The term transgender is an umbrella term that refers to people whose gender identity differs from the sex they were assigned at birth. While trans people are often viewed as a single demographic, those who make up this population may not self- identify with different sexual or gender identities nor desire sexual reassignment surgery, as is commonly believed. This means that labeling of trans people can be at times erroneous, which further builds on the layers of misunderstanding around the way in which much of the world views this historically marginalized group.
Adding to the adversity that trans people have traditionally faced is the denial of their rights under laws that exclude or fail to protect them altogether, all over the world. Some places like New York City have implemented laws that make it illegal to discriminate against transgendered students, and the Netherlands has recently passed a law allowing transgender people to adjust their preferred gender on their legal papers. Yet, these steadily progressive routes pale in comparison to the large-scale discrimination and even violence inflicted on the transgender community.
Numerous institutions, from academic, religious, to medical care providers execute less than fair or progressive considerations toward this underrepresented group. Social stigmas keep the transgender population from attaining equal opportunities for health care, housing, employment, and schooling. Often, the discrimination is so extensive that the impediment on their social and political rights results in poverty, sickness, and even death. According to the Ryan White HIV/AIDS Program, poor access to medical care in the U.S., increases the risk of HIV for transgendered individuals.
But despite the odds, trans people prove to have what it takes not only to be who they are amidst hate and oppression, but to be innovators and leaders. As the individuals listed here show, trans people have reached positions of influence with careers as supermodels, artists, entertainers, politicians, academics, medical practitioners, and advocates for LGBT rights, to name a few. People like these, who push past the boundaries of injustice, show how success is not defined by ‘what’ a person is, but who.
10 Anna Grodzka
Anna Grodzka, born in 1954, is a Polish politician who is currently the only openly transgender member of Parliament in the world. She was elected to the Polish Sejm in 2011. Along with her duties as an MP, Anna also advocates for transgender rights in Poland. Part of her goal of having a leadership position is to speak out against the violence and discrimination trans people face. She writes on the difficulty of having a voice for transgender rights: “I think this is because although on an individual level we are often all too visible, as a social group our voice is rarely heard.”
9 Eli Erlick
Eli Erlick, born in 1995, is the youngest person in North America to receive sexual reassignment surgery. She is the director of Trans Student Equality Resources, an organization that she founded in 2011, which advocates for the improvement of the educational environment for transgender students. As a transgender activist and public speaker, Eli aids school districts in adopting transgender-inclusive policies nationwide.
8 Amanda Lepore
Amanda Lepore, born in 1967, is an American nightlife icon, professional model, and reported muse to the internationally renowned commercial and fine arts photographer, David LaChapelle. She is a well-loved transgender public figure and has modeled for well-known fashion and cosmetic lines, like MAC Cosmetics. Adding to her varied career in the entertainment industry, Amanda is also a recording artist and released her first album in 2011.
7 Lea T
Lea T, born in 1981, is an internationally celebrated Brazilian fashion model who has been featured on numerous high fashion magazine covers including Vogue Paris and Interview. Lea reached fame as the beautiful face of Givenchy Haute Couture in 2010. She is known as one of the world’s top fashion models and is an iconic pop culture figure of the 21st century.
6 Lana Wachowski
5 Aya Kamikawa
Aya Kamikawa, born in 1968, is Japan’s only openly transgender official. Aya is a member of the Setagaya Ward assembly in Tokyo and was elected in 2003; she revealed herself to be a transsexual before running for office. She pursued a career in politics so that she could better give a voice to sexual minorities in Japan. Aya holds that it's imperative to give recognition to transgender individuals, stating, “If we do not raise our voices, people deem us as non-beings.”
4 Stephen Whittle
Stephen Whittle, born in 1955 is a British writer, educator, lawyer, and transgender activist. He is the founder of Press for Change, a campaign organization that strives to protect the rights and secure the welfare of trans people in the UK. For over three decades, Stephen has dedicated his life to developing social and legal recognition of the transgender community. Through writing, teaching, and mentoring, Stephen has had international influence in his lifelong campaign for change.
3 Marci Bowers
Marci Bowers was born in 1958 and is an American gynecological surgeon in sexual reassignment surgery. She is considered a pioneer in transgender surgery and is also the first trans woman to practice in the field. Marci performs an average of 130 gender confirmation surgeries yearly.
2 Sally Mursi
Sally Mursi, born in 1966, was the first legally accepted male to female transsexual in Egypt. Sally was expelled during her fourth year at the most prestigious Islamic university in Egypt, al-Azhar Medical School, after undergoing sexual reassignment surgery. The female-only university upheld religiously based policies against co-education and since it did not recognize Sally as a man nor woman she was expelled.
Sally was lawfully considered a woman after her sexual reassignment surgery and received all appropriate documentation. It was because of this that the Egyptian government filed a suit against the university, inciting an ongoing legal dispute that served to highlight the battle between governmental and religious authority in the country. The suit acknowledged Sally for her preferred sex and made public her transgender struggle, something unprecedented in the country until then.
1 Brandon Teena
Brandon Teena was born in 1972 and was tragically beaten, sexually assaulted, and killed in 1994. His story was retold in the 1999 Academy-award winning film, Boys Don’t Cry starring Hilary Swank. After Brandon was ‘discovered’ to be anatomically female by friends of his girlfriend, Brandon was brutally beaten and raped in Lincoln, Nebraska. He was killed soon after he filed a report of the incident with the Lincoln Sheriff’s office. His murder received much media attention and set off public outrage, increasing lobbying for hate crime laws in the U.S. His story touched many and brought to light the cruel reality of violence against the LGBT community. His influence continues to live on today.