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Geldings for the Gods

Changing Gender and Dress are Very Ancient Behaviours.

by Roberta Perkins
Article appeared in Polare magazine: August 1994 Last Update: October 2013 Last Reviewed: February 2014

King Ashurbanipal on a chariot during a royal lion hunt.

In his youth, Julius Caesar apparently lived as a girl in the court of King Nicomedes, and later he was referred to behind his back as 'Queen of Bithynia' ...

Changing gender and dress are very ancient behaviours. The first recorded incident of cross-dressing is a seventh century B.C.E Assyrian tablet showing King Ashurbanipal getting into drag. But customs and rituals associated with cross-dressing were very much older. For instance, the priests of the ancient Earth Goddess Ishtar in Babylon dressed as women to appease the deity. There are many accounts throughout the ancient Near East of priests attached to goddesses donning female apparel, and in the case of the priests of Attis, consort to the Earth Goddess Cybele, in the kingdom of Phrygia, they also castrated themselves because, according to mythology, the God had removed his testicles whilst sitting beneath a pine tree.

In Babylon an annual ritual involved young men slicing off their own genitals, including the penis, and flinging these into nearby houses as they ran bleeding and in great pain through the streets of the city. In return for this sacrifice women's clothes were handed them and thereafter they spent their time at female tasks.

With so much cross-dressing/gender going on in Near Eastern civilizations in deference to their gods and goddesses, it is little wonder that the Hebrews, fearful of their more powerful enemies, and with a solitary masculine god, Jehovah opposed to other gods and their ceremonies, introduced the Deuteronomy law 22:5, which made donning the clothing of the opposite sex "an abomination before the Lord, your God". While such laws and isolationist stance were a source of strength to "God's chosen people", unfortunately Christian civilisation later adopted these attitudes, to the detriment of every transgender in Western society since.

A source of great interest to the Greek historian Herodotus in the fifth century B.C.E. were the Scythians, a bold equestrian warrior tribe from the Caucasus Mountains in Georgia who terrorized the civilised centres of Asia Minor. He noted that their priests, or enarees, dressed and behaved as women, but accompanied the warriors on raids, even participating in the battles. According to Greek mythology, the Scythians were punished by the Goddess Aphrodite for sacking her temples in Syria by changing their leading warriors into women. The Greek physician Hippocrates thought that the enarees had slowly demasculated themselves by riding horses too much and squashing their testicles.

Greek mythology is full of incidents of cross-dressing or changing gender, a clear indication of the bisexual and androgynous minds of the ancient Greeks, especially when the supermen of their legends, like Achilles, spent some time in female drag. The strongman of Grecian mythology, Hercules, was obliged to live as a serving maid to Queen Omphale in punishment for killing the catamite Iphitus. Many of the deities were cross-dressers or bisexual, most notably Hermaphroditos, after whom the modern term for a biologically androgynous person comes from. The young God Dionysus once disguised himself as a woman to enter the kingdom of the warrior women, the Amazons, in order to conquer them. There are many examples of role reversal, like that of the Amazons, such as the masculine women guarding Sappho on the island of Lesbos, or of the boy Ganymede, who served as both a water carrier and sexual playmate to the gods. Foremost among female transgender people in Greek mythology is Kainonis, who was changed into a man by Poseidon, but because he made his spear a phallic symbol and demanded adoration of it by the people, the centaurs slew him with tree trunks (their phallic symbols). Then there was the mortal man Tiresias changed into a woman as punishment for killing a female snake. Ten years later the Goddess Hera asked Tiresias how she liked being a woman and she replied that she enjoyed sex ten times more as a woman than as a man. With that Hera promptly changed her back into a man.

That gender-crossing was also a fact in Greek society is seen in the existence of the Goddess Venus Castina, whose sympathy and understanding for "feminine souls locked up in male bodies" prompted men with a yearning to be women to pray to her. Much later, a similar custom existed in the Roman Empire. The second century A.D. Jewish philosopher Philo wrote of certain men in the city of Alexandria: "Expending every possible care on their outward adornment, they are not ashamed even to employ every device to change artificially their nature as men and women ... some of them, craving a complete transformation into women, have amputated their generative members." The Roman poet Manilius, observing the same phenomenon among some of his countrymen, commented: "(They) hate the very sight of (themselves as) a man, and long for arms without growth of hair. Women's robes they wear ... (their) steps broken to an effeminate gait." In the satin of Juvenal is this poem:

Isn't it now high time for them to try The Phrygian fashion and to make the job complete, take a knife and lop off that superfluous piece of meat?

