Trans is not a trend: 4 gender-nonconforming historical figures who dared to be themselves

Mary Jones/The Public Universal Friend
Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Any queer person who’s spent time on the internet has no doubt heard the tired, dismissive right-wing argument that LGBTQ+ folks are just some recent fad, that some nebulous combination of the internet, declining western values, and their favorite boogeyman, “Cultural Marxism” are to blame for the rise in visible, out queer people. This is a favorite refrain, especially when it comes to transgender folks, as anyone who’s faced the pain and ignominy of being called a “trans-trender” is well aware.

The truth, of course, is very different. The historical record is replete with individuals who in one way or another chafed against the gender and sexuality norms of their time, or in some cases subverted, ignored, or flaunted them entirely. There are countless examples of such people on record, and countless more who surely existed but were never recorded.

The stories of the individuals to follow are just a few examples of gender-nonconforming people whose lives were, at least in part, recorded in extant documents.

Note that these people are from a time period in which the word “transgender” did not exist in the public vocabulary, and thus it is rarely possible to be certain of how they might have identified, given the choice. Further, records from these eras rarely state such details as preferred pronouns. In the interest of extending respect and the benefit of the doubt, the names and pronouns used here will reflect the outward presentation these individuals seemed to prefer based on existing evidence.

Mary Jones (1803-Unknown)

Depiction of Mary Jones as "The Man-Monster" after she was sentenced to 5 years imprisonment at Sing Sing
Courtesy of H.R. Robinson/Wikimedia Commons.

Frequently considered to be either the first or one of the first transgender people ever recorded in an official capacity, Mary Jones was a Black American soldier and sex worker. While it cannot be determined for certain if Jones would have identified as a transgender woman if given the option, she is at the very least a prominent gender-nonconforming historical figure.

Mary Jones was AMAB (assigned male at birth) and would reportedly present as male during the day and female at night, wearing a dress, wig, and feminine jewelry. She used a prosthetic vagina in order to solicit sexual interactions with men at night, during which she would allegedly pickpocket their wallets. 

Jones is most well-known for the June 1836 court case in which she was charged with Grand Larceny as a result of alleged pick-pocketing of her sex work clients. She was tried on June 16, 1836, five days after a white mason named Robert Haslem discovered his wallet containing $99 had been replaced with an empty one after soliciting sexual services from Jones.

Jones appeared in court in her female-presenting attire, a fact for which she was widely mocked and ridiculed by the court and the audience. Upon having her choice of attire questioned, Jones said:

I have been in the practice of waiting upon girls of ill fame and made up their beds and received the company at the door and received the money for rooms and they induced me to dress in women’s clothes, saying I looked so much better in them and I have always attended parties among the people of my own colour dressed in this way — and in New Orleans I always dressed in this way —

During the trial, Jones also mentioned her prior military service, which was offered as a plea for the jury’s forbearance. She flatly denied having ever laid eyes on Haslem, let alone stealing from him.

Despite pleading not guilty to the charge of Grand Larceny, Jones was ultimately convicted and sentenced to five years imprisonment in New York’s Sing Sing.

Few specifics about Jones’ life are known beyond this point. She did survive to be freed after her five-year sentence and was eventually arrested again in 1845 for once again presenting as a female sex worker and allegedly stealing money from her clients. She was released from Blackwells Island on February 15, 1846 after serving a sixth-month sentence for the repeat offense.

The details of her later arrest and imprisonment are known only because they were reported on by the Commercial Advertiser and the New York Herald. No extant records exist about her life after this point, nor is the date of her death known.

Though incessantly mocked in her time, Mary Jones has since been celebrated by historians and queer activists for her refusal to give up presenting as her authentic self even after arrests and imprisonment. She is likewise lauded for her candor when sharing her experiences as a Black gender-nonconforming person to a primarily white courtroom audience, in spite of receiving nothing but ridicule for doing so, even having her wig violently removed according to reporting by The Sun. She clearly did not let said ridicule dissuade her from living as her authentic self, given later reports of her continued public presentation as female.

