In recent months, J.K. Rowling has come under heavy criticism for her promotion of anti-trans rhetoric, particularly targeting trans women in her attack. Her actions have been in line with what is known as Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists (TERFs), who promote a vision of feminism that actively denies the rights of transgender individuals. In Rowling’s latest novel, there is even the inclusion of a serial killer who dresses in women’s clothing, deploying a deeply toxic trope of transmisogynistic writing that imagines trans women as “disguised” men with nefarious intentions.
Once known as the author of the popular Harry Potter series, which depicted ideals of unity and equality against a totalitarian and eugenicist villain, J.K. Rowling has now become a vocal advocate of anti-trans literature. But, Rowling is not alone in a widespread anti-trans movement, which has deeply manifested itself across U.S. politics. From the sadistic attempts to limit trans people’s access to healthcare to the so-called trans military ban, the Trump administration has pursued anti-trans policies with an obsessive intent.
As an historian of the first millennium and a half of Christianity, I wish to pull back the curtain on the neglected history of transgender stories and literatures in early Christianity, like that of Saint Hilarion and Emperor Elagabalus, demonstrating how these figures were praised throughout the first millennium. In raising awareness of these stories, my goal is to provide a deeper literary canon for those who are now turning to other, older stories to comprehend their place in the world as trans and gender nonconforming individuals.
From the fifth to the ninth century, a number of saints’ lives composed across the Greek-speaking Mediterranean detail the lives of individuals assigned female at birth who for a host of different reasons chose to live out their adult lives as men in monasteries. The popularity of these stories across the Christian Mediterranean is palpably evident as they were translated into Coptic, Syriac, Ethiopic, Armenian, Arabic, Latin, and other European dialects.
For example, the night before her execution, the early-third century Christian martyr Perpetua had a dream about her impending death. There, Perpetua looks down upon her naked body, and exclaims: “My clothes were stripped off, and suddenly I was a man.” Similarly, in the early second century Gospel of Thomas, Jesus rebukes Simon Peter for suggesting Mary Magdalene is unworthy of their company, stating that He “will make her male” and that every woman who “makes herself male will enter the kingdom of heaven.”
As many scholars have noted, this trope serves as a potent metaphor for early Christians. It has been long suggested that this is rooted in a misogynist pattern of thought that understood the betterment of the feminine through a transformation into the qualities of the masculine when discussing spiritual ascent. Yet, understudied evidence speaks to a different story, where we can see the fleshed-out stories of saints who despite having been assigned female at birth lived out their lives as men. These stories of trans men eloquently play with the medical science of their time to carefully describe how their bodies masculinized over the years, visualizing for readers their gender through a description of the body. These figures merit a regard as men, not relegated to metaphors for female piety in the early centuries of Christian worship.
Centuries after the words of the Gospel of Thomas and Perpetua, saints like Hilarion, Marinos, Smaragdos, and Athanasios (to name but a few) became a central part of compilations of saints’ lives, icons, and illuminated manuscripts. But their narratives tell a very different story from that of the early Christian martyr who saw herself fully and truly male in a dream.
In the closing passages of the life of Hilarion, after many trials and tribulations, the holy man is visited by his long-estranged sister after nine year of living in isolation. The narrator’s words are strikingly poignant, as the text details the girl’s encounter with the person she once knew as her sister. Describing Hilarion with female pronouns and alternating between his gendered names, the author writes:
“After nine years, they saw that the young girl was beardless and they called her ‘Hilarion the Eunuch’ since there were many such [eunuchs] wearing the habit. For her breasts, too, they were not as those of all women. Above all, she was shrunken with ascetic practices and even her menstrual period had stopped because of the deprivation… The blessed Hilaria, when she saw her lay sister, knew her: but the lay sister knew not her sister, the monk. How should she know her since her flesh had withered through mortification and the beauty of her body had altered, and her appearance, she being naught but skin and bone? Besides all this she was wearing a man’s garb.”
Hilarion’s story is not unique, nor is the language to describe him. Each author may handle the protagonist’s pronouns, naming, and imputed gender differently, but each describe the story of a saint, whose birth-assigned gender was female, yet lived out their lives as men.
Across many of these texts, certain themes recur, namely that their breasts had withered, that their menstruation had ceased, and that their skin had become coarse, rugged, and dark, sometimes even described as black, “like an Ethiopian.” Here, authors were deploying characteristics often associated with men, such as dark and rugged skin, to demonstrate the spiritual and bodily transformation of the monks’ body and spirit.
Despite extensive late antique prohibitions against women dressing as men, such as in the canons of the Council of Gangra in 345, in the Council of Trullo in 692, or even in Deutoronomy 22:5, these saints were venerated with due respect, demonstrating that even legal or Old Testament prohibitions did not impede the space for their worship and praise.
The potent transformations of the body as well cannot be disregarded, as these stories sought eloquently to describe how the saints’ secondary sex characteristics changed throughout their lives, detailing (as described above) the withering of breasts, the ceasing of menstruation, and the darkening of skin.
Beyond metaphor, this language echoes the descriptions found in medical texts to describe so-called masculine features in certain women. The sixth-century medical manual by the physician Aetios of Amida describes a certain type of “manly women” who has masculine features, including a deep voice, a hairy body, and a “dark complexion.” These women, Aetios also states, menstruated infrequently. Many of the characteristics described in our narratives of these monks describe their masculine bodies according to the medical knowledge at the time and with the language it knew to describe the masculinization of a body assigned female at birth.
These medical guidebooks are striking in their precocious description of medical procedures aimed at affirming a person’s gender. For men with gynecomastia (enlarged breasts), the seventh-century physician Paul of Aegina justifies surgical operation, “since this [condition] carries the unseemly disgrace of effeminacy.” And, for women with an enlarged clitoris, he prescribes surgery as well (not because of female sexuality, as this is usually associated in the early modern period) because it “leads of a feeling of shame.” While these procedures are aimed at what we would call cis-gender men and women, the language used by these authors are explicitly aimed at affirming the person’s gender. This feeling of “shame” almost seems to capture a diagnosis of some form of gender dysmorphia being suffered by the author’s medieval patients.
Curiously, historians of the period took particular fascination in a detail from the life of the second-century Roman Emperor Elagabalus, who the historian Dio Cassius, describes as having identified as a woman, asking to be addressed as Empress and wife. In sensationalist accounts of Elagabalus’s gender and sexual proclivities, historians repeatedly recounted that Elagabalus “asked physicians to contrive a woman’s vagina in his [sic] body by means of an incision.” Famously, offering up one of the earliest requests for gender affirming surgery in the western world.
While the story of Elagabalus is certainly unique in its clarity, the surgical and medical manuals discussed make it clear that early Christian and medieval authors approached issues of gender with a great deal of nuance and complexity, understanding it within the contexts of medical science, literature, and theology.
Now, more than ever, we need trans affirming literatures that promote and champion the rich and complex history of gender variance in our world. Not only looking to modern authors, but looking deep into our ancient and medieval pasts to think about the place that trans figures have played in history.
Roland Betancourt is a professor of art history at University of California, Irvine and author of the recently published Byzantine Intersectionality: Sexuality, Gender, and Race in the Middle Ages (Princeton University Press, 2020).