History of transgender people in the United Kingdom

Plea and Memoranda Roll of John/Eleanor Rykener (1395)

This article addresses the history of transgender people across the British Isles in the United Kingdom, the British colonies and the Kingdom of England until the present day. Transgender people were historically recognised in the UK by varying titles and cultural gender indicators such as dress. People dressing and living differently from their sex assignment at birth and contributing to various aspects of British history and culture have been documented from the 14th century to the present day. In the 20th advances in medicine, social and biological sciences and transgender activists have influenced transgender life in the UK.



Many outdated labels include transvestite (1910 by Magnus Hirschfeld), tranny/transsexual (1949) and hermaphrodite. New terminology only began to be introduced into the English language with the emergence of more visible transgender activism by trans peoples in the early 20th century, with terminology initially being adopted in from Germany by gay and transgender writers like Edward Carpenter and Thomas Baty from the work of Karl Ulrich's Uranian theories, and the term Transgender coined in 1965,[1] shortened to 'trans' in 1996. Other terms such as androgyne were first used in English in 1552.[2][better source needed]

In the arts

A Grand Dame

Perhaps deriving from the patriarchal nature of its society, British theatre has often played with notions of sexuality and gender. Early examples such as the portrayals found in 17th century plays like Shakespeare's Cymbeline (1611) in the character of Imogen, and Randolphs Amyntas(1630), portray supernatural and comic tropes and show how gender and sex was seen and understood as fluctuating ideas.[3] Other literary traditions such as science fiction also enabled British writers to engage and ask questions regarding the role of gender and class (such as The Blazing World) merged in British culture and contemporary society, as well as female to male crossdressers were frequently portrayed as heroines in English literature. Later throughout the 17th until the 20th centuries further theatrical roles such as the Restoration Rake, later Macaroni, Grand Dame (found in Pantomime) and the 'drag artists performing in camp and shipboard theatricals ... during the Great War' explored and gave acceptable boundaries for queer people living in a cisheteronormative enviroment.[4]

A Busy Day

And cross-dressing in silent films began when Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel took the tradition of female impersonation in the English music halls when the went to North America in 1910. In the early 20th century writers (most famously Woolf) began to engage with new ideas of sexuality and gender identity. In the 21st century Retellings, reworking and reappraisal in Queer theory of old folklore and mythology such as Tam Lin and Hervor, plays such as As You Like It and works of science fiction have also been popular as an emerging form of transliterature.[5]

1100 to 1800

Early British society held many legal gender roles for men and women, which is usually only seen in patriarchal communities. These patriarchal ideas emerged with the cultural and legal implications of the Roman conquest of Britain and resumed in English practices and identity until the further persecution by the Roman Catholic church in the 11th century. The Catholic Church played a role in persecuting LGBT groups from the 12th century onwards, with Pope Benedict XVI condemning the contents of the Equality Act 2010.[6] His state visit in the same year was opposed by transgender women like Adèle Anderson. The term hermaphrodite or less frequently androgyny was used to refer to transgender, non binary and queer peoples during the medieval and Early Modern English period.

