In a first for the blog, I’m delighted to welcome guest blogger Christopher Hawthorne Moss, author of Where My Love Lies Dreaming and Beloved Pilgrim, writing about transgender people in history.
We Were Here, We Were Queer: Transgender People in History
If you believe the run-of-the-mill wisdom about gay and transgender people in history, you will believe that folks with alternate sexual desires or a sense of their identity did not appear on this green Earth until sometime in the 1890s. Philosopher Michel Foucault1 insisted that there were no homosexual people until then, and historical novelists have often assured me that there was no concept of men loving men, or women loving women, until recent times. I beg to differ. For one thing, the cause of people being gay or transgender is now understood to be part of human biology. That is, from the dawn of humankind those forces that turn an unborn child either gay or transgender, according to Joshua D. Safer, MD2, are no new thing but simply natural to the human organism. No wonder, then, do we seem to know that people have been being born this way for not only generations but millennia.
The simple fact that different organs develop in different phases of gestation can, for instance, explain why a child will be born identifying as the opposite gender than its body appears. Now that we know that at about six weeks an embryo’s brain is starting to grow, it is easy to understand why a flow of sex hormones might make a person see himself or herself as the gender of the hormones and therefore brain that develops. For instance, the flow of estrogen when I was conceived was not the end of the gestational story. When testosterone dominated my brain at its initial development, I started to see myself as a boy from a very young age. That’s when, though I did not know it until I was sixty years old, I was really Christopher and not Nanette.
History bears out this scientific fact. There have been many people who were convinced their bodies lied. For instance, the Galli3 were a group of Roman religious who were born male but insisted, and thanks to the form of Roman religion were considered sacred, they were female and dressed and acted as such. We are wise to remember that what we think of as “normal” or acceptable in present culture has taken other forms and outright contradicted what has been believed before and since. That’s why when Foucault averred no gay people we can say, “But… but what about Alexander or Piers Gaveston or Sappho?”
The colorful people who have followed this skewed path at different times and in different locations provide the intelligent and perceptive person of today with a host of examples that would curl the hair of any Christian or other religion’s fundamentalists.
For example, take Francisco de Loyola, the Spanish conquistador in the early seventeenth century, who ran away from a convent to travel to South America and serve brilliantly as a soldier, gambler, scrapper, and notorious flirt with the daughters of his hosts. When he was up against the wall having killed a man, he turned himself into the Bishop of Lima and confessed he had a woman’s body. He later asked for and received a dispensation from the Pope to allow him to continue to dress as a man.
Then there was the Chevalier d’Eon4 who acted as a spy in a noblewoman’s household, dressing as a woman. When she returned to France in 1770 she insisted she was and always had been a woman, in spite of having lived as a man when she joined the foreign service. She was such a puzzle to the court of King Louis XIV that a wager was placed that ultimately had to wait until she died and her body examined and proved to be a man’s.
The rules of society had to be challenged when James Barry5 attended medical school and joined the British navy. He excelled in his profession, championing sanitation in military hospitals and performing the first cesarean section where both mother and baby survived. He had a temper, or was it simply pride, for he dueled frequently, but no one knew what he had in his pants until he dropped dead on his parlor floor in his nineties and was found by his housekeeper.
Then there was Albert D. J. Cashier6, who along with over one hundred other women, served as men in the American Civil War. Even with physical exams and wounds that had to be treated, Cashier not only passed as male throughout the war but back on the farm in Illinois. He had to reveal his body’s gender when his employer hit him with his car and he was sent to the hospital. After that he was forced to wear dresses, but rather than being seen as a cross-dresser by those around him, he saw himself as cross-dressed when he had to put on a nightgown or corset.
I could go on and on with stories about the women who posed as men in the American West or in the theater in England, received honors from the Czar, or indeed the well-known pianist Billy Tipton who started out as Dorothy. What is harder to understand is why there are so few transwomen in recorded history—perhaps because it is easier for a woman to pass as a man in eras where people wore lots of clothing and never were seen nude, and in the same era a woman who turned out to be a man might just be punished for unnatural sexual acts rather than be recognized as living the best way they could.
You may ask, is a man dressed as a woman a transvestite or transgender? If you talk to her, you will learn if she sees herself as dressing a part or dressing as she feels she should. Or perhaps whether a man who was born female is just trying to make her way in a man’s world? Too many books about the latter written by women writers insist on calling transmen “she” and intimating some sort of hyperfeminism rather than recognizing an inner truth.
By the way, sexual orientation is not the same as gender identity. A transman can be a lesbian or a gay man until the testosterone he takes in the era of modern medicine helps him grow a beard. My friend Nathan is now married to a woman he lived with when he identified as a woman, and I am one of few transmen who has been married to a man for thirty-four years even though same-sex marriage has only been legal for a few.
When you write historical or contemporary novels, remember this: your MM romance may include someone who has not yet had surgery to give him a cock.
Christopher Hawthorne Moss is a GLBTQ novelist and writer who is transgender and is known for his transgender novel about the Crusade of 1101, BELOVED PILGRIM7.
- “Michel Foucault,” Wikipedia, last modified January 11, 2016, accessed January 20, 2016, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Michel_Foucault.
- Safer, Joshua D., and Tangpricha, Vin, “Out Of The Shadows: It Is Time To Mainstream Treatment For Transgender Patients”, Endocrine practice : official journal of the American College of Endocrinology and the American Association of Clinical Endocrinologists2 (March 2008): 248–250, doi: 10.4158/EP.14.2.248
- “Galli,” Wikipedia, last modified January 17, 2016, accessed January 20, 2016, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Galli.
- “Chevalier d’Eon,” Wikipedia, last modified January 9, 2016, accessed January 20, 2016, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chevalier_d%27Eon.
- “James Barry (surgeon),” Wikipedia, last modified January 12, 2016, accessed January 20, 2016, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Barry_%28surgeon%29.
- “Albert Cashier,” Wikipedia, last modified October 27, 2015, accessed January 20, 2016, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Albert_Cashier.
- Moss, Christopher Hawthorne. Beloved Pilgrim. 2nd ed. Tallahassee: Harmony Ink Press, 2014.