10 Transgender Trailblazers Who Changed the World

This Wednesday (March 31) marks International Transgender Day of Visibility, a day to celebrate Transgender people, as well as to raise awareness of the discrimination and daily challenges they face. The day originated back in 2009 and was created by Rachel Crandall-Crocker to bring Trans people together, and uplift the community. YUGEN is taking this day to honour 10 Transgender trailblazers who have paved the way for Trans rights, whilst inspiring the next generation of Trans youth.

Munroe Bergdorf

Munroe Bergdorf is a UK activist who uses her social media to campaign tirelessly for social justice issues. Her Instagram was a prominent source of information for many during 2020’s Black Lives Matter movement, and she continues to educate her followers on a variety of diversity issues. In February 2021, Bergdorf deleted her Twitter account to highlight the rampant transphobia on the app. In a statement she said: “No one should have to endure even a fraction of the abuse that I am exposed to and have to put up with on a daily basis” she concluded that Twitter is not a safe app for Transgender people.”

Bergdorf is a UK Changemaker for the UN, and rose to prominence in 2017 after she became the first Transgender model to front a L'Oréal campaign in the UK. However, she was dropped from L’Oréal just weeks after being signed after speaking out about racial issues. In 2020, she made headlines when she publicly accused the brand of gaslighting, and after Bergdorf's callout, the brand announced that it would be forming a U.K. Diversity & Inclusion Advisory Board, as well as donating to U.K. Black Pride and Mermaids, a UK-based charity supporting Transgender youth.

Sylvia Rivera

 

Image Sylvia Rivera, left, and Marsha P. Johnson protest at a rally for gay rights in New York, 1973. (Diana Davies/Manuscripts and Archives Division, The New York Public Library)

Sylvia Rivera was an instrumental figure in 1969’s Stonewall Riots. In the late ‘60s homosexuality was illegal in every state (apart from Ilinois) and police carried out regular raids on perceived LGBT+ hangouts. When police turned their attention to New York’s Stonewall Inn in the early morning hours of 28 June, the bar-goers decided enough was enough. A riot broke out, sparking 6 days of protests and demonstrations that would launch the gay civil rights movement.

Rivera became a figurehead in the fight for equality following the riots, and along with Marsha P. Johnson, co-founded the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR), a group dedicated to the support of homeless Trans women, gay youth, and young drag artists. A monument is currently being erected, and will be unveiled later this year, to commemorate the extraordinary pair in New York's Greenwich Village, near the epicentre of the Stonewall riots.

Laverne Cox

Laverne Cox rose to prominence after being cast as Sophia Burset in Netflix’s OITNB, where she made history by becoming the first openly Transgender person to be nominated for a Primetime Emmy Award in an acting category. She has since been nominated for three and became the first Transgender woman to win a Daytime Emmy for her documentary Laverne Cox Presents: The T Word. After that, the firsts didn’t stop for Cox; she became the first openly Transgender person to appear on the cover of Time magazine, as well as Cosmopolitan and British Vogue, and, in 2015, she became the first Trans person to be honoured with a waxwork at Madame Tussauds.

Cox’s impact and prominence in the media has led to a growing conversation surrounding Transgender culture, and in 2014 she was honoured by GLAAD and presented with the Stephen F. Kolzak Award for her work as an advocate for the Trans community.

Christine Jorgensen

 

Christine Jorgensen arriving at Idlewild Airport, 1953. (New York Daily News Archive)

WWII veteran Christine Jorgensen made headlines after becoming widely known as the first US citizen to undergo gender reassignment surgery. After being drafted into the military and serving in the war, Jorgensen heard news about the new medical procedures and travelled to Europe to begin treatment.

She made national headlines in 1952 after her story appeared on the front page of the New York Daily News. Jorgensen used her newfound celebrity status to challenge misconceptions surrounding the Trans community, and continued to be a powerful advocate until her death in the ‘80s.

