Challenging the ‘Cistem’: The Importance of Diversity in Trans Representation, by Amy Austin

The policing of gender is nothing new, but in recent years the escalation in attacks against transgender and non-binary communities has seen fierce battles over the definition of ‘man’ and – more pointedly – ‘woman’ and who can be accepted into each category. The most concerning consequence of these debates has been the increase in violence and discrimination against transgender and non-binary individuals. Official government statistics on hate crimes committed in England and Wales reveals that transgender identity hate crimes have increased by 56% from 2021 to 2022.[1] 

The recent furore and misinformation over the Gender Recognition Reform Bill in Scotland, an act that underwent six years of scrutiny only to be blocked by the UK Government, is a case in point.[2] Much of the criticism of the Bill focuses on concerns over the protection of ‘women’ and ‘girls’ and single sex spaces such as bathrooms and changing rooms. However, these spaces are not covered by the Bill and the charity Stonewall estimates that only 0.2% of the community will benefit from the reforms.[3] As the Scottish government’s website makes clear, ‘[t]he Bill does not make changes to toilets and changing rooms. Trans people can and have been using facilities that match their gender for years and they will continue to do so.’[4] Indeed, the purpose of the Bill is to ‘improve and simplify the application process for [a Gender Recognition Certificate] by making it less lengthy and intrusive. The Bill does not introduce new rights for trans people but will mean that trans people can have better access to their human rights.’[5]

With some gender critical feminists calling for an emphasis on ‘sex’ not ‘gender’ when determining who can be categorised as ‘female’, we seem to be returning to a biological essentialism that reduces women to their reproductive functions. A reliance on chromosomes and reproductive organs is not actually implemented in day-to-day gender attribution. Research has revealed repeatedly that individuals suffering abuse and/or intimidation when using public toilets are those who do not conform to feminine stereotypes regardless of whether they are trans or cis. Kath Browne gives several examples of the recorded university student Janet’s experiences of such intimidation in her paper ‘Genderism and the Bathroom Problem: (re)materialising sexed sites, (re)creating sexed bodies’ (2007). Janet stated: ‘they don’t look at my face or anything they just look at my build and look at my height and look at my haircut and they just instantly assume that I am some dirty man in the women’s toilets so.’[6] These assumptions reinforce the confining female stereotypes that feminists should surely be challenging.

What is also evident in much of the media discussions of transgender and non-binary rights is the absence of voices from these communities. The vast majority of reporting focuses exclusively on trans women, with trans men and non-binary individuals effectively erased from the discussion. This lack of representation has become a facet of histories of gender non-conformity where strict boundaries are being established as to who can be considered trans. As historians we are limited by the availability of sources and our decisions over which stories to tell impact how these histories are represented. Much of the information concerning transgender individuals can either be found in legal or medical documents. In both cases, even where the individual’s testimony has been preserved, it is filtered through the official context in which their statements were recorded. Individuals were and are obliged to conform to narratives dictated by the medical profession in order to access gender affirmation surgery. Michael Dillon for example, the first British trans man was approved for surgery due to a false diagnosis of acute hypospadias in the 1940s.[7] Similarly, trans individuals seeking surgical access are expected to adopt the medical ‘wrong body’ narrative if they are to be seen as valid.[8] Such official records also privilege the histories of those who seek to transition, representing them – erroneously – as somehow more authentic.

Kit Heyam has summarised the issues with these dogmatic definitions of who is and is not a representation of a trans identity in their fantastic book Before We Were Trans: A New History of Gender (2022).

[T]here are two big problems with how we decide whether a story ‘counts’ as trans history. The first problem…is that a lot of evidence we have for gender-nonconforming lives comes from legal and medical contexts…But law and medicine aren’t neutral contexts…they’re high-stakes environments in which we construct a narrative for an authority figure whose decisions have huge consequences for our lives…The second problem with our existing criteria for inclusion in ‘trans history’ is that they privilege an incredibly narrow version of what it means to be trans…As a result, this narrative shapes contemporary trans stories, and all trans lives appear fundamentally similar.[9]

Heyam asks the reader to question why it is that some examples of historical gender non-conformity can be considered trans while others are rejected. As my research has developed, I have adopted Heyam’s inclusive approach to transgender identities. Those who have experienced a stable, unchanging gender identity since childhood and undergo gender affirmation surgery are just one representation of the diverse experiences of gender non-conformity. Equally valid are those who presented as another gender for a set period or whose gender remained fluid or transcended binary categories. In representing trans, non-binary and gender non-conforming histories, I propose we take inspiration from the Pride flag itself and embrace the diversity to be found within experiences of gender. Gender, like sexuality, is not black and white but a rainbow.


Amy Austin is a PhD Student of History at the University of Reading, specialising in transgender histories in Britain from 1870 to the 1940s.

All comments and opinions presented in this article are that of the author.





[5] Ibid.

[6] Kath Browne, ‘Genderism and the Bathroom Problem: (re)materialising sexed sites, (re)creating sexed bodies’, Gender, Place and Culture, 11 (2004), 337.

[7] Michael Dillon/Lobzang Jivaka, Out of the Ordinary: A Life of Gender and Spiritual Transitions (New York, 2017), 101.

[8] Ulrica Engdahl, ‘“Wrong Body”’, Transgender Studies Quarterly, 1 (2014), 267.

[9] Kit Heyam, Before We Were Trans: A New History of Gender (London, 2022), 9-11.

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