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Transgender Activism  
 
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Since the late nineteenth century, people whom we would now call have advocated legal and social reforms that would ameliorate the kinds of oppression and discrimination they have suffered as a result of their difference from the way most people understand their own gender.

Early Activism

Much of the early history of this struggle is intertwined with the history of the homosexual emancipation movement in Europe, a situation caused by nineteenth-century conceptions of homosexuality that conflated gender variance and same-sex erotic attraction. The identity category "Urning," for example--defined as "a feminine soul enclosed in a male body" by pioneering homosexual emancipationist Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, who proposed changes in the Prussian legal code to decriminalize homosexual activity between males--is an ancestor of both modern gay and transgender identities.

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Likewise, the politically active sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld's understanding of homosexuals as "sexual intermediaries" who fall somewhere on a spectrum between pure heterosexual masculinity and pure heterosexual femininity also undergirds early transgender political sensibilities.

Hirschfeld, who in 1897 founded the Scientific Humanitarian Committee, the first political organization in the world that aimed to better the treatment of sexual minorities, was a pioneering advocate of transgender rights. He employed transgender people on the staff of his Institute for Sexology in Berlin, which played a pivotal role in promoting endocrinologic and surgical services for transgender people trying to change the gendered appearance of their bodies. The first modern "sex-change" surgeries were carried out in collaboration with Hirschfeld and his medical staff in the early 1930s. Hirschfeld also worked with Berlin's police department to curtail the arrest of cross-dressed individuals on suspicion of prostitution, until the rise of Nazism forced him to flee Germany.

In the United States, what little information scholars have been able to recover about the political sensibilities of transgender people in the early twentieth century indicates an acute awareness of their vulnerability to arrest, discrimination against them in housing and employment opportunities, and their difficulties in creating "bureaucratically coherent" legal identities due to a change of gender status. They generally experienced a sense of social isolation, and often expressed a desire to create a wider network of associations with other transgender people.

Mid Twentieth-Century Advocacy

Transgender advocacy efforts did not begin to gain momentum, however, until the 1950s, in the wake of the unprecedented publicity given to Christine Jorgensen, whose 1952 "sex-change" operation made her an international celebrity and brought transgender issues to widespread attention.

A central yet virtually unknown figure in the history of transgender community formation was Louise Lawrence, a male-to-female transgender person who began living fulltime as a woman in San Francisco in the 1940s. Lawrence developed a widespread correspondence network with transgender people throughout Europe and the United States by the 1950s, and worked closely with Alfred Kinsey to bring the needs of transgender people to the attention of social scientists and sex reformers.

Lawrence was also a mentor to Virginia Prince, who, later in the 1950s and early 1960s, founded the first peer support and advocacy groups for male cross-dressers in the United States.

In 1952, using Lawrence's correspondence network as its initial subscription list, Prince and a handful of other transgender people in Southern California launched Transvestia: The Journal of the American Society for Equality in Dress. Though it lasted only two issues, this publication marks the beginning of the transgender rights movement in the United States.

In 1960, Prince launched another publication, also called Transvestia, that became a long-lasting and influential venue for disseminating information about transgender concerns. In 1962, she founded the Hose and Heels Club, which soon changed its name to Phi Pi Epsilon, a name designed to evoke Greek-letter sororities and to play on the initials FPE, the acronym for Prince's philosophy of "Full Personality Expression." Prince believed that the binary gender system harmed both men and women by alienating them from their full human potential, and she considered cross-dressing to be one means of redressing this perceived social ill.

Support organizations for male cross-dressers proliferated in the 1970s and 1980s, but most traced their roots to various schisms and offshoots of Prince's pioneering organizations of the early 1960s.

Militancy in 1960s San Francisco

Militant politics first erupted in San Francisco in 1966, when transgender street prostitutes in that city's impoverished Tenderloin neighborhood rioted against police harassment at a popular all-night restaurant, Compton's Cafeteria.

In the wake of that riot, San Francisco activists worked with Harry Benjamin (the nation's leading medical expert on transsexuality), the Erickson Educational Foundation (established by a wealthy female-to-male transsexual, Reed Erickson, who funded the development of a new model of medical service provision for transsexuals in the 1960s and 1970s), activist ministers at the progressive Glide Memorial Methodist Church, and a variety of city bureaucrats to establish a remarkable network of services and support for transsexuals, including city-funded health clinics that provided hormones and federally-funded work training programs that helped prostitutes learn job skills to get off the streets.

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