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But celibacy raised problems of its own. The Christian writer Ambrose promoted celibacy by saying that a celibate bishop was saving himself to be a "bride of Christ." Celibacy would be rewarded with sexual fulfillment in the afterlife. Ambrose continued, "Christ, beholding his Church.. . says, 'Behold, thou art fair. My love, behold thou art fair, thy eyes are like a dove.'" Ambrose claimed, "We kiss Christ. . . with the kiss of communion." "Open to me," Ambrose has Christ say to his bride, the Church, "and I will fill you." The bishop Cyprian went on to assert that membership in the church entails submission to its bishop in the sense that a wife submits to her husband. This priestly gender-bending subordinates women and sets the stage for sexual abuse. As one climbs down the ladder from God to bishop, to priest, to confessor, each submits to the other in an alternating exchange of sexual identity. Homosexual abuse can masquerade as heterosexual submission.
Some early Christians did go all the way. Origen of Alexandria and a group of Christian men called Valesians practiced self-castration. Origen was criticized for taking the words" 'There are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven' in too literal and extreme a sense, thinking both to fulfill the words of the Savior and also, since although youthful in years, he discoursed on divine subjects with women as well as with men, to avoid all suspicion of shameful slander in the minds of unbelievers." Origen was also one of the first to use the Bride of Christ metaphor extensively. I wonder if Origen wasn't in fact female-identified, as his association with women has been noted. In any case, he bought himself some recognition with the self-castration, and Jerome mixed grudging praise with criticism.
The eunuch category in Christianity was also populated with masculine women. Earliest Christianity features numerous stories of holy women who dressed and lived as men, the so-called "transvestite saints." The earliest, and perhaps best known, is Thecla, a companion of Paul. Thecla heard the preaching of Paul, converted to Christianity, and vowed to remain a virgin. She dressed as a man, traveled with Paul, and was baptized by him, also while dressed as a man. Similarly, Eugenia explained why she dressed as a man: "From the confidence I have in Christ, I did not want to be a woman. . . . I have acted manfully as men do, embracing boldly the virginity that is in Christ."
Many such legends have been studied, and in each a link is made between pursuing holiness and renouncing a feminine identity, called being "clothed in Christ." Many of the women who dressed as men introduced themselves as eunuchs, possibly to explain their high voice, beardless face, and feminine body shape. Jerome, however, condemned the women as "eunuchettes." Interestingly, some of the eunuchs and eunuchettes were said to travel with one another, an early precursor to today's occasional reciprocal trans couple.
There were critics, however, who refused to cut even real eunuchs any slack. As one historian summarizes, "Ecclesiastical sources frequently suggest that, in the struggle for ascetic virtue, eunuchs had 'cheated' and were not able to attain fully the celibate ideal. That is, celibacy was too easy for them because they did not have to struggle to attain it."
The beginning of the end for real-life eunuchs came from those determined to substitute celibacy for castration. A monk, John Cassian, wrote, "The blessed Apostle is not forcing us by a cruel command to cut off our hands or our feet or our genitals. He desires, rather, that the body of sin, which indeed consists in members, be destroyed as quickly as possible by a zeal for perfect holiness." Cassian went on to found a particularly mean-spirited order of monks. And Jerome stated, "Go then and so live in your monastery, free from all stain of defilement, that you may come forth to Christ's altar as a virgin steps from her bower."
By the beginning of the fifth century, monasticism had become the new Christian masculine ideal. In this way, the Christian church several centuries after Christ totally appropriated the concept of a real-life gender-variant eunuch, the kind that Jesus and the prophets explicitly welcomed into the kingdom of God. The real-life Street eunuch was replaced by the male monk, a make-believe eunuch. This loss of the eunuch category for gender-variant people forced gender variation underground. Famous gender-variant people surfaced now and then in Europe throughout the Middle Ages and into modern times, but only now is widespread natural human gender variation reemerging in Western society after a millennium of repression.
in Early Islam
Hit was a mukhannathun who lived about the time of the Prophet Muhammad, around A.D. 630 in the Western calendar. Because women could be accompanied only by their children, female slaves, and mukhannathun, these last were well positioned to supply inside information about prospective brides to eager suitors. In describing a girl's charms to a potential suitor, a mukhannathun had to be discreet, however, and Hit earned condemnation for being too explicit, even crude in this regard.
According to one of the Prophet's wives, Hit told the Prophet that if he was victorious in taking a certain city, he should "go after Gbaylan's daughter; for she comes forward with four and goes away with eight." The reference was to the four belly wrinkles that wrapped around the sides of her body, so that eight could be seen from the back, a sensuous image for the time. The Prophet was outraged and said, "Do not admit these into your presence." According to Asian scholars, "The Prophet's words imply that the mukhannathath's awareness of what men found attractive in women was proof of his own sexual interest in them, and that this is the reason that he and others like him should be barred from the women's quarters." Hit was thus condemned not for "expressing his own appreciation of a woman's body, but describing it for the benefit of another man." Granting a "license to be with women" was appropriate only for "one whose limbs are languid and whose tongue has a lisp by way of gentle natural constitution, and who has no desire for women and is not. . . in evil acts." Despite Hit's transgression, mukbannathun continued to play a significant role as matchmakers for eligible bachelors who, as a rule, had little opportunity to meet eligible women.