Albert Cashier (1843-1915)

Albert Cashier Headshot
Courtesty of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum/Wikimedia Commons

It’s generally prudent to avoid making hard assumptions about the gender identities of people long since dead who lacked the language that exists today for expressing such things, but every once in a while one comes across a standout example of someone who, by all accounts, unambiguously lived the life of someone who would today be called transgender.

Albert Cashier, born in Ireland December 25, 1843, is one such person. Reports on his early life are contradictory and uncertain, but two things seem apparent: that despite being born AFAB (assigned female at birth), Cashier preferred to present as male from a young age, and that at some point in his early life, he traveled to the United States as a stowaway and settled in Belvedere, Illinois.

From there, records paint a somewhat clearer picture. Cashier enlisted to serve in the Civil War in July of 1862. On August 6 of the same year, Cashier officially enlisted in Company G of the 95th Illinois Infantry under the name “Albert D.J. Cashier.”

Cashier and his regiment fought in approximately 40 battles, including the Siege of Vicksburg. At one time, Cashier was captured during reconnaissance but managed to escape and return to his company.

After exemplary service in the war, Cashier returned to Belvedere, Illinois in 1865. He later settled in Saunemin, Illinois, in 1869. He would continue to live there for over forty years, and across his time in both towns, he earned his keep with a variety of odd jobs, including but not limited to church janitor, lamplighter, farmhand, and cemetery worker.

Later in life, Cashier fell ill, and his birth sex was discovered three times over the ensuing years. First, probably around 1907 (records are unclear) by his neighbors the Lannon Family, with whom he was friends. The Lannons elected to keep Cashier’s secret.

In 1911, when he broke his leg in an automobile accident, the hospital physician who treated him again discovered his birth sex, and like the Lannons, chose to keep Cashier’s confidence.

Sadly, Cashier was less lucky at the end of his life. In March of 1914, he was confined to the Watertown State Hospital due to a deteriorating case of dementia. Attendants at the hospital again discovered that he was AFAB. Unfortunately for Cashier, this time, the secret was not kept. Instead, he was forced to wear women’s clothes again after a lifetime of comfortably presenting as male.

Cashier died on October 10, 1915, tragically denied the right to live as his authentic self in his final years, as he had successfully done for the rest of his life prior to the onset of his dementia. There were, however, two silver linings. First, despite having been investigated for fraud after the discovery of his birth sex, the Veterans’ Pension Board—after speaking with the surviving members of Cashier’s regiment—elected to continue Cashier’s payments for life.

Secondly, Cashier was buried in full military uniform, his tombstone inscribed “Albert D. J. Cashier,” granting him in death the authenticity he was denied in his last years of life.

The Public Universal Friend (1752-1819)

Portrait of the Public Universal Trend
Courtesy of David Hudson/Wikimedia Commons

The individual who would come to be known as the Public Universal Friend was born on November 29, 1752 under the name Jemima Wilkinson in Cumberland, Rhode Island. In the other stories presented here, birth names have been omitted out of respect. In the Friend’s case, however, there is no indication of discomfort with the name and sex they were assigned at birth, prior to a very specific point in their life.

Wilkinson was born to Quaker parents and grew to be both an athletic and studious child. Wilkinson was an avid reader, able to quote long passages of the Bible and prominent Quaker texts from a young age, as well as a skilled equestrian favoring energetic, spirited horses.

Little else is known about Wilkinson’s childhood, though some reports suggest they detested physical labor and favored fine, expensive clothing. These reports are considered somewhat suspect, however, as it was common at the time to fabricate narratives of decadent lifestyles to discredit those who experienced religious awakenings.

The mid-1770s represented a period of upheaval and shifting views in both Wilkinson and several other members of their family. Wilkinson began attending meetings with the New Light Baptists in Cumberland, who emphasized individual enlightenment, and let their attendance of meetings with the Society of Friend lapse. Wilkinson was ultimately dismissed for this lapse, as were several of their siblings for other reasons; their sister Patience for bearing an illegitimate child, and their brothers Stephen and Jeptha for training for military service, a violation of the Society’s pacifistic ideals.

In the wake of this upheaval, Wilkinson was stricken ill in October of 1776. Their affliction was an epidemic disease of some sort, most likely typhus. For several days, Wilkinson was on death watch, with their doctor, family, and friends unsure if they would survive.

