Trans History and Bad History

Posted on Thu 14 April 2022 in trans

Timing has never been my strong point, and so now that LGBT History Month has gone by, it is the obvious time to write a post about trans history. There are two main reasons for me doing so now. First, a couple of pieces of mine have recently emerged, one each on comedy and tragedy, in which the issue has been integral (to a more or less visible degree). This is material that I have been writing or teaching about for decades, but their appearance close together at this particular historical moment prompt me to reflect on the difficulties of writing transgender history. Second, one of the sub-themes of the anti-trans movement has been to deny this history. One step towards the elimination of trans people, whether this is explicitly stated (as some do) or not. A small number of academics have pushed this narrative, whether out of ignorance or malice. Either way, it is profoundly anti-historical: bad history.

Approaching that history is a complex task, but one of the great virtues of studying the ancient Greek and Roman world is that it you have to confront cultural differences across time and space. Or you should, if you're doing it right. This hasn't always been the case—the ancient Greek and Roman world has been co-opted for all sorts of imperialist, colonialist or nationalistic projects, often with implicit or explicit claim of continuity or similarity or legacy—the Greeks or Romans as good British chaps, and I gender this advisedly. I'd call this the Boris Johnson view of classical history, but it would be gratuitous, as I've never knowingly read any of his books. Despite the baggage, the amount of research into these cultures means that it's possible to see very clearly the differences. Although it is possible to recognise aspects of the ancient world—including the old favourites war, politics, death, taxes—none are the same as in contemporary Scotland or beyond.

Trans History

Nowhere is this more true than in the fields of gender and sexuality. It should be obvious that social, cultural and political norms and categories relating to men and women (my crude definition of gender) are not the same now as even two centuries ago, let alone two and a half millennia, and there are many great books on the subject. Among these norms and categories, those involving biological sex and sexual reproduction, which were not well understood. And when it comes to sexuality, it is a given that the modern world uses labels and categories invented in the nineteenth century: heterosexual and homosexual. And as Foucault pointed out (History of Sexuality, volume I) there may have been recognisably similar practises, but with a very different cultural frame. The main difference, however, is that male homosexuality was usually not exclusive and was normatively framed around age differentials: it was pederastic. There is invective (mainly in comedy and oratory) of men who violated the social norms, but there was no precise ancient parallel for our ‘sexual orientation’ or ‘sexual identity’. Plato flirts with the idea, and some of his characters have had some historical significance in the development of modern notions of (male) homosexuality, but (again in the Symposium) the most significant statement is that of the comic poet Aristophanes, and his ‘three sex’ story. There were three primordial sexes: male, female, and male/female, which were split in half as a punishment by the gods, and as a result we are all looking for our other half. One of the difficulties in reading the Symposium is that of all the explanations on offer there, Aristophanes' tale seems to speak most directly to modern readers not only about sexual diversity but also about sexual intensity, but the dialogue clearly presents it as being superseded by later explanations.

Aristophanes' story of three sexes has also been co-opted in modern queer and trans narratives, with a memorable role in the film, Hedwig and the Angry Inch. And while Plato presents this witty or funny story to be superseded, there are good reasons why he put it in the mouth of a comedian. For as much as comic poets put up transgressive characters to be laughed at, the comedians also explored (or exploited) gender variation, as well as sexual variation, on numerous occasions, as notably in Aristophanes' Women at the Thesmophoria (411 BCE [probably]). There was cross-fertilisation with its sister genre of tragedy, which also had form in this respect. Of surviving Greek tragedies, Euripides' Bacchae has it as a primary theme, and not without showing its comic chops. These are the plays that I have been looking at in my recent articles, one published in Illinois Classical Studies and the other in a collection, Queer Euripides, edited by the very wonderful duo, Sarah Olsen and Mario Telò.

