Fact Check: Transgender Identity And Gender Diversity Are NOT Exclusively Modern Western Phenomena

Fact Check

  • by: Uliana Malashenko
Fact Check: Transgender Identity And Gender Diversity Are NOT Exclusively Modern Western Phenomena Pre-Modern

Are transgender people and gender fluidity "products" of modern Western civilization? No, that's not true: Non-binary gender expression in many communities across the globe throughout history has been documented and researched. Professor Lisa Duggan told Lead Stories that even though people of earlier epochs did not necessarily conceptualize themselves through the optics of present-day terms, the phenomena are not modern or Western in origin.

The claim appeared in a post on Instagram on March 4, 2023. The caption said:

Transgenderism is privilege.

In the shared video the man who appears to be delivering a public lecture continued:

Gender ideology is a product, it's a very insular, Western, modern thing. It's a product of our Western privilege.

Here is what it looked like at the time of writing:

Screen Shot 2023-03-08 at 2.01.17 PM.png
(Source: Instagram screenshot taken on Wed Mar 8 18:59:31 2023 UTC)
The claim is misleading, according to Lisa Duggan, a professor of social and cultural analysis at New York University who specializes in U.S. cultural history and history of gender and sexuality. She told Lead Stories via email on March 8, 2023 :
The claim that transgender identity is exclusively modern and Western depends on the definition of 'transgender.' People with gender presentations that cross categories or lie between them are found widely in premodern and non-western societies. There is a lot of research on two-spirit Native identities and on the hijira in India, for example. But these gender non conforming people are not the same as modern western 'transgender' people, just as people with same gender sexual relations are not the same as modern 'gay' people.
So, cross gender and between gender and multiple genders generally, as well as same gender sexual relations, are not at all confined to the modern West. But the specific terminology and cultural formations of 'gay' or 'transgender' are culturally and historically located.
The post you cite is in bad faith. The authors intend to mislead.
The origins of the modern-day terms describing gender and sexuality can be traced back to mid-19th century Europe, where Austro-Hungarian journalist Karoly Maria Kertbeny coined such terms as "homosexuality," "bisexuality" and "heterosexual."
The word "transgender" is a relatively recent phenomenon that entered the English language between 1965 and 1974. The person whose name is closely associated with the term's invention and popularization was Virginia Prince.
Today's science separates birth sex from gender. The Johns Hopkins University website explains the latter:

Gender refers to the combination of characteristics, expectations, and roles usually associated with one's sex assigned at birth - often placed on a spectrum between masculine and feminine. The concept of gender is complicated because most aspects of gender are social constructs that vary across time and culture. For example, gender presentation (appearance, clothing, mannerisms, and behaviors) and gender roles (social roles, occupational choices) vary widely depending on the culture and era.

It continues:

A central aspect of gender is gender identity. Gender identity is the self-image that one has about one's own gender as masculine, feminine, or otherwise.

Those phenomena existed long before society came up with the contemporary language to describe them.
A 2016 study of LGBTQ history in America, published by the National Park Service and the Department of the Interior, gives an example:
In 1629, the Virginia Court in Williamsburg heard testimony to decide the fate of one Thomasine or Thomas Hall, apparently an individual born with physically ambiguous genitalia who lived as both a man and a woman at different periods of life. Raised in England as a girl, Hall presented as a man to become a sailor, presented again as a woman to work as a lacemaker, and eventually became an indentured servant in Virginia as a man. Accused of performing an illicit sexual act with a female servant, the question before the Virginia Court was to determine whether Hall was male, and therefore guilty of fornication, or female, and therefore guilty of no crime, given that sexual activity between women was considered physically impossible. Unable to reach a conclusion, the court ordered Hall to wear a mix of men's and women's clothing.
Scholars know at least 100 instances of Native Americans practicing diverse gender expression.
The website of the Indian Health Service explains the difference between the modern and pre-European approaches:

Though Two-Spirit may now be included in the umbrella of LGBTQ, The term 'Two-Spirit' does not simply mean someone who is a Native American/Alaska Native and gay.

Traditionally, Native American two-spirit people were male, female, and sometimes intersexed individuals who combined activities of both men and women with traits unique to their status as two-spirit people. In most tribes, they were considered neither men nor women; they occupied a distinct, alternative gender status ...

Two-spirit identity was widely believed to be the result of supernatural intervention in the form of visions or dreams and sanctioned by tribal mythology. In many tribes, two spirit people filled special religious roles as healers, shamans, and ceremonial leaders.

A 1909 book discusses multiple examples of non-binary gender expression among the ethnicities living on the territory of what was the Russian Empire at the time:
I met among the Russian creoles of the Lower Kolyma, who do not differ practically from the Russianized Yakaghir of the same locality, an old man who had a bearded face and the outer genital organs of a male. Notwithstanding this, he acted like a woman throughout his whole life. He wore woman's dress, performed woman's work, and even in his conversation applied to himself the feminine gender, for which the Russian language presents numerous occasions.
The writer continues to describe the Chuckchee of northern Siberia:
Another case was of a young girl who likewise assumed man's clothing, carried a spear, and even wanted to take part in a wrestling contest between young men. While tending the herd, she tried to persuade one of the young herdswomen to take her for a husband.
The section titled "Cultural Constructions of Gender" in Encyclopedia of Sex and Gender cites other variations:
The most common example of this phenomenon is the practice referred to by the term couvade. Most commonly found among peoples in the Amazon basin (Gregor, 1985), the couvade is also found in Melanesia (Blackwood, 1935; Meigs, 1976). In general, during some portion, or all, of his spouse's pregnancy and childbirth, a man takes on some aspects of the woman's behavioral complex. This may range from observing the same food regulations to taking to his bed and experiencing the pains of childbirth, or observing restrictions on sexual activity. Sometimes, the couvade lasts until the child is weaned. ...
Among the Gabra in Kenya and Ethiopia, men, as they age, pass through a period in which they are said to be women (Wood, 1996, Wood, 1999). In a slightly different vein, Turnbull (1986) argues that the Mbuti in the Ituri Rainforest region of the Democratic Republic of Congo are genderless until they marry; that is, they pass through childhood without a distinct gender identity and are transformed only later.
A BBC report pointed out that it was colonialism that imposed limitations on gender fluidity in many communities, not the other way around.
The man who appeared on the stage in the video shared on Instagram was Matt Walsh, a conservative commentator actively promoting his controversial documentary "What is a Woman?" on his social media accounts.
The clip showed the logo of the Young American Foundation. Established in the 1960s, it was described by the Los Angeles Times in 2018 as "one of the most preeminent, influential and controversial forces in the nation's conservative youth movement, backed by $65 million in assets."
Lead Stories has fact checked other claims about gender expression and transgender people. They can be found here.

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  Uliana Malashenko

Uliana Malashenko is a New York-based freelance writer and fact checker.

Read more about or contact Uliana Malashenko

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