Transgender history isn’t taught in most schools and colleges, but the history of transgender people is vast. That’s because trans people have existed worldwide since the beginning of time, even popping up in ancient religions and cultures.
Although the term “transgender” wasn’t coined until the 1960s, trans history includes numerous people whose gender identities and expressions differed from the genders they were assigned at birth. These individuals may not have identified as trans, but modern historians see them as early forebearers in the transgender community.
It’s especially important to elevate transgender history now that conservative politicians and activists are trying to ban all LGBTQ+ content from schools. These same forces are demonizing trans identities as “unnatural” forms of “gender ideology” and “gender confusion” that seek to “groom” children into medical transitioning.
While these forces seek to shame and shun trans people from the public sphere, the truth is that trans people have been kings and queens, fought in wars, and led the fight for LGBTQ+ rights. As such, trans history demonstrates the many ways the transgender community has persisted and transformed the world despite widespread social oppression.
1. Trans people have existed since the birth of civilization
The earliest known possible trans individuals were the Gala, androgynous or trans priests of Inanna, the Sumerian goddess of fertility, desire, and war. These priests existed around 5000 BC in Ancient Sumer, an area now known as south-central Iraq, which is regarded as the first human civilization.
Though Gala priests were male, they spoke in Eme-sal, a feminine dialect associated with goddesses. Inanna also oversaw a ceremony referred to as “the head-overturning,” by which a man was transformed into a woman and a woman transformed into a man.
Sadly, the ancient Sumerian language and texts have left us with a spotty idea of these priests’ social and religious duties. However, it’s believed that queer sexuality also played a role in their practices.
2. The goddess Cybele had trans priests in ancient Rome
In the 3rd century BC, the Galli were priests in the cult of Cybele, an earth mother goddess associated with wine, music, and ecstatic rites. Legend has it that her consort, Attis, was a shepherd who castrated himself after Cybele crashed his wedding and drove him mad as punishment for loving another woman.
Galli would castrate themselves in an ecstatic ritual known as the “Day of Blood” on March 24 to show their devotion to Cybele. Afterward, they dressed in yellow women’s clothing — wearing pendants, earrings, heavy makeup, and long bleached hair — and would wander the streets while carrying instruments, flagellating themselves bloody with whips made of knuckle bones, telling fortunes, and offering themselves as receptive sexual partners for money, according to the GLBTQ Archive.
The priests are understood by modern people to have been transgender. But while numerous relics of Cybele suggest that she had many followers, historical texts suggest that traditional Roman men saw the Galli as unmanly and inferior. The cult of Cybele later died off as Christianity swept the region, and all her temples were destroyed.
3. Asian and African cultures revered trans identities
Early Middle Eastern Muslim texts refer to the “mukhannathun,” MTF individuals with innate femininity and relationships with either men or women. Only mukhannathun who had been castrated or were exclusively attracted to men were allowed into women’s spaces, history buff Mercedes Allen wrote. Later, all mukhannathun were required to undergo castration.
Other trans religious figures have popped up across Asia, including the Hijras, individuals who are intersex or assigned male at birth. Hijras wear makeup, dress in traditionally female clothing, and many are castrated. Some identify as trans and others as “third gender.” They’re revered for performing good luck rituals at Hindu weddings and births, though they continue to fight for legal recognition in modern-day India.
Early Indonesian societies had transgender religious figures known as basaja. In ancient China, the shih-niang wore mixed-gender ceremonial clothing. In Okinawa, Japan, some shamans underwent winagu nati, a process of “becoming female.” In Korea, the mudang was a shaman or sorceress who was quite often MTF, Allen notes.
Meanwhile, numerous African tribes had intersex deities and spiritual beliefs in gender transformation. Several African rulers also may have been trans, including seventh-century BC monarch King Ashurbanipal (Sardanapalus) of Assyria whose wearing of women’s clothes was later used to justify overthrowing him, and also 1503 BC Egyptian Queen Hatshepsut and her daughter Neferure who both wore male clothing, false beards, and a male phallus.
4. Early Christianity revered several FTM saints
In 2020, Roland Betancourt, a professor of art history at the University of California in Irvine, wrote that “from the fifth to the ninth century, a number of saints’ lives composed across the Greek-speaking Mediterranean detail the lives of individuals assigned female at birth who for a host of different reasons chose to live out their adult lives as men in monasteries.”
These included Saint Perpetua, who dreamt of becoming a man the night before her execution; Saints Hilarion, Marinos, and Smaragdus, who all lived as male monks; and Saint Athanasia, who married the male Saint Andronicus and lived as a male monk with him in a monastery until their deaths, mere days apart from one another.
5. The French spy, the Chevalier D’Eon, is one of the most fascinating trans figures of all time
Historians have long puzzled over the biography of the Chevalier D’Eon, a trans figure who left behind over 2,000 pages of diaries and an unpublished memoir that both combines fact and fiction. The Chevalier d’Eon was assigned male at birth by her aristocratic French family, but she later claimed she had been born female and forced to live as a boy to help her father receive a familial inheritance that required a male heir.
In 1763, at 32, she joined Le Secret du Roi, or “The King’s Secret,” a network of spies and diplomatic agents established by French King Louis XV. When she was fired for insolence and ordered to return to France, she retaliated by publishing a tell-all book about the spy network. Though some in France were scandalized, her government nonetheless allowed her to remain in Britain as a spy.
