URI’s first transgender professor speaks on Midwestern trans movement

Assistant Professor of Gender and Women’s Studies, Joy Ellison, highlighted underrepresented transgender movements in Midwestern history in a lecture given on Nov. 9 at 5 p.m. in the Multicultural Student Services Center.

The lecture, titled “Un-forgetting Trans Feminism: Lessons in Survival and Resistance from Midwestern Trans Movements,” was a part of the Dana Shugar Colloquium lecture series.

As the title mentions, Ellison spoke of Midwestern transgender movements, derived from their current research, from 1945 to 2000.

There is a misunderstanding of transfeminism as new to the feminist movement, according to Ellison. Ellison said their research has revealed a pressing impact of the movements initiated by Black transgender women and transgender feminine drag queens since post World War II and beyond.

“Together, this history provides critical examination of the development of transgender feminist politics in the past,” Ellison said.

Throughout history, according to Ellison, transgender women and transfeminine queens confront laws formatted to remove them from society: anti-cross dressing laws.

Ellison says anti-cross dressing laws not only target transgender people, but incriminate them. These state ordinances also targeted those who worked in the female impersonation industry. The female impersonation industry has changed throughout time but has remained in our society today, popularly known as drag performances.

At the start of the post World War II era, Black transgender women and transgender feminine queens had an especially difficult struggle due to the racial climate, according to Ellison.

Ellison said gender-affirming care, at the time, was offered to those who could afford it. This predominantly meant white transgender women were receiving this care, and not the Black transgender community.

Due to the lack of resources, Black transgender women were seen as impersonators of women rather than as women. Ellison displayed archived newspaper articles of Black transgender women and transgender feminine queens described in terms like “make-believe ladies” and “masqueraders.”

“When trans people are understood through the lens of female impersonation, their efforts to assert their rights were undercut,” Ellison said.

This societal framework of the time created a climate where Black transgender women and transgender feminine queens were targeted by various cross-dressing laws, according to Ellison.

Ellison said that the female impersonation industry provided a community for Black transgender women and transgender feminine queens. However, it also escalated the belief that these performers were solely tricksters, rather than expressers.

Although Black transgender women and feminine queens were able to dress and appear as a woman during performances, anti-cross dressing laws created rules outside of work, according to Ellison.

Ellison told the story of Miss Major Griffin-Gracy, a transgender woman and activist who was a part of the female impersonation industry after World War II.

Gracy, a performer for the Jewel Box Revue, a female impersonation show in Chicago, was not allowed to leave or arrive at the show as a woman.

“These rules are designed to help the review to avoid legal hassles and the cities where they were traveling, many of which had anti-cross dressing laws,” Ellison said.

Ellison said there were also economic motivations to these regulations. These performers were seen as products to sell, making it a rule for them to avoid interaction with the public as women. This was out of fear that the locals would lose interest in the show and its performers, Ellison said.

“Trans women were hidden in plain sight,” Ellison said.

Ellison reiterated that the political organization of transgender resistance at this time was a risk of these performers’ lives. Through their research, Ellison came up with lessons to be learned while combating transgender discrimination,

“Survive the impossible by using the impossible,” Ellison said.

Ellison explained that performers like Gracy could not express themselves as a woman without being criminalized. However, Black transgender women and transgender feminine queens utilized the female impersonation industry as a community to freely express their identity.

“You may have to run, but you can run together,” Ellison said.

Black transgender women and transgender feminine queens were consistently targeted for criminalization due to racialized law and anti-cross dressing laws. As they live on the run from racial capitalism, having each other’s backs was necessary, according to Ellison.

“A struggle can grow through the smallest victories,” Ellison said.

Ellison talked about Ava Betty Brown, a Black transgender woman who was arrested multiple times in the 50’s under cross-dressing laws in Chicago.

After a particular arrest that claimed Brown to have committed assault, Brown sued for false allegations in a climate where the Chicago Police was consistently murdering and abusing the Black community.

Brown’s case was seen as brave, and further catalyzed activist movements in Chicago, according to Ellison.

Aside from Ellison’s research in transgender history, the current political climate is still targeting transgender people and experiences, according to Ellison.

“There are exceedingly few spaces in which we are emotionally or physically safe and broadly understood,” Ellison said.

In Ohio, the State Legislature House Bill 245, which is currently under review before the House votes, prohibits performance cross-dressing due to the expanded definition of an “adult cabaret performer.” This, according to Ellison, will directly target transgender people. This would limit transgender performers to utilizing only certain venues.

The historical trajectory of female impersonation and the discrimination of Black transgender women and transgender feminine queens has affected our political climate today, according to Ellison.

Derived from the American Civil Liberties Union, Ellison shared that 25 transgender people were murdered in 2023 in the United States. 53% of these deaths were Black transgender women.

Even closer to home, the ACLU has recorded five different anti-transgender bills attempted to be passed in Rhode Island.

Deep in history, misrepresented and underrepresented stories of resistance are told by professors like Ellison. The history creates a better understanding of the feminist movement today, according to Ellison.