Rupert Raj’s story is an interesting look into a pivotal time in the history of medical transition. Raj was born in 1952 and began pursuing medical transition in 1971. Because he was only 19 years old at the time, New York State required written consent from an older family member to obtain an appointment with an endocrinologist in order to receive hormone therapy. In the 1970s there was an extremely small body of scientific work on the trans experience, and even less understanding of trans people’s specific needs than there is today. During this time, trans people were also often excluded from LGB action groups, so a few trans and gender expansive people started organizing their own political action groups.
Raj participated in this wave of community action throughout college, and in January 1978, he started an organization for trans people (including trans men and women, as well as cross-dressers), called the Foundation for the Advancement of Canadian Transsexuals (FACT). During his time with FACT, Rupert Raj edited and published the foundation’s newsletter. This contained much needed information on transgender resources and included lists of books and articles relevant to transgender people, along with tons of other information that was otherwise very difficult to source. Raj was involved with this organization until 1981, when he chose to focus on serving the unique needs of trans men.
In 1982, Raj founded the bi-monthly magazine Metamorphosis, with which he hoped to serve as something of an information broker between the trans community and the greater scientific community. The magazine aimed to provide information on various aspects of being a trans man, including clinical research, hormones, surgery, tips to effectively passing as a man in public, and legal reform for trans people. There was also some levity in the form of jokes and cartoons, and the subscription even included 3 business card sized ads for subscribers free of charge.
Metamorphosis reached an international audience, at one time having subscribers from as far away as Great Britain, and New Zealand. In 1988, Raj decided to end publication of the magazine due to extreme burnout.
The Digital Transgender Archive, and Canada’s The ArQuives, have graciously preserved digital copies of what appears to be the entire run of Metamorphosis, which you can read here. I am planning on reading these in their entirety and writing a deep dive on this awesome piece of trans masculine history. Should you choose to read these, I would caution you that the language and understanding around trans people and our experiences has changed quite a bit since this time, and these should be read with this context in mind.
After shuttering the magazine, Rupert took a 9-year break from public advocacy to heal. At one point he commented, “No matter how important the work you’re doing may be, sometimes you need a decade off from being a trans person in the public eye.”
Raj re-entered the public stage in 2002 when he founded RR Consulting, continuing his work as an educating consultant, psychotherapist, gender specialist, and trans-positive professional trainer.
In 2017, Rupert Raj made available the text of his international trans poetry anthology “Of Souls & Roles, Of Sex & Gender: A Treasury of Transsexual, Transgenderist & Transvestic Verse from 1967 to 1991.” The volume includes nearly 400 poems penned by 169 trans people throughout Canada, the US, the UK, Australia and New Zealand.
His sociohistorical memoir, “Dancing the Dialectic: True Tales of a Transgender Trailblazer” was first published in 2017; a second edition of which was published in 2020.
Rupert Raj continues his work as an advocate for transgender people, and a community educator to this day. Most recently in October of 2022, Fantasia Fair recognized him with their 2022 Transgender Pioneer Award. This is the longest standing award that solely recognizes trans people. Established in 2002, this award honors the lifetime achievements of trans people who have made the world a safer place for people like us.
If you would like to learn more about Rupert Raj and his work, you can follow this link. And if you enjoyed this look into the life a trans activist, you may enjoy looking into the lives of other LGBT+ Figures in History.
Bobbie Lea Bennett and her contribution to history may seem like a small one on it’s face, but it was in fact, monumental. She is best remembered for forcing the United States Medicare system to consider covering gender affirming surgeries.
As opposed to previous (unsuccessful) attempts to obtain Medicare coverage for gender affirmation surgeries, Bobbie Lea occupied the uniquely advantageous position of already being a Medicare recipient. She did not need to build the case that transsexuality was itself a disability. This forced Medicare to address the singular issue of gender affirming surgeries.
In 1978, after mobilizing media interest in disability rights in her favor, she literally pushed her case into the faces of government administrators. She set off on a cross country road trip from San Diego to the Baltimore, Maryland offices of Thomas M. Tierney, the director of Medicare at the time. During the meeting, Tierney assured Bobbie Lea that a committee was assessing her case. Three days after this meeting, Bennett received a check in the mail. Medicare denied that this check was to cover Bennett’s surgery, instead claiming that they were simply correcting an error.
Bobbie Lea Bennett is best remembered for this particular instance of activism but she dedicated her life to the pursuit of liberation. In 1985, she founded the St. Tammany Parish Organization for the Handicapped, which served the interests of wheelchair users, and other disabled persons that lived within St. Tammany Parish, Louisiana. This organization has since been dissolved.
We don’t have much more in the way of facts about Bobbie Lea’s life, but she is remembered as a beloved wife, and mother to 2 children.
I am always fascinated by stories of trans survival and the ways in which trans and gender nonconforming people attempt to explain their experiences with gender to cis people. There’s a consensus among trans people that cisgender people generally never even bother to question their gender, or how they know that they are their gender. They just don’t put much thought into it. This gives me a sense of kinship with other sexual minorities. Straight people do not generally put much thought into their sexuality, because they have the privilege of remaining ignorant. The same appears to be the case for cis people.
Never having bothered to question one’s gender means that you aren’t even ready for Gender 101, you need the remedial course. You need to understand just how divorced the concepts of sex and gender really are. You need to understand that both sex and gender are social constructs. Even though they may serve some useful purposes, they are completely made up, and both are more of a mass system of classification and communication than any kind of quality inherent to one’s personhood.
