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  • Peter McGuire

How Do We Cope With Gender?


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What happens when you squeeze the diversity of human bodies into just two categories? The answer is, people try to make it work. I’m Peter McGuire and this is my Unlikely Explanation.


Warning: this episode discusses sexuality and anatomy and the language around it, so I will be using explicit terms, and in quoting from the past or describing movements of the past, using words that can be considered slurs. If you don’t want to hear rude or explicit terms, this might not be the episode for you or you might want to listen after the little ones have gone to bed.


This is the second part of a two-part episode but this episode can be enjoyed alone if you’re not as passionate about eunuchs as I am. In the first section, I examined bodies in politics by looking at bodies that were depicted or actually altered to be non-binary, bodies that were neither male nor female. In this episode, I want to look more broadly at the imposition of the gender binary on the societies and individuals throughout the early modern and modern history. Once you see gender binary as a cultural meme rather than an eternal fact, it’s easy to identify ways that it shapes culture and discussion. People who do not fit comfortably into the gender binary and the procreative order find different ways to survive and thrive. By learning their stories, we can see the limits of the power of gender.


Eunuchs, the Embodiment of the Orient


In part one, I discussed the relationship between procreation and power. In trying to explain why eunuchs are no longer a class or gender in the world, I think we can safely say that part of the reason was the waning power of hereditary monarchs. Of the top 25 contributors to the U.N. (a measure of wealth and influence), only one—Saudi Arabia—has a hereditary ruler today. But the waning of hereditary power is only half of the story. The last places on Earth where eunuchs existed, the Ottoman and Chinese Empires, did away with eunuchs to better conform to the Western system of power. The final demise of the eunuch came when European culture monopolized global power.


Outside of the Christian world, eunuchs held an additional position that did not exist in Christian empires. Christian procreative power was based on monogamy. In Western Christendom, this meant that a man could only have one legal wife at a time and only children of that wife could inherit. Eastern Christianity took this another step further in limiting men to only two wives in a lifetime. The logic was that consecutive marriages on Earth meant multiple marriages in heaven once everyone had died, which would be bigamy. Presumably, the second marriage was a compromise with the earthly necessity for legitimate heirs and the high death rate. In the 9th Century, Roman Emperor Leo VI ran afoul of the church when his first two wives died within a year of each other without giving birth, and then his semi-legitimate third wife also died without issue. He ultimately had a son with a mistress before demanding they be legitimized by the church, knowing that it would be an uphill battle he could only fight once. This required tremendous political maneuvering (including appealing to the Pope over the Patriarch, pushing the church another step closer to schism).


A huge advantage that the non-Christian aristocrats had over their Christian counterparts is that they could usually take more than one wife and some prominent members of society sired hundreds of children. Literally hundreds. A monarch of Morocco in the 18th Century, Ismail Ibn Sharif, registered 525 sons and 342 daughters. Caring for the wives and children of the ruler could become a major cost of government administration and the harem could play a major part in non-Christian administrations. Because they were cut off from procreation, eunuchs were perfectly suited to shepherd the procreation of others. Not able to sire children, placing eunuchs in charge of the harem dispelled any suspicion of illegitimacy from the children. The accusation of illegitimacy was often used to undermine the political power of monarchs. Of course, having so many legitimate children causes inheritance problems of its own and invites the other kind of succession war.


Looking at a map, we can see a cline from east to west in attitudes towards nonbinary gender. In China and sporadically across Asia, we see eunuchs as accepted members of court and harem life. We also see social positions for a third gender. An example of a third gender that has survived history is in Thailand (formerly called Siam), which is not incidentally the only Asian country to escape European imperialism. You might be familiar with kathoey people in Thailand, members of a gender that can encompass the Western categories of trans woman, intersex, and effeminate homosexual.


Court eunuchs existed in Chinese administration until 1912 when revolutionaries ousted the Emperor and declared China a republic. The last person to be castrated for court duty was Sun Yaoting, whose father castrated him only a few months before the last Qing emperor, Puyi, abdicated. Puyi became Emperor just shy of his third birthday and apparently treated his court like the spoiled child he was. He later said, "Flogging eunuchs was part of my daily routine. My cruelty and love of wielding power were already too firmly set for persuasion to have any effect on me." He also said, “No account of my childhood would be complete without mentioning the eunuchs. They waited on me when I ate, dressed and slept; they accompanied me on my walks and to my lessons; they told me stories; and had rewards and beatings from me, but they never left my presence. They were my slaves; and they were my earliest teachers.” He abdicated a few days after his sixth birthday.


Sun Yaoting grew up in poverty and was castrated in the mud-walled home of his birth with no anesthetic. A goose quill was inserted in his urethra to prevent it from getting blocked as the wound healed. When he recovered from the injury, the emperor, Puyi, no longer had power, but still had a title and a court, which had retreated into the Forbidden City. No sooner had Sun worked his way into this inner court than it was expelled from the capital entirely. Years later, when Japan invaded China on the eve of the Second World War, Sun worked in Puyi’s puppet empire in Manchuria. Sun apparently developed a keen sense for political maneuvering because he escaped Soviet occupation, survived the ensuing civil war and found his way into communist administration. He found himself constantly targeted by the regime as a holdover from the decedent, imperial past that communist propaganda railed against, and eventually lost power in a leftist coup. It was during this time that he suffered his second-greatest emotional loss. To conform with the Cultural Revolution of 1966-76, Sun’s family destroyed the pickled remains of his genitals, which severed his trust in them forever. He had hoped to be buried with his genitals and become complete again after death. Remarkably, he lived to the age of 94 and died peacefully in Beijing in 1996, having survived some of the most dangerous and turbulent years in Chinese history.