In 1775, d’Eon signed an agreement to return to France, but only if the king paid some of her debts and publicly recognized her as a woman, a gender identity that she had already expressed for years beforehand.
She petitioned the French government to join its troops in helping American revolutionary soldiers fight the British, but the government forced her into a convent and a dungeon for 19 days until she stopped asking to join the war effort. She moved back to England in 1785, sold her famous feminist book collection, and, around age 60, made spare money through fencing exhibitions.
6. The U.S. Civil War had trans soldiers
During the American Civil War (April 1861 to April 1865), trans people fought in both the Union and Confederate armies.
Franklin Thompson was assigned female at birth, but reportedly dressed as a boy and later traveled under a male gender identity to travel more easily. In his memoir, he said he disguised himself as a Black man and a Black laundress to infiltrate the Confederacy as a Union spy.
He contracted malaria during the war and went into a private hospital for treatment, worrying that his gender identity would be exposed in a military hospital. His absence got him labeled as a war deserter, though he later rejoined the troops as a nurse using the female name he was assigned at birth.
Another man named Albert Cashier lived as a man for 53 years, including before and after enlisting in the Union army. He fought in over 40 battles in the war, and his trans identity was discovered near the end of his life during his time in a mental institution. There, workers forced him to wear women’s clothing until his death. After he was outed, the military pension board investigated him for fraud, but it ultimately decided to let him keep his lifelong pension.
In 1876, a book entitled The Woman in Battle followed the exploits of a person who was assigned female at birth but nonetheless served as a Confederate Lieutenant named Harry T. Buford during the war. It’s unclear whether Buford lived in a male gender identity outside of the war.
7. Hundreds of trans people roamed the Wild West
In his book, Re-Dressing America’s Frontier Past, historian Peter Boag said he discovered “hundreds of individuals living their lives as the opposite gender” in the area now known as the United States from the early 1800s to the early 1900s.
Many of these were individuals assigned a female gender at birth, but dressed and lived as men to escape criminal charges they’d faced as women or to enjoy the same social rights as men.
This group included Sammy Williams, a Montana lumberjack whose trans identity wasn’t discovered until his death at age 80; Charley Parkhurst, a renowned stagecoach driver who voted in the 1868 election (long before women were legally allowed to vote); Mrs. Nash, a trans tamale cook in Montana who married three different military men; and Harry Allen, a bartender and ladies man who was repeatedly thrown in jail for his gender-nonconformity.
8. Trans people fought early battles for LGBTQ+ rights
While Sylvia Rivera and Miss Major Griffin-Gracy are two notable trans women who participated in the Stonewall uprising, trans people led two uprisings in California that occurred years before Stonewall. At the time, California had a law against cross-dressing which police used as a pretext for raiding gay venues. Police would check to see if patrons’ IDs matched their gender presentation and singled out gender nonconformists for special harassment and abuse. These police raids led venues to start rejecting trans patrons.
One night in May 1959, two police officers entered Cooper’s Donuts, a Los Angeles cafe that was one of the few places where drag queens, trans people, and other outsiders could safely congregate. The cops began checking IDs and tried placing “two hustlers, two queens, and a young man” into a crowded patrol car, one account states. The arrestees scattered out of the car, and a crowd exited the shop, “hurling donuts, coffee cups, and trash at the police” The police fled in their car and called for backup as angry queers moved into the streets, dancing on cars, lighting fires, and generally wreaking havoc until the police returned to beat and arrest several of them.
In August 1966, queers opposed a police raid at Gene Compton’s Cafeteria, an all-night diner in San Francisco. When a cop tried to arrest one trans woman, she threw a cup of hot coffee in his face. Within moments dishes were broken, furniture was thrown, the restaurant’s windows were smashed, and a nearby newsstand was burned down. An organized protest occurred the following night, with picketers coming from militant queer groups like the Street Orphans and Vanguard. The uprising was recounted in the 2005 film, Screaming Queens: The Riot at Compton’s Cafeteria.
9. The transgender symbol originated in the 1990s
The trans symbol — a pictograph combining the male gender symbol, the female gender symbol, and the symbol for androgyny — was designed by Holly Boswell, Wendy Parker, and Nancy R. Nangeroni sometime in the 1990s.
The original version showed the bright blue symbol inside an inverted lavender triangle. The triangle recalled the pink triangle Nazis used to identify gay prisoners inside their death camps.
“The circle is a symbol of wholeness, and represents the wholeness of a society which includes the transgender,” Nangeroni explained. “The misdirection of a society that ridicules the transgender is implied.”
There are also transfeminist and trans-equality versions of the symbol, which either place a raised fist or an equal sign to denote radical feminism or the transgender civil equality movement, respectively.
10. Transgender history is still in the making
Even as transphobic politicians seek to ban gender-affirming healthcare and transgender civil rights, more and more transgender celebrities and politicians are showing that the transgender community won’t go back into the closet.
The history of transgender people now includes notable performers like Laverne Cox, Kim Petras, Eliot Page, Angelica Ross, and Eddie Izzard; groundbreaking trans athletes like Chris Mosier, Fallon Fox, and Patricio Manuuel; and also politicians like Danica Roem, and Amanda Simpson. Many of these people double as activists, helping raise public awareness about the challenges and blessings of the modern trans experience.
Every new member of the transgender community ensures that transgender history will extend far into the future, possibly to a time when one’s life and opportunities aren’t as determined by gender identity.