Transgender history dates back to the first recorded instances of transgender individuals in ancient civilizations in Asia.
Inscribed pottery shards from the Middle Kingdom of Egypt (2000–1800 BCE), found near ancient Thebes (now Luxor, Egypt), list three human genders: tai (male), sḫt (“sekhet”) and hmt (female). Sḫt is often translated as “eunuch”, although there is little evidence that such individuals were castrated. In the Eighteenth Dynasty of Egypt, Queen Hatshepsut became pharaoh and was believed to wear male clothing and a false beard. Many existing statues alternatively show her in typically feminine attire as well as those that depict her in the royal ceremonial attire. Statues portraying Sobekneferu also combine elements of traditional male and female iconography and, by tradition, may have served as inspiration for these works commissioned by Hatshepsut.
Uganda has a long and, until relatively recently, quite permissive LGBT history. During precolonial times, Religious roles for cross-dressing men (homosexual priests) were historically found among the Bunyoro people. The Teso people also acknowledged a category of men who dressed as women.
George Catlin (1796-1872) Dance to the Berdache. Depicts a ceremonial dance to celebrate the two-spirit person among the Sac and Fox Indians.
Prior to western contact, some American Native tribes had third-gender roles, but details were only recorded after the arrival of Europeans. Roles included “berdache” (a derogatory term for people who were assigned male at birth, who assumed a traditionally feminine role) and “passing women” (people who were assigned female at birth who took on a traditionally masculine role). The term “berdache” is not a Native American word; rather it was of European origin and covered a range of third-gender people in different tribes. Not all Native American tribes recognized transgender people.
One of the first accounts of transgender people in the Americas was made by Jesuit missionary Joseph-François Lafitau who spent six years among the Iroquois in 1711. He observed “women with manly courage who prided themselves upon the profession of warrior” as well as “men cowardly enough to live as women.”
Further information: Ancient Assyria, Homosexuality in India, and LGBT in Islam
In ancient Assyria, there were homosexual and transgender cult prostitutes, who took part in public processions, singing, dancing, wearing costumes, sometimes wearing women’s clothes and carrying female symbols, even at times performing the act of giving birth.
In ancient India, Hijra are a caste of third-gender, or transgender group who live a feminine role. Hijra may be born male or intersex, and some may have been born female. Hijras have a recorded history in the Indian subcontinent from antiquity onwards as suggested by the Kama Sutra period.
In Persia, poets such as Sa’di, Hafiz, and Jami wrote poems replete with homoerotic allusions, including sex with transgender young women or males enacting transgender roles exemplified by the köçeks and the bacchás, and Sufi spiritual practices.
Further information: Homosexuality in ancient Greece
Sappho reading to her companions on an Attic vase of c. 435 BC.
In Ancient Greece and Phrygia, and later in the Roman Republic, the Goddess Cybele was worshiped by a cult of people who castrated themselves, and thereafter took female dress and referred to themselves as female. These early transgender figures have also been referred by several authors as early gay role models.
Further information: Homosexuality in ancient Rome
This covers roughly the period from The Enlightenment to today.
On March 15, 2004 – The Alteration of Sex Description and Sex Status Act, 2003 comes into force, allowing transgender and intersex people to change their legally recognized sex.
In September 2017, the Botswana High Court ruled that the refusal of the Registrar of National Registration to change a transgender man’s gender marker was “unreasonable and violated his constitutional rights to dignity, privacy, freedom of expression, equal protection of the law, freedom from discrimination and freedom from inhumane and degrading treatment”. LGBT activists celebrated the ruling, describing it as a great victory. At first, the Botswana Government announced it would appeal the ruling, but decided against it in December, supplying the transman with a new identity document that reflects his gender identity.
A similar case, where a transgender woman sought to change her gender marker to female, was heard in December 2017. The High Court ruled that the Government must recognize her gender identity. She dedicated her victory to “every single trans diverse person in Botswana”.
