Life

Barbara Ann Richards Designed—and Then Demanded—the Life She Deserved

In the 1940s, a young interior decorator fought California for recognition of her gender and her name. This is how she won.

A corkboard of pinned images, including a photo of Barbara Ann Richards at center, a few fabric patterns, and a Los Angeles Superior Court document
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Los Angeles Times Photographic Archive, Library Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library, UCLA, the Superior Court of Los Angeles County, and Getty Images Plus.

This piece is part of Outward, Slate’s home for coverage of LGBTQ life, thought, and culture. Read more here.

On July 1, 1941, a 29-year-old interior decorator walked into a Los Angeles courthouse and filed a request that vanishingly few law clerks would have processed before: As a part of her gender transition, she wanted to change her name on her legal documents.

The applicant, named Barbara Ann Richards, was a woman, but the state of California still classified her as a man, and her birth certificate listed a traditionally masculine name she no longer claimed as her own. Richards explained to the court that she had undergone, by her own description, a physical metamorphosis. She had “always lived and worked as a man until about two years ago,” at which point, she said, “I realized that some vital physiological change was taking place.”

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Without warning, her beard—which she used to shave twice a day—stopped growing. Her voice changed pitch. “I began to observe that my skin had become smoother, that the shape of my face was different, my waist was smaller, my hips heavier, my throat smaller,” she said in her testimony. Accompanying those unexplained physical changes were psychological ones as well: She said she started gravitating more toward cooking and housework. She stopped reading Esquire, she said, and switched over to Ladies’ Home Journal.

The previous October, as World War II loomed, Richards had gone to register for the draft, but the Selective Service System turned her away. The government classified her as “4-F,” a designation for people “unfit” for the military that was commonly applied to homosexuals. Richards told the court that, after the selective service rejection, “I decided that I was, in every essential way, a woman, and I was determined that in justice to myself I should petition the court for feminine status.”

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Her lawyer, a newly minted family law attorney named Chester B. Anderson, paraded out experts who offered medical explanations for Richards’ story. An endocrinologist named Marcus Graham, who claimed to have examined Barbara for an American Psychiatric Association conference, speculated that a childhood illness might have been the cause of her so-called metamorphosis. “Such diseases as mumps have been known to cause destruction of important male characteristics,” Graham said. Although rare, “it is possible through an illness to lose the predominating male characteristics.”

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The next day, when the Associated Press published a report on the hearing, Barbara Ann Richards became an international sensation. Newspapers from the New York Daily News to Texas’ the Odessa American splashed photos of her in red lipstick and a skirt across their front pages, her curly hair spilling onto her forehead. Most articles seized on the baffling spontaneity of Richards’ transition. Delaware’s the News Journal called it a “strange metamorphosis”; the Salt Lake Telegram wrote that it was a “caprice of nature.” The Los Angeles Times interviewed a pair of endocrinologists to make sense of the case. The two noted that examples of spontaneous sex change were “extremely rare” and most transitions happened during surgery—but both doctors did, curiously, leave open the possibility that a person’s sex could supposedly change without warning.

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In reality, Richards’ situation was not entirely mysterious: She was taking female hormones, a fact that she let slip—and quickly downplayed—in later hearings. But at the time, the concept of transitioning was still so new to most Americans that the press was willing to take her story at face value. Although a small handful of people had undergone gender transitions before Richards—the Danish painter Lili Elbe had received one of the earliest reported gender-affirming surgeries over a decade prior, in 1930—the concept wasn’t yet mainstream. The word transsexual, a precursor to transgender, didn’t even make its first appearance in English until 1949.

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By petitioning for legal status, Barbara Ann Richards was doing something radical. When the court eventually approved her petition, she became one of the first Americans to successfully change her name on legal documents following a transition. Yet she has, with a few exceptions, been left out of the popular historical record.

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Her case is especially remarkable given how regressive laws around birth certificate changes remain today. Even eight decades after Richards’ case, one state, Tennessee, does not allow trans people to change the gender marker listed on their birth certificates (it only allows such changes on driver’s licenses), and it can be an incredibly difficult process—often involving a court order—even in states that technically allow it. Richards’ story, which I’m reconstructing here through a mix of newspaper archives, a copy of her original court filing, and a first-person magazine interview she gave, illustrates just how nonlinear queer history can be. In the 1940s, trans identity was still so new to Americans that there wasn’t yet an organized legal backlash like the one we see today. In fact, though the first half of the 20th century was certainly not easy for queer people, the public’s general naïveté about the nuances of sex and gender actually made space for at least some trans people to win approval in both the legal system and in the public sphere.