If notions of what it is to be a man or a woman, or to engage in different configurations of sexual practice, vary across culture (are ‘culturally contingent’) then all the more so is the concept or practice of transgender. Like sexuality, gender identity is a modern category. The terminology really goes back to the early 1900s and Magnus Hirschfeld's category of the ‘transvestite’, which was very broadly understood, and based in part on wide-ranging historical research. Then we have Harry Benjamin's coining of the term ‘transsexual’ to refer to those seeking medical or surgical interventions; he was not the first in this field, but did take advantage of the synthesis of oestrogen. Since the 1990s, the umbrella term ‘transgender’ has gained currency to cover these and related identities and practices, responding in part to the insights of feminism, in part to the growing number of trans voices and experiences being heard. Even this brief summary indicates that, just as with gender and sexuality, there has been considerable development in the practice and experience of being trans, even in the last century and a quarter. Moving back further into the past, it is impossible to map notions of transgender onto ancient categories and experience any more than sexuality or, indeed, gender itself, but one notable continuity is that social gender in ancient Greece and Rome is a binary, and likewise the constraints of that binary are felt in the system. Other cultures, as anthropologists have pointed out, have developed different gender systems that offer three or more choices; these present their own challenges when working across cultures. Whatever the aetiology, transgender (or something recognisably like it) is a recurring phenomenon in human societies.

Trans in Drama

Of course, both comedy and tragedy are fictional products, and so it is impossible to say that anything produced there _directly represents_ real Athenian life in the late fifth century. But they can be said to reflect in some way and to some degree* the concerns, preoccupations, ideas or practices that were current at the time, and it is possible to ground at least some of those through other evidence. A lot of evidence in classical Greek culture related to crossdressing in festival contexts, which includes the dramatic festivals themselves, but there is also evidence for male crossdressing in other contexts, including the symposium or its aftermath. There is even some evidence for male rape against a crossdressing male. Both cross-dressing and sex-change narratives also feature in Greek myth.

Women at the Thesmophoria (Thesmophoriazousai) offers a blizzard of gendered performances, real or alleged (dramatic, mimetic, musical, sexual, disguise), as the tragic poet Euripides tries to persuade his colleague Agathon (functionally genderfluid) to go to the women's assembly and speak on Euripides' behalf: they are planning to put him to death for slandering them. Agathon refuses and Euripides' old relative volunteers instead. Subsequent developments include the old favourites of the compulsion narrative (forced crossdressing), the invasion narrative (using disguise to enter women's safe space), and the disclosure narrative (the relative is identified and literally exposed). Reports of an intruder and assistance in the search comes from a male citizen, Kleisthenes, who is alleged both to dress like and identify with the women. The last part of the comedy plays off the tension between the disclosed phallus and the attempt by Euripides and his relative to role-play their way out of it. There is even a ‘phase’ narrative, as Euripides acknowledges early on that he too flirted with genderfluid practice; although he eventually comes to terms with the women, the finale still requires him to revisit his youth to distract the Scythian archer guarding his relative. Much, if not all of it presents the various cross-dressing and cross-identification as the target of the humour, and is hardly affirming. Nonetheless, there are other dynamics in the play too: Euripides and, especially, his relative are the focus of the play and in their efforts to effect an escape, the joke is as much on the women and the Scythian archer for not joining in with the dramatic scenes they cook up as on the evidence-defying role-playing (and it's not irrelevant that the fictional role-playing by male citizens requires the co-operation of the real-world audience of, largely, male citizens). So while a great deal of this is about exploring transgression as a means to reinforce gender norms, there are elements of the play that disclose the possibility of Athenian citizens cross-dressing or cross-identifying (in various ways and for various reasons) and the desirability of being accepted on the basis of a gendered performance. Quite frankly, I have no idea what the basis of Aristophanes' repeated attacks on Kleisthenes was: they go back to Aristophanes' Akharnians where he is compared to (or presented as) a Persian eunuch. It is, to say the least, curious that they are being explored in this way. As a trans woman in the 2020s, one of the other things that is quite striking about the play is the diversity of trans practice in the play, something which is all too often lost in narratives about trans people.