Continuing westwards on the map, there’s Persia and the Middle East, where there have been court eunuchs since ancient times. The Arab conquests of the 7th century eliminated eunuchs from power for a time and early caliphates appear to have excluded eunuchs even as harem guards. Eunuchs reemerge in the twelfth century as a royal slave guard that could be trusted to stay out of the Sunni/Shi’ite controversy. Castration was illegal under Islamic law, so slaves would be transported to Coptic Christian lands in Upper Egypt to be castrated and then sold out of Cairo. Eunuchs eventually began to reach high positions in court and religious duties around the 16th century, after Turks invaded the Roman Empire and the Middle East. Under Ottoman rule black eunuchs and white eunuchs were given different roles, with white eunuchs supervising page boys and black eunuchs supervising harems. The logic was that white slaves traditionally kept their penis while with black slaves it was removed, therefore black eunuchs were safer to keep around women. The extent to which this was true in practice is unclear.


The Kizlar Agha, or Chief Black Eunuch, supervised the royal harem and oversaw the network of eunuch guards that defended the holy sites of Mecca and Medina as well as government charitable foundations. Women of the harem were often involved in court intrigues and this proximity to the royal family meant that black eunuchs held the more prestigious positions. All of this proximity to wealth and power made the Kizlar Agha one of the most powerful people in imperial administration up until the 19th century. Eunuch power was curtailed by the reforms of Mahmud II in the 1830s which sought to reorganize and centralize the Empire into a Western-style monarchy. All remaining eunuch positions were eliminated by the Young Turk Revolution in 1908, which was a nationalist and republican coup carried out by the military. The Ottoman Empire of the time was under great pressure from European powers that held castration in particular and the slave trade, in general, to be barbaric. Eunuchs had come to be seen as a holdover from the inefficient, decadent past and an obstacle to entering the modern era of cooperation with Europe.


Then we have the Roman world, where, as we discussed in the last episode, eunuchs’ entry into Roman society was concurrent with the takeover of the republic by emperors. Castration remained illegal for citizens but the fiction of the “swaddling accident” allowed citizens to castrate their sons anyway. The Roman Empire became much more comfortable with eunuchs by the 10th century, and no doubt imparted their ideas about the usefulness of eunuchs onto the Turks who conquered their empire.


Then there is the European world, which came to be populated by the Germanic peoples who conquered the Western Roman Empire, where castration was rarely practiced. This mix of Germanic and Roman peoples came to form European culture, and European culture never recognized eunuchs or any other third gender as legitimate. While the Eastern Church had several eunuch Patriarchs, in the West it was said that castration of priests removed the temptation that makes celibacy worthwhile in the first place. At the same time, Western monasteries forbid eunuchs admittance because they posed too much of a sexual temptation to the priests. This is in keeping with the contradictory attitudes towards eunuchs we explored in the last episode.


Western civilization saw itself as the successor of Greek and Roman civilization. We still do. Just look at our national architecture. As late as 1922, we built a Greek temple to house the statue of Lincoln. The eagle on American seal clutches the fasces, the Roman symbol for power that Mussolini and Hitler gave new meaning to in the 20th Century. Never mind that Europeans were the Germanic tribes that conquered Western Rome and never mind that the Roman Empire still very much existed throughout the Middle Ages in the East. The idea that the West represents vitality, discipline, and individualism in the face of Eastern despotism has been taken up uncritically by historians stretching back to Herodotus and by mainstream culture until extremely recently, a few decades ago.


The story we tell about ourselves sees Greeks as fiercely independent, clever, scrappy pioneers who were able to turn back the monolithic evil that is Eastern Empire through heroism and virtue. A perfect example of this view can be seen in Zach Snyder’s 2006 film 300, which retains much of the orientalist bias from Herodotus’ telling of the same events in 340 BCE. 300 Spartans are said to have held the pass at Thermopylae against the impossibly large Persian army until they were betrayed. The Persians act as ants in an enormous, soulless despotism. Every Persian is a slave and much like the others. Xerxes is shown with an elongated, effeminate body with eyeliner. Comparing his body to King Leonidus tells us who the real manly men are. The heroic Spartans succeed against impossible odds and are only brought down by the treachery of a person with severe deformities. His body is also imperfect. Easterners can only beat Westerners, even in a completely one-sided battle, if they resort to tactics and allies that are below the heroic, manly standards of the Greeks.


In reality, Persia was a complex, multiethnic Empire that paid unprecedented respect to the cultures that it conquered. Dan Carlin did an excellent three-part series on them. But never mind reality, the Western Civilization myth pays little attention to it and to Alexander’s despotic Hellenic Greeks and jumps forward in time to the Romans, who supposedly codified and rationalized all forms of law and power. With the introduction of Semitic Christian ideas and the conversion of the Roman Empire and, later, the Germanic tribes to Christianity and the story of Western Civilization is complete. It is proud, pious, manly, and independent while the East—the Oriental world—is decedent, servile, and effeminate. Unlike the Greeks and Romans, Christians stigmatized non-heterosexual sex acts and they came to be seen as effeminate, evil, and Eastern. This set of Eastern stereotypes are roughly termed “orientalist” since the publication of Edward Said’s 1978 book, Orientalism.


With these attitudes in mind, we can help explain why Europeans were horrified by Romans in the 11th Century when crusades brought members of the western European aristocracy en mass into contact with the Roman world for the first time in centuries. This was almost exactly three centuries after Charlemagne had been declared a Roman Emperor in the West and half a century since the Pope and Patriarch had excommunicated each other, finally formally splitting the Christian church. The Frankish warriors found Constantinople to be disgustingly decedent, if still staggering. The city was ten times the size of any city in the west. Constantinople stood at the crossroads of Europe and Asia and formed a major center for international trade. It had housed the most complex administration west of China for seven centuries. The place was choked with women, eunuchs, artists, rich merchants, and heretical preaching. Worst of all, for some strange reason, they were less than hospitable to the tens of thousands of rowdy knights and peasants that showed up demanding to be fed, accommodated, and transported to the eastern frontier. The Crusaders couldn’t bring themselves to call these fallen, decadent people Roman and instead wrote of them as Byzantine, after the ancient name for Constantinople. This Emperor even had the temerity to demand that the conquests in the holy land be returned to the Roman Empire instead of becoming new European colonies. Modern commentators have suggested that the reconquest of the Levant might have been as successful as the reconquest of Spain if it had been administered by the nearby Romans instead of the faraway French.


