If I ever do get a chance to create that exhibit, Kit Heyam’s recent book Before We Were Trans: A New History of Gender will most certainly be the first I reach for.
Before We Were Trans is an absolutely splendid read. Brilliantly written, I feel like I will be coming back to it frequently just to find quotes to use in my various trans museum talks. It feels like everything I wished Leslie Feinberg’s Transgender Warriors could have been, focusing in on specific examples rather than broad strokes that left me wanting more. The image of trans history that Heyam presents here is messy, but I mean this in the absolute best way possible. Trans history cannot delineate itself from other histories, it weaves through and around many different communities across time. It is messy not because Heyam did a poor job weaving together a narrative, but specifically because they chose to make that messiness integral to the ways that they told trans history.
As much as Before We Were Trans is concerned with telling trans history, it is equally invested in the ways that we discuss trans history. This is, in my opinion, the book’s biggest strengths. Much has been written previously about who we decide counts as “trans” enough to be part of a trans history, and this book is certainly in conversation with those. This is where the messiness comes into play. Transgender is a difficult thing to nail down, and nearly every historian is going to draw the line differently. Heyam, and I am in agreement with them, suggests a very broad definition, one that, quoting Margaret Middleton, values “queer experience as expertise and gaydar as epistemology” (20). This inevitably runs up against and, in some respects, counter to other communities’ views of history. For them, this is no issue, for instead, they choose to look at it from a sense of community. They write, “in real life, we don’t own or claim the members of our communities; we certainly don’t forbid them to be members of multiple communities at once. Instead, we make space for them; we support, validate and celebrate their presence in our community” (27). It does not need to be an either or for history, it can be an all of the above.
This is not to be interpreted as a universal call to appropriate those who have lived their lives beyond the traditional gender binary into a monolithic trans history, however. Rather, it is about recognizing the mess and approaching it from every angle and allowing a full range of understanding around these examples. This is made especially clear in the final chapter where Heyam discusses Two-Spirit and hijira identities. While these are gendered experiences, they are intrinsically tied to spirituality and so to carelessly define them as trans would be to flatten their experiences and silence the specifically spiritual sides. These are just as important, and much care needs to be taken to speak to them on their own terms. Heyam does wish to see it as part of trans history, but in a way that does not detract from their place in other indigenous histories as well. Rather than policing the borders of histories, we allow free roam between them.
I truly cannot express enough how much I appreciate this book. This is a must read for anyone interested in trans history, especially for museum work. Not just for the examples of gender-nonconforming behaviour it maps throughout time, but for the ways it speaks to those. It applies a brilliantly trans focused lens to view the past that is absolutely deserving of being emulated by other professionals. One such example is something that I have spoken about previously, the act of admitting uncertainty when discussing queer history. Admitting uncertainty is the term used in the Victoria & Albert Museum’s text writing guide, where it is better to recognize the limits of our knowledge rather than hide them. This is fine in theory, but in practice, it can result in making queer and trans lives nearly invisible. Before We Were Trans, however, shows how we can see the fullness of trans existence without neglecting the other possibilities. We can recognize the vibrancy of gender expression without arbitrarily deciding that trans perspectives are inherently lesser.
This really only scratches the surface of this wonderful book. There were moments reading it where I was left speechless for how effortlessly it made its arguments. Aspects that are so common to me they have a regular place in my trans history talks were reframed in such a way to reveal incredible new perspectives. It is magnificent. If you are looking for a book that will enrich your understanding of gender throughout time, Before We Were Trans is just the one for you. Unfortunately, it is not yet available for purchase in North America (I had preordered it on British Amazon in order to get it shipped to me as soon as I could), but come September 2022, it should be on the top of some reading lists. This is not one to miss.
I want to conclude with a passage from the epilogue:
“History, while it may not perpetuate physical harm, still repeatedly enacts violence against trans lives in the past and the present. And it’s not the job of the communities we’ve hurt to give us the benefit of the doubt; it’s our job to convince them that historians can be different.” (221).
Johannesson, Asa, and Clair Le Couteur. "Nonbinary Difference: Dionysus, ~~Arianna~~, and the Fictive Arts of Museum Photography." In Museums, Sexuality, and Gender Activism, edited by Joshua G. Adair and Amy K. Levin, pp. 167-179. London: Routledge, 2020.
Heyam, Kit. Before We Were Trans: A New History of Gender. London: Basic Books, 2022.
Trying to bridge the gap between transgender studies and museum studies.