Notes on the suffrage of trans women

Author: Leah Tigers/@9billiontigers

Transcribed from a twitter thread and formatted for hypertext readers by chican3ry.

Although this piece has an unfortunate origin in refuting memes in transphobic understandings of the history of trans oppression, there were key aspects I (chican3ry, the transcriber adapting this piece into an essay) want to preserve in the knowledge that so much trans writing gets lost. In particular, Leah's deep reading of the histories of trans women give rise to a startling clarity in understanding that the ways in which trans womanhood is criminalised have rarely, if ever, directly articulated the legal target.

The importance of trans primary experiences rather than simply inheriting the narratives of cis people in discussing the legal history of trans oppression is rendered extremely clear here. I hope other trans people learn that while we might be moved by abuse, we need to make time for our experiences and perspectives, not simply for refutations of those who try to crush us.


Not enough people understand that trans women received suffrage, if we ever did at all, much later than cis women.

Transphobes abuse such ignorance to encourage further oppression of trans women. So, here's a thread on trans women's suffrage:

Inset images, screenshots of tweets and anti-trans memes:

Tweet by Graham Linehan (@Glinner) - Blocked.

Remember this Christmas that every time a woman describes herself as 'cis', a Suffragette loses her wings

6:17am - 24 December 2019

Colourful square instagram format meme, unattributed

even if they really were women,

were transwomen denied the vote? denied the right to own land? effected by abortion laws?

everyone who has something in common

being female

stop trying to make feminism about your dick

Tweet by itsastitchup@Ifixyouwagon (@brig_aloe_rice) - Blocked

Transwomen already had the right to vote as they were of the sex allowed to vote.

Post on Reddit's r/GenderCritical by u/Wanderer 9717 Celebrations of 100 years of (partial) women's suffrage in the UK - are any TRAs trying to prevent this rather than dominate it?

tag: Question

So, as the title suggests, this year is the centenary of (some) women in the UK getting the vote. There has been lots on TV, in the press plus other local stuff - and a lot of it as featured - and in some cases been dominated by trans-identified males e.g. dressing up as suffragettes. Despite the fact that they would have had the vote all along.

Obviously the MRA-types who have jumped on trans to crap on women will be loving this but surely at least some of the transactivists and their allies genuinely believe in the transactivist agenda and that these people are women. If so, are they (or shouldn't they) be opposing these celebrations rather than joining in?

In their language/belief system (so excuse the 'cis' references):

Transwomen who were coercively assigned male at birth have always had the vote. It was cis women and transmen (those assigned female at birth who were denied the vote. To call this the centenary of women's suffrage, is to deny the history of transwomen and the validity of their womanhood. It also ignores that transmen were also denied the vote.

How can TRAs participate in these celebrations without contradicting their own belief system?


A1: Because (1a) all meaningful transfemale social practices were criminalized and felons could not vote, and because (1b) transfemale identity was clinicalized and the mentally ill could not vote.

On (1a) & (1b), without fully embracing any essentialism of what trans "really is," I will review three historically meaningful & ubiquitous trans social practices and how they were used to disenfranchise us:

  1. Travesty
  2. Mayhem
  3. Identity

i. "Travesty" is the criminalization of trans people's social presentations. The term is superior to "crossdressing," because trans people were usually criminalized by broad municipal nuisance, turpitude, or obscenity laws which did not directly mention assigned sex at all.

Travesty mostly criminalized trans women, because feminine dress, especially among the poor, coded sex work. Some early suffragettes pushing for women to masculinize leveraged these patriarchal anti-femme sentiments; others made viable femininity a matter of class; others, both.

More inset images as reference points

Mary Edwards Walker (1832-1919) doctor, suffragette.

Mary Walker was born and raised in Oswego, New York, the youngest of five daughters. In the early 1850s she adopted the new pants outfit associated with the name of Amelia Bloomer. She became one of the very first women doctors in the US when she graduated from Syracuse Medical College in 1855, the only woman in her class. She married in 1856, wearing men's cloths, and she did not take her husband's name. They set up a joint practice in rome, New York, but separated in 1859.

With the start of the US Civil War in 1861, she volunteered on the Union side, but was only allowed to be a nurse, but after working as an unpaid field surgeon near the front lines, she became the second ever US Army Surgeon in 1863. In 1864, while treating civilians, she was captured by Confederate troops and charged as a spy. She was released as part of a prisoner exchange. In 1865 she was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, the only women ever to receive one.

