Ramet, Sabrina Petra (ed). 1996. Gender Reversals and Gender Cultures: Anthropological and Historical Perspectives. Routledge, London. ISBN 0-415-11483-7
A collection of papers with an anthropological angle on how gender is viewed within the context of specific cultures. I have only covered the articles that are relevant to my project.
An anthropological look at several distinct types of non-normative gender categories/identities. Bolin examines five distinct types of gender variance that appear cross-culturally (without implying that these are the only five possible categories). The final part of the articles uses these types to consider modern Western gender paradigms, however this modern analysis only considers individuals assigned male at birth (including MTF transgender individuals as well as cross-dressers who identify as male) and therefore is less relevant to the Project.
The first category is hermaphrodites (i.e., physiologically intersex persons). Various cultural approaches are discussed, where there may be a labeled category distinct from “male” and “female”, or various mechanisms for assigning the individual to a male/female category. Some cultures allow for a person who is not physiologically intersex to identify with a hermaphroditic gender category. Also considered are identities like the Hijras of India who consider themselves a distinct third gender (although in this case the identity is not linked to being physiologically intersex). Two case studies are noted of populations with genetic factors that result in an identifiable category of intersex infants who will become physiologically male at puberty. In the two identified cultures, these children were raised as a third gender but with the understanding that they were expected to become “male” at puberty.
The second category is identified with the label “two-spirit” although not all examples are drawn from the Native American cultures from which that label is taken. The characteristics of this category include: a culturally recognized status as transgender or as combining male and female gender attributes; adoption of behaviors associated with the non-physiological gender, or of a combination of masculine and feminine behaviors; and in some cases the choice of a partner of the same physiological sex, though this generally appears to be a result of, rather than a reason for, identifying with the two-spirit category. In many cases, identification as two-spirit occurs in childhood, based on an affiliation for activities and behaviors associated with the non-birth gender. Most of the examples discussed are for those assigned male at birth.
The third category is labeled “Cross-gendered roles” and while it involves individuals taking on behaviors associated with the non-birth gender, it is distinguished from the previous category in generally not involving a shift in dress or in the choice of sexual partner. The author discusses only two examples in this group, both involving individuals assigned female.
The fourth category is organized around marriage between two individuals with the same physiological sex (male or female). The impetus for entering this category can be a disruption in the expected life path, e.g., a woman who is unable to bear children may take another woman as wife and become culturally “male” in order to acquire heirs. The woman-husband will then typically take on male-associated economic activities. Similar cultural practices for male individuals more typically are associated with social structures that create a scarcity of marriageable women (e.g., age-stratified polygynous societies) and typically involve an age-differentiated relationship between the two men. The “boy-wife” would take on many (though not all) activities associated with a female wife, including being a “passive” sexual partner. Partnerships are typically age-stratified with the boy-wife eventually aging out of the role and taking a boy-wife of his own. Although the female and male examples are grouped together here, the motivations for them seem to be entirely distinct.
The fifth category is identified as “Cross-gender Rituals” and involves temporary, situational adoption of behaviors and/or attributes of the non-physiological gender. The motivation may be due to situational need or may be ceremonial.
The remainder of the article considers modern Western transgender issues within the context of these several approaches, and therefore is not particularly relevant to the Project.
This is a study of one of the “transvestite saint” legends (for which generally see Anson 1974 et al.). The general context of these stories is the misogynistic and gender-segregated context of early Christianity, in which women who wanted to pursue a religious life might choose to pass as men both for logistical reasons (in order to be able to join a male-only monastic community) and for spiritual reasons (following Biblical language that suggests that women need to become “male” in order to achieve heaven.
Thecla, on hearing a sermon by the Apostle Paul, devoted herself to following him, overcoming various obstacles such as an anti-Christian fiance. Paul allows her to follow him but does not encourage her, while she endures various hazards and near-martyrdoms. Finally Thecla dresses herself in mens’ clothing (there is also a previous mention of a plan to cut her hair short) and presents herself and a retinue to Paul telling him that she’s baptized herself, at which Paul instructs her to go preach. Thecla’s example was later used as support for the right of women to preach and perform baptisms.
