self-made men

Get inspired by these 5 history-making trans men who defied the odds to live authentically

The second season of the historical drama Gentleman Jack will hit HBO Max on April 25. While non-viewers have mistakenly thought that the show is about a transgender man, it is not. It’s actually about a real-life lesbian woman who learned to sharpen her wealthy business acumen in the male-dominated world of 19th century Britain.

If you’re hungry for historical trans men to inspire you, it can be tough — many trans men’s stories have been buried under the queerphobia and trans erasure of the past. However, here are five better-known trans men who still defied the odds and made history in their own times.

1. Charley Parkhurst (1812-1879)

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A drawing of Charley Parkhurst

After running away from a New England orphanage at age 12, Charley began living as a male horse handler. He eventually became a renowned stagecoach driver in the dangerous Californian frontier during his late 30s. A horse kick caused him to lose an eye, earning him the nickname “One-Eyed Charley.” He was outed as a person assigned female at birth after he died of pneumonia. His gravestone also said he have cast a vote in the 1868 election — an impressive feat considering that women didn’t get the right to vote in the U.S. until 1920.

2. Alan Hart (1890–1962)

Alan Hart, transgender men, history,
Alan Hart

Hart’s mother and stepfather allowed him to present as a boy, do field work alongside men and play with boys’ toys as a child — his own grandparents’ obituaries refer to him as their grandson. Though his medical degree was issued under the female deadname that he was assigned at birth, he underwent gender-affirming surgery in 1917, becoming the first documented trans male transition to occur in the United States.

During his life, he was outed by a friend (and had to leave the state of Oregon as a result), he had two separate wives, and also developed the use of x-ray and other screening programs to detect tuberculosis, a common and lethal disease in his time. He was also a novelist who published short stories and four novels.

3. Reed Erickson (1917–1992)

Reed Erickson, transgender men, history,
Reed Erickson

Texas-born and Philadelphia-raised, in 1946, he became the first person assigned female at birth to graduate from Louisiana State University’s school of mechanical engineering. After being fired from an engineering job for refusing to fire a suspected communist during the Red Scare, Erickson later inherited a part of his father’s manufacturing business. He successfully ran the business until selling it for $5 million. He then became a multi-millionaire through oil estate investments.

In 1963, he underwent a legal name change and two years later, he underwent gender-affirming surgery. In 1964, he established the Erickson Educational Foundation, a self-funded philanthropic organization that funded pro-gay organizations and provided public educational materials about trans people, including where to receive trans-related medical care. Information on these subjects were hard to come by then.

Erickson struggled with drug addiction throughout his life, married four women, had two children with his second wife, and also owned a pet leopard named Henry.

4. Michael Dillon (1915–1962)

Michael Dillon, transgender men, history,
Michael Dillon

During his lifetime, Dillon had 13 gender-affirming medical procedures, and was quite possibly the first trans man to undergo a phalloplasty, a double mastectomy and receive testosterone therapy. His surgeon gave him a note that enabled him to legally change his name in 1944. Then, in 1945, he enrolled in Trinity College Dublin’s medical school. Though forced to attend the college’s women’s school, his eventual degree stated that he graduated from its men’s school.

Historian Pagan Kennedy said that Dillon maintained a misogynist personality in order to ensure that he’d never develop an intimate relationship with a woman, lest he be outed as trans. In 1946, he published a book titled Self: A Study in Ethics and Endocrinology which called trans identity innate and said it could be treated through medical transition.

Dillon traveled to India and became a student of Buddhism there until his death. His brother sought to burn his unpublished autobiography after his death, but Dillon’s literary agent saved and published it in 2017, under the title Out of the Ordinary.

5. Lou Sullivan (1951 – 1991)

Lou Sullivan, transgender men, history
Lou Sullivan

From the age of 10, Sullivan began writing in his journal about being a boy and his sexual fantasies as a gay man. By the age of 17, he took on a self-described “feminine” male lover who explored gender roles with him. By age 24, he identified as a “female-to-male transsexual” and left his Milwaukee home to San Francisco in order to pursue a gender-affirming community and medical care.

It was the mid-1970s, and Sullivan was repeatedly denied gender-affirming surgery because experts thought such patients should want to pursue heterosexual relationships rather than gay ones, like he wanted. Sullivan eventually worked with supportive therapists, got on hormones and underwent a double mastectomy in 1980.

While in San Francisco, he served as editor of The Gateway, a trans advocacy publication that, under his leadership, began providing information on female-to-male transitions. He was also a founding member of the GLBT Historical Society and, by lobbying psychological and trans medical associations, helped articulate the difference between gender identity and sexual orientation.

Sullivan was diagnosed as HIV-positive in 1986 and died from complications related to the virus in 1991.