After several bedridden days, the fever broke. Wilkinson’s body had survived the ordeal, but reported that Jemima Wilkinson had in fact died and ascended to heaven, and that the surviving body was now inhabited by a genderless spirit sent by God to preach his word: the Public Universal Friend.

From this point on, the Friend refused to answer to the name, “Jemima Wilkinson,” asking to be referred to only as the Public Universal Friend, or simply “the Friend” for short. The Friend further requested that no gendered words or terms of address be used to refer to them, stating that they were neither male nor female. They dressed in clothing considered either androgynous or masculine at the time, including long, loose clerical robes and a cravat or kerchief. When asked whether they were a man or a woman, the Friend responded by stating simply, “I am that I am.”

The Friend began to travel, preaching and amassing followers in what would come to be known as the Society of Universal Friends. They preached throughout Rhode Island, Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania, accompanied by their siblings, all of whom had been disowned from the original Society of Friends.

The content of the Friend’s sermons was very similar to that of the mainstream Quaker faith, preaching humility and hospitality to all, repentance of sins, pre-marital abstinence, and other common Quaker beliefs. The primary difference was that the Friend appears to have been overall more forgiving, welcoming all to join their flock, even if they had been disowned by mainstream Quakerism. Due to the Friend’s preaching of gender and racial equality, the Society of Universal Friends included many Black members and roughly equal numbers of men and women.

The Friend continued preaching until the death of their sister Patience in April 1819, upon whose funeral they gave their final sermon, before dying later that year on July 1. Though the Society of Universal Friends would gradually die out over the ensuing decades, the Friend left a lasting legacy due to the remarkable nature of their claims. The nature of their supposed death and resurrection, as well as their gender (or lack thereof), has been greatly debated since. The Friend’s rejection of gendered terminology and insistence that they were neither male nor female has led many to view them as a celebrated nonbinary figure from early American history.

Willmer “Little Axe” Broadnax (1916-1992)

Willmer Broadnax was born in Houston, Texas in either 1916 or 1922; records are uncertain due to confusion about his early life. Most sources refer to Willmer as the younger brother to William Boradnax. However, at least one source posits that Willmer was merely mistaken for the younger of the two brothers due to his short stature and high voice.

Either way, what is clear is that Broadnax was AFAB but presented as male from a very young age, possibly as early as 8 years old, if not earlier. In his teenage years, he began a career as a gospel singer with the St. Paul Gospel Singers, alongside his brother William.

The brothers remained with the St. Paul Gospel Singers for about a year, from 1939 to 1940, before breaking off to form their own quartet, Little Axe and the Golden Echoes. While William would eventually leave the group, Willmer remained as a lead singer through most of the 1940s.

The Golden Echoes eventually disbanded in 1949, and Willmer’s gospel career continued until 1965 with several different groups, such as the Spirit of Memphis Quartet, The Fairfield Four, and the Five Blind Boys of Mississippi. After retiring, he continued to occasionally produce new material with the Blind Boys through the 1970s and into the 80s.

Broadnax would meet a violent end in 1992 at the hands of his lover, Lavina Richardson. Broadnax had seen Richardson in a car with another man and, in an act of jealousy, bumped into the car with his own and dragged Richardson out of the vehicle and threatened her with a knife. Broadnax was subsequently disarmed by a bystander and stabbed to death by Richardson, who had picked up the knife he dropped. Richardson would later be found guilty of involuntary manslaughter; while it wasn’t quite self-defense (Broadnax had already been disarmed), Broadnax’s jealous behavior had allegedly been affecting Richardson’s mental health, prompting the judge to show leniency.

It was only discovered after Broadnax’s death that he was AFAB, meaning he managed to effectivey live an entirely lifetime presenting as male. While his short stature, naturally high voice, and apparent preference for always using the restroom alone did draw occasional suspicion, he was only ever outed posthumously.


The figures spotlighted here are only a drop in the ocean when it comes to the preponderance of gender-nonconforming individuals throughout history.

The recent rise in visible, out queer folk is just that, a rise in visible and out queer people; they’ve always been here, but it hasn’t always been safe to be open about it. It still isn’t, but too much progress has been made towards acceptance to give up now.

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