Owen J Hurcum

In our most recent guest blog, Owen discusses Transgender Archaeology

“A Non-Subject about a nonexistant thing” [sic] – Public Hostility towards a Transgender Archaeology

On April 4, 2023, I announced on social media that I would be attending the University of York to read a PhD on Transgender Archaeology come October. Archaeology that concerns itself with the relationship of our discipline to the transgender community, genders outside of the modern settler/West’s dominating binary construct of cisgender man/woman, and wider queer topics is certainly nothing new (For example see Dowson 2000; Voss 2008; Weistmantel 2013; Klembara 2021; Walley 2021 or Black Trowel Collective 2021), however it was clear that my announcement reached many members of the public who had not before heard of this theory of archaeology.

Whilst I received a lot of support for my announcement by members of the academic community, my tweet caused an online storm, and both myself and my supervisor received hundreds of hostile messages. This popular public hostility ranged from generic transphobia; misgendering me, calling me mentally unwell, calling the trans community paedophiles and personal attacks on my appearance – to attacks on the concept of a Transgender Archaeology itself. The more colourful of these attacks equated this research to cultural and historical vandalism, fabrication or – in the case of one commenter – to propaganda equivalent to Nazi archaeology (See Fig 1). Others simply decried a transgender archaeology as being pointless, based on nothing, a waste of time and resources or simply “a Non-Subject about a nonexitsant thing” [sic].

Fig 1. One of numerous hostile messages received by this author after announcing they will be studying a PhD in Transgender Archaeology. This one equating the study to the archaeology supported by Hitler (From Authors Collection via Twitter.Com)

It would be clearly wrong to suggest that the hostility faced in this instance came from within the academy or wider archaeological establishment. This instance of hostility was a public hostility by and of those opposed to the very existence of transgender people. Their opposition to this course of study is not rooted in Renfrew’s processualist decries of what he saw as “poststructuralist gurus” in archaeology dictating “politically appropriate ‘correct’ thinking” (Renfrew 1989, 39). Nor is it based upon an academic disagreement with the validity of emancipatory (e.g., McGuire 2008; Burton 2021), socially conscious (e.g., McGuire 2002; Hamilakis & Duke 2007), or transformative (e.g., Atalay et all 2014) archaeology’s attempts to grapple with Panameno and Nalda’s query “archaeology for whom?” (1978) – rather, it is rooted in their dogmatic hostility to trans people in society (Lester 2017; Faye 2021).

In this instance we can regard this case of public hostility as not being against transgender archaeology in specific, but a by-product of their hostility towards the trans community in general that archaeology must be aware of nonetheless. Hostility that is only on the rise; in the first two months of 2023 over 150 bills targeting the rights of transgender individuals have been introduced across the US at the State level (Human Rights Campaign, 2023) and in the United Kingdom both major political parties support reviewing, with the aim of removing, parts of the 2010 equalities act that enshrined the few hard-won rights that trans people have into law (Perry 2023). Since 2008 there have been over 4000 reported murders of transgender individuals worldwide (Transgender Murder Monitoring, Online).

The multiple reasons behind transphobia are explained in, and analysed by, numerous books on the subject but one reason that is constantly used in transphobic recruitment is the notion that trans people are somehow new, we are a modern trend without history. This reasoning is clearly evident in the numerous hostile replies I received and it is something that archaeology is uniquely placed to directly challenge. Afterall, our discipline is already involved in the discussion of transgender rights for, as Voss points out, “opponents of homosexual and transgendered human rites [sic] cite historic precedents as justification for their position” (Voss 2008, 316), precedents that archaeology establish in its cisnormative reconstructions of the past (Weistmantel 2013; Arnold 2016).

This is but one facet of a transgender archaeology, explained only in the most introductory and passing of terms, to highlight why a transgender archaeology is anything but a “non-subject” and also why we as archaeologists who “do not practice our research in a social and political vacuum” (McGuire 2002) have a duty to be sensitive to a community under threat, especially when our discipline can be a useful tool in the fight for their emancipation (Walley 2021; Weistmantel 2013). Other facets of a transgender archaeology would include an understanding of how our discipline can support and foster the work of transgender individuals operating within archaeology, re-evaluating interpretations of ‘gender ambiguous burials’, or in applying an archaeological gaze to the very material culture of the social movement for transgender equality itself . Work that will be central to the upcoming PhD by this author that caused this instance of public hostility hurled at transgender archaeology, and inspired this article.

Owen J Hurcum [They/Them]


Arnold, B. 2016. ‘Belts vs. Blades: the Binary Bind in Iron Age Mortuary Contexts in Southwest Germany’, Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory, 23, pp.832-853

Atalay, S., Clauss, L., McGuire, R. & Welch, J. (eds.). 2014. Transforming Archaeology: Activist Practices and Prospects, Routledge, London and New York

Black Trowel Collective. 2022. ‘Archaeologists for Trans Liberation’, anthro{dendum}, Online, https://anthrodendum.org/2021/08/06/archaeologists-for-trans-liberation/, accessed 22/04/2023

Burton, C. 2021. Trowels in the Trenches: Archaeology as Social Activism, University of Florida Press

Dowson, T. 2000. ‘Why Queer Archaeology? An Introduction’, World Archaeology, 32, Queer Archaeologies, pp.161-165

Hamilakis, Y. & Duke, P. 2007. Archaeology and Capitalism: From Ethics to Politics, Left Coast Press

Human Rights Campaign, 2023. February 15 2023, https://www.hrc.org/press-releases/human-rights-campaign-working-to-defeat-340-anti-lgbtq-bills-at-state-level-already-150-of-which-target-transgender-people-highest-number-on-record, Online, accessed 22/04/23

Klembara, N. 2021. ‘“But I’m a Paleolithic Archaeologist!”: Queer Theory, Paleolithic Art, and Social Justice’, in C Barton (ed.) Trowels in the Trenches: Archaeology as Social Activism, University of Florida Press

McGuire, R. 2002. A Marxist Archaeology, Percheron Press, New York

McGuire, R. 2008. Archaeology as Political Action, University of California Press

Panameno, R. & Nalda, E. 1978. ‘Arqueologia, Para Quien?’, Nueva Anthropologia, 12, pp.111-124

Perry, S. 2023. ‘Keir Starmer backs Equality Act review despite trans activists’ warnings’, Pink News, April 5 2023

Renfrew, C. 1989. ‘Comments on Archaeology into the 1990’s’, Norwegian Archaeological Review, 22, pp.33-41

Transgender Murder Monitoring, https://transrespect.org/en/trans-murder-monitoring/, Online, accessed 22/04/23

Voss, B. 2008. ‘Sexuality Studies in Archaeology’, Annual Review of Anthropology, 37, pp.317-316

Walley, M. 2021. Incorporating Nonbinary Gender Into Inuit Archaeology: Oral Testimony and Material Inroads, Routledge, London and New York

Weistmantel, M. 2013. ‘Towards a Transgender Archaeology: A Queer Rampage Through Prehistory’, in S Stryker & A Aizura (eds.) The Transgender Studies Reeder 2, Routledge

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