Same DNA but Born this Way: A Look Back at Transgender History


Although to many the term transgender seems relatively new, its roots can be traced back to ancient civilizations. Verbiage and categorizations have changed over time and vary in different cultures. This Pride month, we’ll take a look at the history of transgender people and how they are impacted by law today.

What Is Transgender?

Transgender is a term for people who have a gender identity or gender expression that differs from the sex that they were assigned to at birth. Even though some people identify as the sex opposite the one they were born with, others consider themselves non-binary or genderqueer, terms that describe people who do not identify as either gender. Transsexual is a subset of transgender that refers to individuals who wish to transition to the opposite sex they were born with through sex reassignment therapies.

The concept of transgender differs from that of sexual orientation. Transgender refers to gender identity, while sexual orientation is a person’s identity in relation to the gender or genders to which they are sexually attracted. Trans people may identify as heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual, asexual, or pansexual.

The word transsexual was first introduced to English in 1949 by David Oliver Cauldwell, and transgender was later introduced by psychiatrist John F. Oliven in 1965, with the thought that transsexual was misleading as it did not have anything to do with sexuality.

Brief Timeline of Transgender History

Let’s take a look at a brief timeline of notable historical references of transgender people.

Before the Common Era

  • Depictions of a “third sex” human figure were seen in Neolithic and Bronze Age drawings
  • Archeologists discovered a male buried in female clothing in the Czech Republic

First Millennium

  • Nero, the Emperor of Rome, married Sporus, a male who played the role of Nero’s wife and was termed “Lady”
  • Roman Emperor Elagabulus wore wigs and makeup, and preferred to be called a lady, not a lord
  • Anastasia the Patrician spent the remaining two decades of her life dressed as a male monk in seclusion in Egypt

20th Century

  • The German term transexualismus is introduced in 1931
  • Dora Richter of Berlin is the first transgender woman to undergo vaginoplasty in 1931
  • Michael Dillon of England is the first transgender man to undergo phalloplasty  in 1946
  • Christine Jorgensen is the first transgender person in the U.S. to have undergone sex reassignment surgery in 1952
  • One of the earliest reports of hormone therapy is introduced in 1953
  • The term “Pride” is used for the first time in relation to LGBT rights in 1967
  • The Stonewall Riots occur in New York City in 1969
  • In 1972 Sweden becomes the first country to allow transgender people to legally change their sex and to provide free hormone therapy
  • Angela Morley is the first transgender person to be nominated for an Academy Award in 1974
  • In 1976, the Human Rights Campaign is formed to protect and expand rights for the LGTBQ community in the U.S.
  • Transgender flag is created in 1999

21st Century

  • International Transgender Day of Visibility is founded in 2009
  • In 2010, Thomas Beatie is recognized by Guinness World Records as the first married man to give birth
  • Phyllis Randolph Frye is the first openly transgender judge appointed in the U.S. in 2010
  • In 2013, the first United Nations ministerial meeting was held on the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender individuals as a result of a study carried out over two decades
  • In 2014 the UN Human Rights Council adopted a resolution related to sexual orientation and gender identity
  • The first U.S. civil lawsuit was filed on behalf of a transgender person in March 2015
  • Caitlyn Jenner became the first openly transgender women to appear on the cover of Vanity Fair in June 2015
  • President Biden announced that March 31, 2021 is Transgender Day of Visibility in the U.S.
  • In March 2021, Elliot Page became the first openly trans man to appear on Time magazine
  • Rachel Levin became the first openly trans person confirmed by the U.S. Senate

Transgender Rights

Transgender rights vary from country to country, and within jurisdictions in the United States. In some countries, a third gender is recognized in their laws. Other countries allow individuals to legally change their gender on their birth certificate after gender reassignment surgery. Some require a diagnosis of gender dysphoria for legal recognition.

In the United States alone, more than 117 bills were introduced in 33 states to restrict the rights of transgender people. The only time the Supreme Court of the United States has ruled directly on transgender rights was R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes Inc. v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission back in June 2020, after Aimee Stephens, a funeral home employee, was fired after she told her employer she was taking a vacation for gender reassignment surgery, and planned to return as a woman. The case was heard alongside two other cases, including Bostock v. Clayton County. The ruling was 6-3 stating that Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act extended to gay and transgender people.

In the beginning of President Joe Biden’s term, he overturned the former Trump Administration’s ban on transgender people serving in the military. The Affordable Care Act (ACA) of 2010 was amended in 2016 to forbid discrimination based on gender identity. In 2009, former President Barack Obama signed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act into law, a rider to the national Defense Authorization Act for 2010. This expanded the federal hate-crime law to include crimes motivated by a victim’s actual or perceived gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability. However, only 22 states include gender identity in their hate crime laws.

The concept of a third gender is currently recognized by Australia, New Zealand, India, Nepal, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Germany, Malta, and Canada. While the U.S. government has not adopted this option, 20 states currently offer a “non-binary” option for birth certificates.

To learn more about transgender rights in the United States, visit the National Center for Transgender Equality or American Civil Liberties Union website and view a list of current court cases.

Learn More with HeinOnline

Law Journal Library

In the Law Journal Library, users can search by topic using the Advanced Search option. Not only do we include topics such as Gender Identity and Gender and the Law, we also specifically have a topic for transgender that returns more than 1,600 results.

Transgender Topic in the Law Journal Library

From the results page, let’s sort our options by Number of Times Accessed to see what other HeinOnline users are reading.

Results include:

PRO TIP: To search across all three topics, change the Boolean Operator in the Advanced Search option to OR.

Gender-related topics in the Law Journal Library

Using the one-box search, enter the word transgender and choose the catalog option from the drop-down menu to search across all available HeinOnline content, including MARC 21 records.

Catalog search in HeinOnline

These results include CRS Reports, GAO Reports, congressional hearings, and journals, including:

But Wait, There’s More!

In celebration of Pride month, check out these related blog posts:

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