Europeans had no love for the Romans of their time. Throughout the 11th and 12th centuries, Constantinople asked for European help defending Asia Minor (now Turkey, the Roman Empire’s heartland) from the advances of the Muslim forces but Europeans remained focused on defending the remains of their doomed colony in Israel. After two more further crusades that achieved only the loss of the European colonies in the Holy Land, Venice, a Roman trade rival and recent ex-colony, hijacked the Fourth Crusade and redirected it to pillage Constantinople. European crusaders engaged in a three-day orgy of terror, loot, and rape of the greatest Christian city in the world. Apparently, the blind Doge of Venice who had commandeered the Crusade kept his men out of the indiscriminate pillage and focused on the task of removing all the important Roman art that had survived the iconoclasts. To this day there is a statue of a chariot pulled by four horses on the facade of St. Mark’s Cathedral in the most prominent square of Venice. It was taken from the hippodrome of Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade. For the first time in its nine centuries of existence, the capital of the Roman Empire had fallen and it fell to European, Christian armies crusading in God’s name. The mortally wounded Roman Empire limped on for another two and a half centuries before finally succumbing to Mehmed II, the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire.


After the fall of Constantinople to the Turks, eunuchs disappeared from Christendom. In the Christian mind, they became an exclusively Oriental concept. Europeans wouldn’t give much thought to eunuchs again until the middle of the Age of Colonization, in the 18th Century. A new interest in the Orient had seized Europe. In Paris, porcelain figurines of Turks were selling like hotcakes. A fascination with the East, typified as exotic and strange, gripped the European mind. In particular, they wanted to peek inside of the harem, a secret place of sensual pleasures guarded by the sexless eunuchs. Europeans tended to eroticize harems as given to the barbaric lusts of polygamists. In reality, harems of the Muslim world served as a form of hijab intended to seclude female relatives of all kinds, preserve their modesty, and provide education for their children. Eunuchs were seen in the West as the most unfortunate victims of the Oriental penchant for despotism. Oriental despots were so tyrannical that they would literally emasculate their subjects, Europeans tittered.


This Western fascination and disgust with “Oriental” ideas of gender came to have a very real impact on people’s lives as Western Imperialism tightened its control over Asian life in the 19th Century. India presents an interesting case study.


In India, to this day, there is a third sex referred to in most parts of the country as hijra, although the term can also be derogatory. Hijra historically occupy their own caste and are crucial participants in certain religious rites, particularly with reference to gods that have both sexes or stories where male and female gods merge. In Hindu philosophy, they are thought to not express sexual desire and instead transmute their sexual energy into religious energy. These are broad generalizations I’m using to describe thousands of years of history and literature but it’s worth stressing that hijra meant different things in different times and places. Unfortunately, I haven’t put the years of work into Indian history that I have into Byzantine history so I’m going to need to stick to generalization.


Despite the lofty religious associations of the hijra social caste, hijra experience the same discrimination that trans people face the world over. Hijra face widespread job and housing discrimination, high rates of poverty and homelessness, and a high incidence of sex work. It appears as though hijra are only valued for their service, essentially dancing and singing for religious events, and shut out of other parts of public life. As a result, a common way that hijra make money is dancing or singing obnoxiously with the intent to embarrass a person or business who will pay them to go away. This is a particularly gendered form of begging, using the stigmatism of their caste and bodies to extort money from people who don’t want to be associated with them.


It’s hard to know how much of the shunning of hijra is western in origin. As India fell under European domination throughout the 17th and 18th Centuries, Western lawmakers set Indian castes into a western-style legal system, which violently disrupted the traditional Indian social system. Part of this systemization was a rejection of hijra completely. Europeans understood hijra to be eunuchs, due part of the ceremonial rite for becoming a hijra, which involves complete castration. That said, it’s debated as to how commonly castration was or is actually practiced. The British Raj illegalized castration, prostitution, and sodomy in 1861, which illegalized all sex involving hijra as an “unnatural act” since they could be classified as neither man nor woman. Throughout the 2010s, various efforts were made to decriminalize homosexuality in India, culminating in a 2018 Supreme Court decision that struck down the “unnatural acts” article, essentially making hijra sexuality legal for the first time in 150 years.


This clash between the colonial-era Europeans and Indians over sexuality and gender represents the two ends of a wide spectrum (the cline in attitudes towards a third gender) coming together. Eunuchs as a class disappeared from this world because of the imposition of the Western gender binary on places that formerly had other options. This lack of a legitimate third gender had far-reaching implications for people who did not fit comfortably within the man/woman binary.


Female Men and Adoption of Power


Because the West lacked a third gender, we made do with two. The gender binary came to be seen as a biological and necessary fact. The myth became that God had created Adam and Eve, man and woman, as opposite sexes designed for coupling placed special emphasis on sex as procreation. In part one of this episode, we discussed the dangers of focusing power structures on procreation. Focusing all sex on procreation is an uncomfortable imposition onto the lives of everyday people. I discussed how Elizabeth and Victoria had their bodies manipulated in art to conform to visions of femininity. Ordinary women also faced this choice between virginity and mass procreation, the only other options being the tragedy of “barrenness” and the prostitution of the “fallen woman.” While it is true that many women were content to spend their twenties and thirties pregnant or recovering from pregnancy, some women were not. Like Elizabeth, some of these women cut themselves off from marriage and children entirely.


