My Exeter Speech

Tomorrow I will be off to Bournemouth for their LGBT History Month event. I’ll be giving the same talk that I did in Exeter last Sunday. That one doesn’t work without the slides, but the speech I gave at the Exeter launch does. It isn’t quite as good without all of the visual jokes, but it is at least intelligible, so I’m posting it here.

As some of you will have seen on social media, the Bournemouth event has attracted the attention of a fringe group of religious homophobes. I am pretty sure that they will be too cowardly to turn up in person, if only because that means we’ll see how few of them there actually are.

Anyway, the speech:

People of diverse genders,

I’ve been asked to speak today both as a trans activist and as an historian. These days that doesn’t seem quite so odd as it would have been in my school days. There is a recognition now that history is not just HIS-story, it is overwhelmingly straight cis rich white able-bodied man’s story. When I was at school we were starting to see historians looking at the lives of the poor. When I was at university I started to hear about feminist historians, though judging from Amanda Foreman’s Ascent of Woman TV series we still have a long way to go on that front. There is a shameful lack of people of colour amongst academic historians in the UK. We’ve made the first step by acknowledging the problem, but again there is a long way to go. We also have LGBT History Month. So trans history is being researched and written, yes?

Well, not exactly. Last year I attended an international conference in Canada on trans history. There were a few presentations from people outside of Western culture: a couple of Canadian two-spirit people, and an Indian hijra who now lives in New York. But the vast majority of the material covered by the conference was rooted in Western culture, and didn’t go any further back than the late 19th Century.

Why does this matter? Here is a brief quote from one of the regular attacks made on trans people by Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour programme:

“… the phenomenon of transgenderism which is a social construct of the 2nd half of the 20th century and which has become particularly common in the last couple of decades…”

(Sheila Jeffreys, BBCR4 Woman’s Hour, Aug. 7th 2014)

That was Sheila Jeffreys, who is well known for her antagonism towards trans people. But she is by no means the only person to make that claim. Indeed, what I noticed in Canada is that many people who work on trans history take that claim as a basic assumption of their work.

All of LGBT history has suffered from erasure. We know that. But in the case of trans people the charge that we did not exist, at all, before the 20th century, is very precisely being used to deny us the right to exist now.

This claim that trans people were invented in the 20th century is ridiculous, but strenuous efforts have been made, and continue to be made, to convince people that it is true. Sometimes the erasure is very literal.

One of the most important documents in Inca history is An Account of the Antiquities of Peru, by Juan de Santa Cruz Pachacuti. The author was a man of native descent who had converted to Christianity and was attempting to walk the difficult tightrope of explaining his culture to his conquerors without incurring the wrath of the Catholic Church.

An English translation of the work was produced by Clements R Markham in 1873 and is published as part of his book, Narratives of the Rites and Laws of the Yncas. Here is a short passage from Pachacuti’s work.

“The Curacas and Mitmays of Caravaya brought a chuqui-chinchay, which is an animal of many colours, said to have been chief of the jaguars.”

On the face of it, there is nothing remarkable about his. However, here is the original Spanish.

“Los curacas y mitmais de Carabaya trae a chuqui chinchay, animal muy pintado de todos colores. Dizen que era apo do los otorongos, en cuya guarda da a los ermofraditas yndios de dos naturas.”

Los ermofraditos yndios? Where did that come from? It certainly isn’t in Markham’s translation. American scholar, Michael J Horswell, examined the original and realised that something had been left out. Thanks to him I came to hear of the Quariwarmi, literally “men-women”, a community of Inca who worshipped a liminal deity known as the rainbow jaguar and who appear to have been viewed by Inca society as being something between a man and a woman.

Where trans people are not literally erased, they may be presented as something other than trans. In the case of trans women they are almost always caricatured as sexual perverts. Take this example from the afterword to the English translation of the memoirs of the French cross-dresser and possible trans woman, François Timoléon, Abbé de Choisy.

“Choisy was instructed by his mother to be a girl. The unconscious erotic awakenings in a child brought up to imitate his mother and afforded no masculine gender differentiation are bound to be fetishistic, and reliant on the intimate provocation of dress to excite rather than distinctly orientated towards the body.”


“Men who dress to imitate women usually overcompensate for the possible inferiority they feel. Transvestites project an image of the ultra-feminine woman, which is often the embodiment of heterosexual fantasy. They wear the highest heels, the tightest skirts, their red lipstick signals danger.”

Those comments were first published in 1973, when I was a teenager, and are typical of attitudes towards trans women at that time.

