Remembrance of things past

When I was 18 and bitter and living in Unity House and helping plan a week’s worth of events for Trans Awareness Week, it occurred to me that we set aside no time just for our history. Awareness, sure. Days for remembrance and visibility, but not history.

My interest in queer history once approached an obsession. It grew naturally out of the fertile ground of my childhood archaeology fixation and my early adolescent fan fiction phase. I presented a newsletter on the topic to my ninth grade history class. I was the first to remind anyone who would listen about Alexander the Great’s “boyfriend.”

I see people who knew me when I was that age (and younger) all the time on campus. I attended honors programs all over the Los Angeles public school system, so I suppose that comes with the territory. I still hate it, though. When I see them, I sometimes want to apologize for my confused, overzealous 14-year-old “lesbian” self. Or for shouting too many times about Ancient Egypt in elementary school. Mostly though, I resent them for knowing anything about me before I started going by Neil.

Having people from my past around broke the illusion that this is who I’ve always been. Sometimes I can hardly figure out how to casually tell stories about my childhood. The narrative of medical reinvention forces many trans people to reject everything about who they were before transition. Many people choose to refer to their birth names as their “dead names.”

This concern with people knowing who I used to be preoccupied my thoughts during my first years on this campus.

And if I felt disconnected from my past, I felt completely alienated from history in a larger sense. I felt like the product of a technopolitical moment. I saw trans identities as a jigsaw of medical procedures, poststructuralist discourse, and internet communities each more historically recent than the last.

My obsession with queer history derives strongly from trying to fill a void in my own self-concept.

Gay and lesbian people can point at Greek vases and Egyptian tombs to prove their historical legitimacy. Their existence is written in stone. As a young teen, struggling to find proof that what I was doing with my life was genuine and defensible, I wanted the historical record to provide me that same foundation.

Social categories don’t leave definite archaeological traces, particularly in minimally literate cultures. Projecting any current gender or sexual category back further than Freud gets sticky fast. An ancient Greek man in an erastes-eromenos relationship with a younger man wouldn’t see anything in common with his sexual behavior and, say, a modern married gay couple. Knowing this, I can’t in good faith call the castrated devotees of Cybele or statues of Hermaphroditus “transgender.”

I can, however, trace a long, powerful and global history of gender diversity and transgression.

Poetry survives describing a medieval Jewish trans woman. Written in 1322 by the fantastically named Jewish scholar Kalonymus ben Kalonymus, the poem’s narrator asks God why, with all the biblical miracles and parted waters, he cannot turn her into a woman. Lines grieving the husband and children she should have had recall the bridge of Against Me!’s “True Trans Soul Rebel”:

“You should have been a mother / You should have been a wife / You should have been gone from here years ago / You should be living a different life.”

The voices of gender variance echo through history, in dialogue, in harmony. She takes the root, he the fifth, they the minor third. I’ll hit the octave above while I still can.

I will not allow my community to be folded into the pile of hot-button progressive issues. We’re not a trend. We were not invented when medical transition became possible. We were not invented on Tumblr, nor when Laverne Cox posed for the cover of Time nor when Caitlyn Jenner secured her reality show.

This Trans Day of Remembrance, I will remember the lives behind that awful litany of names. I will remember those murdered by transphobic violence and by the crushing, unrelenting weight of living on this transphobic earth. I will also remember that our roots run deeper than those of parties, nations or religions.

We are in the bedrock and the groundwater. We have always been here.

Neil Lawrence writes the Friday column deconstructing gender and sexuality. Contact him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @tronsgender.