The article examines how Thecla’s story serves as a focus for gender-related power struggles in the early church around the textual claim that “there is neither...male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” And yet in Thecla’s story, it is only after she puts on male clothing that she receives permission/instructions to preach.
This article examines the specifically Christian uses of gender-crossing in a cultural context with highly polarized gender roles. Masculinity was associated with “honor”, the aggressive pursuit of military virtues such as courage, loyalty, and glory, and both the need and willingness to defend one’s claim to them. Femininity, in contrast, was associated with chastity and the protection of sexual purity, where the driving force was the avoidance of shame due to the loss of these attributes. This avoidance of shame pressured women to restrict their activities to within the household, in contrast to male virtue, which required public performance of masculinity.
Situations that contradict these models are common in the mythology of early Christianity. The martyrdoms and near-martyrdoms of women frequently involve not only active participation in the public sphere, but being subject to treatment that should provoke shame (such as being stripped naked in public) or being made to be a public spectacle in the arena. When the hagiographic focus moved from direct martyrdom to asceticism, female figures now defied the expectation of shame in taking up public teaching activities as well as simply rejecting the normative roles of wife and mother. A further transgression of feminine expectations could involve taking on a masculine identity to enter a monastic community (often under the guise of being a eunuch). When discovered, such women might still be praised as having elevated herself to the status of a man, and therefore becoming worthy of salvation. As a model, they followed texts such as one in which Jesus defends Mary Magdalene’s right to be among the apostles, saying, “I will lead her so as to make her male, that she may become a living spirit like you males, for every woman who makes herself male will enter the kingdom of heaven.” The intent may be the same as the texts that speak of “neither male nor female” but the central model is masculinity.
[When I began reading this article, I expected it also to touch on the ways in which Christian ideals subverted paradigms of masculinity, but it ended up not going there.]
In considering various types of transgressive cross-dressing (e.g., for theatrical purposes), Schleiner begins by looking at some literary models available within that context that focus around logistical gender disguise.
A story cited in Thomas Heywood’s Gynaikeion (1624) recounts a 2nd century story of a young Athenian woman who achieves her forbidden ambition to become a surgeon by cutting her hair and dressing as a man to learn the art. While attending on a woman in labor who was too modest to allow the services of a male physician, she revealed (literally) her true sex. This made her a very popular physician among female clients but brought her to the attention of the authorities (who didn’t know she was a woman and assumed her popularity was for sexual access). Once again, she physically revealed her true sex in defense (since evidently being a female physician was better than being a licentious male one). But when the authorities would have punished her, the women of the city rose up demanding the right to be attended by female physicians. This is presented as being the origin of midwives.
More relevant to the thrust of this article, Heywood suppresses the more salacious details of the story in his version, in particular the description of the woman disrobing to prove her sex. The potentially salacious aspects (either via voyeuristic reading or implied by the context of the event) are softened or removed and the anecdote is situated as "serious medical literature".
A similar concern appears in a treatise by Jacques Duval on hermaphrodites (1612) when he recounts how he saved Marie le Marcis from death in prison by convincing the court that Marie was actually Marin and a man. But Duval feels the need to insist explicitly that he is not writing about the subject for any lascivious purpose. Another medical writer of the era, when treating on the subject of masturbation between women (i.e., lesbianism) in a Latin treatise on women’s diseases, notes that the section should be omitted if the book is translated into the vernacular for a popular audience. All three texts show significant discomfort around the possibility of same-sex sexuality and even more so around the potential for the text to educate readers about a possibility that might not previously have occurred to them.
