The best books to show that trans people have always existed

Who am I?

I’m an academic researcher interested in this topic but also one of the people who gets demonized in conservative media: the parent of a transgender child. I want my daughter to know that similar people have existed in history and that lawmakers are wrong to claim that we’re in a scary new world when we advocate for respect and the rights of trans people. While doing that advocacy work, I’m alarmed by positions within the LGBTQI+ movement echoing right-wing ones, including what’s known as “gender critical feminism.” My book argues a positive case for coalition in the face of pressures to fracture along distinct lines of sexuality and gender identity. 


I wrote...

LGBT Victorians: Sexuality and Gender in the Nineteenth-Century Archives

By Simon Joyce,

Book cover of LGBT Victorians: Sexuality and Gender in the Nineteenth-Century Archives

What is my book about?

LGBT Victorians re-visits nineteenth-century thinking about gender and sexual identity at a time when queer alliances are fraying. We consider those whose primary self-definition is in terms of sexuality (LGB) and those for whom it is gender identity (TI, genderqueers) as both in coalition and distinct, on the assumption that these are independent aspects of self-identification. Re-examining how the Victorians thought such categories shaped each other can ground a durable basis for our LGBTQI+ coalition. The book draws on efforts to find transgender people in historical archives, in the gaps between what were termed the sodomite and the hermaphrodite. I highlight a range of individuals, thinkers and activist, and writers like Walt Whitman and John Addington Symonds to re-map the landscape of gender and sexuality in the Victorian period. 

The books I picked & why

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Transgender Warriors: Making History from Joan of Arc to Marsha P. Johnson and Beyond

By Leslie Feinberg,

Book cover of Transgender Warriors: Making History from Joan of Arc to Marsha P. Johnson and Beyond

Why this book?

This is a great place to begin thinking about trans history. Feinberg, who died in 2014, crisscrossed the line between butch lesbian and trans man and was not particular about what pronouns they preferred. In that spirit of inclusiveness, some readers might find her book outdated or too loose in some of the people it includes—any book that ranges from Joan of Arc to NBA star Rodman is covering a lot of ground, but what’s less visible from that subtitle is the work Feinberg has done in crosscultural, anthropological, and comparative mythology studies. What results is a daring and provocative re-reading of world history that puts gender nonconformity at the center, and a stirring call to activism and solidarity that is if anything more needed since its original publication.

Transgender Warriors: Making History from Joan of Arc to Marsha P. Johnson and Beyond

By Leslie Feinberg,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Transgender Warriors as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This groundbreaking book far ahead of its time when first published in 1996 and still galvanizing today interweaves history, memoir, and gender studies to show that transgender people, far from being a modern phenomenon, have always existed and have exerted their influence throughout history. Leslie Feinberg hirself a lifelong transgender revolutionary reveals the origin of the check one box only gender system and shows how zie found empowerment in the lives of transgender warriors around the world, from the Two Spirits of the Americas to the many genders of India, from the trans shamans of East Asia to the gender-bending…


Transgender History

By Susan Stryker,

Book cover of Transgender History

Why this book?

Nobody has done more than Stryker to document the modern history of trans people or to fashion trans studies into an academic field. Transgender History is a work of substantial scholarship and also an accessible introduction to the field and the issues on which it’s centered. Each chapter of this short-ish book is really valuable, whether it’s the opening that explains important terms and concepts or the final one assessing what Time declared the “transgender tipping point” in 2014. Stryker is a historian of twentieth-century America, so that’s the focus of her central chapter documenting a century of trans history. Understanding that early history is crucial for the liberatory gains and backlashes that follow, and Transgender History concludes with resources that can help turn its readers into informed and committed activists.

Transgender History

By Susan Stryker,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Transgender History as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Covering American transgender history from the mid-twentieth century to today, Transgender History takes a chronological approach to the subject of transgender history, with each chapter covering major movements, writings, and events. Chapters cover the transsexual and transvestite communities in the years following World War II; trans radicalism and social change, which spanned from 1966 with the publication of The Transsexual Phenomenon, and lasted through the early 1970s; the mid-'70s to 1990-the era of identity politics and the changes witnessed in trans circles through these years; and the gender issues witnessed through the '90s and '00s.