Chaz Bono

The only child of iconic duo Sonny and Cher, Chaz Bono was very much in the public eye throughout his transition. Bono documented his journey in the film Becoming Chaz, and in 2011 became a household name after becoming the first Transgender person to appear on Dancing With The Stars. Bono’s casting also marked the first time a Trans man had appeared on a mainstream TV show that wasn’t dominated by the topic of their gender identity. In the same year, Bono released his book Transition: The Story of How I Became a Man, a candid account of his 40-year struggle to “match his gender identity with his physical body”, and the book quickly became a New York Times best seller.

Caityln Jenner

In 2015, Caitlyn Jenner graced the cover of Vanity Fair accompanied by the words “Call me Caitlyn” announcing her transition. Jenner was already a household name helming from the Kardashian/Jenner dynasty and made history by becoming arguably the most high profile figure to publicly transition. After the Vanity Fair cover went live, Jenner tweeted, “I’m so happy after such a long struggle to be living my true self. Welcome to the world Caitlyn. Can’t wait for you to get to know her/me.”

Caitlyn not only used her cover story to publicly come out, but she also highlighted the prevalence of suicide in the Trans community, as well as other Trans issues sparking a global conversation on Trans rights. In the same year, Jenner starred in her own reality series I Am Cait, documenting her journey post-transition, whilst continuing to shed light on issues that affect the Transgender community. Since then, Jenner has continued to raise awareness of Trans issues and continues to advocate for acceptance.

SOPHIE

 

Grammy nominee SOPHIE pioneered a new sound, becoming one of the most influential artists of the 21st Century with her “hyperkinetic” pop. The Trans trailblazer passed away in January of this year but will forever be remembered as “an icon of liberation”. After her passing Christine and the Queens described SOPHIE as “a stellar producer, a visionary, [and] a reference.” Continuing to explain how “she rebelled against the narrow, normative society by being an absolute triumph, both as an artist and as a woman.”

In 2017, the artist released her single and accompanying music video It’s Okay to Cry which was the first time she used her own vocals and image. The video was SOPHIE’s way of publicly coming out as Transgender, and has gone on to become a cult classic.

Martine Rothblatt

Martine Rothblatt is an American attorney, entrepreneur and the creator of SiriusXM Satellite Radio, who frequently tops the list of highest-paid female CEOs. She also founded United Therapeutics, and devotes much of her time to the research of medical technology.

After her youngest daughter was diagnosed with pulmonary arterial hypertension, Rothblatt used her time and resources to invent a drug to cure the rare and fatal lung disease. In 2002, the US Food and Drug Administration approved the medicine as Remodulin. Rothblatt has continued her medical research and is now developing technology to tackle the organ shortage in America.

Caroline Cossey

Caroline Cossey received the coveted ‘Bond girl’ status after appearing in the 1981 James Bond film, For Your Eyes Only. However, shortly after the film was released British tabloid News of the World outed the model as Transgender. This fuelled Cossey to release her first autobiography I Am a Woman, and she went on to petition for changes in the British law regarding Transexuals. Her tireless campaigning meant that her legal efforts eventually reached the European Court of Human Rights. In 1991 Caroline Cossey made history by becoming the first Transgender woman to pose for Playboy.

Kim Petras

German singer-songwriter Kim Petras has amassed a global following as a result of her music, with viral hits including I Don’t Want it All, and Heart to Break. Petras sparked international media interest with her transition, making multiple TV and documentary appearances to campaign for early gender confirmation surgery. At the age of 16 she made headlines by becoming one of the youngest people to ever undergo the process.

Whilst she’s proud of her identity and wishes to bring more visibility to the community, Petras doesn’t want this to define her. In an interview with HuffPost, she stated: “I think the ultimate goal for me is if a Transgender person can be known for anything but being Transgender.” Petras has gone on to headline global tours, collaborated with artists including Charli XCX and Kygo, toured with the likes of Camilla Cabello and Troye Sivan, and has amassed over 3,000,000 monthly Spotify listeners (as of March 25).

Text: Sam Pennington

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