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Venus Xtravaganza
Venus Xtravaganza stole the show in Jennie Livingston's 1990 documentary film Paris Is Burningvia

Trans trailblazers who shook the world

After Bruce Jenner’s interview, we celebrate ten prior pioneers who helped to transform perceptions of the transgender community

Bruce Jenner’s interview with Diane Sawyer attracted nearly 17 million viewers in the US this weekend, the highest audience figures for a non-sports programme aired on a Friday since 2003. The two-hour telecast, where the Olympic gold medallist spoke in-depth about his decision to come out as trans, represented a huge moment for the transgender community, and has been praised by stars including Orange is the New Black actress and activist Laverne Cox for its potentially life-saving impact on scores of trans people. “I think a lot of people tuned in expecting to see a spectacle, and they tuned in and saw a profoundly nuanced, complicated, beautiful human being,” she told MSNBC. But, welcome as the interview is in a country where an estimated 90 per cent of trans people have experienced discrimination in the workplace, the struggle to stamp out transphobia is bigger than the journey of any one individual. We salute Bruce for his bravery, and here we celebrate ten other lesser-known trans trailblazers who made an impact in their own profound ways.


Joey Gabriel’s life seems like the dreams of hundreds condensed into the reality of one. Forever part of the zeitgeist, yet never chasing it, Gabriel floated through the disco-fag, punk, rock, new romantic and glamour movements in the space of a decade – starring in Antony and the Johnsons's stunning video for "Hope There's Someone". What’s more, she travelled the world, penniless and turning tricks for money, before falling into her Elizabeth Taylor millionaire lifestyle with lover Tim, losing it all, and finally getting it back again. A muse to legendary photographers like Nan Goldin and Robert Mapplethorpe, Gabriel’s androgynous charm gave her clout long before her transition. Her approach to transitioning is one that defies the common misconception that surgery is the ‘be-all-and-end-all’. Forgoing ‘bottom’ surgery to this day, Joey’s androgyne mentality revels in a kind of inbetween-ness. In the words of her mentor, the International Chrysis: “grey is a beautiful colour too”.


Few people can say they’ve lectured at Yale and won awards for their pornographic performances – but Buck Angel can. Born anatomically female, Buck’s early life was wrought with drug and alcohol addiction, a method of escapism from his body dysmorphia. However, the answer was not a ‘textbook’ transition. Like Joey Gabriel, Buck represents a large demographic of trans people who choose to keep the genitals they were born with, but adapt their external appearance and assigned gender. Buck’s gender identity intersects the anatomical lines between man and woman, a topic on which he speaks eloquently. His award-winning Sexing the Transman XXX is an iconic series detailing the complex intricacies of sexuality, sex and gender, and one he has explored fully in his equally award-winning porn career. The self-proclaimed ‘Man with the Pussy’, Buck gives an important voice to a minority that is doubly marginalised.


Standing testament to the brutality that trans people face, Venus Xtravaganza’s life is the tragic story of society’s aggression towards its self-imposed ‘other’. Leaving her own family, Xtravaganza found solace in the queer ball culture of 1980s New York, documented in the legendary Paris is Burning (1990). Xtravaganza, endowed with an eloquence that can come about only through life experience, speaks honestly about the intersection between race and gender in the documentary. Aspiring to be a “spoiled, rich white girl” and equating her escorting to marital sexual politics, Venus identified the racist and sexist barriers society can enforce (further illuminated in Judith Butler’s Gender is Burning). Even in death, she gives evidence to the horror these barriers bring about.


Formerly of Hercules and Love Affair and now lead singer of Jessica 6, Ruiz’s musical talents speak for themselves – but what is most telling is her role as the voice of a minority. As such an open figure, Ruiz stands as an example to trans people the world over, receiving countless emails detailing just how much of an impact she has had on people’s lives. Tellingly, Ruiz has revealed that these people only rarely get to see her in person, her trans fans choosing to stay safely at home rather than travel to concerts. But, with more of her world touring and unabashed openness, hopefully this will change for the better.


