Back in the day men who wished to dress as women regarded themselves as being cross-dressers, or transvestites. What they never claimed to be was a ‘woman.’
This is fantastically wrong, and as the saying goes, fractally so. There are errors on a literal reading, errors the become apparent in context, errors implicit hidden in the spaces between words, errors with the steelmanned version of the statement, and errors with an interpretation that allows for nonliteral readings that translate farcically nonsensical and internally inconsistent cissexist approaches to writing about trans lives into meaningful assertions. Shall we have a go?
Let’s address the second sentence first. While its clear from context that the writer is wishing to make a point about the ontology of trans people (whether or not trans folk exist and what “being” trans means), it is correct on neither a literal level nor on the more generous interpretation abstracted from the words used. There is an implicit premise here that trans people are masculine or male trending toward feminine or female (commonly abbreviated “MtF”). But of course there have been many men who claimed to be women. Not trans people who claimed to be women, actual cis men. To escape a police warrant or a military draft, to play a joke, or for any of a million reasons, men have claimed to be women.
If we allow the very stupid and bigoted writing to take on another meaning less facially absurd we must understand that “men claiming to be women” is the author’s description of trans women. Qualified by the previous sentences “back in the day” this is an assertion that prior to some uncertain date trans women did not exist. If you’ve got the spoons and are seeking giggles, go ahead and ask them to name that date. It’s hilarious.
Unlike the second sentence which was wrong both literally and in context and abstracted (or steelmanned), on its face the first sentence is true, “men who wished to dress as woman” did sometimes in some places use terms like “cross-dresser” and “transvestite”. Of course the saving grace here is that “men who x did y” does not logically require that ALL men who x did y. If any two men who x did y, even if they never knew each other and lived in completely different eras, then “men who x did y” is technically true. So kudos there, I guess? But in its context this isn’t a claim that “at least 2 men” called themselves either cross-dresser or transvestite. In its context this is a claim that all men who desired to cross-dress called themselves by one or both of those terms. And that’s just laughably untrue.
Moreover, trans women are not a group of “men who wished to dress as women”. There is a vast category error here. The existence of oranges does not disprove apples. In their determination to cling to hateful, reductionist, and dismissive language, they’ve failed to properly state a claim about trans women at all. Clearly they would like us to believe that trans women did not exist until recently, but they are too staggeringly ignorant to make the claim in a way that even presents as true.
Let’s mention again that the writer dismisses the existence of FtM people implicitly: it does not even occur to them at any point in what they wrote to PZ that people society assigned to the role of girlhood might at any point in their lives lay claim to the roles of boyhood or manhood. That’s important because it is revealing of their cissexism, what many would call transphobia. Other assumptions in this bit of nonsense are as well, but we should not lose sight of the fact that in addition to the explicit claim that trans women never existed before some recent moment, there remains the parallel but implicit claim that trans men never existed before some recent moment. To think that the author is more hatefully contemptuous of MtF people than FtM people would be a mistake.
Having disposed of that, let’s examine “back in the day”. That period includes an awful lot of time to claim no black swans existed in, and we have quite a lot of evidence for black swans going back continuously for quite some time (and discontinuously for many centuries before that). Medical transition with modern, sterile surgical intervention is testified to for more than 100 years. This includes a subsequent identification with a gender not assigned at birth by both the surgical recipient and their society.
Prior to modern sterile surgical techniques, there were also similar cases in many societies. Some are not (permit me to be metaphorical) homologous, but merely analogous — persons who during life shift to a gendered role their society did not previously consider them to occupy, but which isn’t considered opposite to their previous genders in the way that woman and man are frequently considered opposites. (Wrongly and stupidly, of course, but still popularly so considered.) This included societies in which a person transitioned into a separate, sacred gender reserved for rare individuals. But there were also many societies in which a transition to an “opposite” gender occurred, which we can consider homologous (in our metaphorical way) to the category our delightfully cissexist writer asserts does not exist in the past.
The scholarship of persons such as Ifi Amadiume and Will Roscoe (but don’t stop at just those two) convincingly demonstrate a variety of social understandings of gender that have included the possibility of transition to the opposite for at least several hundred years. Moreover, there is no reason to think that these phenomena popped into being the moment Western writers showed up in a location to record them.
Any argument you have with someone asserting that transition to the opposite (a term of art for the phenomenology, not an ontological concession that opposite is a factually correct description) did not exist until recently is certain to be with someone who was born not only long after transition to the opposite with associated modern medical intervention had become Western reality, but also someone who makes up facts rather than studies the science. Anthropology is clear: gender is multifaceted; gender roles are not generally binary (though they might be in specific, constrained local use cases) and gender expression, identification, and attribution are never so; and transition to the opposite is a long-attested fact.