In Zapotec cultures of Oaxaca a muxe is an individual assigned male at birth who dresses and otherwise behaves in ways associated with females. They may be seen as a third gender. Muxe may do certain kinds of women’s work such as embroidery but others do the male work of making jewelry. One study estimates that six percent of males in an Isthmus Zapotec community in the early 1970s were muxe.
United States of America
Main article: History of transgender people in the United States
Further information: LGBT history in the United States
Christine Jorgensen in 1954
There were isolated cases of people living as the opposite gender in the early years of the Republic such as Joseph Lobdell. During the Civil War, over 200 women donned men’s clothing and fought as soldiers; some were transgender and lived the rest of their lives as men, such as Albert Cashier.
In 1895 a group of self-described androgynes in New York organized a club called the Cercle Hermaphroditos, based on their wish “to unite for defense against the world’s bitter persecution”.
A couple of first-person accounts in the early years of the 20th century cast some light on what life for a transgender person was like then, including The Autobiography of an Androgyne (1918) by Jennie June (born in 1874 as Earl Lind). Notable American jazz musician and bandleader Billy Tipton (born in 1914 as Dorothy Lucille Tipton) lived as a man from the 1940s until his death.
The idea of someone changing sex was unknown to most people until news about Christine Jorgensen burst onto the scene in 1952. She was the first widely publicized person to have undergone sex reassignment surgery. Around the same time, organization and clubs began to form, such as Virginia Prince’s Tranvestia publication for an international organization of cross-dressers, but this operated in the same shadows as did the still forming gay subculture. In the 1960s, transgender and gay activism began with riots in 1966 at Compton’s Cafeteria in San Francisco and in a defining event in gay and transgender activism, the 1969 Stonewall Riots in New York.
The 1970s and 1980s saw organizations devoted to transgender social activities or activism come and go, including activist Lou Sullivan’s FTM support group that grew into FTM International, the leading advocacy group for female-to-male transgender individuals. Some feminist and lesbian organizations and individuals began to question whether transgender individuals could be accepted in events designated for one sex only, such as the women’s music collective Olivia Records where trans woman Sandy Stone had long been employed, or in the 1990s at the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival which had a “women-born-women” in policy.
Among Native Americans, the term Two Spirit was adopted in 1994 with general, though not universal agreement among various tribes to refer to third gender or gender-variant individuals in their communities.
The 1990s saw the establishment of Transgender Day of Remembrance to honor those lost to violence, transgender marches and parades around the time of Gay Pride celebrations and increasingly in the 2000s and after, the visibility of transgender individuals rose, along with actresses like Laverne Cox who was on the cover of TIME and exemplified by Caitlyn Jenner coming out in 2015. Many news sources have described Jenner as the most famous openly transgender American.
Organizations such as the Girl Scouts and the Episcopal Church announced acceptance of transgender people in the 2010s. In 2016, the Obama administration issued guidance that clarified Title IX protections for transgender students. This letter included definitions of terminology and clarified the rights of transgender students, the most well-known being allowance of transgender students to use bathrooms and locker rooms matching their gender identity. However, some legislative bodies took up bills seen as discriminatory, such as North Carolina’s HB 2. The Obama administration’s guidance for protection of transgender students was rescinded in early 2017 by the Trump administration.
Hawaii became the first state to elect an openly transgender woman to statewide office when Kim Coco Iwamoto was elected to the Hawaii Board of Education in 2006, and later as commissioner on the Hawaii Civil Rights Commission in 2012.
Main article: LGBT history in Canada
Further information: Timeline of LGBT history in Canada
Further information: Transgender rights in Canada
During the colonial period in Canada a European system of beliefs and values was virtually imposed on the First Nations. As part of this enterprise, missionaries made some of the first observations of LGBT practices among native populations. Jesuit Joseph-François Lafitau spent six years among the Iroquois starting in 1711 where he made important discoveries about Iroquois society. About his observations of cross-gender behavior he later wrote, “If there were women with manly courage who prided themselves upon the profession of warrior, which seems to become men alone, there were also men cowardly enough to live as women.”
