Archaeologists for Trans Liberation

Archaeologists for Trans Liberation

By The Black Trowel Collective

To be an archaeologist is to revel in the diversity of human expression through time. Trans perspectives and voices add necessary further dimensions to our understandings of the past. We are inspired by the high-profile bravery and strength of trans people, such as Olympic weightlifter Laurel Hubbard and soccer player Quinn, and by the everyday resilience and determination shown by our trans and gender diverse comrades, students, friends, family, and colleagues.

The Black Trowel Collective has called for archaeologists to stand in solidarity with trans people, noting that “an archaeological understanding of the past is incompatible with transphobia and so-called ‘gender critical’ or trans-exclusionary radical feminism.” Here we further discuss this stance and the scientific backing of our position.  

Archaeologists for Trans Liberation: Sex and gender in the past and the present

Archaeology looks to the material past to understand the complexities of human behavior and action. The deep histories it produces tell us about how people lived, created societies and made meaning in their world from the time of our earliest hominin ancestors to the present. With that million-plus year perspective on humanity, we can say with confidence that there are very few universals in what it means to be human. We travel (but sometimes we stay put); we make art (but what we archaeologists call art looks very different depending on time and place); we build things (but some of the traces of these things are so ephemeral that archaeologists have to guess what they were); we create families and societies (organized along a multiplicity of social logics with no universal pattern); we use tools (of many different materials for an infinite variety of purposes); we make love (including with all other hominins); and sometimes we don’t.

That variety and the joyous mess of overlapping narratives also gives a special insight into human society: at any one time, there are myriad ways of being, doing and perceiving. The archaeological record speaks in many (often contradictory) voices because past people were not homogenous, their experiences of the world not universal and their ways of navigating personal relationships, societal power dynamics and exogenous pressures were unique to their own experiences. In essence, archaeological data allow us to perceive a past that is, like the present, culturally diverse and full of people whose own experiences of their world were shaped by their distinct social, political, and environmental contexts. It is simply incorrect to impose present day prejudices upon the past.

We offer the information that follows as neither a comprehensive discussion of archaeology’s knowledge of gender and sex, nor as a definitive statement on the subject. Rather, we hope that this overview will serve as one of a suite of trans people’s “tools for liberation” (sensu Harry Josephine Giles 2021).

Human biology extends beyond and between “Male” and “Female”

The erasure of the complexity of sex and gender beyond simple binaries is a function of contemporary transphobic ideologies within archaeological analyses and not a reflection of past peoples’ lives. Moreover, this erasure risks providing fodder for accounts of the past that are used to further marginalize trans and gender fluid people.

Identifying and understanding past people’s conceptions and experiences of gender is not straightforward. The further back one goes, the fewer and more fragmented the traces of people’s lives become and the more complicated it is to interpret and understand them. We work from scraps to construct narratives that are messy, ragged and rarely twine together.

Archaeologists first identified the gender of skeletons by funerary assemblages, then explored their sex by measuring bones which have been considered diagnostic, and now, increasingly, by DNA analysis. The first two are infamously imprecise, and result in sensationalist “re-discoveries” of Viking warrior women (Price et al. 2019) and gay lovers buried together (Geller 2016). Additionally, individual skeletons have had their sex estimated as male or female, with interpretations changing through time (Geller 2016; Chawkins 2006). The ambiguity of such estimation methods is a function of their reliance on measurement of traits that have a wide range of variation, with only clusters of significance around “male” and “female.” A recent re-evaluation of biological sexing of archaeological remains suggests that different methods of sexing have different accuracy rates: in a known sample, proteomics (protein analyses) were 100% accurate regarding chromosomal sex, DNA was 91% accurate and morphometric analysis (studies of skeletons) was 51% accurate (Buonasera et al. 2020). Having said that, chromosomes are only one element of what we call biological sex alongside genital appearance, sex hormones, and others (Davis and Preves 2017: 80). In fact numerous intersex chromosomal conformations are known. The medical classification of biological sex is a historically malleable practice (Griffiths 2018).

Like gender, sex is better understood as bimodal rather than binary. Scientists estimate that 1-2% of the population is biologically intersex (Blackless et al. 2000). Intersex bodies take many forms: some are chromosomally intersex but phenotypically male or female, others have genital or organ differences. Some intersex people never learn they are intersex, others discover it in adulthood or adolescence. Medical doctors have historically surgically and endocrinologically  altered intersex infants’ bodies to more rigidly conform to male or female sex characteristics (Kessler 1990; Knouse 2005). Intersex activists challenge this practice as medically unnecessary and a violation of consent (Dreger 1998; Ammaturo 2016). In this way, the sex binary can be seen as a social construction that materializes cis-normative gender ideologies, not the other way around. Some intersex people identify with a binary gender–often the one they were raised with–while others find they are more naturally trans, nonbinary or fluid. As with binary sexed people, there are no rules and one’s social gender and biological sex need not and do not always overlap. What we gloss as the finite and bounded category of “biological sex” is in fact a contingent and variable form. It is based on a complex combination of chromosomal structure, pre and post-natal hormonal configuration, and the cultural and social milieu into which those genetic and hormonal forms emerge in an individual (DuBois and Shattuck-Heidorn 2021).

Intersex people and intersex bodies have only recently become part of archaeological discourse (e.g. Power 2020; Redfern et al. 2017). Ancient genetic research has identified a handful of chromosomally intersex individuals (Rivollat et al. 2020; Moilanen et al. in press), although more research is needed regarding their lived experience.

