15 May

On writing Trans America

Posted By Politybooks

By Barry Reay


Trans seems to be everywhere in American culture. Yet there is little understanding of how this came about. Are people aware that there were earlier times of gender flexibility and contestability in American history? How well-known is it, for instance, that a previous period of trans visibility in the 1960s and early 1970s faced a vehement backlash right at the time that trans, in the form of what was then termed transvestism and transsexuality, seemed to be so ascendant? Was there transness before transsexuality was named in the 1950s and transgender emerged in the 1990s?

The origins for Trans America lay with an awareness that despite the seeming ubiquity of trans, there was little awareness of the trans past, no compact account of trans history. I began my book as an attempt to provide such a history. Then, as I wrote it, I found that many trans people, when exploring their transness, said that they had longed for what CN Lester called ‘the comfort of companionship’, examples of contemporaries or people from the past who had experienced similar uncertainties about sexuality and gender, and I realized that my book might provide such comfort. It certainly captures the vibrancy and variety of trans experiences.

Having decided to write the book, where should I begin? Some trans commentators have argued that trans has always existed. But as a historian, and a researcher on the histories of homosexuality and heterosexuality, I knew that this was most unlikely. Trans has a history before it was named in the late 1940s, and other histories after its naming, first as transsexuality, then as transgender, and more recently as trans or trans*. So I decided to explore American trans history from a time before trans in the nineteenth century to the transsexual moment of the 1960s and 1970s, the transgender turn of the 1990s, and the so-called tipping point of current culture. It is a rich and varied history, where same-sex desires and identities, cross-dressing, and transsexual and transgender identities jostled for recognition. It is a history that, I discovered, is not at all flattering to US psychiatric and surgical practices.

The chapters

When did this neglected history actually begin? What is the history of trans feelings, tendencies – it is difficult to find the right term – before transsexuality and transgender were named in the second half of the last century? How useful is it to claim transsexual subjectivities for the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries? Chapter 1, ‘Before Trans’, deals with these issues.

Janice Irvine, one of the most perceptive observers of the twentieth-century historical sociology of sex, has written of transsexuality’s ‘widespread public and professional acceptance’ by the 1970s, ‘an accepted syndrome, buttressed by a vast medical armamentarium of research, publications, and treatment programs’. But how seamless, really, was the triumph of transsexuality in the 1960s and 1970s?  Chapter 2, ‘The Transsexual Moment’, discusses this ostensibly successful establishment of a new medical diagnosis and entity, arguing for the importance of cross-dressing (then known as transvestism) during this period of trans history.

There is a case that the rather more fixed definitional qualities of the earlier 1960s and 1970s regime of transsexuality were necessary to establish a new category and to distinguish it from homosexuality and transvestism. However, Chapter 3, ‘Blurring the Boundaries’, shows that this sexual certainty masked a world of far more ambiguous alliances and practices.

Chapter 4, ‘Backlash’, deliberates a neglected aspect of trans history, a period of intense critique right at the point where transsexuality had seemed to have become established.

Chapter 5, ‘The Transgender Turn’, considers the shift from transsexuality to transgender, and it assesses claims about the speed with which transgender has become established in the American cultural psyche. How, and in what ways, has that shift occurred? Has there been both a 1990s turn and a 2010s tipping point? Is trans culture really experiencing a cultural high?


Categories like transvestite, transsexual, transgender, and trans itself are good to rethink US history, but this book demonstrates that it is the slippages and overlaps between these types that can be the most informative.  As most dictionaries will explain, trans means across, beyond, over, and between; it can also denote change, transformation. Trans America includes those with transgender bodies before transgender emerged as a descriptor; those who cannot be categorized as either transvestite or transsexual; cross-dressers who modify their bodies but who are not transsexual; those who wanted to be homosexual rather than heterosexual after their bodily reconstruction; and those who consider themselves beyond classification. Trans America locates and contests some of the more significant structural and conceptual weaknesses in trans history: the neglect of an important period of critique in transsexuality’s early years; a claimed recognition of systems of technology and therapy and notions of sexual identity that were far more tentative, contested, and fragmentary; and a neglect of other forms of trans expression both before and after the transsexual moment of the 1960s and 1970s.

Trans America encounters trans in its various forms, what Rogers Brubaker has termed the trans of migration (transsexuality), the trans of between (gender blending), and the trans of beyond (those who transcend categories, though, ironically, find a new category as nonbinary). It examines the time before transsexuality, when those aware of their nonconforming gender managed an existence – even sought out surgical and hormonal solutions – under a cultural framework where inversion (as it was known) was interpreted as a species of homosexuality. It encounters people who lived their lives almost oblivious to the medical and psychiatric experts, or who consciously carved out ways of being and seeing that did not adhere to the dominant categories of gender and sexuality or of transsexuality and transgender. It meets both those adept at negotiating their way past the gatekeepers and those who avoided them completely: self-help is a recurring theme in trans history. Trans was formed in the streets as much as it was in the consulting room and surgery. Trans America shows the importance of cross-dressing in trans before trans, the transsexual moment, and the transgender turn – a neglected, vital strand in both American and trans history. It locates the importance of trans people of colour, despite the dominance of whiteness in much trans imagery. It finds that the sexual and gender flexibility viewed as so central to the transgender turn had earlier precursors. It establishes the importance of sexuality in the history of trans; despite the eagerness of some trans observers to separate gender from sexuality, bodily variety was accompanied by diversity of desire. And the book charts constantly shifting concepts of trans from a time before it was named to its current visibility – identities blurred and challenged to the point where trans itself seems on the point of inaugurating a new ‘nonbinary turn’.

Trans America writes a new history of transsexuality and transgender in modern America.

Barry Reay is Professor Emeritus of History and former Keith Sinclair Chair at the University of Auckland, New Zealand. A leading historian of the social and cultural history of sex and gender, his books include Sex Before Sexuality and Sex Addiction: A Critical History. His latest book, Trans America, will publish 22nd May 2020 from Polity.