January 7, 2022

What an old edition of Encyclopedia Britannica can tell us about the erasure of trans and queer people

Image taken from 1952 advert for Encyclopædia Britannica (as it was spelled at the time). As you can see the expected customer was white, cis and straight.

In the Encyclopedia Britannica of 1942, queer and trans people are invisible.

I am old enough to remember that owning the complete set of Encyclopedia Britannica was a status symbol – a clear sign that you and your family aspired to a better position in life. 

Truth to be told, it was also an amazing product. Imagine more than 20 large size volumes packed with scholarly articles about everything. As a student I used Britannica extensively to get an introduction to new topics. I loved it.

It is still around, but now as an online service. Given the extensive reach of Wikipedia, however, Britannica does no longer have the position it used to have.

Britannica was originally a 17th century  Scottish invention, but more recent editions are made in London and New York. It has always reflected the interests of an Anglo-Saxon culture. This means that you may use the historical editions as a time machine. You may study the world views of editors and the article authors of the past, and as such get an idea about what they considered culturally acceptable.

When  a  friend of me inherited the complete 1942 version of Britannica, I decided to do an experiment.

An encyclopedia will reflect the culture of its time.
Here's an ad for the 1913 edition, reflecting
the values of the British Empire.
Click on image to read the text.

Being trans or queer in 1942

Imagine that you are queer or trans person in 1942, and you want to learn more about LGBT+ issues. 

You want to learn about queer and trans people and you want to find out what science and other types of literature has to say about this. You basically want to get help finding out what and who you are in a world dominated by cisgendered straight people.

Or maybe you are a cis person with a trans or queer friend or child. You would probably expect this repository of human knowledge to have the information you want.

You would go to volume 24, which contains the atlas and the index, and look for relevant words. These would not be the words I have used so far in this article, as they reflect a newer vocabulary.  But here are some contemporary terms you could search for. 

I did so, and here are the results:
  • "Lesbian." Not listed.
  • "Homosexual." Not listed.
  • "Transsexual." Not listed.
  • "Transvestite." Not listed
  • "Heterosexual." Not listed.
  • Sex. Listed, with references to articles about reproduction, psychology and anthropology.
There is an article on "Abnormal Psychology", with references to Freud and others, but it does not mention same-sex attraction or gender variance (although it does refer to Freud's idea of the sexual instinct not being exclusively directed towards "the other sex" in infants.) .

You might say that the fact that queer sexualities and identities are not included under "abnormal psychology" is a good thing, but at the time that was often the only place trans and queer people could have their very existence affirmed, and here it is not.
A snapshot of the part of the index where the term lesbian should have been included, but is not
No lesbians in 1942.

The fact that "heterosexual" is not listed, tells the story about a world where being straight is the given default, to the extent it is not worth mentioning as a separate expression of human sexuality.

Erasing someone's existence by not mentioning them 

The 1942 Britannica edition is therefore an excellent example of how influential sources of knowledge can contribute to a complete erasure of queer and transgender lives. 

The problem is not that the encyclopedia is outright hostile. The problem is that it does not even recognize their existence.

There might be many reasons for this editorial decision. It was definitely not  because of a lack of literature on LGBTQA issues, as there was a lot of research around in those days, many works by gay and trans people, as well as fictional accounts. 

It might be that the editors were so straight and cis that the existence of queer and trans people did not register. However, I suppose that a more likely explanation is that the topic was not considered suitable for the kind of sophisticated people that were likely to buy a complete set of Britannica. It was simply too embarrassing and offensive.

The end effect is obvious:

Cis and straight people do not learn about trans and queer lives and do not therefore develop the vocabulary needed to understand them. 

Close up of 1942 Britannica volumes

Trans and queer people – who are already feeling very alone due to the lack of any kind of affirmation from family, peers and communities – get no help to navigate their lives. Indeed, to the extent their variance is recognized by those around them, it is mostly in negative terms, and the encyclopedia – the very symbol of up to date knowledge – does not provide them with any clues as to how to handle this invalidation. 

Their community invalidates them. The encyclopedia erases them.

It goes on today

Today Britannica does cover LGBTQA+ issues. But there are others who want to force trans and queer people back into the closet.

These days right wing Americans are trying to stop educational institutions from teaching pupils and students about trans and queer lives. They want to remove LGBTQA-friendly books from school libraries, because they find them offensive and may "cause harm to the kids". 

What they are trying to do is to reestablish the reality of 1942, where the main sources of knowledge ignores the existence of queer and trans people. If there is no language or narratives around that describes the lives of trans and queer people, you may pretend they do not exist.


  1. Jack I remember looking in the 1972 version we had and finding only the definition for transvestite. There was a dearth of information in such publications which showed just low little incentive there was to come out to parents if you couldn't even learn about yourself.

  2. Here's a little provocative question for ya. Do you really believe that men (all 3. 5 billion of them) are incapable of having the feelings that transwomen have? What people have in common will never be the things that will make people different from each other, does it? ;)


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