CW: transphobia, racism, sexism, sexual violence
This fall, I had the honour of organising workshops for a non-profit involved in sexual and reproductive health and rights, talking about trans inclusion. As part of those workshops, I talked for a bit about trans history. One response I got after every workshop was that people appreciate learning this history because this was something they had never been taught before. As several people also noted, it’s also great to know these facts when arguing with transphobes who use their inaccurate view of history to argue that being trans is just a trend. So, in this essay, I wanted to discuss the history of trans and gender-nonconforming people, to raise awareness about how transness is nothing new. Before going any further though, I want to point out that while I have a master’s degree in gender studies, I am no historian. What I do know of trans history is a mix of things I’ve studied at university (which, with some exceptions, mainly focused on history from the 19th century going forward), and me reading up on these topics on my own. I will discuss trans and gender-nonconforming people from a variety of historical periods and cultural backgrounds, but I cannot possibly cover all of world history in one essay. That said, here is a brief(ish) trans history.
Concepts and conceptualisations
Before going any further, I should clarify what I mean by trans in this essay. The term trans is sometimes used in different ways in different contexts, but for the purposes of this essay, I use it similarly to how Dr Susan Stryker uses “transgender” in her book Transgender History:
I use [transgender] in this book to refer to people who move away from the gender they were assigned at birth, people who cross (trans-) the boundaries constructed by their culture to define and contain that gender. Some people move away from their birth-assigned gender because they feel strongly that they properly belong to another gender in which it would be better for them to live; others want to strike out toward some new location, some space not yet clearly defined or concretely occupied; still others simply feel the need to get away from the conventional expectations bound up with the gender that was initially put upon them. In any case, it is the movement across a socially imposed boundary away from an unchosen starting place- rather than any particular destination or mode of transition- that best characterizes the concept of ‘transgender’ that I want to develop here.(Stryker 2008, 1)
Now, while I think this definition is very useful for my purposes here, I feel like I must also point out that not everyone who is included in this definition of transness would identify as trans (see for example Finn Enke 2012). For instance, not all non-binary people self-identify as trans, even if they could be seen as trans using the above definition. When talking about real-life people we should therefore always be cautious when ascribing such labels to them, especially since the term “trans” comes from a very specific historical Western context. I will get into that history further on.
Furthermore, we should be especially careful when assigning the term “trans” to people from outside a Western context, who might have other terms to describe themselves (for more on this, see for instance Boellstorff, Cabral, Cádenas, Cotten, Stanley, Young, and Aizura 2014). Because throughout history and the world, people have understood gender in a variety of different ways. Sometimes it has been as something fixed, determined by the way one’s body looks at birth, and sometimes it has been more fluid. One example I would like to highlight is from a land that my country (Sweden) has colonised, namely Sápmi. As non-binary Sámi activists have pointed out, traditionally speaking Sámi culture wasn’t as binary as many Western cultures are and have been (Märak & Nilla Pinja 2021). Märak and Nilla Pinja also describe that in Sámi religion, the goddess who decides which sex/gender a child would have might sometimes decide to make the child into neither a girl nor a boy, but something else. Non-binary Sámi people are therefore nothing new. But as many Sámi people have also noted, this traditional way of seeing gender has been negatively impacted by colonialism, which insisted on reinforcing a gender binary and heteronormativity (see for example Káddjá Valkeapää 2021; Lifjell 2021; Sandberg McGuinne 2021; Finbog 2022). This is of course similar to what has happened with many other indigenous people, where colonialists have tried their best to stamp out any gender identities and expressions that did not conform to the Western binary view of gender (eg. Roen 2006; Spencer-Hall & Gutt 2021, 28).
There are many too many examples of different cultural understandings of gender to name them all here, and as a white European, I do not feel like it is my place to speak for these people. But I want to highlight just a few places where you can learn more:
- KUMU HINA is a documentary about what it’s like to live as māhū in Hawai’i. You can also find educational material related to the movie here, and an explanation of māhū here.
- This article discusses multiple Pacific Islander gender identities, such as fa’afafine (Samoa) or fakaleitī (Tonga) while interviewing people living with those identities and different activists.
- This video follows fakaleitī Eva Baron who talks about her experiences.
