I hate Leslie Feinberg’s Transgender Warriors. Reading it is like torture to me. It is part history book, part autobiography, but unfortunately it is still one of the few mainstream books on transgender history. Feinberg is not an historian, and it shows. The whole book serves a narrative around class conflict; the upper classes subjugated the lower classes in many ways, one of which was through destroying transgender experiences. While Clare Sears’ Arresting Dress takes a similar framework, Transgender Warriors lacks any kind of nuance. Worse yet, Feinberg will offhandedly mention aspects of transgender existence without exploring them further. It becomes incredibly frustrating to read because it is clear to the reader that there is more that could be done with the history than is being presented. It is a book full of loose ends.
But there is one thing I appreciate Transgender Warriors for; its broad definition of what counts as “transgender”. The definition of “transgender” has changed a lot since Feinberg wrote Transgender Warriors; at the time, it represented anyone who was “beyond-the-binary” (Bettcher). Since then, transgender has come to mean a lot of different things, from binary transgender people to being an umbrella term for the whole community (often represented as trans*). The reasons for these changes are complicated, and even I do not fully understand them. But reading something like Transgender Warriors and calling a figure like Joan of Arc transgender for existing outside the traditional gender binary; that can be very refreshing.
History is full of preconceptions that surround how we talk about it. This is especially true for transgender history, which has frequently been erased or misunderstood by other movements. Trans men get read as women fighting the patriarchy by feminist historians; trans women get subsumed into gay history; non-binary people rarely get mentioned at all. Trans history does not often get its own platform to defend itself. That is what I hope to do with this article; explore how I believe transgender history should be talked about and the theories that underpin my work.
There are three main written works that inform my approach to transgender history; Julia Serano’s Whipping Girl, Mary Weismantel’s “Towards a Transgender Archeology”, and Asato Ikeda’s “Curating A Third Gender: Beautiful Youths in Japanese Prints”. While the core concepts found in each of these works interweave, I will show how I use them to understand transgender history as a whole.
In the chapter “Dismantling Cissexual Privilege” within Whipping Girl, Serano examines the ways in which cisgender privilege influences how cisgender people think about transgender people. Much like with heteronormativity, it is presumed that any given person is cisgender. In assuming gender as such, cisgender privilege prioritises cisgender experiences while making invisible transgender experiences. It creates a double standard; being cisgender is taken for granted while being transgender must be proven. It is here that Serano uses the term “third-gendering”. Third-gendering is a form of delegitimizing transgender experiences by defining them as outside a binary gender. In this way, a trans woman might not be seen as a woman, but as an “MTF” or a “male-to-female”. Serano goes on to say,
“I believe that this propensity for third-gendering others is simply a by-product of the assumptive and nonconsentual process of gendering. In other words, we are so compelled to gender people as women and men that when we come across someone who is not easily categorized that way (usually because of exceptional gender inclinations), we tend to isolate and distinguish them from the other two genders.” (Serano, 175-176)
Weismantel takes this cisgender privilege and applies it to history, specifically archeology. She shows how these assumptions about gender have obfuscated nuanced discussions around gender in the past and how the imposition of the same assumptions further naturalizes cisgender identities. One example that Weismantel provides is an instance wherein a colleague had imposed the concept of a nuclear family on an ancient agricultural society where such a thing did not exist. This offers a pertinent counterargument to the claims that searching for transgender history is anachronistic and applying modern terms and identities to a past in which they did not exist. Concepts like the nuclear family or the gender binary are reinforced by those who have never had to question their existence, and such are deemed to be inherent to human societies. Whereas queer identities get labelled as ahistoric by heteronormative experts, other Western concepts do not. Weismantel goes on to counter the idea that transgender history is putting the past into neat little boxes of transgender and cisgender, but instead a lens to view the past and to explore the multifaceted ways that humans have understood gender that has historically been ignored. It is to question the “dominant vision of human history” as “an unbroken legacy of manly men and womanly women compelled by biology to create nuclear families devoted to reproduction.” (Weismantel, 321) Undoing centuries of erasure and obfuscation requires a keen eye and a willingness to go beyond the assumptions that have been taken for granted.
Ikeda approaches transgender history from a public history perspective. Having curated an exhibition at the Royal Ontario Museum on the wakashu, a group of young males in Edo Japan that were sexually desired by both men and women, Ikeda addresses the tightrope she had to walk when balancing the academic side of the exhibition with a modern LGBTQ+ community that longed to see themselves in the past. While the museum wished to avoid making the claim that the wakashu were explicitly members of the LGBTQ community, they did consult the Toronto queer community to ensure they approached the topic with the appropriate sensitivity. Ikeda and her team attempted to shy away from the direct comparisons to modern LGBTQ labels, but in the end recognized that “scholars could not control […] audience interpretations.” (Ikeda, 646) In doing so, Ikeda rather interestingly runs up against a museum studies concept; that of admitting uncertainty.
In “Gallery Text at the V&A: A Ten Point Guide”, point #5 is “Admit Uncertainty” (Trench, 20). While the intent behind the suggestion is to address the limits of knowledge and to engage with that in museum texts, there can still exist an underlying bias towards cisgender heteronormative existences. Many queer people are very familiar with having their relationships dismissed as just very good friends, to the point where certain phrases like “gal pal” has become a coded term to mean lesbians. In this way, admitting uncertainty in the past can have the effect of further erasing queer identities by privileging cisgender heteronormative interpretations rather than the queer alternatives. But Ikeda presents a way to admit uncertainty in favour of the underrepresented.
