A couple of the talks in Bournemouth yesterday required people to talk about the “sex” of trans people, as “discovered” after their death. This tends to get people (including me sometimes) into trouble over lack of clarity, because sex too is something of a social construct. I thought it might be useful to explain.
When a doctor or corner says that a body is “biologically female” what they usually mean is that the outward physical manifestations of sex correspond to femaleness. That is, the body has female genitalia, and probably breasts. If the body appeared to have a penis it would probably be described as “biologically male” (even if there was significant breast development).
When an archaeologist says that a body is “biologically female” it probably means that the skeleton is typical of someone who went through female puberty, as opposed to someone who went through male puberty. We can’t always be 100% on this, and sadly in the past archaeologists tended to go on skull size. Yes, they did assume that a bigger skull meant a bigger brain meant male. I’ve been told that some still do this.
Neither of those two things is necessarily indicative of chromosomal sex. There are a variety of intersex conditions that can result in a body having external sexual features and/or a skeleton that is at odds with the chromosomal sex.
So when we say that a body was “found to be biologically female” what we mean is that someone made an educated guess based either on external physical characteristics or on the shape of parts of the skeleton. We have said nothing about chromosomes unless an actual chromosome test was done.
Of course a chromosome test is no guarantee of the gender identity of the person whose body we are examining, or of how they lived their life, or of what gender they were assigned at birth. Assignment at birth is likely to be a guess made on the same basis as that made at death, but with less data. Gender identity may not correspond to external characteristics, and the ability of someone to live socially in the gender that comes naturally to them is dependent very much on social circumstances and that person’s strength of will.
All of which is to say that when we read in an historical account that a body of a presumed man was examined at death and that the person in question was “proved to be really a woman” (or vice versa) all we actually know is that there is some level of uncertainty as to the person’s sex and gender.
This is a particular problem when dealing with cases of apparent trans men from before the 20th Century. We know that in the early 20th Century a significant number of people assigned female at birth were re-assigned as male by doctors for a variety of reasons. Lennox Broster at Charing Cross was the leading expert in this work. His patients generally presented themselves to him because they had a strong male gender identity. If they were happy living as women there would have been far less need to consult a doctor. In previous centuries such people would have had no medical options but may have chosen to try to live as men. Having been assigned female at birth, it is plausible that they would again be deemed female after death. That doesn’t mean that they were “really women”.
You may of course argue that intersex conditions such as those that Broster dealt with are very rare, so the chances of some random body exhibiting such a condition would be equally low. However, if that condition is one in which persons assigned female at birth often have male gender identities (or acquire them at puberty) then we would expect such people to be attempting to live as men. That changes the probabilities massively.
Of course it is also possible that such people had no intersex condition but had a gender identity strongly at odds with the sex they were assigned at birth. They might conceivably be ambitious women trying to make their way in a man’s world, or lesbians trying to find a way to express their sexuality in a straight world, though as I have argued before I think these are less likely because of the difficulty of living a life contrary to your gender identity. My point is that we only have the reports of people who saw the body to go on, and those people almost certainly didn’t have anything close to as sophisticated an understanding of human biology as we have now.
Sex, it’s complicated.
That’s another one done. Only two weeks left. (Yes, I know. LGBT History Month has become so big that it has burst the bounds of February.)
Today I took myself off to Bournemouth. It is a fairly easy trip from here by train. As I hinted yesterday, this one was potentially dodgy because it got attacked by a religious fundamentalist website. They said a few nasty things about me, and a whole lot of really nasty things about Sophie Cook, the lovely trans lady who is also the official photographer for Bournemouth football club. They are not exactly high profile. The guy who runs the site has a massive 15 Twitter followers. But six of them did turn up today to listen to the talks. As the event was being organized by the local students’ union, Bournemouth University kindly laid on extra security to make sure that everyone was polite, and the day went off very quietly.
The highlight of the day was an impromptu talk. One of the speakers was unable to make it, so Jeff Evans of Schools Out did a short extra talk about the time when he and a group of other students took the NUS LGBT Conference to Belfast. They ended up getting picketed by Iain Paisley, and adopted by the IRA. It was a fascinating and heartwarming story, not to mention some very smart politics by Sinn Fein.
