Being a young trans person is a weird experience. It’s wrought with pain and sadness too, sure. But it’s also just incredibly bizarre. In the late 90s and early 00s, we obviously didn’t have Twitter or Instagram or TikTok to find resources to help us explain to ourselves and other people who we were. Trans activist and historian Kit Heyam notes in their new book Before We Were Trans: A New History of Gender that the terms “trans,” “transexual,” and “transgender” have been in use since the early and mid-twentieth century, but when I was 12, all I had were the “ladies” of Too Wong Foo, Thanks For Everything, Julie Newmar, and that scene where Roberta binds her chest in Now & Then. These weren’t and aren’t representations of trans people, but they were the first people I saw do something different with gender than I had ever seen before. If you were curious enough or maybe lucky enough, you might be able to find some information on queer people’s lives beyond some of the authors you might encounter in your high school English classes, but it was much, much more difficult to find information on people whose assigned sex and their gender identity didn’t match.
While it has certainly gotten easier to find information on trans lives throughout history now, as Heyam points out in their book, gender nonconforming people are often still left out of the story: “The narrow trans narrative we see emphasized in contemporary media…makes life harder for people who experience their transness in a way that’s not binary, stereotyped or stable. And this narrative also makes it difficult to tell histories that fully reflect the messy reality of trans life today.”
In an attempt to help begin solving this problem, Heyam’s book does, in fact, present us with a new history of gender nonconformity and show us the ways in which gender disruption is often written out of history both purposely and through the academy’s myopic understanding of the ways people interact with gender and sexuality. In addition to that, Heyam also presents a new way of thinking about trans history in general, where even people whose gender disruption was not simply an act of how they felt inside but an act that was necessary for their social positions are included.
Within six chapters, Heyam’s work spans the last millennia and much of the globe, showing areas of historical study where the roles of trans or gender nonconforming people have been completely obscured or erased from the record or misrepresented as not having much to do with gender identity at all. They take us from the Kingdom of Ndongo in what is now Nigeria and early modern England and Renaissance-era Venice, to colonial America and British-run internment camps in World War I Germany, to pre-colonial America and East and Southeast Asia. Through one particularly illuminating chapter, they even explain the ways that intersex people have been written out of our historical knowledge of biological sex and how the histories of intersex people are often more intertwined with trans and gender nonconforming people than we might think.
In one chapter, Heyam discusses the ways in which gender roles operated in West Africa and ancient Egypt through the stories of the Ekwe people, Njinga Mbande, Ahebi Ugbabe, and Pharaoh Hatshepsut. We’re transported to Elizabeth I’s court, where “women’s fashion” became “men’s fashion” and where conservative Protestants worried that everyone was “changing [their] sex” as a result. Sound familiar? It certainly should.
Meanwhile, in Renaissance-era Venice, sex workers — or courtesans — “wore a mixture of male-coded and female-coded clothing” in order to entice and excite their potential customers and perhaps, as Heyam points out, this gender play was a more permanent state of being for some of the region’s documented courtesans.
Heyam then moves us to the early twentieth century as World War I was raging on and European prisoners of war were imprisoned in camps where, out of boredom, men put on plays for one another. These are often classified by historians as all-male prisons but Heyam points out “that isn’t a fully accurate description of how internees experienced their lives” because some of the men took on the roles of the female characters of the plays and then chose to continue living as women.
Next, we’re in Edo period Japan and eleventh century Persia learning about how people there saw gender performance as unavoidably linked to sexuality. Then, in colonial America, we see the ways people were confounded by the fact that intersex people exist and are taught the many ways in which historians are still obscuring the existence of intersex people in the historical record today. And finally, we meet the Two-Spirit people of the indigenous nations of the Pacific Northwest and the hijras of India to learn how, in some non-Western cultures, gender nonconformity is not only entirely “normal,” it is also inextricably linked to their spiritualities and spiritual practices.
Similar to the work of Leslie Feinberg, Heyam proves that both binary and nonbinary trans people and/or gender disruptors have existed in nearly every corner of world history. Heyam also directly argues for a more inclusive understanding of who, historically, is considered trans and gender nonconforming. Although this is certainly not a comprehensive examination of gender nonconformity throughout history — and Heyam is not claiming that it is; they claim the opposite actually — Heyam thoroughly explores these various stories with care for the individuals involved and with plenty of attention to nuance. Throughout the entire text, Heyam offers reflections on both their attempts to subvert the white gaze and their reality as a white historian and doesn’t shy away from admitting that this book alone cannot make up for the great absence of trans and gender nonconforming histories — especially nonwhite ones — in our cultural consciousness. As a trans and gender nonconforming person who is also a teacher and struggles with some of the big questions of duty that Heyam explores in their reflections, I found the sections of the texts where Heyam discusses their role in telling these stories especially poignant. And I’m hoping it opens up some imperative conversations about how we interrogate the past among academics who are doing or thinking about doing this kind of work.
Toward the end of the book, Heyam writes that it’s important we treat all of these stories they’ve included in the book as “trans history” because “They are histories of gender not being binary, fixed, or tied to the body. They show there have always been people who disrupt these norms, and there have always been societies in which they aren’t norms at all. These people might not be like me, and I might not be able to speak of them, even equivocally, as trans people, but they are people I can relate to nonetheless.”
Ultimately, even though the stories and conversations Heyam brings up are exceptionally complicated because they depend on limited archival information, they provide an avenue for all of us outside of the binary to better understand ourselves and are something we can hold onto when society tries to convince others that our existence is new or unusual. It might not be as comprehensive as Heyam or others may want it to be, but Before We Were Trans is a welcome and significant — and joyful, even — contribution to our cultural conversations on the malleability of gender and on gender nonconformity.