Celebrating Pioneering Black Trans Women

Miss Major Griffin-Gracy at the Pride Parade in San Francisco, June 29, 2014
Wikimedia Commons
Miss Major Griffin-Gracy at the Pride Parade in San Francisco, June 29, 2014
Wikimedia Commons

Thanks to the groundbreaking work of Emmy-nominated actress Laverne Cox and cultural critic and author Janet Mock (both The Root 100 honorees), the stigma and ignorance surrounding both the exterior and interior lives of trans women is slowly being chipped away.


The work of such organizations as the Human Rights Campaign Foundation and the Trans People of Color Coalition has also played a pivotal role in raising awareness about the specific issues that trans women of color face. The consistently brilliant work of author Mia McKenzie, the queer feminist founder of Black Girl Dangerous, has broken down barriers between the narratives of cisgender and trans women, normalizing their existence while simultaneously amplifying their experiences; while writer Shaadi Devereaux, performance artist Dane Figueroa Edidi, and community activist and educator Precious Davis have interrupted transphobic social media spaces with their fearless advocacy.

There is a robust trans community of color committed to equality and justice, and that is a good thing. As a society, we might not be where we need to be, but we are slowly moving further away from where we’ve been.

Still, the statistics remain grim.

The average life expectancy for trans women of color is 35 years. So far, in 2015, at least 10 trans women of color have been slain—that have been reported. Trans women account for approximately 72 percent of anti-LGBTQ homicides (pdf), 67 percent of which involve trans women of color. They also face disproportionate rates of police and sexual violence (pdf).

But trans leaders and allies refuse to be silent in the face of rampant bigotry, whether in-person or online, often organizing around the hashtag #GirlsLikeUs, a movement sparked by Mock in 2012. They refuse to bow their heads or slide into the shadows so that some people can remain comfortable in their heteronormative privilege and prejudice.

On the heels of #Trans100, an event to recognize and honor the work of 100 trans activists who are shifting the narrative from “trans survival to trans empowerment,” and on the International Transgender Day of Visibility, The Root proudly recognizes pioneers in the struggle for trans equality:

Lucy Hicks Anderson

Lucy Hicks Anderson was born in 1886 in Waddy, Ky. She lived openly as a trans woman before there was any language to define her sexuality. Anderson was sent to prison after a court found her guilty of perjury for marrying a U.S. Army officer and receiving allotment checks as his wife. When answering questions from reporters during the trial, Anderson said, “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.”


Read more about Anderson here.

Miss Major Griffin-Gracy

Born in Chicago in the 1940s, Miss Major Griffin-Gracy is an elder within the trans community and a force to be reckoned with. Currently the executive director of the Transgender, Gender Variant and Intersex Justice Project, Griffin-Gracy was a veteran of New York’s Stonewall riots. Affectionately called Mama, she has been at the forefront of trans issues for over 40 years.


Read more about Griffin-Gracy here.

Sir Lady Java

Billed as the “Prettiest Man on Earth” in the 1970s, Sir Lady Java’s sexy figure made her a favorite performer in comedian Redd Foxx’s Los Angeles nightclub. She rose to prominence during a highly publicized challenge of Rule Number 9, a local law which “made it illegal for performers to ‘impersonate by means of costume or dress a member of the opposite sex,’” after the club was pressured not to allow her to perform.


The American Civil Liberties Union took on Java’s case, and a well-attended protest against the rule outside Foxx’s club was mentioned in the Nov. 16, 1967, issue of Jet magazine.

Read more about Sir Lady Java here.

Marsha P. Johnson

Marsha P. Johnson, affectionately called Queen Mother, was also a veteran of the Stonewall riots. Co-founder of the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries, Johnson, along with Sylvia Rivera, provided shelter for homeless and/or runaway trans individuals. Johnson’s body was found in the Hudson River in New York on July 6, 1992. Though her death was ruled a suicide, those who love her disagree. There has been no criminal investigation into her death.


Read more about Johnson here.

Monica Roberts

Monica Roberts is a writer, award-winning activist, lecturer and speaker who transitioned in 1994, according to her informative TransGriot blog. She is the first African-American trans woman to create a site specifically dedicated to reporting news about and amplifying the narratives of trans women of color. A trailblazer in her field, Roberts has been at the forefront of trans issues for over two decades.


In an essay for the Transgender Law Center, Roberts wrote, “Black trans history makers are in our midst today like Janet Mock, Laverne Cox, Kylar Broadus, Diamond Stylz, Dr. Kortney Ziegler, Kye Allums, Fallon Fox, Tracee McDaniel, Dee Dee Chamblee, Tona Brown, Rev. Louis Mitchell, Angelica Ross and some Texas-based blogger y’all may have heard of.

“And yes, black trans history also includes the stories of my trans sisters across the African Diaspora like Audrey Mbugua of Kenya, and my trans sisters of African heritage in Brazil, Great Britain, Canada and the Caribbean,” she continued. “Black trans history is also vitally important to point out to cis black people, our allies and our detractors, we not only exist, but our lives are part of the kente-cloth fabric of the African-American community.”


Read more about Roberts here.

These women embody the tenacity, courage and indomitable spirit of womanhood. And no Women’s History Month would be complete without recognizing their immense contributions to a more inclusive, just and equitable society.