Lili Elbe, the real-life trans woman depicted in The Danish Girl, was one of the first media-savvy trans people. Below are some other trailblazing trans people from history, many of whom lived (or are currently living) lives deserving of the big screen as well.
The Danish Girl opened in select theaters Nov. 27, and will be in theaters everywhere Dec. 25.
1. Jack Bee Garland (1869 – 1936)
In the time before medical transition was possible, Jack Bee Garland lived a complex and colorful life. Raised as a girl by a Mexican military diplomat based in San Francisco, Garland escaped from a convent at age 16 by marrying a family friend. The newlyweds quickly separated, and Garland took on a series of male names and identities. As Babe Bean, he worked as a mute journalist in Stockton, California. As Beebe Beam, he served as a cabin boy on a ship bound for the Philippine War, and after spending a year with U.S. troops, returned home to write a memoir claiming to have been a soldier. During World War I, Beam was arrested for suspicion of being a German spy. Following these adventures, he took the name Jack Bee Garland and worked for social charities. The definitive biography is by Lou Sullivan, an important figure in trans history himself.
2. Charley Parkhurst (1812 – 1879)
Raised as a girl, mainly in an orphanage, Parkhurst ran away around age 12 and took the name Charley. After working in stables and learning the teamster trade on the east coast, he headed west during the California Gold Rush of 1849. Some acquaintances from the east coast had started a stagecoach service, and Parkhurst became one of their best drivers at a time when stage coach driving was extremely dangerous. Around this time, Parkhurst lost an eye after being kicked by a horse, earning the nickname One-Eyed Charley. As railroads began to replace stage coaches in California, Parkhurst lived out the rest of his days as a farmer in Santa Cruz County. When Parkhurst died of tongue cancer in 1879, the coroner discovered that Parkhurst’s physiology did not align with his male identity, causing quite a stir among those who had known Parkhurst for decades.
3. Lucy Hicks Anderson (1886 – 1954)
Lucy Hicks Anderson was assigned male when born in Waddy, Kentucky, but she had already taken the name Lucy when she started school. She left school at 15 and became a domestic worker, later setting in Pecos, Texas, and working at a hotel. At age 34 she married Clarence Hicks in New Mexico. After the couple moved to Oxnard, California, she saved her earnings from domestic work and operated a brothel from a property she’d purchased. She and Hicks divorced in 1929. Fifteen years later, she married soldier Reuben Anderson. In 1954 her trans status became known, and she was prosecuted for perjury in Ventura County because she allegedly lied on her marriage license. Because Anderson had received government checks from the U.S. Army as the wife of a soldier, both she and her husband were convicted of fraud and sent to prison. She lived in Los Angeles upon her release.
4. Wilmer “Little Axe” M. Broadnax (1916 – 1992)
Possessing a crystal-clear tenor voice, Houston native Little Axe performed in gospel quartets with his brother Big Axe. They moved to Los Angeles in the late 1930s, but Little Axe eventually formed his own gospel group called The Golden Echoes. That group toured throughout the 1940s, when Little Axe joined gospel quartet The Spirit of Memphis. In the 1950s he was part of The Fairfield Four, and in the 1960s was part of The Five Blind Boys of Mississippi. Broadnax was dating Lavina Richardson, who was 30 years younger than Broadnax. The couple got in an argument when Broadnax spotted her in a car with another man. During the ensuing argument, Richardson stabbed Broadnax to death. At her sentencing, the judge ordered Richardson to “stay away from older men. Stay away from men — period.”
5. Canary Conn (born 1949)
Canary Conn was raised as a male, and married with a child by age 18. About a year later, Conn won Super Teen, a national talent show that landed her a recording contract with Capitol Records. After completing the contract and making at least one suicide attempt, she began her transition, taking the name Canary Conn. When new recording and performing opportunities didn’t materialize, she published a memoir in 1974 titled Canary: The Story of a Transsexual. This led to a number of talk show appearances for the remainder of the 1970s, inspiring a generation of trans women who rarely saw people like them on television.
