transwomen beauty history

People • Perspective

The Ongoing Legacy of Trans Women in Beauty

From rights protests to slaying dancefloors and runways, trans women have a unique place in beauty history.

The beauty industry — and our culture at large — owes a debt to trans women. Their legacy runs deep; from historical figures like Marsha P. Johnson who unabashedly owned their platforms to actors and activists like Laverne Cox and Indya Moore continue to bring visibility to the rights of trans and nonbinary communities through acting, modeling, and speaking out.

Today, influencers like Junior Mintt, Nikkie Tutorials, and even 12-year-old Zaya Wade are carrying on that work — making direct contributions both to beauty and trans advocacy. In honor of International Women's Day, we're highlighting trans women both past and present who have made their marks.

Frances Thompson

Though William Dorsey Swann might have been the self-identified “Queen of Drag” at Washington D.C. balls, Frances Thompson is credited with being one of the earliest known transwomen in America alongside Mary Jones (born 1803). She was born into slavery in 1840 but gained freedom by age 26. In that same year, a group of seven white men targeted Thompson and her roommate during the Memphis Riots of 1866. After testifying about the events in public court alongside almost 200 other people, she endured heightened scrutiny over her lifestyle and gender identity. 10 years later, she was arrested for “cross-dressing” and forced to wear masculine-presenting clothes while in prison. 

Her story represents the sadly similar experience that many modern transwomen go through — especially those who speak up about inequitable police brutality, hate crimes, and racism. Dressing how you want to is a crucial part of feeling like yourself.

Marsha P. Johnson

Trans rights came to the fore of cultural awareness with the 1969 Stonewall Uprising. Johnson, alongside others like Sylvia Rivera, launched a six-day protest against transphobic practices by the NYC police. The two went on to found the first youth and LGBTQ+ shelter (STAR House) in the U.S. operated by trans women of color.

Though she often used she/her as pronouns, Johnson also identified as male sometimes. This has led many to place her on the nonbinary spectrum while still counting her as a historic hero of the trans community. Johnson dedicated her life to helping members of the LGBTQ+ community, navigating the AIDS crisis with grace, compassion, and unwavering commitment.

Angie Xtravaganza

The documentary “Paris is Burning” tells the stories of drag queens and trans people in 1980s New York City ball culture. Angie Xtravaganza, a house mother featured in the documentary, welcomed transwomen and gay men into her house to give them a safe place and home. Alongside other house mothers like Pepper LaBeija, Xtravaganza brought notoriety to the inherent discrimination in the ballroom scene.

Thanks to shows like Pose, many more people know how integral the ballroom scene was to crafting fashion and makeup trends of the 1980s and 1990s. Xtravaganza, while being legendary and fierce, had an inner peace no one could steal from her. “I have no regrets…,” she said. “No drag queen has carried herself the way I have. I’m not a beauty, but I’ve got class.”

Nikki de Jagger a.k.a. NikkieTutorials

Many trans beauty influencers have begun to be more open about their transition stories. Gigi Gorgeous, Maya Henry, and many others are very open about their experiences. However, trans people and other members of the LGBTQ+ community face a constant threat cis people never will: being outed against their will.

This very thing happened to popular beauty YouTuber Nikkie de Jagger a.k.a. NikkieTutorials in 2020. She started her channel in 2008 and now has 13.9 million subscribers with collaborations with many makeup brands and celebrities like Adele and Megan Thee Stallion. She covers everything from how to apply liquid lipstick to makeup reviews and more. 

An unknown person threatened to “out her” as trans to the world in 2020, so de Jagger took control of the situation, explaining everything in a video. While her gender identity is her business, she couldn’t stand by and be exploited. Now, she stands among other trans voices in the beauty community to empower young trans people to embrace identity on their own terms.

Aaron Rose Philip

Intersectionality is critical when discussing the issues that members of the LGBTQ+ community face. White transwomen do not face the same discrimination that transwomen of color face. Furthermore, able-bodied people do not encounter the same problems that disabled people do. Aaron Rose Philip, a disabled transgender model, is working to raise awareness about their experiences.

At just 14, Philip published her memoir called This Kid Can Fly: It’s About Ability (Not Disability) detailing her life with cerebral palsy. She came out as a transwoman in 2018 and was the first model to ever work the runway in a wheelchair for a mainstream luxury fashion brand (Moschino) in 2022.

She also uses her Instagram to bring visibility to black trans women in need. She works alongside other trans models like Chella Man, Hunter Schafer, Laith Ashley, and Hari Nef.

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