To further explore how these concepts can be used when discussing transgender history, I will use the life of Dr. James Barry and how historians have come to understand him. Assigned female at birth, Dr. Barry lived his life as a man from the age of 14 until his death in 1865. In 1809, he enrolled at the University of Edinburgh Medical School, which at the time did not accept persons assigned female at birth. This is approximately when he began living as a man and took on the name James Barry. The following half century would see Barry live his life in the British Army as a highly acclaimed army doctor. He was forced to retire in 1859 before passing away 6 years later in 1865. During this time, he continued to live as a man. Despite his wish to be “buried in his bed sheets without further inspection,” (Loudon, 1341) his gender incongruity was reveled upon his death, launching a century of misgenderings that continue to this day. A charwoman claimed to have discovered that Barry was a woman, which garnered media attention despite the protestations from his colleagues and friends.
At the heart of the discussion around Barry is the uncertainty around why he took on a male identity. It is true that medical schools did not accept women and therefore he would have had to present as male in order to be educated. While these retellings of his life attempt to admit some level of uncertainty, they do so half-heartedly by refusing to gender him as male. It is all too common to find modern accounts that use she/her or they/them pronouns to describe Barry as well as terms like “masquerading” to refer to his life as a man. These have the effect of both misgendering and third-gendering Barry at the same time. Barry lived his life as a man, accounts from those that knew him used he/him pronouns when talking about him, but in his death he is routinely denied the life he lived for the vast majority his life.
In referring to Barry as a woman, those historians and commentators fall into many of the same assumptions that Weismantel addressed. They see men and women as completely separate, distinct groups that are compelled to reproduce through their innate biology. This can be seen with Barry when the possibility that he gave birth is used as proof of his supposed womanhood. Unfortunately, this perspective is the dominant one, with many accounts preferring to refer to him as a woman. While his life as a trans-masculine individual is very well known in transgender circles, I am not aware of many academic accounts that attempt to unravel the cisgender biases in his historiography.
While misgendering Barry as a woman and using she/her pronouns is egregious, I wish to address directly the issue of a feigned attempt at neutrality when it comes to using gender neutral pronouns or simply not gendering Barry at all. In “Finding the Rainbow Needle in the Research Haystack,” Kate Drinane discusses Barry very briefly and why she chose to use gender neutral terms to discuss him (Drinane, 88). To me, this is an example of third-gendering as Serano described. Rather than recognizing the life that he lived as a man, Drinane denies him that life, choosing instead to gender him as neither a man nor woman. This relies on the same assumptions that come with using she/her pronouns to describe him, but this time presented with a veneer of progressiveness that is only skin deep.
To accurately express uncertainty with transgender coded individuals in history, it is imperative to respect the pronouns they have taken on in their lives. In the case of Dr. James Barry, using he/him pronouns. When using other pronouns, it does a disservice to his story, reducing it to a choice he made rather than a life he lived. If we are to admit uncertainty with his life, then it must at the very least reflect that life, without anyone knowing otherwise. His intent, his gender identity, might not be explicitly known, but his gender expression absolutely is. It is that gender expression that should guide discussions around possibly transgender people in the past.
A Gender Variance Who’s Who. “James Miranda Stuart Barry (1796-1865) Military Surgeon.” Accessed August 24, 2021. https://zagria.blogspot.com/2008/01/james-miranda-stuart-barry-1795-1865.html#.YSTtUY5KhPY.
Bettcher, Talia Mae. “Trapped in the Wrong Theory: Rethinking Trans Oppression and Resistance.” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 39, no. 2 (2014): 384-406.
Drinane, Kate. “Finding the Rainbow Needle in the Research Haystack.” Museum International 72, 3-4 (2020): 82-93.
Feinberg, Leslie. Transgender Warriors: Making History From Joan of Arc to Dennis Rodman. Boston: Beacon Press, 1996.
Ikeda, Asato. “Curating A Third Gender: Beautiful Youths in Japanese Prints.” Transgender Studies Quarterly 5, No. 4 (November 2018): 638-647.
Loudon, Irvine. “Scanty Particulars: The Strange Life and Astonishing Secret of Victorian Adventurer and Pioneer Surgeon James Barry” BMJ 324, 7349 (June 2002): 1341. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1123295/.
Sears, Clare. Arresting Dress: Cross-Dressing, Law, and Fascination in Nineteenth Century San Francisco. Durham: Duke University Press, 2015.
Serano, Julia. Whipping Girl: a transsexual woman on sexism and the scapegoating of femininity. Berkeley: Seal Press, 2007.
Trench, Lucy. Gallery Text at the V&A: A Ten Point Guide. London: Victoria & Albert Museum, 2013.
Weismantel, Mary. “Towards a Transgender Archeology: A Queer Rampage Through Prehistory.” In The Transgender Studies Reader 2, edited by Susan Stryker and Aren Z. Aizura, 319-334. New York: Routledge, 2013.
Trying to bridge the gap between transgender studies and museum studies.