This morning, while I was on my way to Bristol to do the radio show, my Twitter feed lit up with discussion of trans history. Yesterday The Guardian ran a piece about Albert Cashier, a Union solider from the American Civil War who was assigned female at birth but fought as a man and continued to live as one after the war. It was intended as a challenge to the Unpresident’s ban on trans people in the military. Inevitably it drew comment from well known anti-trans campaigners:
I'm really nervy about tying up historical gender non-conformity with modern politics like this: https://t.co/gLe8Dfa6HN
— Helen Lewis (@helenlewis) August 22, 2017
There are several things that can be said about this, starting with the fact that this is hardly deep history that we are talking about here. Cashier died in 1915. The first modern trans surgery I know of in the USA took place in 1917 when Alan Hart had the first of a number of operations. He went on to have further surgery and took testosterone as soon as it became available to him. Hart identified as trans in a way easily recognizable today, and his life overlapped with that of Cashier for many years. It doesn’t seem unreasonable that Cashier might have had similar feelings.
Also, while Cashier was assigned female at birth, we have no details regarding his anatomy. As late as the 1930s people with intersex conditions were regularly having their gender re-assigned in adulthood due to errors made at birth. In it not impossible that Cashier had some sort of physical condition that might have inspired him to change gender role.
Some of the complaints about the article say that it is an attempt to “erase women’s history”. That seems a vast over-statement. Hundreds of women fought in the American Civil War. The vast majority of them went back to living as women if they survived the war and can be celebrated as women. Cashier is unusual (though not unique) in continuing to live as a man. Why noting that maybe 1% of the assigned-female people who fought might be trans counts as an erasure of women’s history is a mystery to me. Why is it that every single possible example of a trans man from history has to be reclaimed as a woman for women’s history to exist?
I have seen some people saying that they find it hard to believe that Cashier identified as a man. This, I suspect, is because they are cis people and can’t imagine why anyone would identify as trans. The way Cashier lived was incredibly dangerous for him. As Jonah Coman noted on Twitter today, cis people would never put themselves in that much danger. You have to really need to transition full time socially in order to survive doing it.
Then there is the political aspect. As far as the Unpresident is concerned, Cashier’s gender status is irrelevant. Cashier fought in the Union army, and trans men fight in the US Army today. Whether you regard them as men, or as “really women” doesn’t affect the fact that they fight well and bravely, and are a credit to their units. It doesn’t matter what gender you believe someone to be to defend their right to serve.
Why, then, is Lewis so perturbed about the Cashier article? The answer, of course, is politics. The idea that a trans man might have existed in the 19th Century is anathema to anti-trans campaigners because it is a matter of political faith for them that trans identities are not real, and that they did not exist until (male) doctors “invented” them in the 20th Century. Just like the Alt-Right goons who can’t accept the existence of black people in Roman Britain, Lewis and her pals can’t accept the existence of trans people in 19th Century America. In both cases this refusal stems from political opinions rooted in bigotry.
(It is, of course, no accident that among the most vocal supporters of the Unpresident’s ban on trans people in the military were anti-trans “feminists”.)
History (as Kit Heyam noted today) is always political. You can’t interpret the past without your own feelings and prejudices influencing that interpretation. Seeking to erase specific groups of people from history is about as political as it gets.