Before We Were Trans by Kit Heyam

Before We Were Trans is a book that looks at the history of gender through an expansive trans lens, showing that the scope of trans history can be wide and inclusive and that can teach us more about the people left out by certain ideas of gender. Each chapter focuses on a particular theme and acts as a kind of introduction to that area of history, weaving together a few different examples and discussing how thinking about these is important, and many of the chapters look at the overlap between trans history and other histories, particularly the history of sexuality, intersex history, and the history of colonisation.

The style of the book is academic yet engaging, aimed at a broad audience, and the content is introductory, providing explanations of what and why people and communities can be viewed through a broader lens of trans history but not going deep into each topic, which could be books in themselves. The book sets forward a methodology for doing history, acknowledging at one point the bad reputation of historians in terms of the history of gender difference and the policing that can go on around historical figures, and the title hints towards the fact that differing terminology means that history like this isn’t so simple to chart. At the same time, Heyam makes it clear how important it is that people do this work and see these histories as histories that can be crucial to modern thought and understanding.

As the book is an overview, I was looking forward to using the bibliography to follow up and go deeper, which I will do, though in my electronic proof copy it’s not the easiest to navigate and could have been split into key texts for each chapter to make it more accessible for people wanting to read more. I’m not a historian, so I can’t really comment on the discussion of methodology, but Heyam clearly highlights the book’s limitations, especially as written by a white academic, and the book is useful for thinking about who and how trans histories are told.

There’s a lot of fascinating content in Before We Were Trans, and it sits nicely with other recent non-fiction books on trans life and reality, particularly Shon Faye’s The Transgender Issue (which is cited in this book), to consider the ambiguity, policing, and intersectionality of gender and trans history.