"Before We Were Trans: A New History of Gender” by Kit Heyam answers questions I didn’t know I had since childhood. By allowing people in the past to be as messy and complex as we know ourselves to be today, Heyam is able to more fully reflect the history of gender and how completely and consistently people have worked with and against the concept.
From the introduction, an impressive 30 pages of laying out their reasoning and framework, to the final chapter, Heyam is aware not only of their own privilege to have the access, learning and wherewithal to research and publish this impressive work but also of the way they must tread carefully in order to avoid recreating the impact of colonialism in it. While the introduction might assume a Western reader, by bookending the research presented with histories from Africa, India and pre-colonial America, plus constant references to other non-European experiences, Heyam creates a global look at gender.
As a trans person in current-day England, Heyam is careful not to cause further harm in their book. This effort was most notable to me in how Heyam avoided invading anyone’s privacy in the book.
“Nobody needs to know exactly what someone’s genitals looked like to understand their story,” they write in their author notes. When discussing sexual assaults, which were often motivated by a desire to find out someone’s “real” gender, Heyam puts more focus on the action of the assaulters and very little on what, if anything, was “discovered” in the process. Additionally, while at times Heyam does have to rely on the terms “assigned male/female at birth,” they regularly point out how useless this framing is, not least because there were no birth records and no act of “assigning” gender at birth for most of human history.
Heyam’s work absolutely reframes who we can think of as trans in history. They’re careful not to say they’re “reclaiming” anyone; instead, their work is “rereading the past,” giving these stories another chance to be interpreted. Heyam is an academic and is careful to give rigorous examination to each story they include. I was pleasantly surprised to recognize a few I had marked as signposts in my unconscious mind, but most of the dozens of people Heyam introduces were unknown to me.
Even the things I thought I knew were given more complete explanations; who hasn’t wondered at the social ramifications of the French court dress getting fancier and fancier? Heyam lifts these examples of gender nonconformity to the place of history: “Just because gender nonconformity has been fashionable at different points in history … doesn’t mean we should expel all cases of gender-nonconforming dress from how we think about trans history.” Especially since, Heyam reveals just pages later, “fashionable” doesn’t mean “acceptable.” A 1620 European pamphlet specifically called this kind of exploration “lascivious” and “apish,” claiming that anyone who changed their clothes for those worn by another gender had become “good for nothing.” This language is so familiar.
Heyam’s framework acknowledges that we can’t fully know how someone in the past felt about their gender. Traditionally, historians have been hesitant to label someone as trans or gender-nonconforming out of a desire to avoid forcing our current framework on differing cultural norms. Heyam completely uproots that. Using their lived experience as a person with a gender, they know their gender presentation and needs change depending on who they’re with, where they are and what they’re doing.
“Who’s to say,” Heyam writes, “that people in the past didn’t experience their gender with the same complexity?” By removing that potential for mess from the past, the humanity of the past is also lost.
Assuming everyone in the past was cisgender presents a cisnormative world that simply isn’t accurate. Heyam makes room for complex gender expressions by carefully examining each person’s story, and, in doing so, they are able to fully represent the messiness that is the trans experience.
Their research spans all levels of society, from elite 1920s Nigerian royalty to sex workers in 17th century Edo Japan to 15th century BC Egypt and beyond, always pointing out specific individuals who pushed at gender norms of the day. Heyam argues that even a temporary, fluid trans experience counted: “All of these people disrupted gender,” no matter if it was for the length of a battle, a journey or their life. By putting on clothes “meant” for another gender, by changing one’s name or demanding a different title, each person Heyam introduces has shown the malleability of gender and its boundaries. We can’t know everyone’s reasoning and desires for presenting as another gender, but we can know that making that choice proves gender is not a fixed, permanent structure.
“What constitutes a man, a woman, or gender itself has continually been defined, contested and redefined,” they write. Heyam’s research abolishes the notion that gender is or has ever been a set binary — or something we as humans necessarily get to define. One of the last stories they tell in “Before We Were Trans,” and one of the most challenging for me to understand, is of Kaúxuma núpika, who lived in what we now call the Pacific Northwest.
