A Few Transgender Tales: on Transgender Awareness Week 2020.

Hi all, first up, a quick update on the podcast reboot. Four of the first six episode scripts mixed well, two need re-doing. I’ve recorded some background music. With a few long nights coming up I think we’ll be on track for weekly blogs Tuesdays, podcast episodes Wednesdays, come early December.

I was thinking of a couple of quick topics, for continuity’s sake – 600 or so words of ephemera to drop this week. Something interesting, a little quirky, and the kind of thing that on a rare occasion might pop up in a Tuesday night pub quiz…. But then the Twittersphere dropped something on my doorstep I couldn’t ignore. Harry Styles wore a dress in a Vogue Magazine cover shoot, and conservative/right wing talking heads lost their minds. Whether ‘Marxism’, ‘Post-Modernism’ or ‘wokeness’ was to blame – according to the hack commentators of the Alt Right – the world was going to hell in a handbasket. Thank you Harry. For some time I watched with glee as Ben Shapiro unintentionally undercut many of his own previous rants on the subject, in accidentally admitting gender is largely a social construct after all – all because someone yelled at him “what about men in kilts?”

The photo which offended so many Alt Right talking heads c/o Vogue.

But then, I started thinking of the timing of this kerfuffle. This week is Transgender Awareness week. Mid week, November 20th, is something altogether sadder – Transgender Day of Remembrance – the date chosen for it’s proximity to the anniversary of the brutal murder of Rita Hester, a beautiful transwoman who lived in Boston, was beloved by family, friends and the Boston rock scene, and who deserved so much more in life.

Now, all fairness to Harry Styles, I have no idea if Harry identifies as transgender – if I should refer to Harry as he, she, they, ze or some other pronoun. It could be Harry was just cosplaying David Bowie on The Man Who Sold the World. Whatever Harry’s scene is I wish him/her/them/ze only love. My main focus this week – when bad actors spread bad info, as a history writer it is my duty to share real narratives. What follows is a collection of tales of *Trans awareness.

Father in heaven, who did miracles for our ancestors with fire and water,
You changed the fire of Chaldees so it would not burn hot,
You changed Dina in the womb of her mother to a girl,
You changed the staff to a snake before a million eyes,
You changed [Moses’] hand to [leprous] white
and the sea to dry land.
In the desert you turned rock to water,
hard flint to a fountain.
Who would then turn me from a man to woman?
Were I only to have merited this, being so graced by your goodness. . .

Kalonymus Ben Kalonymus – ‘Even Bochan’ (1322).

Kalonymus Ben Kalonymus, aka Kalonymus, son of the elder Kalonymus, seems as good a place as any to start. Born to a well to do Jewish family in Arles, France in 1286, young Kalonymus did as all well born Jewish boys did in his time – he received an extensive education in religion and philosophy. He would go on to distinguish himself as a translator, specializing in the classical Greek and Roman writers whose works re-emerged in Europe following the Fourth Crusade. His one true love however appears to have been satirical poetry. When it came to writing attack poetry Kalonymus was quite the pistol.

Even Bochan is one such piece, and it fascinates me. I wonder if, in a time which lacked the vocabulary to discuss it like we can now; did other likeminded readers come across the work and find some kinship, or comfort in the work? The poem starts off like much of his work, a statement of some injustice in the world, expounded– in this case that Jewish boys were cursed with responsibilities and boring study, while the girls got to take it easy. While he starts off with

“Woe to him who has male sons.
Upon them a heavy yoke has been placed,
restrictions and constraints.”

The piece pivots, Kalonymus begging God to transform him into a woman, before stating

“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.”

Kalonymus is resigned to his reality, that for a well to do Jewish kid in 1322, he can never become she. He will have to live with the facade his creator gave him. In an age where he can become she, and was she all along deep down I’d suspect most transgender people would read Kalonymus Ben Kalonymus’ deep gender dysphoria in the piece. Even Bochan is widely considered the first written expression of gender dysphoria in our history. More importantly it signals for those who could do nothing about those feelings, they buried their sorrows deep and moved on best they could.

Which is not to say some people with these feelings didn’t live at least some of their life in a gender other than the one assigned them at birth. Fast forward to Oxford, then London in the 1390s. Let’s talk about Eleanor Rykener.

As we get into openly transgender people, and I try to explain their historical lives using modern concepts and constructs, I step into a hornet’s nest. I feel from the evidence available she/her is probably suitable with Eleanor – but when in doubt I’ll use spivak pronouns, ze/hir, or they/their.

