A History of Gender Non-conformity in One Image

The whole “transsexual” thing is an excellent example of how descriptions become prescriptions.


Taking a cue from vox.com in the title. Probably a little overstated, but there it is.

What we’re looking at is a graph from Google’s Ngram service (https://books.google.com/ngrams ), which searches all of Google’s archive of books and other texts and then displays the results in graphic format, showing the percentage of texts that include the searched word or phrase.

What we see here is that there was very little discussion of gender identity in any way except in terms of cross-dressing within the gay entertainment sector (“travesti,” “female impersonator”) through the first half of the 20th century. I ran the search terms back to the 1700s, and they show the same pattern. (What we’re talking about here is almost exclusively MtF; FtM was even slower to appear on the radar, likely because the professionals researching these things have long been mainly cis-male doctors, who aren’t exactly noted for their sensitivity to women’s psycho-medical concerns.)

Activity picks up a little in the late 1920s, but from that point until the 1960s it’s all connected with that entertainment sector. The most active terms are “travesti,” “in drag,” and “female impersonator.”

The developments are a little easier to see if we drill down a little, so here’s the same chart from 1950 to 2007:



It’s clear that the whole discourse about gender identity / gender expression takes off from the mid-1960s. And it’s possible to pinpoint a couple of reasons why it starts there, the main reason being the publication of Christine Jorgensen’s autobiography in 1967, followed the next year by Gore Vidal’s novel, “Myra Breckinridge.” Those two books brought the whole topic of what was then primarily called “transsexualism” to bookshelves across America, and in the years immediately following it became a subject of discussion on TV talk shows and so on.

The discussion at that point was not very well-informed. The psycho-medical establishment was in the early stages of deciding what to do about non-conforming gender identities, and the whole “transsexual” thing is an excellent example of how descriptions become prescriptions: Dr. X publishes a study that says, “Here’s a case history of someone who exhibits characteristics a, b, c and d, and I’m calling that set of characteristics ‘transsexualism.'” Subsequent researchers and/or practitioners then say, “You have characteristics a, b and c, but you don’t have d, therefore you’re not really a transsexual.”

The way that played out was that the early studies of “transsexuals” led the psycho-medical establishment to define the “condition” in terms of their own biases and stereotypes. How that played out was that they expected the treatments available (hormones, surgery) to result in the conversion of an anatomical male into a “normal” female – so the resulting female would, of course, be “heterosexual,” meaning that she would automatically be sexually attracted to men.

These several decades later, we know that’s not how it works. Gender identity and sexual orientation are two different things. Many if not most people who have undergone hormone therapy and even surgery have not experienced changes in their sexual orientation. But under the “transsexual” model, it was expected that 1. every gender non-conforming person would ultimately want to “change their sex,” i.e., go through hormone therapy and surgery, and 2. would be “heterosexual” in terms of their post-treatment gender.

As actual case histories began to multiply over the next couple of decades, it began to be clear that this model was seriously inaccurate, and the people seeking treatment began to resist the prescriptiveness being forced upon them. A watershed was the publication in 1994 of Kate Bornstein’s book, “Gender Outlaw,” which argued against the imposition of the “transsexual” model on all gender non-conforming people. And as the chart makes clear, it’s from this point in the mid-1990s that the term “transgender” begins to rise in frequency to become the dominant word and concept in the discussion of gender identity.

I included “genderqueer” in the chart, and we see that it’s a very rarely used term, at least up until 2007. I originally also included “gender fluid” (and also “genderfluid” without the space) and found that there were zero hits on it, which leads me to conclude that the term was first used sometime after 2007. Clearly, the whole topic is still in flux, and it might be wise to refrain from getting too attached to any particular terms or concepts. At the same time, it seems as though pretty much any of us, if allowed and encouraged to find our own individual way, could potentially send the whole discussion in a different, and possibly better, direction by finding a new word or phrase or description that opens new avenues for understanding.

The Path Not Chosen

“Despite my strenuous efforts to be as boyish as the next boy, my peers never accepted me as fully masculine.”

