Expressing Ourselves Throughout History

Photo Sarah Whiting

It was always a dream of mine to give a TEDx Talk, but I never knew what my topic would be. That is, until the media frenzy about trans youth inspired me to write a talk that would educate and inspire from the point of view of a nonbinary teenager. Through writing and delivering this talk in Minneapolis in August 2023, I discovered more about myself than I ever could have imagined. Studying queer history has given me self-love, confidence, and a fresh perspective on today’s hot-button issues. Below is an adaptation of my talk.

It feels lately that everything in current events is considered “unprecedented.” I can’t tell if we’re living in a cultural renaissance, or if nobody knows how to use a thesaurus. Granted, I’m 16 years old, so everything about my life right now does seem unprecedented. And given the number of major historical events I’ve already lived through, my sense is that a lot of what’s happening right now truly has never happened before.

In a way, it’s almost as if the whole world is 16 years old — and nobody really knows what’s going on.

But one area in which I push back against the prevailing concept of “new” relates to how we define gender and self-expression. As a nonbinary teenager, progressive-minded adults look to me and my peers as guides to ever-changing language around gender diversity, pronouns, and name changes. Asking — and answering — these questions encourages growth for everyone involved.

However, this does little to distract from the reality of a dangerous trend of anti-trans legislation and misinformation about young queer people. Trans people continue to be murdered in this country — there have been more than 19 deaths in 2023, according to Human Rights Campaign.

Because of the times we are living in, I became interested in the precedents of our queer history. I searched out historical accounts that challenged the idea of a binary gender. I learned that people in the past expressed themselves in ways that actually did set a precedent for today.

This opened up a new world to me — one in which gender expression has not been as black-and-white as we tend to think it has. In the past, it wasn’t even a matter of intense debate like it is today.

My theory is that the political strategy of the anti-trans movement is meant to push resentment and create fear where previously there was none. Using fear to divide us is more of a political strategy than a cultural phenomenon.

“Custom Is an Idiot”

Genderqueer narratives have been around for centuries. The controversy was briefly outlined in a two-part series of pamphlets in the 17th century, which indicates that people were transforming rigid standards at least 400 years ago.

In 1620, King James was quoted as condemning the “insolence” of women wearing broad-brimmed hats, cropping their hair short, and carrying daggers. Echoing that sentiment, Hic Mulier (the Man-Woman) was published as a pamphlet in England, with one character expressing the viewpoint that women wearing men’s apparel is an affront to the Bible and nature; that anyone that is half one thing and half another is as revolting as a mermaid.

The pamphlet was quickly followed by the publication of Haec-Vir, featuring a conversation between two characters, including “the womanish-man” of the title, who reminds Hic-Mulier of the double standard: “For-you to cut the hair of your upper lips, familiar here in England, everywhere else almost thought unmanly. … I might instance in a thousand things that only Custom and not Reason hath approved. To conclude, Custom is an Idiot.”

Going back in time, I also learned about Inanna, a Mesopotamian goddess around 3000 BC, whose clergy consisted of men, women, and a third gender created by the goddess herself, described as being neither man nor woman.

We also know that expansive gender ideology is quite literally indigenous to America, thanks to various First Nation communities and the two-spirit identity that has been a constant.

In some cases, the gender binary didn’t exist before being imposed — European colonizers in Africa and the Americas used religion and intimidation to enforce binary gender. Oyèrónké Oyěwùmí’s account of pre-colonial Yoruba gender ideology, for example, paints a picture of a society where the norms were not as rigid as ours today.

Truly Feeling Your Gender

What it means to be a man and a woman has transformed throughout time, is related not only to fashion but also to gender roles. It has been questioned, tested, modified, destroyed, and rebuilt throughout the course of our history. Women’s suffrage, the #MeToo movement, and the pandemic are all examples of global events that have shifted our perception of gender, whether we realize it or not. In the case of the pandemic, the isolation enabled Gen Z fashion to become more about dressing the way you like, since no one was going to see you anyway — which I see as enabling more of a personalized extension of gender presentation.

Exploring, nurturing, and truly feeling gender is not something reserved for queer people, or for young people. If we can educate ourselves about the history that predates our modern era of colonization and erasure, we can re- evaluate what gender means to each of us — and not simply proclaim that it means one thing to all people.

All of us actively embody gender differently every day, in ways that are both visible and invisible — as did historical figures whose stories have been obscured with time.

Gender in the form of dress, religious custom, language, social roles, and even makeup has a rich, wonderful history that is overlooked. Being a progressive citizen of the 21st century isn’t about simply using the correct language and pronouns. It is also about knowing just how wonderfully queer and fluid our history truly is.

Ruby Mathiason (he/they/she) is a nonbinary high school student and 2023 TEDx speaker, with aspirations to continue writing and educating about history. In her free time, she loves to dance, play the drums, and watch TV.