Updated at 11:36 a.m. on Dec. 26, 2019.
In September 1988, a man looking for cypress wood discovered a body in the marshy forests of Florida. The body was too decomposed to be recognizable, but police made note of what they could: a denim skirt, manicured nails, long dyed-blond hair, breast implants. A prominent forensic anthropologist noticed pitting in the pelvic bones, which he attributed to hormonal changes from childbirth. He proclaimed her a woman—a mother, in fact, who had likely given birth more than once. She became known as “Julie Doe.”
In 2015, however, new DNA tests revealed that she actually had XY chromosomes. Julie Doe was a transgender woman. The pitting in her pelvic bones was likely the result of hormone therapy, rather than childbirth. Her real name, however, remains unknown.
Julie Doe’s case was the very first taken up by the Trans Doe Task Force, a small group of volunteers specializing in cold cases with transgender victims. Lee and Anthony Redgrave, a married couple in western Massachusetts, founded the group last year. They began as volunteers with the nonprofit DNA Doe Project, which tries to find names for unidentified bodies through genetic genealogy—a method that combines searching DNA databases with more traditional research of family trees. Genetic genealogy has recently revolutionized cold cases, but Lee and Anthony quickly saw the limits of DNA and family trees for victims who are transgender. (Lee identifies as gender-nonbinary. Anthony is a trans man; he also found out a few years ago that he was born intersex.) For trans victims, genetic genealogy is most likely to lead to a dead name—the name they were born under but not the chosen name they actually lived by.