Marsha P Johnson and Sylvia Rivera will forever go down as legends in queer culture. From throwing the first stone at the Stonewall riots of 1969 and being crowned the “mother of all gay people” respectively, this tight-knit drag duo fought tirelessly to defend LGBT rights. Together, they founded the aptly named Star (Sweet Transvestite Action Revolutionaries), an organisation built to aid trans people, from feeding and clothing them to pushing for political action. Unfortunately, the legend ends in tragedy. Soon after the 1992 Gay Pride, Marsha was found dead in the Hudson River in New York. Though her friends insisted that she was not suicidal and had been violently confronted earlier on the day of her disappearance, her death was written off as suicide. It wasn’t until two decades later, in 2012, that the case was reopened as potential homicide. Johnson’s death shows the importance of the pair’s simple message: all lives matter.


An acclaimed writer and director alongside her brother Andy, Wachowski’s work is often underpinned by the philosophical idea of the interconnectivity between consciousness and the universe, each having the power to affect the other. The Wachowskis are a famously reclusive, media-shy pair, leading to rife speculation surrounding her transition. But in 2012, she began making more public appearances, saying she wanted to show that she wasn’t ashamed of who she was, and to give confidence to people who had been through the same ordeals she had.


A musician, curator and political reformist, Antony Hegarty’s greatest gift – apart from her voice, perhaps – is in her respect and lack of condescension towards anyone. Believing that we are all connected as part of the earth’s vast ecosystem, Hegarty’s art, music, and ideological beliefs all push towards a social revolution. Her feminine gender identity seems to be as much spiritual as anything else, therefore it seems unsurprising that she applies the concept of transition to society’s infrastructures. Antony's main goal is the total dismantlement of patriarchal hierarchy, replaced with a matriarchy of circles. A political revolutionary and exceptionally eloquent and emotive speaker, Hegarty draws the trans status – in every sense – out of a minority and shows its benefits to society en masse.


Patrick Califia’s life has not been without its share of rejection. As a young adult in the 1960s, before his transition, his Texan parents had him institutionalised when he came out as lesbian; and, when he finally found a place he belonged in San Francisco, the queer community shunned him for speaking out in favour of sadomasochism. Califia became an ardent advocate of lesbian sadomasochism, arguing for “the consensual integration of power, pain, domination and submission into sex”, and wrote articles, books and erotic fiction, as well as setting up a group in support of S&M. Though at odds with the prevalent ‘anti-porn’ feminist sentiment of the time, Califia’s work has helped to stop the shaming of people – whatever their gender or sexuality – who enjoy S&M. Following his transition in 1999, Califia exemplifies the transitory and often indefinable state of gender, sex and sexuality.


Maddie Blaustein is most remembered for her portrayal of Meowth in the Pokémon series, a collaboration that lasted for eight years. Blaustein embodies the issues that can arise out of ‘corrective’ gender assignations given to intersex people at birth. Born intersex in 1960, Blaustein was assigned male at birth and, after years of agonising, made the decision to transition to female. To this day, intersexuality is for the most part shunned in the medical profession, with doctors forcing intersex people into arbitrary categories of male or female from birth, sometimes even suggesting ‘corrective’ surgeries. Though not an outspoken intersex activist, Blaustein stands as an example of the needless emotional turmoil these false assignations can cause.


“I like to break all the rules. There’s something very liberating about knowing them and deciding to disobey them,” said Rose Wood in 2012. Better known for their abrasively avant-garde performance art at venues across the world, Wood corporeally flouts conventional ideas about sex and gender. Their bald head, adonis-like body, penis and almost painfully distended breasts belie the singularity of sex and gender. Describing their body as “aggressive”, Wood welcomes stares, hoping that their body – one that “in every way does not match” – might change people’s opinion of what it means to be a man, woman, or somewhere else on the physical and psychological spectrum. And, if you’re lucky enough to see them in performance, their abrasive performance style forces you to interact directly, almost viscerally, to what they have to say.