Tuways was a mukhannathun who was born in A.D. 632 and died in A.D. 711 at the age of eighty-two. He was distinguished as a musician who sang "art music" using measured rhyme. He was a musical innovator and trained the next generation of musicians, relying on a kind of tambourine called a duff. He was married and had fathered children. Tuways was a "leader of a group of male professional musicians who publicly adopted women's fashions and were appreciated for their wit and charm as well as their music, but were disapproved of by others who saw their music and flippant style as immorality and irreligion." They were not matchmakers like Hit.
Al-Dalal was also a mukhannathun, less cultured than Tuways and, like Hit, best known for getting into trouble. Though physically beautiful and charming, al-Dalal's wit was crude and seriously irreligious. According to one story, "He farted during prayers and said, 'I praise Thee fore and aft!'" He was also a go-between who arranged assignations, and is depicted as encouraging immodesty and immorality in women. AlDalal was close to two scandalous women in Medina who were said to engage in "horse-racing, and while riding to have shown their anklebracelets." The women were killed, and when al-Dalal fled to Mecca, the women there viewed him as a threat: "After killing the women of Mcdma you have come to kill us."
Al-Dalal's sexual orientation was toward males. He "adored women and loved to be with them; but any demands [by them for his sexual favors] were in vain." In one story, a Syrian commander overheard his singing and invited him to visit. Al-Dalal refused to sing unless he was sold a beautiful servant boy. The commander meanwhile wished for a slave girl of a particular and very voluptuous description, which al-Dalal arranged. Another story relates that "after arranging a marriage, al-Dalal would convince the bride that her sexual excitement at the prospect of the wedding night was excessive and would only disgust her husband, and then he would offer to calm her down by having sexual intercourse with her first. He would then go to the groom, make the same point, and offer himself, passively, to cool him down as well." The outraged and "jealous" ruler Sulayman then ordered all mukhannathun castrated:
"They are admitted to the women of Quraysh and corrupt them." Interestingly, even with explicit testimony about al-Dalal's homosexuality, which is condemned in the Quran, it was the corruption of women that was used to justified the punishment, not effeminacy or homosexuality.26
Although the castration of mukhannathun as punishment begins a repressive period for gender-variant people in Mecca and Medina, the supposed victims showed curious reactions:
"This is simply a circumcision which we must undergo again."
Reports of gender-variant entertainers resurface one hundred years later, in A.D. 813, again using the tambourine-like duff, together with a particular drum and a long-necked lute called a tunbar. Wit, more than music, now defined the presentation, described as "savage mockery, extravagant burlesque, and low sexual humor."
D'Arc, A Medieval Icon
Jehanne d'Arc was born in the province of Lorraine in France, around 1412. Fifty years before, the bubonic plague had killed one-third of the population of Europe. To make matters worse, France was at war with England. Marauding English armies were plundering the peasants of France, and French nobles were unable to oust them. Jehanne d'Arc, a peasant, emerged as the only military leader able to defeat the English.
At the age of seventeen, Jehanne d'Arc, dressed in men's clothing and with a group of followers, approached the heir to the French throne, Prince Charles, and offered to forge an army of peasants to drive out the English. Charles agreed and authorized Jehanne's command of a ten-thousand-strong peasant army. Jehanne d'Arc defeated the English, led by the duke of Bedford, at Orleans later that year, in 1429. Jehanne continued liberating towns occupied by English troops, making it possible for Charles to receive the crown. When Charles was crowned, Jehanne d'Arc stood beside him with a combat banner.
A year later, Jehanne was captured by the Burgundians, allies of England, who referred to Jehanne as hommasse, a slur meaning "man-woman," or masculine woman. The king of England, Henry VI, wrote to Pierre Cauchon, the bishop of Beauvais and leader of the Catholic Inquisition: "It is sufficiently notorious and well-known that for some time a woman calling herself Jeanne the Pucelle [the maid], leaving off the dress and clothing of the feminine sex, a thing contrary to divine law and abominable before God, and forbidden by all laws, wore clothing and armour such as is worn by men." Jehanne was sold to the English by the Burgundians and then turned over to the French Inquisition, which charged Jehanne with cross-dressing.
In the tradition of the transvestite saints, who renounced sexuality (hence a maid) and affirmed masculinity, Jehanne claimed that dressing as a man was a religious duty compelled by voices spoken in visions. The verbatim court proceeding states, "You have said that, by God's command, you have continually worn man's dress. . . your hair short, cut en rond about your ears, with nothing left to show you to be a woman; and that on many occasions you received the Body of our Lord Holy Communion] dressed in this fashion.. . and you have said that not for anything would you take an oath not to wear this dress." Therefore, the court concluded that "you condemn yourself in being unwilling to wear the customary clothing of your sex." Thus Jehanne d'Arc was sentenced to die.
Jehanne d'Arc was burned alive at the stake in Rouen on May 30, 1431, at the age of nineteen. After the clothing burned off and Jehanne was presumed dead, the inquisitors raked back the coals to show the naked body, revealing "all the secrets that belong to a woman, to take away any doubts from people's minds." Jehanne d'Arc must have been convincingly masculine to require such extraordinary measures.
Feinberg writes, "Joan of Arc suffered the excruciating pain of being burned
alive rather than renounce her identity. I know the kind of seething hatred that
resulted in her murder-I've faced it. But I wish I'd been taught the truth about
her life and her courage when I was a frightened, confused trans youth. What an
inspirational role model-a brilliant transgender peasant teenager leading an army
of laborers into battle."
Ending Conversion Therapy: Supporting and Affirming
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Ending Conversion Therapy: Supporting and Affirming LGBTQ Youth. HHS Publication No. (SMA) 15-4928. Rockville, MD: Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 2015.