Beyond the Binary: Trans* History in Early America


Fall 2014 special issue

Rachel Hope Cleves has a detailed and interesting report on a panel she convened earlier this month at the Annual Meeting of the American HIstorical Association in New York City over at Notches: (Re)marks on the History of Sexuality. This panel was an outgrowth of a special issue of Early American History she edited for Fall 2014 on the subject of Beyond the Binaries:  Critical Approaches to Sex and Gender in Early America.

Cleves describes each of the four panelists’ contributions, describing their work on flexibly-gendered or trans* people and describing the conversation among the panelists and the audience on the salience of gender binaries as well as the value of reading trans* identities into the more distant past of early America.  I thought this exchange was particularly interesting on the question of viewing early America as a “golden age” of gender flexibility and trans* possibilities:

Questions from the floor followed, sparking productive disagreements. Questions from Kathryn Falvo, Maddie Williams, and Jesse Bayker, pushed [Sean] Trainor’s observation of the optimistic bent of the special issue. Trainor suggested that variations in the expression of masculinity in early America need not be treated as “assaults” but could be understood as tolerated iterations. [Greta] LaFleur stressed that her attention to the wide-range of non-binary gender expression in early America was not optimistic but intended as a corrective to the paucity of alternative stories. She announced herself willing to work in the speculative mode, not just the declarative. [Scott] Larson went further, insisting that he felt an ethical imperative to make bold claims for trans* history, and to escape the “land of caveats” in which academic history often operates.

I completely understand Trainor’s concern about the “golden age” fantasy, but I hold more with LaFleur and Larson.  Sometimes we need to work in the speculative or even possibly fantastic mode in order to imagine other possibilities in the past.  In the end we’re all historians and therefore very committed to using evidence to build our arguments, but a game of “let’s pretend” can open our eyes to evidence that’s sitting right before us if we’re only open to reading it from a fresh perspective.

Read the whole thing.  I wish that blog attracted more comments, but their comments section is never very active.  I understand why they moderate the comments given the subject of the blog, which can attract a great deal of ugly spam and intentionally hateful or aggressive comments.


10 thoughts on “Beyond the Binary: Trans* History in Early America

  1. Thanks for the feedback Ann. I loved both Greta’s comment about speculative vs. declarative modes of writing, and Scott’s comment about going beyond the land of caveats. Jen Manion also made a pitch from the audience for picking up on Leslie Feinberg’s inclusive approach to trans* history in _Transgender Warriors_, which academics have tended to dismiss as insufficiently historicist. I think there’s a connection here to be made to arguments by Judith Bennett and Valerie Traub about the value of continuity, which is an argument I pick up on in an article coming out in the JAH in March. I’m interested to hear what your readers make of these debates.


  2. Hi Historiann –
    Thanks for getting this going. It was an interesting discussion, one that I hope more historians join. Work coming out of queer/trans history is so exciting and offers many tools for historical inquiry but sadly few women’s/gender historians are engaged with them. Though I do interpret many trans/passing narratives optimistically, as “narratives of possibility,” I also propose a much more dramatic challenge to historians writing about groups of people known as men and women as if those are stable categories that we even understand! Best, Jen Manion


  3. Jen, it’s good to hear from you. I’m all for dramatic challenges to historians! I liked Scott Larson’s point that “the binary was accommodating, and that gender required a great deal of flexibility to remain durable.”

    Maybe thinking along these lines will help us get out of our Arrested Development narratives about “masculinity in crisis?” Just as the peasants are always revolting and the middle class is always rising, books about manhood and masculinity are all about the “crisis.” Yet somehow men remain on top with most of the wealth, and patriarchy thrives.

    (And I’m not outside the tent peeing in–I wrote one of those books!)

    And YES YES YES to your point about women’s & gender history, and the heteronormativity of early American women’s history. Interested readers will also want to check out your other Tumblr space, Crossing Gender, on trans* in the 18th and 19th Centuries.


  4. Ha ha – yes Ann. Oh course I say this as someone who recently completed a manuscript full of men and women and masculinity in crisis, too! It is obviously much easier said than done but I think productive insights will come in the process of even trying to apply critical trans theories to our work. I loved what you did with cultural cross-dressing in your book – we do need more space to be creative thinkers as historians! Obviously let’s not ignore Susan Stryker who has seriously ignited this field and is actually trained in19th c US history!


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  6. History ignoramus here. This was very new to me. Like most people now, I suspect, I assumed gender was more rigid in the past, not less.

    I’ve had very much the impression that women could do exactly A, B, and C, and never step out of any bounds. Were most of these “tolerated iterations” among men?


  7. Quixote–you might be interested in Cleves’s book Charity and Sylvia, which describes a loving partnership that was accepted by their neighbors in Vermont as the equivalent to a marriage. However, the older woman, Charity, suffered some social opprobrium from some of the communities she lived in as well as within her own family for her rejection of traditional marriage, her attraction to other women, and her refusal to perform care work in her birth family.

    Queer history is a great illustration of what happens when we start asking different questions & look at some of the same evidence we’ve known about for a long time with these questions in mind. New questions also inspire historians to dig up previously overlooked stories & evidence.


  8. Thank you so much for keeping this debate going and for the reference to other resources. It’s vital for trans and gender non-conforming people in the present and future that as historians we re-assess assumptions about, and narratives of, gender in the past. I’ve found Afsaneh Najmabadi’s work, and especially her essay “Beyond the Americas” to be really helpful in rethinking the gender categories that we work with and for a very honest grappling with the difficulties of going beyond the binary.


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