She was an advocate for women's dress reform and in 1866 was elected president of the National Dress Reform Association, and made speaking tour of England. In 1869 she finally obtained her divorce. She became a persistent wearer of trousers, switching from an androgynous mix to strictly male clothing later, although at all times insisting on being treated as a lady, and she never attempted to pass as male. She stood by the earlier suffrage position that the US Constitution gave women the vote, and she opposed the majority of suffragists who switched tactics to campaign for a female suffrage law.

She argued that women's clothes kept them "unnaturally excited, or in a condition to be excited sexually". Her solution to the sexual double standard was for men to be continent. She condemned all anal and oral sexual acts, and also masturbation.

Excerpt from unnamed book

More than forty years later, Sarah Grimké (1838/1970) developed a similar critique of beauty and fashion in her Letters on the Equality of the Sexes. Women's fetish for fashion Grimké argued, was unnatural and harmful, and she too suggested that it corrupted the moral character of women. Grimké lamented that too many women "dressed like dolls" to attract the lustful "eye of man" (p.71). Clearly women could not heed their higher moral callings—whether in the home or as social reformers—if fashion and beauty standards reduced them to "pretty toys" (p. 47) or "mere instruments of pleasure" (p.25).

Unnamed excerpt from website.

[13] It is as one of the conditions of health that the question of dress becomes one of great importance. "There was a time in the history of man," says Carlyle, "when man was primary and his rags secondary, but times have sadly changed, clothes now make the man." I hope we are fast coming to that period in the history of woman when in her dress, health and freedom are to be the first considerations. As women are now rapidly asserting themselves in the world of work, an entire revolution in this respect is inevitable. A physiologist need but look at the forms of all our young girls to appreciate the violence done Nature in the small waists and constrained gait and manners of all we meet. Ordinarily a girl of fourteen is a healthy, happy, romping being, in short hair, short dress and clothes hung loosely on her shoulders, but as soon as her skirts trail and dress makers lace and tighten her clothes to form the waist as they say, a change takes place at once in her whole manner and appearance. She is moody, listless, weary, strolls when she should run, cries when she should laugh and this at the very age when she should manifest new power, vigor and enthusiasm. Much of this may be attributed to the many unnatural restraints placed on all girls, the indoor life and sedentary habits but more to her dress than any other one cause. The tight waist prevents a free circulation of the blood and action of the heart and lungs, contracts the ribs and paralyzes a belt of the nerves and muscles at least six inches in width round that part of the body. The long dress prevents all freedom of motion. When we remember that deep breathing has much to do with deep thinking we see the relation between scholarship and clothes. Girls by the style and material of their dress are practically debarred from outdoor exercise, and yet they need it as much as boys do and if well trained would enjoy it equally with them. Many a pleasant moonlight walk, or a sunset from the mountain top is sacrificed to a clean starched muslin dress or ruffled skirt, the greater often subordinated to the less, the girl forever to her clothes and the modern idea of what a woman's form should be. In looking at the beautiful paintings and statuary in the old world, I have often wondered where we moderns got our idea of the female form. It is certainly like nothing in Heaven above or the earth beneath, or the waters under the earth, for even to the mermaid is vouchsafed more breathing power than to the woman of the 19th century. None of the old artists have immortalized anything of the kind in marble or on canvas, and those of our times turn away in disgust from the daughters of Hancock and Adams to copy the Venus and Madonna of the past for the perfection of womanly grace and beauty.

How it worked: the golden ticket was to catch a trans woman being sodomized: easy felony. But travesty was typically a misdemeanor; three strikes and you're out. Jail made it difficult for trans women to hold jobs. Punishment was more severe if you were cispassing.


Article block quote

They hunt us down for fun. They don't want me to dress like a woman so I don't. I wear a dishdasha (traditional Kuwaiti male garment) now. I cut my hair short. After all that I was still arrested, beaten, and raped for having a smooth, feminine face. What can I do about my face?

–Amani, 24, Kwait City, February 8, 2011

A book excerpt on criminalisation of drag

Despite nineteenth-century protests, cross-dressing law persisted, remaining in force for more than one hundred years. San Francisco's Board of Supervisors did not remove the law from the municipal codebook until July 1974, and police continued to make arrests well into that decade. As late as May 1974 city police arrested ten people in the Tenderloin district for wearing women's clothing on bodies the law classified as male. When asked to comment, a police spokesperson stated that such arrests were common: "If I tried to track down every drag arrest that is all I would be doing."

Aurora (1873?-?) hairdresser, sex worker

Aurora arrived in Buenos Aires, from Paraguay, in the late 1890s.

He quickly drifted into prostitution, however was arrested only when found brawling in cafes, or when dressed as a female. He was persuaded to become a women's hair stylist, and as such found work in bordellos. He was arrested several times, but there was never enough evidence for a conviction.

