Who’s the odd one out?: Alexander the Great, Frida Kahlo, Virginia Wolff, Alan Turing, Paris Lees.
All of these famous LGBT people featured on posters around my campus in recent years to celebrate LGBT History Month. Although I would hardly call Paris Lees and her contemporaries Laverne Cox, Chaz Bono and Janet Mock historical figures, at least not yet! I was always quite confused about why famous LGB were found from all periods of history whilst we can only think of trans people who are alive today or in very recent history, despite ample evidence to suggest that people who don’t identify with the gender they were assigned at birth exist in all contemporary and historical societies. It creates the impression that trans people are a recent phenomenon, and divorces us from the historical struggles we have been a part of.
A major problem with compiling trans history is that the way that we talk about gender identity and sexuality now is a relatively recent thing. For much of history, what we know now as LGB and trans identities have not been considered as distinct. This has led to significant tracts of queer history – our history – being retrospectively claimed by cis LGB people alone.
Radclyffe Hall, the author at the centre of an obscenity trial for their novel The Well of Loneliness, is a case in point. Hall identified as being a congenital invert. Sexologist Kraft-Ebing defined AFAB inverts as having a “masculine soul, heaving in the female bosom”, whilst another contemporary sexologist, Havelock Ellis, defines AFAB inversion as something more similar to what we understand as lesbianism today. We don’t know which definition Hall would have preferred, or if Hall would have seen these two definitions as mutually exclusive. However, we do know that Hall chose to publish their work using their gender-neutral middle name, Radclyffe, rather than their more female-coded first name, and that Hall was called John by their closest friends and lovers. We also know that Hall pretty much exclusively dressed in clothes that would be considered masculine at the time. Yet Hall has been pretty much exclusively claimed as part of (cis) lesbian history and not trans history. Likewise we can see a similar dynamic happen with the Stonewall Riots, a riot led by trans women of colour and homeless queers, yet being claimed almost exclusively on behalf of white cis LGB historians.
When trans and gender non-conforming people are talked about, they are understood in cis-centric terms. I’ve lost count of the amount of times I have heard cis historians talk about people who were assigned female at birth dressing in men’s clothing in order to become a doctor, soldier, pirate or similar. This understanding frames their gender presentation as a means to accessing a profession, despite the fact that often there is evidence to suggest that many of these individuals dressed in male clothing much before taking on the occupation they were famous for. Chances are, these individuals were simply trans people doing what for the time was a gender appropriate profession, rather than being particularly opportunistic cis women.
Likewise a significant amount of people who pop up in the historical record as being convicted for being male sex workers may well could be understood differently from a trans perspective. In many of these cases, people were convicted on the basis that they looked to the police like men dressed in women’s clothes, and this was used as ‘proof’ of those individuals being sex workers. The understanding was that those individuals would dress as women in order to become sex workers, rather than simply being women who may or may not be involved in sex work. This framing results in those individuals being remembered as gay male sex workers, rather than as trans women.
Part of the problem is that history has been written, recorded and disseminated by cis people – the vast majority of which do not have much contact with trans culture. Cis historians are currently not equipped to recognise when a historical event of figure is of significance to the trans community. And as trans people are discriminated against today, most cis historians do not feel it valuable to learn about trans histories. This creates a vicious cycle: the less historians writing about trans histories, the harder it is to learn about them.
As such, Action for Trans Health’s resident historian, Greta Williams-Schultz, has created a short guide to historical trans figures from the UK. Within the guide you can read about historical trans people whom you might not have heard about. Some lead ordinary lives, such as Mary Mudge who worked as a dairymaid in Devon, and others were remembered as doing extraordinary feats, such as Jan Morris, a member of the first British team to climb Everest.
Many of these individuals lived before the term ‘trans’ or ‘lesbian’, ‘gay’ or ‘bisexual’ existed. There is always going to be a debate whether it is appropriate for us to claim people as trans when the concept didn’t exist when they were alive. But LGB people don’t seem to have an issue with claiming Alexander the Great as bisexual when he died approximately 2200 years before the term was invented. The fact is, cis people are seen as the default, so if we don’t claim these historical figures as our own, cis people will only do it for us.