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We are all an experiment of nature.

merlin's picture

Intersex and transgender conditions in ancient cultures will be explored in the style of a book we read in class by Joan Roughgarden titled Evolution’s Rainbow. The examples show cases in which transgender and intersex conditions were encountered throughout history. These examples are sometimes instances were atypical attitudes were taken towards the conditions. I use said instances as evidence that Intersex and Transgendered individuals have been surprisingly common in human history and in learning about it’s occurrences, the possibility exists for societal acceptance of the condition as falling in a spectrum of normalcy. 

I have recently started questioning myself and have realized that my opinions are not as concrete as I had thought. I came up with the idea of this paper from observing my own changing viewpoints and how malleable they have proven to be throughout the first unit of Gender and Technology at Bryn Mawr.  For example, at first I went from believing that the answer to all issues surrounding sex and gender differences would be for society to just come to a common acceptance. I then found myself questioning this and calling it impossible, even an unattainable goal. Can society ever change its views to not reject individuals with atypical sex and gender conditions? I found my answer ultimately being realized when my own perceptions evolved as my understanding grew. This paper is a recount of historical examples of transgender and intersex, and I have tried to selects cases in which the conditions have not been viewed negatively. The examples were chosen in the hopes of suggesting that a change in societal viewpoint is indeed possible. 

It is the reality that most ancient peoples disposed of children who were born intersex. People thought that it tarnished their society as a perfect race (as in the Greek society), or that the birth of an intersex child was a “bad omen.”  But there are possibly some interesting examples of intersex being portrayed in a different light.


I have done some research on both intersex and transexualism, and have found two interesting topics to juxtapose in a list of examples:

- intersex as ugly and astonishing versus Intersex as perfection and hermaphroditism as the original human condition.

-frequency of transsexualism in people throughout history, particularly ancient rulers. 


Instances in history of intersex as a perfect state of human architecture…


In ancient greek literature, there have been examples of “Hermaphorditic” individuals. The name it self was derived from the gods. In Plato's Banquet, Aristophanes explained that humans originally had three genders: male, female, and androgen. The latter had both male and female sex organs. They were "physical perfection" and were completely independent (since they did not need any one else to reproduce). 


In the bible, the story of Adam and eve is interesting when looked at from this perspective. Adam was like god and autonomous. His sin led him to be split in two forms man and woman - two imperfect beings who needed to come together in order to reproduce. Can we say that the notion of not fitting into the sex binary can be seen theologically as the original form? Afterall, Before Eve was derived from Adam, he was supposedly the perfect form. 


Instances of Transgendered people in history…


It is said that around year 218 AD, Elagabalus, who was a young transgendered Roman emperor was a transgendered individual who is said to have regularly cross-dressed and spun cloth with the women. He is even suggested to be one of the first people in human history to undergo a sex change operation. He supposedly even tried to fin a physician to complete his transition by offering any doctor a portion of his empire if said physician could alter his genitals. It is actually possible Elagabalus could have had sex-change surgery. Roman doctors of the time were very skilled as surgeons, particularly because of their experience with mending gladiators (Nugent 171-196).  It could even be that earlier than this, the first sex change operations might have been performed by Persians in the 12th century. A study of the works of Diodorus of Sicily even says that the first operations this kind took place as early as the 1st and 2nd centuries BC. AD (G. Androutsos, M. Papadopoulou and S. Geroulanos 89-93)  


Cross-dressing Rulers…


-From 1479 to 1458, pharaoh Hatshepsut ruled Egypt and was considered the first female head of state. However she was in fact MTF.


- King Henry III of France cross-dressed very often. He was even referred to as “her majesty” by people in his court. Even when the king performed the male gender, his clothing was said to be quite over-the-top. 


-Queen Christina of Sweden was probably bisexual. She frequently crossdessed typically “men’s” clothing and even went so far as to rename herself with the male title Count Dohna.


Some Trans Communities… and Cultures…


The Illini Natives were encountered around 1673  by the French. The explorers noted that a group of men from population typically dressed and acted as typically women would. The French explorers later referred to them as the “berdache.” This is not the first time such a discovery has been make Roughgarden mentioned a south American example similar to this one in her book. 


In the 1700's, "molly houses" provided a space for the English transgender community to meet and intermingle with other members of this transgender community. "Mollies" was the term coined in reference to these cross-dressing men who developed their own culture. Also in Britain between 1793 and 1815, there were quite a few instances of FTM transgendered individuals who joined Nelson's Navy. Their sex identity was usually discovered whenever in instance arose where they were ordered to be flogged. It is interesting for the purposes of this paper that they were never punished when they were discovered. Mary Lacy known as William Chandler who served on a ship as a carpenter and went on to write a biography. William Brown served on the Queen Charlotte until 1815 James Gray served as a navy marine (Making the Modern World).



 "Rebecca and her daughters," was a group of MTFs who destroyed road toll barriers throughout the Welsh country, in an effort to lessen the economic burden on the poor.  


Transgendered Folks in the military…


-Charles de Beaumont, from 1728-1810, worked as a secret French agent, he worked for King Louis XV. In addition to the king sending him on secret missions, he also served in the military and fought in the seven years war. From his name came a new term, eonism, which described transgender behavior. Chevalier has been described as an a-sexual FTM transgender. 


-In the United States, Franklin Thompson fought for the Union Army in the Civil War. During the war, Franklin served as a spy, nurse, and dispatch carrier.  He was the only biologically female person brought into that army. Also in the US around the time of the the Victorian era, Transgenedered MTFs were featured in the public media and were known as "tight lacers" in reference to corsets. Later, in the early 1900’s, sigmund Freud's work included essays describing the stages of sexual development. His Theory of Sexuality seems to be one of the earliest attempts in the medical field to understand sex (or as we'd call it now, gender). From there forward, psychology has somewhat of a dark history when it comes to dealing with transgendered people. Roughgarden talks about the Aversion Therapy techniques and Electroshock given to eliminate transsexual tendencies. In the evolution of this young science, it is hoped that transgendered people will be treated more fairly. 


