cover image Before We Were Trans: A New History of Gender

Before We Were Trans: A New History of Gender

Kit Heyam. Seal, $30 (352p) ISBN 978-1-5416-0308-0

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.)