The need for educating cis people on these particular facts is made even more apparent when one becomes aware of the old trans survival strategy of “spontaneous transition”. You may have seen a story about this floating around social media. Essentially, in the past, some trans people reportedly explained their transition to the people around them, and greater society, by claiming that they suffered from a pathological condition that resulted in their “changing sexes”. They could have said that they had something like a tumor, or just a general medical condition that caused “this most wonderful transformation”. (“A Man-Woman – Digital Transgender Archive”) But before we get to the specifics of this strategy, let’s take a look at some older representations of gender queerness.
Ancient Trans Survival in a Cisgender World
Trans people have been here since there have been people, thus the means to trans survival have existed since people have existed. I could not find ancient personal accounts of trans survival, but representations of the concept of “changing gender” are found in some of the most ancient stories and traditions. People who do not strictly adhere to a single, fixed, gender have historically been represented as gods. One of the most notorious examples of this in Western culture is Loki from Norse mythology.
He’s been a fly, he’s been a falcon, he’s accidentally conceived children by eating a burnt giantess’ heart. In a particularly memorable incident, he turns himself into a mare in order to seduce a horse and save the rest of the gods (long story). There’s also a bit in ‘Thrym’s Poem’ in which Thor refuses to disguise himself as Freyja because everyone will think he’s unmanly and that would be Terrible, and Loki replies with, essentially, ‘You’d rather the giants invade Asgard than have to wear a dress? Seriously?’
An Examination of Gender in Viking Age Scandinavia
I feel I should include something of a disclaimer here. It should come as no surprise that the word transgender, which was coined in an academic paper in 1965, is a modern descriptor applied to people who understand their gender to be different from the sex they were assigned at birth. This definition is itself a modern one, as a sex assignment at birth that is registered and recognized with some kind of governing authority seems to have shown up as late at 1811, which is when the Dutch started registering a baby’s sex along with other identifying information, such as the child’s name. Taken together, we can understand that when looking to the past, we should seek representations of behavior without using modern descriptors as classifying labels.
Understanding that, we can take a look at some Sumerian and Akkadian texts from 4500 years ago that document the existence of gala. These gala were priests who today are understood to have been individuals that identified outside of simple male or female gender identities. Archeologists have also found multiple burial sites of people who were buried with objects typically attributed to “men” or “women” whose anatomy did not match the supposed social status of the objects found.
Archaeologist María Fernanda Ugalde has raised a similar issue in her analysis of over 3,000 clay figures from Ecuador, dating from as early as 3500 B.C. Other combinations of physical and clothing features than the ones fitting Western notions of sex and gender were present in those figurines: For example, breasts were depicted with male dress and a lack of breasts with female dress.
CW: Transphobia, cisnormativity, and general cis nonsense
Since we have established the ancient existence of trans people, let’s skip way into the future to arrive at the not-so-distant past of 1868. It is here, in a small town called Waterloo, Iowa, where we findan article in a newspaper entitled “A Man-Woman”. Intrigued, we read on to find the story of one Edgar Burnham, as told by some secondhand source, not Mr. Burnham, himself.
The article goes on to tell the story of a man named Powell and his former wife, one Ellen Burnham. Burnham is described as having “taught music, had a large number of pupils, and was very attractive.” Powell and Burnham were married for two years, and had one child together. They lived together until “at the expiration of two years, when about 21 years of age, Mrs. Powell’s voice changed, she grew light whiskers, and gradually changed her sex, developing into a man, in all respects, as if nature, anxious for a freak, had turned a portion of herself wrong side out.”
The story goes on to describe how Edgar took on his name, moved to Chicago, and eventually married a former music student of his. My favorite part of this is the second to the last paragraph, which declares “The former girl is now a man, the former wife is now a husband, the former mother is now a father…Truth is indeed stranger than fiction, and the above simple statement of facts borders so upon the marvellous we could not believe it did we not personally know nearly all the parties.” Despite the extremely cisnormative language, I can recognize that this author seems to have a better grasp on transition than some people in this day and age.
What makes the explanation of a “spontaneous” medical transition due to some mysterious “condition” so unique is that it is such a human explanation. What a human frailty is disease. And to use the perception of it as a means of gaining control over your body is such an inherently trans subversion of the very nature of “illness”. For many, illness can be disabling and overall just a terrible thing to experience. The fact that trans people had to lean into the intractable nature of disease in order to be granted the opportunity to exist as themselves in Western cisgender society is something that I see reflected in the modern day.
I’m sure anyone who has spent time in online trans spaces will recognize the reflex that certain modern trans people have to call their transness a mental illness. It seems to me that trans people who claim their transness to be the result of a mental illness are trying to use the same trans survival strategy as Mr. Burnham to justify their existence to the cis people around them, and thus gain access to much needed resources.
I am not here to disparage those who do feel themselves to be suffering from a mental illness because they are trans. I am not here to pass judgement, only to offer a historical perspective on why some people may feel this way. Trans people have had to use many creative coping strategies to survive, and the medicalization of transition is one of them. I do, however, believe that trans people who have access to modern technology owe it to themselves, and the community as a whole, to grow beyond this explanation of their transness.
I can understand how someone who lives in a violently cisnormative culture would be regularly confronted with the need to justify their existence. But if you have regular, and stable access to the internet, you have regular access to higher quality information on the nature of transness and transition than a simple “you have a mental illness”. Every trans person owes it to themselves to get invested in the conversations that are going on around being a modern trans person. Listening and learning are the best places to start when trying to grow, so I urge you to take it upon yourself to actually talk to trans people, and listen to our podcasts, and read our books, essays, and poetry. We are out here practically screaming to the world what our truths really are and at this point, if you can’t move beyond the thinking from 1868, you have a lot of personal work to do, regardless if you are cis or trans.