Transgender Literature: A Rich History and a Contemporary Renaissance

by Adam W. Burgess
published in Reading

Transgender literature, which deals with the experiences and struggles of people whose gender identity differs from their assigned sex at birth, has a long and rich history. From ancient myths and legends to contemporary novels and memoirs, transgender literature has played a significant role in shaping our understanding of gender, sexuality, and identity.

History of Transgender Literature

The roots of transgender literature can be traced back to ancient mythology and folklore. In many cultures around the world, there are stories of gods and goddesses who change their gender or have ambiguous gender identities. For example, in Hindu mythology, the god Shiva is sometimes depicted as both male and female, while in Greek mythology, the god Hermaphroditos (child of Hermes and Aphrodite) is said to have been born with both male and female genitalia. 

Similar stories exist in the histories and mythologies of Indigenous communities around the world. These stories reflect the fact that gender identity has been a complex and fluid concept throughout human history and across cultures.

In more recent history, transgender literature began to emerge as a distinct category in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. One of the earliest modern novels to address gender fluidity and expression is Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, published in 1928. 

An important early science text on transgender issues was The Transsexual Phenomenon, a book published in 1966 by Harry Benjamin, a pioneering physician who specialized in transgender health care. Benjamin’s book introduced the term “transsexual” and provided the first comprehensive description of the medical and psychological aspects of gender transition. While his approach was controversial and has been criticized by some as pathologizing transgender people, his work was a crucial step forward in recognizing transgender identity as a legitimate one.

In the 1970s, as the feminist and LGBT rights movements gained momentum, transgender literature began to take on a more political and activist tone. One of the most influential works from this era is Stone Butch Blues, a novel published in 1993 by transgender author Leslie Feinberg. The book tells the story of a young butch lesbian growing up in Buffalo, New York, in the 1950s and 60s, and her struggles with gender identity, discrimination, and violence. Stone Butch Blues was one of the first novels to address the experiences of transgender people in a nuanced and sympathetic way, and it helped to inspire a new generation of transgender writers and activists.

Transgender Literature Today

Transgender literature has continued to flourish and diversify. Today, there are countless works of fiction, poetry, memoir, and scholarship that explore transgender identity from a variety of perspectives. 

Some of the most notable recent works include Redefining Realness, a memoir by Janet Mock, a transgender woman and prominent activist and media personality; Nevada, a novel by Imogen Binnie that explores the experiences of a transgender woman living in New York City; and Transgender History, a scholarly book by Susan Stryker that traces the history of transgender identity and activism from ancient times to the present day. 

In addition, Joanne Meyerowitz’s How Sex Changed is an important history that reminds readers of transgender issues that have been visible in the news and other media for seventy years.

Why is transgender literature important?

The importance of transgender literature lies not only in its ability to raise awareness about the struggles faced by transgender individuals, but also in its ability to provide a platform for transgender voices to be heard. By sharing their experiences and perspectives, transgender authors can challenge stereotypes and misconceptions about the community and promote greater understanding and acceptance.

Transgender literature is a powerful tool for activism and social change. Through their writing, transgender authors can advocate for policy reforms, challenge discriminatory laws and policies, and promote greater inclusion and diversity in society.

One of the most important contributions of transgender literature has been its ability to help transgender individuals find a sense of community and belonging. For many transgender people, reading the works of other transgender individuals or stories about transgender characters can be a transformative experience, helping them to feel less alone and more connected to others who share their experiences.

In this way, transgender literature can serve as a source of inspiration and hope. By sharing their stories of resilience and survival, transgender authors can reach others who may be struggling with their gender identity or facing discrimination and violence. 

The need for these stories and their ability to connect to readers is demonstrated well by the rise in popularity of young adult novels by and about transgender people, such as Lio Min’s Beating Heart Baby (2023), Andrew Joseph White’s Hell Followed with Us (2022), and Aiden Thomas’s The Cemetery Boys (2020). Each of these is a compelling and exciting coming-of-age narrative that just happens to feature transgender protagonists.

The history of transgender people and their stories is a fascinating one. As with any category of writing, readers are sure to benefit from writing that presents such a rich history, especially when it’s done through beautifully unique and courageously authentic storytelling.

Adam W. Burgess is an English Professor at College of Southern Nevada. He has a Ph.D. from Northern Illinois University and is pursuing a post-doc writing certificate at the University of California, Berkeley. He loves engaging in all topics related to LGBTQ literature and craft. You can find Adam on his website or follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

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