- In this video, Geo Neptune explain the term two-spirit, its history and discusses other terms that has been used by native Americans.
- This Ted talk by Laxmi Narayan Tripathi, talking about gender in India and living as hijra.
- All work by two-spirit trans woman Arielle Twist.
- The poetry collection you are enough: love poems for the end of the world by Smokii Sumac, a Ktunaxa queer, transmasculine and two-spirit person. You can find videos of readings of some of the poems here.
- The article “Can You See Me? Queer Margins in Aboriginal Communities” by Andrew Farrell, a queer Aboriginal person.
- The documentary and article “InsideOUT” by Peter Waples-Crowe, a non-binary Ngarigo person.
- This zine, containing conversations with young two-spirit, trans, and queer indigenous people in Toronto.
- This article by transgender Aboriginal professor Sandy O’Sullivan, discussing the colonial project of gender.
- The book Colouring The Rainbow: Blak Queer and Trans Perspectives- Life Stories and Essays by First Nations People of Australia.
There is of course a much more to read on this topic, and I really recommend looking into it further, and especially listening to the voices of people who belong to the groups they describe.
Finally, I would just like to make clear that while I’m discussing these gender diverse people in the context of this essay on trans history, that is not to suggest that these people are necessarily trans. Some of these groups and people do describe themselves using terms such as trans or non-binary, but many do not. It is not my place, especially as a white European to label them as trans, that would be a form of colonial violence. The reason I wanted to mention these groups here is rather as a way of highlighting how the Western binary notion of gender is not the only way of understanding gender and have in fact been a part of colonialist violence against gender diverse people.
As mentioned above, there have existed a lot of different conceptualisations of gender historically speaking, and there have always existed people who lived outside the Western binary view of gender. Yet, terms like transgender, non-binary, genderqueer etc are of course relatively new, historically speaking. So, one might wonder how it makes sense to speak of people who lived before then as trans. Well, as some scholars would argue, one reason for doing this is to counter the many voices who try to use history to legitimise their transphobia by arguing that trans folk didn’t exist historically (Spencer-Hall & Gutt 2021, 19). We know gender-nonconforming people existed historically too, even if their lives have often been forgotten or actively hidden. By holding them up, we help create a trans legacy that contemporary trans people can gain strength from.
In the next part of this essay, I will therefore touch on a few historical periods and what we know of trans/gender nonconforming people from those periods. I have chosen to limit this to mostly a Western perspective, partly because I cannot possibly speak about the whole world at once, and partly because that’s what I have the most knowledge about. Another reason for doing so is, as I mentioned above, that history, specifically that of Europe, is often used to legitimise transphobia. It, therefore, makes sense to understand what that history actually looked like to counter those arguments.
With that said, let’s dig into some trans archaeology.
As many have noted, archaeological researchers have long had a tendency to (sometimes forcefully) sort their finds into very strict binary categories (Weismantel 2013; Colwill 2021; Turek 2016). This can be seen in how many archaeologists have had difficulties with how to interpret burial sites containing bodies that seem to belong to one sex but are buried with items which do not seem to match that sex. As Weismantel notes, these kinds of finds have often been ignored or hidden away. Alternatively, these burial finds have been assumed to be some kind of mistake on the part of those doing the burial (Colwill 2021). Another problematic aspect of archaeological gendering/sexing of remains is the methods used to gender/sex both the body and the items buried with it. As Colwill notes:
Archaeological sexing is far from a fail-safe tool, particularly for exploring the often-intangible concept of identities. Remains are sexed osteologically (by examining the size and shape of the bones) or on the basis of genomic analysis (‘genomic’ or ‘chromosomal sexing’), and assigned to a particular sex, most frequently a binary male/female one, on this basis. The inaccuracy of such an approach has been criticized by numerous gender archaeologists for its frequent disregard of the possibility of intersex remains (…) Moreover, it is virtually impossible to accurately assign sex to children and adolescents based on osteological sexing alone (…) Genomic sexing is likewise not the magical bullet it is often presented as, offering a ratio of X and Y chromosomes from which a chromosomal arrangement is extrapolated.(Colwill 2021, 179)