It appears that certain elements of today’s society – I’m referring, of course, to Trump and his allies – think they can substitute an imaginary reality for the real one as a way of cramming their dehumanizing, anti-democracy agenda down the throats of Americans. I think this is wrong in every sense of the word, and also debasing and destructive to our whole culture.

At its core, this strategy aims to make opposition to Trump’s policies impossible by denying the existence of any facts that would demonstrate the malignancy of those policies, and asserting the existence of “alternative facts” that allegedly demonstrate their virtue and even necessity. So we see things like Trump ordering government workers to “disappear” data on climate change, presumably to replace the real, scientific data with the kind of phony, biased research that right-wing and oil company-funded outfits like the Heritage Foundation have been churning out for years.

Of particular concern to me right now is the circulation of falsehoods about the nature of sexual orientation and gender identity (and gender in general) by people who just want to discredit the advances in understanding of these matters that have been achieved in recent decades. Opponents of same-sex marriage and LGBTQI equality simply want to silence us so they can turn the clock back and force us back into the closet and the shadows, or prison.

Just in the last few days, for example, it seems that a ridiculous lie has been spewed across the internet to the effect that transgenderism is a sort of “fad” that was “made up” by social media site Tumblr. Clearly, what this breathtakingly stupid claim is meant to achieve is the delegitimization of all of the abundant evidence showing that transgenderism or non-binary gender is, in fact, a reality, and is not something people adopt voluntarily the way they might decide to get a tattoo. (Some people, of course, have claimed for years that homosexuality is a matter of choice, despite the blindingly obvious idiocy of the claim.)

I’m well into my seventh decade and can tell you from personal observation that transgenderism or non-binary gender is a “real thing” and has been around a lot longer than Tumblr, other social media, and the internet as a whole. As a term describing a certain state of being, it may be relatively new, but the state of being it describes has been around for probably as long as human beings have existed.

I can only vouch personally for the time from the late 1950s to the present. It was back then, when I was just 5 or 6 years old, that I began to realize that though I was told I was a boy, I had a definite preference or inclination toward things considered “feminine” and a definite disinclination toward things “masculine.”

My inclination was strongly discouraged by my parents whenever I tried to exhibit it in any outward way, and my father in particular pushed me hard to act more like boys were supposed to act, and take an interest in the things boys were supposed to like. By “pushed hard,” I mean that he (and my mother, too) used every means at their disposal to encourage, persuade, punish, shame, and even beat me into conforming with their ideas (and society’s) about what a boy my age should be.

But here’s the thing that makes me convinced that gender identity is not the either/or matter, determined by birth anatomy, that so many people think it is: With all the incentives I was given to conform, I naturally tried very hard to meet my parents’ (and society’s) expectations in this regard. But despite my strenuous efforts to be as boyish as the next boy, my peers never accepted me as fully masculine.

Somehow they knew that there was something “other” going on with me, and throughout my youth, from grade school to high school, I was more or less continuously taunted, insulted, harrassed, abused and even assaulted. Starting with “You walk like a girl, you run like a girl, you throw like a girl, you fight like a girl, you cry like a girl” – because, yes, that kind of thing did sometimes drive me to tears. And later on: sissy, queer, homo, faggot, and all the other terms that creative haters have come up with over the years.

What this proved to me, in sum, is that my gender identity is not something that I initiated in any way or have any control over. It is an objective reality that I have to live with in the same way as the color of my eyes or the size of my feet (or, indeed, the shape of the moon). I might be able to disguise these things for a time, but I can’t make them go away. And for someone to assault me or deprive me of my rights because of my gender identity makes exactly as much sense as insulting or attacking me about the size of my feet.

It took me a long time to accept the reality of it. For years, I oscillated between being strongly driven to live and express what I was feeling and being just as strongly driven to deny and reject it (i.e., I experienced dysphoria, as it’s called now). But I understand now that it’s real, and it’s really part of me, and to eradicate it would be as much an act of self-mutilation as cutting off my feet, and just as pointless. So to any transphobes out there who still want to insult me, then insult away, and be damned. You won’t change me.