A Future Without A Past
Words by CN Lester
I am constantly amazed by the tenacity of trans people. Not by the day-to-day living of our disparate experiences, despite the odds. Those successes and failures inspire a wealth of emotions but, in the main, over time, do not astonish. What is extraordinary to me is something far more basic: that we should exist at all. By this I do not mean the existence of what we feel, but that we are capable of acknowledging those feelings at all, and then letting ourselves grow from there.
Does it feel like an inevitable step, to go from a sensation to a named reality? Maybe, but only from the outside. There are certain aspects of being trans that are hard to explain to people who aren’t. The acutely physical nature of bodily dysphoria is one. The leap of faith required to say “this is who I am” in the absence of a prepared and welcoming place to be is another.
When we talk about a lack of trans history – a lack of known trans history – we are very often talking about external things: a place on a syllabus, a lesson plan, a big-budget movie. We say ‘history’ and call to mind history books, exams, school trips, BBC documentaries. Even when updated to include podcasts, twitter threads, online comics, ‘history’ speaks of activities and knowledge outside of the self, assimilated through study. And so the usual solutions on offer work within this framework: the half-hearted offering of an occasional trans role model in the name of visibility, and the more radical a syllabus that would include the existence of trans people from primary school onwards.
But history is not solely the record of our past and its teaching. Our society, our multiple cultures, the frameworks and ingredients into which and with which we are made, are products of our shared and contested pasts. Every part of who we are has its history: the processes and end results of those histories shape those parts. To talk about this openly, including its worst aspects, is not to ask for pity, but to invite the understanding necessary to make sense of what follows and to build a tenable future.
For a trans person of my historical time and place, to be ‘trans’ was to grow and be shaped in the absence of historical – which is to say cultural – example, expectation, and embedded space. The words and concepts taught as building blocks – mummy and daddy, boys and girls – were the entirety of the known sex/gender world. How can you go against that world, when there is no word or concept to hold onto, even in the privacy of your own mind?
There were words for failure: freak, sissy, dyke, poof. Some of us learnt those words earlier than others, but most of us learnt the isolation and exclusion of them before we ever encountered an alternative. Throughout the 80s and 90s and the early 00s, there was a limited public space for the concepts of ‘transsexual’ and, later, ‘transgender’. Sometimes there would be a news story; more often there was a joke in a film or on TV. Maybe it should have been automatic to grab hold of these categories and apply them to the feelings we had no explanations for. But there were problems. Most obvious was the fact that these words for trans people were only ever ‘failure’ by a different name. A sitcom might say the word ‘transgender’, but translated that category to deception, freakishness, and revulsion. A newspaper feature would describe a person as ‘transsexual’ but make it clear that they would forever be the sex/gender they were assigned at birth, and all the rest was delusion and mutilation. Talk shows were the guilty pleasure freak show, and a warning for the kids watching at home. For those of us who felt the pull of familiarity, the threat was clear: these people aren’t who they say they are, and what they’re saying is unacceptable. Nothing was stable, and everything was up for a debate in which the most powerful always won.
Most important of all was the fact that the vast majority of us did not have even these limited concepts to call on before we knew that we needed them. They were later additions to a fundamental framework of how the world was, and that world did not include us. We were, by necessity the only ones.
The older I grow, and the more I learn, the more I have come to understand that this outcome was no accident, but a product of history in its own right. There’s a specific term for the kind of abuse that causes someone to doubt the truth of their experiences, to deny what they see and feel and understand because another person told them that they were wrong. We call it gaslighting when one person manipulates another – manipulates the world around them – so as to deny agency, independence and freedom.
What do we call it when the same process plays out on a society-wide scale?
What we find, when we are old enough and capable enough of looking, is not just the erasure of trans history through denial, shame, and lack of inclusion: it is an historical record of erasure, a pan-global register of undoing and enforced forgetting.
Step one of this process is this lack, this blankness. When we have gained some access to the required passwords, the search terms we can use to break that silence – transgender, molly, passing woman – we find the second step: a testimony of destruction. In the mid to late 20thcentury it is the recording of trans people arrested, institutionalised, and murdered. From the ruins of the Second World War emerges the documentation of the burning of Magnus Hirschfeld’s research (which advocated for the rights of sexual and gender minorities), patient records, community, cultural and scientific archives of sexual and gendered minorities. The lives described in those documents were disappeared by those in power.
