LGBT+ history month: forgotten figures who challenged gender expression and identity centuries ago
Non-binary and trans people have always been here, not least in every recorded society from the ancient world onwards.
Why is it then that they’re often absent from the tales and lists of historical figures we hear about?
The answer lies, in part, with how history is recorded and who records it.
People who belong to groups that fear being ostracised and persecuted often only reveal their true selves to a few people.
As a result, the visibility of LGBT+ people, even during moments in history when they have faced hostility, is often limited.
Coupled with that is a dearth of historical records because authors of these historical accounts were often prejudiced and did not want to record the experiences of those considered shameful under the values of their time.
Historians working on the queer past need to understand why LGBT+ people, along with members of other marginalised groups, don’t appear as often in recorded history compared with those outside of these communities.
Fortunately, historians are now beginning to look around more carefully to find these important stories.
Gender presentation in the 18th and 19th centuries
Our understanding of being transgender has evolved considerably in the last few decades.
Transgender experiences aren’t necessarily limited to people who undergo medical procedures to alter their body; they also include people who present themselves as different from the gender they were assigned at birth.
Much of society now appreciates that the gender to which a person is assigned at birth might be entirely different from their gender identity, which is different again to their gender expression.
On one level, a person’s gender is defined by how they identify, that is, how they feel internally: as a woman, or a man, as neither, or as anything in between on the gender spectrum.
But what is also important is your gender expression, that is, the deliberate and accidental signals you give to others about your gender through aspects such as what you wear and how you cut your hair.
Although the terminology we use to describe gender would have been alien in the 18th and early 19th centuries, in those eras, many people would have understood these concepts.
Some women who were sexually and romantically attracted to other women, then as now, presented as more masculine, both for personal gratification and sometimes to be accepted by society.
Anne Lister (or “Gentleman Jack” – the subject of a recent TV series starring Suranne Jones) is a good example.
Under 19th-century ideas of gender, she would have been perceived by others as masculine, and it wasn’t until 1988 when the biographer Helena Whitbread decoded her diaries that the true extent of her lesbian relationships and life was discovered.
Other women presented themselves as men for reasons of career ambition, because they wished to make life choices denied to the half of the population assigned female at birth.
In the American Civil War, Franklin Thompson and Harry Buford were widely praised soldiers who fought for and spied for the Confederate States. Both were women passing as men, or in the phrase of historian Matthew Teorey who has worked on their cases, women who “unsexed” themselves…
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Notes for editors
Press release reference number: 21/19
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