Thus sex-change surgery, however crude, was alive and well from the earliest civilizations to the time of the Romans.

Some of the Roman Emperors themselves were not beyond cross-dressing, and a few went even further. In his youth, Julius Caesar apparently lived as a girl in the court of King Nicomedes, and later he was referred to behind his back as 'Queen of Bithynia' who, it was said, was "every woman's man and every man's woman."

Another story associated with Caesar concerns a senator, Publius Clodius, who fancied Caesar's wife, Pompeia, and on one of his assignations with her disguised himself as a woman in order to meet her during a ceremony to the Goddess Bona Dea, exclusive to women adherents. Clodius, however, was unmasked by the women and dragged before a court on a charge of sacrilege. He was acquitted, supposedly by bribing the jurors, but Caesar's enemy, Cicero, exposed him, forcing Caesar to divorce Pompeia and to break up his friendship with the unfortunate senator. The story of Clodius' cross-dressing antics was used by the enemies of the emperors to discredit the aristocrats as decadent.

But propaganda was hardly needed in many cases, for some of the emperors brought about their own ruin, and others genuinely enjoyed cross-dressing. Caligula turned up at banquets dressed as Venus. However, he believed himself divine and therefore might be expected to have imitated the deities, but his choice of the Goddess of Love was an interesting one. In the end his own guards thought he went too far and assassinated him while attending gladiatorial contests. Nero killed his wife in a fit of rage and then in deep remorse for her loss sought a companion who closely resembled her. He found a young male slave, Sporus, closest to the ideal, had him castrated by his surgeons and the two were formally married, with the young man acting as the wife. Later he married a gladiator and this time he was the wife, screaming like a deflowered virgin on their wedding night. His excesses ended in his suicide. Eliogabalus was a particularly tragic figure in Roman history. He also married his slave and thereafter became the wife "delighted to be called the mistress, the wife, the Queen of Hierocles". He even offered half the empire to the surgeon who could refashion his genitals into a vagina. Obviously, Eliogabalus was a true transgender and lived well before his time, but the Romans weren't amused and after four years into his reign he too was assassinated.

Another Roman Emperor known, or said, to have cross­ dressed was Tiberius, who, by all accounts dressed as a female during sexual escapades on the Island of Capri. Domitan and Hadrian took as lovers female impersonators from the stage. All of these rulers defied the ancient Scantinian Law against homosexuality, which the Romans observed, and this may have been no small contributor to their violent ends. On the other hand, the Roman histories are so full of propaganda by those critical of the aristocracy that fact and fiction may have become indelibly confused, particularly in the caustic writings of Plutarch and Pliny.

Roberta Perkins

Roberta Perkins established the Gender Centre (then known as Tiresias House) in 1983. She is also a Senior Lecturer in Sociology at The University of New South Wales and has conducted many government-funded research projects into prostitution. A transsexual herself, she has the confidence of the people she interviews; a sociologist, she has counselled transsexuals for a number of years; an activist, she has worked with them in the struggle to overcome the problems they face every day of their lives. Roberta is also the author, and co-author of five books and scores of journal articles on sex work research in Australia and has also taught Native American Studies for many years in Sydney

The Drag Queen Scene: Transsexuals in Kings Cross
Author: Roberta Perkins Publisher: Allen & Unwin (1983)
I.S.B.N.-13 978 0868610474

Through a unique series of frank interviews, The Drag Queen Scene deals with the experiences of male-to-female transsexuals who live and work in Sydney's Kings Cross area. It focuses on twelve people — showgirls, strippers, bar girls and prostitutes. Each of the twelve speaks for herself, providing first-hand insights into life and work in her world — a world a few people understand. Their stories uncover the raw reality behind the shallow popular view of the "Drag Queen". These revealing every-day accounts demonstrate how much accepted attitudes are based on ignorance, prejudice and callousness. By offering the reader a rare opportunity to view a closed subculture as its participants see it, The Drag Queen Scene is an attempt to break down the resistance facing transsexuals, to influence changes in social attitudes and the law. In this book, twelve voices, hitherto silent, challenge the reader to question the stigmatising and ostracising transsexuals endure.