By contrast, Euripides' Bacchae presents, within its disturbing story-line of punishment and retribution, a more positive and powerful account of trans practice. Dionysus returns to Thebes to prove to his family and the city that he is a god; after driving the women of Thebes out of their minds and onto the mountainside to behave as maenads (ecstatic worshippers of Dionysus), his focus is on the king, Pentheus, the representative of patriarchy, male order and gendered norms. Dionysus is presented at least ambivalently in gendered terms. Pentheus derides the old men, Cadmus (his grandfather) and Teiresias (the blind prophet), who have willingly embraced the worship of Dionysus, have dressed as (female) maenads and are going off to the mountains themselves. Pentheus is similarly hostile to Dionysus, and is as obsessed with the invasion narrative as are modern transphobes. But the interaction between Dionysus and Pentheus has demonstrates that Pentheus is also fascinated with Dionysus. Some of this may be sexual, but there are also hints that Dionysus' feminine presentation is itself something desirable for Pentheus. As Dionysus works towards and broaches the idea of crossdressing in order to spy on the women; Pentheus' ambivalent protestations include some frequent fliers (shame, ridicule) but also involves social classification as a woman (822), which some commentators describe as a vehement objection but is an extraordinarily weird way of doing so. Pentheus, now under the influence of Dionysus, agrees to the proposal, and there follows the well-known scene where Dionysus brings him out in his new outfit, where he is very concerned about his hemlines. He is led off to the mountains where he will be torn apart by his mother and the other women.

My starting point for this paper was my involvement with the National Theatre of Scotland's production of the Bacchae in 2007-8, and a review by Michael Billington, which argued that it was too camp, it played on sexuality too much and that it was only when Pentheus' mother, Agave, recognises what she has done to her son that there is proper tragedy. And many scholars have argued that the play is not about sexuality or gender, let alone transgender but about something else (role-playing or fictionality or ecstatic religion, or, to quote Johnny Cash, anything but Sue). This is simply and wilfully to ignore the bulk of the play, as well as misunderstanding the nature of Greek tragedy (but that's another argument). It is funny, in places, and it is cruel, and the perpetrator of most of both is the god at whose festival the play was being produced. And the focus is on transgender practice. It is important, always, to remember that even if, as I've suggested, Pentheus is, on some level, getting what he wants, it is still a punishment, retaliation for Pentheus' refusal to accept Dionysus' existence as a god, or his rites, or what he represents. Pentheus mocks the men who do accept Dionysus, Cadmus and Teiresias, and repeatedly tries to restrain physically or incarcerate Dionysus and the chorus of women who have followed Dionysus from the Near East. It's possible that in a more affirming environment, Pentheus might not have been anxious about non-Greeks with strange practices that break gender norms and threaten his women (i.e., might not have espoused xenophobic or anti-trans narratives), but that's not Greek tragedy. By contrast, Cadmus and Teiresias survive. Cadmus, it is true, has a bizarre future ahead of him involving transformation, exile and return, and it may not be coincidental that his embrace of Dionysus is not exactly free of ulterior motives. Teiresias may have offered some implausible rationalisations for trans practice (and who hasn't?), but whether or not this is addressed in the missing portion of the play, Teiresias will never leave. He is always local. It may not be irrelevant either that he is the most famous example from Greek mythology of someone who has changed sex (twice).

So there's an argument in the Bacchae about human nature or human society, and it involves the embrace of trans practice. The particular frame for this is a religious one, but it is not necessarily bounded or organised in the way that civic festivals are, and Cadmus and Teiresias clearly make choices. To refuse to embrace Dionysus, in these specific aspects, particularly if you are wired that way, is a disaster for you and your society. For a twenty-first century trans woman, that has a particular and specific resonance. It obviously would not have the same resonance for its original audience, but that is not to say that there may not have been members of the audience to whom it meant rather more than to others.

So, while the evidence is difficult and patchy, there is both a history of transgender, just as there is a history of gender and a history of sexuality. The source material is difficult and usually hostile, and the relationship to actual practice or ideas, let alone identities, may be indirect, at best. But it is clearly a topic which was appropriate for the main arena of popular entertainment and popular reflection in ancient Athens.

