How the British Empire globalised transphobia

By Mason Quah

NEW research suggesting William Shakespeare was bisexual has brought the British Empire’s suppression of LGBTQIA+ identities into the spotlight.

The research, conducted by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, shows that Mr Shakespeare addressed sonnets to multiple different men and women over his 30 year career.

Shakespeare is certainly not the first historical figure to have been misinterpreted or reinterpreted as heterosexual by pre-modern historians. Before the time of Shakespeare there were people rewriting older works of classical literature to remove references to homosexuality.

Homer’s ‘Iliad’ is a prominent example, in which the romantic relationship of mythic hero Achilles to Patroclus was reinterpreted by translators to be a strong platonic friendship.

From Greek literature to history the male lovers of Alexander the Great were reinvented in literary depictions to be gender swapped.

The erasure of queerness from history goes further than antiquity, with the strongest impacts felt today in the countries affected by colonialism.

Where cultural acceptance of LGBTQIA+ people is seen today in many countries as a cultural export of the European nations, the opposite is closer to true.

Much has been said about Article 377 of the British Penal Code, a relic of homophobic legal scripture that has been grandfathered into many modern constitutions.

Criminalising “sexual acts against the order of nature” provided broad legal tools for the punishment of homosexuality and gender non-conformity in nations that did not historically persecute these groups.

Outside the legal system, culture was also rewritten by the colonisers. A prominent example is references to feminine presenting men in texts such as the ‘Kama Sutra’ retranslated as “eunuchs” under colonial era reprints of the text.

It was only in 2008 that an Indian legal authority first recognised the traditional third gender of Tritiya-prakriti, an identity of non-binary transgender individuals that are recognised as such from birth. This history of non-binary people, enshrined in the Hindu faith, is not well known to a large number of current followers.

Where non-binary trans people historically were revered as holding divine power British rule criminalised their existence under the Criminal Tribes Act.

As with the British mistranslations of Indian Literature, all third gendered Indians were collectively reclassified as male eunuchs.

After the collapse of British rule the criminalisation of these groups continued in Independent India. A strong culture of ostracization and stereotyping persists in India media and the legal system.

Similar transgender and non-binary identities were outlawed in Malaysia and Myanmar, in which Apwint is used to describe heterosexual MtF women, Tha Nge to describe masculine presenting bisexual people, and Apone to describe masculine MtF people who hide their identities.

All three groups were prosecuted as gay men under Section 377.

In the Americas this trend continues. Pre-colonial Native American culture contained a wide variety of attitudes to sex and gender.

Western studies of these cultures used broader terminology that categorised homosexual, bisexual, transgender and intersex people under singular categories that ignored these local contexts.

Even the modern term of “two-spirit” has seen criticism for the historical revisionist implication that pre-colonial America had a homogenous acceptance of these identities and a uniform conception of what it meant to hold those identities.

The reduction of dozens of different terms that held different spiritual and cultural connotations to a single pan-American term is another case where colonial viewpoints have been pressed onto how first nation people are made to view themselves.

Under the system of Residential Schools in Canada and the United States, Native American people were separated from their cultures and trained to assimilate into European cultural norms.

For two-spirit children this meant being removed from the religious and spiritual context of their identity and forced to conform to binary gender norms.

These schools were frequently run by Christian Churches and were attributed with high rates of physical, mental and sexual abuse towards their wards. While the schools themselves have mostly been closed, several generations of forced education to meet western cultural norms have done long lasting harm.

The persecution of these groups has in large part continued to this day. Across the world, cultures that traditionally held no or little cultural hostility to these LGBTQIA+ identities had these oppressive values enforced upon them strongly enough to persist long past the colonial powers responsible.

Legal challenges to these outdated laws have seen success in some nations but often fail to address the broader cultural influences of homophobia and transphobia.  

Featured Image: Pixabay

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