I’m going to tell a few life stories of people who were raised as girls and presented as men in adulthood. Some re-assumed their feminine identities later, either by choice or because their bodies were outed and they were disallowed to live as men. To use our current term, “transgender," to describe this group would be to miss the central fact of their existence. Women presented as men so they could enjoy male privilege. It’s an almost universal fact of human society that male privilege provides access to power and opportunities that are denied to women. In very recent times, this fact has come to be identified and initial attempts have been made to dismantle it, but for most of history, there have been enormous advantages to living as a man. While access to power can be an element in transness today, the term “transgender” usually refers to people who identify personally with a gender other than the one assigned at birth. Throughout history, the crossdressing women (or “girl-boys”, or “women who marry women”, as they've been termed), mostly chose life as men to have the freedom to experience the world. To call them “transgender” assumes something about their personal identity and feelings that we can’t know because many of these individuals never spoke or wrote about their life as a man. We simply can’t know their reasons for living as men outside of the social pressure to do so. As Ralph Kerwineo, a female man who was exposed in 1914, told reporters, "it is easier, far easier, for a girl to don trousers and get along as a man than it is for her to continue to wear skirts. She can remain a better girl, and she is not subjected to the dangers and temptations that befall lone girls when their sex is known.”


Many of these stories come from times of war. Christian “Kit” Cavanaugh was apparently born in Dublin in 1667. I say “apparently” because all information about her seems to ultimately come from a source that could be fictional or semi-fictional. Nevertheless, her existence seems to be accepted by the British army, so I will treat her as mostly factual. Cavanaugh grew up as a girl and a woman and showed great business acumen as the sole proprietor of a pub she inherited from her aunt. She married and her husband became her waiter. Under “circumstances that are unclear,” her husband, Richard, disappeared in 1691. Cavanaugh left their three children in the care of her mother and joined the army to search for him.


Over the next thirteen years, Cavanaugh, now passing as a man, fought in several battles. He was expelled from the army after fighting a duel over a woman but quickly reenlisted as a dragoon. He apparently fought bravely and earned the admiration of his peers both in battle and in the marauding after battles. After a musket ball injury to the thigh put him on guard duty, Cavanaugh finally reunited with his husband, who was a private in the 1st Regiment of Foot and had been captured by the French. Unfortunately, Richard (the husband) had already given up hope that he would be reunited with his wife and had started a new romantic relationship. Cavanaugh decided to continue fighting with the army as a man and the couple stayed close, claiming to be brothers. Marian Broderick writes in Wild Irish Women that, “Amazingly, she managed to [conceal herself as a man] without being discovered: she ate with them, drank with them, slept with them, played cards with them, even urinated alongside them by using what she describes as a ‘silver tube with leather straps’. No one was ever the wiser.” One detail that shows up in this story and many stories like it (to the point where it is probably a standard embellishment) is that a prostitute accused Cavanaugh of fathering her child and he opted to pay child support rather than reveal his secret female sex.


Soldiering is dangerous business and it was only a matter of time before Kit Cavanaugh suffered another injury, this time to the head. During his unconsciousness, a doctor’s examination revealed his female body and word quickly spread through camp and then up the ranks. After his recovery, during which he remained an active soldier, Cavanaugh was discharged from the army and came to be known as Mrs. Welch, after her husband’s last name. She worked as a sutleress, a merchant who followed armies around to sell them food (a sort of freelance canteen cook). After that husband was killed in battle, Mrs. Welch became Mrs. Jones, after her new husband who was a dragoon. He also promptly died. As the War of Spanish Succession wound down, she returned to Dublin to run another pub, where, in 1713, she married for the third time to another soldier, a Mr. Davies. For her extraordinary service, she was given a pension by Queen Anne of fifty pounds as well as one shilling a day for the rest of her life. Mrs. Davies was admitted to the Royal Hospital Chelsea (where esteemed veterans spend their declining years) and was buried with full military honors in 1739.


Kit Cavanaugh was one of several “wartime crossdressers.” These women are usually described as being so driven by religious or political devotion that they must present as men to participate in war. In the account of Kit Cavanaugh, she claims that she joined the army due to “being delirious to show my Zeal for his majesty King William, and my Country.”


Probably the most famous wartime crossdresser was Jeanne d'Arc, who was burned at the stake for crossdressing following her shocking revival of the French war effort during the Hundred Years War and subsequent capture by the English. It seems that cross-dressing young women for safety on lawless roads has been a common precaution throughout history and this is how her crossdressing started. She apparently continued to prefer male clothes while in English prison because they helped her fend off the continual rape attempts by her captors. That was an awful sentence to write and will be made worse by this next one. She was dressed in a long, white dress when she was executed by burning at age 19.


The social disruption of war pushes women to crossdress both for protection and because it opens up opportunities for social mobility. These women are romanticized in writing as valkyries or amazons, with special attention being paid to the ethereal nature of valkyries and the famed lesbianism of amazons. This archetype is so common that it even appears in J.R.R. Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings Trilogy with the character of Éowyn. In a throwback to medieval stories (where prophecies are often fulfilled in unexpected ways allowed by ambiguous wording), she can kill the Witch-king because she “is not man.” Tolkien even gives her an ending suitable for his 1955 audience: the patient love of Faramir causes all the hate and war lust to drain out of Éowyn and she is suddenly filled with love in the form of the desire to marry and have children.


That said, not all women who went to war came back as women. Albert Cashier was a poor Irish immigrant who served in the Union Army in the American Civil War. Cashier maintained his male gender even as a captive of the confederacy, even during a plague of dysentery, which I assume requires some creativity. His regiment fought in over 40 battles including Vicksburg. Cashier was 22 when the war ended. He continued to live as a man for another 49 years. Late in life, his mind began to deteriorate and he was placed in the care of the Watertown State Hospital in Illinois where his female sex was discovered. He was given only women’s clothes for the final year of his life. He was buried with full military honors in 1915.


Similarly, Amelio Robles Ávila used the Mexican Civil War of the 1910s as an opportunity to escape womanhood. Robles rose to the position of colonel in the revolutionary army of the south, the Zapatistas, and was awarded high honors after revolutionary forces won the war. He lived as a man for 61 years, until he died at age 95 in 1984. According to a former neighbor, if anyone called Robles a woman or "Doña", he would threaten them with a pistol. That is certainly one way to defend your gender identity.