One time Aurora was placed in 'preventative arrest' after clients at a costume ball in a bordello became angry in that she was too realistic as a woman.

Aurora life history was taken by Dr Francisco de veyga, and published in 1903. In it she asserts that she was born a marica. De Veyga avoided referring to Aurora as a prostitute: he called her a 'professional'. He regarded Aurora as having an acquired mental disorientation caused by a misunderstanding of female sexuality.

The Trial (unreferenced screenshot from online article)

On June 16, five days after Haslem's fateful meeting with Jones, the prisoner, charged with grand larceny, was tried for stealing Haslem's wallet and money. He was not prosecuted for "sodomy," apparently because he had not participated in anal intercourse.

The accused appeared in court, the Sun reported, "neatly dressed in female attire, and his head covered with a female wig," seemingly his outfit when arrested. Did the prisoner choose to be tried in female clothes? Or was this the court's doing? We do not know.

The spectacle of a cross-dressed black man, and of the victimized Haslem, the Herald reported, provided "the greatest merriment in the court, and his Honor the Recorder, the sedate grave Recorder laughed til he cried."

During the trial, the Sun reported, someone in the audience, "seated behind the prisoner's box, snatched the flowing wig from the head of the prisoner." This "excited a tremendous roar of laughter throughout the room." Do not we sense here a note of hysteria, suggesting submerged anxieties about sexuality, gender, and race, each highly charged emotionally and politically?

ii. "Mayhem" is the criminalization of trans women's bodies. I use the term for body modification which the Nation-State opposes. Our body mods made us, the Nation-State said, unfit for war—a bad thing, apparently. Accounts of trans women made fuss of prior military service.

Photograph of Christine Jorgensen holding newspaper front page from the Daily News feature on herself

The image features the headline "Ex-GI Becomes Blonde Beauty. Operations Transform Bronx Youth", with a photo of Christine Jorgensen in military uniform during her time serving.

Paperback cover for Roberta Cowell's Story

Blurb on the cover says "Here is the book that shocked the world. The true story of a man who became a woman, with a photo of the subject in military uniform as well as with a more feminine appearance.

Excerpt from An Inconvenient Woman

He knew something was different about him—he often awoke shrieking in terror, convinced that he was mandated for hell. He suspected homosexuality, but had no inkling of gender dysphoria. He suffered from a crippling body-image problem: he often skipped school because he couldn't stand to be looked at and wrote in his notebook over and over again, "I'm so ugly."

Sensing that to survive he needed to get away, Addams joined the Navy after high school and, ignoring his desires, served happily as a combat medic in Al-Jubail in Saudi Arabia during the gulf war. the other soldiers accepted him. But his recurring struggle with depression eventually led him to a Navy psychologist, who warned himup front not to discuss any issue that might get him shipped out on a gay discharge.

It wasn't until he finished his tour and returned to Nashville in 1994 that he visited his first gay bar—the Connection—and saw his first drag queens. "I just thought I had never seen anybody that pretty in real life before," Addams recalls. "And I couldn't hardly believe they were boys. And when I found that out, I thought, If they can do that, I can do that."

So famous modern trans women's surgeries took place in Nordic countries, to evade mayhem law. However, where trans cultures were not rich (and even then), we developed a practice of local body modification, between ourselves and on ourselves. This criminalized us.


Unlisted Screenshot

++In the early 1950s no British doctor would do an orchidectomy. Both Roberta Cowell and Dorothy Medway sought such. Roberta obtains hers from the about-to-qualify doctor Michael Dillon, and Dorothy went to the Netherlands.

Unlisted screenshot

Some prison treatments have been bizarre. One prisoner, denied oestrogen, implemented partial self-castration. The prison service completed removal of the testes and then agreed to administer sex hormones. However male hormones were given. Remarkably, this treatment was upheld as constitutional because it was not a total failure to provide medical attention. However, a court ordered another prison to..

Unlisted book screenshot

Others spiral downwards into depression and increased poverty, and support themselves as best they can by running errands, washing clothes, and cooking food for other travestis, who pay them small sums and let them eat some of the food they prepare. Still others generate income by performing specialized services such as silicone injections. In 1996, travestis who had good local reputations as bombadeiras, or "pumpers," could make a profit of more than 150 reais (about $150) for each liter they injected (see chapter 2). A final option for some older travestis is the most desirable: to have already earned enough money to purchase a house and perhaps a small bar or snack stand (uma barraca).

So self-castration was a criminal offense in the same sense that suicide was a criminal offense. More often it resulted in the individual being deemed mentally unfit to vote.

