The Long and Sometimes Lost History of Trans

The Long and Sometimes Lost History of Trans

Beyond the Binary

The long history of trans.


Sometimes amateurish politicians say the quiet part out loud. So it was in April 2023 with Florida state Representative Webster Barnaby. Speaking in favor of anti-trans legislation, he told his chamber that trans people make him feel “like I’m watching an X-Men movie…. It’s like we have mutants living among us.” Besides dramatically missing the point of the X-Men, Barnaby displayed a common misconception: the idea that trans people are something new.

As the historian Kit Heyam reminds us, “Genders other than male and female have always existed,” even as far back as ancient Sumer. Some things about us really are new: The word “transgender” was likely coined in 1965. Specific regimes of medical treatment, like the estradiol valerate I inject every two weeks, are just decades old. Even newer is the phenomenon in which so many American young people choose “they/them” or other, less familiar nonbinary pronouns. But these new medical and social practices belie the long historical and cross-cultural span of other-than-binary, other-than-cisgender, more-or-less-trans existence. To borrow a phrase from the photographer, writer, and activist Samra Habib, “We have always been here”—or, at least, people somewhat like us have always been here.

That’s the point that resonates throughout Heyam’s fast-moving study Before We Were Trans. In it, Heyam offers proof that across many places and periods, people have lived outside of—or by violating—modern Western gender norms. “Anti-trans campaigners,” Heyam writes, claim that “trans people are new, and that means they’re not real.” Heyam shows that the campaigners are twice wrong: Unless you define us both narrowly and tendentiously, trans people are not new at all. The 18th-century Chevalier d’Eon, who lived part of his or her life as a woman; the British “‘female soldiers’ or ‘female sailors’” whose “recognition and treatment as men was often dependent on passing” as cigsender men; and the Samoan fa’afafine and fa’afatama (traditional third and fourth genders) are not trans in just the same way that I am trans, and yet their lives give evidence for mine. As Heyam writes, “It matters, for people who have been persistently told we have no history, when we find historical figures who feel like us.” Also, Heyam notes, “Many trans histories are inextricable from histories of other experiences”: If we attend to those experiences “from a place of care for people in the past,” we will find precedents for our lives today.

The first chapter of Before We Were Trans begins with rulers assigned female at birth, in 17th-century Ndongo (now part of Angola) and in 20th-century Igboland and Igalaland (now in Nigeria). These rulers occupied “intrinsically male” roles, and their subjects understood them as a complex combination of men and women. These “kings” help introduce Heyam’s two-part argument: First, “people living and being respected as a gender other than the one they were assigned at birth—temporarily or permanently—is far from a new phenomenon.” Second, this “long history of gender disruption” ought to inform and empower modern trans people: “We should, I think, call it trans experience.” Rather than impose “standards of ‘realness’” drawn from one society alone (our current one), Heyam asks us to seek overlaps between the past and the present.

These overlaps also illuminate differences: for example, between spiritually grounded and largely secular identities. In 18th-century North America, the famous traveling preacher known only as the Public Universal Friend combined a “genderless identity,” “a mixture of male- and female-coded clothing,” and a rhetoric that “drew huge crowds of Quakers.” In Pakistan, Sufi practitioners could become khawaja siras, a person assigned male at birth but who wore women’s clothes and renounced “society, relationships and money in favour of their relationship with God.” The Crow Nation’s botē, the Chumash ‘aqi, and the Lakota winkte all lived as “neither men nor women” in ways inseparable from their religious gifts. In the Pacific Northwest after 1800, the Ktunxa (Kutenai) traveler Kaúxuma Núpika “became a prophet…following their transformation into a man.” The current term “Two-Spirit” encompasses these and other Native identities, boosting their visibility (at least to non-Natives) while flattening some of their differences.

When it comes to intersex history, Heyam’s instances can feel a bit more treacherous; some involve strategic dissimulations or intrusive examinations. The Royal Air Force pilot Roberta Cowell had what we now call gender-confirmation surgery after the Second World War; her very public life and memoirs made her “both the victim and the oppressor,” since she looked down on “sissies,” “freaks,” “transvestites,” and other women who obtained surgery, defining herself instead as exceptional, claiming to have a “female chromosome make-up.” Repeatedly examined by courts in 17th-century Virginia, Thomas or Thomasine Hall was finally deemed both “a man and a woman” after Hall’s sex life touched off a legal scandal.

Many people in Anglo-Atlantic cultures found themselves forced to accept a gender binary grounded in anatomy. Other and earlier societies had other ideas, as Heyam shows. Tokugawa Japan, for example, had wakashū, “a gender distinct from that of men and women,” sexually submissive (or expected to be so) and socially situated “between child and adult”; moreover, “men were expected to be attracted to both women and wakashū.” Seventeenth- and 18th-century China had xianggong, opera singers who could also be sex workers; they were assigned male at birth yet played women’s roles. Arabic-speaking North Africa from the seventh century had a category of people who were assigned male at birth yet dressed in colors forbidden for men; they were known for their musical skills, were typically penetrated by men during sex, and were considered “woman-adjacent but ultimately neither male nor female.” (The surviving name for this group in Arabic is a harsh slur.)

Heyam also examines the antecedents of modern drag, in British and American music halls and earlier forms of “onstage gender nonconformity” dating back to Shakespearean theater. “Play-acting a girl’s part has changed my whole existence,” wrote one prisoner at the Knockaloe camp, where Britain detained civilian enemy nationals during the First World War. Performers who played women but had been living as men might choose to keep up their adopted roles offstage, even if they went back to living as men at the end of the war. Heyam sees them, too, as precursors or analogues for people like me.

