Trans History Is Not White

Yesterday Juliet Jacques had an article in the New Statesman about the supposed “debate” between radical feminists and trans women. (It is an interesting form of debate — the TERFs want us dead, and we just want them to leave us alone.) The article is, in most ways, fine writing which makes clear the dishonesty, spite and bigotry at the heart of the TERF cause. However, in tracing the history of trans people, Juliet focuses solely on events in Western Europe and the USA, dating from the late 19th Century. This gives a very distorted view of trans history.

The first firmly documented evidence of a trans person is the Roman emperor, Elagabalus. According to the historian, Cassius Dio, Elagabalus enjoyed dressing as a woman, referred to his handsome charioteer as his “husband”, and offered a fortune to any doctor who could provide him with female genitalia.

The date that the Kama Sutra was written is a matter for scholarly debate. It may be older than the Roman Empire, or it may not. Either way it makes reference to gender identity. In the section on fellatio it notes that some eunuchs adopt a male gender performance while others adopt a female gender performance.

The existence of trans women in India — Hijra, Aravani and other terms depending on the language — dates back at least to the time of the Kama Sutra, and probably much longer. Other Asian civilizations have their own traditions of gender variance. The Kathoey of Thailand are probably the best known. Kabuki theatre in Japan may also have provided an outlet for gender-variant people.

In her autobiography, Redefining Realness, Janet Mock notes that Hawaii had a tradition of gender variance before the arrival of Europeans.

To be mahu was to occupy a space between the poles of male and female in precolonial Hawaii, where it translated to “hermaphrodite,” used to refer to feminine boys or masculine girls. But as puritanical missionaries from the West influenced Hawaiian culture in the nineteenth century, their Christian, homophobic, and gender binary systems pushed mahu from the center of culture to the margins.

Other Polynesian cultures have their own versions of gender variance. In Samoa the term used is Fa’afafine.

Across the Pacific, many Native American cultures also had traditions of gender variance. Once again many different terms are used. One of the most commonly seen today is Two Spirit. I am fairly confident that research would turn up gender variant traditions in the pre-colonization cultures of Africa and South America as well.

Traditions of trans men are much less common, presumably for the same reason that trans men attract relatively little attention in our culture. Trans women are almost always seen as being far more socially transgressive, and therefore more notable. However, the Sworn Virgins of Albania form an example of a tradition that makes space for trans men in society.

The way in which gender identities are constructed in other cultures can be quite different from the accepted medical model of transsexualism that we are used to in the West. This is hardly surprising, because the form that gender variance takes will be necessarily dependent on the way in which gender is perceived by the host culture, and on the level of medical technology available.

Many Hijra identify as Third Gender rather than male or female. Pakistan (yes, Pakistan, a predominantly Muslim country) has had a law allowing citizens to register as Third Gender since 2009. Nepal and India have since followed suit.

One thing that the West might regard as unique is the use of advanced medical technology, in particular the use of hormone therapy and plastic surgery. However, Hijra have been undergoing castration for centuries, so medical intervention is hardly new.

There are many reasons to acknowledge the existence of gender variance in non-white cultures. To start with white people ought to stop claiming to have invented things when they clearly have not done so. Much more importantly, the vast majority of trans women murdered each year because of their identities are non-white, and we should not erase them by appearing to present being trans as largely a white phenomenon.

In this particular instance, however, it is also important to present the long history of gender variance outside of white cultures because a fundamental axiom of the TERF cause is that being trans is a modern creation of a medical industry at the service of Patriarchy. They see this as a direct response to the rise of feminism, which is generally taken to be an invention of white women from the 20th Century. (Go back and read The Female Man to see some of these ideas spelled out fairly clearly.) Once you are aware of the long history of gender variance in other cultures, the fatuousness of their claims is apparent. Trans people have always been with us, even in cultures far more misogynist in many ways than our own, and even when no medical industry existed to create them.

2 thoughts on “Trans History Is Not White

  1. Hi Cheryl!

    Thanks for this – an interesting and important piece. I’d like to clarify, though – I wasn’t attempting to give an entire trans history in the article, but look specifically at how and why elements of the feminist movement became so opposed to the Gender Identity Clinic system in particular, and what the motivations were for that – the piece explicitly said that it was covering that conflict and no more. In hindsight I should probably have made that clearer through some lines in the text and a link, and if I ever have to do something like that again (and I really hope I don’t) then thank you for providing an excellent, clear, accessible (and succinct!) resource.

    1. Hey, thank you for a) providing a great article and b) being prepared to stick your head above the parapet in that way. And obviously in a long piece like that there’s a limit to what you can shoehorn in.

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