A History of Transgender Rights in the United States

History is replete with examples of transgender and transsexual people. The Indian hijras, the Israeli sarisim (eunuchs), and the Roman emperor Elagabalus all fell into this category. While trans individuals have existed for centuries, the national movement to give them civil rights in the United States has only recently taken place.

The Ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment (1868)

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The Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution is ratified. The equal protection and due process clauses in Section 1 would implicitly include transgender and transsexual persons, as well as any other identifiable group:

No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

While the Supreme Court has not fully embraced the Amendment's implications for transgender rights, these clauses will presumably form the basis of future rulings.

The Term "Transexual" is First Used (1923)

The famous Berlin sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld during a trip to East Asia with his Chinese student from Hong Kong. Photograph. 09/12/1931. (Photo by Imagno/Getty Images) Der bekannte Berliner Sexualforscher Professor Magnus Hirschfeld während einer Osta
The famous Berlin sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld. Imagno / Getty Images

German physician Magnus Hirschfeld coins the term "transsexual" in a published journal article titled "The Intersexual Constitution" ("Die ​intersexuelle Konstitution"). According to the LGBTQ advocacy group GLAAD (formerly the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation), transsexual may be an old term but is still used by professionals in the medical community and by people who have changed, or wish to change, their bodies through medical interventions such as hormones or surgeries.

Transgender and transsexual are not synonyms, however. Transgender refers to people who don't identify with the gender assigned to them at birth, but not all transgender people pursue medical intervention.

"Many transgender people do not identify as transsexual and prefer the word transgender," GLAAD states. "It is best to ask which term a person prefers. If preferred, use as an adjective: transsexual woman or transsexual man."

The term "trans" may be used to refer to members of both the transsexual and transgender communities.

The Onset of Hormone Therapy (1949)

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San Francisco physician Harry Benjamin pioneers the use of hormone therapy in the treatment of transsexual patients. Benjamin was interested in the fields of anti-aging and sexual identity, believing that it was possible for individuals to feel as if they had been assigned the wrong gender at birth. He advised one such patient to have a gender reassignment surgery in Europe. Doubtful that psychotherapy could help patients who felt this way, Benjamin advocated for hormone therapy and surgery to help trans people live as the gender with which they identified.

Christine Jorgensen Is Denied a Marriage License (1959)

Crowd goers at GLBT march, Northbridge.
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Christine Jorgensen, a transwoman, is denied a New York marriage license based on the gender she was assigned at birth. Her fiance, Howard Knox, was fired from his job when rumors of their attempt to marry became public. Jorgensen used the publicity her case generated to become a spokeswoman and activist for the trans community.

The Stonewall Riots (1969)

Stonewall March
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The Stonewall riots, which arguably sparked the modern gay rights movement, is led by a group that includes transwoman Sylvia Rivera. Having co-founded groups such as STAR (Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries) with fellow LGBTQ activist Marsha P. Johnson, Rivera would become one of the nation's most radical champions of trans rights.

M.T. v. J.T. (1976)

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In M.T. v. J.T., the Superior Court of New Jersey rules that transsexual persons may marry on the basis of their gender identity, regardless of their assigned gender. This landmark case found that the plaintiff, M.T., was entitled to receive spousal support after her husband, J.T., left her and stopped supporting her financially. The court decided that J.T.'s marriage was valid and she deserved support, in part, because she'd had gender reassignment surgery.

Ann Hopkins Fights Her Employer (1989)

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Ann Hopkins is denied a promotion on the basis that she is not, in the opinion of management, sufficiently feminine. She sues, and the U.S. Supreme Court rules that gender stereotyping can form the basis of a Title VII sex-discrimination complaint; in the words of Justice Brennan, a plaintiff need only demonstrate that "an employer who has allowed a discriminatory motive to play a part in an employment decision must prove by clear and convincing evidence that it would have made the same decision in the absence of discrimination, and that petitioner had not carried this burden."

Minnesota Human Rights Act (1993)

Peter Sarsgaard Hilary Swank And Brendan Sexton III Star In Boys Don'T Cry Photo T
Peter Sarsgaard Hilary Swank And Brendan Sexton III Star In 'Boys Don't Cry'. Getty Images / Getty Images

Minnesota becomes the first state to ban employment discrimination on the basis of perceived gender identity with the passage of the Minnesota Human Rights Act. In the same year, transman Brandon Teena is raped and murdered—a tragedy that inspires the film "Boys Don't Cry" (1999) and prompts a national movement to incorporate anti-transgender hate crimes into future hate crime legislation.

Littleton v. Prange (1999)

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In Littleton v. Prange, the Texas Fourth Court of Appeals rejects the logic of New Jersey's M.T. v. J.T. (1976) and refuses to issue marriage licenses to opposite-sex couples in which one partner is transsexual. A medical malpractice lawsuit led to this case in which the plaintiff, Christie Lee Littleton, sued her husband's doctor over his death. The courts, however, ruled that since Littleton was biologically male, her marriage was invalid, and she couldn't file suit as her husband's widow.

J'Noel Gardiner's Inheritance (2001)

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The Kansas Supreme Court refuses to allow trans woman J'Noel Gardiner to inherit her husband's property. The court ruled that because Gardiner wasn't biologically female, her subsequent marriage to a man was invalid.

Employment Non-Discrimination Act (2007)

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Gender identity protections are controversially stripped from the 2007 version of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, but the updates to the legislation ultimately fail. Future versions of ENDA, beginning in 2009, include gender identity protections.

Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act (2009)

Wyoming Location Where Gay University Of Wyoming Student Mathew Shepard's Body
Wyoming Location Where Gay University Of Wyoming Student Mathew Shepard's Body. Kevin Moloney / Getty Images

The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, signed by President Barack Obama, allows for federal investigation of bias-motivated crimes based on gender identity in cases where local law enforcement is unwilling to act. Later the same year, Obama issues an executive order banning the executive branch from discriminating on the basis of gender identity in employment decisions.