There have always been plenty of gay and lesbian historical figures, but transgender history can be a little bit trickier to pin down. This is partly because the gender binary is so slippery to begin with. Are there any transgender historical figures? How do we even determine, in some cases, if a person from history was really trans or not? If a person from history had sexual or romantic relationships with people of the same sex, then we know that person was probably lesbian, gay, or bisexual. Gender expression can take more subtle forms, though, and those forms are often influenced by cultural norms and assumptions about what it means to be masculine or feminine. In Western culture, it has not been uncommon for celebrities and public figures who express their gender in unusual ways to be misunderstood, dismissed as mentally ill, or otherwise marginalized.
Below is a list of trans historical figures from throughout LGBT history - people who were assigned one gender at birth, and lived their lives (or parts of their lives) conforming to a different one. Some of them were openly transgender, some were genderfluid or nonbinary, and several kept their trans identities secret, sometimes for their entire lives. A few of these famous transgender people in history are open to speculation, and in some cases, these people lived so long ago, in times and places where gender was understood so differently, that we may never know for sure what version their personal "transitioning" journey was taking.
It's definitely clear, though, that gender dysphoria and radical gender variance aren't just new phenomena being embraced by trendy teenagers. Transgender and non-binary identities have been around for awhile, even in cultures like America today, where they've historically been considered abnormal, and sometimes unacceptable.
Born in 1728, the Chevalier d'Eon had an illustrious career as a French spy and diplomat. After spending roughly the first half of his life as a man, the Chevalier began appearing at Queen Elizabeth's court dressed as a woman, claiming to have been assigned female at birth, and demanding to be recognized as such by the French government (an autopsy following the Chevalier's death showed the Chevalier had in fact been assigned male at birth).
The Chevalier was such a well-known figure that the term "eonism" enjoyed a brief vogue as a descriptor for those displaying transgender or genderfluid characteristics.
- Albert Cashier was a transgender man who served in the Union Army during the Civil War. Born Jennie Irene Hodgers, Cashier claimed in later life that he began dressing in male clothing as a child, in order to find work. During the war, Cashier fought in approximately 40 battles, and once singlehandedly overpowered a prison guard in order to escape back to his division after being captured.
Born Laura Maud in May of 1915, Laurence Michel Dillon was the first transgender man ever to undergo a phalloplasty (meaning, basically, a doctor constructed a penis for him from scratch, and grafted it onto his body). He also published a book entitled Self: A Study in Endocrinology and Ethics, which many people consider the first book about transgender identity and gender transitioning. In this book, Dillon described transgender identification as innate and unaffected by psychotherapy, and advocated medical treatment using hormones and surgery as an alternative.
Dillon himself aided in the surgical transition of Roberta Cowell, Britain's first male-to-female transgender person to undergo sexual reassignment surgery.
The gender and sexuality identity of French crusader Jean d'Arc (better known to non-French-speakers as Joan of Arc) has long been the subject of intense debate among historians and religious figures alike. The Christian crusader adamantly refused to wear women's clothing or to style her hair in the female-appropriate style of the time. It's unclear to modern historians what implications Jean d'Arc's devotion to cross-dressing may have had regarding her gender identity or sexuality, but this was considered a very serious, blasphemous offense at the time, so the fact that she stuck to it so fiercely has certainly aroused questions. When confronted about her choice to dress exclusively in male attire, Jean reportedly said: "As for women's clothing, I shall not put it on until it please God."
Transgender author and theorist Leslie Feinberg characterizes Joan of Arc as an early, formidable "transgender warrior" in her book Transgender Warriors: Making History From Joan of Arc to Dennis Rodman.