There were also two interesting talks about lesbian history. One, by Alison Child, focused on Gwen Farrar and Norah Blaney, a lesbian couple whose musical double-act topped the bills in the 1920s. The other, by Jenny White, focused on the inane things that straight men say about lesbians. There was, for example, an amazing court case from 1811 in which the accused got off because the judges could not believe that English women could do such “unnatural” things. Jenny also introduced me to two 19th Century trans people whose stories I didn’t know of. I wonder how many more there must be out there waiting to be discovered.
My own talk seemed to go down quite well, except perhaps with our unexpected guests who looked fairly grumpy throughout. They didn’t seem to want to talk to Sophie or myself, but they did spend quite a bit of time chatting to Jeff who was very positive about the interactions.
All in all it was a pretty good day. My thanks to the Bournemouth students for a job well done. I was particularly impressed that a majority of the students who turned up were from various minority ethnic backgrounds. The speakers were all white, as were the unexpected visitors, but the students gave me a lot of hope.
Tomorrow I will be off to Bournemouth for their LGBT History Month event. I’ll be giving the same talk that I did in Exeter last Sunday. That one doesn’t work without the slides, but the speech I gave at the Exeter launch does. It isn’t quite as good without all of the visual jokes, but it is at least intelligible, so I’m posting it here.
As some of you will have seen on social media, the Bournemouth event has attracted the attention of a fringe group of religious homophobes. I am pretty sure that they will be too cowardly to turn up in person, if only because that means we’ll see how few of them there actually are.
Anyway, the speech:
People of diverse genders,
I’ve been asked to speak today both as a trans activist and as an historian. These days that doesn’t seem quite so odd as it would have been in my school days. There is a recognition now that history is not just HIS-story, it is overwhelmingly straight cis rich white able-bodied man’s story. When I was at school we were starting to see historians looking at the lives of the poor. When I was at university I started to hear about feminist historians, though judging from Amanda Foreman’s Ascent of Woman TV series we still have a long way to go on that front. There is a shameful lack of people of colour amongst academic historians in the UK. We’ve made the first step by acknowledging the problem, but again there is a long way to go. We also have LGBT History Month. So trans history is being researched and written, yes?
Well, not exactly. Last year I attended an international conference in Canada on trans history. There were a few presentations from people outside of Western culture: a couple of Canadian two-spirit people, and an Indian hijra who now lives in New York. But the vast majority of the material covered by the conference was rooted in Western culture, and didn’t go any further back than the late 19th Century.
Why does this matter? Here is a brief quote from one of the regular attacks made on trans people by Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour programme:
“… the phenomenon of transgenderism which is a social construct of the 2nd half of the 20th century and which has become particularly common in the last couple of decades…”
(Sheila Jeffreys, BBCR4 Woman’s Hour, Aug. 7th 2014)
That was Sheila Jeffreys, who is well known for her antagonism towards trans people. But she is by no means the only person to make that claim. Indeed, what I noticed in Canada is that many people who work on trans history take that claim as a basic assumption of their work.
All of LGBT history has suffered from erasure. We know that. But in the case of trans people the charge that we did not exist, at all, before the 20th century, is very precisely being used to deny us the right to exist now.
This claim that trans people were invented in the 20th century is ridiculous, but strenuous efforts have been made, and continue to be made, to convince people that it is true. Sometimes the erasure is very literal.
One of the most important documents in Inca history is An Account of the Antiquities of Peru, by Juan de Santa Cruz Pachacuti. The author was a man of native descent who had converted to Christianity and was attempting to walk the difficult tightrope of explaining his culture to his conquerors without incurring the wrath of the Catholic Church.
An English translation of the work was produced by Clements R Markham in 1873 and is published as part of his book, Narratives of the Rites and Laws of the Yncas. Here is a short passage from Pachacuti’s work.
“The Curacas and Mitmays of Caravaya brought a chuqui-chinchay, which is an animal of many colours, said to have been chief of the jaguars.”
On the face of it, there is nothing remarkable about his. However, here is the original Spanish.
“Los curacas y mitmais de Carabaya trae a chuqui chinchay, animal muy pintado de todos colores. Dizen que era apo do los otorongos, en cuya guarda da a los ermofraditas yndios de dos naturas.”