In the case of trans men, the usual way of framing their stories is to portray them as ambitious women attempting to make their way in a strongly patriarchal society. Certainly such people did exist, but most cis historians fail to distinguish between people who cross-dress occasionally, people who cross-dress full-time but do not try to hide their gender, and people who live full time in a gender other than that they were assigned at birth.

Any binary-identified trans person can tell you how hard it is to live full time in a gender that doesn’t feel natural to you. The idea that someone assigned female at birth could simply decide to live the rest of their life as a man, without any affinity for masculinity, and maintaining a strong sense of their own femininity throughout, seems bizarre to me. I had to spend a long time pretending to be a man. I know how stressful it is.

Nevertheless we continue to see efforts to “reclaim” apparent trans men for womanhood. For example, there was a recent New York musical that “reinterpreted” jazz musician, Billy Tipton, as a flamboyant drag king. Given everything we know about him, I imagine that Tipton would have been horrified. Even if he did still see himself as a woman, he made every effort to appear the suave ladies’ man.

The latest historical figure in the spotlight is Dr. James Barry. I haven’t had a chance to read the new biography yet, and I have been told that it contains some interesting research into Barry’s background. What I do know is that the review of the book in The Guardian was a veritable bingo card of transphobic tropes, taking every opportunity to present Barry’s male identity as a deliberate and dishonourable fraud. Were he alive today I suspect that Barry, who was notorious for his short temper and strong sense of honour, would have challenged the author of that review to a duel.

Eunuchs are rarely mentioned in history books, and when they are it is generally with a sense of existential horror, particularly from male historians. No effort is spared to decry the evil of making someone a eunuch, and the eunuchs themselves are described as “victims”. In fiction eunuchs are generally portrayed as fat, ugly, and prone to vicious scheming.

Thanks to the efforts of Shaun Tougher in particular, the history of eunuchs is slowly being rehabilitated. It is pretty clear that the last 200 years of human history are highly unusual because of the small number of eunuchs that existed during that time. The previous 4,000 years were very different.

Given the hundreds of thousands of eunuchs who have been made over the years, it seems likely that they will have had a wide range of identities. Some will have clung to their masculinity; some we know identified closely with women; but almost all of them will have been seen by the rest of contemporary society as neither male nor female, but as something non-binary.

This brings us to the central issue of trans history. One of the arguments deployed by those claiming that trans people did not exist before the 20th century is that the words we now use to describe trans people – transgender, transsexual, non-binary and so on – were not coined until then. Misrepresenting Foucault, these people claim that if the idea of the trans person did not exist then no one could identify outside of the gender binary.

What these people miss is that words like heterosexual were not coined until the late 19th century. Scientific understanding of the biology of gender is a product of the same time period. The very idea that humanity is divided solely into males and females, and that never the twain shall meet, is a 19th century construct.

One reason why countries like India, Pakistan and Nepal are ahead of the UK in terms of legal recognition for non-binary genders is that those countries have centuries long traditions of recognising that more than two genders exist. Before science told us about chromosomes, the idea that gender was mutable was commonplace. Stories of people having their gender changed by capricious deities are common in mythologies around the world, and in some cultures it was believed that one could lose one’s masculinity and become a half-man, if not actually a woman, by inappropriate unmanly behaviour.

This, then, is why I do trans activism through history. The idea that trans people are a 20th century invention is completely false. If anything, it is the idea that human gender is fixed at birth and can only be male or female that is the aberration. In most cultures, and in most times in human history, that idea would seem ridiculous. Exposing the lie that is being told about trans people can only be done by shining a light on trans history.

One thought on “My Exeter Speech

  1. I sort of accept the general idea that “transgenderism which is a social construct of the 2nd half of the 20th century” in so far as before that the social constructs were different, are always changing. Not that the people weren’t there and feeling how they feel – but that the words and terms and constructs were different. Having said that I’d have said it was a lot longer ago than the 2nd half of the 20th century….

    I’m used to the idea of Barry being a woman who went beyond her gender but if that was the case it would make sense she would live as a woman once her career was over if only to thumb her nose at those who thought women could not have such careers. But he did not. He was accepted as a man and lived entirely as a man. So it seems likely he was a man. Not something I realised until relatively recently however. And it’s kind of a horrifying thought – being a man who looks like a woman in a world where women are second class citizens and so restricted/confined.

    Recognising that people have been people for many years and that there is very little if anything new under the sun about humanity is a hugely important way to make people realise that trans is nothing new, nothing to be afraid of and part of who we are. So I can totally see the importance of transhistory.

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