Trans Talk: The Complicated History of People of Trans Experience

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While to many it may seem that transgender people are a new and recent phenomenon, trans individuals have always existed.

It can be difficult to definitively and accurately label historical figures as trans, though, because it’s never “obvious” or “clear” that someone is transgender and gender identity and expression varies widely across time and cultures.

To be trans means that one does not identify with their sex assigned at birth. A trans person doesn’t have to undergo any sort of medical intervention to be transgender; they don’t even have to want to go through any medical intervention.

Some trans people experience gender dysphoria and take steps to help eliminate that dysphoria, such as hormone replacement therapy and gender-affirming surgeries. Not all trans people experience gender dysphoria. There is not one way to be trans or one trans narrative. We are as complex and varied as any other demographic.            

That being said, it can be hard to know if a historical figure identified as transgender (a relatively recent word), dressed in the attire of a different sex for specific purposes such as finding work or enlisting as a soldier, or if they played with their gender expression but didn’t necessarily identify as a different sex. We know, though, people throughout cultures and time have played with the gender binary, identified as a different sex, or even underwent medical interventions in order to feel whole in their bodies.

Albert Cashier was an Irish-born American immigrant born around 1843. While some of their early life is shrouded in mystery, we know they were assigned female at birth and it was said they dressed in boy’s clothing to find work. At age 19 in 1862, they enlisted in the 95th Illinois Infantry using the name Albert D.J. Cashier. They served and lived as a male during the Civil War. They were one of about 250 people assigned female at birth who served as men in the Civil War.

One of the distinctions of Cashier, though, is that they continued to use the name Albert Cashier and live stealth as a male for the remainder of their life. When Cashier’s mental health declined in their later years, they were moved to Watertown State Hospital for the Insane in 1914. It was there that it was discovered that Cashier’s sex was female when the attendants bathed them. They were made to wear women’s clothing again for the first time in 50 years. The Veterans’ Pension Board investigated Cashier for fraud but former comrades confirmed that Cashier was in fact the person who fought in the war and their payments continued. When they died they were buried in their uniform and the tombstone was inscribed “Albert D. J. Cashier, Co. G, 94 Ill. Inf.” They were given an official Grand Army of the Republic funeral service and buried with full military honors.

At the time of Cashier’s life (1843-1915), hormone replacement therapy and gender-affirming surgeries weren’t an option. It’s possible that Cashier wore male clothing early in their life out of a survival instinct in order to find work - since it was easier and safer to find work as a male, but because Cashier chose to serve his country as a soldier (a male-only occupation at the time) and then live the rest of his life as a male seems to confirm that he very likely identified as a male and therefore would be classified as a transgender person today.

This is just one instance of someone from history who we would now consider to be transgender. There are many more people throughout history, both those who have accomplished amazing feats and those just living normal lives, who were probably transgender. If you want to do some research on your own consider looking into Joan of Arc, Laurence Michael Dillon, Lucy Hicks Anderson, Sylvia Rivera, Lili Elbe, Harry Allen, and many more.

In the next Trans Talk column, I’ll discuss some of the more recent history of the transgender political movement, from Compton Cafeteria Riots in 1966 through Stonewall to today.