In 1738 The arrival of Esther Brandeau, a young Jewish woman disguised as a boy and using the male pseudonym Jacques La Fargue, caused a minor scandal in Quebec City.
In 2002, sexual orientation and gender identity were included in the Northwest Territories Human Rights Act.
In February 2011, the House of Commons passed at third reading NDP MP Bill Siksay’s Bill C-389, to amend the federal Canadian Human Rights Act to include gender identity and gender expression as prohibited grounds of discrimination under Canadian federal anti-discrimination laws, at third reading, but it died on the order paper in the Senate when Parliament was dissolved. The bill was reintroduced as Bill C-279 in the subsequent Parliament and passed second reading on June 6, 2012. June 2012 also saw the addition of gender identity and gender expression to the Ontario Human Rights Code and of gender identity to the Manitoba Human Rights Code.
May 19 2012: following a legal battle to reverse her disqualification for not being a “naturally born female”, Vancouver resident Jenna Talackova successfully became the first transgender woman to compete in a Miss Universe pageant. She does not make the Top 5, but is one of four contestants awarded the title of “Miss Congeniality”.
On December 6, 2012 Bill No. 140 of the 61st General Assembly of Nova Scotia known as the Transgendered Persons Protection Act was given Royal Assent by the then Lieutenant Governor of Nova Scotia Mayann Francis. It added both gender identity and gender expression to the list of things explicitly protected from harassment in the province’s Human Rights Act.
On March 20 2013, – The House of Commons passed Bill C-279, a private member’s bill sponsored by Randall Garrison, which officially extends human rights protections to transgender and transsexual people in Canada. The bill passes with virtually unanimous support on the opposition benches, as well as 18 members of the governing Conservative Party caucus, although the majority of Conservatives are opposed.
On February 25 2015 – The Senate of Canada amends Bill C-279, the transgender equality bill passed by the House of Commons of Canada in 2013, in ways which are criticized as transphobic.
December 1 – During debate in the Legislative Assembly of Alberta on the inclusion of gender identity as protected grounds in the provincial Human Rights Code, MLA Estefania Cortes-Vargas was represented in media coverage during the election campaign as female and lesbian, in December 2015 they formally came out as non-binary in the legislature during debate on the inclusion of transgender rights in the provincial human rights code. While the provincial Hansard normally reports members’ speeches under the gender honorifics “Mr.” or “Ms.”, Cortes-Vargas is recorded as “Member Cortes-Vargas”.
December 17 – Kael McKenzie was appointed to the Provincial Court of Manitoba, becoming Canada’s first-ever transgender judge.
In 2016, gender identity or expression was added to Quebec Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which is both a charter of rights and a human rights act.
January 21 2016 – Through her foundation, Jennifer Pritzker gave a $2 million donation to create the world’s first endowed academic chair of transgender studies, at the University of Victoria in British Columbia; Aaron Devor was chosen as the inaugural chair.
May 17 2016 – Federal Minister of Justice Jody Wilson-Raybould introduces Bill C-16, which will update the Canadian Human Rights Act and the Criminal Code to include “gender identity and gender expression” as protected grounds from discrimination, hate publications and advocating genocide. The bill will also add “gender identity and expression” to the list of aggravating factors in sentencing, where the accused commits a criminal offence against an individual because of those personal characteristics. Although the New Democratic Party had introduced similar private member’s bills several times in previous years, C-16 represents the first time such a bill has been put forward by the governing party in the House of Commons.
Since June 2017, all places within Canada explicitly within Canadian Human Rights Act, equal opportunity and/or anti-discrimination legislation prohibit discrimination against gender identity or gender identity or expression.
