Iconic Women

The Extraordinary Journey of Transgender Icon, Frances Thompson

By Aisha Kabiru Mohammed | Jun 7, 2023

This pride month, it is important to know the stories of the queer women who fought against discrimination and inequality women like Frances Thompson, a formerly enslaved transgender woman, anti-rape activist and the first Trans woman to testify in front of the US Congress for the congressional committee that investigated the Memphis riots of 1866.

On May 1, 1866, "The Memphis Massacre” happened 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.

Despite the inequities of slavery, some of which included slaves being denied the right to their bodies, Frances's narrative serves as an example of a Black woman taking back control of her body. She appealed for justice before the US Congress at a time when free Black women had regular access to legal representation, particularly when facing the assaults of white men.

In a dialogue published by Mills performing arts college between Susan Stryker, Trans rights activist and Historian and Journalist Channing Joseph. Joseph describes Thompson as "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."

Frances was born in Alabama In 1840, she was born into slavery and was assigned the male gender at birth. At 26, she was a free woman living in a Black neighbourhood in Memphis, Tennessee. She lived openly as a woman, worked as a launderette, kept her face clean-shaven, and wore vibrantly coloured outfits.

On May 1st 1866 an altercation between white policemen and a group of black people including veterans led to gunshots and a mob of white men and policemen looting and robbing the houses in that area by the next two days. 

These events came to be known as the Memphis Riots or the Memphis massacre of 1866 White men who questioned Frances and Lucy Smith's allegiance with Union soldiers attacked their homes during the riots. The men ordered that Frances and Lucy Smith prepare them food, and they complied, Frances would later testify during the congressional committee. 

Frances ignored the men's demand for a "woman to sleep with" after which they gang-raped both Frances and Lucy and took their money. Two police officers were among the white men that attacked the women. 

During a committee hearing, Frances and 170 other women and men spoke before the US Congress about the terror, murder, rape, fire, and theft they endured during the riots. Frances said in her testimony that she and her flatmate, Lucy did not consent. 

Following the hearing, Frances's testimony spread throughout the South, raising awareness of her gender identification and resulting in 10 years of persecution. She had to deal with harassment as well as unreasonable allegations, such as the one that she owned a brothel.

Frances was sentenced to jail time and a $50 fine in July 1876 for "cross-dressing." She was made to go through a number of medical exams, and four of them "confirmed" that her "biological sex" was male. She claimed to be a lady. Her arrest as a "man dressed in women's clothing" gave conservatives fodder to refute her account of being raped during the riots ten years earlier. 

This sparked a more extensive effort to combat white racial terror against black people in the South. Frances's identity was also used to refute charges of rape by white males made by other black women, and it was implied that the entire congressional report Frances had testified in was nothing more than contrived propaganda for Reconstruction.

After being detained for "cross-dressing," she was condemned to the city's chain gang, where she was made to wear men's clothing and mistreated while doing her time. After being released, Frances relocated to North Memphis, but she passed away the same year as her arrest. She was taken to a hospital after being determined to be critically unwell, where she passed away from dysentery.

Frances was physically male, according to coroner's reports, but press accounts said that several Memphis residents believed she was intersex and that she had mentioned that she was “double sex”  Frances’s life in 1800 racially segregated America, was a protest. 

Her decision to live freely and openly as a transwoman at the time was not just a refusal and rejection of Cis-gender norms but also a reclamation of her body as a queer black woman. In the same vein, her life mirrors the historic violence and erasure of Trans and queer black women and their Identities. 

HIDDEN - to trigger update. rm later