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  • Writer's pictureScarlett Mosher

Transgender Figures in Classical Society: An LGBT+ series

In Latin, the word trans roughly translates to "across." When considering the derivative of "transgender," the word makes sense-across gender.

As the movement for transgender rights has come to light in the twenty-first century, the long and convoluted history of transgender people has made it's way to the surface of academia. One of the most prominent areas of academia-that of the Roman and Greek empires-is rich with oral and written accounts of transgender individuals.

In Rome, male cross-dressing was practiced during Saturnalia, a celebration of the god Saturn. However, in the rest of Roman society, transgenderism was stigmatized. Cross-dressing, especially for men, was seen as a form of degradation. In general, the Romans stigmatized effeminacy, and deemed anything that demonstrated femininity as "weak". Men who showed these feminine traits were shamed.

However, the rules surrounding female gender expression differed. While women were often discouraged from demonstrating masculine traits, there were many exceptions to this rule. In Greece, stories of women who deemed male attire to vote or gain education were not uncommon. While this specification does not point to evidence of transgenderism, one Roman story talks of a woman who was changed into a man by the gods. Written by the Roman poet Ovid, the main character, a girl named Iphis, is raised as a boy by her parents. Her parents arrange for their "son" to marry a girl, Ianthe. The two fall in love, but since they are both women, they are unable to bear children. Iphis prays to the goddess Isis for a miracle, and Isis obliges her by turning Iphis into a man. While this story does falter in it's telling of a lesbian love story, it counters with the normalization of transness. The idea that merely turning Iphis from one gender to the next is not stigmatized or against the morals of the gods reflects the attitudes of the Romans. While it may be immoral for men, women have a different set of rules. In order to fulfill the Roman nuclear family, turning from female to male was acceptable.

One of the most famous examples of a transgender person in the Classical age was the empress, Elagabalus. While Elagabalus was-and still is-referred to as male, the evidence presented goes against the idea that her preferred gender was male. Historian Edward Gibbon stated that: "(Elagabalus) affected to copy the dress and manners of the female sex". Elagabalus was reported to have asked her physicians to perform a sex change on her-an early version of gender-reassignment surgery. Furthermore, she often called herself a: "mistress, wife, and queen".

This should be taken with a grain of salt. While the evidence is compelling, it was common practice for political enemies to slander emperors by calling them "effeminate" and assigning them female traits. It is possible that Elagabus's reported femininity was a product of political slander. There is little evidence that the emperor's transgender leanings were fabricated, but it is possible.

The life of Elagabalus mirrors that of a modern trans woman. She would have fellow politicians refer to her as female, often choosing to present as a woman and requesting a sex change from her physicians. Though she was met with some resistance, she persevered, much like the transgender women today.

In reference to transgender identity in our society today, it is worthwhile to look at how Classical society treated those who presented as transgender. Unfortunately, Roman society was not as kind to transgender individuals as other cultures (such as Phillipino or Native American societies) were. Transgender individuals were seen as impolite and against moral standards in Roman society. Much like today, some considered transgender people to be immoral and against the values of society. However, the Romans did not have the same advances in biological science that we have today. Now, we understand the nuance of gender dysphoria, dysmorphia, and the biology behind those who identify as transgender. Finally, we can understand the lives of those in Classical society who did not fit the traditional gender norms, and use their stories to further our understanding of LGBT+ life today.

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