Dawn Langley Hall lived a life of crossing boundary lines. She was born out of wedlock on an English estate in the 1920s, reportedly the child of the household chauffeur and a teenage servant (who is sometimes described as being “from a high social class”). Dawn was born with ambiguous genitalia and was assigned male sex at birth (she was named “Gordon” at the time). Despite that designation, and despite living the first decades of her life as a male, she always insisted that she was female.
In 1946, Dawn (then “Gordon”) emigrated to Canada, taught on an Ojibway reservation, became a journalist and later a very successful writer of biographies. She eventually moved to Charleston, South Carolina where there was a large gay population.
In 1968, Dawn underwent gender confirming surgery, one of the first in America. It’s at this point that she changed her name to Dawn. In 1969 Dawn married an African-American man, John-Paul Simmons. This was the first documented interracial marriage in Charleston.
A few years later, Dawn gave birth to a girl (though there is some conflicting information about whether this was actually her biological child). This created further outrage for the White citizens of Charleston. Her house was broken into, and she was badly beaten. A year later, her husband beat her. Dawn relocated to New York. At that same time, her husband was placed in a mental institution.
Dawn continued to support her husband and daughter with the limited earnings from her writings. She became active in her church. Those who reviled Dawn gradually began to see her in a different light.
Dawn was an icon for expanding our notions of gender identity. As a child, Dawn never identified as a male. When she underwent her gender-confirming surgery, many of those whom she called friends abandoned her. She paid the price not only for her transition, but also for her interracial marriage. Still, she did not give up on what she considered her true identity. Perhaps even more importantly, she did not let rejection by others lead to bitterness. She continued to write throughout the tribulations in her life.
Transgender rights continue to be a cultural and political issue in the US over 50 years after Dawn’s surgery. Like many cultural issues, the framing of transgender rights has been distorted by a backlash against inclusivity. While transgender individuals are far more likely to be victims of violence compared to cisgender individuals, they are portrayed by opponents of transgender rights as predators who must be feared.
Just imagine what it would be like to be forced to live a life within a gender identity that is not your own. Just imagine the challenges of changing your outward identity to match your authentic self—and then being targeted and ostracized for doing just that. Just imagine what it’s like to have your rights of free and equal participation in society denied just because you are trying to become the person you truly are. What if we became a society that welcomed people to live as their true selves in all their diversity?
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“I’m saying goodbye to people’s perception of me and who I am, I’m not saying goodbye to me, because this has always been me.”—Caitlyn Jenner (media personality and former Olympian)
This is part of our “Just Imagine” series of occasional posts, inviting you to join us in imagining positive possibilities for a citizen-centered democracy.