By Emily Priest, Gale Ambassador at the University of Portsmouth
Today, 31st March, is Trans Visibility Day and, although it is a day to celebrate, it is also a day to reflect on the past to appreciate how far we’ve come. Looking back on trans history and how much visibility the community used to have can be hard swallow at times but it is easy to research using the archives Gale’s Primary Sources. To put things into perspective I used Archives of Gender and Sexuality to compare how society has previously treated trans people with how they’re treated now.
Searching “transgender” in the database, I found thousands upon thousands of sources. Using Gale’s Publication Year tool I was able to limit my search and easily compare eras. Immediately, I could see that transgender was mentioned much more in the 1990s than earlier decades. It was barely mentioned in the 1970s. At this time, “transgender” hadn’t been labelled yet. Instead, it was considered a part of homosexuality.
The source above highlights this overgeneralisation but still shows some element of social change. On 15th December 1973, the American Psychiatric Association stated that homosexuality was no longer deemed a mental health disorder or “sexual deviation,” a category also used for fetishism, voyeurism and paedophilia. Crossdressing and transgender were included in the category too. Although it is great to see progress on the acceptance of homosexuality, it seems transgenderism may still have been seen at this time as a mental health disorder categorised alongside paedophilia.
“Letter from a Transsexual”, below, was published in 1970 in It Ain’t Me Babe, a periodical tied to the women’s liberation movement. Though it introduces and discusses the concept of transgender, it patronises and criticises the writer. The editor highlighted parts of the text and added comments stating that trans women are a “danger” and are “unsuccessful in the male role” – that is why they wish to change genders. The editor undermines the writer’s choices and implies that being trans is a failure. If there is any positive to take from this it is that being transgender is not described as a new “fad,” but a real labelled state. It has always been around, but it wasn’t until around this time that it began to be labelled as such.
The 1990s saw a significant increase in trans visibility, with great progress made on addressing the discrimination seen in the 1970s and ‘80s. The documents below – an official document from ILGA-Europe and the European Commission and an introduction to the Metropolitan Gender Network – suggest a new recognition of the trans community and are an example of how trans rights were being brought to the foreground. Media coverage at this time shifted from negative to positive, as related issues of gender and sexuality were increasingly discussed.
The publication of the article below titled A&E Gives an Investigative Report on the “Transgender Revolution” shows that media organisations were opening up spaces for communication, giving trans-spokespeople more room to talk. The use of the word “revolution” is noteworthy too as it implies change and gives a sense of power to the movement and the trans community.
However, with progress comes backlash. It’s clear in some articles, such as the following, that not everyone was willing to give transgendered people visibility. Although there were many in support of Alyssa Williams, the trans teacher, there were still countless parents who protested against her and demanded her dismissal.
The article ‘Transgender on Rape Charge’ below is another example of the continuation of negative attitudes towards trans people in the 1990s. Even if progress had been made within the media, change still had to take place within the minds of the people. In this text, a trans man was charged with rape because, although the women consented to sleeping with O’Neill, they didn’t consent to sleeping with a woman. Although he identified as a man, his whole identity was dictated by his genitals which undermines O’Neill and transgenderism entirely. Even with the discussion growing, many people still refused to understand or accept transgenderism.
The 2000s saw the most progress, with ever more articles shining light on trans issues. We can see in the following sources that trans rights were brought to the foreground, and increasingly obtained. The last source clearly outlines and explains transgenderism to a wider audience and, unlike earlier sources, it is informative and understanding and seeks to fill the gaps in the reader’s knowledge. I want to draw your attention to one quote in particular from Manifesto: A Non-Heterosexual Paper which eloquently tackles trans discrimination – “transphobia is as much a biological ingrained phenomenon as transgenderism itself.”
Over the years we have made great progress and it seems that now, finally, the trans community are gaining visibility in many countries. However, we cannot overlook the work that still needs to be done. The trans community are still an oppressed community, with individuals abused and even murdered for who they are. Although Trans Visibility Day is a day for celebration, it is also a day for reflection and action; to learn from history’s mistakes and champion equal rights. We should all help work to end discrimination, and seek to support and bolster minorities. We can be each other’s strength and learn that there is enough room on stage for us all to share the spotlight.