I look for evidence of gender variance in ancient cultures. When I find it, it is very often in connection with religion. In past times people tended to see the act of changing gender, or being between genders, as something holy rather than something abhorrent.
We should probably start right at the beginning. The Hebrew word ‘Adam’ has three possible meanings. It can be a man’s name, it can mean ‘a man’ and, in much the same way as in English we use ‘man’ as shorthand for all mankind, it can mean the entire human species. When God created Adam he created mankind. Some Jewish and Christian theologians argue that it was only when God took part of Adam away and made Eve that Adam became merely male. Before that, Adam was both male and female.
In English, Muslims refer to God – Allah – as ‘He’. They find that a better translation than ‘She’, but in Arabic God has no gender. Indeed, it is important that Allah should not be solely male – because that would mean that there was something that God was not. Allah is all things, and thus both male and female. Some Christian theologians, such as the 14th Century nun Julian of Norwich, have made similar arguments.
Enough of God, though, what about humans? Can we find evidence of trans people involved in ancient religion? Indeed we can. In fact the earliest references I have found to trans people date all the way back to the ancient civilisation of Sumer. The devotees of the Goddess Inanna included no less than three different types of gender variant people: assinnus, kurgarrûs and kulu’us. We don’t have a lot of evidence as to what these people did, or how they identified, but they seem to have all been people who were assigned male at birth and who lived as women in some way.
Such practices continued in other Mesopotamian cultures right up until the time of the Roman Empire, when the Syrian Goddess, Cybele, became very popular. Cybele was worshipped by priests known as Galli. Assigned male at birth, they castrated themselves following the example of Cybele’s mythical consort, Attis, and lived as women. Their cult was popular all over the empire. In 2002 excavations at Catterick in Yorkshire found the tomb of a young Gallus, so trans women existed in England almost 2000 years ago.
Actually it is hard to say exactly how the Galli identified. Some of them may have seen themselves as non-binary, or even as cross-dressed men. But a young Roman assigned male at birth who longed to live as a woman would surely have headed straight for the temple of Cybele as soon as possible. One keen devotee of Cybele was the Roman Emperor, Elagabalus. According to the contemporary historian, Cassius Dio, Elagabalus offered a massive reward to any doctor who could transform a male body into a female one. Sadly Roman medicine was not up to the task, but it is pretty clear that Elagabalus wanted to be a woman in every way.
Eunuchs have, of course, played many different roles in history. The ancient Assyrians pioneered the idea of using eunuchs in important government roles because, having no children, they would be less likely to seek royal power for themselves. For centuries, Islamic kingdoms have used eunuchs as servants in the harem. So ancient people were well used to castrated males. The idea that they were holy turned up in many religions. Jesus talks about people who ‘have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven’s sake’ (Matthew 19:12, King James Bible), and doing this was popular in the early days of Christianity. In Byzantium, eunuch monks were common – so common, in fact, that those assigned female at birth who wished to live as men could simply present themselves at a monastery claiming to be a eunuch.
Mohammed actually employed a cross-dressing man called Hit as a servant for a while. When Hit was overheard making remarks about the appearance of another woman, suggesting that he was not as resolutely gay as he seemed, The Prophet sacked him. It wasn’t proper for a harem servant to be seen as too manly. However, he later saved Hit from a homophobic mob, saying that the man was a good Muslim.
Eunuchs, or hijra as they are known there, have been involved in religion in India for at least 2000 years. There is even a Hindu Goddess, Bahuchara Mata, who is the special protector of hijra. In Southern India, hijra are known as aravani, after a story in the Mahabharata in which the god Krishna transforms himself into a woman and marries a young prince called Aravan. A religious ceremony, the Wedding of Aravan, with a hijra bride in the starring role, is still performed annually in parts of India today.
Again it is hard to say exactly how hijra identify. British colonialism has done quite enough damage to the cultures of the former colonies without us forcing Western ideas of gender on them. In any case, just as Western trans communities contain many different identities, Indian ones probably do too. The governments of India, Pakistan and Nepal have laws allowing hijra to be recognised as a third gender if they wish to be, but some of them appear to strongly identify as women.
The idea of the androgynous person being holy has deep spiritual roots. The shamen of primitive hunter-gatherer societies adopted androgynous personas in countries as far apart as Siberia and Argentina. And there are hints of an organised cult of androgynous priests amongst the Incas.
We know very little about Inca religion, and what we do know was written down under the watchful eyes of Catholic missionaries, so will have been carefully censored. We do know, however, that the Incas had an androgynous god called Chuqui Chinchay, who manifested as a jaguar. This god seems to have symbolised a bridge between opposites: male and female, heaven and earth. In recognition of this, representations of Chuqui Chinchay were painted in the many bright colours of that bridge. It seems to me that Chuqui Chinchay, the Rainbow Jaguar, is a god who would be much loved by trans people today.