Los ermofraditos yndios? Where did that come from? It certainly isn’t in Markham’s translation. American scholar, Michael J Horswell, examined the original and realised that something had been left out. Thanks to him I came to hear of the Quariwarmi, literally “men-women”, a community of Inca who worshipped a liminal deity known as the rainbow jaguar and who appear to have been viewed by Inca society as being something between a man and a woman.
Where trans people are not literally erased, they may be presented as something other than trans. In the case of trans women they are almost always caricatured as sexual perverts. Take this example from the afterword to the English translation of the memoirs of the French cross-dresser and possible trans woman, François Timoléon, Abbé de Choisy.
“Choisy was instructed by his mother to be a girl. The unconscious erotic awakenings in a child brought up to imitate his mother and afforded no masculine gender differentiation are bound to be fetishistic, and reliant on the intimate provocation of dress to excite rather than distinctly orientated towards the body.”
“Men who dress to imitate women usually overcompensate for the possible inferiority they feel. Transvestites project an image of the ultra-feminine woman, which is often the embodiment of heterosexual fantasy. They wear the highest heels, the tightest skirts, their red lipstick signals danger.”
Those comments were first published in 1973, when I was a teenager, and are typical of attitudes towards trans women at that time.
In the case of trans men, the usual way of framing their stories is to portray them as ambitious women attempting to make their way in a strongly patriarchal society. Certainly such people did exist, but most cis historians fail to distinguish between people who cross-dress occasionally, people who cross-dress full-time but do not try to hide their gender, and people who live full time in a gender other than that they were assigned at birth.
Any binary-identified trans person can tell you how hard it is to live full time in a gender that doesn’t feel natural to you. The idea that someone assigned female at birth could simply decide to live the rest of their life as a man, without any affinity for masculinity, and maintaining a strong sense of their own femininity throughout, seems bizarre to me. I had to spend a long time pretending to be a man. I know how stressful it is.
Nevertheless we continue to see efforts to “reclaim” apparent trans men for womanhood. For example, there was a recent New York musical that “reinterpreted” jazz musician, Billy Tipton, as a flamboyant drag king. Given everything we know about him, I imagine that Tipton would have been horrified. Even if he did still see himself as a woman, he made every effort to appear the suave ladies’ man.
The latest historical figure in the spotlight is Dr. James Barry. I haven’t had a chance to read the new biography yet, and I have been told that it contains some interesting research into Barry’s background. What I do know is that the review of the book in The Guardian was a veritable bingo card of transphobic tropes, taking every opportunity to present Barry’s male identity as a deliberate and dishonourable fraud. Were he alive today I suspect that Barry, who was notorious for his short temper and strong sense of honour, would have challenged the author of that review to a duel.
Eunuchs are rarely mentioned in history books, and when they are it is generally with a sense of existential horror, particularly from male historians. No effort is spared to decry the evil of making someone a eunuch, and the eunuchs themselves are described as “victims”. In fiction eunuchs are generally portrayed as fat, ugly, and prone to vicious scheming.
Thanks to the efforts of Shaun Tougher in particular, the history of eunuchs is slowly being rehabilitated. It is pretty clear that the last 200 years of human history are highly unusual because of the small number of eunuchs that existed during that time. The previous 4,000 years were very different.
Given the hundreds of thousands of eunuchs who have been made over the years, it seems likely that they will have had a wide range of identities. Some will have clung to their masculinity; some we know identified closely with women; but almost all of them will have been seen by the rest of contemporary society as neither male nor female, but as something non-binary.
This brings us to the central issue of trans history. One of the arguments deployed by those claiming that trans people did not exist before the 20th century is that the words we now use to describe trans people – transgender, transsexual, non-binary and so on – were not coined until then. Misrepresenting Foucault, these people claim that if the idea of the trans person did not exist then no one could identify outside of the gender binary.
What these people miss is that words like heterosexual were not coined until the late 19th century. Scientific understanding of the biology of gender is a product of the same time period. The very idea that humanity is divided solely into males and females, and that never the twain shall meet, is a 19th century construct.
One reason why countries like India, Pakistan and Nepal are ahead of the UK in terms of legal recognition for non-binary genders is that those countries have centuries long traditions of recognising that more than two genders exist. Before science told us about chromosomes, the idea that gender was mutable was commonplace. Stories of people having their gender changed by capricious deities are common in mythologies around the world, and in some cultures it was believed that one could lose one’s masculinity and become a half-man, if not actually a woman, by inappropriate unmanly behaviour.
