Edit: (Monday 21 November 2022) I put a script to bed during Transgender Awareness Week. My original intent was to highlight two points; first, trans people have existed forever (as opposed to garbage far-right takes that we’re an invention of ‘post-modernists’ or ‘cultural Marxists’, invented to undermine traditional society – and other similar dumb things often repeated by the Peterson’s and Shapiros of the world), and second – that Visibility matters.
This episode is not a be all and end all – it’s the first part in an ongoing series I’ll return to every late November, as Transgender Awareness Week rolls around.
The senseless murder of LGTBQ+ People in a gay bar in Colorado Springs over the weekend did make me rethink the scope of this subject – Did I need to write something more strident, more defiant? The more I thought about it though, the act of LGBTQ+ people even deigning to exist was enough to set a miserable, insecure sociopath off, to tragic effect.
If the ‘radical’ act of existing so offends some people, then maybe the following is enough?
My deepest condolences to the loved ones of those lost, and to those injured in the deplorable attack.
Today I’d like to start with a poem.
“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. . .”
Thus wrote Kalonymus Ben Kalonymus in ‘Even Bokhan’ (1322).
Kalonymus Ben Kalonymus was born to a well to do Jewish family in Arles, France in 1286. They – and I should say up front, as far as we know Kalonymus only ever presented as male to others, but given their poem, I don’t think it terribly disrespectful to use a gender neutral pronoun?
So, they, Kalonymus became a scholar, receiving an extensive education in theology and philosophy. Kalonymus distinguished themself as a translator of many of the classical Greek and Roman works that were brought to Europe during the crusades. Their one true love, however, was satirical poetry. When it came to writing angry invectives on society, Kalonymus was said to be quite the pistol.
Even Bokhan is apparently an angry invective, raging against the comparatively easy life Jewish girls had compared to the boys. Girls got to be the home makers. They got to play games. Boys only buried themselves dutifully in dusty old books, till they were old enough to go to work. They were burdened with all the responsibility, apparently – quoth Kalonymus…
“Woe to him who has male sons.
Upon them a heavy yoke has been placed,
restrictions and constraints.”
But it does not read quite that way to me. When you take tone into account, there is a genuine mood of sadness and resignation. Kalonymus writes on, begging God to transform themself 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.”
We don’t know enough about the satirist to offer any diagnosis on them. If we did I’m certainly no psychologist with expertise in trans health. The work is interesting though, as – whether it represented Kalonymus’ feelings of not – it is clearly a representation of gender dysphoria.
For centuries, this feeling of, to use Kalonymus’ words, feeling maimed and deformed is something millions of people have felt. Not all trans people feel gender dysphoria, but many do. It’s worth knowing The UCLA think tank The Williams Institute estimate 0.6% of the population is transgender. Extrapolated over human history this means many millions of trans people have existed; felt Kalonymus’ discomfort, and maybe begged their god to change them too. Kalonymus sees their condition as immutable, unchanging. Unlike many today, who have healthcare options, Kalonymus may feel powerless to the whims of a malevolent God they have been taught to love and worship.
Can I understand why such a figure might turn their depression outwards into writing angry invectives at society? Yes, we see people just like him still in this day and age.
Did Kalonymus have role models, should they choose to look for them? Many have been lost to the whims of history, but, yes. For one let’s discuss Eleanor Rykener.
We really don’t know enough about Eleanor – but thanks to a set of court documents preserved on a vellum scroll in London, in 1395 – we know she existed, and get some little sense of her life. On Sunday 6th of December 1394 Eleanor was arrested by two officers while ‘laying with a man’ at an address in Cheapside. That part of town was well known for prostitution -as reflected in the names of the streets (trigger warning: rude words follow, please skip forward a little if need be). She was arrested on Soper Lane – a Soper a now antiquated slur for a homosexual man. This was not far from a Gropecunt Lane, a street name often used when brothels were nearby – and replicated in towns across England wherever there were brothels until the 16th century.
Eleanor, and the gentleman – one John Britby, a former church Chaplain, were brought in and questioned before the Lord Mayor of London. From Eleanor’s testimony we discover she was assigned male at birth and upon moving to the city had, as much as one could at the time, transitioned. She took up work as a bar maid and a seamstress before turning to prostitution. For a while Eleanor moved to Oxford, and worked in a pub there. We don’t know why she returned to Cheapside, but do know as a sex worker she made better money than she could doing bar work. Eleanor returned to her pimp; a woman named Elizabeth Brouderer.
We don’t know anything really about Eleanor’s life outside of work – her hopes and dreams – but we know from her confession that in her work life she had a large clientele who included many men and women, included three knights of the realm, and both male and female clergy. She made good money from sex work, and – however one feels about sex work – it afforded her an authentic life Kalonymus could only ever dream of.
The Lord Mayor of London carried out the interrogation personally, apparently to appear a ‘tough on crime’ mayor; however there is no evidence Eleanor was ever found guilty of, or sentenced for anything.
Individual characters in this time are often footnotes. The remarkable, and for this tale’s sake I should point out cisgender, Margery Kempe had yet to drop her ground-breaking autobiography, though she was alive at the same time as Eleanor. Telling one’s own truth before Margery was not a thing people did. If you made it into a history book, typically you were some well off aristocrat, a general or perhaps a merchant with tales of faraway lands. Types later coined the ‘great men’ of history.