The last prominent reports of war crossdressers we get come from the First World War, presumably because in the Second World War, several countries had battalions of women. However, war wasn’t the only way for girls to make their way into the male ruling order.


In 1798, a girl named Margret-Anne Buckley was born in Cork, Ireland. After possibly having an illicit child and finding little success in her chosen profession of tutoring, she worked with her family to secure a spot in the University of Edinborough’s medical school for a fictitious nephew: James Barry. Margret-Anne and James supposedly traveled by ship together to Scotland. James writes ”it was very usefull for Mrs. Bulkley (my aunt) to have a Gentleman to take care of her on Board Ship and to have one in a strange country.” This letter has a note on the back written by the solicitor who delivered it. It says “Miss Bulkley, 14 December.”


John Barry did well in school and found success as an army doctor working in the British colonies. He performed one of the first cesarean sections where both child and mother survived. The baby boy was named James Barry Munnik and a relative of his, James Barry Munnik Hertzog, prime minister of South Africa from 1924 to 39, ultimately traces his name back to our James Barry. Barry had a particular interest in sanitation and living conditions and found himself demoted several times (and was arrested at least once) for agitating for better living conditions for soldiers and refugees. Despite their shared passion for sanitation, Barry did not get along with Florence Nightingale when they worked together in Turkey during the Crimean War. He apparently reprimanded Nightingale in a public square at length and she wrote upon his death that “I should say that she was the most hardened creature I ever met.”


Upon Barry’s death in 1865 of dysentery, his personal physician produced a death certificate that attests to Barry being male. A woman who handled Barry’s body confronted him, essentially blackmailing him, saying he was such a poor doctor that he didn’t notice that Barry’s female body and the pregnancy stretch marks it bore. She made good on the threat and, thanks to her, we now know about Barry’s extraordinary life. The doctor wrote “...Whether Dr. Barry was a male, female, or hermaphrodite I do not know, nor had I any purpose in making the discovery as I could positively swear to the identity of the body as being that of a person whom I had been acquainted with as Inspector-General of Hospitals for a period of years.” I suspect that this is the healthy approach to take when someone’s gender is ambiguous.


From Male Women to Screaming Queens


There are many stories similar to Cavanaugh’s and Barry’s that we know of and countless more that were never detected or recorded. There are far fewer examples of the opposite: an assigned male presenting as a woman.


A notable exception to this rule is the Chevalier d’Eon. He lived in 18th Century France and came from a declining aristocratic family that had become impoverished. As such, he found employment as secretary to various positions in the French government. He participated in King Louis XV’s secret diplomacy and acted as a spy in Russia for four years. He later claimed that to get into Russia, he had to dress and act as a maid of honor to the Empress, although this is likely a justification for his feminine identity invented later. In time, he came to be an interim ambassador to England and thoroughly enjoyed the rewards of office. When the new ambassador was sent, he found himself in a precarious position between two factions in France. But the Chevalier held a trump card. He had done secret reconnaissance for the French King in England and held evidence of a planned French invasion of England, information that threatened the fragile peace between the two countries after the Seven Years War. This tense relationship with the ruling faction meant he continued on in French service but remained in exile in England.


After the death of Louis XV in 1774, D’Eon sensed a chance to return to France. He did so by making a unique offer. He claimed that he was born female and had only assumed male identity to inherit and suggested that he might return to France as a woman as a way of recusing himself from the politics that had made his return previously impossible. By quitting manhood, D’Eon had the opportunity to escape his manly obligations. He could now return to France without fighting a duel or otherwise accounting for his tarnished honor. After fourteen months of negotiation with the new king, Louis XVI, D’Eon agreed to return in women’s clothing and the King even provided a stipend for the new wardrobe.


D’Eon’s return as a woman was predictably met with a fair amount of scandal and disbelief. It seems that the newly created Mademoiselle D’Eon never fully adopted feminine roles. She continued to fence and on multiple occasions asked to lead troops, both for Louis XVI and the new revolutionary government. A member of French high society, Madame Campan, writes, “The desire to see his native land once more determined him to submit to the condition, but he revenged himself by combining the long train of his gown and the three deep ruffles on his sleeves with the attitude and conversation of a grenadier, which made him very disagreeable company.”


The revolution of 1789 cut D’Eon off from her only source of income, a pension for government service, and she eventually found herself in debtors prison at age 76. She was paralyzed by a fall and spent the last four years of her life bedridden. The post-mortem analysis claimed that D’Eon had "male organs in every respect perfectly formed," an "unusual roundness in the formation of limbs," as well as a "breast remarkably full." This suggests that D’Eon may have been intersex, expressing male and female physicality.


While it is rare for assigned males to live as women, men can adopt femininity temporarily. The earliest records of this that we have are about male prostitutes. A common issue that I ran into researching this topic was the fictionalization of these scandalous lives. Reports often come from after death and are virtually never firsthand. The time that most of these stories focus on, the 17th to 19th centuries, have a tremendous amount of literature that claims to be true accounts, even if the audience would have been fully aware that it was not.


That is why I will only quickly mention the case of John or Eleanor Rykener. According to the court record, he or she was caught having sex with a man while wearing women’s clothes. In the text, Rykener testifies that he became a prostitute after taking an apprenticeship with an embroideress who also operated her business as a brothel. Special attention is given to the idea that his or her johns were primarily clergymen: a medieval trope that Chaucer also uses. He or she discusses both prostituting for men as a woman and seducing women in both men’s and women’s clothes.


Sadly, my research indicates that the Rykener story was a satire of the King, Richard II, written for bureaucrats with anti-monarchical sentiment to giggle over privately. Nevertheless, the story gives us some clues about medieval Anglo conceptions of gender and sexuality. Rykener is locked into a strange sort of heterosexuality because when he has sex with men, he is Eleanor. In his homosexual encounters, he is said to have had sex “as a woman.” There also seems to be a threat presented to women, in that he can pass in women’s spaces while wearing a dress. To be able to have sex “as a man” but wearing a dress allows him access to women that other men do not enjoy.


