Atlas A Lee-Reid: Why I Study Trans History

In a recent interview for a well-known research grant, I was told that there was no need for my studies because everyone already knows that trans people exist. I don’t disagree that trans identities have broken through into the dominant public consciousness, not since the 2014 Time article “The Transgender Tipping Point: America’s next civil rights frontier” featuring Laverne Cox. The article provided a rather successful basic timestamp of American trans legal rights at that time, swirling particularly around trans children/adolescents and their families, legal gender marker changes, sports access, bullying in schools, and military service. People know that trans people exist – this is not the issue.

Cover of the June 9th 2014 issue of Time Magazine. Laverne Cox stands with her legs crossed in a blue dress. To her left, the words "The Transgender Tipping Point: America's next civil rights frontier" are printed.
Cover from Time‘s 2014 edition featuring “The Transgender Tipping Point”.

In early March 2023, Michael Knowles, right-wing political commentator from the Daily Wire, spoke from the stage at Conservative Political Action Coalition (CPAC) on the state of transness in the United States: 

“There can be no middle way in dealing with transgenderism. It is all or nothing. If transgenderism is true, if men can become women, then it’s true for everybody of all ages,” he said. “If it is false, then for the good of society, and especially for the good of the poor people who have fallen prey to this confusion, transgenderism must be eradicated from public life entirely — the whole preposterous ideology.”

Michael Knowles stands at a lectern in front of a red, white, and blue background displaying the acronym "CPAC".
Screenshot from Michael Knowles speech to the Conservative Political Action Coalition (CPAC) in March of 2023.

This ‘preposterous ideology’ of transness has been a fact on the world stage since before the common era. In fact, it was a regular fact of life pre-colonialism in many nations including the Ndongo Kingdom (present-day Angola) and Egypt where gender was more a construct of social and religious structures. It was only when trans and gender nonconforming people became no longer politically useful to colonies, such as in the case of King Njinga Mbande, that their identities were ruled invalid and their power was revoked. Trans women of color, such as Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson, are known as pillars of the gay rights movement in the 1960s, but their transness has been erased to lend legitimacy to the cis gay cause. Many Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminists (TERFs) writers label Marsha as a ‘self-identified gay drag queen’, which is in stark contrast to her co-founding role in Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR).

In their book, Before We Were Trans (2022), Kit Heyam proclaims that “the battle for trans rights today is being fought on the battlegrounds of history.” This battleground is the result of a lack of access to historical records of the lives and identities of trans people, and a lack of accessible serious historical analysis of the records that do exist. Tracking down proof of trans life and thought prior to the past few decades, and making this proof easily accessible to the public (outside of academic circles) would allow policy makers and activists to move forward in their efforts with better historical context and understanding of trans communities. I hope that my pursuit and analysis of Urania will further this cause.

Text reads: "Urania: Nos 117 and 118. May-August 1936. Two-Monthly. 'Life that vibrates in every breathing form, Truth that looks out over the window sill, and Love that is calling us home out of the storm' Gore-Booth, "The Shephard of Eternity"
Scan of the header from 1936 issue of Urania from LSE’s archives in London, UK.

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