Transmissions: Dora Richter lived

  • by Gwendolyn Ann Smith
  • Wednesday June 26, 2024
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Dora Richter. Illustration: Christine Smith
Dora Richter. Illustration: Christine Smith

My mantra for Pride 2024 is a simple one: Dora Richter lived.

I'm sure that many of my readers may not know who Richter is so let me give you a quick rundown of who she was and, more importantly, why she matters.

Richter was a German transgender woman born in Bohemia on April 16, 1892 — and she is the first known trans woman to have had gender reconstructive surgery at the very dawn of such procedures. Think of her when you hear people try to say that being trans is some very new thing.

Even as a young child, she had a tendency to present femininely, and even tried to remove her penis with a tourniquet when she was 6 years old.

In her 20s, she was working as a waiter or cook in Berlin, Germany, and presenting as male, but found herself arrested for the crime of cross-dressing outside of her work life. She was jailed, but a sympathetic judge got her released into the care of Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld at the Institut für Sexualwissenschaft (Institute of Sex Research).

It was through the institute that she was able to rebuild her life. Hirschfeld hired her as a cook. Even in Weimar Germany, finding work as a convicted trans person was difficult, so the institute became her place of employment.

In 1922, she had her first trans-related surgery, an orchidectomy. Nine years later, she would have a penectomy, followed by a vaginoplasty. With this — to the best of anyone's knowledge — Richter became the first person to have gender reconstructive surgery in a modern sense.

You see, records from the institute are hard to come by. It was a target of an up-and-coming political movement in Germany in the 1920s and 1930s known as the National Socialist German Workers' Party — or Nazis for short.

On May 6, 1933, the Deutsche Studentenschaft (German Student Union) and Nazi Sturmabteilung (Storm Troopers) raided the institute, looting and destroying much of its contents. Thousands of books, journals, and other materials were burned in the street outside of the facility.

It was believed that Richter also perished in those raids, either during them, or, perhaps, in custody after the ransacking. With the advent of World War II, knowledge of Richter's life was all but lost and forgotten.

But Richter lived.

In 2023, a researcher named Clara Hartmann was collecting information about forgotten trans figures and was following a lead on Richter. It appeared that Richter's baptismal certificate in Czechoslovakia had been changed, with her birth name crossed out — and Dora Rudolfine Richter written in its place.

The key thing wasn't the name change, as Richter had wanted to do this for many years — but the date was noteworthy. The certificate was updated on January 28, 1946, less than a year after World War II ended.

At that time, what would have been Czechoslovakia — which had been claimed early in the war by Germany as the Sudetenland — was to be a new Soviet bloc country, and Germans would be expelled. Richter would, apparently, be one of these.

By May 1946, Richter would reside in Nuremberg, Germany. She would live there for an additional 20 years, finally passing away on April 26, 1966 in Allersberg, Germany. She was 74 years old.

In 2024, we can clearly see the shadow of fascism on the rise, just as Richter and many others saw a century ago in Germany. According to the anti-trans bill tracker at, 602 anti-trans bills have been introduced in 43 U.S. states, and — to date — 42 of these have become law. Transgender people are treated as an "ideology," and our rights are under continued attack.

All of these bills, of course, are building to the November election, and both the Republican Party and its presumed candidate, former President Donald J. Trump, have made anti-transgender animus a major focus of this year's campaigns.

Given that an authoritarian convicted felon who attempted to overthrow the peaceful transfer of power just a few short years ago has a 50-50 chance of retaking the White House, it's unclear what will happen to trans rights in the coming months.

As a result, we are all on edge. Honestly, there are those who worry that the 2024 Pride season is our last. Certainly, the muted reaction of once-friendly companies and some politicians this year hasn't helped with that feeling. There is a palpable pall this year, as if everyone is holding their breath, awaiting the worst of news.

This is why Richter matters, and why her having lived means something.

Richter saw the worst. She saw her friends killed or lost, and the place that not only gave her employment — but her gender-affirming care — looted and destroyed. She saw the doctor who treated her forced to live out his last days in exile. Her home in Berlin was destroyed in air raids during the war. Later, she survived the expulsion of Germans from what was then Czechoslovakia. Heck, she also survived the Spanish flu, World War I, and who knows what else.

Richter should be remembered not only as the first transgender person to undergo modern gender reconstruction surgery but also should be seen as a symbol of our resistance. Against seemingly insurmountable odds, she survived. Even after everything she experienced.

There are people alive today who, according to Hartmann, remember Richter as an old woman in Allersberg who would care for a bird she would carry in her purse. She was, they say, often in a good mood.

If Richter could live, then so can we.

Gwen Smith reminds everyone that transgender people have always existed and always will. You'll find her at

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