Sidney Paget cemented this stupid hat in the popular memory when recalling yer man Holmes. It got into the groundwater of the consciousness via Rathbone and Brett and Cook and, well, it’s obligatory now. You aren’t allowed to deduce without one. TV producers won’t stand for it.
Hidden truths require detectives – or historians, who get rather less kudos, although they’re about the only people on TV more often than various iterations of the Great Mouse Detective – because magicians are out of vogue and get rather more gnomic results. Which is not to say that results are not largely interpretive regardless. They are, and therein lies the problem.
As a friend rather elegantly reiterated in their undergraduate thesis, sometimes things become invisible because people refuse to see them. It’s a common enough problem in Western History, where the achievements of women and people of colour (and quite often the role of white, well-off men in suppressing or stealing those achievements) are routinely wiped away by generations reshaping the historical record to look like the modern power structure they favour. History and propaganda are spelled in the same type. There has been a rather successful film recently, in fact, precisely celebrating the 20th Century victims of such revisionism which includes the word “Hidden” in the title.
In denying that women, people of colour, and women of colour in the West in particular, have ever done anything, and in denying any worth in “traditionally female” work, revisionist history still can’t actually wipe all evidence of these people off the record [NB: I am aware there are people who refer to actually finding evidence of the achievements and presence of these demographics who have been deliberately overlooked as “revisionist” but the original decision to ignore them was a revision of reality in the first place]. Those babies came from somewhere; a lot of documents and photos went missing all the same. Hegemony is however forced to acknowledge someone’s presence even when it’s booting them in the face, sometimes.
As I write, people who don’t exist are disappearing from the streets; and are ceasing to officially exist on the spreadsheets. And the funny thing is: I was planning to write about not existing anyway.
The Human Need to see yourself reflected. To not be alone. To know that you are possible. For much of recent history there have been aggressive attempts to tell the hideable to be hidden until they cease to be; every generation of homosexuals is told they’re some kind of modern malaise, a manifestation of failing social standards and also ouroborous-like and paradoxically their cause – a self-generating Sodom, buggering its own face. Wilde’s Uranian Love Movement (well, it belonged rather more to Carpentor and Addington Symmonds and rather interestingly links back to something later on) looked backward to Ancient Greece for validation of worth but also the existence of their sexuality (and Wilde is to later generations as Alexander was to him), and very slowly the love that dare not speak its name got tired of being muttered about in code and learned how to spell its own name: loudly, and in a full spectrum of colour.
In Catherine Arnold’s City of Sin, a young Victorian gay man describes the emotional impact of his first ever gay experience: like a curtain being drawn aside to show what he had hoped for without being able to even know what it was he was hoping for, unable to name what had felt so wrong all this time, but articulating his relief in language that resonates still: “I am not alone.”
[Sexual acts for any sexual person can have the property of confirming the actor’s reality and their value, however temporary and conditional, to another, but it’s the queer who finds themselves made possible by it; before the internet, depictions or mentions of such things were like hen’s teeth. And you had to know what it was you were looking for].
If learning of your own invisible possibility from the past as a lover of the same sex is rare in a canon determined to push any explanation barring the obvious rather than deviate from the straitjacket of compulsory heteroseuxality – from the default assumption that we must all be straight until proven, often with laughably complex criteria betraying the prejudices of the self-appointed jury, to be otherwise – then GOOD FUCKING LUCK finding hide or hair of yourself in the annuls of the past as a trans person.
We are definitively a ‘a modern malaise’. Yes, non-Western cultures have had non-cis/non-binary social roles in perpetuity but gosh darn it the West is different (I can smell your cultural imperialism from over here and it stinks). Cis historians will take therefore London’s first transgender celebrity, the magnificent, romantic, sword-fighting French Chevalier d’Eon, who in her own lifetime very publicly switched pronouns and presentation (along with a suitably brilliant cover story), and was accepted – nay, applauded! Vindicated! – as a woman – and they will look at the post-mortem showing her to have a penis and testicles, and start describing her with male pronouns. I read this with my own two wildly disappointed eyes.
They will take Dr James Miranda Barry (current Wikipedia description, just to affix it in time: “Depending on historic interpretation, Barry might be considered either the first medically qualified British woman or the first medically qualified British transgender person.” Either way: Barry practiced medicine), army surgeon and anti-corruption campaigner, performer of the first successful recorded Caesarian section on the African continent, pugnacious and irascible, beloathed of Florence Nightingale, and despite his lifelong use of male pronouns, despite a death certificate describing him as male, and the continue testimony of his friends and acquaintances post-mortem that he was indeed a man… they will look at the circumstances of his life and rumour of childbearing, and drift into using “she”. Regardless of the content of Dr Barry’s abdomen, his was a life lived under the banner of maleness; and yet even his biographers grapple with phrases like “woman disguising [herself] as a man” just as they will trot out “man in a dress” for the poor Chevalier (what does a historical trans person have to do to be allowed their correct gender in death?). Unless these historians also “disguise” themselves when they get up and put on their togs of a morning, it seems an odd way to describe getting dressed.
