OPINION: Bay Area Reflection: Transgender history

The word “transgender” was first coined in 1965 by psychiatrist John F. Oliven. A whole host of words have been used to describe those who today might be referred to as trans: transexual, transvestite and cross-dresser among them. Varying language is a snag of queer history, but different language reveals something deeper: a different understanding of gender.

It is impossible to say how a person from the past would identify today because perceptions of gender are fluid. Assigning queerness after the fact is not the end goal of queer history, and if it were, the field would have an authenticity issue. What can be done today is study historic gender variance and the queering of gender roles, building an understanding of the history of gender as a whole.

Our current binary division of gender is a largely Western one whereas different cultures have defined gender and gender roles differently. The local Ohlone and Miwok tribes are two such groups. Many Indigenous tribes recognized gender identities other than the strict male and female or contained people assigned one gender at birth who lived as another.

At least 150 pre-colonial tribes recognized third-gender roles. The exact language and roles of these individuals are hard to pin down, as they were erased during colonization, and the records available are from white settlers who provide a biased outsider perspective. While the specifics are uncertain, Native oral traditions reveal a more fluid understanding of gender and sexuality than presently exists in America. Today, many Native people identify with the label Two Spirit, coined in 1990 by gay and lesbian Indigenous people in Canada to create a more culturally accurate word.

Even within American culture, challenges to a binary view of gender have always existed. Starting in the 1800s, the American West drew in outsiders through its promise of freedom and escape, including fortune seekers, prostitutes and cowboys. Predominantly men rushed to California during the gold rush, creating a world isolated from women and traditional heterosexual relationships. Filling the gap was prostitution, close companionship between men and sexual ambiguity.

Jason Chamberlain and John Chaffee were one such example of male companionship. The two miners lived together as “wedded bachelors” for over fifty years, with their relationship only coming to a close when Chaffee died in Oakland, and Chamberlain, hearing the news through the mail, took his own life. While it is impossible to know the identities of these settlers for certain, diaries and news articles from the time reveal a system separated from the cultural and gender norms of the rest of America.

For people assigned female at birth, dressing as men offered practicality and safety in a landscape dominated by men. Others, like the outlaw Harry Allen, who fled West dressed in men’s clothing, proudly professed their masculine identity to the papers. Those who were discovered were at risk of legal repercussions, like Alice Baker, who was forced to flee throughout the American West as she was discovered to be assigned male at birth. A majority of these historical figures lived as men, fitting into the West’s predominantly male culture, but Baker was an exception.

Other times, the people’s true sex assigned at birth was only discovered upon their death. The stagecoach driver Charley Parkhurst was one such individual. Parkhurst, who was assigned female at birth, ran away from an orphanage as a child dressed in men’s clothing. Arriving in San Francisco, Parkhurst began a career as a stagecoach driver, building up a reputation as one of the safest drivers in the area. Parkhurst was only discovered to be biologically female when they died in 1879. The West offered a place for people like Parkhurst to be accepted and begin a new life.

The fluidity of the American West breaks down the hyper-masculine, heterosexual ideal of the cowboy that appears in modern media. The true Wild West challenges the belief that gender and gender roles are unchanging. The erasure of queer cowboys and the erasure of the Native people who occupied the land before go hand in hand in the idealized patriotic West, selling a polished cisgender, white, heteronormative past that does not exist.

California continued to offer a more accepting place for queer individuals into the 1900s. The sexuality of the West became transformed through increased settlement as California became integrated with the rest of the United States. San Francisco remained relatively accepting of sexual openness and by extension the queering of gender roles through its position as a port and military hub during World War II.

San Francisco’s history meant it played host to many early expansions of trans rights, including the case of Barbra Ann Richards, one of the first people to legally transition in America. In 1941, Richards filed to legally change the name on her birth certificate, describing a sudden physical and mental metamorphosis into womanhood. When the court and reporters became interested in the details of Richards’s case, they revealed that she had intentionally medically transitioned.

The revelation placed Richards in murky legal waters because of California’s anti-crossdressing laws. Despite the challenges, Richards was able to legally change her name, though it is unclear if she was able to change her legal sex. The sensationalization of Richards’s case rings true for many trans people of her time and mirrors the raging debates over trans people today. For many, access to legal transition is still difficult, revealing that trans history is not a linear progression from less accepting to more.

In the 1960s, an influx of queer people made San Francisco’s Castro District a gay hub. As middle-class families moved to the suburbs, young people moved into San Francisco. The city’s history and involvement in the Beat Scene made it a more accepting area, drawing in people from across California. Migration into San Francisco contributed to a boom of gay organizations between the 1960s and 1970s. Despite the growth, the Castro remained largely white and gay. The Tenderloin District acted as a counter to the Castro and became known as a hotbed of “homosexuals and transvestites,” according to one fearmongering TV report.

Trans residents of San Francisco were open to frequent police harassment, including being arrested for supposed crimes like sitting on the sidewalk and female impersonation. In 1966, tensions between the police and trans residents erupted when trans women threw coffee in the faces of police officers at the Compton Cafeteria, a popular gathering place for Tenderloin locals.

The ensuing riot is one of the first examples of queer people fighting back against police harassment, occurring three years before the famous Stonewall Uprising. However, the riot has become forgotten in the public eye and the building once occupied by the Compton Cafeteria is now barely recognizable. The largely forgotten nature of the Compton Cafeteria Riot is indicative of the larger public unwillingness to grapple with trans history.

People often conflate trans people not being visible with trans people not existing. Trans history has always been a thing, and ignoring historical gender variance harms today’s trans people. Understanding the history of the queer community is essential to modern activism. Without awareness of the past, the eerie similarities between today’s transphobic legislation and the anti-gay legislation of the past are not evident.

Proposed bills across the U.S. criminalize healthcare for trans youth, restrict access to sports and bathrooms, and stop legal transition. Many of these bills target schools, placing restrictions on even mentioning gender identity. These bills mirror past criminalization of cross-dressing, such as California’s Proposition 6 in 1978, which would have banned gay teachers, and Proposition 8 in 2008, which would have legally defined marriage as between one man and one woman. If America is not aware of the past, it is doomed to repeat it.