Trans History

Why a separate section on Trans history, the history of transgender people?

While I have devoted an entire section of this site to LGBT History, being myself a trans woman I have a particular interest in Trans History and if you have attended any my Transgender Awareness Training Workshops you will know that I always spend some time exploring parts of this rich and largely unknown history.  For me, that it is largely unknown is the fascination.

LiliElbeYou might think that Trans history is a recent social phenomenon because the first time that trans people started to really make the news was just after World War II. The first famous post war transsexual was Christine Jorgensen, a  Danish born GI who made headline news in 1954 when she returned to the US after surgery. The first publicly recognised transsexual was Lili Elbe, another Dane, but this time an artist, who sadly died as a result of her last surgery in 1931. But trans people have been around a lot longer than that.

Part of the problem is that labels like transvestite, transsexual and transgender are 20th century inventions. Before 1910 there was no real differentiation between gay men and trans women or lesbian women and trans men. Furthermore the terminology has changed a number of times throughout history and is also different in different cultures. Hijra in India and Pakistan, Travesti in Brazil and Kathoey in Thailand are just a few examples.

hijraAnother good example of this is in the Bible which refers to Eunuchs, whom we have always believed to be “castrated males.”  But a study of the Hijra in India and other trans communities shows that full castration is often undertaken by these trans communities and that leads us to have to assume that at least some of the eunuchs were probably trans, some were intersex and there is also evidence to suggest that some were gay men.

One reason why Trans History has been almost invisible is that many trans people do not want to be seen as trans – they want to be accepted as the gender they feel they should have been born, so go to incredible lengths to hide their trans identity.

Furthermore men displaying feminine characteristics are often seen as weak, so that men in leadership positions in the past have had to hide their femininity or risk being victims of aggressive male enemies. Women on the other hand have been subjected to patriarchal oppression for centuries and that has meant severe punishments for daring to express masculinity. Joan of Arc was burned at th4e stake not for heresy or witchcraft as many believe, but for passing herself off as a man – for wearing male clothes.

Ironically, however, it is because of the persecution of people who transgress the gender divide that we do have a trans history at all. Records of these transgressions have been kept and although the writers of history have tried to exclude LGBT, and especially trans people, once we understand how they were excluded, they become visible.

Some of the history you explore with me here will be controversial.

  • Did Dr James Barry, a surgeon who rose to the rank of Inspector General in the British Army live secretly as a man because women were not permitted to become surgeons or because he wished to live as a man?
  • Did Henry VIII make homosexuality a capital offense in 1533 primarily in order to crush the Catholic Church and dissolve the monasteries?
  • Was William Shakespeare in love with a man who dressed as a woman?

These and many other questions will be answered in the following pages.

If you are interested in reading up on Trans history I recommend the following book which is largely about US trans history. Other books of interest are available through the bookstore.

Transgender History – UK Transgender History – US

Trans History Links

Here are some of the links I have found exclusively exploring Trans history that you may find of interest.  There are also more links on the LGBT History page which include a lot of trans history but are not exclusively focused on trans issues.

The Trans Timeline – An excellent Timeline of Trans History

Transgender: A History – Good history resource on an local Alberta, Canada site

Transgender History Series – A series of six articles from Trans Activist Mercedes Allen

A Brief History of Transgender Issues – Guardian Article from Stephen Whittle on legislation and medical history

GLAAD’s Transgender Visibility Timeline– Attractive visual timeline of recent trans history

Trans* History Timeline – an interesting modern history timeline

International Transgender Historical Society – an excellent and detailed trans history, particularly recent history

History of Transgenderism – This is a quite interesting collection – though the site is a bit disorganised

Part 1 – 7000bc – 1895 ad       Part 2 – 1900 – 1968

Part 3 – 1970 – 1989                 Part 4 – 1990 – 1999

Part 5 – 2000 – 2005                Part 6 – 2006 – 2009




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