A transgender trailblazer has died. Actress and writer Aleshia Brevard was one of the first people to undergo gender-affirmation surgery in the United States, though the wider world never knew till she published her memoir The Woman I Was Not Born To Be: A Transexual Journey. She was 79.
Brevard died July 1 in her home in Scotts Valley, Calif., the San Franciso Chronicle reported Monday. The cause of death was pulmonary fibrosis.
Brevard gained fame in San Francisco as a Marilyn Monroe impersonator and then became a Hollywood actress, making appearances on TV sitcoms and variety shows, including The Partridge Family, The Red Skelton Show, and The Dean Martin Show, as well as in films. She also wrote nine plays and a novel in addition to her memoir, and was even a Playboy bunny for short while.
“She had so many fans that related to what her life was about,” Brevard’s landlord and good friend Joyce Nordquist told the Chronicle. “She was trying simply to live as a woman even to the point of being married to men who never knew her background. I guess they will be surprised when they find out.”
Brevard once said she wanted to be the “silver screen’s next bombshell.” She was born Alfred Brevard “Buddy” Crenshaw in 1937 in Johnson City, Tenn., on a tobacco and cattle farm, a time and place where Hollywood was not a foreseeable goal. As she wrote on her website, “I was on a Greyhound bus out of Appalachia almost before the ink had dried on my high school diploma.”
Brevard was still living as “Alfred” when she met Nordquist. “I thought of him as a girlfriend,” Nordquist told the Chronicle. “He was quite fun, and we ran around playing what our future was going to be like.”
On Brevard’s way to Hollywood, she had a layover in San Francisco where she worked at Finocchio’s, a club world-famous for female impersonators. It was there she performed for such stars as Bette Davis, Lana Turner, and Errol Flynn, but through it all, she knew “an impersonator wasn’t who I wanted to be.”
After she’d been undergoing hormone therapy in San Francisco, Brevard completed transition in Los Angeles in 1962. Within a year she went to work as a showgirl at the Dunes Hotel, which led to a role in The Love God, starring Don Knotts and Anne Francis. She also worked as a Playboy bunny on the Sunset Strip before landing roles in television.
Susan Stryker, a professor of gender and women’s studies at the University of Arizona, featured Brevard in her Emmy-winning documentary Screaming Queens: The Riot at Compton’s Cafeteria, about the uprising of trans people against police harassment. Stryker told the Chronicle, “Aleshia was a true pioneer who never lost her zest for life.” In the film, Stryker said, Brevard “described what life was like in the Tenderloin before there was an organized movement for transgender rights. She was not only strong, she was witty and vivacious.”
Brevard's role in The Love God was the answer to a lifelong dream. “Limousines whisked me from one press party to the next, and at each exciting stop I held court as the honored guest,” she wrote on her website about that time. “My only task was to pout, dimple prettily, and be as quotable as possible.”
Eventually, when offers of film and TV roles tapered off, Brevard moved back to her home state to get a master's degree at Middle Tennessee State University. “I even went back to teaching acting at the same university I’d first attended as a boy,” she wrote.
Brevard is survived by her younger sister, Jeanne Cauble, who said, “She was a lady, and needs to be remembered as one.”
A private memorial service is to be held in Scotts Valley.