Image is a stack of multicolored books in front of a peach background next to the words Book Review, because on this page, we like to review books about transgender topics.

Review: Before We Were Trans by Kit Heyam

book review Mar 06, 2024

Before We Were Trans: A New History of Gender by Kit Heyam is a comprehensive examination of gender expression throughout history and across different cultures worldwide.


Image Credit: Seal Press 


"There's also that problem that, in any society, what constitutes 'male', 'female' or any gender is different for different people. How we understand gender is shaped by so many factors - personal, cultural, historical - that every individual's conceptualisation of gender is unique" (p.7).


Heyam writes about how traditional narratives present a very narrow view of transgender life (p.19), mainly because they are viewed through a modern lens, and historians try to describe them using Western terms (p.19). Being transgender isn't new, as modern society would lead you to believe.


Transgender people have always existed, and by using the tools available to us now, Heyam set out to achieve with Before We Were Trans to "see things in the past that were always there, but which haven't been apparent to us until now" (pp. 26-27).


The book covers topics such as gender as a way to fight the patriarchy (such as enrolling in the military), gender roles and fashion, and how, in some cultures, changing your clothes was indicative of changing your sex (p. 65), and gender non-conformity in First World War internment camps.


It discusses what Heyam calls the "entangled history of gay and trans experience" and how "in Western culture, the very origin story of these two ideas is intertwined" (p.124). It also covers the complex history of Intersex people and other people whose bodies don't fit the binary we're conditioned to think about and accept.


"While the body has an impact on how we understand gender and sex, then, how we interpret the body is - and always has been - a complicated, politically, culturally specific process. It's useful here to return to the words of Shon Faye, which I quoted in my introduction, since she explains this so clearly: 'Our sexed bodies never exist outside social meanings; consequently, how we understand gender shapes how we understand sex ... The way we perceive and understand sex differences and emphasise their significance is so deeply gendered that it can be impossible to completely divorce the two.'" (p. 182).


Heyam goes on to discuss gender and spirituality in North America and Asia and how, in some cultures, gender is less about one's human experience and more about one's spiritual experience. When we look at the history of these people with a modern, Western view, we diminish not only the cultural significance of their lives but also their spirituality.


At 230 readable pages (the remaining hundred are notes and the bibliography), Before We Were Trans is six chapters and an epilogue. Be forewarned, it does contain adult topics, and there is mention of sexual assault. It's a book that will captivate you from start to finish and leave you thinking about what you've read long after you've put it down.


*As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases




Subscribe to get my latest content by email, and I'll send you SIX questions to ask yourself before sharing that your child is transgender: because it can be a little overwhelming and sometimes you just need to know where to start.

We hate SPAM. We will never sell your information, for any reason.