Most of what we know of Eleanor is from hir recorded confession after being arrested for sex work. We know ze was christened John Rykener. We know John transitioned to Eleanor while in the employ of a woman named Elizabeth Brouderer. Brouderer taught Eleanor the art of embroidery, and allegedly pimped Eleanor out to local men. Ze would move on to Oxford where ze took up embroidery work, then for a while worked as a barmaid, before returning to sex work. At the time of hir 1395 arrest it was clear some of hir sexual partners were clients, but Eleanor appears to have had a number of romantic partners also. It is not clear from the historical record if Eleanor lived 24/7 as Eleanor, unfortunately all we have is a sliver of information. It is a fascinating glimpse nonetheless.
Stepping way back, and taking a macro viewpoint, it’s clear the transgender experience is hardly the work of postmodernism, socialism or ‘wokeness’. Trans people go way back, long before Kalonymus or Eleanor Rykener.

In Ancient Mesopotamia (Iraq on the modern map) a sect of priests who worshipped Ishtar, the goddess of love, sex and war are pertinent to this tale. The Gala were considered male, presented as feminine, and spoke and sang in a dialect reserved only for women. This presented a template for other ancient societies, such as the Galli – eunuch priests originally from Phrygia (Asia Minor) who spread across the Greek and Roman empires. Worshippers of Cybele, the mother of the Gods; they presented as female. In fact when you look around the world you are hard pressed not to find similar figures. In African history trans people are defined as a part of everyday society in Sudan, Benin, Kenya, Ethiopia, and among the Bantu long before postmodernism stepped in. The Indian Hijra date back to antiquity, and were both venerated as supernatural while demeaned as a class similar to untouchables. Thailand’s Kathoey are similarly ancient.
Numerous third gender peoples exist in native American tribes, including the Nadleehi and Ihamana. Pacific nations have Fa’afafine (Samoa) fakafefine (Tonga) fakafifine (Niue) and vakasalewalewa (Fiji). All were around before written history. My homeland, New Zealand is not exempt and is notable for electing the world’s first openly Transgender mayor, Carterton’s Georgina Beyer. Ms. Beyer would be elected in 1995, later serving in parliament, stating she started life as a stallion, became a gelding, a mayor… and was now a member (of parliament, of course). Ancient China considered their eunuch class a third gender. Many eunuchs presented as feminine. I could go on; a 5,000 year old male-bodied skeleton in a Prague, Czech Republic grave, buried in full female attire. A Tenth Century Viking grave in Birka, Sweden – containing a high ranking FTM (female to male) trans warrior. That time the Emperor of Rome begged the surgeons of the land for gender reassignment surgery.

Yeah, I should probably expand on that one.

Varius Avitus Bassianus, born in Emesa (now Homs, Syria) made the jump from high priest of the temple for the Syrian sun god Elah-Gabal to Roman Emperor, aged only 14 – in 218 AD. The reign of the re-named Elagabalus was not terribly long, or distinguished in any way. The new emperor seemed far more interested in extravagant, hedonistic parties, executing generals and forcing the people to worship Elah-Gabal – a variation on the Middle Eastern god Baal. Elagabalus’ reign ended in the Emperor’s murder by their own guards just four years later. What is pertinent to this tale however – the teenaged Baal worshipper dressed as a woman, insisted on being addressed ‘My Lady’, and asked several Roman surgeons to devise an ancient method of genital reassignment surgery.

I could, in all honesty. bring up tales of thousands of interesting transgender figures – but I want to refocus. Much of the criticism of growing transgender visibility by the Shapiros’ and their ilk is their very presence in American society erodes what it means to be an American. I’d counter trans people have added to their societies fairly proportionate to their numbers in society – approximately 0.6% of the population according to estimates from UCLA’s Williams Institute. Setting aside Civvie street for a moment, around 15% of transgender Americans have served in America’s armed forces. Some, like former SEAL Kristin Beck served with distinction. For a moment however, let’s step back in time a little. Of note, up to 400 women served on either side of the American Civil war, disguised as men. A handful, most notably Union soldier Albert Cashier, lived the rest of his life as a man.

Recently, questions have been posed about the Father of the American Cavalry Casimir Pulaski. Born in Warsaw, Poland in 1745 to an aristocratic family, Pulaski made his name as a soldier. He served with distinction for the Polish- Lithuanian Commonwealth, but finding himself on the losing side of the War of the Bar Confederation (sorry folks too big a field to plough already today, I’ll come back to it another time) at a time when Benjamin Franklin was looking for the best soldiers Europe had to offer, Pulaski packed his bags and moved to the USA. Like the similarly fascinating, openly gay Field Marshall Frederick Wilhelm Von Steuben; Pulaski found a shambles in need of a lot of direction. Throughout 1778 he organized the cavalry into a finely tuned force. Like Von Steuben, his innovations would remain in place for decades. Pulaski would distinguish himself particularly in battle in Savannah, Georgia – where he would die from a gunshot wound. In 2019 his DNA would be examined by the Smithsonian, finding Casimir Pulaski was either transgender or intersex.

