Trans History and Trans Students: Further Reflections on Teaching Transgender Issues

Trans History and Trans Students: Further Reflections on Teaching Transgender Issues

Earlier this term, I wrote a blog post for Nursing Clio about the ways in which teaching my class on Transgender Issues has evolved over the last fifteen years. I first taught this course in 1998 when very few students knew what “transgender” meant and only occasionally would a transgender student enroll; in 2013, not only are students well aware of the topic, but I typically have four or five who identify either as transgender or somewhere else along the gender continuum. Most everyone in the class is cognizant of many of the controversies that surround the subject, such as what pronouns to use for those who identify as transgender or gender fluid. The demographics of the classroom have made teaching the class easier in some ways, as I described earlier, but harder in others, as I will explain here.

I used to worry that the cisgendered (non-trans) students might say something offensive to the lone trans student; now that the numbers have shifted, I see that I have an additional concern: how do I present this material to young adults who are in the midst of their own identity formation, who might find the history of transgender identity painful and difficult to absorb or even hear and read about?

Since I am a historian, we spend several weeks studying transgender identity in the past, at a time when the word “transgender” didn’t even exist, though cross-gender behavior certainly did. Talking about these earlier eras can be tough for some, or “triggering,” as one student put it. Language is powerful, and how words are used changes over time. Does it make sense, for example, to label 18th-century persons as transgender if they occasionally adopted a cross-gender social role? Does that do justice to their experience? If such historical persons had had the choice to identify as trans, would they have? Possibly, though I think that we just don’t know enough about most historical actors to make this call. Usually we don’t know their motivation or what their wishes might have been, and so I like to proceed cautiously in recounting their histories. This means that I don’t automatically assume that all cross-gender behavior in the past implied a “trans identity” in the way we have come to think of it today. Which raises a broader question: how can we get students to think historically, particularly when they feel a stake in the subject being studied?

anne bonney pic

I wanted to cultivate more complex thinking that does not perpetuate the notion of a timeless or ahistorical present, and yet some students resisted my approach. They were eager to claim historical instances of transgender behavior and wondered about my reluctance to label people who lived long ago as “transgender.”  For example, if I referred to someone in the 17th century not as transgender but rather as a man who sometimes lived as a woman and sometimes as a man, a handful of students saw this as perpetuating insensitive stereotypes about transgender people. Because I did not label such a person using contemporary terms, and because I referred to the gender assigned to them at birth, it was as if I was judging them to be somehow inauthentic and deceitful.

Nothing could be further from the truth, of course; my goal is to honor what we actually know, not what we imagine. Sadly, we don’t have much historical evidence to determine definitively why some people made the choices they made and lived the lives they lived. In fact, we know very little. Often people who crossed the gender divide have entered the historical record because they upset the strict gender binary, and so available documentation about their lives is particularly negative and harsh. As with any historical analysis, it is incumbent upon us, I believe, to take an imaginative leap, to try to enter their world to understand it (this is not the same as condoning past negativity), rather than to merely impose present-day assumptions on the past.

To take another example: formerly, people who were born with atypical genital anatomies were known as hermaphrodites. Today that term is no longer used, as it conjures the idea of mythical monstrous creatures, as in the 16th-century woodcut depicted here.


It is hard to hear words or descriptions that are offensive today, no matter how they might have been used in the past. How can we preserve the historical record, avoid anachronism, and at the same time remain sensitive to those whose lives might somehow directly connect them to these historical actors?

james carey
Described in his autopsy report as a “hermaphroditic monster,” James Carey lived in Philadelphia in the 1830s and worked as a stagecoach driver. The lithograph emphasizes his stooped, almost monstrous, form. Image from James Akin, Facts Connected with the Life of James Carey, Whose Eccentrick Habits Caused a Post Mortem Examination (Philadelphia, 1839). Courtesy American Antiquarian Society, Worcester, Massachusetts.

Escaping one’s own particular context can be challenging for some students who are at a vulnerable place in their own lives. Though I will still teach about the past, no matter how hard it is to hear, I have learned from this term’s students to be more sensitive to what might spark emotional pain. It is not easy to recognize oneself as transgender or intersex, or as lesbian, gay, or bisexual, for that matter. It is not easy to see oneself in the negative ways that gender nonconforming people in the past (and even the present) have been depicted. In the future I am going to alert students on the syllabus, on the first day and repeatedly throughout the term, that this class will indeed contain some triggers. Someone who is just beginning to embrace a gender nonconforming identity might appreciate the professor’s ongoing recognition that it is challenging but important to maintain some distance between their own lives and their scholarly engagement with the past.

Of course, students in other marginalized groups have to deal with similar concerns. When I teach about slavery in my women’s history class, I am attuned to how difficult it must be for African American students in particular to listen to 19th-century rationalizations of human bondage, for example. And yet the subject still needs to be taught. In that class, I tell students that I realize how painful  it can be to hear these words, even embedded in their historical context, which helps to ease apprehensions and open the entire class to learning. As more and more students are living lives beyond the gender binary, I see now that a similar approach should guide the presentation of transgender history as well.  As historians, we are pleased to find that history actually matters to our students today, and it’s our challenge—and obligation—to our students to prepare and equip them to learn by developing new means to think historically.

Elizabeth Reis is a professor of gender and bioethics at the Macaulay Honors College at the City University of New York. She is the author of Bodies in Doubt: An American History of Intersex, which was recently published in a 2nd edition, and Damned Women: Sinners and Witches in Puritan New England. She is also the editor of American Sexual Histories: A Social and Cultural History Reader.