Were there Transgender People in the Middle Ages?
November 2, 2018 4:16 PM   Subscribe

I'm having a strong negative reaction to this piece (and was surprised to find it was written by a trans person), because I think it attempts to impose the author's conception of trans-ness on historical figures (something we're told in the opening is transphobia), but thinking about my trans-ness being explained in the terms of this article makes me squirm, so I'm not apt to want to do it to others, living or dead.
posted by hoyland at 4:35 PM on November 2, 2018 [12 favorites]

Yeah, hardsame Hoyland.

Whatever the social constructs of gender are across the world and the ages, there will always be people who transgress and or subvert the dominant gender narrative and the specifics of that are highly variable.

Have trans people always existed?


The word bad came from and Old English word baeddel which means “womanish man”.

I think what we call in contemporary times “trans people” have in some way existed across the entire arc of history and all of us participate in a vague and common archetype that’s been largely erased and occulted from history but I’m very reticent to define that entire arc in contemporary terms.

I am also “big tent trans” and I don’t really wanna debate the specific boundaries, I would rather just let it remain a big old mushy blob that defies definition. In that transgression of gender is where trans people across the arc of history may connect, even if if the particulars don’t even remotely map to each other. The transgression of a dominant gender norm is the glue that binds us together.
posted by nikaspark at 4:58 PM on November 2, 2018 [30 favorites]

We have documentation of transgender people dating back to classical antiquity: namely, the galloi, priestesses of Cybele, both in Rome, and I believe earlier, though I don't have any good sources to cite for galloi prior to the Roman adoption of the Magna Mater cult.

There are also the contraries of the Plains Indian traditions. Though, again, that's hard to firmly argue for earlier than the 1600s (correct me if I'm wrong).

Are there any classical historians that can present other expressions of trans-ness in the classical world? Seems an interesting topic.
posted by LeRoienJaune at 8:20 PM on November 2, 2018

nikaspark, I much prefer your formulation: Whatever the social constructs of gender are across the world and the ages, there will always be people who transgress and or subvert the dominant gender narrative and the specifics of that are highly variable.

I'm not a medievalist, so please feel free to correct me, but:

This article strikes me very much as an attempt to find historical justification for a contemporary agenda. The more places and times there have been trans people, the less likely that trans people are a passing quirk of our degenerate modern liberalism. (To be clear, I don't claim that trans people are that.) Hence the long aside at the beginning about how trans people do exist, have always existed, and in nontrivial numbers, thank you very much. At least when speaking to undergrads, my professors in the history department have been much more circumspect about extrapolating from past examples to the present controversies.

Part of my frustration is that I can imagine some alternative hypotheses that fit the anecdotes in the article, but the article doesn't bother to refute any of them. For example, my understanding is that men were much more strongly and clearly privileged over women, and that there weren't a lot of respectable ways for women to exist independently of a man. For a woman under those circumstances, passing as a man might be an attractive option purely for the lifestyle.

I may be blinkered because China has a number of cross-dressing stories that don't involve gender dysphoria. For example, our counterpart to Joan d'Arc is Mulan, the daughter of an ailing man who answers his draft notice in his clothing. None of the versions I've heard (although I would love to read that re-interpretation!) suggest that Mulan does anything except put on the costume she needs to save her father from the battlefield. So at least in my mind, passing as a man (or woman), even for years at a time, does not imply identifying as such, and I don't accept the passing described in the article as evidence of dysphoria.

Except Eleanor Rykener. That's an interesting story, and I wish the court had been more forthcoming.
posted by meaty shoe puppet at 6:28 AM on November 3, 2018 [7 favorites]

So at least in my mind, passing as a man (or woman), even for years at a time, does not imply identifying as such, and I don't accept the passing described in the article as evidence of dysphoria.

This gets very, very thorny very quickly because "you're just chasing male privilege" is one of the accusations leveled at transmasculine people (and is a substantial hurdle AFAB people have to climb over to understand themselves as trans). We know, for example, that many of the women who fought in the US Civil War as men resumed living as women after the war. It's pretty safe to say they weren't trans and were living as men as a matter of expediency. On the other hand, there are people who did live the rest of their lives as men and, sure, some of them probably simply found it convenient, but some of them were surely as trans as a historical figure can be.

I think the expectation of "identity" is also far thornier than you imagine it to be.

