23 February 2013

Victor Imperatus, Lost Classics And Transgenders' Lost Generation

One of my students, who is very articulate and rather feisty, brought up the subject of bias in history.  "No matter where you go to school, the history they teach you is completely slanted", he averred.

He cited some examples from wars.  "What German kids learn about World War II is completely different from what we learn", he explained.  "And what French kids, Japanese kids and British kids learn is all different, too."

I told him that, while I haven't read enough history books from other countries to know, I suspected that what he said is true.  That, I suppose, was the Properly Professorial Thing To Say.  However, I know--intuitively as well as experientially--that the principle behind what he said is one of the truest things ever expressed.

He's the sort of bright student we sometimes see in City University schools:  very smart, literate and verbal, and from a home where there are probably few, if any, books and a family of few, if any, educated people.  He's the sort of student who mispronounces words he reads in books because those books are the only places in which he sees those words:  He has never used them in a conversation.

I was something like him.  Sometimes I feel I'm still like him:  I mispronounce words or use ideas out of context (or, at least, in ways they aren't normally used) because I've encountered them on my own, in isolation, rather than in bull sessions with people who seem to have spent their entire lives around holders of advanced degrees.

Anyway, I mentioned the phrase Victor Imperatus and explained that it's not the name of one of my neighbors in Astoria, but rather the notion that history is written by the winners--or, at least, those who have power and privilege.  To illustrate what I meant, I described my own experience as an undergraduate just over three decades ago:  None of the histories I read were written by women or African-Americans.

Or transgenders.

I didn't mention the lack of trans history simply because I didn't mention my gender identity at all, and don't know whether I will.  (It's still early in the semester.)  But I know that there's very little, if any, history--or, for that matter, much of anything else--written by trans people that's in print.  I don't think it's because we don't write (Just look at this blog); if anything, we might write more, per person, than other people.  However, much of what we've written was published before we transitioned or was written by people who were trans but, for whatever reasons, lived in the gender to which they were assigned at birth.  I'd bet that some writers were never published or read again after they started to live in their true genders, and that some continued to publish under the names they received at birth, or under pseudonyms.

One result of what I've just described is that, save for a few books and other works we've written about our experiences, there is very little--in literature, history, science or any other area--written with a transgender perspective.

When you're part of a privileged group, you don't have to think about a perspective or point of view.  "History" is about you and your people; "African-American", "Women's", "Hispanic" or "LGBT" History are about other people, who are not considered "mainstream".  When I was in school, we did not read books (whether histories or works of fiction or poetry) by any of the people I've just mentioned; I would later learn that some works, like Charlotte Perkins Gilman's story "The Yellow Wallpaper" were out of print and forgotten for decades.  After such works were rediscovered, they were ghettoized into "Women's Studies" (or, later, "Gender Studies), "African American Studies" or whatever.   

I don't know whether there are transgender "lost classics" waiting to be rediscovered.  I somehow believe that they are.  Until we find them and start writing more stories of our own, the "lost generation" I've described in previous posts won't be our only one.

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