So, as Colwill notes, sexing of remains often risks being inaccurate. But what is more, with many archaeological finds, researchers haven’t even used those methods but instead interpreted the sex/gender of the remains based on the grave goods found with it. As Colwill notes:
When it comes to exploring gender identity through grave goods, it is difficult to avoid the sort of circular reasoning which declares, for example: ‘oval brooches are items of female dress, so graves containing them must be women’s graves; we know that oval brooches are items of female dress because we find them in women’s graves.(Colwill 2021, 181)
One example of how this might lead to mistakes comes from an Iron Age grave found near the settlement of Birka (in contemporary Sweden). There a person in a grave was first interpreted to be male based on grave goods but then found to have XX chromosomes. As Weismantel and Colwill both point out, situations such as these have made some researchers question traditional interpretative practices, arguing that some archaeological finds could be interpreted as examples of gender nonconformity (2013; 2021). Colwill describes some such examples from Iron Age Scandinavia that possibly reveal some quite interesting ways the people of that time conceptualised gender. Interestingly, some examples of what seems to be burials of gender nonconforming people from this area and time seem to be burials of seiðr practitioners (Colwill 2021, 182). Seiðr was a practice that could probably most closely be described as a magic ritual, or possibly a shamanic ritual. Some have argued that at least some (if perhaps not all) seiðr practitioners held some sort of liminal gender position, partly outside of female and male binarities. This seems to be reflected in some of their burials, with individuals buried with a mix of “feminine” and “masculine” grave goods for instance. That these individuals are buried with those items, in what is often very elaborate and seemingly thought through burials, also indicate that their contemporaries recognised their liminal gender position.
The Trans Middle Ages
Moving forward a bit in history, I would next like to touch a bit on the Middle Ages and the gender-nonconforming people of that era. As for instance, M.W. Bychowski has pointed out (2018), it is often assumed that the Middle Ages was a time when “men were men” and “women were women” and no trans of queer people were around to make things complicated. Yet, there is a fair bit of evidence that gender-nonconforming people, and people who might call themselves trans had they lived today, existed then as well Below, I want to share just a few of these stories. I’ll start with some trans saints.
First out is Saint Marinos, a saint who was assigned female at birth yet lived for a long time as a monk (Bychowski 2018; Bychowski 2021). He was born around the year 300 in Syria and his story is shared in several medieval chronicles. After his mum died his dad joined a monk order and Marinos did the same. He was considered an exceptional monk until a village girl falsely claimed that he had impregnated her. At this point, he could have told people about how he physically could have not impregnated anyone, but he apparently decided not to. He was allowed to stay at the monastery and raise the child there but was obviously disgraced. When he eventually died and his body was prepared for the funeral, the other monks realised he had a body that would usually be termed female. They then also realised that they had wronged him, as he could not have impregnated someone, and prayed for forgiveness.
A common argument against interpreting people like Saint Marinos, and other people who were assigned female at birth yet passed as men, as trans is that they only did what they did to get access to spaces the strict patriarchal order didn’t allow them to enter. But as many people have pointed out, we do not have to assume that these people only did this gender transition for practical reasons (eg. Boag 2005; Feinberg 1996, 87). We seldom have records that show how these historical people understood themselves, we usually just have second-hand accounts, and when it comes to queer history, history rarely remembers faithfully (cf. Spencer-Hall & Gutt 2021, 19). There has therefore often existed a tendency to “straighten out” all instances of queerness/transness in history. Seeing gender nonconforming behaviour as just a pragmatic/practical choice is one example of this. As Spencer-Hall and Gutt puts it: “the reflexive assumption that non-normative gender expressions can only ever indicate cross-dressing is reductive.” (2021, 27) Furthermore, as Feinberg points out, it is arguably insulting to only see trans identities as the product of sexist oppression (1996, 83).
