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The Legacy Of Sir Lady Java

This week is Transgender Awareness Week and, despite how alarming the queer political climate is, a lot good stuff has been happening.

Tinder announced more gender diversity for users. Google launched a film series highlighting trans changemakers. And HBO released a teaser for their upcoming identity doc, The Trans List. It’s been a great week for highlighting the lives, experiences, and work of many trans individuals.

One story that caught my attention on Tumblr was the story of a trans performer who I had never heard of: Sir Lady Java. Java is an iconic figure who was once advertised as the “The World’s Greatest Female Impersonator.” She was a Los Angeles based, New Orleans born performer who became somewhat of a Hollywood darling. More than this, she was a trans civil rights activist who fought to be herself.

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As Division Leap explains, Java was a pretty big deal as an entertainer in the 1960s and 1970s but attracted unwanted attention because of her identity.

Sir Lady Java was an associate of Redd Foxx, and performed regularly in LA Clubs. In 1967 the LAPD decided to enforce Rule 9, which prohibited performers from “impersonating” another sex. Sir Lady Java picketed, and received national press in JET, and the Advocate.

This led Java to earn a bittersweet title: the first transgender performer to be backed by the ACLU.

The relationship between Java and the organization was pretty perfect, where they fought for her and she accordingly protested and picketed, creating a larger conversation around the issue she and her community face. Java was unsuccessful in her fight since no club owner would stand up for her but her situation paved the way for the Rule 9 law to change. Her fight enabled Los Angeles trans persons to be able to express themselves accordingly. (And it’s a reminder that ridiculous laws like banning the “impersonation” of another sex once existed…and likely still exist in some slow parts of the country.)

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Atop of this, Java was a legitimate performer. She could certainly steal attention and even landed a role in a 1976 movie called The Human Tornado. While many people give entertainers shit for getting political, Java’s story is a reminder that being out, being yourself, and being a representative for people like you makes a difference.

People like Sir Lady Java represent trans tales untold, people who are a part of American and queer history that rarely get the due they’re deserved. Java is certainly someone to hold close to your heart this week as a reminder to do you and to do your duty in changing the world. Have a great Transgender Awareness Week!

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