As of August 31, 2017, Canadians can indicate that they do not identify as male or female on their passports. This is an ongoing effort by the federal government to eventually allow individuals to indicate their sex as ‘x’ on their passport and other government-issued identification.
January 11 2018 – Canadian Women’s Hockey League player Jessica Platt came out as a transgender woman, making her the first transgender woman to come out in North American professional hockey.
Australasia and Oceania
In the Cook Islands, the akava’ine is a Māori Rarotongan word which has become used since the 2000s to refer to transgender people of Māori descent from the Cook Islands. It is a contemporary identity which arose through cross-cultural contact with other Polynesians living in New Zealand, especially the Samoan Fa’afafine.
In Samoa, the Fa’afafine (“in the manner of a woman”) are a type of third gender with uncertain origin who go back at least to the beginning of the twentieth century. Fa’afafine are male at birth, and express both masculine and feminine gender traits.
The bayog, asog in the Visayas and babalyans who dressed in women’s clothes invoked spirits with their femininity they existed in the Precolonial times where considered spiritual leaders who were highly revered in the community; the practiced stopped in 1625 after Spanish subjugation. Cross dressing was practiced in the American colonial rule where gay men dressed as women usually flocking in the streets of Manila like the story of Markova the Comfort Gay during World War II abused by Japanese soldiers. Helen Cruz pioneered in transgender rights in the Philippines during the 1960s.
Gulf Arab states
The khanith are a third gender category in Oman and the Arabian Peninsula who function sexually, and in some ways socially, as women.
Main article: Transgender in China
Transgender Studies was only established as an academic discipline in the 1990s so it is difficult to apply transgender to Chinese culture in a historical context. There were no transgender groups or communities in Hong Kong until after the turn of the 21st century. Today they are still known as a “sexual minority” in China. China and greater China (the Chinese region, including People’s Republic of China, Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan (Republic of China)) are characterized by transphobia.
An all-transgender netball team from Indonesia competed at the 1994 Gay Games in New York City. The team had been the Indonesian national champions.
Further information: Transsexuality in Iran
Under the Shah transsexuals and crossdressers were classed with gays and lesbians and faced punishment of lashing or even death. The new religious government that came to be established under the Ayatollah treated them initially the same way.
Beginning in the mid-1980s, however, transsexuals were officially recognized by the government and allowed to undergo sex reassignment surgery. As of 2008, Iran carries out more sex change operations than any other nation except Thailand. The government provides up to half the cost for those needing financial assistance, and a sex change is recognized on the birth certificate.
Kabuki dance by onnagata Akifusa Guraku.
In the year 1998 the Israeli pop singer Dana International became the first transgender person to win the Eurovision Song Contest, as well as the first transgender person to enter the contest.
Further information: Sexual minorities in Japan
Public accounts of transgender people in Japan began during the Edo period. Women actors were banned from kabuki theatre performances and, in turn, effeminate male performers took on the roles of women. Such actors maintained their dress both inside and outside of the theater. It was widely believed, at the time, that only men could really know what beauty in a woman looked like. Moreover, if a man acted like a woman, dressed like a woman and took on the social roles of a woman, he was simply socialized as one. The latter is a result of how Japan conceptualized gender and sexuality in terms of adopted social roles. In 2017 Japan became the one of the first countries in the world to elect an openly transgender man to a public office when Tomoya Hosoda was elected as a councillor for the city of Iruma.
Kathoey dancers in Bangkok.
Further information: Kathoey and Gender identities in Thailand
Kathoey is a Thai term, often translated as “ladyboy” in modern English, which has undergone an evolution. It used to refer to intersex individuals, then in the 20th century to cross-dressing males or gay men who display varying degrees of femininity which may or may not include hormonal or surgical intervention. In contrast, sao praphet song suggests someone who identifies as a woman.