Casimir Pulaski.

Though it is true the interdisciplinary field of studies known as Transgender Studies began in the 1990s, it is also clear people were beginning to form theories around what made transgender people tick as early as the start of the 20th century. The first female to male surgeries were carried out in the first decade of the 20th century possibly starting with German Israeli author Karl Baer in 1906. Male to female operations followed in the early 1930s with Dora Richter ad Lili Elbe. Much early study was carried out in Germany by the German physician and sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld. Hirschfeld’s work at the Institut für Sexualwissenschaft was ground-breaking, but most of his writings were lost in the Nazi party’s ascent to power. In May 1933 the Institut’s extensive records would be burned in the streets, the Institut itself destroyed, and his transgender employees – of whom Richter was one – executed. Hirschfeld himself was on a world speaking tour when the institut was attacked, and would die in exile in 1935.

Another German sexologist, Dr Harry Benjamin, would move studies further from the late 1940s. Benjamin would write a book, The Transsexual Phenomenon (1966) which would become the bedrock for treatment of Trans patients, and focus on aligning the body to the brain, rather than vice versa. Dr Benjamin would come to prominence some years before this book when one of his patients, a former G.I. now known as Christine Jorgensen, became the talk of the town in 1952. Around this time a number of sex change pioneers would gain international prominence such as Roberta Cowell (her surgery carried out by famous New Zealander and Father of Plastic Surgery Harold Gillies), Coccinelle and April Ashley.

Of course transgender people would be actively involved in the growing LGBT rights movement in the 1960s, taking an active role in the Cooper Do-nuts Riot (1959), Comptons Cafeteria Riot (1966), Black Cat Tavern Riot (1967) and the Stonewall Riots of 1969 which brought Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson to prominence.

Which is not to say transgender people face no discrimination today, seeing they helped fight the good fight in the 60s, and beyond. While the world has become more liberal and ‘woke’ as a general rule – and 86% of American Blue Chip companies offer healthcare today which covers Transgender transitions; a plethora of other figures tell of the work which needs to be done. 90% of trans people in America have reported some form of workplace harassment or bullying. They are twice as likely to be unemployed as cisgender Americans. Three times more likely to become homeless. One 2013 study based around Washington DC found a quarter of respondents faced trouble using restrooms at work, over half reported the same problem in general public spaces, with 54% of respondents reporting needing to see a doctor for a related UTI or kidney infection. All up bathroom intolerance costs Washington DC over a million dollars a year in lost productivity from trans employees needing to go see the doctor. This barely scratches the surface. Then of course there are hate crimes, and in particular murder. This brings us to Transgender Day of Remembrance – in 2020 commemorated on November 20th (the day before I began writing this post).

Every year somewhere near the end of November transgender people and their allies commemorate Transgender Day of Remembrance – a day when they pay their respects to trans people killed in hate crimes around the world. When I first heard of TDoR around a decade ago the numbers murdered ran around 200, in 2020 three hundred and eighty six trans people were murdered, with at least 37 of those people in the United States. Method of murder particularly is often shocking. Stabbings, torture, immolation. There is a particular savagery to many of these killings. This brings me to my final segment in this essay – the story of Rita Hester.

Rita Hester was a transwoman living in Boston Massachusetts. Originally from Hartford, Connecticut, Rita’s family state they can’t recall a time when Rita wasn’t Rita – she was just born that way. As a young adult who found Hartford unaccepting of her she moved to Boston, where it appears she found kinship not so much with the LGBTQI+ community as the largely heteronormative rock scene in the city. On November 28th 1998 Hester was found barely alive in her apartment, having been stabbed 20 times by an unknown assailant. She would die in hospital hours later, and the police would initially file her as a ‘John Doe’.
News coverage, similarly, reported in ways one would not expect in 2020. LGBTQI+ newspaper Bay Windows reported of the death of a “transgender man” followed by the Boston Globe, who reported on “a man who sported long braids and preferred women’s clothes”. It was the Bay Windows coverage which prompted the TDoR movement. When criticized, they doubled down on December 10th 1998 reporting on an ‘Alston Man’ and ‘dead-naming’ her (referring to Rita’s birth name). Days later a group of around 50 trans folk marched on both newspapers in an angry protest. To this day Rita’s death remains unsolved.

For anyone who is interested in studies and articles on transgender people there is now a lot out there on the internet. I recommend clearing a few afternoons and just diving in. Somewhere out there is a dissertation this author wrote on trans people – though in a different field (business management – I have three University degrees, the most recent a business degree majoring in Project management).

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