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.

9 comments:

  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.

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    1. I know, but that is so weird, given all the research (transphobic or supportive) that existed at the time. It is as if Britannica had some kind of conservative Readers' Digest code to follow, while at the same time pretending to be a source of all kinds of information.

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  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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    1. I don't think that as far as feelings go it is impossible to define uniquely male or female ones, even among those who identify as cisgender. Nearly all lists of "female" and "male" feelings are based on gender stereotypes. However, when a person assigned male at birth says that she is female, that experience is more than the sum of "feminine" feelings.

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    2. That makes feelings completely irrelevant to the question of what people are. Both men and women can produce the same behaviour. Men can behave like women and vice versa. That means that behaviour itself cannot help us in differentiating between men and women. What men and women have in common will never be the things that makes them different from each other. So, I feelings cannot determine what people are (Nor can behavior) then what else is left of a person that can? Simple. Biology. That determines what you are.

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    3. Deciding that biology (understood as genitals or chromosomes) determines what you are is a purely cultural and political statement. Dismissing feelings, experience or self-understanding as not relevant is simply a tactic used to invalidate and erase identities some people do not understand or do not want to understand. None of this changes the REALITY of transgender experiences and identities. As soon as we let go of this desperate need for separate boxes and unambiguous terms these identities become easy to handle. Trans people are the only proof you need to dismiss the idea that genitals determines gender.

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    4. Let me add here that we do not actually know if biology is not part of what determines gender identities among trans people. Many researchers and trans people follow the dominant theory on gender identity formation these days, namely that it is born out of an interplay between genetic, epigenetic, hormonal, cultural and personal factors, and that biology is an important component. The core of a gender identity is according to this way of thinking a biological phenomenon found in the brain, and most seems to think it is the prenatal hormonal balance that has the strongest effect on how this plays out. This part of the brain does not necessarily determine gendered behavior, but it determines your sense of self and the way you navigate your local culture as a gendered being. Is this the final truth? I am not sure. But you may believe in biological causes and still embrace trans people.

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    5. "Deciding that biology (understood as genitals or chromosomes) determines what you are is a purely cultural and political statement." Oh my God, where to begin? This is total nonsense! Nobody "decides" that biology determines what you are. It's simply something that we observe what biology does. Also, because a statement is cultural or political does NOT mean it is not objectively true. Therefore, you can never simply dismiss a statement because it comes out of culture or politics. But this is exactly what you did. Also, it's quite alright to dismiss the things that you describe as "Feelings, experience or self-understanding" because of the simple fact that they are notoriously unreliable in making predictions. Biology is chemistry. It simply does what it does. Culture, politics or any form of subjectivity has nothing to do with it. You're talking like a person cannot hold an objective view. You're also hypocritical. You're dissmissing the idea that biology determines what you are as purely a cultural and political statement while at the same time you're appealing to that very same statement to make your case. Here is were you do it. "Many researchers and trans people follow the dominant theory on gender identity formation these days, namely that it is born out of an interplay between GENETIC (AKA, biology) , EPIGENETIC (AKA, biology), HORMONAL (AKA, biology), cultural and personal factors" You support this position. You believe this position to be true. REGARDLESS of anyone's cultural or political perspectives. You believe that a person can have an objective view. Yours. Then there's this. "We do not actually know if biology is not part of what determines gender identities among trans people." Here is the core problem with your entire position. It has NEVER been established that genders actually exists. You completely missed the entire point I was making in the first place. The very purpose of the concept of gender is to make distinctions and to categorize. If it fails to do so the concept is nonsensical.The mere fact that the behaviour of people of different genders overlap means that the very concept of gender cannot make distinctions in what behaviour belongs to what gender. Genders do not exist. How can they exist if all forms of behaviour can be part of people of all genders? I can demonstrate this by bypassing everything the concept of gender suggest by making this simple statement: The definition of male behaviour is however males behave. This includes all the unusual behaviour. For any feeling to be by definition a male feeling one male simply has to feel it. This includes all the feelings we usually associate with women. You see what I did here? There's simply no need for the concept of gender! The only way we can truly understand what's going on is by understanding what the concept of gender really is. Stereotyping. That's it. For a transwoman to claim that what that person feels, thinks and does somehow makes that person different from men means by its very nature that that person is actually claiming that no man can feel, think and do those things. That is the true implication of the concept of gender. It's just plain old sexism.

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