Want to make the world a better place for young queer kids? Learn your trans history

Adventures in Time and Gender: A must-listen for LGBT+ History month

A team of trans people have partnered with academics to create a time-travelling podcast drama series: Adventures in Time and Gender.

The series, which was originally intended for the stage but shifted to a three-episode podcast due to coronavirus, was made by an all-star and all-trans and non-binary creative team, led by Jason Barker (A Deal with the Universe) and directed by writer and comedian Krishna Istha (Beast).

Adventures in Time and Gender follows a young trans person’s journey through time (with a time-travelling suitcase, obviously) to meet key historical figures and look at how European sexologists in the late 19th and early 20th century shaped the Western system of medicalisation and diagnosis navigated by trans and non-binary people in the present day. The show includes research by academics from the Rethinking Sexology and Transformations Team at the University of Exeter and the University of Portsmouth.

In making the series, young trans and non-binary people took part in a series of workshops, as well as being included in the writers room, and taking part in recording oral trans histories with older trans people.

Cleverly bouncing off of every newspaper announcement of the “first” trans person to do a thing, from parenting to writing a book, the first episode asks the inevitable question: Who was the first-ever trans person in history? The answer is not what you might expect.

Some familiar voices throughout the series include Travis Alabanza (Burgerz), Luke Tyler Cunningham (I May Destroy You), Tallulah Haddon (Kiss Me First/Black Mirror), Mzz Kimberley (The Finellis), Emma Frankland (We Dig) and Sam Crerar (Rest In Peace).

At the start, the time-travelling suitcase (Frankland) says: “There’s a direct line through time connecting the ideas formulated by the sexologists to the way trans people seeking medical interventions are treated today.

“So, say you were going through a Gender Identity Clinic in 2020, you are part of a system of medicalisation and diagnosis with its origins in the late 19th century.

“And here’s the thing, I wonder… if you understand why the system works in the way it does, where the thinking came from, then maybe you can critique it.”

PinkNews spoke with director Krishna Istha to find out more about trans historical figures, making Adventures in Time and Gender, and what none of us learned about trans history in school…

PinkNews: Why is knowing about trans history important? And especially for trans people, why is knowing our history so important?

Krishna Istha: One, so that people can know that we’ve existed before – not just in the ’70s or the ’60s, but from ancient mythology and scriptures and in times that we don’t expect trans people to have existed. Knowing that brings me comfort and makes me feel less alone. So, I think to some extent it’s important for trans people to know about their history for mental health, for finding yourself, for seeing yourself reflected in different ways.

Two, in terms of activism or people who are furthering trans things and trans discourse, it’s important because young people – who are often proactive and excited about making change – often burn out. But they burn out because they don’t have enough resources. They don’t have enough knowledge of what’s been done before. They don’t have the resources on hand to draw from what has already been done. So in that way, I think knowing what’s happened and who’s existed is so important, because it’ll help.

What were the things you liked most about making Adventures in Time and Gender, and did you have an intended audience in mind throughout that process?

It was definitely the process of making it. Everyone involved was trans or non-binary and it just felt like a space where no one really had to explain anything. Everyone was making jokes that we all got, so we could be like, yeah, that has to make it in – and because this is for us, it doesn’t matter if other people don’t get it. So it felt like a very liberating process.

Predominantly it is meant to be for trans and queer people. And for me – and I don’t know, Jason and everyone else might disagree – but for me, it was definitely for young trans and queer people. It’s a fun way to learn things, I hope.

Did you learn anything about queer or trans history at school?

I don’t think I did? No, definitely not. But I’m trying to think… no, I don’t think so.

If you could design a lesson plan for secondary school kids about trans history, what would you include?

I would like to see included ideas of gender and gender fluidity in other cultures that have existed for way longer than transphobia has.

Because I think seeing that something is just alright, and just exists, makes a much bigger statement – not just for young trans people, but for young cis people who might then go: ‘Oh, yeah, that’s alright then.’ And probably won’t then feel the need to bully someone else who might be different to them.

One thing that came up in Adventures in Time and Gender was how trans people in different eras used different language to describe themselves. We have different words now to describe our gender, and sometimes can put quite a lot of emphasis on the labels we use for ourselves. I wondered how you felt about that, whether you have feelings on the way we use labels today. How important do you think labels are, and are they useful? 

I think they’re important at the moment. Because if we can’t define and differentiate people’s paths through the world, and if we can’t sort of pin point where the marginalisation is, then there’s no way to get equality.

If we can’t label things, then people might just ignore us, or might ignore our needs.

But, at the same time, I find them really exhausting! And have gone through so many labels through my life, I just collect them at this point and none of them mean anything anymore to me after a certain point. So I think it’s important in a global political sense, but I think more often than not, especially now, when I speak to other queer and trans people, I think we care about labels much less, because people tend to exist outside those labels anyway.

Did you have a favourite out of the historical figures in the podcast?

I think I love them all equally. I can’t pick one. It’s like asking you to pick an ice-cream flavour. I can’t pick one because I love them all.

But in terms of the writing, the bit that I found really silly and funny is a bit between Harry Benjamin and [Alfred] Kinsey. And they’re talking about the puddings at the pub. They’re just like talking about the sweet scale. And that was like a bit of ad lib that came out of that which I think about all the time.

Adventures in Time and Gender has three episodes, which you can listen to here.