Toms and Dees are two kinds of female gender identity in Thailand. A “Tom” is a female who dresses, acts, and possibly speaks in a masculine fashion. A “dee” is a homosexual (or bisexual) female who follows typical Thai female gender expression. The only difference between dees and traditional Thai females is that dees engage in relationships with toms. A kathoey, or “ladyboy”, refers to a male who dresses as and adopts the mannerisms and identity of a woman.
Thailand has become a center for performing sex reassignment surgery, and now performs more than any other country.
Balkan sworn virgins are women who take a vow of celibacy, wear male clothing, assume male privileges, and live out their lives as men in the patriarchal society of northern Albania. The tradition goes back to a 15th-century code of laws, and is observed by members of different religions. The practice was first reported by missionaries and other travelers who visited the area in the 19th century.
Lili Elbe was a Danish transgender woman and one of the first recipients of sex reassignment surgery. Elbe was assigned male at birth and was a successful painter before transitioning. She also presented as Lili (sometimes spelled Lily). She transitioned in 1930 and made a legal name change to Lili Ilse Elvenes and stopped painting. Lili died from complications involving a uterus transplant.
Denmark is also known for its role in the transition of American Christine Jorgensen, whose operations were performed in Copenhagen starting in 1951.
In 2017 Denmark became the first country in the world to officially delete transgender identities from its list of disorders of mental health.
Further information: Timeline of LGBT history in Britain
Molly houses appeared in 18th century London and other large cities. A Molly house is an archaic 18th century English term for a tavern or private room where homosexual and cross-dressing men could meet each other and possible sexual partners. Patrons of the Molly house would sometimes enact mock weddings, sometimes with the bride giving birth.
Anna P, who lived for many years as a man, photographed for Magnus Hirschfeld’s book Sexual Intermediates in 1922.
Further information: Magnus Hirschfeld, Transvestites, and Institut für Sexualwissenschaft
During the Weimar Republic, Berlin was a liberal city. Berlin had the most active LGBT rights movements in the world at the time. Magnus Hirschfeld had co-founded the Scientific-Humanitarian Committee (Wissenschaftlich-humanitäres Komitee, WhK) in Berlin and sought social recognition of homosexual and transgender men and women. The Committee had branches in several other countries, thereby being the first international LGBT organization, although on a small scale. In 1919, Hirschfeld had also co-founded the Institut für Sexualwissenschaft (Institute for Sex Research), a private sexology research institute. It had a research library and a large archive, and included a marriage and sex counseling office. In addition, the institute was a pioneer worldwide in the call for civil rights and social acceptance for homosexual and transgender people. The word transvestite was coined by Hirschfeld and used as the title of his 1910 book, The Transvestites: The Erotic Drive to Cross-Dress.
In Berlin in 1931, Dora Richter became the first known transgender woman to undergo vaginoplasty, along with removal of the penis, and following removal of the testicles several years earlier. The same year in Dresden, Lili Elbe underwent similar surgeries, including an unsuccessful uterine transplant, the rejection of which resulted in her death.
On 12 June 2003, the European Court of Human Rights ruled in favor of Van Kück, a German trans woman whose insurance company denied her reimbursement for sex reassignment surgery as well as hormone replacement therapy. The legal arguments related to the Article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights as well as the Article 8. This affair is referred to as Van Kück vs Germany.
In 2017 Alex Hai came out as a transgender man, thus becoming the first openly transgender person to be a gondolier in Venice.
Trans History 101: Transgender Expression in Ancient Times
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By Mercedes Allen · Wednesday, February 24, 2016
History is written by the victors. Unfortunately, this tends to mean that a lot of truth gets lost over the eons, peaceful tribes can become demonized, portrayals of nature reverence can be twisted into “witchcraft” and a lot of the accurate documentation becomes lost over the years in intellectual pogroms, such as the burning of the library at Alexandria in Egypt by the Romans.
