Gay and lesbian historicism has all too often used gender transgressive individuals to create gay history, yet argued that gender transgression is not in and of itself important, instead assuming that gender transgressive behaviour and cross-gender positioning were taken up for the specific purpose of engaging in a homosexual partnership or ‘lifestyle’, excluding the possibility that gender transgression was engaged in for more complex reasons.
This is political work. To show that homosexuality has existed in all times and places and, in certain times and places, has been socially accepted, even revered, gay historians argue for social tolerance and acceptance of homosexuality (fair enough). However the way such histories have been written is to privilege homosexuality at the expense of transgenderism.
Pat Califia explains: It does not further our understanding of human sexuality to press for recognition of homosexuality throughout history at the expense of recognizing other sexual minorities. The history of their oppression is as valid as our own, and if gay male and lesbian scholars deny that history, we are as guilty of censorship and prejudice as any straight anthropologist who chooses not to report homosexual activity.
Such gay historicism was (and is) a part of the gay liberationist project, which sought to separate sex, gender and sexuality, in defiance of the early sexologists’ assertion that gender inversion was a manifestations of same sex desire. Here, the contradictory tensions of gay historicism are revealed: on the one hand it seeks to escape the equation of homosexuality with gender inversion, and on the other it needs to use stories of heroes from the past who had just such an embodiment. Perhaps gay historians hope by locating homosexual gender inverts in the past, they can keep them there. However, in arguing that sexuality is not necessarily linked to gender inversion, gay historians have gone too far by removing the importance of gender transgression all together, thereby dislocating historical links between gender and sexuality, the effect of which is to render impossible a transgender history.
Writing a transgender history that does not exclude homosexuality, such as that of Leslie Feinberg in Transgender Warriors, is crucial work that still needs to be done. Historical figures cannot simply be ‘taken back’ and named ‘transgender’. Histories need to be constructed that acknowledge that these people were, and are, important because they were different: different because they had same sex desire and engaged in same sex relationships and different because they transgressed the expectations of their sex.