6. Karen Ulane (1941 – 1989)
Karen Ulane was an aviator who flew more than 100 combat missions for the United States Army during the Vietnam War. Following her service, she became a commercial airline pilot, working at Eastern Airlines starting in 1968. Following her gender transition, Eastern dismissed her in 1981, prompting a lawsuit that claimed her dismissal violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. She won the trial, but the federal Seventh Circuit reversed the earlier decision in Ulane’s favor. That decision became the federal legal precedent for transgender employment discrimination cases. It was not fully resolved until April 20, 2012, when the landmark Equal Employment Opportunity Commission decision in Macy v. Holder was announced. Ulane did not live to see that day. She died died while test piloting a DC-3 in 1989.
7. Gwen Smith (born 1967)
Many of us observed the annual Transgender Day of Remembrance in November, but its founder Gwen Smith was involved in the fight for trans rights since the early days of the internet. AOL may be associated with your grandmother at this point, but there was a time when it was the best option around for non-techie folks who wanted to connect online. The only problem was that if you identified as transgender in your profile or tried to set up a chat room containing the word transgender, you could be kicked off for violating AOL’s terms of service. Gwen was one of the people who changed that, eventually taking a leading role in what became the Transgender Community Forum, among the largest online meeting places for transgender folks in the 1990s. That online community allowed us to share our collected wisdom and connect in real life to create political change. Below Gwen reads a letter she received from President Obama last month, simultaneously showing us how far we’ve come and how much more there is to do.
8. Susanna Valenti (fl. 1949 – 1979)
As with many transgender people, Susanna Valenti’s early and later life or not well-documented. But from the late 1940s to the late 1970s, she was an important figure in the nascent transgender movement. Valenti came to the United States from Latin America, and her second wife ran a successful boutique that catered to crossdressers. They used the profits to purchase a second home in upstate New York, where they hosted crossdressers as well as non-crossdressing guests. She wrote one of the first transgender advice columns, called Susanna Says, and later began living full-time as a woman. A guest named Andrea Susan became the unofficial photographer, documenting numerous visits in the 1960s. Andrea Susan gave Valenti the negatives, but she threw them out. Someone fished them out of the garbage, and they eventually ended up in a flea market. The treasure trove was rediscovered by Robert Swope, who published them in a book co-authored with Michael Hurst. Casa Susanna was the inspiration for Harvey Fierstein’s 2014 play Casa Valentina.
9. Diego Sanchez (born 1957)
Sanchez is a global citizen. Born in Frankfurt, Germany, he grew up in the Panama Canal Zone and Georgia. Before settling in Washington, he lived in New York City, Atlanta, Boston, and Milan, Italy. He came out to his parents as trans at age 5, and they helped socialize him as both male and female, just to keep his options open. Sanchez made a name for himself as a power player in the corporate world, specializing in communications and PR in the hospitality industry. Since his foray into LGBT politics and policy, he’s racked up an impressive collection of firsts, including the first openly transgender person appointed to the Democratic National Committee’s (DNC) Platform Committee and the first openly transgender person to work as a senior legislative staff member on Capitol Hill. He is a founding board member of the National Center for Transgender Equality and currently serves as policy director at PFLAG.
10. Sandy Stone (born 1936)
Sandy Stone started out as a recording engineer after graduating from St. John’s College in Maryland. She was on hand for sessions with many counterculture notables, including Jimi Hendrix. She began publishing science fiction as Sandy Fisher, and soon took the name Sandy as part of her transition. She remained on the west coast after transition and joined legendary women’s music label Olivia Records collective as their engineer. In 1979, she became the target of anti-transgender feminists, most notably Janice Raymond, who attempted to get Stone fired from Olivia. Olivia Records was aware of Stone’s transition and supported her, but Stone left following a boycott threat by Raymond and her allies. In response to attacks on Stone in Raymond’s book The Transsexual Empire, Stone penned The Empire Strikes Back: A post-Transsexual Manifesto, described by historian Susan Stryker as “the protean text from which contemporary transgender studies emerged.” Stone then moved into the academic study of media, founding the ACTLab at UT Austin. Since retiring, she continues to tour the country.
Andrea James is a writer, director, producer and activist based in Los Angeles.