Being a Prostitute: Prostitute Women and Prostitute Men (with Garry Bennett)
Author: Roberta Perkins and Garry Bennett Publisher: Allen & Unwin (1986)
I.S.B.N.-13 978 0868616780

Constant media coverage and popular concern about prostitution, recent changes to legal and administrative regulations governing prostitution in its various forms in its several States, and the emergence of organised groups to represent the views and interests of prostitutes in public discussions and to influence policy formation ensure that the subject retains a high level of visibility and social significance. At the same time there have been remarkably few empirical studies of prostitution in Australia and our knowledge is largely confined to sensationalised reports of criminal cases and media exposés. So a book giving detailed accounts of the perceptions and experiences of a variety of prostitutes, male and female, homosexual and heterosexual, of different ages and background, and covering the diversity of forms of occupational types and organisational settings of prostitution at the present time would seem to be timely.

Working Girls: Prostitutes, Their Life and Social Control
Author: Roberta Perkins
Publisher: Australian Institute of Criminology (1991)
I.S.B.N.-13 978 0642158765

From Abe Books: External Link This book has three objectives: 1. To demonstrate empirically that prostitutes are basically ordinary women with only their occupation distinguishing them from others; 2. To bring to the general public a balanced, well-informed view of prostitution, shed of its tawdry reputation; 3. To convince legislators to adopt a more practical method of dealing with prostitution.

Sex Work and Sex Workers in Australia
Author: Roberta Perkins
Publisher: University of New South Wales Press (1994)
I.S.B.N.-13 978 0868401744

From Amazon Books: External Link Sex Work and Sex Workers in Australia is one of the most comprehensive books on the sex industry. This book's main focus is on prostitution and it is broken down on many levels: female, male, transsexual, health care, oral histories, and foreign workers (e.g.. Thai). It is very easy to read and one leaves this book with an excellent history lesson as well as viewpoints from both men and women which balances this book.

Call Girls: Private Sex Workers in Australia
Author: Roberta Perkins and Frances Lovejoy
Publisher: U.W.A. Publishing (2007)
I.S.B.N.-13 978 1920694913

From Booktopia: External Link Call Girls casts a penetrating, red light gaze upon the upper echelons of the worlds oldest profession private sex workers who use the telephone as a means to solicit clients. Containing frank accounts from women working in the Australian sex industry. Call Girls puts a human face on this hitherto shadowy, clandestine world as it documents how many women became sex workers; run their businesses; maintain their health; and how the call girls work affects their relationships with husbands, lovers and families. Far-removed from the moralising, victim stereotypes and Pretty Woman-inspired fantasies which pervade popular culture, Call Girls places the world of the sex worker within social, political and legal contexts which will surprise and change the preconceived notions of many readers.

Polare Magazine is published quarterly in Australia by The Gender Centre Inc. which is funded by the Department of Family & Community Services under the S.A.A.P. program and supported by the N.S.W. Health Department through the AIDS and Infectious Diseases Branch. Polare provides a forum for discussion and debate on gender issues. Unsolicited contributions are welcome, the editor reserves the right to edit such contributions without notification. Any submission which appears in Polare may be published on our internet site. Opinions expressed in this publication do not necessarily reflect those of the Editor, The Gender Centre Inc., the Department of Family & Community Services or the N.S.W. Department of Health.

The Gender Centre is committed to developing and providing services and activities, which enhance the ability of people with gender issues to make informed choices. We offer a wide range of services to people with gender issues, their partners, family members and friends in New South Wales. We are an accommodation service and also act as an education, support, training and referral resource centre to other organisations and service providers. The Gender Centre is committed to educating the public and service providers about the needs of people with gender issues. We specifically aim to provide a high quality service, which acknowledges human rights and ensures respect and confidentiality.

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