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In truth, Barbara Ann Richards had felt a pull toward femininity long before her supposed metamorphosis. She was born to a well-off family in Salem, Massachusetts, on April 1, 1912. Her father, Henry O. Richards, was a wholesale merchant in the leather industry, according to the 1910 census. Her mother, Jennie P. Enos, was the daughter of a public school teacher. Richards recalled that, though her father wanted a boy to carry on the family name, her mother secretly hoped for a girl. “It seems she got her wish,” Richards said in a November 1941 Sensation magazine essay, the only first-person account of her life, which is currently held in archives at the Kinsey Institute at Indiana University. “But not at once.”

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When she was 5, Richards suffered a bout of spinal meningitis that left her hospitalized for months. She had frequent nightmares. Even after her recovery, she said her body felt weak; it was then Barbara first recognized that she wasn’t living up to the masculine standards her family had set out for her. Once, when her father bought her a mechanical building set, she burst into tears because she’d wanted a dollhouse instead.

“I do know how cruel, how insensitive even adults can be about a boy whose strength and energy isn’t up to their preconceived notions of what it should be,” she told Sensation. Although her mother protected her, her father—whom Richards called a “most unhappy man”—began pushing back. Richards’ father enrolled her in all-boys private schools, with the hope that the “association might influence me.” But Richards was miserable there. She didn’t get along with the other kids. She hated playing sports. Mostly, she kept to herself.

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By the time she turned 13, her parents separated. She started high school at a prep school in Boston called the Huntington School for Boys, but in 1929, her mother moved her to Southern California.

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When Richards transferred schools, her life changed. In Los Angeles, she was, for the first time, popular. She made friends with boys, started dating girls—“I liked them pretty,” she said—and took to chain-smoking pipes, which she considered a “defiant symbol of virility.” She still sensed that there was more to uncover about herself. With her female friends, “I was more of a girl friend to the girls,” she said. In school plays, she often took on female roles. But she didn’t allow herself to give this too much thought.

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In 1931, she enrolled at Pomona College, a liberal arts school just outside of the city. She decided to go to college to appease her mom, who hoped she’d become a schoolteacher. But by 1932, Richards realized the university wasn’t for her, and she dropped out. She started teaching at Sunday school, then quit to work in sales before eventually switching to interior decorating.

To reporters, she claimed she first noticed her metamorphosis in 1939. “I had strange aches and pains, and longings I couldn’t interpret,” she said. At first, the feelings confused her. Only later did she recognize that “the torrents that raked my body were not natural. They were years of repression coming alive, demanding their just due.”

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A year later, Richards was attending a friend’s party—featuring an eclectic group of writers, intellectuals, and models—when she spotted a person watching the scene from the corner. The person was a few years older than Richards, with chestnut hair and clear eyes. Richards asked them to dance. They rebuffered her, but said, “You’re not quite like these people, so you may sit down here with me.”

By that point, people still perceived Richards as a man, and the other person—though he didn’t identify that way, and would later take the name Richard Wilcox—was perceived as a woman. The two had an instant connection. Over the next three hours, Barbara confessed everything, including her concerns about her gender, and by the time they were driving home together, Richards asked Wilcox to marry her. Within a few weeks, they eloped to Yuma, Arizona, a city along the California border with lax marriage laws, where a pastor formally wed them on Nov. 18, 1940.

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Wilcox pushed Richards to see a doctor about her gender. When Richards agreed, the doctor tested her hormone levels and told her that her gender was “inconclusive” but encouraged her to present as a man anyway. Marriage, the doctor said, sometimes helped cure cases like hers. But over time, even after marrying Wilcox, Richards said, “I began to walk, to talk, to think like a woman.” It was Wilcox who told Richards to ask for her gender to be formally recognized on legal documents.

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The resulting petition justified Barbara’s need for a gender transition with the following:

The petitioner is what is commonly known as a hermaphrodite, that when he was born his male characteristics were predominant, and he was reared as a male person, but that of late years a transition has been taking place and is still continuing, causing his female characteristics to become predominant, and that now he finds it exceedingly difficult to pass as a male.

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After the legal filing made international headlines, Richards didn’t shy from the press. When the New York Daily News asked her if she was perturbed by her transition, she replied: “I like being a woman. I’ve been told that there is no possibility of me becoming a man again, but even if there were, I shouldn’t wish it.”

On July 4, just three days after she filed her petition, she welcomed a group of reporters into her small apartment on Sunset Boulevard. With her legs folded in elegant ease, she showered them with details about her budding relationship to femininity. At one point, Richards took a drag of her cigarette. “I’ve wondered if smoking was one reason for my deep voice,” she said. “But I think I used to deepen my voice, somehow, in some subconscious self-defense motive.” She said she felt strange having to relay intimate details of her bodily changes to the court and, by extension, to the group of male journalists gathered before her, but “I guess it’s just like having a tooth pulled—might as well get it over with,” she said.