The false binary of gender in the Western world also implies a false binary of sexuality. If you can imagine only two genders, it makes sense to view sexuality as drawn towards either one gender or the other. One of the pioneers of modern concepts of sexuality was Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, who lived in 19th Century Germany and was possibly the first “out” gay man in that he published under his own name. He campaigned against sodomy laws and wrote defenses of homosexual behavior. He was writing before the terms homosexual and heterosexual had entered common use by scientists and well before they had reached the general public.


In his Research on the Riddle of Male–Male Love, Ulrichs used poetic instead of scientific language and described sexuality in terms of Eros, erotic love, borrowing credibility from Plato. He described himself as an Urning: a female psyche and female love in a male body. The female love goddess Aphrodite was said to have been born from the body of the entirely-male Uranus. Ulrichs, by analogy, imagined himself as a female Aphrodite within his male body. He imagined homosexuality as a kind of third gender, explainable as a mismatch between sex and gender. This classification system was taken up by other German writers and, by the end of the 19th century, we get a delightful array of terms such as Manuring (an effeminate straight man), Mannling (a butch gay man), and Weibling, the effeminate gay man.


The Anglo world did not largely adopt these terms and eventually settled on using the terms “homosexual” and “heterosexual”, borrowed from scientific literature. But because these terms describe only sexual behavior, not lifestyle or the complex cultural obstacles to being queer, they are not especially helpful to understanding sexuality prior to their invention. Instead, I’m going to use the terms and concepts that the people who lived these lives used.


Earlier, I mentioned that some of the Asian third genders can include non-binary gender as well as effeminate gay men. Most third gender positions seem to be for males who have lost or forsaken their maleness because of non-conforming sexuality, gender, or sex. The West, lacking this position, readily imagined sex between two men as being artificially gendered. Specifically, the receiving partner, the bottom, was often imagined to be a woman, however temporarily.


The feminized man, an archetype that came to be “The Screaming Queen”, holds an especially powerless position in Western society. We see the first explicit mentions of gay men as women in the 18th Century. Out of the broad category of “sodomy”, which included all non-procreative sex acts, gayness begins to imagine itself as a legitimate sexual expression and borrows that legitimacy from the idea of marriage.


The Buggery Act of 1533 made sodomy a criminal offense in the British Empire and brought the charge of sodomy into the secular courts. Previously, sodomy (which was called buggery in England) had been considered an offense against God, not man, and had been prosecuted by the Church. It’s possible that there were very few prosecutions under the Buggery Act in the 16th and 17th Centuries but it’s also possible that records have been obscured, lost, or under-researched. All sex acts forbidden by the Act, which included heterosexual oral, anal, and manual sex, as well as all homosexual sex and bestiality, were strictly taboo subjects. Privately, though, sexuality continued unabated. We know this from diaries. For example, Samuel Pepys, the 17th-century diarist, writes about an incident outside of a church when his wife "coming up suddenly, did find me imbracing the girl [with] my hand [under] [her] coats; and endeed I was with my main [hand] in her cunny." In that passage, I’ve substituted English for the semi-Latin that Pepys used to disclose especially taboo matters. Even in his personal diary, Pepys felt uncomfortable describing his sexual escapades in his native tongue.


In the 18th Century, new space opened up in the Anglo world, both physical and cultural, that allowed for the emergence of an illicit third gender, called Mollies. And they emerged in an unusual space: the coffee shop.


An increasingly affluent middle class had arisen in Europe and coffee shops provided a novel public space for both middle-class leisure and discussion. Coffee shops provided the space for the architects of democratic revolutions across the European continent.


At the same time, women were being pushed out of public life. New ideas of womanhood and its connection with domesticity expanded to more completely separate the two genders from each other. In the last episode, I mentioned the impact that this cult of domesticity had on Victoria’s body and happiness during her reign. Men suffered from the expansion of the gender binary as well. New expectations as sole provider for the family placed new stress on middle- and working-class men. Mollies can be seen as an attempt by queer men to construe a non-male identity in the newly-segregated gender system.


The term “molly” seems to come from the connection between molly-houses and brothels. Molly houses were places where gay men could meet semi-publicly to socialize, cross-dress, hook up, and apparently perform marriages and even births. Moll came to be the term for the stereotyped young Irish woman who frequently moved London for work only to find that that work involved sex. The enemy of the molls and mollies were the Societies for the Reformation of Manners, which were puritan organizations that sprung up in the wake of the English Civil War. They aimed to make Great Britain properly protestant by stamping out immorality of all kinds. These organizations worked with private law enforcement to crack down on prostitution and “buggery,” and most of our information about mollies come from these hostile sources. This makes all of our information about mollies suspect because our sources are highly critical of their lifestyle. The accounts, however, do make for salacious reading.


Samuel Stevens, a Reforming Constable (which is to say, a self-appointed morality cop) undertook to infiltrate a molly house by acting as the husband of a known molly. On Sunday, November 14th, 1725, he claims to have infiltrated Margaret Clap’s renowned unlicensed coffee shop and molly house. He describes the scene inside:


I found between 40 and 50 Men making Love to one another, as they call’d it. Sometimes they would sit on one another’s Laps, kissing in a lewd Manner, and using their Hands indecently. Then they would get up, Dance and make Curtsies, and mimick the voices of Women. O, Fie, Sir! – Pray, Sir. – Dear Sir. Lord, how can you serve me so? – I swear I’ll cry out. – You’re a wicked Devil. – And you’re a bold Face. – Eh ye little dear Toad! Come, buss! – Then they’d hug, and play, and toy, and go out by Couples into another Room on the same Floor, to be marry’d, as they call’d it.


The phrase “to marry” seems to largely be used as a euphemism for sex, however, some mollies were known to go through the formality of a marriage ceremony and some had long-term relationships with men, seemingly happily married, if entirely in secret.