A similar tension exists around discussions of cross-dressing and gender disguise, including an account of a soldier in the Emperor’s army taken prisoner by the Turks in 1595 who was revealed to be a woman in disguise. Phillip Camerarius treats this example in a book discussing the basis for Biblical prohibitions on cross-dressing, identifying certain pagan ritual cross-dressing practices as an impetus, but also disapproving of cross-dressing as it gives both sexes a greater ability to enter officially homosocial spaces for sexual access to the opposite sex.
Despite Camerarius’s equal concern for men and women who cross-dress, when he comes to list legal cases he gives none where the accused is a man disguised as a woman, only the reverse. Whether this is from ignorance, an actual lack in the records he was familiar with, or an assumption that male cross-dressing was inconceivable is not clear.
Cross-dressing examples in literature, on the other hand, are not uncommon in both directions. Both types have relevance to female homoeroticism. It is a common trope that when men disguise themselves as women (whether for intrigue, as a love strategem, or for escape from danger), they are perceived as having an extreme feminine beauty that is sufficient to cause women to believe themselves in love with a woman (as well as attracting male sexual attention).
Examples in literature of cross-dressed women highlight episodes of gender consciousness and the contradiction of gender essentialism. The women may perform in a hyper-masculine way, as with Oronce and La Belle Sauvage in the romance Amadis of Gaul. These women typically attract the sexual interest of other women, portraying an ideal of youthful beauty that was compatible with androgyny. The women who fall in love with these cross-dressed women are explicitly attracted to feminine-coded aspects of male beauty: delicacy, pale complexions, grace, and courtesy. Despite this, when face with the reality that they have been attracted to a woman, there is an embarrassed relief at having stopped short of taking action.
As a coda to the article, the author notes a later treatise purporting to be a medical study of hermaphrodites, but in fact taking exactly the prurient male-gaze approach that the earlier medical writers disclaimed. Here lesbian activity and the sexually confusing potential of cross-dressing is served up as titillation, as in a story of two women who, after losing their male lovers, have entered a sexual relationship with each other and are so firm in their preference for women that a man who wants sexual access to one of them must not only cross-dress as a woman but must pretend to mimic them in using a dildo in order to cover for the use of his own penis.
I’ve been hoping to track down this article since it first came to my attention, and the historic individual documented here is even more intersectionally mind-blowing than I knew. If I had to sum up the story in click-bait style, it would be: “Sixteenth-century Spanish bi-racial ex-slave transman becomes classically trained surgeon and marries happily.” Alas, the ending isn’t quite as happy, though far from tragic.
Burshatin is more concerned with the discourse around how “nature” is understood in these documents, particularly as it intersects with gender issues and ethnicity. But for the purposes of my Project, a simple presentation of the life of Eleno de Céspedes is more valuable. As Eleno maintained in testimony that he had become male (after, and despite, giving birth to a child) I will treat him as a transgender man after the point of that identification. However as is often the case with similar historic individuals, the context, challenges, and hazards that are seen here will also apply to any woman passing as a man. And the sexual and marital themes are similarly of relevance to the Project. I have re-organized the data from the article in chronological order, as best I can.
Some time around 1545, a child was born in Alhama de Granada to an enslaved black woman and an unknown white man. At some point, the child was branded on the face to indicate her slave status and the brand was still notable much later in life. At the age of twelve, at the death of her owner, Elena was manumitted and renamed “Elena de Céspedes” in the late owner’s memory. There is no record what name she bore before that.
Around 1561, at the age of sixteen, Elena married a stonemason with whom she lived for only three months. She never saw him again and learned of his death soon after. He left her pregnant and she gave birth to a son, Christóval, whom she left in the care of a baker in Seville and with whom she had no further contact.
