Before we were trans A new history of gender

Kit Heyam, 1990-

Book - 2022

Explores the history of transgender and gender nonconforming people, with a focus on those who identified in other than a straightforward binary fashion; on communities in West Africa, Asia, and among Native Americans; and on cross-dressing in World War I prison camps and in entertainment.

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Location Call Number   Status
2nd Floor 306.768/Heyam Lost--Library Applied
New York : Seal Press 2022.
Main Author
Kit Heyam, 1990- (author)
First US edition
Physical Description
viii, 343 pages ; 25 cm
Includes bibliographical references (pages 235-329) and index.
  • Introduction: 'I had a gown on in a lark': what is trans history?
  • Author's note: Writing trans history differently
  • 1. 'The majesty of Him my daughter': Colonising gender roles in West Africa
  • 2. 'She liked me in my greatcoat and hat': Fashion and trans panic in early modern Europe
  • 3. 'I took especial pleasure in masquerade costumes': Living and performing as women in First World War internment camps
  • 4. 'A feminine soul confined by a masculine body': The entangled history of gay and trans experience
  • 5. 'I am both man and woman': Defiant bodies in early America and beyond
  • 6. 'Because of the manifestation of Spirit': Gender, spirituality and survival in North America and South Asia
  • Epilogue: Now we are trans
  • Acknowledgements
  • Bibliography
  • Notes
  • Index
Review by Choice Review

The title of this book is liable to generate some confusion. Most people understand the term trans as associated with medical and surgical transformations of those who maintain that they were born into or misidentified as the wrong gender. The subtitle better encapsulates this project. Heyam, a trans awareness trainer, chronicles notions of gender beyond the binary concept of opposite sexes. Their account focuses on the in-between spaces, on the wide spectrum of possibilities people use to shape an identity for themselves that is neither clearly male nor female. Heyam cogently demonstrates the malleability and cultural specificity of gender, drawing examples from numerous time periods, social categories, and parts of the world. The author writes lucidly, avoids jargon, has an impressive command of diverse sources, and is careful to point out possible alternative interpretations of early practices. Heyam's emphasis on the blurring of gender binaries allows them to bypass discussion of gender dysphoria diagnoses, puberty blockers, and other controversial aspects of being trans as understood in a medicalized sense. Heyam also largely sidesteps, while delicately mentioning, tensions between many trans activists on the one hand and feminist, intersex, and lesbian/gay activists on the other. Summing Up: Recommended. Lower-division undergraduates through faculty; professionals. --Ann Hibner Koblitz, emerita, Arizona State University

Copyright American Library Association, used with permission.
Review by Publisher's Weekly Review

Trans activist Heyam debuts with an expansive and illuminating history of gender nonconformity. Pushing back against contemporary notions of trans identity as binary, medicalized, and often white, Heyam puts a broad range of historical individuals and groups under the trans umbrella. These include "Ekwe people" in Nigeria's Igbo society, who were assigned female at birth but took on male social roles; courtiers in Elizabethan England, who wore clothes and accessories that had been previously restricted to women; and POWs whose experiences playing women's roles in theatrical productions at WWI internment camps led them to become "more and more feminine off the stage." Heyam also delves into the relationship between trans history and other queer histories, describing how a commemorative plaque that identified 19th-century British diarist Anne Lister as "gender-nonconforming" met with disapproval from the lesbian community, and contending that white nonbinary people often misunderstand "the intersections of gender and spirituality" in Igbo and Native American two-spirit traditions. Heyam also makes a strong case for "the value of a trans gaze in historical research" and the importance of understanding that "gender has always been open to disruption and challenge." Though some readers may disagree with Heyam's radically inclusive approach, their desire for more gender nonconforming people to see themselves reflected in history is appealing and persuasive. This is an essential addition to trans history. (Sept.)

(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
Review by Kirkus Book Review

An eye-opening study of the history of gender nonconformity. In this highly informative text, Heyam, a U.K.--based queer history activist and trans awareness trainer, tells a wide variety of pertinent stories that are often left out of the trans narrative. Many of the ideas that the author explores don't fit cleanly inside our contemporary notions of trans identity, which is usually able to be verbally confirmed and often includes medical, social, and cultural transitions. Heyam makes the compelling argument that just because people in the past may not have had access to medical transition procedures or modern vocabulary to adequately discuss gender doesn't mean their experiences outside the gender binary should be ignored. "To say sex and gender are both socially constructed," writes the author, "isn't to say they're not real--like other social constructs, including race, money and crime, they have material and life-changing consequences for all of us--but it is to say there's no innate reason we have to think about them in the way we do." The author draws from a remarkable array of historical examples, expanding the definition of what we should consider trans history along the way. Among other eras and locales, Heyam takes us to ancient Egypt, the Edo period in Japan, and a World War II prisoner camp on the British Isles. With great sensitivity and care, they discuss the deleterious effects of European colonization over hundreds of years, the modern Western desire to separate gender and sexuality, and the intersex community. While clearly the work of a diligent historian, the text avoids feeling too dry and is a relatively accessible read. The author's historical and topical range is impressive, and only a few of the sections are disjointed. Overall, the book will fascinate anyone interested in a subject that many readers likely misunderstand. A capable, worthy demonstration of how the history of disrupting the gender binary is as long as human history itself. Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.