Bending the binary: Genderqueer trailblazers, from the Stone Age to today

By Nick Mattos, PQ Monthly

2900 B.C.E.

In 2011, researchers in the Czech Republic excavated a group of tombs dating from a Neolithic period known as the Corded Ware era. One tomb in particular, though, proved to be a landmark discovery. During the period, funerary rites dictated that men were to be buried lying on their right side, with their heads pointing west, surrounded by weapons, tools, and food. However, the male skeleton in this tomb was found on their left side with their head facing west, interred with jewelry and domestic jugs — the traditional burial style for women.

“From history and ethnology, we know that people from this period took funeral rites very seriously, so it is highly unlikely that this positioning was a mistake,” said lead researcher Kamila Remisova Vesinova. Indeed, researchers believe that this was the grave of a transgender person who likely lived as a woman.


Ellen and William Craft were African-American slaves living in Macon, Ga., who resolved to flee slavery and make their way to the free states in the North. As William could not travel alone due to social danger, Ellen — whose light skin allowed her to pass for white — thought of a bold an innovative idea to enable them to escape. The two asked their slave master for permission to travel for the holidays and departed on Dec. 21, 1848; Ellen then disguised herself as a white male cotton planter attended by William, her slave.

Ellen feigned an injury to her writing hand to hide her illiteracy; when she found herself seated beside a friend of her slave owner, she pretended to be deaf to discourage his attempts at conversation. The couple faced numerous challenges over their 800-mile journey, including scoldings for Ellen’s kind treatment of “her slave” and several threats of detainment for not having proof of ownership over William. But the Crafts successfully arrived in Philadelphia on Christmas Day.

The Crafts later became public speakers supporting the abolitionist cause and established a school in Georgia for newly-freed slaves; during this time, Ellen often continued to dress in masculine attire.


Gladys Bentley was an American blues singer, famous in the 1920s and 30s for her raunchy lyrics delivered in a deep growl. Openly lesbian, Bentley’s onstage schtick involved hitting heavily upon women in the audience while accompanied by a chorus line of drag queens.

In her offstage life, she was often harassed for her masculine sartorial sensibility — and when she relocated from New York to Los Angeles in the early 1930s, she was often targeted by the police. Billed as the “Brown Bomber of Sophisticated Songs,” Bentley was rarely seen on stage without her signature tuxedo and top hat.

She scandalized New York during the Harlem Renaissance by claiming to a gossip columnist that she married a white woman in Atlantic City, possibly by impersonating a man. However, Bentley’s life ultimately took a turn a turn away from the genderqueer — she later married a man, adopted a more traditionally feminine style, and became a devoted minister of the Los Angeles-based new religious movement the Temple of Love in Christ, Inc.

However, she still made a major impact upon the blues scene that continues to manifest in the genderqueer style sense within popular music.


Reed Erickson was born Rita Alma Erickson in 1917. After her father’s death in 1962, Erickson inherited her family’s business; the following year, she became a patient of Dr. Harry Benjamin, a pioneer in gender reassignment surgery, and became one of the first people to undergo the procedure. Now identifying as Reed, Erickson used his business mettle to turn his $5 million dollar inheritance into a personal fortune estimated at over $40 million, money he would pour into launching the Erickson Educational Foundation in 1964.

“The EEF helped to support … almost every aspect of work being done in the 1960s and 1970s in the field of transsexualism [sic.] in the U.S. and, to a lesser degree, in other countries,” explains University of Victoria sociologist A. H. Devor. “The EEF funded many early research efforts, including the creation of the Harry Benjamin Foundation, the early work of the Johns Hopkins Clinic and numerous other important research [and public education] projects.”

The EEF sponsored public addresses, educational films, radio and television speakers, newspaper articles, pamphlets, and reference works relating to trans issues. Erickson’s philanthropy also greatly impacted the New Age movement; his EEF funded one of the very first English-language publications on acupuncture, numerous studies of altered states of consciousness (both drug-induced and otherwise), the dolphin communication research of John Lilly, and the publication of the first edition of the profoundly influential “A Course in Miracles.”


Buck Angel
Buck Angel started his career as a female high-fashion model in the 1980s; however, in the late 1990s, Angel realized that he was transgender, and began the process of gender reassignment. He ultimately decided to forego genital surgery, asserting: “It’s not what’s between your legs that defines you; it’s what people put betwixt your legs that defines you.”

And betwixt did people put things. Angel began to produce and star in his own highly successful line of adult films and later the first FTM adult web site in 2003. In 2005, he became the first FTM to be featured in an all-male porn film, “Titan’s Cirque Noir.” That same year, Angel also performed in Allanah Starr’s “Big Boob Adventures,” which included the pornographic first of a filmed sex scene between a male-to-female transgender person (Starr) and a female-to-male person (Angel).

In recent years, Angel has devoted himself to educating the public about transgender issues, speaking at universities and appearing on numerous media outlets to discuss the fluidity of sexuality and gender politics.