In the past few years, we’ve seen an explosion of celebrities and public figures - such as Elliot Page, Asia Kate Dillon, Indya Moore, and many others - refute the gender binary and publicly identify as non-binary. But would it surprise you to know that there is a long and storied history of non-binary individuals, even dating back to biblical times?
This week, I sat down with Leah DeVun, an associate professor at Rutgers University whose new book The Shape of Sex: Nonbinary Gender from Genesis to the Renaissance charts the history of non-binary gender identities and depicts how “non-binary,” which many assume to be a modern invention, is actually one that has existed throughout human history.
“I think it’s collectively assumed that nonbinary gender is new,” she started off by saying. “Part of what I try to do in my work is put our present discussions about nonbinary sex and gender into a much longer framework, mainly to show that nonbinary people and practices – and even the concept and word ‘nonbinary’ -- have been with us for a very long time.”
I first asked her about the origins of the term ‘hermaphrodite’, a derogatory term today, but one that used to be much more inclusive. “‘Hermaphrodite’ is a portmanteau of the names of the Greco-Roman deities Hermes and Aphrodite who, in ancient mythology, gave birth to the nonbinary god Hermaphroditus,” she said. “But people used ‘hermaphrodite’ in the Middle Ages to talk about not only intersex people, but also about things or people that crossed or mixed two categories of all kinds, or to describe various things that were ‘in the middle.’ Far from being only derogatory, ‘hermaphroditism’ could be associated with ideas and characters that medieval people idealized, such as angels or even Jesus Christ.”
Some academics have identified important figures within the Church as part of our queer history––including saints! “Scholars now have claimed saints like Eugenius of Rome, Joseph of Schönau, and others as transgender, nonbinary, or genderqueer,” she said. “Eugenius, for instance, lived as a daughter of a Roman aristocrat before running away at age sixteen, converting to Christianity and joining a monastery, and living the life of an exemplary man and leader, even becoming the head of the monastery.” She went on to say that, while readers weren’t necessarily supposed to incorporate these saints’ gender crossing into their own lives, the saints themselves were “were held up as in god’s favor, and in some cases they were considered models for male behavior.”
In the past, authorities used "nonbinary" to talk about other people who seemed neither male nor female, including people we would now call intersex. She cited the example of Giovanni Malaspina, who, in 14th century Italy, petitioned a judge to rule on his legal sex so he could inherit his father’s land and title. “Even though Giovanni’s body wasn’t typically male, the judge finally ruled Giovanni to be a man because of his personality and his ability to navigate the world as a man – he was good at using a weapon and riding a horse, and he felt himself to be male,” she said. “This gives us some evidence that premodern societies had a sense of what we now call gender identity; that they distinguished this identity from the body; and that, at least in this case, they found the former more important to one’s self and place in society than the latter.”
Even Jesus is described as a fusion of male and female qualities in some premodern texts. “We can find feminized or nonbinary-gendered imagery of Jesus in church sculpture and in devotional texts,” she said. “These texts describe Jesus with breasts or a womb or doing stereotypically feminine-gendered activities.”
To DeVun, these examples prove that there is a long history of gender categories existing outside the male/female binary. “Sex and gender categories beyond male and female aren’t new: they’ve been with us for a very long time. It also shows us that nonbinary sex/gender wasn’t always viewed negatively,” she said.
Today, terms such as “intersex” and “non-binary” are much preferred, but even they come with complications. “While intersex is a nonbinary category of sex (it implies an inter- between male and female sex), people with intersex variations don’t necessarily identify as nonbinary gender,” she said. “Plenty of people with intersex variations identify as simply male or female, while some others identify as transgender. It’s complicated!”
And while the histories of gender-marginalized people were largely excluded or erased by the straight white men who controlled the historical record, thanks to scholars like DeVun, much work is being done today to excavate and reclaim these stories and narratives.
“Since Leslie Feinberg’s pioneering work Transgender Warriors, scholars have been forging ahead with so much powerful, pathbreaking research to fix these erasures,” she said. “I’m thinking of Susan Stryker’s work on transgender history over the last 3 decades, along with new work on sex and gender variance by Roland Betancourt, MW Bychowski, Robert Mills, Max Strassfeld, C. Riley Snorton, Jules Gill-Peterson, Jen Manion, Blake Gutt, Nwando Achebe, Howard Chiang, Greta LaFleur, Masha Raskolnikov, Anna Kłosowska, and Alicia Spencer-Hall and many more than I can list.”
“That’s what’s exciting now – to have too many to list.”