A History of Transgender Visibility in American Pop Culture

Look back at some of pop culture's most important, and memorable, moments for the trans community.

Thanks to Transparent’s 2015 Golden Globe win for Best Comedy, Glee’s exploration of Coach Bieste’s gender transition in its final season, and Orange Is the New Black‘s Laverne Cox’s Hollywood domination, transgender visibility in pop culture is more prominent than ever.

It took a while for the world to be this accepting, though admittedly it still has a long way to go, but it truly instills a lot of hope in the future all-encompassing inclusiveness of the entire LGBTQIA community. It’s easily to call this point in history a “trans moment,” but let’s not limit it to this day and age. From trans characters on prominent TV shows and movies to trans actors, actresses, and athletes earning the spotlight, here’s a timeline of the most important transgender moments in the country’s pop culture history.

1918: Author Jennie June, formerly known as Earl Lind, publishes her memoir The Autobiography of an Androgyne, which is followed by her second book four years later, The Female Impersonators. Both deal with the life of a trans person in the early 20th century.

November 1952: Former army private Christine Jorgensen becomes the first publicly known transsexual in the U.S. after having gender reassignment surgery in Denmark.

June 24, 1970: Raquel Welch stars in the film Myra Breckinridge, based on the Gore Vidal novel of the same, as a trans entertainer formerly known as Myron.

September 21, 1975: In the film Dog Day Afternoon, Al Pacino‘s character plans to rob a bank to pay for the operation of his lover, a pre-operative transgender woman played by Chris Sarandon.

August 16, 1977: The NY Supreme Court rules that pro tennis player Renee Richards could compete in tournaments as a woman.

October 1, 1977: On The Jeffersons episode “Once a Friend,” Veronica Redd plays Edie Stokes, a woman once formerly known as Eddie Stokes.

June 26, 1981: British trans actress Caroline Cossey plays a Bond girl in the movie For Your Eyes Only.

July 23, 1982: The World According to Garp features a character named Roberta Muldoon (played by John Lithgow in an Oscar-nominated role) as a transgender former football player.

January 21, 1989: American jazz musician Billy Tipton becomes famous after death, when it’s discovered that he had been born a woman.

December 15, 1990: On Twin Peaks, David Duchovny plays Denise Bryson, a transgender DEA agent.

[David Duchovny as Denise in Twin Peaks / Photo Credit: ABC]

February 14, 1991: In The Silence of the Lambs, Ted Levine plays Buffalo Bill, a serial killer who identifies as transgender.

February 19, 1993: In The Crying Game, Oscar nominee Jaye Davidson stars as a trans woman named Dil, whom the film centers on.

June 9, 1993: Tilda Swinton portrays William Shakespeare’s Orlando, a character whose sex changes midway through the film.

September 28, 1993: The mini-series Tales of the City, adapted from the Armistead Maupin book series of the same name, debuts, featuring beloved trans character Madrigal (played by Olympia Dukakis).

December 31, 1993: Brandon Teena was an American trans man who was raped and murdered in Nebraska, sparking the call for legislation against hate crimes. His life is remembered in the film Boys Don’t Cry (1999) starring Hilary Swank, who won an Oscar for the role.

[Hilary Swank as Brandon Teena inBoys Don’t Cry (1999) / Photo Credit: Fox Searchlight Pictures]

February 4, 1994: In Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, Sean Young plays a Lois Eihorn, a football player in transgender disguise. The film is widely criticized as being transphobic.

August 10, 1994: The cult Australian film The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert debuts, starring Hugo Weaving and Guy Pearce as drag queens and Terence Stamp as a trans woman.

December 26, 1997: Belgian film Ma Vie En Rose (My Life in Pink) strikes a chord with critics worldwide at a time when gender non-conforming children were seen as taboo. The movie depicts a child, born a boy, who insists on being seen as a girl.

October 30, 2000: On the fourth season of Ally McBeal, Lisa Edelstein plays recurring character Cindy McCauliff, a trans woman challenging her employer’s requirement that she undergo a physical examination. The first season of the series also shines a light on trans issues, through the character of Stephanie Grant (Wilson Cruz), a trans character facing jail time for solicitation charge, while also openly struggling to fit into society.

