Transgenderism, History and Postcolonial Theory

I often fall upon discourses like “Trans* people have been around since humanity exists, they were here in the Middle Ages, they exist in many other culture”, and so on. The point seems to be that trans* experiences are real and valid, that it’s not a novel issue, in order to gain greater acceptance in society (which is right, of course).

Now, obviously, the binary gender-system we know is not the only one that ever existed, and even in societies without strict, binary genders, individuals have almost certain lived outside the norm. However, while it is useful in validating the real character of trans* experiences, the idea that “trans people have been here forever” is flawed. Transgenderism, as a specific phenomenon, is recent. It depends on a very particular view of binary gender and of its transformation or subversion. Forcing third genders and individual gender-variant people from other cultures into “transgenderism” is not only bad methodology, but it also erases the specificity of these experiences to assimilate them into Western contemporary categories and force our discourses on them. Not only does it not stand against postcolonial critique, but this is exactly what we ask people not to do with our experiences.

Trans*, transgender, transsexual, genderqueer, etc., are Western gender categories. For them to make any sense, first, there must be a normative gender-system where gender is taken as strictly binary and immutable, and linked strictly to a scienticized idea of sex as defined by a specific epistemology (cissexism); second, this gender-system must be broken by variant individuals, who understand their own experience in part as a subversion or rejection of it (transgenderism). The problem is in using these categories to describe experiences from outside this system. Assuming transgenderism as a phenomenon applies elsewhere appropriates and colonizes divergent non-Western (and past) ideas of gender to fit them in our own mould.

Putting two-spirited people or hijras, for instance, in the “transgender” category proceeds from the universalization of Western categories, including the gender binary. In effect, people from a third gender are only gender variant from our point of view. Within their own system, they exist as a normal category, they are not variant at all (which doesn’t mean they don’t experience discrimination — women are not gender variant, yet they are oppressed, hijras are oppressed too, thanks to the British Raj). Saying they are trans* or gender variant accidentally assumes that the gender binary is universal. Of course, it is true that Western binary discourses are dominant and non-Western categories are marginalized as a result of this, but we don’t have to perpetuate this.

One result of this Western hegemonic position is that the World Professional Association for Transgender Health (WPATH) also studies of non-Western gender categories. It is good that they be studied, but it is completely symptomatic that non-Western people from categories we don’t have are forced (by Western people) into the transgender label. They may request the modern sex change technologies (SRS, hormones, etc.), but it is only an internal evolution to this preexisting category.

The “trans* have always been here” narrative works on an understanding of time that is, in effect, cyclical. As I see it, the underlying idea is something like this: the gender binary is something that was constructed, therefore there was a pre-binary moment, a sort of Golden Age of gender of which the imposition of gender or binary gender was the Fall, and we must aspire to return to the true, natural order of society by rejecting the binary. This conception is similar to feminist accounts which assume a universal patriarchy working more or less the same everywhere, a claim now worthy of rejection (Butler, 2006).

The assignation of modern categories to people in the past is not valid from a methodological point of view, as it transposes present notions of gender in the past, often based on insufficient evidence. It is problematic from several points of view. First, there is a risk of using our idea of gender as a system and using it in the past. This is what made us believe wrongly that Vikings were male: we found swords in tombs, and assigned the skeleton as male. However, osteological study of the skeletons proves this assumption to be false, as about half the warriors in Viking expedition were actually female. For years, people used modern gender categories to inform the past, and arrived at the wrong conclusion. I don’t know if it has been done with trans* people, but it is a potential danger.

Another issue (and I’ve seen this one, in fact, with trans people) is the confusion of variant gender expression or roles with gender identity. It goes something like this: Person A wore male clothes, yet they were assigned female at birth, therefore they are a trans man. Obviously, this fact tells us something about the era (if divergent gender expression was accepted or not, for example), but it is not the proof that trans* identities existed, only that people could have gender expressions and assume gender roles that were not in line with what society expected from them. I read here about the idea that Joan of Arc would be a trans man, and her eventual death, an event of gender policing that marks the end a period of acceptance of gender variance. I’m not an expert of Joan of Arc, but as far as I know, she only assumed masculine gender roles and gender expression. This is not really what trans men do today.

