pride parades after the organisers no longer wanted drag queens to attend, saying they were giving them a bad name. Instead Johnson and Rivera marched ahead of the parade.
Along with Rivera, Johnson started the STAR House in 1972, which sheltered gay and trans street kids, paying the rent with money they made as sex workers. Johnson was known as a drag mother of the STAR house.
Johnson continued to play a part in street activism up until her death in 1992. Since her death, Johnson has been remembered in various ways such as: murals, monuments, and parks named after her.
Johnson is considered a trailblazer for the rights that many LGBTQ+ people have today.
Sylvia Rivera (2nd July 1951 - February 19th 2002)
Sylvia Rivera was a Latina American gay liberation and transgender rights activist who was born and raised in New York by her grandmother. As a result of her grandmother disapproving of her effeminate behaviour, Rivera began to live on the streets at aged 11 and was forced to work as a child prostitute where her local community of drag queens took her in, and gave her the name Sylvia.
At the age of 18 Rivera joined the Gay Activists Alliance, where alongside fighting for the rights of gay people, she also fought for the inclusion of drag queens. Rivera spoke at a gay rights rally in 1973 which saw her and friend Marsha P Johnson banned from future rallies for making other activists ‘look bad’.
Rivera’s experiences of living on the streets and with substance abuse meant that she advocated for members of the LGBT community who were left behind. She fought for both herself, people of colour, and low income LGBT people. As well as fighting for people on her own, Rivera set up Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR) with Marsha P Johnson, providing services and advocacy for homeless queer youth.
Rivera continued to campaign throughout her life for the rights of LGBT people, but especially for more marginalised members including: drag queens, homeless youth, imprisoned gay inmates, and transgender people. Rivera renewed her activism in the last five years of her life. She resurrected STAR, but changed the term transvestite to transgender. Rivera died on 19th February 2002.
Rivera’s legacy includes the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, a portrait in the National Gallery, and a monument.
Janet Mock (10th March 1983)
Janet Mock is an American writer, television host, director, producer, and transgender rights activist.
Born in Honolulu, she spent most of her youth in Hawaii and began her transition as a freshman in high school. She funded her transition by working as a sex worker in her teenage years. She chose the name Janet after Janet Jackson.
Mock was the first person in her family to go to college, and had sex reassignment surgery at age 18 whilst in her first year at college. She graduated from the university of Hawaii at Manoa with a Bachelor of Arts in Fashion Merchandising. She then moved to Now York and completed a Masters of Arts degree in Journalism.
After graduating, Mock started working for People Magazine as a staff editor, where she stayed for five years. She came out publicly in 2011 in a Marie Claire article. Mock was unhappy with how the article stated that she was ‘born and raised as a boy’, Mock stated that she was always a girl saying, “I was born in what doctors proclaim is a boys body. I had no choice in the assignment of my sex at birth...my gender reconstructive surgery did not make me a girl. I was always a girl.”
In 2012 Mock created a hashtag on Twitter to empower trans women, called #GirlsLikeUs. In the same year she also became co chair, nominee, and presenter at the GLAAD media awards.
Mock released her first book in February 2014, entitled ‘Redefining Realness: My Path to Womanhood, Identity, Love & so much more’. Whilst promoting the book she stated that she did not choose the title for the Marie Claire article, and found it to have many problems. Mock went on to become a contributing editor at Marie Claire writing articles about topics including: racial representation in film and television, and trans women’s presence in the global beauty industry.
After her book, Mock went on to host ‘TakePart Live’, and her own show ‘So POPular’. Whilst working on these shows she also covered the White House Correspondence Dinner’s red carpet for Shift.
Also in 2014 Mock joined a campaign against a Phoenix law which allowed police to arrest anyone suspected of ‘manifesting prostitution’ which targeted trans women of colour.
Mock went onto publish her second memoir called ‘Surpassing Certainty’ which was published in 2017. After writing her second memoir Mock became a writer, director and producer of the television show Pose. She was the first trans woman of colour hired as a writer for a TV series. She also became the first trans woman of colour to direct and write any television episode when she directed and wrote the Pose episode, ‘Love Is The Message’.
Mock also become the first trans woman of colour to secure a deal with a major content company when she signed a three year deal with Netflix to give them the rights to her first TV series.
Mock has been nominated for and awarded several awards including The Sylvia Rivera Activist Award, the Inspiration Award for the GLSEN Respect Awards, featuring in the The Advocate annual ‘40 under 40’s’ and the 50 of the most influential LGBT people list.
April Ashley MBE (29th April 1935)
Born in Liverpool to a catholic father and a Protestant mother, April Ashley MBE is most well known as an English model and restaurant owner. At the age of 14 she joined the merchant navy, but a suicide attempt meant she received a dishonourable discharge. At 17, a second suicide attempt saw her admitted to a psychiatric hospital where she was subjected to Electroconvulsive Therapy.
After discharge from hospital Ashley moved to Paris where she began to live as female and took a job at a nightclub, working to save money for gender reassignment surgery. After saving enough money, Ashley had gender reassignment surgery in 1960 under the care of surgeon Georges Burou in Morocco. Ashley was only Burou’s ninth gender reassignment patient.
Following surgery Ashley moved back to Britain where she became a fashion model and appeared in prestigious magazines such as Vogue. However, in 1961 a friend sold her story to the ‘Sunday People’ newspaper and Ashley was outed as a trans woman in the media.
Being outed meant that Ashley’s career faltered, however in 1963 she married the hon. Arthur Corbett. The marriage quickly broke down, and their eventual annulment was granted in 1970 on the grounds that Ashley was considered male by the court. The case was known as Corbett vs Corbett and set the legal status for all trans people until the 2004 Gender Recognition Act (GRA). The passing of the GRA meant that finally Ashley was legally recognised as female and was issued a new birth certificate.
Ashley now lives in London and has given talks about her life at various events. The impact that Ashley’s life has had on law and legal status for trans people is tremendous, and this, along with her determination and strength, lead to her receiving an MBE in 2012.
This article was written by Oliver. Oliver is a queer, trans, and disabled person who lives in Manchester with his cat Seymour, and he has a long term partner.
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