Every year during Pride season, we are reminded of the queer and trans elders who sacrificed so much to make our freedoms possible.
With the mass commercialization of Pride, it is easy to imagine that broad acceptance of LGBTQIA+ people is and has been long normalized. Despite pushback from conservative legislatures across the country, many young people have grown up knowing and loving queer and trans people in their families and communities—-and yet, so many folks (young and old) are hardly aware of just how much it took to get to where we are now. Beyond iconic figures like Marsha P. Johnson, Sylvia Rivera and Harvey Milk, little is said of the countless activists, performers, writers, and everyday folk whose desire to live authentically broke down barriers and made way for the agency we have today.
That’s why we’re uplifting the lives of the queer and trans elders who you may not know so well, but whose sacrifices made it possible for us to live proudly and as our truest selves. We invite you to join us in learning about their powerful lives.
Lucy Hicks Anderson (1886-1954)
Lucy Hicks Anderson is known as the first trans woman to defend her identity in the United States. She was said to be born intersex in 1886, in a small Kentucky town called Waddy, however she was assigned male at birth. As a child, Lucy insisted on wearing dresses to school, and though her mother had her concerns, a doctor suggested that she allow Lucy to live authentically, and present to the world as a young girl. At 15 she changed her name to Lucy and was married twice to cisgender men. She eventually relocated to Oxnard, California where she operated a brothel and speakeasy, and became a successful bootlegger of alcohol. During the day, she cared for local children and was known for her cooking. After her second marriage to Reuben Anderson, however, there was a venereal disease outbreak that was said to have come from Lucy’s establishment. Everyone was ordered to undergo a physical examination and that is when the county learned of Lucy’s transgender identity. Sadly, upon learning this, Ventura County arrested Lucy and nullified her marriage license. During her trial, Lucy was quoted as saying, “I defy any doctor in the world to prove that I am not a woman. I have lived, dressed, acted just what I am, a woman.” She was released and placed on ten years probation, however she was banned from returning to live in Oxnard. Lucy relocated to Los Angeles where she died in 1954.
Dr. Margaret Chung (1889-1959)
Dr. Margaret “Mom” Chung is known as the first Asian-born Chinese woman to become a physician in the United States. She was born in Santa Barbara, California in 1889 to immigrant parents. She completed her schooling in Illinois and soon relocated to San Francisco’s Chinatown in the 1920s. There, Margaret was affectionately known as “Mom” to her “adopted sons,” many of whom were American soldiers who she hosted as guests in her home, the likes of which included celebrities like John Wayne and Tennessee Williams. She used her influence to support the creation of WAVES, the U.S. women’s naval reserve, however, she never publicly received credit for her contribution. Dr. Chung was also known for expressing herself in whichever way she chose, presenting as both hyper-masculine and very feminine. She even had lesbian relationships with notable women such as poet Elsa Gidlow and entertainer Sophie Tucker. Dr. Chung passed away in 1959.
Amelio Robles Avila (1889-1984)
Amelio Robles Avila is known as being the first transgender person to be recognized by the Mexican government. He was born in 1889 in Xochipala, Guerrero. Though assigned female at birth, Amelio showed a liking for traditionally masculine activities such as handling weapons, shooting and taming horses. As the Mexican Revolution took shape, he joined the effort of the revolutionaries from 1913-1918. It was there that Amelio began to adopt male attire. He was known as a guerrillero and became Zapatista Colonel Amelio Robles Avila. Amelio was attracted to women and began a romantic relationship with Angela Torres, who became his companion for the next decade. It is unknown exactly when his transgender identity came to light; however, the Mexican military accepted his identity as a man and granted him a veteran’s pension. He was officially recognized as a veteran of the Mexican Revolution in1970 and passed away in 1984 at the age of 95.
Bayard Rustin (1912-1987)
If you are familiar with 1963’s March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, then you are aware of Bayard Rustin’s greatest work. He was the main organizer behind the Southern Christian Leadership Conference-led event, which garnered the attendance of 250,000 people. Born in West Chester, Pennsylvania in 1912, Rustin had been organizing in civil right’s spaces since the 1940s. He became a key partner to movement leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Ella Baker. He also lived openly as a gay man, even in the 1950s and 1960s, which unfortunately, negatively impacted his career as a civil rights icon. Because of his unwillingness to hide his sexuality, it is believed that he was pushed aside from the limelight in order to make way for more traditional, heterosexual leaders like King. Rustin spent a significant period of time organizing with Quaker activists and is even considered responsible for coining the phrase “Speak Truth To Power,” which is the title of a 1955 Quaker publication. Sadly he was not listed as an author of the publication and did not gain credit for his contributions for many years. If you would like to learn more about Bayard, PBS created a documentary about his life entitled Brother Outsider, which was released in 2003.
Gratitude to our Ancestors
This is just a brief list of the incredible queer and trans ancestors who paved the way for our LGBTQIA+ community today. We are so thankful for the lives they lived and the perseverance they demonstrated in being exactly who they were meant to be.
Borealis Philanthropy is committed to ensuring that all queer and trans people possess the rights to live fully and with dignity. If you are interested in learning more about our work, or supporting any of our funds that specifically serve the LGBTQIA+ community, we invite you to contact our Development Director Maya Berkowitz today.