Deborah Dean -- Engendered Species

Deborah Dean


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Engendered Species

Major News articles about Engendered Species:

The Collision of Sex and Gender

Malcolm in the Middle 

Hetero Guys in Disguise- The Psychology of Crossdressing

A brief history of transgenderism

Sex-change surgery is not for everyone

Film by Julie van der Wal  45 min


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Engendered Species, Transgender, Crossdressers

Date: October 26, 1997
Edition: Final
Page: J4

A brief history of transgenderism


Some of the earliest accounts of transgenderism are from ancient Greece and Rome. The Roman emperor Nero is said to have married a castrated slave after murdering his pregnant wife. In Greek myths, males are turned to females for punishment, though the punishment is of questionable value since the transformed women report greater sexual pleasure in their new roles. Transsexual priestesses known as gallae served a female Phrygian deity believed to date back to the Stone Age.

North American Indian tribes traditionally have been tolerant of cross-gendereds, known as Two-Spirits. Many African tribes have worshiped intersexual deities, and male-to-female shamans have been documented in South America. Evidence of Amazon warriors has been found in Asia. And transgendered political groups such as the Welsh Rebeccas and the Irish Molly Maguires were peasant militants.

Perhaps the most famous transgendered person is Joan of Arc, the 15th-century insurrectionist called homasse, a slur meaning masculine woman. At age 17, dressed in men's clothing, Joan led her peasant army in a rout of the English from what would become the liberated nation-state of France.

At English urging, the Roman Catholic Church condemned Joan for her paganism -- and her cross-dressing, which particularly provoked Grand Inquisitors.

Told she could not attend Mass before her execution unless she wore women's clothes, Joan agreed. But for some reason -- historians say guards may have hidden her female attire to sabotage her -- Joan wore men's clothes. The priests, deciding Joan was a witch trying to appropriate the power of men, set her on fire. On May 30, 1491, she was burned at the stake. Afterward, bystanders raked her charred clothing off her corpse to see that she was indeed female.

Rudolf Dekker and Lotte van de Pol, scholars at Erasmus University in Rotterdam, argue that in early modern Europe, women who dressed like men were not merely curiosities but rather part of a deeply rooted tradition, especially in the Netherlands, England and  Germany. To pass themselves off as men was an option for women who had fallen onto bad times, wanted to enlist in the army or wanted to marry other women.

By the close of the 17th century, cross-dressers in England were publicly humiliated, hanged or both. But in 18th-century France, a member of Louis XV's court lived his first 49 years as a man and her last 34 years as a woman. While many believed the Chevalier d'Eon -- sent on spy missions to Russian in the guise of a woman -- was born female, an autopsy showed him to be a biological male.

In 1953, ex-serviceman George Jorgensen went to Denmark and came home to America as Christine Jorgensen, media sensation.

By the 1980s, the public embraced androgynous stars such as David Bowie, Boy George, Prince, Grace Jones and Madonna. Yet jazz musician Billy Tipton, a woman who lived as a man, died in 1989 of a bleeding ulcer rather than go to a doctor who might reveal his secret -- which a coroner did instead.

From Shakespeare to Mrs. Doubtfire, from Little Richard to RuPaul, the stage has been the safest public space for transgendereds and those acting like them. For nearly 20 years at midnight showings of ``The Rocky Horror Picture Show,'' moviegoers worldwide have dressed in costumes to celebrate Frank N. Furter, the sweet transvestite from Transsexual, Transylvania.

In Salt Lake City, the annual Royal Court of the Golden Spike Empire drag ball nets some $20,000 a year for AIDS charity and scholarships, says Jeff Kosewski, Royal Court emperor and organization co-president. The ball, once underground, now convenes in the Salt Palace; two years ago, ballgoers peacefully shared the Palace with a massive bowlers' convention.

But even such generally accepted transgender activities have their critics. According to an unsigned article in the November 1995 issue of The Journal of Gender Studies, drag performances are little more than gender minstrel shows that debase women by endowing them with artifice and then belittling it.

``Breasts, elaborately coiffured hair, exaggerated make-up and mannerisms are deployed as props in a performance,'' the author says. ``The man in a frock looks preposterous, but this is just a shadow of the essential preposterousness of the female body itself.''

"This last paragraph can be true, but women can also be honored, It depends upon how one does it" -- Deborah Dean