Jonathan Wild (who made a career of catching criminals, including mollies) describes the clothing of a set of mollies he captured in a sting operation:


At the expected Time several of the sporting Youngsters were seized in Women's Apparel, and convey'd to the Compter. Next Morning they were carried before the Lord-Mayor in the same Dress they were taken in. Some were compleatly rigg'd in Gowns, Petticoats, Head-cloths, fine lac'd Shoes, furbelow'd Scarves and Marks; some had Riding-hoods; some were dressed like Milk-Maids, others like Shepheardesses with green Hats, Waistcoats and Petticoats; and others had their Faces patch'd and painted, and wore very extensive Hoop-petticoats, which had been very lately introduced.


Being queer presented an existential threat to these individuals. After the raid on Margaret Clap’s molly house, Gabriel Lawrence, William Griffin, and Thomas Wright were convicted and hanged. The execution, which also included the horrific burning alive of a female criminal, proved so popular that the stands built for the audience collapsed under the weight of the large crowd and a further six people died of injuries. This was in 1726, not all that long ago.


The punishment for sodomy was death, but sodomy required two witnesses that could attest to intercourse and ejaculation. More commonly, people were convicted for attempted buggery, which was punished with pillory, a fine, and imprisonment.


The punishment of pillory consisted of being bound to a post or put in stocks for public humiliation, usually for an hour. Often the same spot was also used for whipping or flogging, which were other common sentences for crimes. Pillory might not sound that bad until you realize that the true punishment was exposure to the vitriol of your peers. All sorts of things—garbage, rocks, human filth—were thrown at the pilloried person such that that it could be a death sentence carried out by the public instead of an executioner not dissimilar to a public stoning. Being pilloried for the crime being a molly was especially dangerous.


Margaret Clap, after defending several of her patrons at their sodomy trials, was found guilty of keeping a disorderly house and incitement to buggery. She was pilloried, during which she fainted several times (probably due to head injuries) and fell off the platform at least once. She was carried off to the hospital and probably died before her two-year prison sentence could begin.


Charles Hitchen also died of pillory injuries. His experience as a molly-hunter and molly shows us how precariously placed this subculture was in society. Hitchen bought the post of Deputy Marshal for £700 in 1712 and intended to exploit it to its fullest. The post gave Hitchen the privileges and duties of a thief-taker: a semi-private policeman. Besides the salary and stipend provided by the City of London, Hitchen charged not only for fulfilling his duties (he could expect to be paid by victims of crimes for the return of their property or capture of their accused perpetrator), he also organized crime of his own. With his close connections to the criminal world, he could organize robbery and then either get kickbacks from either the sale of the stolen property or the reward for its return, whichever paid better. He offered protection for criminal and semi-criminal operations and became involved in alternately shaking down and raiding molly houses. His knowledge of molly houses was intimate. Charles Hitchen, despite his prominence in the community, was a frequent visitor of the Moorfields and St. James’ Park, two renowned cruising spots. He had favorite inns and molly houses where he could meet with men, away from his wife.


Hitchen’s crime empire became so large that he was obligated to hire an under-Marshal, the Johnathan Wild who I quoted above. Wild had his own gangs and ran his own rackets which sometimes associated with and sometimes competed with Hitchen’s. Hitchen lost his Deputy Marshal post briefly when he prosecuted several children from an Oliver-Twist-style pickpocket gang who were acquitted on testimony from their parents that Hitchen had forced them into the gang in the first place. Wild seized on this opportunity to give his gangs precedence over Hitchens’ and a ferocious pamphletting war erupted between the two men as Hitchen fought for his post. Each man accused the other of libel and crimes, but Wild held the ace. He knew that Hitchen slept with men. In what was probably a set-up, Hitchen was caught having sex with another man at an inn. Despite all the witnesses of the arrest who could attest to the sex, there was no evidence of ejaculation, so Hitchen was only convicted of assault.


Before he paid the £20 fine and underwent the six months imprisonment, Hitchen was pilloried. Supporters formed a barrier of coaches and carts but the angry mob quickly overwhelmed it and forced the constables back against the pillory platform. Hitchen was showered with such a torrent of rubble and filth that his clothes were torn off. Authorities stopped it at a half-hour instead of the customary hour because Hitchen was so close to death. He survived to prosecute three men with assault from the experience, serve his six-month sentence, and sell his post for the same £700 he’d bought it for, but he died a month after his release, probably from his pillory injuries.


Molly or not, out or not, sodomy remained a serious crime in Britain until the mid 20th Century. Executions under the Buggery Act continued until 1835. Oral sex between men and women remained illegal until 1885 when the concept of “gross indecency” was added, which limited the crime to homosexual acts. Oscar Wilde was convicted of gross indecency a decade later, in 1895, and his punishment of two years of hard labor is generally credited with ruining his health and leading to his death five years later at age 46. Another particularly notable victim was Alan Turing, who was convicted of gross indecency based on testimony he gave of being with a man during a burglary of his home in 1951. The following year he pled guilty to gross indecency and opted to undergo experimental hormone injections rather than be imprisoned. After a year of injections, he was impotent and had developed breasts. He was barred from his work in the government and academia and denied entry into the U.S. based on his felony conviction. Two years after the conviction, in 1954, he was found dead, almost certainly by suicide, at age 41.


Turing was chemically castrated by the state, a punishment that turns deemed sexual deviants into eunuchs. This is perhaps the last remaining example of castration by the state. The idea is that the eradication of functional gonads will prevent a sexual criminal from engaging in future sexual deviancy, however, nothing about castration prevents a person from committing sex crimes any more than it prevents him from seizing power. Laws illegalizing homosexual sex were eliminated in Britain in 1967 and in the United States starting in the ’60s and ending in 2003 with Lawrence v. Texas. In the year 2003, you could still get a life sentence for sodomy in Idaho.


The practice of chemical castration for sex offenders continues to this day. California passed a law in 1996 that requires chemical castration for certain sex offenders and the only other option is surgical castration. As recently as 2019, Alabama passed a law allowing for castration as an alternative to death for certain sex crimes. Castration or death seems like a difficult choice to make.


Why Can We Identify Gay Voices?


