The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Anti-trans policies run counter to Texas’s rich transgender history

The hidden history of transgender Texas

Demonstrators speak against transgender-related legislation bills being considered in the Texas legislature May 20 in Austin. (Eric Gay/AP)
8 min

A Texas judge will decide whether to block the enforcement of Gov. Greg Abbott’s (R) directive and Attorney General Ken Paxton’s (R) legal opinion labeling gender-affirming medical care for transgender children as child abuse. In addition to directly investigating families over gender-affirming medical care, Texas has also called for “members of the general public” to report the parents of transgender children suspected of seeking such care.

Texas’s targeting of LGBTQ communities, especially trans people, comes amid a torrent of similar efforts, including in Alabama, Iowa, Idaho and Indiana. The Human Rights Campaign is tracking “147 anti-LGBTQ bills across the country, including 73 explicitly anti-trans bills.”

In Texas, however, anti-transgender lawmakers are swimming against a tide of history that predates European colonization. This history of Texas is in no small measure a transgender Indigenous history. It is also a rich and inclusive historical narrative unlike anything learned by generations of Texas schoolchildren. This history is critical to recognizing the colonial antecedents of anti-trans violence and their connection to anti-trans lawmaking and violence today.

In the centuries before European colonialism upended life in Texas, Native Americans lived in societies that included children with fluid gender identities. They were neither male nor female, but both. Throughout the Southwest, Indigenous children with fluid gender identities were nurtured and grew to become important members of kinship communities.

In West Texas, Apache communities included individuals known as Nde’isdzan, which means “man-woman.” Farther south, the Karankawa, whose homeland abutted the coastline at Galveston Bay, embraced people referred to as Monaguia, a term for a transgender person who was assigned a male identity. All along the Gulf Coast, gender-fluid people occupied important roles as knowledge keepers, medicine people and spiritual leaders.

In the 1560s, the French artist Jacques Le Moyne de Morgues claimed that he saw Native American men dressed in female clothing and performing work he assumed was female labor. He described these people as “hermaphrodites” — a dismissive and offensive term that did a disservice to the important social responsibilities they performed. According to Le Moyne, these individuals tended to the burial needs of recently deceased warriors. Throughout eastern North America, funerary rites carried enormous religious significance. Only spiritual leaders possessing highly specialized skills and knowledge carried out such rites. This is what Le Moyne observed — spiritual leaders, who we today would recognize as transgender, performing a sacred responsibility. Many Indigenous communities considered it a sign of a healthy society for such people to carry out these roles, to mediate between the worlds of the living and the dead and to help community members bridge disagreements or overcome social challenges.

While tribal nations coined their own terms for people who took on transgender roles and identities, today the umbrella term Two-Spirit is often invoked to refer to Native American people who embody male and female spirits or adopt a gendered identity different from that assigned at birth.

But colonialism became a direct threat to transgender people in Texas. In the early 1500s, the Cuchendado people of southwestern Texas lived in tightly knit communities. They hunted, grew crops, shared spiritual knowledge and cared for each other. Their communities included cis and trans people.

By the late 1520s, an ominous change loomed on the horizon. The regional trade networks that connected the Cuchendado to the outside world started bringing news of violent intruders. One of those intruders was the Spaniard Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca. In 1527, Cabeza de Vaca led Spanish conquistadors on an invasion through the Caribbean and the mainland Americas. Starting at Santo Domingo in Hispaniola, Cabeza de Vaca and his men moved quickly to Cuba before arriving on the Gulf Coast of mainland North America.

When he reached southwestern Texas, he wrote of seeing “a devilish thing.” Perhaps it was his Catholic sensibilities, his machismo or his view of Native people as “savages,” but Cabeza de Vaca was appalled by what he saw. Unable to conceal his disgust, he wrote that Cuchendado men “go about dressed as women, and do women’s tasks.” Such people, Cabeza de Vaca surmised, were “impotent, effeminate men.”

His description of “effeminate men” was the product of European cultural and legal invention. Spaniards of his era often referred to “effeminate men” as bardaxa or bardaje, terms derived from the Persian barda and used to describe a captive, enslaved person or sodomite. In 16th-century Spain, male effeminacy — which included male-male sexual activity — was viewed as a sign of weakness.

There was nothing natural about the theological precepts and legal structures of such rigid ideas about gender and sexuality. They were creations of the church and state. But they did serve a purpose: to naturalize hierarchies of gender and sexual power and disempowerment.

For Spaniards like Cabeza de Vaca then, the sight of cross-dressing men solidified a general impression of Native Americans as “savages” who were an affront to the Christian “civilization.” The Spanish were determined to remove these obstacles to their power throughout the Americas — whether by the Bible or the sword.

The legal mechanism that the Spanish used to terrorize Native people was known as the Requerimiento (or “Requirement”). Written by the Council of Castile and first issued in 1513, the Requerimiento demanded that Indigenous people renounce their religious beliefs, accept Catholicism and submit to Spanish rule. Failure to comply invited the possibility of enslavement, war or death.

In time, the Spanish, like other European colonizers, devised a multitude of strategies to sever gender-fluid people from their Indigenous communities — from the proselytizing of Christian missionaries and coerced labor to violent dispossession. The human cost of such practices was manifold: the loss of tribal knowledge, the death of elders and fractured kinship ties. The early years of European colonialism in North America laid the foundations for centuries of transphobia to come.

Those foundations grew into open hostility and prejudice by the 19th century. Some White Americans went so far as to express genocidal attitudes. The American painter and travel writer George Catlin said as much when reflecting on his travels through the American West in the 1830s. Referring to the fluid gender conventions of the Sauk and Fox people, Catlin wrote that he wished such traditions “might be extinguished before it be more fully recorded.” Catlin’s desire to willfully erase cultures that he found distasteful reflected a broader self-deception among White Americans at this time: a determination to convince themselves of the “manifest destiny” of the “White man’s republic” and the inevitable “doom” of Native Americans.

Yet in Texas, a rich transgender history persisted even after colonization. That history began in Native American communities. It also continues to unfold today. Indeed, a long list of talented transgender people hail from Texas. Reed Erickson, born Rita Alma Erickson in El Paso in 1917, became a billionaire philanthropist and used his position as a prominent transgender man to educate Americans on transgender issues. Phyllis Randolph Frye overcame transphobia to become one of the country’s first openly transgender judges. And Monica Roberts, an African American transgender journalist and activist, devoted her career to exposing violence against Houston’s transgender community. These and countless other stories warrant our attention.

Recognizing the lives of dignity and accomplishment of trans Texans also helps us see how moral panics and hysteria about transgender people isn’t new. It’s as old as European colonialism in North America. In 17th-century New England, colonists fretted about Native Americans altering their physical appearance. During subsequent centuries, public officials displayed a determination to order society along a male-female binary by passing laws against impersonation and cross-dressing.

Throughout the 20th century, states including Texas enforced these cross-dressing laws. By the 1970s, and with evangelical Christianity becoming an increasingly influential force in conservative politics, a renewed series of moral panics harnessed centuries of transphobia. Conservative politicians and social activists deployed nebulous terms such as “Christian values,” or “traditional values,” to express their sense of political grievance by vilifying trans people.

These efforts continue to harm trans people, who experience homelessness and violence at disproportionate rates. But despite the persistence of anti-trans activism, it is not succeeding. Today, Texas has the largest transgender population in the country behind California. Transgender people are, in other words, everywhere and going nowhere. They live full lives despite elected officials and other groups vilifying them. Importantly, transgender people in Texas are part of long and diverse history — a history that’s not yet finished.