In 1952, a young woman sat down to write a letter to her family. The act itself was nothing remarkable—Christine Jorgensen was 26 and preparing to return to the United States after undergoing some medical procedures in Denmark. But the contents of Jorgensen’s letter were entirely unique.
“I have changed very much,” she told her family, enclosing a few photos. “But I want you to know that I am an extremely happy person...Nature made a mistake, which I have had corrected, and I am now your daughter.”
As the first American to undergo gender-confirmation surgery, Jorgensen would arguably become the world’s most famous transgender woman of her era. Her remarkable transition from a male-presenting soldier to a polished, feminine public figure would be a watershed in trans visibility.
The word “transgender” didn’t exist at the time—it wouldn’t be coined for another decade or become widespread until the 1990s—but transgender history began long before Jorgensen brought it into broader public awareness. Documenting that history isn’t always straightforward—but Jules Gill-Peterson, an associate professor of history at Johns Hopkins University, says it’s much more extensive—and joyful—than you might think.
Though stigma, violence, and oppression are parts of trans history, Gill-Peterson says, trans people “still lived really interesting, rich, happy, flourishing trans lives.” And they left plenty of evidence behind, she says. “They generally are hiding in plain sight.”
There’s ample evidence of gender variance throughout human history. Among the earliest are accounts of gala and galli, priests assigned male at birth who crossed gender boundaries in their worship of a variety of goddesses in ancient Sumer, Akkadia, Greece, and Rome. Other cultures acknowledged a third gender, including two-spirit people within Indigenous communities and Hijra, nonbinary people who inhabit ritual roles in South Asia.
Some who challenged the gender binary occupied official roles. During the short reign of the Roman emperor best known as Elagabalus, who ruled from C.E. 218 to 222., the male-born leader adopted feminine dress, requested to be referred to as “she,” and expressed a desire for genital removal surgery. Shunned and stigmatized, Elagabalus was assassinated at age 18 and thrown into the Tiber River.