History was never meant to be that sort of boring “is there gonna be a test on this” sort of dry reading, but it often becomes so, because it becomes an onslaught of dates and peoples and events that we don’t recognize. It doesn’t help that with histories written by victors, many of the lives we might recognize ourselves in become obliterated from memory. Such is the case with most things transgender or homosexual, which at one time were seen to be rooted in similar human need. It was once said that there were three facets to our existence: survival, reproduction, and everything else — and to the person who made the case, “everything else” — which tended to encompass those things creative, imaginative and ingenious — could be classified as “art.” If ancient cultures bore understanding of this, then one wonders if transgender and same-sex love were seen as an art of their own… a creative exploration of love and affection.
It may sound far-fetched, but history (even if written by victors) offers little glimpses of reality at times, and many of these glimpses tend to indicate that the gender transgression and gay / lesbian / bisexual love that is often vilified today was once quite respected and at times even encouraged. As a transgender and bisexual woman, I’m not personally inclined to think of myself as better than anyone or to try to portray myself as such, but a careful look at history does provide a rewarding sense that I have something to offer, and am a being worthy of respect.
It is impossible to know the motives of the early civilizations’ approach. We can only see history in modern light and with our own experiences. Without the economic and socio-political backgrounds to some of these notations, we don’t know if transgender behaviour was any result of coersion, conspiracy or other motivations. I would like to think that much of the experience was genuine, although I’m not so naive to believe that accounts of castrated boys raised as wives of Roman or Turkish military leaders were consensual. History unfortunately sometimes can only touch the surface, not revealing the beauty and ugliness underneath.
Dually-Gifted, Dually Respected?
What we understand as transgender (in its many different forms) has been understood quite differently at various periods of time. In the earliest ages, people who were seen to bridge the genders were quite often thought to possess wisdom that traditionally-gendered people did not, and were venerated for this. As civilizations transformed from matrilineal and communal societies into male-driven (patriarchal) societies with rigid class divisions and emphasis on property ownership, those male-driven cultures reduced the status of women… and because they were threatened by a persistent belief that those who blurred gender lines possessed some greater insight, they set out to crush gender-transgressive people most of all. Into the modern age, transfolk resurfaced, but it is a long climb back just to restore any sense of equality.
In earliest civilizations, throughout Europe, Asia, the Middle East and Northern Africa, tribes of different types venerated what they often identified as “The Great Mother.” In nearly all of these traditions, MTF priestesses (often castrated or with some form of eunuching, which included a number of different body modifications of the time) presided, and the cultures were primarily communal systems which held women (venerated as a source of life) in high esteem. Matriarchal in nature, the cultures often espoused peace, but the realities of early civilization and tribal existence did not always allow for this.
Roman historian Plutarch depicts “The Great Mother” as an Intersex deity from whom the two sexes had not yet split. Trans-gendered depictions of The Great Mother and Her priestesses are found in ancient artifacts back to the earliest civilizations in Mesopotamia, Assyria, Babylonia and Akkad. Some historians portray MTF priestesses as being recognized as something sacred, while others portray them as undergoing castration in order to subvert matrilineal rule and wrest religious direction from the control of women. David F. Greenberg, however, concludes that records of trans priestesses do date back “to the late Paleolithic (if not earlier),” suggesting that the advent of transgender priestesses was not simply a later reaction to feminine leadership and veneration. In some regions, particularily the oldest European customs, it even appears that some form of gender transgression was almost considered one’s religious duty, at times (i.e. certain revelries).
Displaying the earliest records of trans existence chronologically is virtually impossible, so I will sort them primarily by location.
The Middle East
In the Middle East (Cradle of Civilization), MTF (male-to-female) priestesses were known to have served Astarte, Dea Syria, Atargatis and Ashtoreth / Ishtar. Additional MTF “gallae” served Cybele, the Phrygians’ embodiment of The Great Mother. Trans expression was also present in the early genesis of the Kumbh Mela festival in Allahbad (India).
