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Not Just a Trend: A Brief History of Gender Non-Conformity

Scrolling through social media, it’s become pretty inevitable to see someone has posted or retweeted something offensive about trans/gender non-conforming people. Recently, I came across an exchange that highlighted the ignorance and lack of education that breeds these view points.

A twitter user justified their transphobic views by arguing it would be wrong to attack a gay person for their sexuality, because gay people have ‘always been around’, in comparison they felt gender variance was a new and fickle trend.

Bigots in the media, and a very brief and non-inclusive history education has managed to convince some groups that people who don’t fit the man/woman binary have no history, and that their gender identity is just a passing fad.

Aside from that being no justification for mistreating people even if it were true, to suggest that until the 21st century there had been no precedent for rejecting and redefining gender norms is completely untrue. Here is a very brief history (and by brief I mean barely a drop in the ocean of the international history) of gender non-conformity.

(Some figures are referred to with gender neutral pronouns, as it is impossible to determine how they perceived their gender identity from the sources available)


Communities that don’t follow the binary

Throughout history there have been communities who reject the idea of a two gender binary, or who recognise additional genders.

Hijra has been recognised in India as a third gender for 1000s of years. Hijras are trans-feminine, or people born into male bodies that follow feminine norms e.g. in the way they dress, and occupy a distinct role in society.

Another example are “two-spirited people” recognised by at least 155 Native American tribes. Two-spirited people are believed to literally have the spirit of both a man and a woman, and encompass a wide range of gender expressions, ranging from more feminine, more masculine, or androgynous.


222 AD – Roman Emperor Elagabalus

There are many instances of gender non-conformity in the Roman Empire, but one of the most interesting is Elagabalus. Elagabalus insisted on being referred to as Lady/Empress (rather than Lord), wore feminine make up and was known to disguise themselves as a female sex worker. 

There were even rumours that they sought out potential rudimentary gender reassignment surgery, although sources are murky due to Elagabalus being a scandalous and not-so-popular figure among contemporaries. You may know Elagabalus better from tales such as drowning dinner guests in wild flowers, or releasing wild animals for entertainment (or their extensive and at times disturbing sex life, but that deserves a whole other article.)


1400s – Eleanor Rykener

Rykener is a key figure in studies of gender and sexuality in medieval England. Born with a male body, they were arrested in 1394, after living as a woman and working as a prostitute. 

Rykener worked in several other positions that were almost entirely female at the time, including as a barmaid and in embroidery. They slept with both men and women, and at different times fulfilled more masculine and feminine roles.

It is impossible to determine how Rykener saw their sexuality and gender identity, but they were pushing the boundaries of what was perceived as normal, almost 600 years ago.


1600s – Thomas/Thomasine Hall

Thomas/Thomasine Hall was raised as a girl, before presenting as a man to enter the military. However, this wasn’t just a case of disguising one’s gender to have the opportunities of another. After service, Hall regularly alternated between masculine and feminine clothing and went by both Thomas and Thomasine.

After being arrested for having sex with men and women, Hall was subjected to attempts to determine their physical sex, upon which it was discovered that they were intersex, and could not easily fit into a binary of male or female. 

Thomas/Thomasine felt no preference toward either gender and actively wanted to express their gender fluidly before there was even the language to describe this kind of non-conformity.


1700s – 1800s – Molly Houses

Gender non-conformity comes in varying degrees, and a range of expressions. No single example represents this better than Britain’s Molly Houses. 

Molly was an offensive term used for gay men, which was then adopted by the homosexual community, and Molly Houses were meeting houses where homosexual men would gather. They would often refer to each other with feminine pronouns and names, dress in women’s clothes, and some even held mock births, playing the roles of mother and midwives.

There is often difficulty in separating history of sexuality and gender nonconformity, as historically groups often lacked the language to distinguish the two, or actively linked the concepts together. 

Molly House patrons included a spectrum of gender expressions, from gay men, enjoying the company of other men and mocking the feminine role, as well as those who dressed in feminine clothes in their daily life and worked as female sex workers.


Late 1800s – mid 1900s – Jack Garland

Garland has recently been recovered by transgender historians, after long being perceived as a ‘passing woman’.

Jack Garland, (originally Babe Bean) presented themselves as male while living in California, dressing in masculine clothes and refusing to speak aloud to prevent people using their voice to make inferences on their gender. 

After serving in the U.S Military, they began going as Jack Garland, and further adopted the male identity. Garland worked as a male nurse, got heavily tattooed (masculine at the time), and although he was arrested in his early life, after his military service his male identity was so popularly accepted that he was not bothered by the law again. Jack Garland lived as a man until his death in 1936.


1926 – 1989 – Christine Jorgensen

Jorgensen was the first widely known transgender woman in America, often referred to as the worlds first trans celebrity. She began surgery in 1952, and made headlines like EX-GI BECOMES BLONDE BEAUTY after returning home to the US.

Christine Jorgensen became a spokesperson for the trans community, attending speaking engagements across the country. In 1981, she said “I did my own thing, and I’ve got to admit I did it only for myself. I had no idea it was going to affect the rest of the world”, but living as her true self did affect the rest of the world, and she built on a long history of people challenging norms to live how they desire. 

I’d like to end this article reflecting on Jorgensen’s praise of college campuses as “incredible” for their level of acceptance. It is a reminder that as prejudice is still all around us today, we should fight to maintain universities as the places of inclusion that she believed they were, for people continuing to push the accepted boundaries of gender.

I’m a Global Governance masters student at Exeter Uni ! I studied history until last year, and spend most of my listening to true crime! I'm the current Sex and Relationships editor for our chapter!
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