Bad History

The denial of trans history is a central plank of anti-trans activists and politicians. The determination not to see plain evidence to the contrary is deep-rooted (I'm reminded of my own parents who claimed that there never used to be trans people in outer Essex, despite the local papers being full of someone transitioning in the same village in the 1980s and who used to go to the petrol station where my mum worked. ‘Oh yes, fancy you remembering that.’) Even academics who are supposed to value evidence join in with this spontaneous amnesia. One erstwhile philosopher of fiction, who has been famously silenced all over the British media in the past twelve months, seems to believe that transgender people started with Julia Serano's 2007 book Whipping Girl (as Serano entertainingly discussed at the recent Feminist Gender Equality Network conference). Various academics, including some I have known personally for years, signed an open letter which seemed to be arguing that gender identity is a recent novelty introduced by Stonewall. All of this would no doubt have been news to the late Jan Morris, whose Conundrum (1974) was an early classic of the trans memoir genre in the 1970s, which in turn sparked its own anti-trans backlash. I've written about my own history elsewhere on this blog, and it definitely involved a gender identity clinic in the 1990s. It's not as if the long history of the modern medicalised frame has not been visible in mass media—witness the 2015 movie The Danish Girl, as problematic as that was. Perhaps anti-trans obsessives are too busy to go to the movies.

Evidently some can forgive, indeed celebrate, philosophers for playing fast and loose with historical evidence in pursuit of a good theory. Instead, I am going to focus on the claims made by a professional historian, who ought to know better. I am going to focus on a blog post by a professional historian, Selina Todd. Ever since I came across her statement of her principles as a ‘gender critical‘ historian (in an earlier version back in early 2020), it has seemed an admirably clear articulation of the position and an attempt to ground it in some principles and some historical claims which are presented as ‘evidence based’. I am going to focus on the more strictly historical claims (there are also claims about biology and safe spaces, which I am not going to address here, but may do elsewhere). The principles are confused and contradictory, and the evidence does not bear out the claims—bad history.

In earlier iterations of the post (available on the Wayback Machine, Todd characterised herself specifically as ‘gender critical’ and according to the Gender Critical Research Network (a network of anti-trans academics), she is still a a member. Obviously, ‘gender criticism' sounds a lot more neutral than anti-trans or transphobic. But there is a problem: Todd is not, in fact, critical of gender. She is perfectly aware that the categories of ‘woman’ and ‘men’ have changed over time, and the current iteration of the post even acknowledges that the concept of socially constructed gender has been central to feminism since (at least) Simone de Beauvoir, who now duly makes an appearance. It is perhaps not surprising that ‘gender critical’ has now disappeared from the post, even as it has gained currency as the favoured label for anti-trans activists. But as this post makes clear, it is not gender that is being criticised but transgender.

Of the various claims made, there are two where issues of history are most clearly invoked. The first is to do with data, as has been invoked in a number of recent attempts to close down trans rights in the UK. The argument is that the existence of trans people in their lived genders will make the figures inaccurate and thereby inhibit political action for equality for women. There are various misrepresentations or misunderstandings here. One is that a great deal of the data has always been based on self-declaration (e.g. all the equal opportunities forms I've ever filled in; the census, and so on), and since the Gender Recognition Act 2004 and Equality Act 2010, even more of the data has been, as it were, polluted. From a historical point-of-view, that horse has already bolted, and even were you able to record all data in terms of sex assigned at birth, those historical comparisons would be vitiated.

But the significance of the trans element in the data is, at best, marginal. We are dealing with tiny numbers as a proportion of the population, and our statistics on the UK population are already subject to error. This was a point made by the evidence of the National Records of Scotland in the recent court case on the Scottish census: the return rate for the 2011 census was 96% of whom less than only 99.2% filled in the sex question (at §15), with a confidence interval of +/- 85,000. So there is already a margin of error in population-based statistics, leaving aside self-declaration. (The verdict in the Court of Sessions did not turn on statistical arguments, it must be noted, but mainly on the ambiguities around sex and gender in UK law.) That trans women can also be subject to misogyny, in matters such as employment and housing, and that trans men may also acquire elements of male privilege, means that statistical purity is not going to be achievable (if it ever can). Discrimination is to a large extent based on perceived gender, rather than checking anyone's chromosomes or gametes.

