Across the world today, people of all ages are doing fascinating, creative, messy things with gender. These people have a rich history – but one that is often left behind by narratives of trans lives that focus on people with stable, binary, uncomplicated gender identities. As a result, these stories tend to be recent, binary, stereotyped, medicalised and white. Before We Were Trans is a new and different story of gender, that seeks not to be comprehensive or definitive, but – by blending culture, feminism and politics – to widen the scope of what we think of as trans history by telling the stories of people across the globe whose experience of gender has been transgressive, or not characterised by stability or binary categories. Transporting us from Renaissance Venice to seventeenth-century Angola, from Edo Japan to North America, the stories this book tells leave questions and resist conclusions. They are fraught with ambiguity, and defy modern Western terminology and categories – not least the category of ‘trans’ itself. But telling them provides a history that reflects the richness of modern trans reality more closely than any previously written.
NOTCHES: In your introduction, you ask ‘When we talk about trans history, what are we even talking about?’ How do you define trans history in this book?
Kit Heyam: One of my main aims for Before We Were Trans was to expand the scope of what we think of as trans history. Too often, our narratives of trans history are constrained by narrow modern and Western ideas of what it means to be trans – meaning the trans histories we share are recent, binary, stable, medicalised and overwhelmingly white. Our narratives are also constrained by the anxieties that our contemporary anti-trans climate has created: we’re forced to spend so much time defending the ‘realness’ of our trans identities, and emphasising that our genders are completely un-influenced by other factors (our sexualities, our social roles, the way we express ourselves), that these have become the criteria for judging what constitutes trans experience in the past. But this is harmful – not only historiographically, but politically, since it accepts unchallenged the terms our opponents have set. So in Before We Were Trans, I wanted to shift our frame of reference for trans history: incorporating fluid, fleeting and non-binary experiences, cases of trans possibility, and histories that overlap with other categories, such as women’s history and the history of queer sexuality. The book tells the stories of people who don’t fit into modern and/or Western trans categories, and whose gender often can’t be separated from other aspects of their experience: from social role, dress, theatrical performance, sexuality, the body, spirituality. Most of these people can’t be accurately described as trans people, but I argue that their history can be described as trans history – because it’s history that shows us how gender has never been stable, essentialised or unchallenged.
NOTCHES: You highlight the problem of ‘border wars’ in relation to famous figures such as Anne Lister. How do we manage the overlap between trans and other histories, given that many of these historical figures matter to people on a deeply personal/ emotional level?
KH: It was essential for me to tackle the issue of overlapping histories head-on, particularly given my experience of working on a permanent rainbow plaque in York for Anne Lister, which I talk about in the book. Anne is a great example of someone with emotional importance for both lesbian and trans communities: someone known for intimate relationships with women and clear understanding of their own sexuality, but also for dressing in a gender-nonconforming way and expressing discomfort with being seen and treated ‘as a woman’ during sex. Often the way we talk about this is in terms of ownership – ‘claiming’ or ‘reclaiming’ a historical figure as trans or as another identity – which, as Gabrielle M.W. Bychowski has recognised, encourages us to think about our emotional connections to historical figures through a capitalist logic of scarcity, as if they’re limited resources we have to fight for. In Before We Were Trans I propose that instead, we move towards thinking about these histories in terms of community: a framing that recognises the kinship and solidarity we feel with historical figures, but without forbidding them to belong to multiple communities at once. Much like real-life border wars, I argue, the solution is not to vigorously defend the borders between our historical communities, but to dissolve them and admit more people to the land we hold in common.
NOTCHES: You take a global approach to trans history, looking at case studies from several continents. Why is it important to do this, and what problems does it pose?
KH: To write a history of people who’ve treated gender disruptively and creatively, but to tell only the stories of white people, would have been an act of racist erasure. But I was anxious not to fall into the trap of doing what so many white trans people (especially non-binary people like me) do when talking about people from non-Western cultures who can’t be accurately represented within a Western gender binary: romanticising them in the vein of the ‘transgender native’, and instrumentalising them in order to ‘prove’ the validity of our own genders, often without really taking the time to understand their experiences or their contemporary political struggles in any detail. Instead, I wanted to make the case for the importance of doing trans history in an anti-racist way: platforming the valuable existing work of scholars of colour; exposing the racist origins of the gender and sex binaries that white people now see as naturalised; emphasising the violent impact of Western colonialism on concepts and experiences of gender around the globe; and above all arguing for the importance of seeing everybody’s gender on their own cultural terms, especially when it isn’t something our own culture equips us to easily understand. This anti-racist stance is one of the most important aspects of the book for me, and I hope it can prompt a shift in the way white scholars in particular write about trans history.
