How Learning About Gender Diverse Saints in the Past Supports Transgender Equality Today

Roland Betancourt

A professor has highlighted the previously untold lives of and literature about transgender and gender non-conforming saints in early Christianity.

Roland Betancourt, a professor of art history at the University of California, Irvine, reported his research findings on the experiences of transgender and gender non-conforming saints in an essay for The Advocate. The scholar wanted to examine how trans and gender non-conforming persons were affirmed and even praised in the early church, even though anti-trans sentiment still exists.

He situates his reflections by documenting the numerous narratives of transgender and gender non-conforming individuals across Greco-Roman culture, stories that have been translated into several languages. Betancourt explains:

“From the fifth to the ninth century, a number of saints’ lives composed across the Greek-speaking Mediterranean detail the lives of individuals assigned female at birth who for a host of different reasons chose to live out their adult lives as men in monasteries. The popularity of these stories across the Christian Mediterranean is palpably evident as they were translated into Coptic, Syriac, Ethiopic, Armenian, Arabic, Latin, and other European dialects.”

Betancourt notes that maleness was considered the prevailing pathway to spiritual holiness in early church circles, sparking some alternative views about gender. He points out:

“. . . [I]n the early second century Gospel of Thomas, Jesus rebukes Simon Peter for suggesting Mary Magdalene is unworthy of their company, stating that He ‘will make her male’ and that every woman who ‘makes herself male will enter the kingdom of heaven.’”

The professor illustrates how the lives of transgender saints reveals a different relationship between the female/male dichotomy:

“[U]nderstudied evidence speaks to a different story, where we can see the fleshed-out stories of saints who despite having been assigned female at birth lived out their lives as men. These stories of trans men eloquently play with the medical science of their time to carefully describe how their bodies masculinized over the years, visualizing for readers their gender through a description of the body. These figures merit a regard as men, not relegated to metaphors for female piety in the early centuries of Christian worship.”

For example, Saint Hilarion, assigned female at birth, lived his life as a trans man while living a life of solitude for many years as a monk. An ancient manuscript detailing the saint’s life uses female pronouns, attributes names indicative of both genders, and describes Hilarion wearing male clothing.

Betancourt’s research also demonstrates that medical doctors during the era of early Christianity appreciated the emotional and complex psychological condition of what is today known as gender dysphoria. The art historian asserts:

“These medical guidebooks are striking in their precocious description of medical procedures aimed at affirming a person’s gender. For men with gynecomastia (enlarged breasts), the seventh-century physician Paul of Aegina justifies surgical operation, ‘since this [condition] carries the unseemly disgrace of effeminacy.’ And, for women with an enlarged clitoris, he prescribes surgery as well (not because of female sexuality, as this is usually associated in the early modern period) because it ‘leads of a feeling of shame.’…[T]he language used by these authors are explicitly aimed at affirming the person’s gender. This feeling of “shame” almost seems to capture a diagnosis of some form of gender dysmorphia being suffered by the author’s medieval patients.”

Furthermore, Betancourt documents how the Roman Emperor Elagabalus “identified as a woman,” and requested “to be addressed as Empress and wife.” Indeed, Elagabalus illustrates one of the earliest historical records of a transgender person who requested gender-affirming surgery from a team of physicians.

In his concluding reflections, Betancourt articulates the importance of bringing to light the untold stories of transgender and gender non-conforming persons that honor the rich expression of gender identity:

“Now, more than ever, we need trans affirming literatures that promote and champion the rich and complex history of gender variance in our world. Not only looking to modern authors, but looking deep into our ancient and medieval pasts to think about the place that trans figures have played in history.”

Examining the concepts and examples of diverse forms of gender identity and expression in early Christianity can help contemporary Catholics understand and appreciate the transgender and gender non-conforming saints living among us today. Exploring the diverse ways in which these people were earlier celebrated, rather than denigrated, offers a robust blueprint for the acceptance of transgender and gender non-conforming persons in contemporary culture as equally loved members of our church and wider society.

Brian William Kaufman, New Ways Ministry, January 21, 2021

1 reply
  1. Mandi Martin
    Mandi Martin says:

    I can recommend a book; Passionate Holiness by Dennis O’Neill. Written to help reconnect LGBT Christians with their roots by highlighting kindred figures. It’s a wonderful read.

    Reply

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