Transgender History includes informative sidebars…


Histories of the Transgender Child

By Julian Gill-Peterson,

Book cover of Histories of the Transgender Child

Why this book?

As a parent (and a researcher), I’m so happy this book exists! It’s the best response to the argument that trans kids are new and, therefore, how we raise them is dangerously experimental. Where Gill-Peterson finds such kids historically is mainly in medical archives, where treatments were directed mostly at intersex children, many of whom we’d see as trans. She shows a fascination with the “plasticity” of the body in the early twentieth century, although predictably, possibilities for transforming bodies were viewed differently across racial lines. The best counter to conservative attacks, though, is his research into Val, a 1920s teen in rural Wisconsin who went to school as the gender she affirmed and had negotiated agreements about things like which bathroom she could use, over which we’re fighting a century later!

Histories of the Transgender Child

By Julian Gill-Peterson,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Histories of the Transgender Child as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A groundbreaking twentieth-century history of transgender children


With transgender rights front and center in American politics, media, and culture, the pervasive myth still exists that today's transgender children are a brand new generation-pioneers in a field of new obstacles and hurdles. Histories of the Transgender Child shatters this myth, uncovering a previously unknown twentieth-century history when transgender children not only existed but preexisted the term transgender and its predecessors, playing a central role in the medicalization of trans people, and all sex and gender.

Beginning with the early 1900s when children with "ambiguous" sex first sought medical attention, to the…


Female Husbands

By Jen Manion,

Book cover of Female Husbands

Why this book?

If you’re wondering in practical ways how to do trans history, Manion’s book is a great place to start. It takes one of the categories that preceded a transgender identity (the name typically given to people affirmed female at birth who identified as men and married women) and reimagines how eighteenth- and nineteenth-century lives might look with the benefit of the tools of our modern politics. The book is boldly inclusive, resisting deciding ahead of time how the category should be defined and who should be ruled in or out. Manion is also a role model in respecting the ambiguities of the past, mostly using neutral pronouns and offering non-judgmental speculations about what these subjects and their partners might have thought at key moments in their courageous and inspiring lives. 

Female Husbands

By Jen Manion,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Female Husbands as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Long before people identified as transgender or lesbian, there were female husbands and the women who loved them. Female husbands - people assigned female who transed gender, lived as men, and married women - were true queer pioneers. Moving deftly from the colonial era to just before the First World War, Jen Manion uncovers the riveting and very personal stories of ordinary people who lived as men despite tremendous risk, danger, violence, and threat of punishment. Female Husbands weaves the story of their lives in relation to broader social, economic, and political developments in the United States and the United…


Neo-/Victorian Biographilia and James Miranda Barry: A Study in Transgender and Transgenre

By Ann Heilmann,

Book cover of Neo-/Victorian Biographilia and James Miranda Barry: A Study in Transgender and Transgenre

Why this book?

If Manion’s book rethinks a collective category, this one drills down into the case history of one person, Barry, who had a successful career as a naval surgeon (having identified as male to attend medical school in Edinburgh) and was only revealed to have been affirmed female at birth post-mortem. Barry’s story is an example of one problem with retroactively characterizing past lives, because it made economic sense to have used deception to gain access to a high-status profession, which is why for some Barry is a feminist pioneer. Heilmann’s book resists easy answers, tracking Barry’s presentation across multiple biographies and mass media representations, continuing up to Patricia Duncker’s 2002 novel, The Doctor. Ultimately, there is no “true” Barry, only a series of partial portraits serving particular interests over time. 

Neo-/Victorian Biographilia and James Miranda Barry: A Study in Transgender and Transgenre

By Ann Heilmann,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Neo-/Victorian Biographilia and James Miranda Barry as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Senior colonial officer from 1813 to 1859, Inspector General James Barry was a pioneering medical reformer who after his death in 1865 became the object of intense speculation when rumours arose about his sex. This cultural history of Barry's afterlives in Victorian to contemporary (neo-Victorian) life-writing ('biographilia') examines the textual and performative strategies of biography, biofiction and biodrama of the last one and a half centuries. In exploring the varied reconstructions and re-imaginations of the historical personality across time, the book illustrates (not least with its cover image) that the 'real' James Barry does not exist, any more than does…


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