Social Constructivism and Trans History

My apologies for delving into theory here, but this is rather important and something I need to think through. Writing blog posts helps.

When you do LGBT history you hear a lot about how we must never impose modern ideas of sexual and gender identity on people from the past. A man in ancient Greece did not see himself as “gay” in the same way that a modern man might see himself as gay, despite the fact that both of them have sex with men. Same-sex relations had a very different place in Classical Greek culture than they do in our own.

The same is true of trans people. We might say that a person from the past identified as a kurgarra, a kinaidos, a gallus, a hijra, a mukhannath, a ninauposkitzipxpe, a quariwarmi, a brother-boy or any of a range of other identities, but they would not identify as a transsexual because the word didn’t exist.

That’s fair enough, but inevitably where trans people are concerned the argument gets taken further and starts to be used as an excuse for invalidation of modern identities.

To start with, just because the word transsexual didn’t exist in ancient times that doesn’t mean that trans people didn’t exist. As the above (very incomplete) list of identities shows, people lived lives outside of the gender binary in most (if not all) cultures throughout history. Where we have no evidence it is probably because such people had to stay under the radar for fear of their lives.

A more subtle argument is that because the word transsexual didn’t exist then trans women from ancient times would not have identified as women, they would always have used a local identity that was some form of third gender.

The most obvious point to make here is that gender identity is not a set of discrete boxes you can pigeonhole people into. Take a look at any group of trans people today and you will find a wide range of identities. Many people change how they identify as they experiment with their lives in search of something that they are comfortable with. Even within my lifetime, non-binary was not a socially accepted identity, and gender clinics used to pressure non-binary patients to either leave or adopt a transsexual identity. The fact that non-binary didn’t exist as an acceptable identity didn’t stop non-binary people from feeling non-binary, any more than the fact that the word homosexual didn’t exist didn’t stop men from having sex with each other.

It therefore seems reasonable to me that if you were to be able to examine a group of trans people from the past — say a group of galli from ancient Rome — you would find a whole range of identities among them. That might include people who have become galli against their will, people who seem to us more like effeminate gay men, people whose gender is non-binary, and people who identify strongly as women.

However, there is a deeper and more insidious danger here. If you argue that trans women from the past could not identify as women because the word transsexual didn’t exist, then you are arguing that if you create a society in which the idea of a transsexual doesn’t exist then you can stop trans people from identifying as women — you are postulating a “cure”. And you are claiming that the whole idea of being trans is socially constructed.

Please, cis academic friends, stop doing this.

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10 Responses to Social Constructivism and Trans History

  1. Farah says:

    Agreed (and I am currently having my own problems with the social model of disability for not dissimilar reasons).

  2. Catherine Butler says:

    It’s strange how seldom one hears people who espouse this kind of theory (whether with respect to sexuality or gender) apply it to the dominant group, though that’s necessary corollary of what they believe. When was the last time anyone said, for example, “John Donne wasn’t heterosexual, because the term didn’t exist then”? Or “Byron wasn’t straight?” Or “It would be a mistake to claim that Charles II wasn’t trans”? Approximately never. The absence of such statements is what makes this line smack of intellectual dishonesty.

    Even without the dishonesty, though, it’s naive. Of course language affects the way we think about things, and it’s salutary to remember that this has a cultural and historical dimension, but some people have been drinking too much neat Sapir-Whorf.

  3. Farah says:

    I’m not sure that’s quite true Cathy. There is an awful lot of work for example on the rise of the companionate marriage and the consequent redefining of marriage from a business model to an identity model. There is also a lot of law around husband and wifely bed duty and you don’t do that if it’s not in question.

    • Cathy Butler says:

      Yes, indeed – but that’s not quite what I’m saying. What I have yet to hear is someone claiming that “X was not heterosexual because the concept of heterosexuality did not exist yet” in the way that I frequently hear “Y could not have been homosexual because the concept of homosexuality did not exist yet.” Yet if the latter is true, so is the former – they’re two sides of the same argumentative coin.

      • Farah says:

        The audio books I was listening to last year discussed this: the author, Robert Garland, precisely discusses what this meant for the ancient Greeks and how marriage was very much seen as a civic contract and sex as a set of roles, not who you did it with.

  4. Farah says:

    Oh and I read a rather odd book about Christian impact on Roman marriage which also discussed the problematic nature of assuming heterosexuality as a modern construct and imposing it on Roman understandings.

    • Cathy Butler says:

      Well, I’m pleased to hear it. You are, after all, a historian and better read than I am. I can only report my own experience, which is that I have on numerous occasions heard arguments like this used to invalidate claims that gay or trans people have a history that extends beyond the invention of the relevant terminology; whereas I have never heard anyone use the same argument to invalidate cis or straight history in this way. (One reason, of course, is that straight/cis people seldom feel the need to prove what is widely and tacitly assumed in any case.)

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