NOTCHES: The book is subtitled ‘A New History of Gender’, but the history of sexuality also features prominently. Can we (and should we try to) separate these histories out?
KH: There are of course areas where it makes sense to engage with histories of gender and of sexuality in isolation – but in this book I was particularly interested in the places where they can’t be separated. One of the most common ways in which trans histories have been erased in previous scholarship is by reading them unequivocally as histories of sexuality. Chapter 4 of my book, ‘“A feminine soul confined by a masculine body”: the entangled history of gay and trans experience’, deals with this explicitly, telling the stories of how sexual practices have produced new gendered categories and experiences, as well as how our modern concepts of gay and trans identity developed in an entangled way through theories of sexual inversion. It also points out that the modern ideology which draws a strict dividing line between gender and sexuality is the product of 20th-century political wranglings among gay rights groups, which often threw trans and gender-nonconforming people under the bus in pursuit of perceived respectability – so it’s useful to be critical of why we see these categories of history as separate today, and whose experiences we’re erasing by continuing to entrench that separation.
NOTCHES: Historians of gender and sexuality often explore extremely intimate details of individual lives. How do we write this sort of history, and still treat our subjects with respect? How do we justify what we do, and are there limits to how far we should go?
KH: It was really important for me to think through this problem as I was writing Before We Were Trans. I’ve been influenced in my approach by conversations with colleagues working on trans and queer history: particularly the work of Onni Gust and Hugh Ryan, and the way Hil Malatino writes about history in Trans Care. There’s a lot of casual dehumanisation in trans history and intersex history (whose intersections I discuss in Chapter 5 of my book, ‘“I am both man and woman”: defiant bodies in early America and beyond’) – laying bare the details of trans and intersex people’s bodies, foregrounding the gender they were assigned at birth, coolly detailing violence committed against them – and I wanted to follow in the footsteps of these scholars and others by doing things differently. More broadly (as I explore in my conclusion) the book is rooted in an ethics of care which asks how we can care for people in the past and people in the present; I argue that seeing and knowing people on their own terms, rather than fixing them in modern and/or Western categories, is an essential aspect of that care.
NOTCHES: Why does this history matter today?
KH: In a context where anti-trans activists are committed to framing trans experience as a new invention, it’s essential that we share histories which contradict this narrative. It’s equally essential, though, that the histories we share demonstrate the full range of creative, playful, fluid, non-binary gendered experiences which have always existed, and continue to exist – enabling us to combat narrow ideas of what it means to be trans. More broadly, I’m convinced that the realisation that gender has always been open to redefinition and challenge – and the commitment to knowing people on their own terms – isn’t just potentially transformative for trans rights: it’s liberating for everybody.
NOTCHES: What are you working on now that this book is published?
KH: I’m working on a project called ‘Sexual Knowledge and Print Culture in Early Modern England’, investigating how what early modern people knew about sex was shaped by print culture – and with it, rethinking how we might understand the history of informal sex education. I’ve also had the opportunity to get involved in another exciting trans history project in my home city of Leeds, working with the Royal Armouries and the artist and researcher Luna Morgana to share and develop the story of a sword in their collection which was commissioned by the 18th-century spy and diplomat the Chevaliere d’Eon. Researching the Chevaliere’s life with Luna, and her archival materials held at the University of Leeds (including a fantastic scrapbook of newspaper clippings in which every sentence referring to her as a woman is underlined!) has convinced me that there’s lots more work to be done on telling her story in a trans-affirming way. And I’m working with James Daybell at the University of Plymouth to develop a toolkit for unlocking hidden stories of gender in museums, galleries and historic sites, which should be out very soon!
Kit Heyam is a writer, academic, trans awareness trainer and queer heritage practitioner, currently based at Queen Mary, University of London. Their work focuses on developing new approaches to transgressive gender and sexuality in the past, and their first book, The Reputation of Edward II, 1305-1697: A Literary Transformation of History was the first account of how fourteenth-century English king Edward II acquired his queer reputation. They coordinate the #RainbowPlaques project and are an organiser of Leeds Queer Film Festival. They tweet from @krheyam.
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