This, then, is why I do trans activism through history. The idea that trans people are a 20th century invention is completely false. If anything, it is the idea that human gender is fixed at birth and can only be male or female that is the aberration. In most cultures, and in most times in human history, that idea would seem ridiculous. Exposing the lie that is being told about trans people can only be done by shining a light on trans history.
One of the things that came up on the show today was this news story involving Prof. Mike Benton, a palaeontologist from the University of Bristol. Up until now it was thought that all dinosaurs laid eggs, but a new discovery in China has turned all that on its head. A fossil of a plesiosaur-like creature called Dinocephalosaurus has evidence of what looks like a well-developed baby inside of the adult. That means that Dinocephalosaurus must have given birth to live young, just like whales and dolphins. On the face of it, this makes good sense. An animal that size isn’t going to find it easy to lay eggs on a beach the way turtles do. But it does seem to be a major new piece of evidence, always assuming of course that the news media has got it right.
It was great to be back in the saddle again, so to speak. I have been way too busy doing training and therefore not doing radio for quite a while. But today I was back with a full show dedicated to LGBT History Month.
First up was some promotion for this event next Wednesday evening at M-Shed, which I am chairing. In studio with me were my good friend Henry Poultney from Off the Record, plus Cai, Jade and Lara who are all young people involved with the event in some way.
Next up was Karen Garvey from M-Shed, who I have also come to know very well over the years. She was mainly talking about this event on Saturday. There’s lots going on, much of it also involving people I know well. My co-chair from OutStories Bristol, Andy Foyle, will be demonstrating the wonderful history map that we built last year with help from Bristol university. Simon Nelson from the City Council will be talking about the pioneering African-American gay man, Bayard Ruskin. Performance artist, Tom Marshman, will be leading a guided tour of queerest exhibits in the museum. Lori Streich will be talking about lesbians in feminism. LGBT Poet Laureate, Trudy Howson, will be topping the bill. And to round it all off the local chapter of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence will be being fabulous.
You can listen to the first hour of the show here.
Kicking off the second hour was Daryn Carter from Bristol Pride. He is staging an event at the Watershed on Saturday the 25th. We have a lady from the Tate talking about their forthcoming Queer British Art exhibition. We have Jake Graff. We have Tom Marshman (again). We have Oscar Wilde (probably just a tribute band). And we have me covering 4,500 years of trans history in art. I may have to talk quite quickly.
Daryn and I also had a bit of a rant about the mess the Church of England has got itself into over same-sex marriage.
And finally I was joined by Lesley Mansell from North Bristol NHS Trust to talk about the public LGBTHM events she has organised at Southmead Hospital. They are both trans-focused as well. It is a refreshing change to find part of the NHS working hard on trans inclusion.
You can listen to the second hour of the show here.
Thanks as ever to Ben, my engineer. I’ll be back in the studio on March 1st for a show devoted to International Women’s Day.
The playlist for today’s show was as follows:
- Prince – I Would Die 4 U
- Tegan and Sara – Faint of Heart
- Laverne Cox – Sweet Transvestite
- Janelle Monáe – Q.U.E.E.N.
- Lady Gaga – Born This Way
- The Vinyl Closet – Garbage Man
- Cyndi Lauper – True Colors
- Labi Siffre – It Must be Love
I played Cyndi for Caroline Paige, the RAF trans woman who gave that great talk in Exeter at the weekend. The Labi Siffre was for Kevin as a late Valentine present because I’m soppy like that.
Bristol 24/7 has published my review of Michael Dillon’s autobiography, Out of the Ordinary: A Life of Gender and Spiritual Transitions. This is all LGBT History Month stuff, of course. Many thanks to James Higgins, the new LGBT Editor, for being willing to run such things.
As of next Monday’s event, BristolCon Fringe will have a new home. It is: The Famous Royal Navy Volunteer, 17-18 King Street, Bristol BS1 4EF. We will be in the function room on the first floor. The move should give us more space, better audio equipment, and no interruptions from noisy parties in the next bar or ghosts. (Though it was cool to have ghosts, their conversation was very boring.)
