As Pride month comes to an end, it’s time for what I think is a really important topic – the discussion of transgender citizens in ancient history. A common aspect of transphobic rhetoric is the idea that being trans is a “new trend”, and therefore isn’t legitimate. Well here’s a quick tldr for you – being trans isn’t new! We actually have evidence which suggests that trans people were around at least 4500 years ago – so a long long way back! Not to be inflammatory, but that’s also longer than most modern religions have been around, so if you’re using your faith to justify transphobia, sorry hun but trans people were there first. But anyway!!! A quick few comments before we start, firstly, the people I’m discussing largely fall into the categories of transgender men, transgender women, and non-binary people. While this is in no way representative of the many gender identities globally, I’m going to use the term non-binary as an umbrella term to to refer to people who appear to deliberately present and act in a way which transcends the binary genders of male and female. Additionally, you might notice me jumping around with pronouns, or using pronouns that don’t seem to match up with what you know about historical characters! Honestly that’s just me trying to be respectful to the dead y’know? If some people couldn’t be recognised as their true gender in ancient times, the least I can do is try and recognise them now, in this Pride month of 2020. Finally, yes, I am well aware there isn’t a word for ‘transgender’ in ancient languages, and they wouldn’t have necessarily labelled themselves that way. But being able to see a reflection of yourself in history can be a really powerful, and supportive thing! Their identities deserve to be recognised and celebrated too! But yes, I’m aware that the term transgender is modern, but I am using a form of literary criticism to apply a modern term to similar ancient identities (in this case, people whose gender was different to their sex assigned at birth) in order to better understand them, which is a pretty well established practice! So hey hoes, off we goes!!!! Time to jump in to a discussion of transgender identities in the ancient world, and what we can learn from them.
So today we’re kicking off in the Ancient Near East, where we have arguably the largest amount of evidence for transgender history. In an ancient city called Hasanlu, in what is now Iran, there’s a tonne of graves, all of which have stuff buried with them along with the bodies. Now grave goods are normally pretty strictly gendered, which is how archaeologists can guess at the sex of skeletons. But in Hasanlu, we have some really interesting cases where bodies which appear to be biologically male are buried with traditionally female grave goods, while a couple of others have mixed burial objects. At the same site, a gold bowl was found which shows multiple bearded figures in female dress, and placed in poses usually reserved for women. Now some people would look at this and say “hey! you don’t know they were trans! that’s not proof!”, and that’s accurate – we can’t know for certain! But if the simplest answer is often correct, then assuming these unusual burials represented transgender people is arguably a pretty sound theory. Still aren’t convinced? Let’s turn to the worship of a particular goddess known as Inanna, later worshipped under the name Ishtar. Inanna was a hella cool lady, who was worshipped as a goddess of a whole bunch of things, like love, sex, war, and justice. A pretty mixed bag. In Ancient Sumer (basically like the original civilisation) Inanna was served by a group of priests called the gala, who despite being biologically male, adopted female gender roles (there’s even a theory that their name is a pun, as it sounds the same as gal-la, which is the Sumerian word for vagina). As the cult of Inanna developed, she was later served by assinnu and kurgarrū, figures who, like the gala, were identified as male at birth, but after joining the priesthood, adopted female names, pronouns, and dress. Some of these priests even castrated themselves, an act which causes you to grow boobs, lose body hair, and gain a more ‘feminine’ body shape, with fat moving to your hips and chest – which I’d argue can be pretty easily understood as an early form of gender-reassignment surgery. I mean, the fact that Inanna’s worshippers identified as a gender different to their sex assigned at birth seems pretty clear from this evidence right? But to make it even clearer, these trans priests celebrate their goddess and her abilities to transcend gender through a hymn, where they sing of her ability to “turn a man into a woman and a woman into a man”.
Interestingly priesthoods are actually some of the main ancient sources for transgender history!! Scholars generally think that the reason for this is because to change gender was seen as a kind of magical act, and so it was up to gods to facilitate gender reassignment. In ancient Rome, there was a really well known group of priests of a goddess called Cybele, who were also eunuchs. These priests were known as galli and appear to have identified, and been publicly perceived, as women. An ancient Roman author called Catullus discusses this when he talks about a youth called Attis, who despite being identified as male at birth, undergoes castration in the name of Cybele, and is from then on described with female pronouns, and feminine gendered adjectives. Another Roman author, Apuleius, talks more about these eunuch priests in his novel The Golden Ass (or Metamorphoses), in which the priests refer to themselves with female names and feminine grammar, and follow traditional female gender roles. The goddess Cybele was able to transcend gender, and so grants this gift on her worshippers, allowing any transgender women to live openly, and authentically. Pretty amazing hey?