For centuries, Muslim tradition differentiated between MTF transsexuals who live as prostitutes or criminals, and those in whom femininity was innate and who lived blamelessly. The latter were called “mukhannathun,” and accepted within the boundaries of Islam. Mukhannathun could have relationships with either men or women, but only those who had been castrated or were exclusively attracted to men were allowed into womens’ spaces. Later, it was ordered that all mukhannathun undergo castration.
In Africa, intersexed deities and spritual beliefs in gender transformation are recorded in Akan, Ambo-Kwanyama, Bobo, Chokwe, Dahomean (Benin), Dogon, Bambara, Etik, Handa, Humbe, Hunde, Ibo, Jukun, Kimbundu, Konso, Kunama, Lamba, Lango, Luba, Lugbara (where MTFs are called okule and FTMs are called agule), Lulua, Musho, Nat, Nuba, Ovimbundu, Rundi, Sakpota, Shona-Karonga, Venda, Vili-Kongo, and Zulu tribes. Some of this tradition survives in West Africa, as well as Brazilian and Haitian ceremonies that derive from West African religions. In Abomey, the Heviosso maintain trans traditions, in an area renowned for Amazon-like warrior women.
In seventh Century BC, King Ashurbanipal (Sardanapalus) of Assyria spent a great deal of time in womens’ clothing, something that was later used to justify overthrowing him. In Egypt, 1503 BC, Egyptian Queen Hatshepsut ascended to the throne, the second Egyptian queen to rule (the first was Queen Sobekneferu of the 12th Dynasty). Possibly learning from the disfavor shown to her predecessor, she donned male clothing and a false beard signifying kingship, and reigned until 1482 B.C. She had one daughter, Neferure, who she groomed as successor (male clothing, false beard and all), but Neferure did not live into adulthood. After her death, her second husband attempted to erase all record of her. And Nzinga ruled as King of Angola from 1624 – 1653, cross-dressed and led several successful military battles against the Portuguese.
In Asia, Hijras persist even today, although their reverence is often limited to the belief that their presence at weddings is a good portent for the couple. They do tend to suffer in the modern Indian caste system, something that “eunuchs” of all types are banding together to work to improve (i.e. only recently was a Hijra able to vote, and now there have been Hijran elected officials). Historically, they have often worshipped the mother-goddess Bahuchara Mata, although some also worshipped Shiva in his half-man, half-woman persona, Ardhanarisvara.
Many early Indonesian societies had transgender figures in religious functions, including the basaja, from the island of Sulawesi (The Celebes). In ancient China, the shih-niang wore mixed-gender ceremonial clothing. In Okinawa, some shamans underwent winagu nati, a process of “becoming female.” In Korea, the mudang was a shaman or sorceress who was quite often MTF. In February 1995, archaeologist Timothy Taylor discovered evidence of transgender lives in the Iron Age graves found in southern Russia.
Fanchuan was a name given to stage crossdressing, such as male-to-female performances in Beijing opera, and female-to-male acting in Taiwanese Opera. Chui Chin, a cross-dressing Chinese revolutionary and feminist was beheaded in 1907 for organizing an uprising against the Manchu dynasty.
In Europe, MTF priestesses served Artemis, Hecate and Diana. Early traditions thrived longest in Greece, and the mythology of the day encorporated tales of cross-dressing by Achilles, Heracles, Athena and Dionysus, as well as literal and metaphorical gender changes. The blind prophet Tiresias is often mentioned as a figure who had lived many years of his life in each different gender, and was said to have possessed acute wisdom for it. The tale of an FTM character, Kaineus (Caeneus), who was viewed as a “scorner and rival of the gods” and was driven into the earth by the Centaurs, is an example of Greek mythology attempting to subvert earlier trans-oriented legends. And Cupid was a dual god/dess of love, originally portrayed as intersex. The child of Hermes and Aphrodite, one of Cupid’s variant names provided the origin for the term, “hermaphrodite.” Some time between 6th Century and 1st Century BC, in the Greek Hippocratic Corpus (collection of medical texts), physicians propose that both parents secrete male or female “bodies” and that if the father’s secretion is female (rather than male) and the mother’s is male, the result would either be a “man-woman” (effeminate male) or a “mannish” female.
