To some it may seem that the existence of transgender people is a new phenomenon. It was only 2014 when trans activist and actress Laverne Cox was featured on the cover of Time magazine with the headline “The Transgender Tipping Point”. In recent years, there has been an increase in trans characters in fiction and trans voices in the public sphere. However, greater visibility now does not necessarily mean that the transgender community is anything new.
While it’s true that much of the terminology used is fairly recent, people who might now be understood as transgender (those whose gender identity differs from what was assigned to them at birth) and non-binary (those whose gender cannot be defined as simply “male” or “female”) have existed throughout history. There are records from many ancient cultures that show the existence of variant gender identities, and some terms (for example hijra, a term used in South Asia with a recorded history that goes back thousands of years) are still used today. Here in what we now call Canada the term two-spirit, a nod to a pre-colonization past where those with both masculine and feminine spirit were respected members of many tribes, has been adopted as an umbrella term for Indigenous people with diverse sexualities and genders. Even in historical cultures that were not tolerant towards gender diversity there are many stories of people who lived in opposition to expected gender norms. Chevalier d'Éon (1728-1810), a diplomat who asked for public recognition as a woman, Joseph Lobdell (1829-1912) a hunter who insisted on his identity as a man even when forced into asylum, and Marsha P. Johnson (1945-1992) and Sylvia Rivera (1951-2002), drag queens and activists who fought for the inclusion of gender non-conforming people in the LGBTQ+ civil rights movement, are just a few examples of such figures.
Christine Jorgensen, whose gender affirming surgery in 1952 became a widespread news story, represented new possibilities for transgender people to be seen as their true selves. Nowadays, hormone replacement therapy is often offered to trans and non-binary people to better align their physical appearance with their identity. For young people who might still be coming to an understanding of their gender, puberty blockers (which stop the release of both estrogen and testosterone) can delay adolescent bodily changes until they are certain in their identity. There are also many surgical procedures available to trans people that can help change their physical appearance. But for some, medically transitioning is not a necessary step in affirming their true gender, while for others it's not an option due to finances or location. Many trans and non-binary people can use other forms of gender expression (traits like hair, vocal pitch, clothes and accessories) to reflect their identity. Online communities and social media allow trans people to share tips and resources to help with transitioning and support one another. Understanding one’s self can take time, and one’s gender identity may change over time, but with so many gender affirming options now out there, there are more opportunities than ever to transition whenever one feels ready and however feels right.
It has often been expressed that trans and gender non-conforming folks were “born in the wrong body”, but perhaps a better way to think of it is that they were born in bodies that society has misinterpreted, which can cause internalized shame and confusion. Furthermore, society has often discriminated against those whose bodies and genders are not normative. Unfortunately, trans and non-binary people in Canada remain over-represented in statistics about having low income, being victims of harassment and assault, and suffering from mental illness. Sharing information about diverse trans people and the possibilities of gender, making sure that resources are accessible to anyone who needs them, and treating trans and non-binary people with compassion are all steps we can take to better support a community that has often been mistreated and misunderstood. If you're looking to start learning more about gender diverse people and their history you can find many materials here at the Ottawa Public Library from transgender creators and about transgender lives.