Written by Robyn Bennis
#FearlessWomen author Robyn Bennis shares the story of one of her heroes, the incredible Lucy Hicks Anderson.
Lucy Hicks Anderson always knew that a single bad day could destroy the business empire she’d spent three decades building. She may not have suspected, however, that on November 5, 1945, she would lose not only her hard-won success, but become a laughingstock for an entire nation eager to quell its nerves after years of war.
On that day, an issue of Time Magazine hit newsstands, and it was something of an odd duck. Nestled amid articles grappling with the ethics of harnessing the atom, questions of peacetime conscription, and a prime example of early-modern clickbait titled “How To Sell a Novel,” there lay a strange little headline: “Sin & Souffle.”
The article begins auspiciously enough with, “From the moment she got off the train in California more than 30 years ago, Lucy Hicks liked Oxnard, and Oxnard liked Lucy,” but it ends with a line as atrocious as it is incorrect: “Lucy was a man.” Apart from offending me as a fellow trans woman, that sentence offends me as a storyteller. It’s obviously an act 2 twist, not a closing line. And don’t you dare tell me those were different times, because there’s never been an excuse for such shoddy structure.
Despite making every attempt to smear her, however, you can’t read that Time article and not come away with a large measure of respect for Lucy Hicks Anderson. She succeeded as a black trans woman, at a time when any of those characteristics was disqualifying. By the time she was outed, she owned half a block of real estate in Oxnard, from which she sold catering services, alcohol, and the intimate attentions of talented ladies. Her links to prostitution and alcohol (which she sold without interruption, straight through prohibition) were widely known among the local gentry, and just as widely ignored.
It’s easy to see why. Lucy was a pillar of the community. During the war, she threw lavish going-away parties for GIs headed overseas, personally consoled families of those killed in action, and purchased almost $50,000 in war bonds—the equivalent of $700,000 in 2018 dollars. She was as warm as she was generous, a genius of kitchen and accounting book. Despite being a black woman with a flagrant disrespect for the law, Oxnard adored her—even the starkly segregated white community. They adored her at a time when a black person’s financial success, let alone success through crime, was a casus belli to white mobs—an excuse to riot, rampage, and even lynch the offending party. Lucy didn’t just avoid that fate, but moved freely through every social circle in town, winning hearts wherever she went.
That is, until the day she was found out.
It happened when they came for her girls. The U.S. Navy was trying to track down an outbreak of venereal disease among sailors on the West Coast. By all accounts, Lucy did not sleep with the clients of her brothel, but the doctor empowered to investigate it didn’t care. He compelled her to submit to an intrusive medical examination along with her employees. I can find no record of his stated justifications, but his true motives are not hard to guess at. Imagine a white, 1940s doctor finding himself in front of a successful black woman who stood tall, looked him fearlessly in the eye, and spoke as if she were his equal. What better way to remind her of her place, than the humiliation of a forced pelvic exam?
He must have known he’d succeeded beyond his wildest dreams, when he found that Lucy was physically male. It’s like he got a natural twenty on his debase-a-minority roll. He immediately took the matter to Oxnard’s law enforcement, who in turn pored over legal codes, looking for something to charge her with—an unfailing sign of equality under the law, if you ask me. They finally concluded that they could pin her with perjury.
Their logic was as follows: Lucy was married to a man; to marry a man one must sign a marriage certificate with a man; to sign a marriage certificate with a man is, implicitly, to swear under oath that one is a woman; Lucy was, as the Times article so sordidly put it, “a man.” Bada-bing, bada-boom, we’ve built a solid case for perjury, and all it took was a few travesties of law and human rights.
Lucy and her husband received ten years probation for that, but the law wasn’t nearly finished screwing them over. You see, during the war, Lucy had been receiving her husband’s G.I. benefits. So, when news that she was a trans woman went public, the Army swooped in and charged them both with fraud. Upon her inevitable conviction, Lucy was sent to Leavenworth penitentiary, because of course the justice system was going to inflict that final indignity of sending her to a men’s prison. Never mind that doing so endangered her life and safety, because that was just a bonus.
When she got out, Lucy wanted to move back to the city that loved her. However, Oxnard’s attitude had changed dramatically in the intervening time, and the police chief informed her that she was no longer welcome there. She discovered something countless trans women have found out the hard way, but few as severely: that, Shakespeare’s very cis experience notwithstanding, love often alters when it alteration finds. The same people who once adored her now spit on her—wanted to see her gone, imprisoned, humiliated. Because there’s nothing like being an outed trans woman, for understanding just how shitty most human beings really are.
Yet, knowing ahead of time that all this could happen, Lucy Hicks Anderson lived her best life in defiance of the eventual consequences. Long before Oxnard spit at her, she was spitting in the eye of Oxnard’s hatred with every white socialite she won over through her charm, and they didn’t even know it.
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