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Richards’ initial court filing hadn’t mentioned that she was married. Her lawyer claimed he didn’t even know about it. But when reporters visited her apartment, Richards revealed she had married Wilcox the prior November, sparking another wave of frenzied headlines. The subtext: If the California court recognized her as a woman, then that would mean two people who society viewed as women would be in a legal marriage. Sensing the unease, Richards added, “I suppose we shall have to get an annulment now, but I hope we shall always be very good friends.” Secretly, though, they had no plans to stop living together. “We stay together because we need each other,” Richards later told Sensation.

Over the course of the summer, Richards showed up to court for a series of hearings. In one, Judge Emmet H. Wilson asked her about her marriage to Wilcox. “I could not help noting from the publicity given this case that the petitioner was married not very long ago,” the judge said. “Could that be explained?”

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Richards also brought in a doctor named Hugh Kersten to testify on her behalf, affirming that she was a woman. But when Kersten was not able to say for certain whether her physical changes were permanent, Wilson postponed a decision until the court could see more evidence.

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The court adjourned for the month. In October, when Richards shuffled back into the courtroom, she brought her mom with her. Richards’ mother testified that she had been this way since childhood. After Richards turned 4, her mother said, “from then on every outlook has been feminine.” In this hearing, another one of Richards’ doctors, who went unnamed, admitted that she was taking hormones, but he said it was only to “stabilize her condition.”

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Finally, the judge ruled that Barbara could now be known as Barbara Ann on all of her legal documents. “There is no reasonable objection to petitioner assuming the name proposed,” the judge wrote in his filing. His ruling, however, made no mention of Richards’ gender marker, and it’s unclear whether that changed as well (though later documents, including her death certificate, listed her as a woman).

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The ensuing headlines—“Court Rules ‘Man’ Who Changed Sex Is Now a Woman” and “He’s Now a She”—played up the shock value of the case for an American public that lacked fluency in the nuances of gender identity. But what is notable is ultimately how ordinary Richards’ case proved to be. Despite the publicity, there was no big backlash. Politicians did not rally against the ruling or characterize it as some kind of moral transgression. I couldn’t find a single angry editorial or letter to the editor in response to the ruling. People were willing to accept at face value that Richards was a woman. And days later, they apparently forgot about it.

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True to their word, after Richards won her case, Wilcox filed to annul their marriage. The case lasted a little over a month and featured rare testimony from Wilcox, who told the court that, upon meeting Richards at that apartment party, Wilcox “took a fancy at once” to her. Richards, Wilcox said, “was charming and gallant in every way.” She “sensed my feeling” and “reciprocated it.”

When the annulment was granted, the news drip stopped. After November 1941, Barbara Ann Richards was hardly mentioned in the press again.

Historians like Susan Stryker, Joanne Meyerowitz, C. Riley Snorton, Jules Gill-Peterson, and Zagria have documented how trans people have for centuries created space for themselves in the U.S. Thanks to anti-cross-dressing laws, however, trans legal status was often precarious, and toward the end of the 19th century, cases of trans people seeking changes to their identity documents started cropping up in newspapers. In 1901, a descendant of a wealthy Syracuse brickmaking family petitioned a New York state court to change his birth certificate to male and his name to Horace Hartson Herriman. According to a contemporaneous newspaper report in the Post-Standard, when Herriman was first born, doctors disagreed on which gender marker to put on his birth certificate. They chose female, but over time, Herriman found his “tastes and instincts more and more at variance with [his] place in society.” A pair of physicians later deemed him “essentially male.” He won the court case and, on March 15, 1902, became legally known as Horace.

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One of the more intriguing court battles unfolded in 1931, when a set of siblings in Indiana filed to have their names and genders changed legally. Both of the siblings identified as men, but they had for three decades been assumed to be women, a fact they blamed on their mother. The brothers, Gene and Noel Armstrong—who were 33 and 31 years old, respectively—claimed that their mother had raised them as girls to “satisfy her longing for girl children.” They said that, until their mother died in 1927, they were “unaware they were not women,” as a United Press International report put it. An Indiana court approved their birth certificate changes in January 1931, in what was reported to be the first such case in state history.

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Most of these early legal changes hinged on individual judges. The U.S. had no specific laws that governed gender changes on legal documents. Only in 1955 did Illinois become the first state to codify a pathway for trans and intersex people to amend their birth certificates. Though the law did not refer to either of those communities by name, in part because trans was still new terminology, they were clearly the intended audience: The law allowed identity document changes for a “person” who “by reason of [medical] operation” needed “the sex designation on [their] birth record … changed.” The law also applied only to people who had undergone gender-affirmation surgery, declaring that birth records would be changed if an applicant presented to the State Registrar of Vital Statistics “an affidavit by a physician that he has performed an operation on a person.”

