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Transgender People in History by Christopher Hawthorne Moss – Zahra Owens' Wide Open Spaces

Transgender People in History by Christopher Hawthorne Moss

Christopher Hawthorne Moss is the author of BELOVED PILGRIM, a YA transgender historical adventure/romance.

We have always been here since the dawn of humankind. We may have been fewer as reflected in what is taken as historical record, or we may simply have had to suppress or hide it, but there have always been men and women who knew they were not the same gender in their hearts and minds than their bodies might suggest. How can we know this? Science is daily coming to understand the biological origins of what has variously been called sin, deviance, or delusion. Recent studies of the brain are pointing to how at different stages of gestation an embryo is subjected to a dozen different hormone baths that direct the gender characteristics of the part of the developing body receiving them at the time. The bath at conception directs the body to be male or female, or, to be truthful, dozens of other variations. The bath at the time the brain begins to grow will make that brain have feminine or masculine characteristics. If, as this suggests, transgender is biological, then it stands to reason that every human ever conceived could have the potential to be transgender. We have always been here.

Then where were we? Why is there no record? Well, in fact, there is. It depends on the place, time and culture. Plains Indians reverenced the Two Spirit individual who by having both aspects of the male and female made them more closely modeled on the Great Spirit. The Galli, priests dedicated to the goddess Cybele in Ancient Rome, performed their own sex reassignment surgery and dressed and lived as women. Other examples do exist, including individuals like Billy Tipton and the Chevalier d’Eon, who not only cross-dressed but chose to identify themselves as the binary opposite of the sex they presented. It is a sad fact that not only did religion cast taboos on people who crossed gender lines, we still “kill” these “deviants” by denying they ever existed. Erasure from the historical record is not proof of anything, one way or another, except that for some reason a distinct population was either overlooked or skewed in the record, such as when dubious sources, like the Church’s pronouncements, make women lesser in estimation of worth.

The trick to finding transgender people in history is interpreting why an individual donned the clothing and other characteristics of a different identity than the norm. For instance, a man may dress and behave as a woman for a number of non-inclusive reasons. Female dress can be a sort of costume for performers, from castrati opera singers to drag queens. There have always been prostitutes who attracted men who were aroused by the blend or confusion of the male and female. Some people simply find the look and activities of the “opposite sex” more enjoyable. For that matter what constitutes masculine and feminine is not absolute but interpreted. Therefore to be clear I am talking about people who felt they were born in the wrong body, transgender, I look for historical figures that did not simply dress for the stage but lived as the gender they believed was authentically theirs.

Billy Tipton, jazz pianist (1914-1989)

Billy Tipton, jazz pianist (1914-1989)
Billy Tipton, jazz pianist (1914-1989)

Billy Tipton began identifying as a man, we are told, in order to be granted access to performing as a jazz pianist. But what makes me call him a transman is the fact that once he began the identification, he never identified as female again. He lived as a man, married a woman, and adopted children, always as a man. It was only when he was about to die that paramedics who arrived to try to keep him alive discovered that under his masculine clothing Billy Tipton had a female body. We can’t know if, as a child he was aware of identification as a boy, but clearly once he began to live as a man, he found all the trappings the choice he would make. This sort of story repeats itself many times over in history.

Chevalier d’Eon (1728–1810)

Chevalier d'Eon (1728–1810)
Chevalier d’Eon (1728–1810)
And, of course, the pattern is not exclusive to women seeking opportunities limited to men. A colleague asked me why any man would want to live as a woman, with all the attendant humiliations and restrictions suffered by women in a patriarchal society. That they did argues at least the suggestion that they truly felt female and could not be happy living as men. An interesting example is the 18th century French diplomat and spy, Charles-Geneviève-Louis-Auguste-André-Timothée d’Éon de Beaumont worked as an undercover spy for King Louis XV of France. In order to maintain his cover d’Eon posed as a woman. Something must have clicked for him, because for the last 33 years of her life, d’Eon insisted she was a biological female. When she died doctors discovered that her body was after all male. Her name became the source of “Eonism”, an early word for transsexuality.

Who knows how many transgender men and women there have been in our history that were permanently closeted, unable to live as openly as the opposite gender of the body in which they were born? I was 60 before I knew it about myself, and clearly I could have lived my whole life not embracing my authentic gender, and this is in a time of relative liberation. Here are just some of the historical figures whose stories are known and who chose to live not just in the clothing of the opposite sex but truly lived as and insisted they were being true to the Inner Man or Woman.

Dr. James Barry, pioneering surgeon in the British military, proponent of sanitary conditions
Albert Cashier, one of 240 women who served as men in the American Civil War
Jennie June, writer on topic of androgens
Nadezhda Durova, Russian soldier in Napoleonic Wars
Catalina de Erauso, Basque soldier of Spain in South America
Dorothy Lawrence, World War I journalist
Lili Elbe, Danish artist
Shi Pei Pu, Chinese opera singer and spy
Roberta Cowell, fighter pilot, prison of war and race car driver


BelovePilgrim_coverAt the time of the earliest Crusades, young noblewoman Elisabeth longs to be the person she’s always known is hidden inside. When her twin brother perishes from a fever, Elisabeth takes his identity to live as a man, a knight. As Elias, he travels to the Holy Land, to adventure, passion, death, and a lesson that honor is sometimes found in unexpected places.

Elias must pass among knights and soldiers, survive furious battle, deadly privations, moral uncertainty, and treachery if he’ll have any chance of returning to his new-found love in the magnificent city of Constantinople.

Beloved Pilgrim is available through the Harmony Ink and Dreamspinner Press websites and at all the major retailers.

Christopher Hawthorne Moss

Christopher Hawthorne Moss wrote his first short story when he was seven and has spent some of the happiest hours of his life fully involved with his colorful, passionate and often humorous characters. Moss spent some time away from fiction, writing content for websites before his first book came out under the name Nan Hawthorne in 1991. He has since become a novelist and is a prolific and popular blogger, the historical fiction editor for the GLBT Bookshelf, where you can find his short stories and thoughtful and expert book reviews. He lives in the Pacific Northwest with his husband of over thirty years and four doted upon cats. He owns Shield-wall Productions at http://www.shield-wall.com. He welcomes comments from readers sent to christopherhmoss@gmail.com and can be found on Facebook and Twitter.

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