The next life I want to describe is that of Joseph of Schönau, who was born in Cologne and assigned female at birth (Newman 2021). His very eventful life has been retold in several 12th-century chronicles, which is much too long to describe in their entirety here, but I will include the major events here. The chronicles describe that as a child Joseph accompanied his father on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, but his father died on the way. While making his way back to Europe, he encountered a variety of challenges which culminated with some people trying to kill him via hanging. In the retelling, it is said that Joseph survived by an angel arriving and supporting his feet until he could be rescued by some local shepherds. Afterwards, he entered a Cistercian monastery as thanks for the divine aid he had received. He eventually died at the monastery, as a monk. What is interesting is that at least one chronicle consistently describes Joseph as male during this part of his life, using male pronouns etc. The retelling of the story also presents Joseph’s identity as a man as neither a choice on his part nor as a disguise, but rather as a divine gift, another part of the divine interventions in Joseph’s life. Another interesting part of the story is that for the monks that knew Joseph as a man, it seemed as if he had transformed into a woman in death. This was perceived as a form of miracle. One interpretation is that through his holy actions, Joseph’s soul was so perfected that he became so intertwined with the divine that he managed to transcend gender. This was made literal in how he had a body that was morphologically interpreted as female even while he was a man. This carries fascinating implications for the gender of the divine, and the possibility to transcend gender.
Next up, I want to talk about the saint Esmarade, whose story is recounted in a 13th-century verse hagiography (Wright 2021). Esmarade was someone who was assigned female at birth, but who left secular life for a monastery where they would go on to present as a eunuch. Vanessa Wright argues that Esmarade can be read as genderqueer since the identity they express does not fit into a binary understanding of gender. The story describes how Esmarade did not wish to marry the partner chosen by their father, instead wanting to remain a virgin and join a religious order. Being afraid of their father being able to find them, they decided to enter a monastery while presenting as a eunuch. As Wright argues, this can be seen as a way for them to articulate a genderqueer identity with the language available to them, since eunuchs were often seen as a sort of in-between between male and female. This is in fact similar to what trans people have done much later in history too. Sølve Holm for instance describes Danish trans people at the beginning of the 20th century describing themselves as “hermaphrodites” because that was language that would be understood by their surroundings (2020).
But, returning to Esmarade, their father came to the monastery to seek advice and met Esmarade without recognising them. This arrangement went on for years, and right before their death, Esmarade told their father the truth and asks that he alone prepare their body for the funeral so that no one else could see their body. This seems to be so that no one else can “discover” what their body looked like and what their assigned gender would have been. This request isn’t followed, however, and a fellow monk prepared their body, leading them to be seen as venerated as female after death by their fellow monks.
Another possibly trans medieval saint is of course Joan of Arc. I’ve talked about Joan in other essays too when discussing the possibility to analyse medieval people (and fictional characters in mediaevalesque settings) as trans, those essays are available here and here. Joan of Arc is probably most remembered today for her claims of holy visions and successful military leadership and has as such been turned into a symbol of French nationalism and white supremacy (Spencer-Hall & Blake Gutt 2021, 12). Yet her story is undeniably a queer one, regardless of how much white supremacists try to scrub off the queerness. As trans writer and activist Leslie Feinberg once wrote about Joan: “If society strictly mandates only men can be warriors, isn’t a woman military leader dressed in armor an example of cross-gendered expression?” (1996, 31) It is clear that her contemporaries viewed her gender expression with contempt, with for instance the English king Henry the VI writing to Inquisitor Pierre Cauchon, the Bishop of Beauvais:
It is sufficiently notorious and well known that for some time past a woman calling herself Jeanne the Pucelle (the Maid) , leaving off the dress and clothing of the feminine sex, a thing contrary to divine law and abominable before God, and forbidden by all laws, wore clothing and armour such as is worn by men.(quoted in Feinberg 1996, 34)
Joan of Arc was eventually brought before an Inquisitorial court, charged with a variety of crimes (such as witchcraft and heresy). The court could not prove the witchcraft, so they chose to focus on how Joan’s crossdressing (according to them) constituted heresy since it went against God’s will. For this crime, she was eventually burned at the stake. As both Feinberg (1996) and Bychowski notes (2018), Joan continued to refuse to stop wearing “men’s clothing” even while being accused of heresy. For this crime she was eventually burned to death. As Bychowski notes, it is difficult to say if Joan would have identified as trans had she lived today, but it is clear that what killed her was transphobia.