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Still, even in other states, the language of most birth certificate statutes was vague enough that courts in many cases could still grant changes. This was true in Minnesota, where the official statute noted that the “birth certificate of a person born in this state … may be … amended … upon submitting such proof as shall be required by the [State Board of Health],” as a 1971 paper in the Cornell Law Review recounted. Under that language, individual judges had leeway to approve name changes requested by trans people.

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Most historians cite the 1966 case Anonymous v. Weiner, in which an anonymous trans woman was denied the ability to change her gender marker, as one of earliest precedents for a trans person asking for changes to their identity documents. In that case, New York’s Bureau of Records and Statistics concluded that it could not allow such a request, saying it heightened the risk of “fraud.”

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But Anonymous v. Weiner was far from the first case of its kind. In one tantalizing 1965 letter, New York City Commissioner of Health George James wrote that his office had identified 10 states that had received and approved applications from trans people, “usually with an amended birth certificate replacing the original.” He did not specify which states had allowed these changes, but he did write that, outside of New York City, he’d uncovered “some twenty cases” of municipalities amending birth certificates in response to petitions from trans people.

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Clearly, Richards was not alone: There are dozens, if not hundreds, of stories like hers left to be uncovered.

After 1941, much of the public forgot Richards’ story, but trans Americans didn’t. People wrote letters to Richards, expressing how they too didn’t belong to the gender they had been assigned at birth. The Kinsey Institute at Indiana University holds a file of correspondence for Richards. In one letter to her, a person identified as A. J. said they were a “person near like you, who likes to dress near the same,” and asked Richards for advice on how to remove facial hair and grow breasts. “This I would really like to have done,” they said. Even years later, in a January 1961 essay in the publication Transvestia—a magazine for people who cross-dressed—a writer named Denise recalled how, as a young person, reading newspaper stories about Richards validated her desire to present as a woman.

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Most accounts of Richards go cold after the annulment. As far as the public was concerned, her coming out—and her subsequent divorce from Wilcox—marked the end of the saga.

But Richards and Wilcox never left each other’s side. The couple became friends with Louise Lawrence, a prominent trans researcher and activist who suggested in her unpublished autobiography that Wilcox was presenting as a man. “This relationship seemed to me to be the ‘perfect’ solution for such a person, i.e., find a woman who wants to live life as a man and exchange roles,” Lawrence wrote. In the early 1940s, Lawrence said, Richards was working in a gift shop, and the couple—who were better connected to the trans community than Lawrence was—helped advise her on where to go in the city and how to safely cross-dress in public.

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Richards and Wilcox ultimately left few records of their own. Both were only children, and neither appeared to have a next of kin besides the other. But one clue about their later life is found in a 1995 medical paper about Harry Benjamin, an endocrinologist and sexologist who worked with trans people starting in 1938. The paper, titled “Harry Benjamin’s First Ten Cases,” describes Richards and Wilcox under the pseudonyms Carol and Christian. According to the paper, the two had been married twice: “the first time in their birth gender roles, the second in their reversed gender roles.” Though the two originally had their marriage annulled, by 1949, the year Benjamin first met them in San Francisco, they were legally wed again. The paper notes that theirs is a “love affair worthy of a romance novel.”

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The paper suggests that both Richards and Wilcox continued their transitions well into the 1950s. Harry Benjamin guided both of their hormone treatments. Barbara wanted gender-affirming surgery, but finding a doctor to do it proved to be a challenge. When Richards grew desperate, Benjamin told her, “You waited this long, wait a few months longer. … Things may change.”

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Finally, she caught her break. After a referral from Benjamin, Elmer Belt, one of the first doctors to perform gender-affirming surgeries in the U.S., agreed to take her case. Under Belt’s care, Barbara had surgery in 1956.

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Afterward, the couple continued living together. Barbara took on her new husband’s last name, Wilcox, and began appearing in newspapers as Barbara Ann Wilcox. A newspaper report from 1951 shows that Richard and Barbara owned a plot of land in Martinez, California, a small city in the Bay Area. They appear to have held the deed since 1948. There, Richard became active in local politics, and in 1952, he attended a series of meetings on zoning involving Contra Costa County Planning Commission. Together, they co-owned a plant nursery in Martinez called Bar B Ranch Gardens. And when Barbara died in 1962, Richard became the public executor of her estate. He buried her in the cemetery Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Los Angeles County, not far from where the two had met; her gravestone calls her a “beloved wife and daughter.”

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Richard lived for three more decades in California, largely out of the view of the public. He worked as a research assistant at the Hormone Research Laboratory at the University of California–Berkeley, according to a compendium book published in 1970; he is thanked for his “able technical assistance” in several experiments, dating to as late as 1967.

As they’d promised, Barbara and Richard never stayed apart for long. In 1993, when Richard died in the town of Tehama, California, his body was taken to Forest Lawn Memorial Park, to a plot directly beside Barbara’s. They still lie there together today.

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