I think my problem with this article is two-fold. First is the defensiveness/naiveté of "look we've always existed, you have to like us now!" and second is the tight coupling of dysphoria and trans-ness, which is a discourse I struggle to locate myself within because my trans-ness is a couple of years too "early". So I'm loathe to wedge a historical figure into a box I feel expected to wedge myself into, but that does not mean that someone who socially transitioned centuries ago is automatically "not trans".
posted by hoyland at 9:20 AM on November 3, 2018 [7 favorites]

I'm reminded of the FPP about James Barry a while back. No, to my knowledge, we will never definitively know Barry's gender (I don't think any relevant writings survive and he died shortly after retiring). But that doesn't mean it isn't hurtful to be told that Barry was obviously not trans and lived as man for greater social opportunity. If you insist on definitive "proof", then there are no trans people before, I don't know, the Weimar Republic. But we can talk about the "invention of homosexuality" as a historical moment without denying that gay people have always existed, and the same is true of trans people.
posted by hoyland at 9:24 AM on November 3, 2018 [3 favorites]

I’m not a historian of any kind but in Islam there are the mukhannathun. As the Wikipedia page says, it’s hard to make an exact analogy to any type of modern identity and the word was applied very inconsistently, but they were obviously not all cis.

there’s a hadith saying that Muhammad did not disapprove of these people (so they must have been around in the 7th century). This is why gender confirmation surgery along with legal recognition on identity documents etc is in some cases available in Iran, which in every other way is utterly evil to LGBTQ people.
posted by vogon_poet at 10:13 AM on November 3, 2018

I would really like to move into a more inclusive word for us “currently known as trans” folks because I feel like the idea of transsexualism coming out of the Weimar era from Magnus Hirschfeld which eventually turned into the softer word transgender is still very rooted in Eurocentric whiteness. I’d like to see that decolonized.
posted by nikaspark at 1:10 PM on November 3, 2018 [2 favorites]

As a gay man and a scholar of Islam it’s very difficult to come to any definitive statements on Islam’s stance towards gender / gender identity and sexuality.

I’d certainly be extremely cautious of using modern concepts to describe historical sexual practices, especially those related to the prophet.

Sexual identity in Islam is a VERY complicated and extremely controversial subject, historically and today, which is a shame as it’s a fascinating subject.

I’d like to see such ideas discussed and decolonised too, but I’m not sure some people are ready for the answers, even in the West, let alone the Muslim world.
posted by Middlemarch at 6:54 PM on November 3, 2018 [1 favorite]

The word bad came from and Old English word baeddel which means “womanish man”.

There does not seem to be agreement on that, and a number of cognates in languages that diverged long before that time. I am always suspicious of etymologies that fit too smoothly into a modern framing. However, I am far from a linguist.

It seems like a more interesting question than the thread title would be whether such folks were common, but answering that may be beyond such meager written records as exist.
posted by Gilgamesh's Chauffeur at 8:38 AM on November 4, 2018

But that doesn't mean it isn't hurtful to be told that Barry was obviously not trans and lived as man for greater social opportunity.

I wasn't in the Barry thread, but w.r.t this article I would certainly not go so far as to say that Marinos or Joan d'Arc were clearly not trans, only that the evidence adduced in the article does not convince me that they were.

From your Civil War example, it sounds like you admit the possibility that a woman can pass as a man without necessarily being trans. That uncertainty is all I claim. But that's enough to make me pretty skeptical of the article, which does not entertain that uncertainty at all.
posted by meaty shoe puppet at 10:25 AM on November 4, 2018

For god's sake, I already said I think the article's lousy! That doesn't mean you didn't say something hurtful. And you did. Coming into a post about the notional trans-ness of historical figures and telling us how "for a woman under those circumstances, passing as a man might be an attractive option purely for the lifestyle" is not discussing the flaws of the article, it's not discussing whether the idea of describing historical figures as trans makes sense, it's rejecting the possibility of transmasculine people in history and, by extension, dismissing the experiences of transmasculine people today.

Just because I was trying to be polite and acknowledge that we have good evidence that not every person in history who has socially transitioned for a time understood their gender as something other than what was assigned at birth does not mean I wasn't hurt.
posted by hoyland at 11:02 AM on November 4, 2018

I'm not sure how to continue this conversation without either apologizing only for your feelings (which isn't much apology at all) or continuing to argue with your understanding of my position (which you would probably also find hurtful). Maybe the best thing I can do is sit out this thread.

Although if the non-apology helps, it is true that I wish I hadn't hurt you, and if I had known this was going to go this way I would probably not have said anything in the first place.
posted by meaty shoe puppet at 11:42 AM on November 4, 2018

From my (very limited) perspective the article doesn't try to establish Joan as trans, merely speculating on that and stating that Joan was killed because of transphobia.
From what I can see you don't very often have to make such strict laws against something if nobody is doing it (satanic panic excepted).
posted by PennD at 3:59 PM on November 4, 2018 [1 favorite]

For what it's worth hoyland, I completely did not see your statement as erasing the existence of trans people past or present but merely as saying that in SOME CASES these people may not have been trans. I think that women have historically had a lot of reasons to want to pass as male, one of which is being trans.
posted by mkuhnell at 4:28 PM on November 4, 2018

