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.