10 Black Trans Women You Didn't Learn About In History Class But Should Have

black trans women

With our current culture very slowly but surely becoming more accepting of the LGBTQ community amid the rise of social media, it's become less difficult than it once was for transgender people to come forward with their identities and stories. 

Still, some stories of past trans pioneers remain hidden — either because modern ignorance and discrimination keeps them under wraps, or because past circumstances prevented them from being told in the first place. (Remember: Cross-dressing was once illegal in the U.S.)

In honor of Women's History Month, we're highlighting 10 trans women who were, and still are, revolutionaries. They stood up for LGBTQ rights and put themselves on the front lines of battles for equality in the hopes that we will all one day stand together regardless of sexualities and lifestyles.

You might not have heard of some of these fearless trans women before; regardless, their names will be forever engraved in history as spirits unafraid to be bold on behalf of progress.

memphis riots

Frances Thompson

In May of 1866, a Black community comprised of emancipated slaves in Tennessee was destroyed and pillaged by white men. Later deemed the Memphis Riots, the attack devastated the community and resulted in the deaths of nearly 50 people. 

When a congressional committee later heard testimonies from survivors, five women stated that they had been raped — among them Frances Thompson, a trans woman. Thompson testified that she was at home when seven white men stormed the house and raped both her and her roommate.

A decade later, Thompson was arrested for dressing as a woman. Local Memphis newspapers attempted to slander both her name and her testimony that she was sexually violated.

2 / 10

Mary Jones

Mary Jones made a name for herself in the 1830s, though it wasn't necessarily a respectable one. While working as a sex worker, she was caught stealing the wallet of one of her white johns and later found to have two more wallets hidden in her bra while being arrested. When police went to Jones' home, they found a treasure trove of wallets from numerous men there, many of whom belonged to the upper ranks of society. 

Many of Jones' clients were unaware that Jones was born male, as she often wore a leather contraption around her waist that felt like a vagina, so after her male genitalia was discovered during a strip search, an angry mob gathered to violently abuse and berate her. 

“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 color dressed in this way — and in New Orleans I always dressed in this way," Jones said at her trial.

Jones was later convicted of grand larceny and dubbed the "Man Monster" by the media. She went to prison for those crimes, serving five years total. Upon her release, she was arrested for "cross-dressing" and sent to prison for five months. Following that run-in with the law, she disappeared from public records.

3 / 10

Lucy Hicks

Born and raised in Kentucky in the late 1800s, Lucy Hicks began dressing in girls' clothing at an early age. She eventually moved to New Mexico and married a man by the name of Clarence Hicks before relocating to Oxnard, California, where she became the manager of a brothel. Fifteen years after she and Hicks divorced in 1929, Lucy walked down the aisle once again to wed a soldier named Reuben Anderson — a marriage that ended in Lucy being slapped with perjury charges because authorities claimed she signed the marriage license under false pretenses. 

“I defy any doctor in the world to prove that I am not a woman," she said at the time. "I have lived, dressed, acted just what I am, a woman." She was later found guilty and sentenced to 10 years probation.

Lucy also was convicted of fraud because she collected allotment checks for being a soldier's wife. Both she and Anderson went to prison, and upon release the local police chief told her to leave the town of Oxnard or expect trouble. She moved to Los Angeles, where she lived until she died in 1954.

4 / 10

Carlett Brown

Born Charles, Brown joined the U.S. Navy in 1950 in the hopes of receiving medical treatment for both nasal and rectal bleeding. Physicians later diagnosed Brown with a mental disorder because she vocalized, quite emphatically, that she wanted to be a woman. A physical exam would later reveal that Brown was intersex and had female glands. 

Instead of removing the glands, however, Brown decided to seek out sex reassignment surgery instead. She changed her name to Carlett and sought out doctors in Europe who would perform the surgery, stating she was willing to revoke her U.S. citizenship if it meant she could undergo the procedure elsewhere.

