Far from being a modern-day phenomenon, definitions and roles of gender have been changing throughout human history. All over the world, cross-dressing, transgender people and gender fluidity have been recorded, from the earliest great civilisations through to today.
Breaking the traditional norms of gender is nothing new – and if history is anything to go by, it’s never going to stop.
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Now considered a third gender, hijra people in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh have been recorded since ancient times. The Kama Sutra, the world-famous ancient book on the philosophy of love and desire, makes mention of transgender people and cross-dressing.
Ancient Roman art and literature depict cross-dressing and the ambiguities of gender. Myths and storytelling aside, the priests of the goddess Cybele (Galli) are considered by some scholars to have constituted a transgender priesthood which operated in both Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome.
Native American History
Prior to European settlement, native traditions were passed on orally and through artwork. Not all of these have survived, but the earliest accounts of European settlers depict looser gender roles in some tribes.
“Two Spirit” has become the modern term for describing spiritual individuals whose sexuality and gender identity differ from mainstream Western definitions. While not all Native American tribes or nations recognised Two Spirit people, those that did note at least four genders.
Joan of Arc
In 1431, Joan of Arc was tried, convicted and executed for heresy. The extremely low quality of the evidence, a pro-English tribunal and the refusal to allow Joan of Arc access to legal advisers cemented the political motivation of the whole trial.
She was charged with cross-dressing (considered heresy) on repeat occasions for her adoption of short hair and male military armour during battle and the male attire she wore while in prison.
This is merely a punctuation mark in the story of the suppression of sexual “otherness” that would come to define the era.
Suppression of Expression
Evidence of gender variance during this time in history is well hidden, but some records of “gender irregularity” exist outside of Europe. Prior to the Age of Enlightenment (18th Century), many aspects of being human were suppressed. There are some reports of gender transgression and deviance going into hiding, although the sources are unverified.
The Emerging Modern World
1700s to 1900s
Historical records become clearer in the emerging modern world.
Charlotte Charke (1713-1760)
AKA Charles Brown, this notable writer and actor dabbled in a wide array of different trades, all commonly associated with men – farmer, sausage maker and tavern owner included. Charke’s public appearances were at one point exclusively male, and working girls and coffee house keepers referred to Charke as “Master Charles”.
Chevalier d’Éon (1728-1810)
Spy, diplomat, soldier: the life of the Chevalier d’Éon tells as exciting a tale as any blockbuster. D’Éon had exceptional talents as a mimic and was an excellent spy, successfully infiltrating the court of Empress Elizabeth of Russia as a woman.
The Chevalier claimed to have been assigned the female gender at birth and fought for recognition as a woman, citing reasons of family inheritance for being raised as a boy. D’Éon lived for 33 years as a woman. Upon d’Éon’s death, doctors discovered “male organs in every respect perfectly formed“.
Dr. James Barry (1789/1799-1865)
Born Margaret Ann Bulkley, Dr. Barry is possibly the first transgender medical doctor in history and rose to the highest medical office in the British Army. We say “possibly” because we just can’t know if James Barry was intersex, trans or presenting as male for employment and career reasons. We do know that his gender was discussed throughout his life and after his death.
Dr. Alan (Lucille) Hart (1890-1962)
Dr. Hart was a pioneering tuberculosis researcher whose innovative use of X-rays for detecting the disease saved thousands of lives. In 1917, he became one of the first trans men to receive surgery.
Recent history has been extremely progressive, at times violent and at other times politically charged.
The Stonewall Uprising 1969
Sylvia Riviera and Marcia P. Johnson, close friends, street queens and activists for LGBT+, are actively involved in the rebellion at the Stonewall Inn, NYC. In 1970, they founded STAR, the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries, on the back of the huge momentum gained for LGBT+ rights in the events at Stonewall, which is widely considered to be the single most important movement in history for the LGBT+ community.
“In many ways, Sylvia was the Rosa Parks of the modern transgender movement, a term that was not even coined until two decades after Stonewall” – Riki Anne Wilchins
Boys Don’t Cry, a movie that depicts the life and tragic death of Brandon Teena in 1993, becomes an Oscar-winning sensation.
The first Transgender Day of Remembrance is held on 20 November.
Monica Helms designs the transgender pride flag. It’s flown for the first time in Phoenix, AZ, at a pride parade.
Justin Trudeau, Prime Minister of Canada, announces legislation to safeguard and protect transgender people.
President Donald Trump revokes former President Obama’s guidelines on transgender
bathrooms, bringing an end to federal protections for transgender students.
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