Much later, Eleno testified that the force of giving birth caused the skin to break over the urinary canal and a penis-like organ emerged. Thereafter the organ would emerge from the stimulus of excitement and desire but would recede and become hidden afterward. Evidently it was at this time that he took on the name Eleno and began dressing and presenting as a man. This organ, Eleno testified, emerged when he was sexually aroused by women but was prevented from becoming fully erect by an impeding skin. That same year, Eleno went to a surgeon in Sanlúcar de Barrameda, who diagnosed Eleno as a hermaphrodite and removed the skin, enabling Eleno to have successful sexual relations with women--which he proceeded to do with his employer’s wife for the next four or five months. This presumably brings us up to approximately the year 1562 or 1563.
The article notes a succession of professions, which may have been placed in a clearer chronology in the original documents: weaver, hose-maker (the job held at the time of his surgery), shepherd, tailor, soldier, and finally surgeon. There is a specific note that Eleno served as a soldier in the War of the Alpujarras in 1568-1570, so if this list is chronological, his training as a surgeon must have occurred after that date. But it is clear that this training was not simply in the physical techniques of surgery, for he was acquainted with classical medical literature and well versed in contemporary medical theories of sexuality.
Eleno’s lack of facial hair led to some questions regarding gender. In December 1584 the vicar of Madrid, on seeing Eleno, asked whether he was a capon (a castrated rooster, i.e., asking if Eleno were a eunuch), to which the answer was “No”. Sometime shortly later, Eleno received a ruling from the Madrid court of the archbishop of Toledo that he was a man and not a hermaphrodite, thus making possible Eleno’s marriage to María del Caño.
The article fails to note the precise context in which Eleno and María came under legal scrutiny, but there does seem to have been some public question about Eleno’s gender and the possibility of demonic assistance in presenting as a man. At some point prior to June 1587, the couple was arrested and imprisoned in the municipal prison of the town of Ocaña.
A group of midwives were brought in to examine Eleno’s genitals in order to determine his biological sex. The examination (which is described in technical detail and amounted to medical rape) concluded that Eleno had female genitalia and that the vulva was so small as to indicate virgin status. [Note: it’s a regular trope for “admirable” cross-dressing women to be established as virgins, despite their free association with men. In this case, the fact that Eleno admitted to having borne a child casts significant doubt on the reliability of these assessments.] María was also examined and was found to be “corrupted and wide and roomy” indicating regular participation in penetrative sex.
The examination by the midwives was confirmed by a group of male physicians who focused not only on physical genitalia (noting that the genitals were female with no sign of hermaphroditism), but also on behavioral data, saying of Eleno that “in the composure of body, face, and speech she has the appearance of a woman, as she is, and not a man.” [The author notes that the grammar of the original Spanish is often more ambiguous with regard to pronoun gender, therefore some of the female pronouns in the translations have been chosen by Burshatin and I have not altered them when I am quoting the article.] This appeal to the “obvious” femininity of Eleno’s “body, face, and speech” is undermined by twenty years of successfully living as a man.
In consequence of this conclusion, on June 7, 1587, the chief magistrate of the province ordered that Eleno be removed from the male area of prison (or rather, an area that “men frequent”) and be moved to the women’s section to be locked alone in a room with the key given to the said chief magistrate. Eleno’s wife, María was also moved to a nearby room, in isolation “so that no one may speak with her.” Although Eleno had entered the prison under that name, the document ordering this move identified him as “Elena” and used grammatically feminine language for him. The move and isolation was implied to be for the protection of Eleno’s modesty and chastity, now that he had been reclassified as female. But conversely, Eleno’s continued sequestration indicates a certain doubt regarding placing him among the general population of women in the prison.
Eleno’s case was then moved to the court of the Inquisition at Toledo. At this point, Eleno’s crime centers around being an “unruly woman”, with the legal examination focusing on details of his rejection of a female role such as his name. While many Spanish given names exist in masculine/feminine pairs that differ only by grammatical ending, the prosecution noted that “Elena” (derived from the Greek name Helen) is only ever used as a woman’s name and that there is no such name as “Eleno”, therefore it could not have been given at baptism.
