Why Are Historians Suddenly Discovering So Many Transgenders?

When new ideological movements seize power in institutions, it is always necessary to rewrite history. As an old Soviet joke mocking the communist overhaul of Russian history put it, “The future is certain—it’s only the past that’s unpredictable.”

We saw this when the gay rights movement began to gain dominance. Suddenly, it was claimed that plenty of married men were, in fact, homosexual, including Abraham Lincoln and William Shakespeare. The historical closet turned out to be packed with fictional gays. Progressive religious scholars hastened to ‘queer’ the Scriptures, too, asserting blasphemously that any number of biblical figures—David, Ruth, and Daniel among them—were also ‘LGBT.’ Now, with the ascendance of the transgender movement, new discoveries have begun in earnest.

Last November, for example, we received breaking news from AD 218 when the North Hertfordshire Museum declared that Emperor Elagabalus, who ruled Rome briefly until his assassination at the age of 18 in AD 222, was transgender. According to The Telegraph, the museum “has said it will be ‘sensitive’ to the purported pronoun preferences of the third-century AD ruler Elagabalus. The emperor will be treated as a transgender woman and referred to as she.” Hilariously, this claim derives from classical texts asserting that Elagabalus once asked to be called a ‘lady’; most historians believe these accounts were attempts at political character assassination.

AThe Telegraph reported, “Information on museum policy states that pronouns used in displays will be those ‘the individual in question might have used themselves’ or whatever pronoun, ‘in retrospect, is appropriate.’” A keen observer might notice that the phrase “in retrospect” is doing a lot of heavy lifting here. Unsurprisingly, the museum consults “LGBT charity Stonewall and the LGBT wing of the trade union Unison on best practice … to ensure that ‘our displays, publicity and talks are as up-to-date and inclusive as possible.’” History, you see, must always be up-to-date and ‘inclusive.’

Liberal Democrat councillor Keith Hoskins was downright gruntled by this decision. Hoskins, who is not a historian, stated firmly that “Elagabalus most definitely preferred the ‘she’ pronoun, and as such, this is something we reflect when discussing her in contemporary times. We try to be sensitive to identifying pronouns for people in the past, as we are for people in the present. It is only polite and respectful. We know that Elagabalus identified as a woman and was explicit about which pronouns to use, which shows that pronouns are not a new thing.”

That’s saying the quiet bit out loud, of course—Elagabalus has been retroactively transitioned because, by doing so, his outers get to make the point that “pronouns are not a new thing” and that the rest of us should thus get with the program. Less ideological historians have noted that accusations of effeminacy were leveled at Elagabalus specifically to bring him into disrepute and to justify his assassination. As Cambridge classics professor Andrew Wallace-Hadrill observed, “The Romans didn’t have our idea of ‘trans’ as a category, but they used accusations of sexual behavior ‘as a woman’ as one of the worst insults against men.” The past, as it turns out, is as transphobic as the present.

Tom Holland, a noted historian of the ancient world, summed up the news succinctly: “This rests on two pretty dubious assumptions: firstly, that in this one case the notoriously unreliable sources for Elagabalus’ reign are to be trusted; and secondly, that Roman assumptions about gender can be seamlessly mapped onto those of British museum curators in 2023. Still, excellent marketing by the museum!” The accusations of effeminacy, Holland noted, were levelled at “pretty much every Roman politician” as “the go-to insult.” Elagabalus now faces the fate of having activists triumphantly affirm the worst smears of his enemies.

This sort of thing has become common. A 2019 report from the History Channel breathlessly reported that a “High-Ranking Viking Warrior Long Assumed to Be Male Was Actually Female” and that this “revelation raised questions about how Vikings may have understood gender roles—as well as gender identity.” These “questions,” it must be noted, were only “raised” by activists longing for transgender Vikings to talk about. But it isn’t just the Vikings, who I would have thought were better candidates for screeds on toxic masculinity. It’s the Anglo-Saxons, too.


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