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'No Trans Futures without Trans Histories'

Updated: Feb 17, 2023

By Ruairí Mac, UK (He/Him)

Since beginning Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT) in 2018 I have found it very difficult to cry, so it felt like a miracle when standing in the Museum of Transology, a temporary subset of the Brighton Museum, I was reduced to silent joyful tears.

I had been introduced to Transgender Fashion Historian E-J Scott, the museum’s founder and curator; a few months prior, and I had listened and nodded as they described transgender people as being “historically homeless”, but I don’t think I fully understood their meaning until I found myself at the exhibition. In a quiet moment surrounded by evidence of the lives and stories of my trans siblings, of our collective “trancestry” as E-J affectionately calls it, I felt that I had come home. Being there came with a sense of belonging that went against everything I had come to understand about my transgender identity.

Despite being born in the same decade that the term “transgender” made its way into common usage, it wasn’t a term that I was overly familiar with growing up. It wasn’t until I was studying a critical theory module as part of my undergraduate English Literature Degree that I came across the language to describe and articulate what had always been my deepest and most private fantasy. In the years after I had come out as trans I slowly, and often by chance, came across the histories of the trans individuals who had come before me and was able to gradually chip away at the presumption that I was without lineage.

When our histories are obscured and erased it is easy for mainstream popular media to depict transgender identities as a new phenomenon. It allows politicians to debate our existence, and opinion columnists to speculate as to the cause of what is perceived to be an epidemic of gender non-conformity. In reality, transgender people have been present throughout history even when conditions were such that we have had to keep our identities hidden. We glimpse our histories through judges’ accounts of individuals charged with cross dressing and through medical records of those of us who have been institutionalised. It is rare that our histories have been told and passed down in our own words, or on our own terms. Transgender people today have access to platforms that allow them to share their stories and connect with other trans folks around the world to make our voices heard. It’s not that instances of transgender identities have risen, so much as transgender visibility has increased.

It’s impossible to truly know the impact that a trans inclusive education would have had on me. Growing up Catholic and attending an all-girls convent school my education was as anti-LGBTQ+ as you could get away with in the late 2000s, but there wasn’t enough trans visibility for me to know that I was missing out on anything. Instead, I carried out the daily failure of awkwardly delivering an unconvincing performance of “teenage girl”. There is so much that is missing from our education in the UK, and I don’t imagine it’s conducive to teach young people in an institution that the systems we live under are all invented, but it could have saved me years of believing that I was the problem if someone had alluded to the notion that the gender binary is a tool of oppression and colonisation. If I had been taught to challenge systems in the way of Marsha P Johnson, Lucy Hicks Anderson, Silvia Rivera, Miss Major, Pauli Murray, and Lou Sullivan then I would not only have known that I was never the problem, I would have known that I was a part of their history and the future that they were fighting for.

Transgender history as we have come to know it in the global West, is a radical history of revolution, and in knowing my trans history I have come to learn that I have a place in dismantling systems of oppression. Now, when our rights are being attacked, we need trans histories more than ever. In 2022 it is essential that we arm ourselves with knowledge if we want to protect our transgender loved ones from the constant removal of their rights and the continued “debates” around their existence. Transgender history is for everyone. It is ultimately about questioning the systems and structures that have been invented to aid in the oppression and division of groups of people, it’s about looking forward towards better freedoms for all people.

Further Resources:

Transgender History: The Roots of Today’s Revolution by Susan Stryker

Black on Both Sides: A Racial History of Trans Identity by C. Riley Snorton

Beyond the Gender Binary by Alok Vaid-Menon

Sexual Science: The Victorian Construction of Womanhood by Dr. Cynthia Russett

The Invention of Women: Making an African Sense of Wester Gender

Strange Natures: Futurity, Empathy, and the Queer Ecological Imagination by Nicole Seymour

Stone Butch Blues by Leslie Feinberg

Gender Trouble by Judith Butler

Bodies that Matter by Judith Butler

Female Masculinity by Jack Halberstam

*I’d like to acknowledge that in this blog post I have not made direct reference to LGBTQIA peoples outside of the western world or included them in my summation of transgender histories. This is in part because many of these cultures have their own language and experiences pertaining to what we might describe as transgender identities, and to lump them in with my own definitions is to misunderstand and misinterpret them

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