I have thus far only talked about possible trans people of the Middle Ages who were assigned female at birth, so before moving on I wanted to mention one who seemed to have been assigned male at birth. Eleanor Rykener was a seamstress living in London during the 14th century who was arrested on charges of sexual misconduct, having been caught in the act of selling sex (Bychowski 2018). She presented as a woman when appearing at the court and gave her name as Eleanor, but during questioning, she was forced to reveal that she had previously lived in London under a male name. This provided the court with several quandaries: firstly, which name should they use in the records (they ended up using both), and secondly, if Eleanor is a man, does that mean that sodomy was committed when she slept with men? No verdict is recorded, but it is clear that the court was very confused about how to handle Eleanor’s gender. It is also clear that both someone’s gender identity and how their gender is perceived by their surroundings can have very clear material consequences.
The 19th century and beyond
I am now jumping forward quite a bit in time, but in many ways, the 19th century was a turning point for how trans people were perceived in the West. As Dr Susan Stryker points out: “One of the most powerful tools for social regulation in this period was the rapid development of medical science.” (2008, 36). During this time, sexology and other scientific disciplines started to examine and categorise human sexuality and gender, dividing people into groups and dictating what was normal and abnormal. One such researcher was the Austrian Karl Heinrich Ulrichs who published a series of booklets in 1864-1865. In these booklets, he described people who he called “urnings” that he described as having a female soul enclosed within a male body. This term encompassed both what we might today call homosexuality and transgender. Over the next couple of decades, several other researchers proposed different terms to describe trans people, with the only one that has really survived until today being “transvestite”, as suggested by German sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld in 1910. While the usage of that word is slightly different today, Hirschfeld originally used it to (more or less) mean someone who dressed or lived as another sex than they were assigned at birth (Bychowski 2021). It is also worth noting that in his book Die Transvestiten, Hirschfeld actually discusses the life of Saint Marinos which I also mentioned above. Besides being a scholar, Hirschfeld also advocated for LGBTQ+ people (he was gay himself) and he was very involved in the queer community in Berlin at the time.
I’ll return to Hirschfeld shortly, but before moving too far into the 20th century I would like to touch a bit more on the 19th century.
Because another relevant event to discuss is the way gender nonconforming expressions started to become more formally criminalised during the 19th century, especially in the U.S. While gender nonconformity had hardly been approved of earlier either, in the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, a wave of anti cross-dressing laws became enacted across the U.S. These were often municipal laws and were enacted in 40 American municipalities between 1848 to 1974. As Stryker notes, there isn’t much historical research to explain the sudden explosion of such laws in the latter half of the 19th century, but one explanation might be the rise of modern industrial cities (2008, 33). In such places, people had more opportunities to express their sense of gender than they might have had in close-knit communities in smaller towns. Another contributing factor to these anti cross-dressing laws was the rise of feminism, and with it calls for dress reform allowing for women to wear pants. But another important aspect to consider is the immigration to the US from a variety of Asian countries, especially on the West Coast. As Stryker notes:
Gold rush-era newspapers are full of stories about how difficult it was for European Americans to tell Chinese men apart from Chinese women, because they all wore their hair long and dressed in silky pajamalike costumes. To understand the historical conditions for contemporary transgender activism, we thus have to take into account race, class, culture, sexuality, and sexism and we have to develop an understanding of the ways that U.S. society has fostered conditions of inequality and injustice for people who aren’t white, male, heterosexual and middle class- in addition to understanding the difficulties particularly associated with engaging in transgender practices.(Stryker 2008, 36)
As I have mentioned previously in this essay, norms of gender are heavily culture dependant, and Europeans (and European Americans) have a long history of judging other cultures as inferior because of their perspectives on gender. It is also worth noting that while cross-dressing and dressing in certain cultural clothing was being criminalised, so-called freak shows were busy exhibiting people whose appearance would have been criminalised in public (Sears 2008). In such a way, these people were doubly classified as abnormal: their existence was both criminalised and made into something freakish to be shown off at a show. Sears even mentions one person who after having been arrested for cross-dressing, got recruited by a freak show who made use of their infamy when advertising the show.