Timeline of transgender events

Vita Sackville-West (1926)
Weston in transition
  • 1885 - In 1885 the Criminal Law Act was passed in the UK which made transgender people more susceptible to prison time.[2]
  • 1889 - Mary Mudge (1814–1889) dies at a workhouse having passed and been discovered upon their postmortem examination.[7]
  • 1909 - Thomas Baty publishes Beatrice the Sixteenth a science fiction utopian novel set in an egalitarian postgender society and begins working with other Lesbian writers in Urania magazine (1916-1940).
  • 1928 - Virginia Woolf writes Orlando
  • 1933 - Lili Elbes book Man into Woman detailing her transition journey to female is published in England.
  • 1920 - Havelock Ellis coins the archaic neologism Eonism
  • 1936 - Mark Weston (athlete) transitions from female to male.
  • 1945 - Michael Dillon underwent phalloplasty, concealed as treatment for malformation of the Urethra (hypospadias) rather than reveal the nature of the surgery gender reassignment surgery.
  • 1946 - Dillon publishes Self: A Study in Endocrinology[8]
  • 1951 - Roberta Cowell undergoes gender reassignment surgery being an early notable British person to undergo male-to-female confirmation surgery on 16 May.[9]
  • 1955 - Stephen Whittle the activist is born
  • 1966 - Dr.John Randell opens the pioneering Charing Cross gender clinic in London, and his colleague Harry Benjamin publishes The Transsexual Phenomenon
  • 25–27 July 1969 - The First International Symposium for Gender Identity: Aims, Functions and Clinical Problems of a Gender Identity Unit, took place at the London Piccadilly Hotel.
  • 1970 - In the case between April Ashley and Arthur Cameron Corbett, their marriage was annulled on the basis that Ashley, a transsexual woman, was a man under then-current British law, setting a legal precedent for trans people in Britain, so that the birth certificates of transsexual and intersex people could not be changed.
  • 1972 - The release of the Drama I Want What I Want (film) showing an early portrayal of a trans character [10]
  • 1973 - In late 1973 Dr. Carol Steele and another transsexual woman (Linda B.) formed the Manchester TV/TS Group (a group for transvestites and transsexuals).[11]
  • 1974 - The First National TV/TS (Transvestite/Transsexual Conference) is held in Leeds. The journalist Jan Morris also publishes Conundrum, a personal account of her transition. Caroline Cossey also undergoes reassignment surgery, going on to act in the 1981 Bond film.
  • 1980 - Julia Grant participates in the pioneering British documentary A Change of Sex aired on BBC2, enabling viewers to follow the social and medical transition of Grant; also providing a snapshot of the Gender Identity Clinic at Charing Cross Hospital in London. The Self Help Association for Transsexuals (SHAFT) was then formed as an information collecting and disseminating body for trans-people. The association later became known as the 'Gender Dysphoria Trust International' (GDTI).
  • 1986 - Sonia Burgess in Rees v. the United Kingdom (1986), represented Mark Rees, a British transman who asked the government to amend his birth certificate to allow him to marry a woman. Burgess and Rees's barrister, Nick Blake, argued unsuccessfully that English law violated the European Convention on Human Rights Article 8 (right to respect for private and family life) and Article 12 (right to marry) in its treatment of transgender people.
  • 1989 - The Tavistock Clinic established GIDS, the first and only service of its kind in the UK for young people with gender dysphoria.
  • 1993 - Christine Burns and Whittle begin working with Press for Change
  • 1995 - The charity Mermaids is founded [12]
  • 1998 – The fictional character Hayley Patterson is introduced in Coronation Street, played by Julie Hesmondhalgh
  • 2001 - Laureen Harries undergoes gender reassignment and goes on to star in many British television shows and the International Transgender Conference is held at the University of East Anglia continuing as a biennial event.
  • 2004 - The controversial Gender Recognition Act 2004 is passed by the Labour Government. The Act gives transsexual people legal recognition as members of the sex appropriate to their gender (male or female) allowing them to acquire a new birth certificate, affording them full recognition of their acquired sex in law for all purposes, including marriage.[13]
  • 2005 - Rachel Mann is ordained as deacon in the Anglican Church
  • 2007 - Dr Lewis Turner and Professor Stephen Whittle publish Engendered Penalties Transsexual and Transgender People's Experience of Inequality and Discrimination (Equalities Review) which is instrumental in ensuring the inclusion of trans people in the remit of the new Commission for Equalities and Human Rights. In the same year Kele Telesford is found strangled in her home.[14] Jenny Bailey is also elected mayor of Cambridge.
  • 2011 - Paris Lees begins writing for the Guardian as a journalist.
  • 2012 - Jackie Green the transgender beauty queen, became the youngest person in the world to have gender reassignment surgery, having had treatment at the age of 12 to prevent the onset of puberty was subsequently the first trans person to enter the Miss England beauty contest.[15]
  • 2013 - Nikki Sinclaire becomes the first openly transgender member of the European Parliament for the UK delegation.
  • 2014 - Second Trans Pride Brighton includes the first trans pride march in Europe.
  • May 2014 - Eastenders reveals the character Blessing Chambers played by Modupe Adeyeye to be transgender.
  • 2015 - Church of England Reverend Chris Newlands, vicar of Lancaster Priory, was approached by a young transgender person who wished to be "re-baptised" in their new identity. The vicar created a new service as "an affirmation of baptismal vows where we could introduce him to God with his new name and his new identity."[16] The Danish Girl (film) is also released.
  • September 2016 - Hari Nef becomes the first transgender person to cover any British fashion magazine, Elle.
  • 2017 - Philippa York outed herself becoming the first professional cyclist to have publicly transitioned.
  • 2018 - Shon Faye presented at Amnesty International's Women Making History event, where she gave a speech calling to "re-centre" underprivileged trans women.
  • 2019 - Laverne Cox becomes the first transgender model on the cover of British Vogue.