The most obvious recent case of this is voting rights for eunuchs in India.


Unreferenced screenshot of piece on hijra

"It happens in a dingy room, a 10 by 10 probably. Immediately after the castration, two hours, the hijra is asked to leave the place, because it is illegal," Aher says. "the operations are normally done by quacks, and a lot of hijras die because of that."

Hijras have long been discriminated against in jobs, housing, education and health care. They are routinely turned away from hospitals. Aher recalls being turned away by 17 hotels in a row while on a business trip in the Indian state of Kerala, which is thought to be more enlightened on gender attitudes than other states.

Eunuchs get voting rights in India

NEW DELHI, Nov. 7 -- More than 1.2 million eunuchs in India will now be able to cast their votes, an official said Monday. Eunuchs had been fighting for voting rights for more than ten years, a eunuch spokesman said.

'Our organization had been fighting for the rights of eunuchs for over a decade,' Khairati Lal Bhola, president of the All India Hijra Kalyan Sabha, told eunuchs to choose their own gender on voting polls, many eunuchs will vote for the first time. 'The majority of us have never exercised our voting right. in my 15 years in delhi I have never dared to approach a polling booth for the fear of being asked awkward question about my gender,' a eunuch said. India's election office has left it to the approximately 5,000 eunuchs in the capital to decide whether they want to be identified as men or women in the voting list. 'I am happy that my efforts have borne fruit. this rule will apply to all Indian eunuchs,' Bhola said. When queried, most eunuchs said they wanted to be identified as women on their identity cards. Eunuchs generally dress and behave like women, wearing saris, dresses, long hair, mascara and lipstick. Some even become prostitutes, Bhola said. Eunuchs held positions of power in India until the 19th century. They served as guardians of royal harems, tutors of concubines, messengers, spies and confidants. With the decline of the royal families and the emergence of independent India in 1947, eunuchs were ostracised by the society.

iii. "Identity" is the most common trans-essentialism of what trans "really is." Asserting female identity institutionalized trans women, because the Nation-State declared our identities made us mentally incompetent, and the mentally incompetent cannot vote.


Screenshot of Gay Flames interview with Sylvia Rivera

Image of Sylvia Rivera raising a fist, holding a placard saying "community control of BELLVUE".

(GAY FLAMES: Chris Thompson is a black male transvestite who went to Bellevue Hospital for treatment of his asthma. Because he was gay and a transvestite, he was transferred to the psychiatric wing, where he could be "kept under control." Chris has found brutality and ridicule at Bellevue, not medical attention and is now threatened with transfer to a state mental hospital, from which he might never return. STAR's Sylvia Rivera and GAA's Arthur Bell conducted an interview, a part of which is printed here.)

Q: Do you feel that you're being held prisoner here?

A: I feel that I am a prisoner and have been mistreated. They claim they are trying to help me but I dont think they are. I think they are just bull...just playing with me, just because of my homosexuality, wondering whether I want to have an operation, and asking me all these questions which doesn't concern them. They claim they're treating me because of my asthma. They said they thought I may have tuberculosis, so they did a biopsy and they found it was congestion of the chest. Then they told me they was going to send me home. I asked the doctor three weeks ago if I could have a pass that I could take care of finding housing, and seh said "No." And I asked why and she said "Because we can't let you out by yourself." She said she was going to ask for an attendant, but then she said she couldn't find no attendant that ould go with me.

Screenshot 2

Q: One of the things we'd like to know is how are the people around here—the doctors and the nurses and attendants?

A: Well, I only get funny cracks. They say you're still a man and they still are always low-rating me and saying funny little cracks and putting me down and making me feel bad all the time. I had a nurse get very nasty with me. She said "we've had faggots here before" and she treats me very nasty and snotty and she says, "Don't mess with the hand that feeds you." She's told me that I would never look as good as she looks, "so don't get your high horses up." I felt that she felt some jealousy, something against homosexuality and she got very evil with me. When I came into admitting office, I told the doctor I had congestion and asthma. Because of me wanting to be a woman so much, he asked me did I ever have a fear of cutting my penis off. I didn't tell him one way or the other, but on my record they have ti down that I have a fear of cutting my penis off, to become a woman. I want to become a woman that bad, so they asked me these questions—do I still have a fear of taking a razor and cutting my penis off and tI told them no, and if I did decide to have a sex change I would go through the legal procedures and go to the proper physicians and have it done.

