A History of Gender Non-conformity in One Image

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

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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:

 

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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.