In the later development of Europe, early alchemists borrowed from pre-Christian spirituality at times, and some of these mystics created the concept of the “chemical wedding,” a merger of male and female spiritual attributes to achieve perfection. Some alchemists saw this as a chemical concept that would lead to the process of transmuting lead into gold, while others touted that this was more of a personal, spiritual transformation. While much of this was later absorbed into secret societies such as the Freemasons and Rosicrucians, the belief hints at transformative and bigender-conscious reverence. Even the Bible has such “gender-wedding” imagery at times, in allusions to the “Bride of Christ” found in the Book of Revelations and some comments by later epistle writers.
The Amazons, a group of warriors often in conflict with Greeks and later mythologized, seem to have been thought of as trans, and Pliny the Younger referred to them as the Androgynae “who combine the two sexes.” They carried double-edged axes which may have been symbols of intersexuality, as were those carried by the South American tribe that inspired the naming of the Amazon River.
In the Klementi tribe of Albania, if a virgin swore before twelve witnesses that she would not marry, she was then recognized as male, carried weapons, and herded flocks.
Years later, Joan of Arc was said to have followed in the traditions of Gentiles and heathen. In France, “gens” referred to matrilineal farming communities, indicating some pre-Christian tradition that she evidently had stirred up, inspiring older values and explaining why she had become such a potent threat to the church while alive (more later).
In North America, as late as 1930 (with the Klamath in the Pacific Northwest), Two-Spirit Natives are noted among tribal communities. Originally called “berdache,” a name of largely insulting intent given by Europeans, Native culture adopted the term “Two-Spirit” as a blanket term — though in reality, nearly every tribe had at least one (often several) unique name for Two-Spirit peoples, with the names sometimes addressing different aspects of those populations. Two-Spirit actually covers the full range of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender persons, as well as intersex and other gender-variant people. It was often thought that Two-Spirits had two spirits inhabiting the same body, and that Two-Spirit people deserved a special kind of reverence. Jesuit priest Jacques Marquette notes that in the Illinois and Nadouessi tribes, nothing is decided without their advice.
The sensational nature of reports of Two-Spirit peoples and the hatred they contained were used to try to justify genocide, theft of land and the dismantling of Native culture and religion. In Panama, explorer Vasco Nunez de Balboa threw a King and forty others of a Native tribe to be eaten by his dogs, because they crossdressed or had same-sex partners. Spaniards committed similar genocides in the Antilles and Louisiana. In those areas where Two-Spirit traditions survived, they were later driven underground or supplanted completely by missionary teachings and residential schools, both of which were bent on destroying Native culture.
Inuit FTMs serve White Whale Woman, who was believed to have been transformed into a man or woman-man.
In South America, MTF priestesses have been found among the Araucanians (southern Chile and Argentina) and Mapuche, although after oppressive Spanish contact, they were largely replaced by female preistesses. Some females in the Tupinamba tribe lived as men, hunted and went to war. In 1576, explorer Pedro de Magalhaes recorded this, and recalling the Greek legend of the Amazons, named the Amazon river for these Tupinamba. For the Yoruba (Brazil), the deity Shango is represented as all sexes.
Unclear, But Present
Although it’s doubtful that all of these traditions had a common origin, and possible that some of these are trans only by coincidence, there do seem to be a number of similar themes tying them together. Sorting through them to find specific motives and beliefs is impossible, though, because so little of the original traditions was recorded or survived the various book purges over time. It is only possible to speculate.
Alas, history is written by the victors, and the victors were largely not transgender or homosexual / bisexual persons.
This article was originally published on Bilerico in 2008 as one segment of a six part series on transgender history.