Q: Is being trans some kind of new trend?

A: The short answer is no. Trans people have probably been around for as long as civilization has been around. 

We do have records about the lives of specific trans people historically. 

For instance:

  • Osh-Tisch was a 17th-century Crow warrior who fought against European invaders and whose gender was baté, which is variously described as transfeminine, nonbinary, or two-spirit.
  • The Chevalier d’Eon was an 18th-Century French diplomat, spy, and Freemason who lived as a man for 49 years (during which they infiltrated the Russian court of Empress Elizabeth by cross-dressing), then lived as a woman for 33 years.
  • Posthumous DNA evidence suggests that General Casimir Pulaski, known as the “Father of the American Cavalry,” may have been trans and/or intersex.
  • The Public Universal Friend was a preacher who founded a Quaker Society, identified as “genderless,” and was referred to by followers as “the Friend” in place of gendered pronouns.
  • Dr. James Barry was a closeted trans man born around 1789 in Cork, Ireland. Barry was a military surgeon who lived as a man for his entire adult life until his death in 1865. 
  • Private Albert Cashier was an Irish-American trans man who served as a Union soldier during the Civil War. Though historians speculate that he originally presented as male in order to enlist, he lived as a man for his entire adult life.
  • Mary Jones was a black trans woman who worked as a sex worker in New York City in the early 19th century. She was sentenced to five years in Sing-Sing prison for ‘crossdressing’ after being vilified in the media for being trans. 
  • We’wha was an artist from the Zuni tribe who lived in New Mexico during the second half of the 19th century, and witnessed the European colonization of the West. Her life was governed by a completely different set of gender concepts from ours; the name for her gender role was lhamana, which is a kind of two-spirit
  • Lucy Hicks Anderson, born in 1866 in Waddy, Kentucky, was a black trans woman who lived as female from an early age. She sold prohibition liquor and ran a brothel. She was arrested and jailed for perjury for identifying as a woman on her marriage certificate. 
  • Jack Bee Garland was a trans man who worked as a reporter, cabin boy on a troop transport ship, interpreter and nurse for the US military, and later performed charitable work with the American Red Cross. He was discovered to be trans after his death.
  • Dr. Alan Hart was a closeted trans man who transitioned socially and medically in the late 1910s and lived as a man until his death in 1962. He was a radiologist and epidemiologist who (among other significant accomplishments) conducted groundbreaking research on X-ray screening for tuberculosis. 
  • In 1930, Lili Elbe was among the first trans women to undergo medical transition. 
  • Sir Lady Java was a trans activist, exotic dancer, singer, comedienne, and actress. When she performed in the late 1960s in Los Angeles, it was illegal to engage in the “impersonation by means of costume or dress a person of the opposite sex.” She sued the city over this discriminatory law and lost, but the law was later overturned.
  • Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera were trans women of color who are often credited with being the first brick-throwers at the Stonewall Riots in 1969. They were activists who later founded an organization called STAR, which provided community support and shelter for trans people in New York City.
  • Tracey Norman was a black trans woman who modeled for Clairol in the 1970s while closeted, but could no longer find work as a model after she was forcibly outed as trans. 
  • Lou Sullivan was one of the first openly gay trans men. He was an American activist who lobbied for recognition of gay trans men, in addition to outreach work with trans men, writing and editing literature for and about gay and trans people, and other activist work. He died of AIDS-related complications in 1991.
  • Willmer “Little Ax” Broadnax, born in 1916, was a gospel singer and closeted trans man who lived as a man for his entire adult life until his death in 1992. 
  • Robert Eads was a trans man who was born in the 1940s and medically transitioned in the 1980s. He passed away in 1999 due to complications from ovarian cancer because doctors refused to treat a trans patient.
  • Leslie Feinberg was a gender nonconforming novelist. In 1993, zie published Stone Butch Blues, which “is widely considered…to be a groundbreaking work about the complexities of gender.”

These are just a few examples.

Public protests by trans and LGB people predate the 1969 Stonewall Riots and include a 1965 sit-in at a Philly coffee shop that refused to serve people who ‘looked homosexual’ or gender nonconforming, and the Compton Cafeteria Riots in 1966.

And there wasn’t always an LGBT community or movement: During much of the 20th century, trans people were systematically excluded and erased even by LGB people campaigning for their own rights.

Some cultures have traditionally accepted or at least acknowledged gender nonconformity.

For instance: 

  • Two-spirit’ is an umbrella term for nonbinary genders which are associated with some Indigenous North American cultures. Some of these cultures also have more specific terminology for trans identities and/or non-normative gender roles in their native languages. 
  • Māhū’ is a traditional Hawai’ian word used along the lines of ‘transgender’ or ‘third gender.’ 
  • Hijra’ is a Hindustani word for a particular nonbinary gender role, variously translated along the lines of ‘transgender,’ ‘third gender,’ or ‘intersex.’ 
  • Muxe’ is a third gender category in Zapotec cultures of Oaxaca, Mexico. The word is used along the lines of ‘trans’ or ‘nonbinary.’ 
  • Fa’afafine’ is a Samoan third gender category; they embody both masculine and feminine cultural roles. 
  • Traditional Jewish culture and religion sometimes recognizes a number of gender/sex categories, including ‘Androgynos’ (along the lines of ‘intersex’) and ‘Tumtum’ (someone “whose sexual characteristics are indeterminate or obscured”).
  • Various cultures have terms for a third gender category that’s not exactly equivalent to ‘trans woman,’ ‘drag queen,’ ‘effeminate man,’ or ‘gay man,’ but may overlap with any of the above; including ‘Kathoey’ in Thailand, ‘Waria’ in Indonesia, and ‘Femminiello’ in traditional Neapolitan culture. 

The existence of such concepts does not necessarily mean that gender nonconforming people of these cultures do not face discrimination or stigmatization.

The Nazis destroyed a library of scientific and medical research about trans people. 

There was a significant movement for LGBT liberation in Europe in the 1920s, which was quashed by the Third Reich. The Institut für Sexualwissenschaft (Institute for Sexuality Research) was a progressive organization in Berlin which included a physical library of research and records regarding trans and LGB people. In 1933, the Institute was tragically destroyed by a mob of Nazi book-burners. In other words, the Nazis successfully suppressed not only LGBT individuals, but also empirical information about trans and LGB people which might have prevented decades of misunderstanding and stigmatization. 

Gender nonconformity is/was taboo, and often punishable by law. 

In cultures where gender nonconformity is suppressed, people can’t be openly nonconforming, so of course you don’t hear about them as often. It isn’t just Nazis: Many societies, including some U.S. states, still punish gender nonconformity via (for starters) laws against homosexuality, medical transition, and crossdressing; laws that restrict legal identification (legal name and gender marker); defining being trans as a mental illness or disorder; and not actively prohibiting discrimination or violence toward gender nonconforming people. 

As a result of such policies and practices, many people who might have considered themselves trans today were forced to remain closeted and/or were described as crossdressers or homosexuals. For instance, there’s a long history of women crossdressing or otherwise presenting as men in order to participate in activities from which women were forbidden. Famous examples include the following: 

While some of these ‘crossdressing women’ were undoubtedly women who simply wanted the same opportunities and advantages allowed to men in their societies, it’s quite possible that some of them were actually trans. In most cases, it’s probably impossible to tell for sure, since the terms and concepts we use to describe trans experiences today had not yet been developed. 

Further reading

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