Cybele wasn’t the only god who the Greeks and Romans thought could support transgender worshippers. We actually have multiple myths where through divine intervention, we see gender reassignment. Two transgender men, Leucippus and Iphis, both have stories written about them describing their prayers to different deities to be gifted a biologically male body (both of which are granted!!). One of the most famous cases of ancient transgender myth however is arguably a trans guy called Caeneus, who lived out the first chapter of his life as Caenis, a woman, before he was assaulted by the god Poseidon. After the assault, Caeneus was granted a wish from Poseidon, and asked to become a man – and just like that, we get the Greek hero Caeneus. Now I want to spend a bit longer on the story of Caeneus. Some people have suggested that he asked to become a man to prevent him from suffering another assault. Personally I’d argue against that. As a cisgender woman, if that was me, and all I wanted was to ensure I was never attacked, I’d probably ask for laser beams that shot out of my eyes, or to be able to electrocute people, or to y’know, get a Medusa treatment, but I definitely wouldn’t ask to be made biologically male. Because I’m not a man! I’m a woman, and so I’d rather stay in my body which enables me to be perceived as female thanks! And honestly, I think most cisgender women would agree with me on that front. The only way that I can understand Caeneus’ motivation is to view him as a transgender guy, who took a shitty situation, and used it to his advantage, allowing him to be publicly perceived as his real gender, male.
And Caeneus' story doesn't end there! He's later talked about in different mythologies as being a great warrior, 'even though he was born a woman'. We also hear about this really interesting encounter between Caeneus and some transphobic centaurs (bet you've never read that phrase before!), who use his dead name and misgender him, before our plucky hero kills them all in battle! What a guy hey?! Most importantly, the story is told in such a way that Caeneus is clearly the hero, he's the good guy. It's the transphobic centaurs who are the evil ones here, and their misgendering of Caeneus is clearly shown to be wrong, and therefore worthy of punishment. Basically Ovid said trans rights!!
But what about the lives of all those real life ancient Greeks and Romans, who couldn’t be priests, do we have evidence of their transgender identities? Well as always, it depends on how you read it. One of the most convincing cases in my opinion is part of a narrative by a Roman called Lucian, who wrote a whole set of dialogues between different sex workers. In the fifth one, a girl called Leaena is chatting to her friend about her past sexual encounters, and admits that she recently had sex with who she assumed were two masculine women, called Demonassa and Megilla. But when the three go off to have sex together, Megilla takes off a wig, revealing a shaved head, and asks to be referred to as Megillos (a male name). Megillos tells the girl that he’s not biologically male, and he doesn’t have a penis, but that he’s not intersex, or a woman. He’s a man, and Demonessa is his wife. The sex worker Leaena asks whether he’s been trapped in a female body by a god (which happened to a mythological dude called Teiresias), but Megillos says nah, mate? This wasn’t forced on me, this is who I am. His actual specific quote is “No, Leaena . . . I was born a woman like the rest of you, but I have the mind and the desires and everything else of a man”. That’s really special right?? It’s basically genuine evidence of a transgender man, who wasn’t able to be ‘out’ in public, but at least had a wife who he was able to live openly with.
Now I know some people are gonna come at me for this saying iTs a FiCTioNaL wOrk hEs nOT rEaL!!>! and to that I say, sure Jan. Okay actually what I say is imagine this. I write a whole story about the lives of sex workers in the UK, I’m the first person to actually show that their lives were pretty shitty at times (which Lucian did), I have a bunch of realistic dialogue, and then I include a bit about a dude whose skin could turn blue. Obviously that would never happen, because people can’t turn their skin blue on command, so I wouldn’t write about it in my accurate depiction of the lives of sex workers? Following this logic, Lucian writes about Leaena’s encounter with a trans man because transgender people did exist, and so it was a genuine situation that could have happened. Whether it did is irrelevant – in order for the bit to work within the larger narrative, it must have been understood as being possible. There must have been a social awareness of trans people, even if they didn’t have an explicit term for them.
The last person I want to talk about is actually a Roman emperor, generally known as Elagabalus. Elagabalus is often remembered in LGBT+ histories as an early trans woman, and honestly I’ve left this example for last just because of how open/shut this story is tbh. Elagabalus famously had a major crush on this guy called Aurelius Zoticus, and invited him round for some Netflix and chill style action. When the guy arrived however, Elagabalus greeted him in traditional women’s clothing, and asked to be referred to as a woman. And this wasn’t just a one time thing, the emperor frequently wore female dress, and asked to be known as Bassiana (a lady’s name). Not only did Bassiana ask to be referred to as a woman, she actually offered massive rewards to any physician who could perform gender reassignment surgery on her. See in Rome, the emperors were treated as almost divine figures, which meant that, just like the gods we saw previously, they could also change people’s genders, allowing Bassiana to live as a woman. Actually multiple Roman emperors exercised this ability: Mithridates VI officially changed his lover’s gender, and another emperor called Gallienus, while assigned male at birth, appears on a whole group of coins as a bearded woman, with a female gendered name and title.
Now as you’ve probably gathered, I’m an ancient historian, so my timeline of knowledge doesn’t extend that far past 500 CE, but there are tonnes more examples, I promise! Being trans isn’t a new phenomenon, it’s older than so many other things we accept as an established part of society, so please love and look after our trans siblings! This Pride month has been incredibly taxing on transgender people, with the current UK political debate around the Gender Recognition Act, celebrities like J.K. R*wling being actively transphobic, and of course the increased violence faced by the Black trans community, in particular Black trans women. Transgender people are a part of human history, and as cisgender allies, it’s vital that we use our privilege to speak up to the poisonous bigots who try and pretend otherwise.