Transgender Awareness Week
Transgender Awareness Week, observed 13 – 19 November, is a one-week celebration leading up to the Transgender Day of Remembrance, which memorialises victims of transphobic violence.
The purpose of Transgender Awareness Week is to educate about transgender and gender non-conforming people and the issues associated with their transition or identity.
In Trans*: A Quick and Quirky Account of Gender Variability (University of Columbia Press, 2018), Jack Halberstam, professor of English and comparative literature, explores recent shifts in the meaning and representation of gender and the possibilities for a non-gendered, gender-optional, or gender-queer future.
Here is a short excerpt: “Over the course of my lifetime, I have called myself or been called a variety of names: queer, lesbian, dyke, butch, transgender, stone, and transgender butch, just for starters. Indeed, one day when I was walking along the street with a butch friend, we were called faggots! If I had known the term “transgender” when I was a teenager in the 1970s, I am sure I would have grabbed hold of it like a life jacket on rough seas, but there were no such words in my world.
Changing sex for me and for many people my age was a fantasy, a dream, and because it had nothing to do with our realities, we had to work around this impossibility and create a home for ourselves in bodies that were not comfortable or right. The term “wrong body” was used often in the 1980s, even becoming the name of a BBC show about transsexuality, and, offensive as the term might sound now, it at least harboured an explanation for how cross-gendered people might experience embodiment: I, at least, felt as if I was in the wrong body, and there seemed to be no way out.
For my part, I now prefer the term “trans*” because it holds open the meaning of the term and refuses to deliver certainty through the act of naming. The asterisk modifies the meaning of transitivity by refusing to situate transition in relation to a destination, a final
form, a specific shape, or an established configuration of desire and identity. The asterisk holds off the certainty of diagnosis; it keeps at bay any sense of knowing in advance what the meaning of this or that gender-variant form may be, and perhaps most importantly, it makes trans* people the authors of their own categorisations.
Though these past two decades have given us better terms for who we are, they have done less than one might hope to heal the vexed relationship between trans* activism and theory, on the one hand, and feminist activism and theory, on the other. This rift presents a real problem for the contemporary political alliances that are so desperately needed now in a time of extended crisis.”
Alan Hart was a transgender man born in 1890 in Kansas and raised on his grandfather’s farm in Oregon. His identity was accepted early on: he was fascinated with playing doctor as a young boy; wrote articles for school publications and local newspapers under his male pseudonym as a teenager; and was listed as a surviving grandson in his grandparents’ obituaries at the time of their deaths.
In 1917, Alan received a doctor of medicine degree from the University of Oregon. He was upset to see the information included his birth name, realising that having a feminine name would limit his job opportunities, despite his masculine appearance. Around this time, Alan approached Dr Joshua Gilbert at the University of Oregon and requested a full hysterectomy as part of his medical transition. Dr Gilbert refused until Alan changed tactics, convincing the doctor that a person with “abnormal inversion” should be sterilised. After the successful operation, Alan legally changed his name and began hormone therapy, despite its risks at the time. He is regarded as the first person to medically transition in America.
During an internship in 1918 at San Francisco Hospital, Alan was outed to the school newspaper by a former classmate, and with his first wife, Inez Stark, was forced to flee to Oregon, where he began his own practice. He was eventually outed there as well, but responded in a local newspaper, saying: “… I am happier since I made this change than I ever have been in my life, and I will continue this way as long as I live. I came home to show my friends that I am ashamed of nothing.”
Throughout the 1930s and ’40s, Alan devoted his career to tuberculosis research. He travelled through rural Idaho, teaching, training medical staff, treating patients, and conducting mass tuberculosis screenings. He was a capable and accessible writer, and he published his findings for both medical researchers and the general public. He also popularised the use of x-rays to diagnose tuberculosis, which saved thousands of lives.
As a writer, Alan also published several pieces of fiction, including stories featuring disabled, gay and transgender characters. His books deal with gender, sexuality, and feminism, while also exploring the ups and downs of working in the medical field.
After his death in 1962, Alan’s wife established a scholarship in his name. There would be an ongoing debate surrounding it for two decades afterwards, regarding whether the beneficiaries of the scholarship should be lesbians or transgender individuals in order to qualify. Some people misidentified Alan as a lesbian instead of a transgender man, despite his efforts to keep his pre-transition identity a secret, including a request that his personal letters and photos be destroyed upon his death.
More than a century later, Alan is still remembered for being the first transgender man to undergo medical transition in the United States, but even more so as a doctor at the forefront of the fight to eradicate tuberculosis, saving countless lives in the process.