This point brings me to Todd's last claim, which has always been the most detailed. In fact, there are a number of claims, which come down to two things: i) ‘feeling like a woman’ or ‘feeling like a man’ varies over time (i.e. is historically contingent) and therefore is ahistorical. Second, trans identities are socially conservative. Outside the pages of the Guardian, the latter claim would be absurd. Let's look at the evidence. If this were true, then attacks on trans people would not be being led by the Republican right in the US, or by populists and nationalists such as Putin or Orban, who pioneered the term ‘gender ideology’, another cant expression, but one that in its use in Eastern Europe is more focused on feminism and homosexuality than transgender specifically.

The claim that the cultural contingency of gender means that gender identity is ahistorical is the more interesting one historically. It is, at best, a non sequitur, and at worst a flagrant contradiction in terms. For, as I've argued here, just as the gender system varies over time, space and culture, a repeated pattern is that there are those within cultures for whom that system does not fit, and the patterns of such trans practice vary, as one might expect. Todd seems to accept the former but not the latter—in fact it is not even discussed. The argument appears to be that trans people are making a claim based on something essential or immanent, but that this (physical or emotional) experience is a product of gender, glossed for rhetorical purposes in as superficial a manner as possible. But given the richness and significance of the gender system, it would be hard, even impossible, to step aside from it, whatever aetiology one assigns to the experience of being trans (are trans people the product of nature or culture?) or whether trans expression encompasses medical and surgical transition. The claim that gender identity is gendered is simply a truism. It says nothing about the historicity of transgender identity or practice.

I am being somewhat unfair to Todd, as, notwithstanding her clear articulation of the contingency of notions of what it is ‘natural’ about being a man or woman she is committed to the primacy of sex. This is clearer in the earlier, balder statements. The argument, as I understand it, that identity is a product of physical characteristics (sex) in a cultural and ideological context (gender). That is to say, physical experience is always gendered and culturally and historically specific. To argue for that as establishing the primacy of sex is incoherent, and especially when the parallel argument for the ahistoricity of trans identity is based on the dominance of gender. It also, incidentally, makes the claim that there is a physical underpinning to cis identity, but not to trans identity. (There may or may not be; they've not found the gay gene yet either.)

Clearly, it is important for Todd to preserve an irreducible sex-based core or foundation of identity in order to demarcate it from trans people. The problem is that if what it means to be a man or woman, including how bodies are understood, is culturally specific, it becomes much harder to insist on a singular and exclusive experience—across time and culture, but also within cultures in terms of different facets of identity beyond gender. This is one of the crucial points that has been foregrounded by intersectional feminism. If the essential core is really about defining in terms of straight, white, middle-class and able-bodied experience, then that is not being historical.

Being trans has its own specificities, both in relation to cis identities and in relation to other trans identities over time, not least in how bodies are framed and experienced. Thus for over seventy years, the experience of being trans has included the possibility of medical and surgical transition. It is undoubtedly true that for a long time the medical model of transsexualism did encourage a certain amount of essentialist language, just as it did (and still does) encourage conformity to gender (and class) norms, at least in terms of playing the system, but the trans community has long been moving away from that language, and pulling the medical community with it. (Personally, I wonder about the relevance to diagnosis of a ‘smart skirt and feminine jacket’, but it was apparently significant to my GIC.)

It's possible, of course, that in a completely equal and open society trans practice and trans identity would fade away. It's also possible that the state might wither away, as someone once suggested. Neither seems to be in prospect any time soon. And if, as seems actually to be an area of consensus, assorted gender systems are built on the basis of a broad distinction in physical characteristics, it's probably unlikely that gender will entirely disappear—or transgender. But this is a philosophical matter and teleology does not make for good history.

The underlying assumption in these supposedly evidence-based claims is that it is unreasonable and undesirable for people to be trans, not that it is ahistorical. Likewise, although Todd claims that her post is about proposed reforms to the Gender Recognition Act (such that it will not require [at least] two years of social transition, with attendant paperwork, and a formal medical diagnosis), the arguments are against trans identity in general. Like many people who espouse anti-trans (‘gender critical’) views, she does not here spell out the implications. It is difficult to maintain a progressive facade, when your argument is that people with certain identities should not exist. My experience of those who espouse such views or believe that the existence of trans people needs to be debated—including colleagues at the University of Glasgow with whom I have worked closely over the years—are profoundly unwilling to acknowledge what that means. It is not only bad history, and dangerous, it is dishonest.