Gender and sex binaries have been fixed and policed by force and coercion

Our current social organization, based around strict lines delineating gender, primary sex characteristics, and sexuality, is a relatively recent phenomenon. It emerged as part of European hegemonic colonialism and serves to enforce and maintain capitalist norms in the home and wider society (Monaghan 2015). An imposed and rigid gender binary regulates reproduction (a concern of nationalist states), breaks down Indigenous and non-European kin connections and families (perpetuating genocide), and positions the household as a site of capitalist surplus accumulation (through regulated social roles and relations of (re)production) (Morgensen 2010: 2012).

Indigenous studies and settler colonial studies critics such as Deborah Miranda (2010) and Scott Lauria Morgensen (2011) have documented the ways in which colonial governments engaged in violent projects of gender normalization targeting Indigenous individuals and communities. Daniel Justice (2010) draws on archaeological materials as resources for inspiring queer Cherokee worldviews, politics, and modes of belonging. Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate scholar Kim TallBear, in her academic writing (2018) and public scholarship (Wilber, Small-Rodriguez and Keene 2019), explores the way binary structures colonised bodies and beds, breaking and distorting traditional kin relations.

Such practices seem to have been a regular or even necessary force in sustaining European colonial violence across the globe. Religious strictures against ‘sodomy’ (which often glossed a range of non-heteronormative sex practices) were frequently used by European colonial and religious authorities to punish gender nonconforming individuals in Africa and South America. Epprecht notes that the British South African Company was particularly enthusiastic in prosecuting “homosexual crimes” during its first year of occupation of Zimbabwe, suggesting the commonplace nature of non-heteronormative relationships prior to Colonization, and “[indicating] a reflexive defense of patriarchal, heterosexual masculinity by the homophobic  representatives of the colonial state” (Epprecht 1998: 217). British colonial sodomy laws, despite no longer being in place in the U.K., remain on the books in many colonized countries, and continue to drive state violence and acts of bigotry against queer and gender diverse people (Sanders 2009; Semugoma 2012).

Humans in the past and the present have had many genders and sexualities

Archaeologists have a long history of imposing modern patriarchal gender and sexual norms onto the past, portraying men as active (e.g. hunters, warriors) and women as passive (e.g. gatherers, home-keepers) and disseminating this through museum exhibits and public scholarship (O’Sullivan 2015: 214). Feminist archaeologists began to critique this imposition in the 1980s and 90s (e.g. Conkey and Gero 1993; Conkey and Spector 1984), and in the 21st century, this critique has expanded further, reconstructing and documenting a range of gender forms in the past (e.g. Geller 2017). For instance, archaeologist Sandra Holliman has written about gender identities beyond the male-female binary in the peoples who came to what we now call North America by at least 12,000 years BP, asserting that “the first people to migrate to North America from North Asia were members of societies that recognized more than two genders” (Holliman 2001: 130). Archaeologist Elizabeth Prine (2000) has found archaeological evidence that suggests there were multiple genders, including miati, in Indigenous Hidatsa houses beginning in the 15th-19th centuries, immediately prior to or during the period of European colonization of Hidatsa Lands, and characteristic of long histories of gender fluidity.

These gender-fluid examples occurred in contexts where masculine and feminine genders would have been recognized alongside them. Moreover, we should be wary of projecting our modern sex and gender identity categories onto past individuals whole-cloth, as this leaves aside the frequently contextual and contingent nature of gender variation (Geller 2019). Nevertheless, it is clear from archaeological, historical, and ethnographic accounts that human gender is highly variable and that human beings have historically been comfortable with a range of genders beyond modern “masculine” and “feminine” binaries (Weismantel 2013).

Trans people are under threat from state power, regressive social and cultural forces, and interpersonal violence.

The year 2021 has seen a record number of anti-LGBTQ laws being passed or proposed, and with many of these specifically focused on policing the bodies of trans people in the realms of restrooms, sports, and medicine (Feliciano 2021). In the distinctively virulent and hostile transphobic environment in the UK, the Equalities minister has openly discussed adopting laws to prevent trans people from using bathrooms and accessing medical care (Parsons 2020).  At least 77 countries around the world have federal laws that criminalize sexuality or gender expression (Human Rights Watch 2021). Beyond specific laws targeting them, trans people face proportionally higher rates of police scrutiny, harassment, and assault (Grant, et al 2011: 158-172). And all of this is taking place in the context of a continued epidemic of interpersonal violence against trans people globally (Trans Murder Monitoring 2021). Anti-trans violence and legislation, share a common origin in and act to reinforce white supremacist ideals through narrow biological essentialism that homogenizes the categories of Woman and Man to normative white bodies, rendering a spectrum of bodies and ways of being deviant and disruptive (hooks 1982; Lewis 2019; Upadhyay 2021).

In this context, archaeologists have an ethical and scholarly responsibility to disrupt transphobic rhetoric, practices and interpretive frameworks in our discipline. We must avoid intentionally or unintentionally providing fodder for cis-normative ideologies, and craft accounts that center the social and historical variation of gender and embodiment beyond biologically essentialist and imperial binaries. Moreover, we must work to make our institutions safe and equitable for our transgender and gender diverse students and colleagues.

The Black Trowel Collective is a multiethnic collective of archaeologists from around the world. Not all members are comfortable with disclosing their membership, as they are under authoritarian regimes or have other considerations in play.

Editors Note: We usually do not encourage long bibliographies in blog posts. In this case, we recognize the significance of citation and see these references as ways for all of us to learn more.

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