Consider these 18th-century ‘female husbands’
Whenever the subject of transgender identities comes up today, there is a tendency to trot out a particularly specious argument: that the idea of being trans is a “new” concept, a notion that “no one” in their right mind had heard of, or would entertain, in previous eras.
The fact is that people who defied gender norms in notable, consistent ways – and who might well have identified as transgender today – have existed throughout human history.
Consider, for example, that in the 18th century, a property owner in England realised, to her consternation, that one of her tenants, whom she had long assumed was a swashbuckling married man, might actually, at least in her eyes, be something else entirely.
“You are taken to be of a different sex from what you appear, and you know how profane a thing it is for a woman to be a man,” the property owner declared, “for if you are a woman, you must be a woman, there is no help for it.”
Samuel Bundy, the subject of this denunciation, tried to think up excuses and settled on an extraordinary solution: that they lacked “male” genitalia because a shark had devoured them on one of their voyages. “I owe this,” Bundy offered, “to a shark in the West Indies.” Whether or not this was believed, it was too late. Others had already been informed, and Bundy was arrested shortly thereafter.
Samuel Bundy – whose story is one of many documented in Female Husbands: A Trans History, a fascinating new book by Jen Manion – had been assigned female at birth, but, from a young age, enjoyed tales of women sailing the seas in the guise of men, and also liked alternating between male and female attire. Later, Bundy took on the identity of a man more fully, perhaps because this represented the easiest way to be granted passage as a sailor, and set off. Bundy romanced women at ports of call – an important way to convince the other male sailors of their virility – and eventually married a woman, while also seemingly offering their hand in marriage to 12 others, as well. When Bundy was incarcerated, the women lined up to visit. Bundy’s “official” wife refused to press charges, allowing them to go free.
What made Bundy particularly distinctive was their willingness to embrace their identity in both male and female terms, never settling entirely on one side of the gender binary. “In contemporary terms,” Manion writes, “we might see their gender as non-binary.” Manion, unlike all too many previous scholars writing about long-dead figures who may have been transgender, accepts that it is not always possible to know a historical person’s gender identity, so when it seems uncertain, Manion uses gender-neutral terminology – a move at once politic and political, doing gender justice to historical figures whose identities are unclear or who may have genuinely wished to be spoken of in non-binary terms.
To the 18th-century press, however, the Bundy story was another lurid case of the “female husband”, a then popular term for someone assigned female at birth who presented as male and took a wife. For much of the century, newspapers and popular novels were filled with sensationalistic tales of similar lives. What made these stories stand out was how they crossed assumed borders of gender and sexuality. Queerness already defied the simplistic paradigm of who was drawn to whom, and narratives of people transing gender – Manion’s term – defied further still, suggesting that our bodies did not necessarily represent the destiny of our gender. Bodies, instead, were suddenly unruly, unpredictable, expansive – as, of course, they always had been, and remain.
Another such case was James Allen, a labourer in London who had married a housemaid, Abigail Naylor. In 1829, after Allen was fatally crushed by falling timber, the coroner’s examination of their body revealed that Allen had been assigned female at birth.
The coroner continued to use male pronouns when referring to Allen, even after the discovery. “I call the deceased a ‘he’, because I considered it impossible for him to be a woman, as he had a wife.” As Manion noted, the deaths of female husbands were so often newsworthy “because people wanted to know how someone assigned female at birth managed to go through life as a man”, as well as how their marriages to cisgender women had worked. In some cases, Manion speculates, the female husband’s wife might genuinely not have known what cisgender men’s bodies were “supposed” to look like, especially if she had been raised in a puritanical home, or their husband may have taken efforts to conceal their bodies, even during intercourse. In other cases, their wives may simply have accepted their bodies and identities as they were, embracing their queerness in secret.
Because of their journalistic popularity, some accounts of female husbands were transformed into biographies or even novels, like The Female Sailor, published in 1750, about “Hannah Snell who went by the name of James Gray”.
Some, like James Howe, were even covered on both sides of the Atlantic. Born into a poor family in 1732, Howe “lived as a man for over 30 years undetected, achieving wealth and the esteem of the local community as the owner of the popular White Horse Tavern in London’s East End”, Manion tells us. Their identity was only revealed after they were blackmailed by an old classmate, who wanted to extract money out of them. As Manion’s book emphasises, these historical figures may not have used the terms transgender or non-binary, per se, but still understood themselves as people who transed gender, in some way, and wanted their partners, if not the world at large, to be able to accept them as such. While Manion’s book is only a narrow geographic snapshot of such figures, it underscores their prevalence in the past, as well as the still-radical notion that transgender people are worthy of love and respect.