If you are in the area, please do join us from 7:00pm on Monday February 20th when our readers will be local favorites, Gareth L. Powell and Pete Sutton.
Gareth is best known for his alternate history thriller Ack-Ack Macaque which won the 2013 BSFA Award for Best Novel and spawned two sequels. Gareth will be reading a selection of work from my new short fiction collection, Entropic Angel, which will be released by NewCon Press in April.
Pete Sutton is a contributing editor of Far Horizons Magazine as well as one of the organisers of the Bristol Festival of Literature. He will be reading from his debut novel, Sick City Syndrome.
And of course there will be the usual thing where I put the readers to the question.
I slept until 9:00am this morning, which I guess shows that I was tired. Of course that meant having to grab breakfast from a coffee shop on my way to the Phoenix for today’s talks. Sorry, I am an embarrassment.
I really enjoyed Michael Halls’ talk about Intercom Trust because of how he made a point of building a network. He said that it was a policy of the Trust never to compete with other LGBT+ organisations in the region for funds or volunteers, and only to work with those organisations that did the same. That sounds like a good way of fighting back against a government determined to make us all fight among ourselves for an ever-decreasing offering of scraps.
John Vincent on LGBT+ and public libraries was rather sad because libraries are in severe danger of extinction.
Shaan’s talk was mostly stuff I had heard before, but I was expecting him to put me on the spot about the Twilight People app and he duly did so. Fingers crossed I’ll have something available for the end of March.
Huge props to my friend Robert Howes for including in his talk the cover of a fanzine produced by a Brazilian cross-dressing club in 1968. He also had pictures of the Revealing Stories exhibition, and of the Bath Orlando vigil featuring the fabulous Ceri Jenkins.
For me the highlight of the weekend was Caroline Paige, the first person to transition in the RAF. I had no idea that there was a trans woman flying helicopters in Bosnia and Afghanistan. Way to go, Caz, you showed them! When I think about what she had to put up with, my own transition was a piece of cake.
The keynote speaker at the end of the day was Diana Souhami who has written many biographies of lesbians. She talked a lot about the large and very influential community of upper class lesbians who lived in Paris at the start of the 20th Century. I wish Bea Hitchman had been there, she would have loved it.
My own talk went well, for which thanks to Ishtar/Cybele/Isis for Her support.
Finally huge congratulations to Jana Funke and Jen Grove for a job well done. I was particularly pleased with the large number of young people who attended.
Today in Exeter we had the launch event. This is the one that I was more nervous about because most of the audience would not be there to hear me, they’d be there mainly for a bunch of gay men (and in particular local MP, Ben Bradshaw, who is the first openly gay man to have been elected to the UK Parliament).
As it turned out, it all went very well. Jana Funke and Jen Grove, who are running the event, have done a fantastic job. Everything ran pretty much like clockwork. The staff at the Royal Albert Memorial Museum were very helpful, and they even laid on a bunch of guys in Roman legionary outfits just for me. (Good job this wasn’t the talk about castration in Rome.) It was, as ever, an honor to share a platform with Noorulan Shahid who is doing a magnificent job in the NUS for both trans and Muslim students.
One minor piece of nit-pickery. When you are doing an LGBT event, please don’t begin your speech with “ladies and gentlemen”. Other genders do exist. I’d asked Jana and Jen to warn the speakers about this, and I know they did, but two of them still got it wrong.
Special thanks for the support go to Surat-Shaan Knan, to my pal Emma Hutson who drove down from Sheffield for the weekend, and to Emma’s friend Sonnie who is putting her up and acted as local guide. Emma is doing a PhD on fiction by transgender writers and is therefore the most awesome person in the universe.
At some point I will post the speech, but not now because I need sleep.
Tomorrow I get to talk about trans people from Mesopotamia and Rome.
I have been so busy over the past week that I totally missed the fact that Gary Wolfe had made the official announcement for this year’s Crawford award. The Crawford, as you may remember, is for a debut fantasy book. This year the winner is All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders.
I am, of course, delighted. That’s partly because I loved the book, partly because Charlie Jane is a friend, partly because trans writers FTW, and partly because it is always nice when the rest of the jury likes one of your favorites.
I’d also like to note that Maresi by Maria Turtschaninoff was short-listed. Yet more to be happy about.