Aleshia Brevard was an actress, teacher, and writer born in Erwin, Tennessee, although she spent much of her childhood on a farm in Hartsville. As a teenager, she would visit Nashville and encounter queens at bus stations or find men cruising for sex in movie theaters. At Memphis State University in the 1950s, she was accepted into the campus’s active gay community.
She left the South at age 20 and moved West to San Francisco. She worked as a female impersonator named Lee Shaw at Finnochio’s, and apparently had an incredible Marilyn Monroe impression that Monroe herself came to see. She met endocrinologist Dr. Harry Benjamin through a fellow performer, and began her transition process soon after. In 1962, she became one of the first people to receive sex reassignment surgery in the United States.
She returned to Hartsville to recover from surgery with help from her family, who were loving and accepting of her transition. She eventually attended East Tennessee State University for art, but jumped at the chance to head back West when a friend offered to take her to California.
At age 25, she ventured South again to attend Middle Tennessee State University and earn a degree in theater, where she was named “Best Actress” in 1967. A popular student, her peers nominated her for the Miss MTSU title and Student Body President, but she declined both offers. With the support of her professor and mentor Dorethe Tucker, Brevard started to seriously pursue acting as a career.
Following college, she landed some roles in movies and became a Playboy bunny, but returned to Tennessee for modeling work. She then traveled around the country for touring theater companies, and for writing and teaching gigs. She even spent time as a professor at ETSU in the 1990s.
Brevard spent her last years in California, but always held onto to her Tennessee roots. She left behind an amazing legacy in the performing arts and continues to inspire transgender people, especially those living in the South.
Sources: Nikita Shepard, “A Tennessee Trans Icon Comes Home: Remembering Aleshia Brevard,” Spectrum South, Nov. 20, 2017; Sarah Calise, “Remembering Aleshia Brevard, 1937-2017,” Albert Gore Research Center, 2017.
Page last updated: 11/3/21 by SEC