Now, I would like to return across the Atlantic to Europe, and Germany… As mentioned previously, Magnus Hirschfeld was one of the more significant sexologists there at the turn of the century (Stryker 2008, 39). But he didn’t just research trans people, he was also an early advocate for them. For instance, he worked with the Berlin police department to end the harassment of trans people, and he employed trans people at his institute (as receptionists and maids, but still). Said institute was called Institut für Sexualwissenschaft (”the Institute for Sexual Science”) and was opened in 1919. There Hirschfeld and his colleagues held lectures and collected historical documents detailing the diversity of sexuality and gender throughout the world. They also had a clinic, where trans people could receive gender-affirming treatments starting in the early 1920s (Holm 2020). It was there the world’s first documented gender-affirming genital surgery was performed in 1931, on one of Hirschfeld’s employees and friends, Dora Richter.
Later during the same year, Lili Elbe (who some might know from the movie The Danish Girl) received the same treatment at the institute. Unfortunately, the institute was attacked by Nazis in 1933, its books burned, and many of those working there were killed (Stryker 2008, 40). Hirschfeld himself survived, not being in Germany at the time.
Even if much research was destroyed in the destruction of the Institute for Sexual Science, not all knowledge was lost. One key example of this can be seen in the person of Harry Benjamin, a former colleague of Hirschfeld who had migrated to the U.S. in 1913 yet had remained in contact with Hirschfeld for several years (Stryker 2008, 45). In the U.S. Benjamin eventually ended up being one of the leading medical authorities on trans people. For example, he advised on a court case in San Francisco in 1949, arguing against the opinion of other experts (including Alfred Kinsey) who thought that:
…transsexual genital modification would constitute ‘mayhem’ (the willful destruction of healthy tissue) and would expose any surgeon who performed such an operation to possible criminal prosecution. That opinion cast a pall, lasting for years, over efforts by U.S. transgender people to gain access to transsexual medical procedures in their own countries.(Stryker 2008, 45)
As is hinted at in that quote, however, treatments were available in other countries, for instance in Europe. This was something for instance Christine Jorgensen, who can perhaps be called the world’s first modern trans celebrity, made use of when she travelled to Denmark in 1951 to receive gender-affirming surgery.
This immediately made Denmark famous for allowing trans people access to gender-affirming treatments, although as Holm notes, this also led them to quickly stop allowing non-Danish citizens access to such treatments (Holm 2017, 36). In the U.S. gender-affirming treatments slowly started to become more accessible during the 60s and 70s, but mainly through university-based research programs (Stryker 2008, 93). This was partly thanks to Harry Benjamin, who had in 1966 published a book called The Transgender Phenomena. In this book, he argued that trans people should be given access to medical treatments, instead of being subjected to psychotherapy. He also proposed diagnostics criteria and medical treatments that have influenced trans health care worldwide way into the 21st century (Krieg 2013). It should therefore be noted that while Benjamin did a lot for the transgender community of his time, many trans scholars and activists today criticise the way his work is still used today (eg. Krieg 2013).
Even while this was all happening, queer and trans communities were being formed both in the U.S. and other parts of the world, taking up more and more visible space. Or rather, some did. As Susan Stryker notes, while many white suburban trans people organised discreetly in private, trans people of colour in urban settings were often decidedly more visible (Stryker 2008, 56). One example of this was the drag ball subculture emerging in several American cities. But another example is of course the increasing activism and resistance shown by especially poor queer and trans people of colour. The most famous example of this, which has often been called the start of the modern LGBTQ+ movement, is of course the Stonewall Riots in 1969. There queer people, the majority being poor and/or people of colour, fought back against police brutality, racism, homophobia, and transphobia.
