On Sept. 6, 2023 the California State Assembly voted to declare every August moving forward, Transgender History Month. The move comes as over 500 anti-LGBTQ bills have been introduced in State Legislatures across the country with the majority targeting the human and civil rights of transgender people. A common message spread by anti-trans legislators is that trans people are somehow new, and that being transgender is a modern invention. Scholars and historians have confirmed that gender-nonconforming and trans people exist in historic written records dating back to antiquity. California in particular has a rich and documented transgender history going back to the Spanish colonial era.
“Trans people have always existed,” said Assemblymember Matt Haney (D-San Francisco), the author of the bill. “In every era and in every culture they have existed. As long as there’s been the written word there has been a record of trans people. Ancient Egypt, the Romans, China, Native Americans — the history of transgender people is there if you look for it.”
San Francisco’s Tenderloin District has been home to transgender people since the 1800s. Historians have letters written by trans women that describe their daily life living in the California city. In 2017 San Francisco designated a small part of the Tenderloin as the Transgender Cultural District making it the first legally designated area in the world to be declared “of historic importance” to the transgender community.
“Many Californians remain unaware of the real lives and experiences of transgender people, even here in California. This lack of familiarity has been exploited by those on the right to attack the trans community,” said Transgender District founder, and current Chair of the San Francisco Democratic Party Honey Mahogany. “We can change that through awareness, education, and outreach, and I believe that establishing a Transgender History Month in California is one way we can do just that.”
In 2021, San Francisco became the first city in the nation to declare August as Transgender History Month followed by Santa Clara County shortly thereafter. The Compton’s Cafeteria riots took place in San Francisco in August of 1966 and are largely recognized as the first LGBT Civil Rights uprising in the United States. August is celebrated by many transgender advocates as a turning point in transgender civil rights history.
Professor Susan Stryker is a nationally recognized leading scholar of transgender history, and is the former Executive Director of the LGBT Historic Society. “I earned my Ph.D. in United States History at UC Berkeley in 1992, and have spent much of my working life documenting and disseminating the history of trans people in California, throughout the United States, and around the world. It’s very gratifying to see that labor, and the labor of so many others who have devoted time and energy to this multigenerational undertaking, culminate today in the recognition of transgender history month. We have a proud heritage, as well as a difficult one.”
In California, the first record of trans people dates back to 1775 when a Spanish soldier encountered native people near present-day San Diego, whom he described as “those Indian men who, both here and farther inland, observed in the dress, clothing, and character of women… They are called joyas, and they are held in great esteem.”
The Gold Rush in California created an environment where transgender people could thrive. The life story of stagecoach driver Charley Parkhurst, a transgender man who ran routes from Stockton to San Jose is well documented. And his life story was celebrated in the popular television show Death Valley Days, hosted by former California Governor and President Ronald Reagan.
California was also at the forefront of transgender legal rights. Lucy Hicks Anderson of Oxnard–whose parents allowed her to grow up as the girl she knew herself to be in spite of her male anatomy–argued in court in the 1940s that as a woman she was entitled to her husband’s military pension.
Celebrations and events will be planned over the next year and will occur during the first annual Transgender History Month in August 2024.
“I believe that as Californians our strongest defense against the anti-trans agenda is just to tell the truth,” said Haney. “Let’s tell the truth about transgender people’s lives, and let’s lift up the history of the transgender Californians who left their mark on our great state. I couldn’t be more proud to have introduced legislation that will designate August as the first statewide Transgender History month in the nation and I look forward to celebrating every August with this community.”