In honor of Pride 2023, our podcast discussed three potential examples of transgender individuals in history that demonstrate the complexities of studying gender and the importance of recognizing LGBTQ histories.
These are transgender individuals – meaning people whose gender identity differs from the sex they were assigned at birth – that we can clearly identify in the archaeological and historical record. This includes individuals who (1) were assigned male at birth but identify as female, (2) were assigned female at birth but identify as male, or (3) were assigned either male or female at birth, but identify as neither – thus being either non-binary or third gender.
Although Girl Museum prefers to stick to the realm of the girl – which we define as birth to age twenty-one – for this podcast, we went into adulthood. The historical record often does not include age ranges. Additionally, for most of history, children’s writings and feelings were not preserved as well as adult writings – and so we must infer a person’s childhood from their adult selves and expressions.
The podcast included a focus on three types of primary sources – archaeological, written, and oral history – from potentially trans-identifying people. We say potentially because, as historians, it is often hard for us to say with certainty how someone who lived long ago actually identified. There is an added challenge, here, which is that the term “transgender” did not come into popular use until the 1990s, so even though examples of gender transgression, including identifying with and living as a gender other than what you were assigned at birth, can be traced back for hundreds of years, we can’t simply use “trans” like a keyword search. Instead, we must read for other terminology or identifiers used and certain narrative devices, structures, or patterns, and we must always be sure that we are looking at historical figures within their specific historical, social, and cultural context. The farther back in history we go, and the further away from contemporary identity terminology we travel, the less common it will be to find trans historical figures that are trans in the way we understand that identity, so we must take our interpretations with a “grain of salt” and allow our minds to remain open to the endless possibilities of human identity – for to be human is, after all, to be one of the most creative, expressionist, and ever-changing species this world has ever known.
To list to “Trans Across Time,” click here for links to your favorite streaming platform or view in the player below. For a summary of the three examples, keep reading.
Corded Ware Grave
In 2011, archaeologists digging outside Prague discovered a 5,000-year-old grave site associated with the Corded Ware culture. This civilization covered a broad area of Northern Europe, from the Rhine in Germany to the Volga in Russia. They buried their dead in single graves with dedicated gendered goods, ensuring that male skeletons faced East and female skeletons faced West. These strict burial rituals are well documented.
Strikingly, the 5,000-year-old burial held a biological male with their head facing West – the traditionally female position. The grave contained domestic items culturally associated with women. At a press conference following the discovery, the lead researcher utilized the term “transgender” to identify the individual – leading to a media firestorm and international archaeological debates.
What makes this archaeological find fascinating was discussed in a recent article by Avery Rose Everhart,
“Unearthing such ‘discoveries’ – that is, naming an archaeological find as transgender – works to legitimize the existence of transgender people contemporaneously. There was a tendency within public debate on this discovery to either flatly condemn the reach backward into an ancient past and superimpose contemporary understandings of sex, gender, and/or sexuality, or to unequivocally take up the discovery as evidence that ‘we have always existed.’”Everhart, Avery Rose. “Bones with Flesh and (Trans)Gender without Bodies: Querying Desires for Trans Historicity,” Hypatia.
So is the 5,000-year-old individual trans? We may never know for certain, but the positioning and grave goods are strong evidence that the Corded Ware culture could have embraced ideas of a third gender – not necessarily transgender in the sense that we know it. Such a position is not new to archaeology, having been posited by archaeologists such as Jan Turek, who stated that archaeologists
“need a different approach to reading and interpreting the dead as our current gender concepts are not always appropriate for an understanding of past reality in non western societies.”Turek, Jan. “Age and Gender Identities in European Copper Age” (2013)
Prayer for Transformation
Next is the lament of Kalonymus ben Kalonymus ben Meir, also known as Maestro Calo, a Jewish philosopher and translator who lived in Provence, France, during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. By their twentieth birthday, Kalonymus was making waves as a translator of Arabic manuscripts, attracting attention from the King of Naples. Many of their translations were for mathematical manuscripts – including once-thought-lost Ancient Greek works such as those of Euclid – as well as commentaries on botany, physics, and astronomy.
Notably, in 1322, they composed Even Bohan, an ethical treatise that included a poem expressing Kalonymus’s lament at being born a man and their desire to be a woman. Though not published until 1489, this poem – called “Prayer for Transformation” – is considered one of the first known poems to express gender dysphoria and transgender identity. Although Judaism traditionally recognizes a number of gender categories, Jewish law did not organize the society Kalonymus lived in, so the ability to live as another gender, like Kalonymus desires in this poem, was not a possibility. Regardless, what comes through most through the ages is their angst – and sad resignation – at the injustice of how gender organizes society:
Father in heaven
who did miracles for our ancestors with fire and water
You transformed the fire of Ur Kasdim so it would not burn [Avraham]
You transformed Dinah in the womb of her mother [Leah, to a girl]
You transformed the staff [of Moshe] to a snake before a million eyes
You transformed (Moshe’s) hand to (leprous) white
and the Sea of Reeds to dry land.
and the sea floor into solid and dried-up earth
You transformed the rock into water,
hard flint to a fountain.
Who would then transform me from a man to woman?
Were I only to have merited this being so graced by goodness
I could have now been the lady of the house,
exempt from military service!
What shall I say?
why cry or be bitter?
If my father in heaven has decreed upon me
and has maimed me with an immutable deformity
then I do not wish to remove it.
the sorrow of the impossible is a human pain that nothing will cure
and for which no comfort can be found.
So, I will bear and suffer until I die and wither in the ground.
Since I have learned from our tradition
that we bless both, the good and the bitter
I will bless in a voice hushed and weak:
blessed are you [Adonai] who has not made me a woman.
Kalonymus returned to France in 1328, after which their life was unrecorded.
First Transgender Testimony Before U.S. Congress
Finally, we jump to the late nineteenth century. Born into slavery, Frances Thompson was assigned male at birth. Yet by age 26, they were living as a free woman in Memphis, Tennessee, making a living doing laundry. Frances kept their face clean-shaven and wore brightly colored dresses. They might have faded into obscurity if it wasn’t for a key event of 1866: The Memphis Riots.
On May 1, 1866, a group of Black soldiers, women, and children formed an impromptu street party. Around 4pm, four police officers were sent to break up the group, even though the event was outside their jurisdiction. The group refused to disperse and the police called for reinforcements. Tensions escalated, and gunfire broke out. One of the policemen was shot in the leg, turning the altercation into a full-scale riot. Over the next three days, Memphis became a hotbed of white mobs targeted Black communities with fires, murders, and rapes. Frances’s house was among the targets, and Frances was forced to make food for the white men before being gang-raped and robbed.
After surviving the ordeal, Frances became the first known transgender person to testify to Congress when, on May 22, a Congressional committee came to Memphis and interviewed 170 witnesses. Their testimony became a key part of the riots’ history, known throughout the South and helping to raise awareness. However, it also raised awareness of Frances’s gender identity, leading to years of harassment and false accusations. In 1876, these accusations led to Frances being fined $50 and jailed for “cross-dressing.” During the arrest, they were forced to undergo numerous physical examinations to confirm their biological sex, which was then used to discredit their Congressional testimony and spur white violence against Black people in the South.
Frances was found guilty of cross-dressing and sentenced to a Memphis chain gang, where she was forced to wear men’s clothes and abused. They died of dysentery within a year of her arrest. While coroner’s reports stated that Frances was anatomically male, newspaper reports and many who were quoted as knowing Frances stated that Frances had explicitly stated identifying as “of double sex.”