Male and Female Created He Them by Thomas Szasz

June 10, 1979

IN the old days, when I was a medical student, if a man wanted to have his penis amputated, my psychology professors said that he suffered from schizophrenia, locked him up in an asylum and threw away the key. Now that I am a professor. my colleagues in psychiatry say that he is a "transsexual," my colleagues in urology refashion his penis into a perineal cavity they call a vagina, and Time magazine puts him on its cover and calls him "her." Anyone who doubts that this is progress is considered to be ignorant of the discoveries of modern psychiatric sexology, and a political reactionary, a sexual bigot, or something equally unflattering.


Voting histories are complicated. So-called "universal suffrage" (and "woman suffrage") has always been a local ideal, often a false one in practice, and never the reality. Here is a timeline for America.

1776 - Only land-owning men could vote.

1848 - Abolitionists and pro women's suffrage groups first meet and organize in Seneca Falls.

1856 - Vote granted to all white men.

1868 - 14th amendment grants African-Americans citizenship but not right to vote.

1870 - 15th Amendment prevents federal or state governments for denying the right to vote to citizens based on race.

1872 - Activists Susan B. Anthony and Soujourner Truth are arrested or turned away for trying to vote.

1890 - Wyoming becomes the first US state to grant women the right to vote.

1920 - 19th Amendment grants suffrage to women, but not all Native American and Asian women have citizenship.

1924 - Indian Citizenship Act is passed, giving Native Americans full citizenship, but many states still disenfranchise them at the polls.

1952 - McCarran-Walter Act grants all Asian-Americans the right to become citizen and to vote.

1961 - 23rd Amendment gives DC residents the right to vote for presidents, but not Congressional representation.

1965 - Congress passes the Voting Rights Act, removing the discriminatory barriers that kept many people of color from voting.

1971 - Voting age is lowered from 21 to 18 in light of the Vietnam War to ensure that those old enough to fight could vote.

1993 - National Voter Registration Act is passed, making it easier to register at DMVs and public assistance centers.

2000 - A federal court ruled that citizens of US territories like Puerto Rico and Guam cannot vote in federal elections.

Northern California Citzenship Project

But from a purely legalistic standpoint, trans women have never been guaranteed the right to vote & will remain in franchise jeopardy as long as our womanhood (or, for that matter, manhood) is in a state of primary emergency.

At a push, I would accept that trans women receive the right to vote when the State, already guaranteeing woman suffrage, creates legal pathways for authenticating genders which are trans.


Because of very real historical differences in power, trans women's suffrage is unlike woman suffrage. We cannot depend on a singular law unless that law is for felons, disabled, etc. Instead we create vectors for decarceration, declinicalization, etc.

A good example of this is that some American cities still have travesty laws on the books, but now go unenforced for trans women. Such easing creates a situation of suffrage precarity which can only see complete resolution by abolition of the prison & mental institution system.

Finally, I do think an important way transness differs from many oppressed groups is that being trans, whatever that precisely means, is more immediately criminal. That some trans women get away from this has to do with de facto social privilege, not legal entitlement.

Inset "Be Gay Do Crime" meme


Not a question, but cis women always had suffrage any time they wanted, if they fooled others into believing they were men. Repeat after me: the closet is not a privilege. It is oppression.


Out of my purview, and because there's real historical and social differences in power. This is most clearly demonstrated by the relatively heavy presence of transmasculinity in early woman suffrage.

Travesty was used most severely against trans women. Mayhem did not apply to trans men, whose relevant oppression was more accurately having their very real military service complicated and erased.


Yeah, a lot. But here are a few final notes for things you might think about:

6a. Often it seems easy here to express trans women's oppression as occurring because we are male. I invite you to expand your political imagination by considering how it is because we are female: for example, there were also once routine assertions that cis women are failed men.

6b. I distinguished them because suffrage is a specifically legal question, but mental hospitalization & criminality are deeply intertwined. In particular, mental hospitalization often codes feminine while criminality codes masculine, but coding the same thing.

6c. My construction of transgender bodies as modified bodies attaches us to radical body modification communities who also have deep attachments to criminality under the Nation-State. I think particularly of Genesis P-Orridge, involved in the book Modern Primitives.

Cover for RESearch Modern Primitives

Genesis and Paula P-Orridge highlighted as notable interviewees and essayists in the field of body modification

Genesis P-Orridge's Wikipedia Biography with highlighted quote: "P-Orridge identifies as third gender".

6d. From the Roman republic to 26th amendment, voting entitlements have everything to do with whether or not you will fight in your nation's war. Mayhem law is directly connected to suffrage in this important sense.

6e. A lot of this analysis has been inspired by work in black feminism, especially Angela Davis and Tourmaline.

Thanks for reading & feel free to critique or ask questions.