I am writing this some time after I first read about Caeneus, the transgender hero of Ancient Greece, in the library of my small university. I had spent twenty-something years under the false impression that the word transgender only meant someone who was born male and identified as a woman. The examples of transgender people I had been exposed to were few, and all repeated the same villanizing narrative. But Caeneus was different. A woman who was wronged by the Gods and then received a wish, only to become one of the strongest men in Thessaly. Reading about Caeneus made me realize that maybe, with the intervention of Poseidon, people born female could also become men.
I became obsessed with history. I read stories of early two-spirits in the Zuni tribe. Stories of hijras protesting British Colonialism. The story of Tiresius spending seven years as a woman only to be deemed wiser than the Gods because of it. I moved onwards. Stories of women taking up male pseudonyms to publish their writing. Of transmale soldiers in the Civil War. Of Lucy Hicks Anderson, who lived bravely and defiantly as a black transwoman long before Stonewall. Of course, it is difficult to say if these historical people would have called themselves nonbinary, or if they would have no need for a phrase that was created in response to a cisheteropatriarchal framework. Nevertheless, there was something that unified these stories for me. All of these stories showed me that the person I wanted to become wasn't new, he was someone who had existed many times over. All of these stories required some level of archaeology, skimming through two-hundred page narratives for that one half of a sentence that made my mind glow with possibility.
Once I began finding these books, I felt cheated. It felt like the word transgender had been kept a secret from me. I had always known exactly what I wanted, who I was. But there was no word for it. I asked my friends, my teachers, my therapist, my doctor: was there a word for a girl who was really a boy? For twenty-one years the answer was no. This is what it means to have a history erased. Without language, how could I be certain that what I wanted was even possible? Without a word to call myself, how would I explain this to my community? How would I assure myself that I wasn't alone?
When I think of transgender people throughout history, I think of their ability to advocate for themselves despite these doubts. To know these truths so deeply that they did not need to hinge their identity on a single word. To have a strength so unwavering that it didn't matter if there were others like them. To face thousands of years of cisheteropatriarchal scrutiny, and yet persist.
The stories of transgender and nonbinary people have persisted across cultures and across time. We have an enduring and proud history. They can try to redefine us, to write us out of their population, to strip us of basic rights, but our people have persevered for so long without those things. Our stories, recorded since the beginning of civilization, are so much stronger than language in a fleeting document.
Not long after I poured over those ancient books in my college library, I went to a retreat in the woods with a group of young people focused on bridging understanding between diverse perspectives. We shared our stories without interruption. We told our truths without passing judgment. It opened our young minds to a wider world, expanded our sense of community, challenged us to fight for each other.
At this retreat, I shared my story. I remember that it ended on a hopeless note, that I was secretly a little unsure of myself, that all of this inequality in the world was a little too much to handle. An older gay man, who was one of our guest speakers, came up to me afterwards. He said, "You know, when I found myself getting lost in dark thoughts, there was one thing that always got me out of it. Someone once told me that me choosing to live every day was an act of rebellion and I never forgot that. That phrase saved my life so many times."
It's saved mine too. Caeneus and Lucy Hicks Anderson and Martha P. Johnson have saved my life. Copies of those old books sit in my living room now, tucked under my coffee table and on my bookshelf. Sometimes I catch a glimpse of their spines and remember the years of archaeology it took to understand that I had a past, that I was far from the first of my kind, and that there will be more of us in the future.
If Caeneus' story still lives, then ours will not be so easily hindered by a manipulative, hate-driven act. Some of us will become defiant and ferocious, we will scream our stories in through the windows of the White House, and that will be our rebellion. Some of us will continue to hold our loved ones tightly, and explain for the first time why all of this matters so much to us, and that will be our rebellion. Some of us will wait for our friends outside of the public restroom, won't let that unexpected gender marker on someone's ID cause an issue, won't stop that student from using the locker room that makes them feel safest, will correct names and pronouns in articles before they reach print, will vote. Some of us will share our stories, will liken ourselves to authors of ancient texts, and we will do this knowing full-well the power of our words.
George Hickman is an assistant fiction editor at Barrelhouse and a writer whose work tends to focus on gender-identity and place-identity. He received his B.A. at Bucknell University, his M.A. at Ball State University, and currently lives in Baltimore, Maryland. His work has recently appeared or is forthcoming in Palimpsest, The Nottingham Review, and The Louisville Review.