Book review: ‘Before We Were Trans: A New History of Gender’

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“Before We Were Trans: A New History of Gender” by Kit Heyam explores a global history of gender non-conformity, and is a phenomenal read into trans and gender non-conforming history before the modern day use of the word “trans,” was used to describe a person’s gender identity.

“Before We Were Trans” dives into histories of cultures where there were respected third genders, which was often how cultures described gender queer people at the time. 

Kit Heyam is a U.K. based, queer history activist and trans awareness. Heyam kicks off this highly informative text with an author’s note, in which they state “In writing this book, I was keen to do something different. To write a trans history that makes space for complex and messy gendered experiences, and that has care and ethics at its heart. Prioritizing the dignity and humanity of those past and the present, as a result I’ve made a few decisions that have set the book apart from many other histories like it.” Heyam made the decision when writing the book, based on their compelling argument that just because people in the past may have not had access to medical transition procedures or the modern vocabulary we have today to adequately discuss gender – does not inherently mean that their experiences outside gender norms and the gender binary should be ignored or diminished. 

“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.”

“Before We Were Trans” tells an array of global histories and stories that are often left out of other transgender historical texts. The author includes remarkable historical examples which take us to the Edo period in Japan, ancient Egypt, and even a World War II prisoner camp located in the British Isles. Each example, not only provides further depth to trans history as we know it today, but also actively encourages the reader to expand their definition of what they should consider to be trans history along the reading journey. 

With great sensitivity and care, Heyam discusses the deleterious effects of colonization on gender nonconformity over hundreds of years, the desire to separate gender and sexuality, and includes the intersex community and the challenges that they continue to face.

Kit Heyam’s “Before We Were Trans: A New History of Gender” is an example of how the history of disrupting the gender binary is as long as human history itself.

Before We Were Trans: A New History of Gender by Kit Heyam, published by Seal Press (September 13, 2022), 352 pages. 

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