A Potted History of Gender Variance: Trans Visibility in History

So. My computer has been struggling for a while and last month it died entirely. All of my data was wiped, so this blog, which was supposed to be published on March 31st for the International Transgender Day of Visibility, is now somewhat out of date. However, being aware of trans people’s impact on history, and indeed their PRESENCE in history isn’t something that should only be confined to one day, so I’ve rewritten it and gathered what I could from fragments I managed to photograph from my dying computer (le sigh). I hope that you enjoy it!

It’s been quite a few years since I’ve been a student, but luckily I’m totes down with the kids and have a friend who’s studying at the University of Bath who was able to smuggle me in to the excellent talk that Cheryl Morgan gave the university’s LGBT society.

Cheryl Morgan - picture stolen from twitter (sorry Cheryl!)
Cheryl Morgan – picture stolen from twitter (sorry Cheryl!)

Cheryl is a notable figure in the trans community in Britain. So when TERFs (Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists) like Sheila Jeffreys make ridiculous statements. Cheryl has something to say about it. In this case, the ridiculous statement from Ms. Jeffreys made of Radio 4 last year (on Women’s Hour no less) was this: “…the phenomenon of transgenderism, which is a social construct of the 2nd half of the 20th century and which has become particularly common in the last couple of decades…”

Clearly this is ridiculous. Clearly. Today – as many of our lovely Emily Tree-ers know, and live – gender is seen increasingly less as a binary, and more as a spectrum. Not only should your genitals have no bearing on your aspirations and opportunities as a person, they also shouldn’t limit your gender expression, or confine you to existing within a single gender. Jeffries, it seems, has failed to grasp this concept, and seems keen to keep the banner of “womanhood” for only those born with a vulva. (Or a womb? Is it the clitoris that defines me as a person? Do let me know if you’re reading, Ms. Jeffreys.) Her statement that trans people have somehow sprung into existence in the last 50 years or so seems to be an attempt to back up her beliefs with a very…interesting…take of history.

Cheryl was having none of it. She gave the issue some time and research and has managed to compile evidence of trans people spanning back at least 2000 years and from every continent on the planet. Well, not Antartica, because there are no indigenous people there, although Cheryl did find a potentially FTM penguin called Chupchikoni, a Hebrew slang term for penis. He was named this because he was so macho, and presented as the quintessential alpha male. Then his blood was tested, and it turned out that “trouser-snake” (as it were) was biologically female.

image from http://www.haaretz.com/polopoly_fs/1.564220.1387378856!/image/1630897787.jpg_gen/derivatives/landscape_300x300/1630897787.jpg
Chupchikoni with Suki in Tel Aviv zoo Image from http://tinyurl.com/oyckks5

Cheryl wrote on her blog that “the point of the talk was to prove Jeffreys not just wrong, but spectacularly and hilariously wrong”. In this, she succeeded. Cheryl has given her talk , “A Potted History of Gender Variance” in several locations in the South West, and by all accounts it’s been successful wherever it’s been heard. Given the HUGE span of her research, Cheryl had to give a very quick summary of her findings, and this blog has already run long, so I’ll only have time to give you some of my favourite examples.

We have Emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus, also known as Elagabalus, who ruled Rome from 218 to 222. Elagabalus lived an extrordinarily extravagant lifestyle, was know to dress up as a prostiture and compete with the local women as to who could make more money in a night, and offered a substantial sum of money as a reward for a doctor who could (and would) preform surgery to give him a vagina.

There’s also Francisco de Loyola, born Catalina de Erauso, also known as La Manja Alférez, or The Nun Lieutenant. Aged 15 and given the choice between marriage and becoming a nun, our hero ran away from the convent in 1600 and sailed to the New World, where he joined the Chilean army and rose through the ranks. He accidentally killed his brother in a duel, neither of them having recognised each other. Later on, his biological sex was discovered after an injury, but he later received special dispensation from the Pope that allowed him to keep living as a man.

http://www.gouts-doux.fr/origine9.html. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Catalina_de_Erauso.jpg#/media/File:Catalina_de_Erauso.jpg
“Catalina de Erauso” by Anónimo, attributed to Juan van der Hamen

Doctor James Barry, a surgeon with the British army, and later Inspector General in charge of military hospitals, was found to be female bodied only after his death. He preformed one of the first successful caesarian sections where both the mother and child survived.

Those three were probably my favourite examples from Cheryl’s prolific list, but there’s no way that I could write as much as I’d like to about all the people she spoke about; and these were only the people of whom we have a historical record.

Gender variant behaviours is evident in most global culture, and is usually acceptable, if not venerated, in one form or another – from the kathoey in Thailand, the khwaaja sira in India or the muxe in Mexico. It is very rarely regarded as a form of illness, mental or otherwise. It’s supremely unfortunate in this case (in many cases…) that Western Europe with its brand of Christianity became a hegemonic global culture.

Cheryl posited some theories as to why Western Europe was so hostile to trans people, from centuries believing in a patriarchal god, to our gendered language and how they shape our thoughts, but whatever the reason behind it, we can see transphobia in action today, and more and more people, especially young people are dying as a result. The erasure of trans people and trans culture from our known history, perpetuated by people such as Shelia Jeffreys, has measurable and deadly consequences.

Cheryl’s talk was fun and funny, but the reason behind the need for it is much darker. We need to continue to push for increased representation, both historical and contemporary, on all people, but especially people who are systematically misunderstood, discriminated against and wished harm, like trans people in our culture.

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