The Language of Transgender History and Visibility
From the 1850s to the early 20th century, newspapers wrote sensationalist stories about people who were born female but lived and “passed” as men. When someone’s birth sex was “discovered,” they were often outed by the press. Although their circumstances and motives varied, the people whom newspapers reported on were generally white, and usually were people who were born female but who assumed long-term male identities, rather than male-to-female “gender crossers.” Additionally, it appears most of them had hoped to live quiet lives free from scrutiny.
Instead, the media latched onto their stories, even as newspaper reporters struggled to find the right words to describe them. Various cases used terms such as “male girl” or “female husband.” In a famous example from 1897, a woman named Babe Bean was arrested in California for “masquerading” as a man. Bean pretended to be mute but confessed in writing to being born biologically female. After authorities granted Bean permission to keep dressing in male clothing, the press turned Bean into a local celebrity, and speculated about the gender of “the mysterious girl-boy, man-woman.”
While Anglo-American society always had men and women who identified with or presented themselves as a different gender, Americans did not have the linguistic tools to describe such gender fluidity. In BackStory’s episode, “Outed,” guest Emily Skidmore observed that terms like “female husband” fell out of use once people became more familiar with the concept of lesbianism. “The disappearance of the term is really interesting in what it suggests about the understanding of same-sex desire,” said Skidmore.
Today, we might call some of these people “transgender”– a term popularized by transgender activist Leslie Feinberg in her popular 1993 novel “Stone Butch Blues.” However, not all early Americans who passed as a different gender did so because they identified with that gender. Women, in particular, often chose to pass as men as a way to claim privileges afforded only to white men. These privileges included things like suffrage, higher wages, military service, educational and employment opportunities. It also made it possible to court women in a society that did not yet conceptualize lesbianism or female sexual desire.
Male attire proved essential for women seeking access to spaces and roles reserved for men. For example, historians estimate that some 400 women dressed as men to fight in the American Civil War. During the 1850s, some escaped enslaved women also donned male attire in order to somewhat reduce suspicion while trying to escape slavery, but these were usually temporary disguises rather than long-term identities.
According to Jen Manion, an associate professor of history at Amherst College, there is rarely enough information in the historical record to know whether someone who lived a gender-nonconforming lifestyle was transgender. Manion also notes that since Americans before the 20th century understood gender and sexuality differently, “there’s no analogous concept” to our notion of transgender identity, “We can’t access that– if people had a gender identity that we would call transgender.”
Ashley Yergens is a 24-year-old dance artist living in New York City who identifies as a nonbinary transperson. “I came out first as genderqueer,” Yergens said. “I was unsure about hormone replacement therapy, and I’m a strong believer that you don’t need to change your hormones in order to identify the way you are, even though that’s kind of a loud message in society.” Eventually, Yergens tried a light course of hormones and liked the results. “I decided that I was interested in ‘passing’ as a cisgender male to folks who might not necessarily be super well-versed in gender,” Yergens said.
For Yergens and other people with nonbinary gender identities, contemporary language can be quite limiting, as it was for nineteenth-century Americans. As many pointed out, the term “transgender” is inherently flawed as it lacks a single agreed-upon definition. “Some people would say transgender means that you are assigned one sex at birth, but you identify as the other gender,” said Manion. “But a lot of transgender people and people in the queer community would say that’s way too binary of a definition.”
Susan Stryker, author of “Transgender History” and an openly transgender woman herself, defines “transgender” as those “who move away from the gender they were assigned at birth.” However, Feinberg deliberately employs a broader definition in her nonfiction works: “one who challenges the boundaries of sex or gender.” Though Feinberg’s definition is more inclusive than Stryker’s, both scholars emphasize movement away from a perceived gender identity, rather than transitioning to a particular endpoint. This distinction is often lost in popular understandings of what it means to be transgender today.
Similarly, the term “passing” proves limiting. As Yergens noted, the term allows white, heteronormative, cisgender ideals to continue defining identity. “I have a lot of trans, queer, people of color friends who really have a difficult time with the word ‘passing’ because even though we don’t want to admit it, when we say ‘you’re passing’ we mean ‘you’re passing according to the bombardment of images we’re fed [by the media],’” said Yergens. Or, as Manion adds, “it emphasizes passing as something, not that you are it.”
Although antiquated, terms like “male girl” and “female husband” reveal how language can be both empowering and alienating. As Manion argues these descriptions are “not necessarily worse or more judgmental or more limiting than the categories we have in the present […] They’re actually trying to get at something that people still struggle to describe I would say even in the present.” Yergens also observers this struggle. “You see so many different queer-identified people who are policing other queer-identified people, meanwhile all these other systems are eating us up alive,” said Yergens, arguing that debating the appropriateness of specific words is only helpful to a limited degree. “I do think words have a lot of power, and when you mean something, it becomes that.”
Ultimately, as a society we have a lot of work to do in terms of understanding gender identity, and refining how we talk about it. We may never know how to characterize historical figures’ gender or sexual identities. But today, the best thing we can do is be respectful and simply ask people what pronouns they use and how they prefer to be identified.
BackStory Digital Editor & Strategist