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Gender Variant Expression: An Historical Account

Gender Variant Expression: An Historical Account
Anne M. Vitale PhD
January 14, 2002

Reprinted from "History and Resolution of Sex/Gender Integration Needs As Experienced by Four Male-To-Female Transsexuals," Anne Vitale (aka Tunukchina Acoma), unpublished Doctoral Dissertation, Professional School for Psychological Studies, San Diego, 1982

Although the concept of changing one' s sex has gained recent attention in both the medical and popular presses, it is neither new nor unique in the annals of history. Recorders of mythology and history, as well as cultural anthropologists, have all published repeated accounts of the phenomenon as it pertains to their respective fields. In Funk and Wagnall's Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology and Legend (Leach, 1950), reports of myths regarding change of sex are common. One example cited is that of Tiresias of Theban, a soothsayer who happened upon two snakes who were copulating. Tiresias killed the female of the pair and as a form of punishment was promptly changed into a woman by the angered gods. When Tiresias later came to look upon his new form as being more pleasurable, especially in regard to having intercourse, the gods promptly changed Tiresias back to a male.

In a parallel case, Funk and Wagnall also tell us of a tale from East Indian lore wherein a king was transformed into a woman by bathing in a magic river. The new woman bore 100 sons to share the kingdom along with the 100 sons the king had while still a man. Later, when asked if she wished to return to her male form, she refused, citing that a woman takes more pleasure in the act of love than does a man.

In yet another mythological account, the Greek goddess Venus Castina was assigned the task of responding with sympathy and understanding to the yearning of female souls locked in male bodies (Bulliet, 1928). In keeping with this myth, we are also told of the tale told by Herodotus. As legend goes, when the Sythians' rear guard pillaged the temple of Venus at Ascelon, the goddess Venus was so enraged that she made women of the plunderers (Krafft-Ebing, 1931).

Finally, there is the mythological account of how in the ancient kingdom of Phrygia, the priests of the god Attis were obliged to follow the example of their deity by castrating themselves, taking on the wearing of women's clothes and the performing of women's tasks. Some of the priests were known to have gone even further in their religious fervor and removed the entire external male genitalia (Spencer, 1946).

Moving from mythology to witchcraft, we have tales of two examples of sex change occurrences through the intervention of demons. Witches were said to possess drugs that were capable of reversing the sex of the taker. As in the current medical practice of administering drugs to change a person's sex, the witch's brew was also irreversible (Masters, 1962).

Continuing, Masters also cited a report in Malleus Malificarum (Hammer Against Witches), published in 1489, of an eyewitness account of the Devil changing a girl into a boy at Rome.

Transsexualism also existed early in the real world. Classical history writings such as that of Philo, the Jewish philosopher of Alexandria, tell of people who employed every device to artificially change their nature as men into women (Masters, 1966).

The Roman emperors were notorious for their effeminacy and female impersonation, but the first involuntary sex change operation may have occurred when Emperor Nero ordered his surgeons to surgically change the ex-slave Sporum--the person who most closely resembled a wife Nero had killed-into a woman. Upon completion of Sporum's transition, Nero and the ex-slave were formally married (Bulliet, 1928).

During the period between the Renaissance and the late nineteenth century, several examples of cross-gender behavior occurred in France. Ring Henry III, who reigned during the sixteenth century, declared that the term of reference to the sovereign would be "Sa Majeste," literally meaning, Her Majesty. The king went so far as to appear in formal session before his deputies, on at least one occasion, dressed entirely as a woman (De Savitsch, 1958). Gilbert (1926), Bulliet (1966) and De Savitsch (1958) corroborate on the following two reports. The first is that of the Abbe de Choisey. Citing the Abbe's own autobiography, they report that the Abbe had been raised to adulthood by his mother from earliest infancy as though he were a girl. Active in King Louis XIV's court, at 32 he served as the Ring's Ambassador to Siam; he claimed to have had male lovers and was extremely fond of male heterosexual admiration.

The second report is that of the Chevalier d'Eon de Beaumont, who was the most famous figure in French history to openly exhibit cross-gender behavior. The Chevalier was so adept at passing as a woman that he vied with Madame Pompadour for the affection of King Louis XV. Recognizing the uniqueness of the Chevalier's abilities, the king eventually employed him in the dual post of foreign diplomat and espionage agent. In later life, the true sexual identity of the Chevalier became such a subject of public controversy that King Louis XV declared him to be a woman and forbade him to ever live again as a man. In all, the Chevalier d'Eon is reported to have lived 49 years as a man and 34 as a woman.

Cross-culturally among preliterate peoples, cross-gender behavior was a generally accepted fact of life. Westermarsk (1917) wrote that continent wide, among the North American Indians, since ancient times, there have been men dressing themselves in the clothes and performing the functions of women. Specifically, Ford (1931) wrote of the Elxa, Yuman Indians who underwent a change of sex as a result of transition-predicting dreams, or on occasion, from messages received from plants.

Gifford (1933) reported that the Cocopa Indians called males who exhibited feminine character from boyhood, e L ha. The females who played with the boys, made bows and arrows and rode into battle, were called war'hemch.

Devereux (1937), in an article on institutionalized homosexuality among the Mohave Indians, noted that boys who were chosen to become shamans, priest-doctors who not only cured the sick but ostensibly controlled the events that affected the welfare of the people, adopted a female name and female characteristics in an initiation rite. Called an alyha, the initiate would eventually take on a husband, mimic the genetic female menses and even mimic a pregnancy that would inevitably lead to a "stillbirth."

Hill (1935) wrote of the Nadl E, cross-gender people of the Navaho, and Powers (1960) wrote of the i-wa-musp (man-woman) of the California Indians.

The full spectrum of studies relating to the cross-gender behavior of preliterate people throughout the entire world has been extensively documented and is available through specific archaeological and anthropological writings.


Bulliet, C. Venus Castina, Famous Female Impersonators Celestial and Human. New York: Covici, Friede, 1928.

Crawly, E. The Mystic Rose. New York: Meridian Books, 1960.

Creekmore, H. The Satires of Juvenal. New York: Mentor, 1963.

De Savitsch, E. Homosexuality, Transvestism and Changes of Sex. London: Wm. Heinemann Medical Books, 1958.

Devereux, G. Institutionalized homosexuality of the Mohave Indians. Human Biol., 1937, 9, 508-527.

Ford, C. The Yuman. Univ. of Calif. Publications in American Archaeology and Ethnology, 1931, 28 (whole issue).

Gifford, E. The Cocopa. Univ. of Calif. Publications in American Archaeology and Ethnology, 1933, 31 (whole issue).

Gilbert, O. Men in Women's Guise. London: John Lane, 1926.

Hill, W. The status of the hermaphrodite and transvestism in Navaho culture. American Anthropology, 1935, 37,

Leach, M. (Ed.). Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology and Legend. New York: Funk & Wagnall, 1950.

Masters, R. Eros and Evil. New York: Julian Press, 1962.

Powers, S. Tribes of California 1877. In Crawly, E., The Mystic Rose. New York: Meridian Books, 1960, Pp.

Spencer, R. The cultural aspects of eunuchism. Ciba Symposia, 1946, 8, 406-420.

Spier, L. Yuman Tribes of the Gila River. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1933.

Westermarck, E. The Origin and Development of the Moral Ideas. Vol. 2. London: Macmillan, 1917.







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