Book review: Trans America: a counter-history

Can we even think of trans before trans? What is the prehistory of transsexuality and transgender? These are some of the questions this history aims to address.

TransAmericaAlthough this is a history of transgender in the USA, it begins – as all good transgender histories must – with the famous early European sexologists, particularly Magnus Hirschfeld and Havelock Ellis. Hirschfeld especially had a huge influence on Harry Benjamin, who in turn had a huge influence in the creation of medically defined trans categories during the 1950s. Barry Reay’s purpose in beginning with Hirschfeld and Ellis, however, is also to note the diversity of trans identities in the case histories of their subjects. He convincingly pursues this argument of diversity throughout the book, noting that the “transsexual moment” that followed Christine Jorgensen’s sex affirmation surgery (and which actually lasted about two decades) has been superseded by a recognition of the diversity of trans identities that have always existed historically.

Reay observes that the “history of trans… is closely linked to the birth of the homosexual.” The study of homosexuality influenced the way early trans people were viewed. They were often seen as people unable to accept their sexual orientation and who sought normalcy by living in the opposite gender to which they were assigned at birth. This view was common for some time, although this was not the way trans people presented themselves and even some clinicians reluctantly acknowledged that their patients did truly appear to be the gender they claimed to be.

In contrast to this narrow interpretation of transness, Reay presents some lively histories of early gender diversity. The history of Black, working class receptivity to gender fluidity in the 1920s and 1930s is especially interesting and was encapsulated in the lyrics of a Ma Rainey tune called Sissy Blues in which she caught her man “in a sissy’s arms”. As Reay notes, it “was her man’s infidelity that was the subject of comment, not his sexual identity or masculinity.”

Despite Christine Jorgensen, there was a wariness in the 1950s toward surgical solutions. This gradually diminished through the 1960s. By the mid-70s, about 20 major medical centres were offering treatment, although the criteria for surgery was heteronormative, based on the ability to “pass” as cisgender, and impossible without money.

Concurrent with this rise in a surgical option, was the proliferation of heterosexual transvestite groups, which presented a respectable “middle class decorum” that was “comparable to the reputable face of organized homosexuality presented by the Mattachine Society”.

The surgical solution didn’t decline because of the experimental nature of the early operations, although Reay includes some grisly, less than successful examples that would scare off many people. The decline came about mostly with the “Transgender Turn”, the period in the early 1990s when “the category ‘transgender’ represented a resistance to medicalization, to pathologization, and to the… medico-legal-psychiatric institutions.” Dallas Denny wrote that transgender “arose not from the medical community…but from the transgender community.” It was trans people embracing the diversity of trans identities, identities that always existed but were sometimes made invisible by the transvestite-transsexual model.

This is an interesting book. In a purported history of trans people, however, Reay spends a lot of time writing about people who don’t identify as trans. There’s far too much on drag queens and drag kings, and he dismisses the misogyny in drag far too easily. Trans women were present in the early decades of drag because they had so few places to express themselves, but “purists among the performers disapproved.” This is part of trans history, but I think he overstates its importance.

In another part of the book, Reay advises against including people in other cultures who behave counter to their assigned genders under the trans umbrella, claiming it “colonizes” them. He includes here indigenous cultures and references Don Kulick’s book Travesti, which explores the world of Brazilian prostitutes who present as women, but do not consider themselves such. However, Reay has just written an entire book on transgender history and included endless examples of people who didn’t identify as trans. So why include drag queens, for example, and not Brazilian prostitutes who are, for all intents and purposes, living as women? It is not colonizing when you are employing the word transgender to describe a behaviour and not an identity. (Incidentally, Reay fails to mention that Kulick’s book is subtitled “Sex, gender and culture among Brazilian transgendered prostitutes.” Oops.)

At one point, Reay does ask, “Should transgender studies ‘dispense with identity as an analytic trope’”? His entire book leans toward describing it as a behaviour, but he never actually comes out and says so. If people are behaving in a transgender fashion, then it doesn’t really matter how they identify, and yes, you can include them under the trans umbrella.

Nonetheless, my quibbles with the book should not be viewed as a condemnation of the book itself. History is not history if it is not in some way contested. I thoroughly recommend Trans America: a counter-history. It is highly readable, thought provoking and informative.