Transgendered people today…


In 1945, Sir Harold Gillies performed what is considered to be the first [modern] sex change operation from a woman to a man. The surgery transformed a young man by the name of Michael Dillon. The surgeon went on to do the opposite MTF surgery on Roberta Cowell in the UK. Later, in 1949, Hormonal treatments for Transgendered people was introduced by Harry Benjamin. These are the two major turning-points which led to the revolutionization of the ways in which transgenedered people can pass in society and fully complete their transition into a body which they believe corresponds to their identity. A little over 20 years later, in the Stonewall riots of 1969, Transgender and gender-noncomforming people resisted arrest in a bar raid on the Stonewall Inn in New York City. This event played a roll in helping to ignite the modern LGBT rights movement. Just prior to that incident, in 1967, a woman by the name of Reneé Richards was not allowed to participate in a professional tennis competition when she attempted to enter into a women's tournament. Later, she engaged in legal cases that established that transsexuals are legally the identity that they adopt after reassignment surgery in the US. Later other countries such as the UK would have similar court cases, which yielded the same resolution. However the case in the UK wouldn’t happen for another 30 years. 


Much of this list was constructed with the help of a page on the website The site was also quite inspirationional for the writing of this paper simply from its mission statement to “Educate, Communicate and Inform.” I think this is precisely what needs to be done (Transgender Zone).


These examples in history serve to show that intersex and transgender conditions have been around since early on in recorded history. They have also sparked a variety of reactions in society. Of course, intersex conditions have often (probably more times than not) been looked upon as demonic and even a bad omen. However, I have tried to focus on the more positive and progressive aspects of both intersex and transgender identity to show that whether we are talking about a spectrum of sex characteristics or of gender identities, I think our perspectives are very much malleable, such as my very own reactions to and understandings of these conditions been malleable in the course of this first unit in G&T studies. I suppose the next question is how a change can come about and how long it would take. I’m not sure anyone would know for sure the answer to this question, or even if it will ever happen. My opinion, though, is that it’s possible and I think we’re probably taking about generations of people who come to revolutionize their prospectives. It will not happen in the near future. All of the facts I found for this paper were encountered online. I am going to submit this paper on the interned for (potentially) the entire world to see! With such a powerful tool to propagate knowledge, maybe changes in our world will come sooner and people will have a better understanding of the spectrum of conditions in our world. 

This Gender and Technology course has allowed me to increase my openness and as so far made me realize that my opinions are continuously changing and going through an evolutionary cycle. This was most salient to me with a particular exercise we did in class. There were several pieces of paper posted all over the room with varying procedures that can be done to alter peoples bodies – such as male genital enhancement, cleft palate, lasic eye surgery, transgendered procedures, breast enhancement, and the list went on. Our goal was to place colored stickers stating whether or not the procedure should be funded by Healthcare in the US. Our task was to make this decision from the perspective of knowing someone or as a US congressman voting on the issue. Going into the exercise, I was highly confident in my abilities to make a decision. I thought that I’d make a decision based upon how “psychologically harmful” the particular condition would be to someone. OF course, this was nearly impossible and proved to be ineffective. Who is to say that a cleft palate is worse than wanting to reverse one’s gender identity because someone thinks he or she was “born in the wrong body” his or her entire life. Then I tried to assess the burden the issue would place on society as a whole. This is, of course, where the friend/congressman distinction caused some problems. As a friend, that wouldn’t matter much, I’d want it covered! But as a congressman, the decision made was often the opposite (or I was on the fence). When all was said and done, I knew that things weren’t so easy afterall, and that my perspectives had changed through the process as I had to thing more and more about the issue and reason with myself. I called into question my obligations towards morality and what was just and fair. I think that if everyone had to take this into question themselves, they would begin to question their own stance on these issue. This combined with greater knowledge of the normalcy (meaning commonness) of these conditions throughout history might make people think a little more about it, just as I have done. These are people who deserve recognition as human beings just as every form of sex and gender deserves equal recognition in the eyes of society. Afterall, as Katie Baratz Dalke said at her lecture at Bryn Mawr, "we are all an experiment of nature."







ANDROUTSOS, G, M PAPADOPOULOU, and S GEROULANOS. "The first sex change operations in antiquity." Andrology. 11.2 (2001): 89-93. Print.


Nugent, Mark. "From ‘Filthy Catamite’ to ‘Queer Icon’: Elagabalus and the Politics of Sexuality." Helios. 35.2 (2008): 171-196. Print.


"People: Mary Lacy." Making the Modern World: stories about the lives we've made. N.p., 2004. Web. 11 Feb 2011. <>.


 "Transgender people and mental health." Transgender Zone. N.p., 12 Feb 2011. Web. 10 Feb 2011. 



Liz McCormack's picture

And here is a picture of Sir

And here is a picture of Sir Gillies....Sir GillesSir Gilles

Liz McCormack's picture

the new normal

What a wonderfully rich set of examples you have brought forward.  In challenging what is "normal" we can more easily identify with a broader, more diverse understanding of humanity.  I like very much your hopeful stance on creating a more accepting society.  As you say, the information and connections represented by the internet should accelerate the educational process you advocate.  This is indeed an example of a new technology having an impact.

I wonder if there wasn't a similar societal transformation that took place some time in the past that could inform the one you've highlighted the need for here?

Handicap access?, race relations?, the mentally ill?  I suppose each of these cases has something to teach us, but they also remind us of the time and cross generational commitment it takes for a society to change.