As such many early records of trans people are often archeological in nature – take, for example, a 5,000 year old trans skeleton dug up in Prague, Czech Republic. The bones show the effects of male levels of testosterone. The accoutrements code female. A tenth Century AD Viking grave in Birka, Sweden contained a possibly FTM (Female to Male) warrior buried with his weapons and masculine items. Iron Age burial plots in Hasanlu, Iran show evidence the people of that time observed a third gender, considered neither male nor female. In aboriginal cultures from Africa to the Americas, to the Pacific, to Asia many peoples were, on early contact with Europeans noted to be trans, or non-binary. All too often this was unremarkable to those peoples themselves – it’s just the way people were. The way they always have been. Trans people slip through the cracks of history far too often.
But sometimes a movement, or an Emperor comes along – and they are harder to ignore.
The polytheistic religions of the Near East allowed a space where trans people could be themselves – and play a role in society. The Gala, Mesopotamian priests from the 3rd Millennium BC were considered nominally male by their society, but presented as female. They wore womens’ clothing, and spoke and sang in a dialect reserved only for women. If the Galli, a Phrygian cult (from modern day Turkey) were not a continuation of the Gala, the Gala were certainly a template for them. The Galli worshipped Cybele, the mother of the Phrygian Gods. They lived as women, and were castrated on joining the sect, apparently as Cybele’s consort Attis had originally done.
One of the central icons of the religion was a black meteorite, kept in a temple in Phrygia. The Romans looted this meteorite while away, fighting against Carthage in the 2nd Punic war. In 204 BC, the meteorite, a statue of Cybele and a number of Galli priests were brought back to Rome. Cybele was quickly taken into the pantheon of Roman gods. Rome even added a national holiday for the deity, between April 4th -10th, where the statue of Cybele was paraded through the streets, flanked by Galli.
A number of Romans, their gender expression forced underground by the stifling Roman culture, found a level of utility in this new religion, and became Galli. As with right wing reactionaries in our time, the ascension of the Galli was met with a moral panic fed by conservative fury. These people with their strange ways were turning the world all topsy-turvy, apparently. They were a whole order of terrible if you were to take the satirist Juvenal seriously – his second and fourth satires were particularly unkind to the Galli. All the same, the Galli remained out and proud until Rome adopted Christianity. In the Council of Nicaea, May to August 325 AD, a meeting set out many of the ground rules of Western Christianity, the first cab off the ranks was a prohibition on self castration among the clergy.
Speaking of Rome – Varius Avitus Bassianus, is someone we should discuss. Born in Emesa (now Homs), Syria, a 14 year old Varius was promoted from high priest of a temple to Emperor of Rome, in 218 AD. Re-named Elagabalus, after her God Elah-Gabal (a variation of the god Baal) her reign wasn’t terribly long, or distinguished. Rather than invading the neighbours, Elagabalus spent most of her time throwing extravagant, hedonistic parties. At least one of those parties turned deadly, when a false ceiling fell away, deliberately dropping millions of rosebuds on the diners. Legend has it so many rosebuds fell on the diners, that people suffocated. Elagabalus executed generals and tried to enforce the worship Elah-Gabal as the state religion. She may have bigamously married a Greek athlete named Zoticus, and a charioteer named Heirocles, all the while visiting bars and picking up random men. Some of this may well be propaganda to excuse her assassination at the hands of her own guards just four years into her reign.
What is certain, however – Elagabalus wore women’s clothing, wigs and make up; insisted on being addressed ‘My Lady’, and approached several Roman surgeons with promises of ample reward if they could develop a genital reassignment surgery for her. Elagabalus is not an ideal avatar for trans people everywhere – she strikes me as an awful person. However as emperor, she was probably the most high profile trans person in the ancient world.
I have one final subject I’d like to discuss, while we’re in the Ancient world – a figure we’ve met before and never fully discussed. You may recall Hypsicratea as Mithridates VI of Pontus’ lover at the very end of his life. The Cimmerian warrior princess fought alongside the Emperor, escaping across the Caucasus with him to the Crimea. Rumours circulated on the emperor’s passing, the Cimmerian warrior princess had adopted the masculine name Hypsicrates, and lived the rest of his life as a man.
In 2004, in the Black Sea city of Phanagoria, an epitaph was uncovered to a Hypsicrates, former wife of Mithridates. It once had a statue of the warrior set above it – but the statue was long gone by then.
This is intriguing. we know Mithridates’ Hypsicratea was said to have been stereotypically masculine in appearance, and behaviour. Mithridates called her Hypsicrates. A Hypsicrates was among the slaves brought back from Pontus by the victorious Romans. This same Hypsicrates served Julius Caesar, until freed by Caesar sixteen years after Mithridates death in 47 BC. After this, we’re not sure what happened to him, but some scholars believe he later became a well-regarded military historian of the Near East – quoted by later writers like Josephus, but whose works have all been lost to the ravages of time.
That tale makes for a tantalising what if, that leaves more questions than answers. If they are one and the same, was Hypsicrates/ea assigned male or female at birth? If so, did the change reflect a transitioning or de-transitioning? Were they essentially, before some so-called ‘cultural Marxist’ or ‘post modernist’ ever made a word for the phenomenon, non-binary? Sadly we’ll never know the specifics, but in the abstract isn’t it good to know he/she or they existed?