History of Transgender People
Today, the news is full of stories about people who are transgender, from small children who identify with the sex opposite of what they are born with to celebrities who have made the decision to live life as the opposite sex. According to the American Psychological Association, a person who is transgender identifies with a different sex than they were born with, whether it be a person born as male who identifies as a female or vice versa. The fact is that transgender people are not a new phenomenon. In fact, during some historical periods, transgender people were often revered in society.
“The Great Mother”
In early civilizations, tribes identified with what was known as the “Great Mother,” described as an intersex deity. Priests who had undergone castration or euniching presided over ceremonies to honor the Great Mother in cultures where women were held in the highest esteem. Records from ancient eras indicate that some of the priests may have been trangender and these records date as far back as the Paleolithic era. In the Middle East, male-to-female priests were common although the Muslim tradition differentiated between transsexuals who lived as prostitutes and those who served the gods.
Kings and Queens
Intersexed deities in Africa were common and some of the tradition survives today. In Abomey, the Heviosso continue many of the transgender traditions and the area is well-known for women resembling those of the Amazons portrayed in movies and books. King Ashurbanipal of Assyria, who ruled in the seventh century BC, often wore women’s clothing, something that was later used to overthrow him. In Egypt, Queen Hatshepsut became the second woman to rule. She donned men’s clothing, complete with a false beard. She groomed her daughter, Neferure, as her successor, insisting that she also dress as a man, but the child did not live to adulthood. Nzinga ruled Angola, often dressing as a woman. He led many successful military battles against the Portuguese despite his transgender tendencies.
During the Middle Ages, a change in society led to the downfall of transgender leaders. Much of this was due to a change from matriarchal society to a patriarchal leadership. Females began to be treated as lesser beings and transgender people were viewed as deviant rather than something to be revered. During the Middle Ages, transgender people were tolerated only slightly and only if they were members of a royal class. Nero had one of his slaves castrated in order to change his gender and then took the boy as his wife in a legal ceremony witnessed by the public. The young man, Sporus, was from then on clothed as and accompanied Nero as an empress.
As battles broke out among areas, transgender as well as homosexual tendencies were often used as justification for striking down an enemy. In 1429, Joan of Arc dressed in men’s clothing and presented herself at the court of Prince Charles. She was put in charge of French troops, who called her “man-woman,” by the heir to the French throne and ultimately led a victorious drive against the English. She was abducted by English sympathizers and, although the French king could have paid her ransom, he did not. Although many believe she was burned at the stake for witchcraft, she was actually killed for wearing men’s clothing, something the church called “idoltry.”
Although transgender people did not disappear as time went on, they did become more subversive and being openly transgender was viewed as an abomination unless the person was in the entertainment industry. In 1777, Charles-Genevieve-Louis-Auguste-Andre-Timothee Eon de Beaumont, a French spy, was allowed to return to France only if she live and dress as a woman. For years, there were questions about the spy’s true gender. Upon her death, it was determined that she was male. Dr. James Barry a surgeon with the British army was discovered to have been female upon his death after posing as a male since at least 1809. The first paper on transsexuality was published in 1869, written by Karl Friedrich Otto Westphal.
Ancient and modern history is full of references to men and women who are living as transgender people. Today, being transgender is more readily accepted than it has been in the past few decades. However, it has not yet returned to the revered status it had during early civilizations.