July 21, 2001: The film adaptation of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, an off-Broadway cult musical, debuts. It follows a transgender German glam rocker (creator John Cameron Mitchell) recounting the story of her betrayal by her ex-boyfriend. Hedwig and the Angry Inch is currently on Broadway, and the titular character has been played by Neil Patrick Harris, Andrew Rannells, Michael C. Hall, and beginning in April, Darren Criss.

[John Cameron Mitchell as Hedwig inHedwig and the Angry Inch (2001) /Photo Credit: New Line Cinema]

January 21, 2003: HBO premieres the feature film Normal, which follows the gender transition of Ruth Applewood (played by Tom Wilkinson).

May 11, 2003: On the later seasons of Queer as Folk, Glen Campbell plays a recurring transgender character described as “Kiki the waitress, formerly known as Kenny the Waiter.”

August 12, 2003: Nip/Tuck season one features Jonathan Del Arco as Sophia Lopez, a trans character who leads the doctors to a practitioner that routinely botches surgery on transgender patients. Later, in July of 2004, Famke Janssen plays trans character Ava Moore. In October 2004, William Bell joins the cast as Cherry Peck, a recurring trans character.

March 1, 2004: In an episode Two and a Half Men, a show widely criticized for its sexism, Chris O’Donnell delicately plays a transgender man who was an ex-girlfriend of Charlie’s.

March 9, 2005: South Park features Herbert Garrison, an elementary school teacher formerly known as Janet Garrison.

August 23, 2005: On It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Sweet Valley High’s Brittany Daniel plays a recurring character Carmen, a trans woman who has an on-again, off-again relationship with Mac.

September 28, 2005: The eight-part Sundance Channel docu-series TransGeneration premieres, which looks at the lives of four college students undergoing their transition.

December 2, 2005: Felicity Huffman, in an Oscar-nominated role, stars in TransAmerica as a pre-op trans woman who reconnects with a son she never knew she fathered.

[Felicity Huffman as Bree in TransAmerica (2005) / Photo Credit: The Weinstein Company]

January 8, 2006: The L Word explores the trans storyline with Moira (Daniela Sea) as she transitions to Max.

March 19, 2006: Alexis Arquette, the trans sister of Oscar winner Patricia Arquette, appears on VH1 reality series The Surreal Life.

August 23, 2006: The first transgender character on an American soap opera, Zoe (Jeffrey Carlson), is introduced on All My Children.

September 28, 2006: Rebecca Romijn plays Alexis Meade, a trans woman who rises to prominence on Ugly Betty.

Sept 26, 2007: Candis Cayne becomes the first transgender actress with a recurring trans character on a primetime series as Carmelita Rainer on ABC’s Dirty Sexy Money.

[Candis Cayne as Carmelita Rainer on Dirty Sexy Money / Photo Credit: ABC]

September 3, 2008: Isis King becomes the first transgender contestant on America’s Next Top Model.

January 7, 2009: The 21st season of The Real World (set in Brooklyn) introduces its first trans roommate, Katelynn Cusanelli.

January 5, 2010: President Obama appoints Amanda Simpson the Senior Technical Advisor to the Bureau of Industry and Security, making her the first openly trans woman named to a presidential administration.

[Isis King on America’s Next Top Model / Photo Credit: The CW]

May 9, 2010: On the episode “Quagmire’s Dad” of Family Guy, Glenn Quagmire’s dad, Lieutenant Commander Dan Quagmire, has gender reassignment surgery, becoming Ida Quagmire.

July 19, 2010: Adam Torres (played by Jordan Todosey) becomes the first transgender character introduced on Degrassi.

August 2010: Brazilian model Lea T becomes a muse for Givenchy and appears in French Vogue. Later, in November 2014, she’s named the face of Redken, making her the first transgender model to front a global brand.