Kaúxuma núpika was a member of the Ktunaxa Nation, a First Nation people who live in what is now known as British Columbia, Canada. The Ktunaxa Nation’s land includes the head mouth of the river known in English as the Columbia River. Heyam writes, “To traverse its entire length today … would be an enormous feat of endurance; to do so in the first decade of the nineteenth century was even more remarkable.” Kaúxuma núpika was one of two people from the Ktunaxa Nation to do just that; however, “this extraordinary expedition was far from the only remarkable aspect of their story.” Kaúxuma núpika was born in the late 18th century and, when a group of Europeans came to their region, they went with them, soon becoming the wife of one of the men. However, a year later, Kaúxuma núpika returned to their people, announcing their new name and that they were now a man. “Kaúxuma núpika” translates to “Gone to the Spirits,” and Heyam writes that this chosen name makes “clear to everyone how their gender was entangled with their spiritual experience.”
Heyam writes of Kaúxuma núpika and of contemporary people whose gender expression is intimately linked to their spirituality, including Akwaeke Emezi, a Nigerian author whose work Real Change has reviewed. Emezi, in their book “Freshwater,” writes, “Gender is human and we are not,” referring to how the protagonist of the book — like Emezi themself — is an o∙gbanje, an Igbo spirit born to a human mother; this gender expression “shares some aspects of experience with non-binary people,” but they are not the same.
A few years after “Freshwater” was published, Emezi shared their frustration with how their cultural-specific gender was being co-opted and read only as a “non-binary” experience, which they said erased the Indigenous reality, pointing out there was a trend in which trans stories were co-opted and which were allowed to stand on their own. In an important moment of vulnerability, Heyam admits that their interpretation of “Freshwater” included “the exact reading that Emezi called out.” By sharing this error in judgment, Heyam is able to build a stronger conclusion and reaches arguably the strongest call to action in the book.
Throughout “Before We Were Trans,” Heyam includes multiple prods for readers to change their behaviors, from saying “underlining the historical existence of Two-Spirit people in particular is a politically important project” to reminding trans people that we have responsibilities too when it comes to conversations about all genders, especially with how we frame intersex identities.
But the most impactful takeaway Heyam reaches is ultimately the idea of “a trans gaze.” A trans gaze, Heyam writes, is one that is open and accepting of difficult and at times contradictory truths, because we take seriously how people understand themselves. It is hard for me to wrap my mind around the concept of someone receiving their gender through a spiritual experience or knowing themself to be a spirit instead of a human. However, as Heyam says, I know “first-hand how it feels when people don’t take seriously how we articulate our selves.”
I fully believe in the importance of applying a trans gaze to more scenarios in daily life; how radical and eye-opening would it be if we could meet people where they are, instead of asking them to prove they deserve respect, justice, rights or housing? If more politicians saw the world through a trans gaze, would fewer policies include means testing? Would we see an increase in equal rights, because a trans gaze necessitates seeing people as people? As I write this review, I’m planning on attending Seattle Trans Pride tonight. One of the guests I most hope to hear speak is Montana state Rep. Zooey Zephyr. When the Montana Legislature was working to ban gender-affirming health care for minors in the state, Zephyr, as an elected official and as a member of our trans community, would not be silenced, even as she was removed from the House floor for violating its so-called decorum. If the other representatives had tried to consider a trans gaze, if they had held true, even for a moment, that when a person tells you who they are, you believe them and honor that truth as if it were your own — or if the constituents who bullied Zephyr even off the bench she was working from outside the House had considered that trans people are people, even if they’re trans — well, I have to hope that might get through to them.
It’s impossible to “walk a mile in someone else’s shoes.” It’s not impossible to just believe someone.
In “Before We Were Trans,” Heyam honors trans experiences across time by, most importantly, seeing trans people as people. To read this well-researched, compelling history of gender is to reflect on humanity’s complexity and see the future as a continuation of the past, in all its messy, beautiful glory.
Henry Behrens is the arts editor for Real Change.
Read more of the June 28-July 4, 2023 issue.