Doing Trans History #HistTrans

It was perhaps not the best timing in the world to be spending last weekend in a hotel in Manchester. I was up in the middle of the night on both Friday and Sunday mornings for events at Worldcon. But there was no way I was going to miss the UK’s first ever academic conference devoted solely to the history of trans people. Thank you so much to Emma Vickers and Liverpool John Moore University for putting it on. Here are my impressions of the event.

The keynote speech was given by long-time trans activist, Stephen Whittle. He treated us to a personal account of the history of trans activism in the UK — some of which he was very much a key part of. Stephen is an experienced speaker with a wealth of entertaining and illuminating anecdotes. My favorite was the one about the UK branch of the Transsexual Action Organisation dissociating itself from the US parent organization, in part because they claimed that the Americans were “into the Occult”. I’m pretty sure that means that a lot of the Americans were neo-pagans.

There were seven papers in all, including mine. I’m going to highlight the three I found most interesting.

First up, Jacob Bloomfield, who like me went to great lengths to be there. He is performing at Edinburgh Fringe at the moment. He caught an early train down, and left immediately after giving his paper so that he could be on stage at 8:00pm. His paper was all about cross-dressing revues put on by military veterans after the two world wars. Apparently there were quite a few. Danny La Rue was the most famous graduate of them. It isn’t clear whether anyone involved actually identified as trans, but the circumstances under which they were permitted by the authorities were quite interesting. The fact that the performers were all military veterans was apparently a key issue here as it established their essential virility. There was to be, according to one censor, “no pansy business”. Fascinatingly Jacob suggested that some British people found the idea of Tommy watching men dressed (very convincingly) as women preferable to the idea that he might hook up with some foreign woman while busy saving his country overseas.

Clare Tebbutt had a great paper about “sex changes” in the 1930s. These were nothing like the gender clinic work we know today, though they did center primarily around Charing Cross Hospital. A South African doctor called Lennox Broster became something of an expert in what we’d now call intersex conditions. Many intersex people who had been assigned female at birth were treated by him and a significant number were legally reassigned male as a result. His most famous patient was Mark Weston. The media of the day, having little understanding of the biology, reported these cases as “sex changes” and put them down to the miracles of modern medicine. Reporting was almost always favorable towards the patient, with scare quotes being used for the birth gender rather than the new one. Because of Broster’s particular specialism, the vast majority of the patients were seen as female-to-male, so we don’t know much about how a perceived male-to-female would have been reported, but the media climate then was clearly very different to what we see today.

(By the way, the history of such cases is why Michael Dillon was able to get his legal gender changed so easily, even though he had no intersex condition. The doctors, and the authorities, were used to such cases.)

Finally, my favorite paper of the day, Juthathorn Pravattiyagul on the Thai trans diaspora. Juthathorn is Thai herself, and she has done a lot of research hanging out with Thai trans women in various European cities. Acceptance of trans women is seen as much better in the West than in Thailand, because we have laws protecting us and Thailand doesn’t. That, combined with the obvious economic incentives, has caused large numbers of Thai trans women to emigrate to Europe. Juthathorn has found that the reality of life in the West rarely matches up to their dreams. Partly that’s because of racism, but in addition she found that social attitudes towards trans women are far less accepting in Europe than in Thailand, despite our more supportive laws. I so wish I had known about her work before I put in my submission to the UK government’s Transgender Equality Inquiry as I would have cited her.

It was also great to hang out with friends such as Emma Hutson and Catherine Baker, and to make new friends. I can warmly recommend the 60 Hope Street restaurant that Emma Vickers found for the conference dinner. However, I do have a few concerns about the way trans history is being done.

The majority of the attendees were cis people. Some of them were great. Others clearly don’t quite get it, and it you are doing trans history that’s important. I absolutely accept the idea that we can’t know how people from the past identified. I opened my own paper by saying so. Even if they did, their self-conceptions are likely to be very different from those of a modern trans person such as myself. However, just because we can’t say for certain that person X from the past identified as trans, or as the gender in which they presented for most of their life, we can’t say for certain that they didn’t. To persistently use the birth gender for all subjects, and to characterize them all as cross-dressers, is to erase the possibility of people being trans in the past. Given that the idea that being trans is a modern invention is a key part of TERF ideology, this is deeply political position to take. It is not, as I suspect most of the researchers assume, simply a neutral and default position.

It gets worse too. People do cross-dress for all sorts of reasons. Just take a look at any stag party, Halloween party, Saturday crowd at a Test Match and so on. There are so many more cis people than trans people that my guess is that there were more people in history who cross-dressed and did not identify as trans than there were those who did. Even with eunuchs, who are physically trans, there will probably be more who continue to identify as their birth gender than as anything else. If your “trans history” is focused on the idea of cross-dressing rather than on the idea of trans identities, then you will end up writing a history of cis people and calling it a history of trans people. I do not want to see us go down that route. Hopefully most of the academics involved don’t want us to either.

One thought on “Doing Trans History #HistTrans

Comments are closed.