The Trans People from History Question

A week or so ago there was a lengthy Twitter conversation between myself, Kit Heyam, and Greg Jenner (who is the historical consultant for the BBC’s Horrible Histories show). It was occasioned by the publication of a new biography of James Barry, someone who is often held up as an example of a trans person from history. This post is not about Barry. I have bought the new biography, which appears to be making the case that Barry strongly identified as female despite living as a man, but I haven’t had a chance to read it yet. Rather the post is more generally about how we interpret evidence from history.

The first point I want to discuss I owe to Kit. It is that conversations such as the one around Barry do not happen in a vacuum. It is a long-held tenet of belief among certain self-styled Radical Feminists that trans people are a recent invention, and indeed a creation of the Patriarchy. Their view is that trans people cannot have existed in the past because the concept of being a trans did not exist then (and indeed do not exist now other than in our own perverted imaginations). As a consequence of this there is a determined effort to “reclaim” any possible evidence of trans men from history and to prove that these people saw themselves as women. The new Barry biography looks like it may be part of that effort. The musical which portrayed Billy Tipton as a flamboyant drag king rather than someone who lived as a man for most of his life certainly was.

The sort of argument being made comes over very clearly in the Guardian review of the Barry biography. Look at the word choices: “scandalous subterfuge”, “adopted a male persona”, “was, in fact, a woman”, “perfect female”, “masqueraded as a man”, “deception of breathtaking proportions”.

BINGO! And I have only got as far as the second paragraph.

The message is very clear. As far as the reviewer is concerned, Barry was “really a woman”, and that presenting as a man was an act of deceit. By extension, the reviewer is also making the case that all trans people are engaged in acts of deceit because, like Barry, we can only “really” be the gender we were assigned at birth. It is not surprising, therefore, that trans people tend to treat such claims with some skepticism, given the level of political bias involved.

In practice, of course, we can never be sure how people from the past thought about themselves. Absent a time machine, we can’t go back and ask them. All we can do is look at their behavior and make judgements based on that. What we see varies enormously. There are people from the past who cross-dress occasionally for festivals and similar occasions, much like people do today for Halloween. There are people from the past who cross-dress for entertainment, like modern drag performers. There are people from the past who cross-dress for economic advantage, but give it up as soon as the opportunity arises. There are people from the past who cross-dress to signal their sexual tastes. And there are people from the past who cross-dress for most of their adult lives.

Cis historians tend to present all of this as masquerade, and assume that all of these people identified with the gender they were assigned at birth. Certainly they talk about them in those terms. A point I make in opposition to this is that cis historians have never suffered from gender dysphoria and have no idea what it is like. Most trans people have strong personal experience of having to live in a gender that does not suit you. We know how hard that is. We find the idea that someone should successfully live most of their adult life in a different gender without having a strong affinity for that gender, to be quite bizarre. It would be incredibly stressful.

A study I would love to see done, but can’t do myself because it would require access to archives in US universities, is a comparative study of people assigned female at birth who fought in the American Civil War. There were a lot of them. Estimates range from 400 to 750. That’s a good sample size, though not all of them will have left much evidence. Why they did this is subject to a great deal of debate. My view is that there is no easy answer, because they will all have had their own reasons:

  • Some will have done it to stay with husbands, brothers or lovers;
  • Some will have done it because they were poor and the army offered employment, a home and food;
  • Some will have done it because they strongly believed in the cause of the side they fought for;
  • But some of them continued to live as men for the rest of their lives once the war was over, which suggests a rather greater affinity for masculinity.

Again you can’t prove that these people identified as men, but it is possible that they did, and hard to see how they would have coped with life otherwise.

Another point I want to make is that saying that someone from the past was “really a woman” is just as anachronistic as saying that the person was a “trans man”. The idea that the human race is divided into men and women, and that never the twain shall meet, is a relatively new one. These ideas developed in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries as science began to give us tools to quantify this separation. Before we knew about chromosomes and sex hormones, the existence of other genders was a possibility and often taken for granted.

We should remember, for example, that many ancient societies made significant use of eunuchs in various roles. The Assyrians were the first to use eunuchs in court on a grand scale, but they existed in Sumer too. The Chinese also made extensive use of eunuchs. Cai Lun, the person credited with the invention of paper, was a eunuch. So too was China’s greatest naval hero, Zheng He.

Many eunuchs, of course, still identified as men, but others identified as a third gender, or even (so the Kama Sutra tells us) as women. Indeed there is a long written history of this behavior in India, and it continues to the present day.

It is also worth noting that, if someone was made a eunuch as a child, which was fairly common (and a necessity for making castrati singers) then it constitutes both surgery and hormone treatment (in that male puberty is prevented), which are the two pillars of modern gender medicine.

Interestingly many ancient sources (including the Bible) talk of people who are “natural eunuchs” or “born eunuchs”. What this means is not clear, beyond the fact that these are people who were believed to have been born with no sexual interest in women. They may have been intersex in some way, they may have been more like modern gay cis men, or they may have been more like modern heterosexual trans women. My guess is that they would have included all three, because ancient people didn’t have the tools or language to distinguish between these categories.

It is also true that many tribal cultures around the world show evidence of social structures designed to accommodate people who live outside of the gender binary. We have plenty of historical reports, and where those cultures haven’t been destroyed by colonialism those practices continue today. You can find examples in the Americas, in Polynesia and Australia, in parts of Africa, in fact pretty much everywhere that tribal cultures are still found. How these cultures make allowances for trans identities varies considerably: some may have a third gender; some may allow only male-to-female transition; or only female-to-male; and some have both. The fact that these traditions exist proves that a need existed, which must prove that people in those societies identified in some way as being outside of the gender binary.

One of the reasons why social structures accommodating trans people are so varied is that trans people themselves are very varied. The idea that there is only one sort of trans person — someone who wants and needs full medical transition from one binary gender to the other — is just as false a distinction as the binary itself, and one that has caused a great deal of harm to trans people down the years. This brings me to my final point, which is that anyone who says that “trans people” cannot have existed in the past because ideas of medical gender reassignment did not exist back then is using a very limited definition of what “trans” means that doesn’t begin to cover the diverse identities that we see in the trans community today.

The modern trans community includes people who identify as being members of a third gender for social purposes. It includes people whose gender is inextricably bound up with their spiritual beliefs. It includes people who want to transition socially but not medically. It includes people who are gender-fluid: comfortable presenting in more than one gender. It includes people who don’t understand the whole gender thing and wish it would go away. All of these people feel comfortable identifying as trans now that being trans does not require you to undertake full medical transition and adopt one of the binary genders thereafter.

So when I talk about looking for trans people in history, I’m not looking to prove that any of these people would opt for full medical transition where they born today. Some of them might, but others surely would not because if being trans is a natural part of the human condition then we should expect trans people from the past to be as diverse as trans people are today.

My starting point is to look for evidence of people living outside of the gender binary. Providing that they are doing so as part of their normal life, and not just cross-dressing for special occasions, all of those people are trans in some way or another. If I can’t pigeonhole them into a specific part of the modern trans community, well so what? Their identities have to be understood in the context of their local culture anyway. It may be that some of them did strongly identify as their birth gender, but in that case I would want to see proof of that being the case, not taking that as the natural assumption.

And you know, looking at it that way, the past is absolutely full of trans people.