When we go back further, before the use of the word trans, then what we find of gender non-conformity and non-compliance comes most often through court records of arrests and punishments, popular literature calling for further punishment, and medical and religious texts categorising such behaviours and people as morally and physiologically corrupt.
What is documented throughout Europe is damning enough: what is recorded in the European invasion of the majority of the world is nothing less than mass murder. The extermination of the Cueva people of Panama – and the celebrated and sadistic murder of Cuevan “sodomites” by Vasco Núñez de Balboa and his troops – is just one such example.
From the destruction of individual life to the destruction of the meanings of those lives – the third step. It was not enough that the people and peoples attacked should themselves be silenced, but that their ways of being and understanding should be erased. So it was not just that a woman assigned male at birth should be prevented from living her life as she saw fit, but that ‘he’ should be made culturally legible again, and categorised as a sinner. What was practiced at home was exported wholesale and perfected as part of a wider imperial system of subjugation and control. The extermination of meaning and agency combined with the destruction of life was a central tactic in European colonisation: by labelling a wealth of unique cultural categories as ‘sodomy’, the invaders justified to themselves and to their rulers at home an extraordinary and sustained level of violence: against individuals, against societies, against histories.
This historical process comes full circle in its fourth and final step: modern attempts at rediscovery that end up undoing more than they restore. When I finally found those key words for myself, the histories they unlocked did not present these past lives as they were lived, but instead upheld and promoted the authors’ gendered beliefs. All people assigned female at birth who lived as men – no matter how much they insisted they were men – were described as lesbians. Histories of gender plurality across continents and centuries were glossed simply as ‘gay’. Explanations from those historical figures themselves were dissected for subconscious meanings and symbolic significance, but were rarely believed and never allowed to stand as they were. This stage of the process is far from over; witness the recent announcement of a new novel about James Barry, the pioneering Victorian doctor who identified as male, and the writer’s confidence as to ‘her’ gender. Myth-making and a need for inspiration, or arrogance and a lack of respect? These rewritings come from drives which are both good and bad, but none of them bring us any closer to the truth. And they did not, and do not, allow for a filling of that absence where a trans, or a broader gender plural, history might be.
What are we meant to do with all of this? Is there anything, in fact, that we can do, except retreat into cynicism?
I hope that there is. And what gives me hope is the same thing that brings me that constant amazement, and personal and community pride: the tenacity of trans, gender non-conforming, gender diverse people. This tenacity is not limited to our survival, but to the documentation, celebration, and teaching of that survival. The creation of a way of life that freely provides the raw materials for understanding and expanding what sex and gender might be. The determination that no one should grow up ignorant and afraid of who they might be. And in all of that, there is a very real hope for our futures.
There is much in our current historical moment to provoke fear and grief, both generally, and specifically as trans people. We are in a profound moment of backlash and we have been made into easy targets. But one of the most crucial parts of this moment – one of the parts that, ironically, has enabled this backlash – is also enabling the spread of trans knowledge in a way never before possible. The internet has exploded the power balance of communication and cultural categorisation; not democratically, not without danger, but in a way now impossible to contain. Impossible to contain, too, is the way in which trans people are using it. There’s no shortage of moral outrage over the fact that it’s now normal for people of marginalised genders to document our experiences, celebrate our agency, demand respect, and refuse to be rewritten into false categories. This outrage proves just how threatened the longstanding process of trans erasure now is. The reality of our existence is now simply too easy to communicate. The message has spread so far that old methods of suppression and forgetting can no longer apply. Individual aspects will be destroyed – but this massive paradigm shift all but guarantees that the destruction of the past is no longer possible.
It means that to be a trans person of my time and place, where being trans meant having no past and therefore no present, and no future, is a category in the process of passing away. We can watch it sink back into the honest recording of our history, and make way for something more.
Commissioned as part of Free Word’s All The Ways We Could Grow Season.
On the colonial expansion and suppression and extermination of gender diversity