January 24, 2011: Trans model Carmen Carrera becomes a fan favorite on RuPaul’s Drag Race. In 2013, a Change.org petition was started, calling for Carrera to become the first trans Victoria’s Secret model.

[Carmen Carrera for Marco Marco / Photo Credit: Giphy]

September 19, 2011: Chaz Bono, Cher’s son formerly known as Chastity Bono, joins Dancing with the Stars.

May 19, 2012: Jenna Talackova becomes the first trans candidate to compete in Miss Universe Canada contestant. She makes it to the Top 12, and is awarded Miss Congeniality.

May 22, 2012: In the British series Hit & Miss, Chloë Sevigny plays a transgender contract killer who seeks out her ex-girlfriend.

[Lana Wachowski / Photo Credit: Getty Images]

July 2012: Lana Wachowski, the first major Hollywood director to come out as trans, makes her first public appearance after transitioning in a video promoting her and her brother Andy’s film Cloud Atlas.

March 5, 2013: Fallon Fox becomes the first openly transgender fighter in mixed martial arts history.

July 11, 2013: Thanks to Orange Is the New Black, Laverne Cox is the first openly transgender person to be nominated for a Primetime Emmy Award in the acting category. Previously, in August of 2008, Cox appeared on I Want to Work for Diddy, which won a GLADD award that she accepted. Later, on March, 15, 2010, the reality makeover series TRANSform Me debuted, which Cox produced and hosted, making her the first African-American trans person to do so.

August 22, 2013: Chelsea Manning, formerly known as army private Bradley Manning, is sentenced to 35 years in prison for leaking classified documents to Wikileaks. The day after her sentencing, Manning’s attorney issued a press release announcing that Manning is a woman and wishes to be acknowledged as such.

November 22, 2013: Dallas Buyers Club, a biographical film which won Jared Leto an Oscar for his portrayal of Rayon, a trans HIV-positive woman, hits theaters.

January 20, 2014: ABC Family’s The Fosters, a show about a married lesbian couple raising their growing family, adds a trans teen character named Cole (played by Tom Phelan) to their recurring cast.

[Tom Phelan on The Fosters / Photo Credit: ABC Family]
February 4, 2014: Janet Mock, a transgender advocate and writer, publishes a best-selling memoir about her transition, Redefining Realness.

February 6, 2014: Jill Soloway’s Golden Globe-winning series Transparent, which follows a family that embraces their father’s transition to a woman, debuts on Amazon. The show’s featured cast also includes Alexandra Billings, who, thanks to 2005’s Romy and Michele: In the Beginning, made history as the first transgender woman to play a transgender character.

June 7, 2014: The second season of Orphan Black introduces its first trans clone, Tony Sawicki (played by the immensely talented Tatiana Maslany), and is expected to return in the show’s upcoming seasons.

February 13, 2015: Glee explores Coach Shannon Beiste’s (Dot Jones) transition to a man, named Sheldon, in its final season. Having always been a champion of LGBT rights and visibility, the musical sitcom debuted its first transgender character Unique Adams, played by Alex Newell, in April of 2012.

March 18, 2015: Long-running soap opera The Bold and the Beautiful revealed that the character of Maya Avant (Karla Mosley) is transgender, and was born with the name Myron. “It is about people respecting other people’s differences and their uniqueness,” executive producer and head writer Bradley Bell said in a statement to USA Today. “In the end, we all want to be loved, and in order to love someone else you first have to love yourself. If you are transgender, gay, straight, it doesn’t matter. It’s about finding love in life. This is a love story.”

April 21, 2015: 23-year-old model Andreja Pejić lands a photo spread in Vogue, becoming the first transgender model to receive a feature in the magazine. The same week, she was announced as the new face of brand Make Up Forever.

April 24, 2015: Olympic gold medalist and reality star Bruce Jenner comes out as transgender in a televised interview with Diane Sawyer. “What I’m doing is going to do some good, and we’re going to change the world,” he told audiences. “We’re going to make a difference in the world with what we’re doing.”

Tara Aquino is an entertainment writer based out of L.A. She likes people, places, and things.