Non binary

David Bowie on Top of the Pops in 1974

Non-binary peoples today suffer from the effects of transphobia and lingering effects of systematic racism under British colonization.

Cross-dressing is noted to have occurred in British society from the 14th century on. In 1394 John/Eleanor Rykener a prostitute working mainly in London (near Cheapside), but also active in Oxford, was arrested for cross-dressing and interrogated. In 1685 Arabella Hunt divorced her 'husband' Amy Poulter on the grounds that their marriage as two women is not recognised under the law, however initially complaining that Poulter was a hermaphrodite. In 1732, 'Princess Seraphina' (noted as the first drag queen in England) charged Tom Gordon with stealing his crossdresser clothing.[17] In 1812 James Miranda Barry the surgeon was found to be biologically female on examination at death and the infamous Boulton and Park 1870 case took place under heightened Victorian societal legal and moral pressure on transgender peoples, both being acquitted in 1871.

In the early 20th century, gender nonconforming or third gender ideas begin to become widespread and accepted between the 1920-1940s. In the 1960s - 1970s, designers like Micheal Fish began to promote androgynous fashion, and were made popular by musicians such as Mick Jagger, David Bowie and Freddie Mercury. As the 1980s progressed the acceptibility of gendered clothing began to break down (such as Annie Lennox) and by the 21st century the gender spectrum had begun to become mainstream in fashion with unisex clothing becoming popular.

Timeline of non-binary events

Mary Ambree
Public Universal Friend
Madam Vestris as Don Giovanni
Caroline Brogden in 1905
Gwen Lally (1913)


Aphrodite Urania

Intersex peoples have a long history in Britain, with early history particularly in Wales, often falling under the Greek notion of androgyny derived from Ancient Greek and Roman ideals inherently found in the creation myths such as Aphrodite. An early English colonial subject of the American colonies to challenge binary gender roles was Thomas(ine) Hall, a servant who, in the 1620s, alternately dressed in both men's and women's clothing. Hall is likely to have been intersex as they were ordered by the Virginia court to wear both men's breeches and a woman's apron and cap simultaneously by John Pott. However other examples such as Mary Henly, a female-assigned individual in Massachusetts, was charged with illegally wearing men's clothing in 1692, as her wearing an opposing gender marker was "seeming to confound the course of nature."[23]

During the Victorian era, medical authors introduced the terms "true hermaphrodite" for an individual who has both ovarian and testicular tissue, verified under a microscope, "male pseudo-hermaphrodite" for a person with testicular tissue, but either female or ambiguous sexual anatomy, and "female pseudo-hermaphrodite" for a person with ovarian tissue, but either male or ambiguous sexual anatomy. In 1915 The terms 'intersex' for the individual and 'intersexuality' for the phenomenon were coined in the German language by endocrinologist Richard Goldschmidt after studies on gypsy moths. One year later, Goldschmidt used the term to describe pseudohermaphroditism in humans, and in 1932 in Germany the first intersex surgery to female is carried out. With the introduction of new writing on the topic, the topic of Intersex peoples began to introduced into the academic circles in the UK in the 1940s to 1960s when a more prevailing notion of tolerance began to take root.