The same website assumes a medieval repression of gender variance caused by Christianity, as opposed to better acceptance before Christianity. Therefore, repression is the result of Christianity, and acceptance, the remains of pre-Christian beliefs. Increased repression and normativity is the result of the Church’s greater hold over society and, implicitly, greater acceptance would require the rejection of the Church. (Notice the cyclical movement: here, the Fall is Christianity.) Oh how I’m used to that schema… It’s like Edward Gibbons all over again, but for trans* people instead of the Roman Empire. People refer to that scheme all the time to discredit everything about the Middle Ages, yet it doesn’t really work. Christianity, though important, is not the only moving factor for society between 500 and 1500, and essentializing whatever is pre-Christian as immobile until destroyed by the Church denies the cultural autonomy of most of the population.

As I see it, some forms gender reversal and the like were better accepted in the Middle Ages, or at least it’s my opinion as a medievalist who doesn’t work on that kind of stuff. This is well exemplified, I think, in Boccacio’s Decameron, II, 3. In this short story, Tedaldo, on the road, encounters an ostensibly male abbey. For reasons, they end up sleeping in the same room and in the same bed. Yet the abbey starts behaving sexually, which Tedaldo doesn’t like as “unnatural”. Perceiving Tedaldo’s disgust, the “abbey” put Tedaldo’s hand on “his” chest — or rather, her chest, where Tedaldo senses breast. Tedaldo once reassured, sex happens. There was absolutely no mention of anything wrong or worth mentioning in the fact that she was assuming a male presentation. Only potential “sodomy” was thought as wrong. Examples like this only show that a woman presenting as a male was not necessarily scandalous, at least in litterature. The opposite can be true as well, at least in ritual circumstances, with men disguised as women (Davis, 1979).

Anyway. I digress.

I identify two projects for trans-minded historians or historical comment:

  1. Participating to the feminist project of understanding, in their own specificity, different ways gender was organized as a system, but with a different focus or emphasis for identifying non-binary gender categories;
  2. Searching, in other cultures, for fluidity or variance of individual identities with reference to this particular gender-system (within or without it), and understanding

In effect, this calls for studying the varied experiences of gender and gender variance, instead of questing for transgenderism as a universalized phenomenon. These projects still validates the experiences of trans* people, without colonizing those of third gender people elsewhere or misrepresenting the past. It is a call for recognizing all different experiences of gender as true, valid and specific, instead of assuming all identities without our own idea of the gender binary to be trans* by default.

Works cited

Davis, Natalie Zemon (1979). Les cultures du peuple : Rituels, savoirs et résistances au 16e siècle, Paris, Aubier-Montaigne.

Butler, Judith (2006 [1990]). Gender Trouble, New York/Londres, Routledge.


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One thought on “Transgenderism, History and Postcolonial Theory

  1. averyteoda June 9, 2014 at 15:24 Reply

    Well articulated. The point that stood out to me is your mention of Joan of Arc. The “woman dressing as a man” issue is a complicated one and in many ways (imho) contributes to the invalidation/invisibilization of transmasculine identities by collapsing crossdressing (whatever the motive) and transgenderism. From a contemporary Western perspective, a cis female historical figure’s desire to dress as a man is understandable, even feminist, as a way of breaking out of the oppressive female gender role, but that also makes the idea of “woman dressing as a man” easy to dismiss. This idea is frequently assigned to transmasculine-identified people, thereby making them equally easy to dismiss.

    More on point, I’m super interested in the etymology of the trans identity as it’s commonly accepted in the West, particularly its very close ties to the rhetoric and varying stigmas around homosexuality. There was a Human Rights Watch report not long ago about sexual violence toward black lesbians and trans men in South Africa that I found intriguing, particularly because the two concepts were linked in the report. It makes complete sense given the cultural context.

    Anyway, thanks for making me think. 🙂

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