After being released from the Navy, Brown moved to Boston and worked as a dancer. She planned on going overseas in 1953, but the U.S. government didn't allow her to leave the country until she paid back taxes she owed. She ended up getting a job at Iowa State College as a cook for a fraternity; little is known about her life after that. 

5 / 10

Sir Lady Java

This New Orleans native turned heads everywhere she went. 

Java began transitioning as a young child with the help of her mother, a support system that many trans folks lack, even today. After moving to Los Angeles as an adult, Java made a living as an impersonator, dancer, and singer as her name and word of her sexual liasons floated through rumor mills. (Word on the street is that she dated comedian Redd Foxx and crooner Sammy Davis Jr.)

As an activist, Java protested LA's "Rule No. 9" that banned cross-dressing and worked closely with the American Civil Liberties Union. She's stayed out of the spotlight in recent years, though she was recognized at the 2016 Trans Pride L.A. festival as an LGBTQ pioneer.

6 / 10

Marsha P. Johnson

Before her tragic death in 1992 under suspicious circumstances, Johnson worked tirelessly on behalf of the LGBTQ community as one of its most vocal advocates, co-founding the Gay Liberation Front and Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries to provide food and housing for trans people who were abandoned by their families. She was also well-known in New York City club scene, and even modeled for Andy Warhol at one point.

Because she was a such prominent figure in her community, Johnson was often the target of threats and abuse. On July 6, 1992, her body was found floating near a pier in the Hudson River. Sylvia Rivera, a fellow activist and one of her best friends, said she was told Johnson committed suicide — a claim Rivera never believed. Police refused to investigate her death as a murder until 2012.

Miss Major Griffin-Gracy
7 / 10

Miss Major Griffin-Gracy

An active participant in the drag ball scene when she was young, Miss Major Griffin-Gacy has spent her life working on behalf of trans women — especially those of color who have fallen victim to police brutality — and was a part of the New York City Stonewall Riots in 1969. She's also worked as an AIDS activist for 30 years and was the executive director of the Transgender GenderVariant Intersex Justice Project. 

Griffin-Gacy currently serves as the executive director for the Transgender Gender Variant Intersex Justice Project, which supports trans people in the prison system.

8 / 10

Monica Roberts

Monica Roberts began transitioning in the early 1990s, later founding a blog so that the history of Black trans people would be documented and young trans people would have role models to look up to. The activist and writer regularly gives speeches and lectures around the country about Black trans history and how it relates to the Black community at large.

9 / 10

Lourdes Ashley Hunter

Lourdes Ashley Hunter co-founded the Trans Women of Color Collective to highlight and uplift trans and gender non-conforming people of color and their families via justice, equal rights, community development, policy reform, and socio-economic growth. The Detroit native has been a powerful voice for the LGBTQ community for over two decades, partnering with the United Nations, The White House Anti-Violence Task Force, and the Office of National AIDS Policy.

10 / 10

James "Sweet Evening Breeze" Herndon

I'd bet all the money at the bottom of my purse that you've never, ever heard of James "Sweet Evening Breeze" Herndon. 

Born in Kentucky in 1889, she was the youngest of eight children and grew up to be a local legend in Lexington. She worked as an entertainer and drag queen, and wasn't deterred by people gawking on the streets as she passed them by.

Herndon has been hailed by many as one of the founders of Lexington's drag scene, but her reputation had more to do with her giving heart than anything else: She was known to perform random acts of kindness for people in her community, including baking for them, tending to them when they were ailing, and giving poorer families food and clothing She was also a member of the Pleasant Green Baptist Church, and when she died in 1983, she left it a substantial amount of money.



Detroit born. Los Angeles raised. Dark. Lovely. Spiritualist. Diviner. Crafter. True crime writer, spoken word poet, storyteller, social activist. Insta: @earthtoerikamarie - Snap: MsErikaMarie - Twitter: @EarthToEMarie | medium.com/@earthtoerika


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