Timeline of intersex events

Mappa Mundi Depiction
  • 940 - Hywel the Good's laws include a definition on the rights of 'hermaphrodites'.
  • 1100's - The Decretum Gratiani, a canon law collection states that "Whether an hermaphrodite may witness a testament, depends on which sex prevails".
  • 1188 - Gerald of Wales in Topography of Ireland stated “Also, within our time, a woman was seen attending the court in Connaught, who partook of the nature of both sexes, and was a hermaphrodite."
  • 1235 - Henry de Bracton's De Legibus et Consuetudinibus Angliae (On the Laws and Customs of England) classified mankind as "male, female, or hermaphrodite" and noted a "hermaphrodite is classed with male or female according to the predominance of the sexual organs".
  • 1300 - The Hereford Mappa Mundi includes a depiction of a 'hermaphrodite', placed outside the borders of the world known to its makers.
  • 1614 - Bartholomew Fair shows Dionysus engaging in contemporary gender discussion
  • 1644 - English jurist and judge Sir Edward Coke, wrote in his Institutes of the Lawes of England (1628 – 1644) on laws of succession: "Every heire is either a male, a female, or an hermaphrodite, that is both male and female. And an hermaphrodite (which is also called Androgynus) shall be heire, either as male or female, according to that kind of sexe which doth prevaile." The Institutes are widely held to be a foundation of common law.
  • 1792 - Anglo-Welsh philologist William Jones published an English translation of Al Sirájiyyah: The Mohammedan Law of Inheritance which detailed inheritance rights for people described as hermaphrodites in Islam.
  • 1839 - James Young Simpson publishes an article on people described as having 'hermaphroditism'
  • 1888–1903 - The British Gynecological Society consisting of John Halliday Croom, Lawson Tait and Robert Barnes begin to diagnose people described as having 'hermaphroditism'.
  • 1906 - The Cambrian newspaper in Wales published an article on the death in Cardiff of an intersex child who, at post-mortem examination, was determined to be a girl.
  • 1943 - The first suggestion to replace the term 'hermaphrodite' with 'intersex', in medicine, came from British physician Alexander Polycleitos Cawadias in 1943. This was taken up by other physicians in the United Kingdom during the 1960s.
  • 1960 - Georgina Somerset, the first openly intersex person, receives another birth certificate designating her as female sex.
  • 1968 - Sir Ewan Forbes, 11th Baronet succeeds the Baronetcy as a man having been assigned as female at birth, and Dawn Langley Simmons after sex reassignment surgery in 1968 wed in the first legal interracial marriage in South Carolina.

British trans people

See also


  1. ^ Oliven, John F. (1965). Sexual hygiene and pathology: a manual for the physician and the professions. Lippincott.
  2. ^ a b https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2010/jun/02/brief-history-transgender-issues (Accessed 11/01/2020)
  3. ^ See [1]
  4. ^ Transgender History & Geography: Crossdressing in Context Vol 3, G Bolich, 2007, p.62
  5. ^ Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender and Questioning Teen Literature: A Guide to Reading Interests, Carlisle K. Webber, 2010, p.72
  6. ^ https://www.bl.uk/lgbtq-histories/articles/a-short-history-of-lgbt-rights-in-the-uk# 11/01/2020
  7. ^ https://www.issuesonline.co.uk/cms-files/flipbooks/297%20Sexuality%20and%20Gender/files/assets/basic-html/page24.html (Accessed 11/01/2020)
  8. ^ "A Short History of LGBT Rights in the UK". The British Library.
  9. ^ "Trans Pioneers – Trans and Gender-Queer Histories | Historic England". historicengland.org.uk.
  10. ^ https://unobtainium13.com/2016/02/16/transgender-film-review-i-want-what-i-want-1972-dir-john-dexter/ (Accessed 11/01/2020)
  11. ^ [Ref: Trans Britain - Our Long Journey from the Shadows - Unbound Books 2018]
  12. ^ "LGBTQ+ Movement | Timeline of Key Events in History". 6 March 2020.
  13. ^ Scott Barclay, Mary Bernstein, Anna-Maria Marshall (eds.), Queer Mobilizations: LGBT Activists Confront the Law (2009, ISBN 0814791301), p. 195
  14. ^ http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/london/7561957.stm (Accessed 11/01/2020)
  15. ^ "The Independent on Sunday's Pink List 2013". The Independent. 15 October 2013.
  16. ^ http://www.theguardian.com/society/2015/may/21/proposal-for-transgender-baptism-to-go-before-church-of-england Keith McVeigh, "Church of England to consider transgender naming ceremony" The Guardian, 21 May 2015.
  17. ^ http://rictornorton.co.uk/eighteen/seraphin.htm (Accessed 11/01/2020)
  18. ^ Transgender History & Geography: Crossdressing in Context Vol 3, G. G. Bolich, 2007, p.121
  19. ^ https://www.digitaltransgenderarchive.net/files/gf06g289f (Accessed 11/01/2020)
  20. ^ "The Violet Fairy Book: The Girl Who Pretended to Be a Boy". www.sacred-texts.com.
  21. ^ "WebCite query result". www.webcitation.org.
  22. ^ https://historicengland.org.uk/research/inclusive-heritage/lgbtq-heritage-project/trans-and-gender-nonconforming-histories/trans-pioneers/ (Accessed 11/01/2020)
  23. ^ Genny Beemyn, "Transgender History in the United States", from Trans Bodies, Trans Selves, edited by Laura Erickson-Schroth, Oxford University, 2014, p.4 ISBN 9780199325351

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