More importantly, Eleno is indicted for committing sodomy “with a stiff and smooth instrument”. This accusation emphasizes the contradictory hazard that Eleno represented: he could neither be treated as male nor as female in a system that only recognized those two categories. To this charge were added “contempt for the sacrament of marriage” and consorting with demons.
Eleno’s defense against these charges was he was a hermaphrodite and that between the age of sixteen up until twelve days before his imprisonment in Ocaña he was physiologically male. He testified that his male organs had withered away from a cancer following a traumatic riding accident. He pled innocent to all the gender-related charges (cross-dressing, having sex with women, marrying a woman, and practicing medicine as a man) on the basis that nature had changed him into a man, therefore he was a natural man at the time all those things were done. (The charge of making a pact with the devil was related to the sexual charges.) As a medical professional, Eleno had access to the prevalent medical literature of the time that considered hermaphroditism, and the spontaneous conversion of apparently female bodies into apparently male ones, to be known and natural phenomena.
He testifies, “Many times people have been seen who are androgynous, who, in other words, are called hermaphrodites, who have both sexes, I too have been one of these, and when I intended to marry I prevailed more in the masculine sex and was naturally a man and had all that was necessary for a man to be able to marry.... As for the other [charge], regarding the testimony by women questioned in this case, with whom I have had carnal coupling, they have given evidence that I was a man and had the effect of such at the time that such coupling occurred, and I was considered a man, and that is what the first of the four witnesses says, whose testimony was given to me.”
Eleno goes on to say that the other witnesses [with whom it is implied that he had sexual relations] who claim that because he couldn’t have been a man, that his ability to give the impression of one must be due to a demonic illusion, he says that these are “vain beliefs” and that “I have quite naturally been a man and a woman, and even though this may seem like a prodigious and rare thing that is seldom seen, hermaphrodites, as I have been one myself, are not against nature.” And in support of this claim, he cites classical sources such as Cicero, Augustine, and Pliny.
Race is brought into the matter in that these classical sources tended to locate populations of hermaphrodites at the edges of civilized lands, and therefore, Eleno implies, his nature may have come through his African mother. (The article explores this topic at some length that I won’t go into in detail. In essence, Eleno plays upon beliefs in the exoticized sexual Other to establish himself as both Other and Natural, rather than being unnatural and trangressive.)
It is unclear whether these arguments had an impact. There is an additional medical examination at Toledo that concludes that Eleno is, and always has been, female. But the verdict and sentence side-step the charges of sodomy and demonic association and settle somewhat confusingly on bigamy. That is, that Eleno failed to obtain proper documentation of his original husband’s death before marrying María. (For which conclusion, the marriage to María must necessarily have been considered potentially valid, rather than the “contempt for the sacrament of marriage” that had originally been charged.)
The sentence was two hundred lashes and ten years confinement, but this was augmented to require a public abjuration of the crimes in an auto da fé on December 17, 1588 in Toledo. This public shaming, ironically, greatly increased Eleno’s fame and notoriety. Eleno (though now presumably required to live as the woman Elena) begins serving the “confinement” working at the Royal Hospital in Toledo, healing the indigent sick. But after only a few months the hospital administrator requested Eleno’s transfer as his presence “has caused great annoyance and embarrassment from the beginning, since many people come to see and be healed by her.” Eleno is then transferred to work at a hospital at Puente del Arzopbispo and is still followed by notoriety and interest.
In 1599, Jerónimo de Huerta published an annotated translation of Pliny--one of the texts Eleno cited in his own defense--that situates Eleno’s case, not among the hermaphroditic marvels, but in the category of deceits practiced by the servile classes, an “Andalusian slave, named Elena de Céspedes, who having abandoned female dress, for many years pretended to be a man [and] gave indications of being one, though badly sculpted, and without a beard and with some deceitful artifice; and it was so natural in style that after being examined by several surgeons and declared a man, she was married in Cien Poçuelos.” Thus all of Eleno’s accomplishments were reduced to the simple accusation of gender deception.