But Stonewall wasn’t the first such instance, a very similar one happened at Compton’s Cafeteria in the Tenderloin neighbourhood San Francisco in 1966. As Stryker describes it:
One weekend night in August- the precise date is unknown- Compton’s, a twenty-four-hour cafeteria at the corner of Turk and Taylor streets, was buzzing with its usual late-night crowd of drag queens, hustlers, slummers, cruisers, runaway teens, and down-and-out neighbourhood regulars. The restaurant’s management became annoyed by a noisy young crowd of queens at one table who seemed to be spending a lot of time without spending a lot of money, and called in the police to roust them- as it had been doing with increasing frequency throughout the summer. A surly police officer, accustomed to manhandling Compton’s clientele with impunity, grabbed the arm of one of the queens and tried to drag her away. She unexpectedly threw her coffee in his face, however, and a melee erupted: Plates, trays, cups and silverware flew through the air at the startled police officers, who ran outside and called for backup.(Stryker 2008, 64-65)
As Stryker notes, a variety of societal factors impacted the outcome at Compton’s Cafeteria, one of the main ones being that the residents of the area were very socially disadvantaged on several levels. This was especially true for trans women who often had very few options both regards to where to live and where to work due to discrimination. They were also often harassed by police, often being arrested for selling sex, regardless if they did so or not, and were then mistreated in a variety of horrible ways. But by 1966 some changes had begun happening, and the inhabitants of the area had begun to organise in a variety of ways, including getting involved in anti-poverty activism. One consequence of this organising was the formation of the organisation Vanguard, an organisation mostly made up of “young gay hustlers and transgender people.” (Stryker 2008, 70) Being formed in the summer of 1966, this was the first known queer youth organisation in the U.S. Considering this background, it’s not surprising that the queens at Compton’s Cafeteria had enough of the police’s harassment and decided to fight back.
Yet, with the increasing trans activism across the U.S. there came a backlash too, of course. This happened in a variety of ways, but one I thought especially worth noting is the backlash within the feminist movement. The opposition to trans people in feminism can be said to have started in the early 1970s, with some feminists arguing that trans people should not be welcome in feminist spaces, and trans women especially should not be welcome in women-only spaces (Stryker 2008). By the late 70s, this view was being expressed by feminist scholars as well, with for instance feminist theologian Mary Daly calling transsexuality a “necrophilic invasion” of women’s spaces. But it was perhaps another scholar, Janice G Raymond who would leave the biggest mark on anti-trans feminism, influencing people for decades to come. In 1979, Raymond published her book The Transsexual Empire: The Making of the She-Male where she, among other things writes “I contend that the problem of transsexualism would be best served by morally mandating it out of existence.” (quoted in Stryker 2008, 109) She also writes the following about trans women (TW sexual violence):
Rape, of course, is a masculinist violation of bodily integrity. All transsexuals rape women’s bodies by reducing the real female form to an artifact, appropriating this body for themselves. However, the transsexually constructed lesbian-feminist violates women’s sexuality and spirit, as well. Rape, although it is usually done by force, can also be accomplished by deception. It is significant that in the case of the transsexually constructed lesbian-feminist, often he [sic] is able to gain entrance and a dominant position in women’s spaces because the women involved do not know he [sic] is a transsexual and he [sic] just does not happen to mention it. (…) Because transsexuals have lost their physical ‘members’ does not mean that they have lost their ability to penetrate women—women’s mind, women’s space, women’s sexuality.(Raymond 1979, 134)
Raymond’s argument is basically that not only are trans women not women, but by “appropriating” female bodies they exploit women. And if trans women want to join women-only spaces, that is a violation. If this sounds familiar, it is because many anti-trans feminists use similar arguments today as well. It is as hateful and untrue now as it was then.
I will stop here, at the beginning of the 1980s, with trans people fighting back against oppression, and their oppressors fighting them in return. In many ways things have of course changed since then, we have more legal equality in many countries, but in other ways, it feels like we are stuck in the same type of backlash again. Globally, the situation for trans people is currently getting worse again (Pearce; Erikainen & Vincent 2020). There is increased societal backlash against trans people in many places, and anti-trans legislation is also being introduced in many countries. We are also in the middle of what Pearce, Erikainen and Vincent call the “TERF-wars”, with anti-trans feminism running rampant. In many current debates, it is claimed that trans identities are something new, just some trend that young people are following. I hope that this essay has helped make it clear that this is most definitely not the case. Across the world, we have evidence that gender diverse people who don’t fit into Western binary gender norms has always existed. Even if one would just focus on the West, there is evidence as far back as the Iron Age that gender nonconforming people existed. There is evidence of medieval trans people who lived and died, as another gender than they were assigned at birth. And in modern times, we have had access to gender-affirming treatments for trans people for a hundred years. Trans people are not a trend, and we will not be erased.
This essay was edited on March 31st 2022 to include a reference to a post by Dr Liisa-Rávná Finbog (2022).
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