Differently Gendered People

A little history . . .



          Cross dressing and living in the role of the opposite gender have been observed for centuries. Besides well-known historical personages such as Jeanne d'Arc who did not hide her womanhood, many other examples of women who joined the army or worked as sailors, pretending to be male, have been described by historians. In the 17th and 18th century this phenomenon was not rare in Western Europe, and almost 100 cases have been reported in the Netherlands alone.

          Historically, there were also men who dressed and behaved as women. Among the most famous were the Roman emperor Calligula; King James I of England; and Edward Hyde, Lord Cornbury, Governor of New York and New Jersey.

          A similar, but very particular case, is the life story of the Chevalier D’Eon, a nobleman who served the French King Louis XV as a diplomat in Russia. The year before his appointment he spent several months in disguise, presenting himself at the Russian court as his own (non-existent) sister Lea. He became quite popular as a woman and no one ever doubted his self-assigned sex. Later, he served in England where the rumor was spread that he was in fact a woman. He refused to settle the question by submitting to a medical examination. On the royal order of Louis XVI he was obliged to dress as a woman and live a female role until his death in 1810. The autopsy bore out that he had the body of a normal male, to the great surprise of the public and the people who knew him closely.

          Differently gendered individuals exist in all societies. The way they are allowed to expressed themselves and be integrated into the local culture, however, varies strongly. In India, male-to-female transgender people are socially institutionalized in what is partly a caste, and partly a religious cult with its own mother goddess, Bahuchara Mata. They are called hijras and they come from families of Hindu, Muslim, Christian or other faiths. In Burma, a similar phenomenon exists in which male-to-female transgender people are believed to be possessed by a spirit of the opposite sex. They have a function at the temples and participate in (semi)-religious ceremonies. In Oman, men who live in the female role are known as xaniths, but their role in society is between that of men and women. They retain their male names, wear clothing between that of men and women and cut their hair medium length. They can share in the social life of women, but like men, they have the right to go about in public unescorted.

          Another cultural variant of cross-gender behavior is the berdache (two spirited) among the Native American Indians. They will dress as a woman, do female work and engage in sexual relations with a man, and sometimes live as a berdache wife with a husband. They have a special status as a shaman and healer. This phenomenon has not become extinct, but still survives as an ongoing tradition in many tribes from Alaska to Yucatan.

          The modern documented history of transsexualism and medical gender reassignment ("changing the body to fit the mind") started in Germany with the first recorded adult sex change operation on a Danish artist, Einar Wegener, who in 1930 became Lily Elbe. Not until 1953, with the story of the surgical gender reassignment of the American ex-GI George Jorgensen, who became Christine Jorgensen, did transsexualism receive worldwide publicity. Since Jorgensen's 'sex-change’, tens of thousands of individuals have undergone gender reassignment surgery.


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