The threat of execution for private sexual intercourse had a profound and lasting impact on gay culture. One of these many impacts was felt on language and has influenced the English language at large. Outside of organized meeting places like molly houses and, later, bath houses, gay people needed a way to identify each other. This could include designating cruising spots like the aforementioned Moorfield and St. James’ Park, where men could discreetly arrange for homosexual liaisons or prostitution. Some of these spots have been in existence for so long that they influenced the street names. In 2008, a pedestrian underpass in Castleford, England was renovated and given the new name of “Tittle Cott Bridge.” The Castleford Area Voice for the Elderly, a local over-50 organization, successfully petitioned for it to be returned to its original name: Tickle Cock Bridge. We can perhaps be grateful that by the 14th Century many of the lanes named “Gropecunt” had been renamed to the still-descriptive but less vulgar “Grope Lane”.


Another way to identify gay peers was to use exploratory code-switching. This is where typified behaviors and certain words, or certain meanings of words, can be used to covertly indicate membership in a community. Here specifically, I’m talking about “acting gay” or “talking gay.” Gay ways of acting and speaking developed in secret and could be deployed semi-publicly without risking the charge of “intent to commit buggery.” From this covert culture, we get not only the gay affectations of today but also novel gay language. By the 19th century, bold omis could identify one another by their response to Polari. Maybe a man tells another his cod lattie needs a bona zhooshing, meaning his tacky apartment needed a good redecorating, to see his response. Polari has given us several gay adjacent terms such as camp, mince, drag, zhoosh, and, a new term for masculinity: butch. For at least two centuries, however, Polari stayed mostly secret. As a secret jargon, it’s called a cant, and it has roots in the slang of the theater, the circus, the navy, and prostitution as well as random terms borrowed from French and Italian. As a holdover from an earlier time, the term for homosexual sex was “to molly.”


Information on gay language before its outing is rare because its main value lay in its use as a shibboleth. As with information on mollies, sources we do have tend to come from hostile observers. A hilarious and prominent example was Homosexuality and Citizenship in Florida, a 1964 publication by the Florida legislature on the preponderance of homosexuality in the state. It was part of a larger lavender scare, a movement that used homophobia to seize power for conservative factions. The committee, led by Senator Charley Johns, had been conducting a witch hunt of homosexuals across all areas of government but had found little success. The Purple Pamphlet, as it was called, was meant to scare the public into action against homosexuals. It described the gay plot to undermine America with communism (the usual ‘50s stuff) but also contained images of homosexual sex acts and a description of homosexual slang terms. It appears that homosexual slang was shared across the Atlantic, because we see traces of Polari in the document. The plan backfired. Because Johns had essentially published gay porn, the backlash was directed at him and eventually lead to the dissolution of his committee. Gay clubs of Florida were known to reprint and sell the Purple Pamphlet as pornography for years. Ironically, this backlash against Johns’ homophobia was itself homophobic.


As mentioned earlier, homosexuality was decriminalized in Britain in 1967. This followed a series of cultural changes. In the ‘50s, several prominent lords were tried for homosexuality and a committee formed by the conservative government to investigate found that “homosexual behaviour between consenting adults in private should no longer be a criminal offence.” Culture began to shift and stereotyped gay characters began to appear in radio and television as joyful and comic, rather than morose and doomed (as homosexuals had been treated through the first half of the 20th century). In 1965, the world was introduced to the cant called Polari via Julian and Sandy.


Julian and Sandy was a recurring sketch on the radio program Round the Horn, where our straight straight man, Kenneth Horne, unknowing contacts Julian and Sandy, who work a wide variety of odd jobs (mostly as shop attendants) and mistake Horne’s innocent questions for Polari innuendo. This was the coming-out of gay language. It also directly led to the death of Polari as a language. Once it was commonly understood, it entered the comic mainstream, such that Monty Python were making jokes like this not long after.


“Are there any branches of the military that are more effeminate than others?”


“Nope. Aside from the marines, they’re all dead butch.”


The outing of Polari and the general outing of homosexuality in the ‘70s invited outside observers into gay culture, lending it legitimacy and authority, but relegating aspects of covert homosexual culture to shameful artifacts of the past. “Screaming queen” depictions of homosexuality like Julian and Sandy have come to be seen as a harmful stereotype.


The depiction of gay man as queen, however, has found a legitimate place in gay culture and mainstream culture. Probably the most prominent example has been RuPaul’s Drag Race, a TV competition show that just finished its twelfth season. It started on the LGBT-oriented Logo TV but was picked up by VH1 for its ninth season and averaged around six hundred thousand viewers per episode. Drag queens are mainstream. Drag queens make explicit an undercurrent of gay male language and culture, its supposed effeminacy. This seems like a clear link to the molly houses of yesteryear.


In our culture, a connection is made between being a gay man and being a woman that doesn’t necessarily exist. As such, gay male culture constructs a new femininity built on ideas about women that come from men and aren’t necessarily shared by women. Studies into gay male speech, as spoken by North Americans, have shown that it is distinct from how straight women speak. It is a distinct gendering of language that mimics but is not a part of the gender binary of Western culture.


I hope that these stories have given you insight into the experiences that exist and have always existed around the borders of binary gender. It is a distinctly Western meme that has come to dominate a world that previously was populated extensively by third genders. Even in the West, there have always been folks for whom the gender and sexuality binary simply doesn’t work. This world has always been much queerer and more sexual than our histories let on. Whether you’re asexual or bisexual, a bull dyke or a screaming queen, whether you’re peeing through a tube to be one of the guys or tucking to be one of the girls, know that you stand with an extensive, hidden history behind you and that there are times and places, many in the past and hopefully many more in the future, that would have suited your needs better than the Western binary system of today. It’s not you, it’s them. I’m Peter McGuire and this has been my Unlikely Explanation.


Read More:

Reuters on the last eunuch

Mollies and molly houses


The Arab Lands under Ottoman Rule: 1516-1800

By Jane Hathaway, Karl Barbir




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