Finding trans men in history whose identity will satisfy the same prejudicial jury as before is further complicated by historical misogyny, as evidenced above; there are always questions to be asked as to whether someone is taking their ovaries to town in a suit and tie because they want a degree in the days before educational equality and their uterus has mysteriously denied them the right to access this learning (thanks, The Patricharhy), or whether it’s simply that Abraham’s vag doesn’t mean he is a woman. Our trans sisters, bearing the violence of misogyny on coming out, are easier to identify in this regard at least – why else would someone who has at least nominal access to The Good Life And The Privilege choose to “live as a woman” unless they were one? It takes a special level of additional obtuseness, therefore, to misgender d’Eon.
This leads clumsily into the third problem. Gender identity and sexuality are bound together in many, many cultures throughout history – for some reason one is defined by who one wants to fuck; more explicitly, one’s gender is frequently supposed to be determined by whether wants to penetrate or be penetrated. Hence a great deal of confusion around the following subjects:
- Butch/macho cis gay men – indeed male homosexuality in many minds was exclusively the province of those being penetrated and therefore automatically obligated to be feminine if adult (or constrained to “pre-manhood”); rendering muscular, macho bottoms in gay culture stemming from Men’s Health-style magazines and Tom of Finland’s historically extremely valuable art wildly problematic for straight culture and explaining somewhat hypermasculinity fetishism which currently disgusts and annoys the generations of gay men after mine…
- Feminine cis lesbians, particularly those who date other femme lesbians… “which of you is the man”. Neither, my dear fellow, that’s the whole point.
It becomes even more impossible for the genderandsexualityequaleachother mind, choking on biological essentialism, to grasp:
- Trans lesbians
- Trans gay men
[I’m leaving out bisexuals here because that, too, seems to be a hobby for historical record and heterosexual historians, and separating the tussles of historical characters with the weight and requirement of Compulsory Heterosexuality – aka “reproduce OR ELSE” from genuine bisexual interest is a job for someone more invested and patient than me].
It’s perhaps not surprising that any earlier confirmed record of trans men revolves around straight trans men (and predominantly in the 19th or 20th century) [Joseph Lobdell, Dr Alan L Hart, Reed Erickson, Billy Tipton, Robert Eads, Willmer Broadnax] or trans men whose sexuality was not known [Jack Bee Garland, Laurence Michael Dillon]; many had marriages and children.
“After all,” as one infuriatingly contemporary cis man proclaimed, “if you want to have sex with men, why not just stay a girl?” [Alright, Phil, if you want to have sex with all those cute straight men why don’t you ‘become’ a woman? You don’t want to? Gosh, it’s almost like your gender identity matters to you…] And anyway, it’s never that simple. Trust me.
In fact, the first person I can really find acknowledged as a gay trans man is Lou Sullivan. Sainted, wonderful Lou Sullivan, who died too young and made my existence possible: “largely responsible for the modern understanding of sexual orientation and gender identity as distinct, unrelated concepts.” He was, however, kind of recent.
There is a glimmering of hope for the close reader however. Dr Barry’s love life, or at least rumoured love life – such as it was, as his Newtonian character didn’t lend itself terribly well to romance any more than Sir Isaac’s – revolves exclusively (as hinted by biographer Rachel Holmes) around men, or Barry’s “close relationship” with Governor Somerset while in Cape Town.
[It is also worth noting that as Dr McKinnon’s discussion of his late patient with an interested party involved his assertion that he understood Barry to be a “hermaphrodite”, the possibility exists that he was an intersex man rather than a trans man, and I would be loath to deny this representation even under a rather insulting name; times past may have muddied the water by using the term on occasion to refer to those whose “brain and body didn’t match up” or even homosexuals. Without being able to consult Dr Barry himself – who I cannot imagine would take kindly to the intrusion – it’s unlikely I’ll ever get a solid answer].
Wiped from history, covered up by misplaced propriety, nudged to and off the margins, many of the world’s people are denied the opportunity to look ourselves in the eye, to have the experience of reaching back into the dark for a similar hand without first digging up and reassembling the puzzle in codes we are told do not exist. For the sake of all those coming after us, who have to deal with this bullshit, it’s actually important that we do just that: and live our own lives as loudly and honestly as we can, to give them someone to look back at, if necessary.
I know it would have done me a lot of good.
When not grumpily ferreting around history’s dustbins in search of marginal representation, I also write books, some of which are set in the past.