Before We Were Transby Dr. Kit Heyam
Genres: Social Science / LGBTQ+ Studies / Transgender Studies
Published on September 13, 2022
Format: Audiobook Source: Library
A groundbreaking global history of gender nonconformity
Today’s narratives about trans people tend to feature individuals with stable gender identities that fit neatly into the categories of male or female. Those stories, while important, fail to account for the complex realities of many trans people’s lives.
Before We Were Trans illuminates the stories of people across the globe, from antiquity to the present, whose experiences of gender have defied binary categories. Blending historical analysis with sharp cultural criticism, trans historian and activist Kit Heyam offers a new, radically inclusive trans history, chronicling expressions of trans experience that are often overlooked, like gender-nonconforming fashion and wartime stage performance. Before We Were Trans transports us from Renaissance Venice to seventeenth-century Angola, from Edo Japan to early America, and looks to the past to uncover new horizons for possible trans futures.
How do you study the history of transgender people when that term didn’t exist in the past? It is complicated to determine from historical sources how a person would have defined themselves if they lived today. This book opens with a story of a man in England who was arrested for stealing and wearing women’s clothing. When offered a chance for a decreased sentence if he promised to never where women’s clothing again, he declined. Is this the story of a cross-dressing man, a nonbinary person, or a transgender woman? There is no way to know from the available literature. That complexity is the heart of this book.
There are many historical records of people and societies that did not conform to the gender roles that we consider normal in today’s Western societies. The author makes the case that any people who lived for a portion of their lives as a gender that they were not assigned at birth, should be considered part of the larger trans history – regardless of the terminology previously used.
There were lots of examples in this book. There were German POWs in England who started theater companies. Because it was an all-male POW camp some people took on the female roles in the play. Some of these people ended up living full time as female in the camp.
There were African societies were a person’s gender was completely dissociated from their biological sex and was directly related to the role they played in society.
Third sex people have long histories in many societies throughout history and around the world.
This was a great book for showing how common it has always been to have people who don’t fit into strict binary gender roles.
Super interesting, especially given that historical records didn’t have words for what people were doing and feeling or it was illegal so not documented as much.
I realize my comment is very White/European centered. Native Americans have long acknowledged Two Spirits and it sounds like African cultures did something similar.