HRC Honors Frances Thompson, a Black Transgender Hero

by HRC Staff

Post submitted by Violet Lhant, HRC Public Education and Research Coordinator

This post is the first of a two-part series focusing on Black History Month through the lens of Black trans women. Read Part Two here.

Content Warning: The following post contains descriptions of historical violence.

This Black History Month, the Human Rights Campaign affirms its stance that LGBTQ history and Black history are inextricably linked. In fact, the intersection of Black and transgender liberation in America can be traced to centuries past. In acknowledgement of our Black LGBTQ ancestors, we are highlighting Frances Thompson, an incredible American who is believed to be the first transgender person to testify before Congress.

Thompson was a formerly enslaved Black woman who lived in Memphis, Tennessee, after the Civil War. On May 1, 1866, an event known as “The Memphis Massacre” occurred when white police officers harassed a group of Black men, women and children who were holding a street party. The group included Union Army veterans, and many refused to obey unjust orders to disperse. When police attempted to arrest the veterans, three days of violence broke out as white terrorists killed Black people, raped Black women and set fires to Black homes and businesses.

The toll of the attacks was devastating: an estimated 46 Black people were killed, many more became victims of assault and robberies and a series of arsons led to the destruction of four Black churches, four Black schools and 91 other dwellings. During the attacks, Thompson and her friend Lucy Smith were raped by members of the white mob. In the aftermath, a Congressional committee was formed to investigate the massacre, and Thompson was invited to testify.

In a conversation with transgender activist and scholar Susan Stryker, historian Channing Joseph recounted Thompson’s testimony. He called Thompson "one of the linchpins in getting the political will together to pass legislation to protect the civil rights of newly emancipated Black people and also to bring political will behind Reconstruction after the Civil War." The aftermath of the Memphis Massacre and the New Orleans Massacre of 1866 led to a repudiation of President Andrew Johnson’s attempts to deny civil rights for Black Americans. Instead, support for “Radical Reconstruction” boomed, leading to the Reconstruction Acts, the Enforcement Acts and the Fourteenth Amendment, which together extended citizenship, civil rights and political representation to Black Americans.

Unfortunately, Thompson’s story did not end there. In 1876, 10 years after the Memphis Massacre, she was arrested on charges of “crossdressing.” Her transgender status was subsequently discovered and opponents of Radical Reconstruction used her identity to discredit not only her testimony, but the early civil rights movement. Thompson was imprisoned, forced to wear masculine-presenting clothing and was abused while part of the city’s chain gang. Upon her release, she suffered dysentery and died a few months later.

Thompson’s fate mirrors the transphobic violence incarcerated Black trans women still face today. This is seen in cases like Lea Rayshon Daye, a Black trans woman who last year left a letter detailing the horrible conditions of her imprisonment before her unjust death. Incarcerated trans women, many of whom are charged for consensual sex work, are often placed in men's prisons where they experience high rates of sexual assault from the other inmates and retaliation from correctional officers.

Thompson’s story is a lesson for our times. In 2021, Black Americans are still subject to systemic racism and police brutality. Last year, HRC recorded a record number of violent fatalities of transgender and gender non-conforming people, the majority of them Black trans women. Attempts to curb Black political power have also taken the form of attacks on the Voting Rights Act of 1965. That’s why we must ensure the passage of the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, which would restore the Voting Rights Act and prevent voter discrimination.

Thomspon’s story is one of many early transgender stories Stryker recounts in HBO’s “The Lady and the Dale.” (Watch HRC President Alphonso David’s interview with Zackary Drucker, the filmmaker behind the docuseries.)

HRC is dedicated to advancing full, intersectional liberation. That’s why this Black History Month we choose to honor Frances Thompson, a Black transgender hero who fought for a more just, more equitable and more emancipated America.