It amazes me how so many seem to view the notion of “transgender people” as if it were something that magically winked into existence just five years ago. It’s as if the moment they first heard of transgender people is the moment transgender people came into existence, rather than it merely being the moment they stopped living in ignorance about the existence of transgender identity.
The truth is, transgender people have always been here.
That’s not to say you aren’t seeing more transgender people being out and visible than you may have in the recent past. The thing is, everything is more visible now, with the rise of social media and the incessant news cycle that always needs something to fill it.
On top of this, as acceptance and visibility for the transgender population has grown, more people are feeling safer about coming out as transgender.
So it may well seem there are a lot more transgender people around, which could lead some to think this is somehow a new phenomenon.
The historical record is full of transgender stories, both in mythology and popular culture of the times. We know of the Cybele cult in Ancient Greece, whose members adopted female outfits and identity and castrated themselves in the service of their deity, and of Egypt’s Queen Hatshepsut, who wore male garments and a false beard. These are just two of a great many examples in the ancient world of what we might call “transgender identity” today.
Then there’s Queen Christina of Sweden, who abdicated the throne in 1654, adopting the masculine persona of Count Dohna, and the Chevalier d’Eon, who opted to live as a woman in the 1770s. One can presume there were plenty more who were not of such renown, living outside the social columns of the day.
Because those are such old stories, however, it is hard to augment them with the terms of today. We do not know, for example, whether Queen Hatshepsut adopted her garments as part of being a ruler, for example, and can only make educated guesses based on the historical record.
But we can look at figures throughout the last 100 years.
In 1918, some 20 years after Oscar Wilde set the stereotypes of gay male behavior that some still accept, a person who alternately went by Earl Lind and Jennie June released a book, “Autobiography of an Androgyne.” Four years later, she penned a second, “The Female-Impersonators.”
The language is antiquated and conflates sexuality and gender throughout, but we can still see that June would have likely considered themselves nonbinary or transgender by today’s standards.
While June was living in New York City, Jack Bee Garland was doing social work after serving in the U.S. military in the Philippines and writing for the San Francisco Examiner. He was a transgender man.
Meanwhile, in Germany, transgender and homosexual identities had a renaissance of sorts as Magnus Hirschfeld opened the Institut für Sexualwissenschaft (Institute of Sexual Research). There were popular nightclubs for transgender people in Germany at the time — that is, until the Nazis burned down the institute and sent transgender people to the camps with the homosexual prisoners. Had things been different, maybe we wouldn’t have a debate about how new “transgender” is today.
In the postwar era, as the United States tested nuclear bombs, The New York Times hailed a different “bombshell” when Christine Jorgensen returned from Europe after her gender change, followed by many more such stories throughout the 1950s to today.
That is a largely unbroken line from Jennie June to now, only interrupted by World War 2 and the atrocities of Nazi Germany. We’re not the latest fad, akin to planking and the ice-bucket challenge.
For those who are not transgender, whether you view yourselves as allies, neutral or even hostile toward transgender people, know this: We’re not something new; not some modern contagion caused by the Internet or what have you. We’ve simply always been here, as much a variation of the human condition as hair color or sexuality.
We may be something you don’t fully understand, let alone condone, but this doesn’t stop us from existing in this world. We have faced adversity and yet we remain.
For transgender people, it’s important, even vital, to reclaim our history and understand where we come from. We are part of a long history, and have a place in this world alongside our non-transgender peers. Many have attempted to erase us, and none likely more successful than Nazi Germany, yet here we are.
As our community continues to grow, driven by the ability to share with each other via our computers and cell phones, we can not only uncover this history, but forge the next links in the long story that is us.
Let us continue to move forward, together.
Gwen Smith is proud of her own contributions to transgender history You’ll find her at www.gwensmith.com.