There’s an interesting case of someone named Kalonymus ben Kalonymus, a Jewish scholar who wrote a piece (scroll down for the English translation) in first person about wanting to be a woman in 1322. There’s some debate about whether it’s satire or not, though, or possibly rooted in the different role of women in that time/place/culture—which may have been preferable to Kalonymus independent of gender.
posted by needs more cowbell at 5:26 AM on November 5, 2018 [2 favorites]

I've read that poem many many times and if ever there was a trans egg...
posted by nikaspark at 8:23 AM on November 5, 2018 [1 favorite]

I feel like trans history is currently in a mode of skepticism we'd consider extreme when we talk about LGB sexuality. Yes, not all "unnatural" sex acts or homoeroticism were an expression of homosexuality and bisexuality, but putting the pieces together it seems that at least some were. And then you have to deal with people like Eugene de Forest who was quoted as saying upon his forced hospitalization a little over a century ago: "Before God, I have never harmed or done wrong to a living being. Born with a handicap of a strange personality, which makes me wish to appear as a man, I have done my very best with the life God has given me. All I ask is to have the right to earn an honorable livelihood, and to live in peace without hurt to any one." We also have plenty of accounts of people within LGBTQ communities who cross-dressed and used the "wrong" pronouns even while dealing with the social and legal consequences of not passing.
posted by GenderNullPointerException at 1:37 PM on November 5, 2018 [1 favorite]

I feel like trans history is currently in a mode of skepticism we'd consider extreme when we talk about LGB sexuality.

I think that trans history is definitely in a mode that is more skeptical than I would prefer. But it doesn't honestly seem much different than what goes on in discussions of LGB history. Mention gay people prior to 1880 (or whatever date Foucault (?) decided on) or in any non-Western culture, and you are gay-ruin-teed to get push back.

On the one hand, it probably doesn't matter for the progress of queer people over all. So why should I even care? But on the other hand though, I don't think I'll ever stop finding it insulting.

I do wish there was more and better history being written about queer people instead of just over and over and over wondering if such a thing were even possible. I sometimes wonder how things would be different if queer liberation and lit theory hadn't started at approximately the same time...
posted by great_radio at 8:19 PM on November 6, 2018

I see it as a bit different because few would deny that same-sex "sodomy" (broadly defined) has been known through history, some people did it, some people liked it, and some people had reputations for preferring it with the same sex, even if some dimensions of "gay," "lesbian," and "bisexual" are modern socially constructed identities like race and the middle class. (Disclaimer: I'm not saying there's no stable and arguably biological reality behind sexual orientation, just that there's an entire system of oppression built around compulsory heterosexuality that can't be handwaved way that determines how and who gets recognized in those categories.)

Now of course, we know that "gay for pay" also seems to have been something people did throughout history, as well as homosexual sexual assault, and folks trying it on because they were just kinky that way. So sure, we should keep on the table that some of that recorded same-sex fucking was transactional for status, money, or social capital. But we generally take for granted that some same-sex fucking was fucking and some was affectionate.

Now then, we also know that people "switched genders" or at least tried to. We also know that some people appear to have been persistently gender-nonconforming, whether the culture of the time recognized that as a legitimate gender or not. But, for some reason the popular argument is that those behaviors should be treated as transactional for status, money, or social capital barring substantial evidence to the contrary. This is ignoring the fact that even with transmasculine people, we're often talking about individuals we know because they've either become notorious for violating the norms of their station (de Morny) or institutionalized as insane criminals (de Forest). This also isn't accounting for transfeminine people either. The argument that Eleanor was trans for status while apparently within a sex-worker class is stretching that thesis.

Of course, what's driving some of this skepticism is the belief that modern-day trans people are doing it as a social transaction for some sort of status. Which doesn't actually make a lot of sense, but it's the times we live in. Regardless, while it's reasonable to consider Anne Lister or Sappho as likely lesbians given the appropriate caveats and footnotes regarding LGBTQ historiography. (Which curiously, ever apply when saying that Thomas Jefferson practiced heterosexuality, another double standard.) Saying that de Morny, de Forest, or Eleanor might have been trans given the same caveats and footnotes is likely to get you a stern lecture about extrapolating trans identity into history.

Usually by people who have never read any of the theory behind those footnotes and don't care about the caveats.
posted by GenderNullPointerException at 10:24 PM on November 6, 2018 [2 favorites]

Having slept on this a bit, sexuality and gender identity are not the only things that are socially constructed to different degrees. Everything else in history is in the same boat of needing substantial caveats and footnotes to say that Shakespeare's role as an artist is analogous but not identical to Eve Ensler or Lin-Manuel Miranda. But we don't demand that the casual conversationalist on theater drag out a dissertation on the production of Elizabethan art every time we talk about Shakespeare. Analogous and similar are given as understood.

Except when it comes to LGBTQ people, and especially trans people these days. But almost never heterosexuality where it's just assumed that our modernist priorities on emotional fulfillment and self-actualization are universal.
posted by GenderNullPointerException at 6:06 AM on November 7, 2018 [3 favorites]

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