Dawn Langley Simmons challenged social norms at a time when Americans were demanding greater civil liberties in the 1960s and 1970s. One of the first individuals to receive sex-reassignment surgery in the United States, Simmons was also well-known in Charleston society for her marriage to John Paul Simmons. Theirs was reportedly the first documented interracial marriage in South Carolina.
Dawn was originally born Gordon Langley Hall. Raised in southern England, Gordon immigrated to the United States in the 1950s. He settled in New York and later Charleston where he and artist Isabella Whitney purchased an old house located at 56 Society Street. Dating to 1840, the Greek Revival house was originally built by Dr. Joseph Johnson, author of "Traditions of South Carolina."
This part of Charleston had a large gay community as well as a high number of African American residents. While many houses in the area were listed on the National Register of Historic Places, including 56 Society Street, many were dilapidated and in need of restoration. Whitney died shortly after purchasing the property, but Gordon took an active role in restoring the house.
Shortly after relocating to Charleston, Gordon received a sex-reassignment surgery at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore in the late 1960s. After the surgery, she officially adopted the name Dawn Pepita Langley Hall.
Dawn was the talk of Charleston social circles not only due to her sex-reassignment surgery - she also married an African American man, John Paul Simmons, in 1969. Interracial marriages were illegal in many other southern states (including South Carolina) until 1967. Even though Dawn and Simmons legally married, white society was not so accepting of their union. The couple became targets of threats and violence and Dawn was even assaulted on one occasion.
Dawn and John Simmons welcomed a daughter in the early 1970s and eventually went on to have three grandchildren. Throughout her life, Dawn also served as a teacher and she authored a series of fictional books for both children and adults. She died in Charleston in 2000 at the age of 77.
Fordham, Damon L. Voices of Black South Carolina: Legend & Legacy. Charleston: The History Press, 2009.
Smith, Dinitia (24 September 2000). "Dawn Langley Simmons, Flamboyant Writer, Dies at 77". The New York Times. NYTimes.com. Retrieved 23 January 2018.
"Ansonborough Rehabilitation Project.” Historic Charleston Foundation. Accessed February 1, 2018. http://lcdl.library.cofc.edu/content/ansonborough-rehabilitation-project.
"Inventory of the Dawn Langley Simmons Papers." Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Duke University. Retrieved 23 January 2018.