Hidden but not lost

Writing a history of transgender people poses unique problems.

Nowhere is this imbalance more evident than in LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender) history. There is a great deal about LGBT lives that has either never been told, or has been misrepresented. 

It does not take much imagination to see where the problems lie. LGBT people have often had to live secretive lives. Male homosexuality was illegal in Britain until 1967. ‘Section 28’ of the Local Government Act of 1988, which prohibited local authorities from ‘promoting homosexuality’, meant teachers were often reluctant even to mention gay or lesbian relationships in classrooms.

Section 28 was finally repealed in the whole of the UK in 2003. A Gender Recognition Act and Civil Partnership Act were passed in 2004. Most discrimination against LGBT people was outlawed by the Equality Act in 2010 and the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act of 2013 was considered a modern triumph of equality.

Progress for lesbian and gay people has been more visible since the 1970s and, while coverage in the press has often been pejorative, there has been increased visibility. When transgender people started appearing with frequency on television programmes as diverse as the US prison drama Orange is the New Black and the BBC’s Question Time – or were visibly standing for UK Parliament, as did Emily Brothers in the last general election, and heading up fashion catwalks from London to Mumbai – it would be forgiveable to assume this was a new phenomenon.

Yet people have been crossing gender boundaries for millennia and in all kinds of civilisations. There are anthropological studies of communities, such as the Chukchi people in Siberia, who have seven gender categories; the Indian Hijra caste, officially recognised as ‘third gender’ by the governments of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh; or the Samoan Fa’afafine, also officially recognised as a third gender. This is not an exhaustive list; there are many more such examples. The name ‘trans’ has not always been used and, in truth, ‘trans’ is a wide category for gender non-conformity, as we are belatedly rediscovering in 21st-century western society. There are historical examples, such as the 18th-century Chevalier d’Eon, or more recent stories of people including Lili Elbe (‘The Danish Girl’ of the recent film starring Eddie Redmayne), the physician Michael Dillon, known as the first transsexual man to undergo gender reassignment surgery, or Roberta Cowell, the first known British transsexual woman to undergo surgery. 

Yet the lack of sources makes it difficult to trace a historical line between isolated cases like that of Roberta Cowell and the vocal and visible trans phenomenon of today. If gays and lesbians had a problem with discrimination, marginalisation and bad press, then transgender people had the extra problem of being much smaller in numerical terms (1 in 5,000 versus 1 in 20); being geographically dispersed and isolated; often unemployed; treated unsympathetically by medicine; and having suffered a legal precedent in 1970, which said they could not alter documents to defend their privacy or be legally recognised the way they lived.

Marginal lives do not get archived or written about accurately. Newspaper reports have almost always been of the ‘shock exposé’ variety. There is no record through the press of how transgender people really lived and whether there existed a community among them. There have been occasional autobiographies – that of the historian Jan Morris and those of April Ashley, Caroline Cossey and Julia Grant are notable examples – but these are all from the same mould: they are about one person striving to find their way to an operating table, which is what publishers decided the public wanted to read. None of them ever mentions much about other trans people or their political status outside of the law: the true gender outlaws.

The reality is very different from this narrow view. There is a fascinating history to be told of how transgender people first began to band together to provide support and safe havens for one another.
Many of the people involved, however, are now dead. Their shoestring publications are not the kind that libraries would catalogue and their personal records often end up in the bin when they die: relatives are unlikely to see archival value in what they find in the attic.

There is also an interesting story to be told of how trans people went from running small backroom, speakeasy-style meeting places to forming the political campaign that changed their standing. It created new employment law; it created access to the NHS for gender treatment; and it spawned the Gender Recognition Act of 2004.

A campaign like this is a potential treasure trove and, whereas accounts about individuals can be thin on the ground, well-organised campaigns do at least tend to have records that can be mined. 

Revealing the broader story is rather more ambitious. To tell a story going back 50 years – to the time when trans people in Britain first came together to form support groups and safe meeting spaces – requires eyewitness evidence. The time left to do that is, in all too many cases, running out. The people organising those efforts in the 1960s are now in their mid-seventies. Without their testimony, the chances of reconstructing such recent history is slim.

Christine Burns is the author of Trans: A British History (Unbound, forthcoming).