Transgender identity has a history as long as human beings have existed

In 1857, an anonymous author of a short story chronicled life as a trans woman with uncanny clarity and insight

By Matthew Rozsa

Staff Writer

Published May 22, 2023 9:00AM (EDT)

Supporters of LGBTQA+ rights march from Union Station towards Capitol Hill in Washington, DC on March 31, 2023. (ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS/AFP via Getty Images)
Supporters of LGBTQA+ rights march from Union Station towards Capitol Hill in Washington, DC on March 31, 2023. (ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS/AFP via Getty Images)

Believe it or not, there once was a time when trans people could be the stars of popular fiction without arousing nationwide controversy and manufactured outrage.

"Even though it's 'just' a short story, it must have resonated with readers because it appeared in one of the most popular magazines of the day."

In Victorian America, a literary journal known as The Knickerbocker was as popular as movies or TV shows are today. Despite only being published for one-third of a century (1833 to 1865), it served as a platform for immortal writers like Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, William Cullen Bryant, Oliver Wendell Holmes and James Russell Lowell. Alternatively known as New-York Monthly Magazine, The Knickerbocker both catered to mainstream popular culture and aspired to elevate it.

This makes it particularly notable that, in 1857, an anonymously-authored short story clearly and sympathetically depicted a trans woman. If modern transphobes are to be believed, transgender identities are a liberal ideological talking point that pose an existential threat to "traditional" ideas about sex. Yet the reality is that transgender individuals have existed long before any of our modern political debates. 

Take the plot of "The Man Who Thought Himself a Woman." Its protagonist, Japhet Colbones, is depicted as a lovable eccentric who comes from a long line of charming weirdos. In Japhet's case, she was born in a male body and secretly harbors the knowledge that she is a woman, a fact that is hinted throughout and officially revealed to the readers at the story's end.

The author refers to Japhet as "odd," a term used with as much endearment for the main character as for her other relatives, who had such relatively harmless quirks as obsessively collecting books, following unorthodox diets or being generally reclusive. Japhet is depicted as a loving husband and father of two daughters who, despite possessing great intelligence, prefers to live a simple farm life. In many ways, Japhet is as quintessentially American as apple pie and fireworks: Physically strong, fiercely independent, a successful provider and a fundamentally decent soul.

The only conspicuous consequence of Japhet's "oddity" is that she steals the clothes of the women around her so she can secretly wear them. Although Japhet's thefts are eventually traced back to her, her loved ones do not let her know to protect her dignity. This decision proves tragic in the end, when Japhet commits suicide in her best female attire. She departs with this poignant note:

"I think I am a woman. I have been seven years making me a perfect suit of garments appropriate for my sex. As I have passed so long, falsely, for a man, I am ashamed to show myself in my true colors; therefore, I hang myself. The property all to go to the woman I have called my wife. It is now twelve o'clock. I have prepared every thing for the funeral, and desire that I may be laid out in the clothes I have on."

Professor Elizabeth Reis — a historian and professor of gender and medical ethics at the Macaulay Honors College, City University of New York — wrote a paper about this short story in 2014 for the academic journal Early American Studies. Speaking with Salon by email, Reis explained how the story can be educational for modern readers, dispelling two common misperceptions about transgender identity before the 20th century.

"The first misconception is that there was no such thing as transgender identity before our current moment," Reis explained. "Even though this is just a short story, we can see that in the mid-1850s, the author conceived of a character who might have identified as transgender, if that word had existed back then."

Reis observed that Japhet's "odd" personality is described with that term in a context "that means singular more than it meant anything negative." Importantly, Japhet's story is depicted as "poignant and sad, and it might resonate with readers who are unable to be themselves even today, for one reason or another. And even though it's 'just' a short story, it must have resonated with readers because it appeared in one of the most popular magazines of the day."

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"People have been trans-ing gender for centuries; they have been making and remaking gender in creative and innovative ways throughout recorded history."

The story of transgender identities traces well before 1857. For centuries Mexico's indigenous Zapotec people have recognized a third sex known as "muxes," a third gender that includes both masculine and feminine traits. The Mayan religion also included gods that were both male and female.

But Mexico is not alone among civilizations with a long history of bucking gender binaries. In Samoa, the culture has long recognized people who are neither strictly male nor strictly female with the terms "fa'afafine" and "fa'afatama." In India, a third gender known as hijras have been documented as far back as the Middle Ages and are recognized as an official third gender in Indian countries throughout the subcontinent. The Navajo referred to transgender individuals as two-spirits, and the so-called Ihamanas were held in such high regard that a berdache (man living as a woman) named We'wha was asked to meet President Grover Cleveland, who was said to have been utterly charmed.

"The most common misconception from anti-trans folks is that trans people are a new phenomenon," explains Dr. Emily Skidmore, Associate Professor and Director of Graduate Studies at the Department of History at Texas Tech University and author of the book "True Sex: The Lives of Trans Men at the Turn of the Twentieth Century." "People have been trans-ing gender for centuries; they have been making and remaking gender in creative and innovative ways throughout recorded history. Historians and other scholars have found records of individuals who understood their gender as distinct from the cultural norms attached to the gender assigned to them at birth across centuries. Trans people have always existed."

In fact, as Skidmore learned when writing "True Sex," trans people often pop up in places where you do not expect them. For instance, despite the popular assumption that trans people would prefer to live in cosmopolitan (and therefore presumably more accepting) environments, the opposite quite often has proved to be true.

"One thing that surprised me in doing the research for that book is that so many — over half of the 65 people I found from 1876-1936 — chose to live in small towns and rural outposts, as opposed to the cities we more commonly associate with queer life," Skidmore wrote to Salon. She identified the story of a person from the early 20th century named "Willie Ray" as one of her favorites; Ray had been assigned as a female at birth but lived as a man.

"He was probably born in Tennessee, and he moved in his early 20s to Booneville, Mississippi. He got in trouble for flirting with another man's wife, and there was actually a court case about it 1903. Willie Ray revealed his gender assigned at birth on the stand as a means of escaping persecution, at which point the case ground to a halt." Although Ray was supposedly going to be forced to wear skirts from that point on, no state law existed to enforce that edict, and Ray "went on living in Booneville, and in 1910, he shows up on the federal census as living in the same household as Fannie Gatlin—the woman he had been flirting with in 1903."

Skidmore concluded, "I love this story because it forces us to think about the queer possibilities in rural America — a past which can be hard for us to imagine in the contemporary moment of anti-trans legislation."

Reis also contemplated how people in the past have sometimes been more open-minded than their contemporary counterparts.

"The other common misperception about the pre-20th century is the assumption that we've become more tolerant over time," Reis wrote to salon. "Certainly, LGBTQ people are able to live openly in ways that they couldn't have conceived in the mid-19th century, but it's also true that we can't just assume that people had only negative ideas about people crossing the gender line." She added that although living as a different gender was neither widely celebrated or condoned, common attitudes were complicated "as we can see from how Japhet is presented in this short story: as a competent provider, a good husband, and all the rest of it that the story describes."

By Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer at Salon. He received a Master's Degree in History from Rutgers-Newark in 2012 and was awarded a science journalism fellowship from the Metcalf Institute in 2022.

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Deep Dive History Lgbtq Trans Rights Transgender Transgender History Transgender Rights