The historians’ view: is the world finally waking up to transgender issues?

The debate over trans people’s rights has become a hot topic in recent years. But it hasn’t always enjoyed such visibility. Two experts consider why the issue of transgenderism was, for so long, sidelined in the discourse over gender and sexuality

Comedian Rhona Cameron and political activist Peter Tatchell help to hold a banner at an LGBT Pride event in London, 1998. (Photo by Steve Eason/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Such was the controversy over the gender of the diplomat Chevalier d’Eon that people placed bets over her autopsy when she died in 1810
Christine Burns

If you’ve never really known a trans person in your life then all the recent publicity about us in the last few years could easily lead you to think we are just a western fad. Fads come and go. Maybe you think we’ll be gone too in another year or so, replaced by another novelty.

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But this idea couldn’t be further from the truth. In reality, trans people (though they weren’t called that) have been around for hundreds, even thousands, of years. Anthropologists will also tell you that they are in evidence in human societies around the world. On every continent, in every language, there is a place for people who don’t fit the strictly binary ideal that we’ve developed in the west: men at one extreme, women at the other, and nothing in between.

A Campaign for Homosexual Equality rally held in London’s Trafalgar Square in 1974. The Sexual Offences Act of 1967 helped pave the way for activism such as this in the 1970s, says Florence Sutcliffe-Braithwaite. (Corbis via Getty Images)

They are there in British history too. The most famous example is Chevalier d’Eon, a diplomat and prominent cultural figure in 18th-century France and Britain. Such was the controversy over his (later her) gender that people placed bets over her autopsy when she died in 1810. In the 19th century, there was a flurry of press reports of people getting imprisoned for crossing genders. A famous doctor, James Barry, was found on his death to be female bodied. The same happened to a bricklayer, Harry Stokes, who had been married for 20 years and was only revealed when he died in his fifties.

The early 20th century is full of gender crossers – many of the reported ones going from female to male. We’d probably know a lot more about this era had the Nazis not burned the work of the first doctor to really study trans people. Many know the famous picture of Nazis burning books from Magnus Hirschfeld’s institute in 1933, but few realised until recently that the books were case histories of trans people and details of how to help them.

James Barry MD, Army surgeon, c 1850.

Things really changed for trans people in Britain in the 1960s. Until then, they were individual cases, seeking help alone and maybe never even meeting another person like themselves. But in 1966 four trans people formed a self-help group called the Beaumont Society. That organisation spawned meeting groups around the country – the main ones being in Manchester and London in the early 1970s. There was also an autobiography by the transgender travel writer Jan Morris in 1974 and an influential BBC documentary, A Change of Sex, in 1979/80. Trans people – isolated, with few ways to learn about themselves – began to realise they weren’t alone and there were ways to find help.

Even with this new information, it took them until 1992 to begin to campaign for their rights. They had no employment protection. They couldn’t alter important documents. They were effectively excluded from many professions and from being able to marry. And the press treated them as freaks. It’s 26 years since that rights campaign began. Trans people now have legal protections but there is still so much ignorance and prejudice to overcome. The fight for equality continues.

Christine Burns was a leading figure in Press for Change, a campaign group focusing on the rights and treatment of trans people. She now writes about trans history.


The politics of gay rights encouraged the binary thinking (gay or straight) that went with prejudice against homosexuality
Harry Cocks

According to the OED, the word ‘transgenderism’ was coined in the journal Sexual Hygiene and Pathology in 1965 to distinguish questions of sexuality from reversals of gender such as transvestism. Sexuality, it was argued, was not a major factor in transvestism.

It was not until the mid-1990s that transgender assumed its current meaning. It now refers to someone rejecting conventional notions of gender, without necessarily wanting to reassign their gender surgically (though it can also include that).

Why have transgender issues come to such prominence in Britain, North America and elsewhere? The short answer is to be found in the transformation of gay rights leading to wider restructuring of gender and sexuality. In Britain, Scandinavia, parts of the USA and the Netherlands, relative normalisation of homosexuality has meant a breaking down of old umbrella terms used to address gender and sexual dissidence. People no longer have to accept identities or labels that were the consequence of prejudice.

Written accounts describe Anne Boleyn as having dark, sparkling eyes – yet no undisputed portraits from her lifetime survive. The most familiar depictions of her are various representations of this portrait, in which she wears the famous B-portrait. (Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images)

‘Gay’ was a self-affirming response to living with prejudice and an attempt to carve out space in a homophobic society. In the 1970s and 1980s many identities were gathered under the banner of ‘gay and lesbian’, including those rejecting the conventional gender order. The politics of gay rights encouraged the binary thinking (gay or straight) that went with prejudice against homosexuality. This made it difficult to think in terms of the varieties of sex/gender experience that terms like ‘gay’ or ‘homosexual’ subsumed.

Now these legal and cultural prejudices have been overthrown in some places, we can discuss these varieties. To understand this shift properly we also need to understand the history of sexuality and gender. In the west we have tended since the 1960s to think of sexuality as a form of desire that is independent of gender. But many people even in the recent past thought of their homosexuality as a function of their gender. They desired people of the same sex because they thought of themselves effectively as ‘women’ or ‘men’ with desires appropriate to those genders, and not as homosexual or gay. This view prevails in some parts of the world today, where homoerotic desire is seen as a problem of gender confusion, and can be ‘solved’ if such confusion is addressed medically or therapeutically.

This understanding of sexuality meant that sexual desires and gender reversals were frequently conflated, not least by those who experienced them. So does that mean that transgender people as understood today have always existed? The answer is no because this way of understanding the relationship of sexuality and gender did not necessarily reject the binary order of gender. As recently as the 1930s people who appeared to be part of a third or ‘intermediate’ sex did not think of themselves as necessarily between genders or against gender binaries – instead, they may have embraced these gender binaries as a way of explaining their sexual desires.

The emergence of transgender as a concept reflects two developments: the resurgence of the old idea that gender is the primary category of identity, and the individualisation of sexual/gender identities that followed the widespread acceptance of gay rights.

Harry Cocks is associate professor of history at the University of Nottingham.

Compiled by Chris Bowlby, a BBC journalist specialising in history.

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This article was first published in the April 2018 issue of BBC History Magazine