Analogues, but not duplicates: Their lives differed from mine in obvious ways, but so do the lives of many trans people today. Assigned male at birth, I came out as a woman in my 40s, after years of halting attempts to live as “they/them” (my makeup game remains halting at best). Cisgender people tend to know what kind of person I take myself to be. My friends who take “they/them,” or “ze/zem” pronouns, or wear beards with long skirts, still encounter incomprehension. Those of us raised in a culture and with a language, like English, where most people are either “he/him” or “she/her,” where most of us grew up thinking (simplistically!) that gender and sex came in only two flavors, sometimes need time to adjust to the wider world. And that wider world is Heyam’s point. Not only have people like me crossed the man/woman line, in both directions, for a long time; we have done so inside a long history of complicated agender, bigender, genderfluid (and so on) lives lived outside the he/she binary.

As with many popular surveys, the more you know going in about a given period or figure, the less you’re likely to learn from Heyam’s account. Yet the sweeping cross-cultural claims are part of the point, and they’re delivered in clear, snappy prose. Along with historical and anthropological texts and memoirs, Heyam examines a handful of recent novels about people with unusual genders: Sara Taylor’s The Lauras, about a nonbinary teen; Akwaeke Emezi’s Freshwater, about someone with a spiritually grounded identity; Jody Rosenberg’s Confessions of the Fox, about an 18th-century masculine-of-center life; and Shola von Reinhold’s fascinating artists’ colony novel LOTE. Reinhold’s narrator, who goes by many names, disguises herself as a gallery artist in order to research the queer Black European modernist poet and partygoer Hermia Druitt. Druitt is fictional, but her queer modernist friends—Stephen Tennant, E.M. Forster, Richard Bruce Nugent—are not. That research sends LOTE right into trans history. “In all the terms, in all the identities, there was nothing ‘to correspond,’” Erskine-Lily, a friend of the narrator, explains. “There wasn’t a name for it. Not now anyway. There had been a name for it in the past. Maybe there would be one in the future.”

For Heyam, history is a wealth of resources. But for Erskine-Lily and their allies, it’s also a trap. The narrator learns Erskine-Lily’s former name and then regrets it: “Even if I didn’t believe in its authority, its precedence, I would reflect it back, through time, from life before…. This image of old self was death. All who contained it were deadly.” Our deadnames, the gendered names given at birth, can act like curses: Their letters can harm or even kill.

Trans experience can also come to us in stories about the future. The Spacers of Samuel R. Delany’s ahead-of-its-time 1967 story “Aye, and Gomorrah” lack a conventional sex drive or functional genitals and socialize in small in-groups while on Earth. They also do sex work, reluctantly, for “frelks” (the modern term is “chasers”), who find the Spacers’ life outside gender exciting: “You spin in the sky, the world spins under you, you step from land to land,” one frelk says; “we have our dull circled lives, bound in gravity, worshipping you!” It’s an allegory of gay men’s pursuits (doing, as Delany writes, “the Proust bit”), but also a vision of trans community yet to materialize.

Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness now seems very much of its time, its human narrator strangely homophobic by 21st-century standards, but its Gethenians who go into “kemmer” (roughly, heat) and know no gender the rest of the year remain standing invitations to think about why gender matters back on Earth, and how it would feel to try to live without it. Closer to our day, the engineered people of Greg Egan’s 1998 story “Oceanic” exchange a phallic organ they call “the bridge” whenever they have sex. Those born with a bridge are “he/him,” those without are “she/her,” and whether you’ve got a bridge in your pants depends not on your pronouns but on whether you’ve had sexual intercourse an odd or even number of times.

Literary realist fiction lags behind science fiction and fantasy in the trans department, though authors have tried: Consider not only Rosenberg and Reinhold but Imogen Binnie’s road trip novel Nevada or Jackie Ess’s partly satirical Darryl. Poets and young adult novelists—Cat Fitzpatrick, Trace Peterson, Cam Awkward-Rich, Kacen Callender, Rachel Gold—often do a better job. Even mainstream comic books have joined the party. Rachel Pollack, the great trans activist who died in 2023, created the first trans DC superhero, Kate Godwin (Coagula), 30 years ago. Kate could liquefy any solid body or stabilize anything likely to dissolve (and here the metaphors speak for themselves). More recently on TV and in comics Superboy and Supergirl have made friends with the precognitive trans teen Dreamer. Over at Marvel, the New Mutants’ transfeminine Escapade can switch her appearance and abilities with anyone in her line of sight—see, trans people are mutants after all! And in the comics, they’re not even new: The oldest Marvel mutant in human history, En Sabah-Nur, grew up in the Egypt of the pharaohs.

Trans people seem more visible now than ever, and there’s a larger-than-ever target on our back. States like Missouri and Florida are trying to ban our basic medical care and separate loving parents from trans kids. Other states, such as Washington and Minnesota, now provide legal sanctuary for trans families. Heyam has assembled an inviting picture of trans, proto-trans, and trans-esque histories, from the king of Ndongo to the Public Universal Friend. Sadly, that big picture will not end the battles over basic human rights, in the United States or in Heyam’s native Britain. But it may give some of us and our allies courage, and it may even give cisgender skeptics food for thought.

The future that trans people need will not look like our past, nor like anyone’s past, however many proto-, quasi-, or arguably trans people that past contains. That’s no knock on history, popular or otherwise. But it is to say that history is not enough—especially since so many of the most exciting, empowering roles Heyam outlines belong to specific non-Western cultures and require spiritual revelations. Most of us could not adopt them (nor should we try). We need, alongside all these precedents, ways to envision the not-yet, the next-generation, the so-far-only-allegorical, the trans world to come. That said, those visions benefit from a richly studied and trans-inclusive history. Before We Were Trans invites us to go there.

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