Monday, December 15, 2008

Portrait of Transgender Divinity

If you had lived in the time of the old Greeks, perhaps they would have made you
a demi-god. In the Middle Ages they would have burnt you, for miracles were then
forbidden. But today doctors are, at any rate, permitted to accomplish something
like a miracle. Thus we will drink to the day that is coming.

Throughout recorded human history and across every culture there have been accounts of what we, today, would refer to as transgender individuals. And while the mere prolific existence of trans people may be remarkable or unbelievable to some, the really fascinating element to transgender history is not its breadth, but rather the way in which trans people were widely revered and respected. And maybe reverence is not quite an adequate term to describe the quality of the transgendered of the ancient world. Back then, trans people were divine. Anthropologists observe the few remaining societies of aboriginal peoples living with Stone Age technology to try to understand approximations of Paleolithic humanity, and what they have found is that even in these cultures, transgender individuals hold a place of reverence and considered to be magical, kin to the Gods or spirits, and possessing shamanic powers. Likewise, throughout the ancient world there are scores of myths and examples of trans people who are considered divine and powerful.

According to myth, the son of Hermes and the daughter of Aphrodite was each the epitome of beauty. One day, walking through the Woods of the Gods, the daughter of Aphrodite laid eyes on the son of Hermes, falling instantly in love with the boy, but he fled from her. Fast as she ran after him, he still ran faster. In despair the beautiful daughter of Aphrodite petitioned Zeus to make her one with Hermes’ beautiful son. At her wish, Zeus brought the two children together, and the girl leap with joy, embracing the young boy. At that moment Zeus raised his arm and the two melted into each other. When Hermes and Aphrodite sought their respective children, they found instead a blissfully smiling divine child. “It’s my son!” cried Hermes. “No, it is my daughter!” cried Aphrodite. Both were correct.

In a less “happily-ever-after,” though decidedly more true to a typical Greek myth, Zeus had an affair with the Great Mother, Gaia, thus begetting an extremely powerful deity, who was at once both male and female. The hermaphroditic god was named Agdistis. Being of both sexes made Agdistis too powerful, and the other Gods became fearful of her. They slipped Agdistis a sleeping draught, and while she was asleep one of the Gods tried Agdistis’ penis to her foot. Upon waking, Agdistis tried to free herself and in the process ripped off her penis, castrating herself. The blood of the castration fell upon the earth, making it fertile. From the spot where the blood fell, an almond tree grew. (There’s a lot more to the myth—bits involving extreme phytophilia, incest, insanity, and more castration). The Gallae were worshipers of Cybele, who, in many interpretations, is synonymous with Agdistis. While they were widely shunned by the Greeks, the Romans had a somewhat on-again, off-again relationship with the Gallae, occasionally banning them and occasionally accepting them. The Gallae were born male-bodied, but ritualistically castrated themselves, thereafter dressing and living as women. They dressed as the Goddess in Egyptian female attire, and they were also instrumental in the Feast of Fire in early spring and were involved in the Slave Rebellion of 135 BCE. During one of the more tolerant periods of Roman history, the Gallae would run through the streets and throw their severed genitals into open doorways. The household receiving the genitals considered it a great blessing, and in return they would nurse the recently castrated Gallae back to health.

Again, according to myth, Iphis was supposed to be left for dead, her crime being born to a man who only wanted a son. Iphis’ mother, not wanting her daughter to be abandoned and killed, disguised Iphis as a boy. Growing up, Iphis lived happily presenting as a man and eventually fell in love with a girl named Ianthe. But there was a problem: Iphis was still physically female, and therefore couldn’t marry Ianthe. Iphis prayed to Juno, pleading to be allowed to marry Ianthe, but her prayers go unanswered. Isphis’ mother then brings her to the temple of Isis to pray for help. The goddess, upon hearing the desperate prayers, transforms Iphis into a man. The male Iphis goes on to marry Ianthe and lives happily ever after.

To the east of Greece and Rome, India saw its own emergence of the transgender divinity in the form of the myth of Aravaan. Aravaan was the son of Arjuna, one of five brothers involved in a conflict with the Kauravas. The god, Vishnu assures Arjuna and his brothers that if they provide for him a human sacrifice, he will ensure their victory over the Kauravas. Arjuna decides to go out and retrieve his son, Aravaan, to be the sacrifice. Vishnu, in order to convince Aravaan to sacrifice himself, transforms into a woman and marries Aravaan. The day following their wedding night, Aravaan is sacrificed and the Kauravas are defeated. In India, the aravani, or Hijra, are individuals born male-bodied or intersex who undergo a ritualistic and primitive form of sex reassignment surgery, dress and live as women. They are often treated in a contradictory fashion within Indian society as they are both despised and revered at the same time. Hijras are often present to bless weddings and the birth of male children. During an eighteen day festival, the Hijra reenact the mythical marriage of Vishnu and Aravaan and his following sacrifice, the Hijra taking the role of the trans-gendered Vishnu marrying the soon-to-be sacrificed Aravaan. They mourn Aravaan’s death with ritualistic dancing and breaking glass bangles.

To the south in Egypt, pharaohs were 1) believed to be divine and 2) required to be male; this second qualification, however, did not prevent Hatshepsut, who was female-bodied, from ruling over Egypt for two decades during the 18th Dynasty. Hatshepsut invented a new, hybrid gender, thus allowing her to secure the title of pharaoh. Another pharaoh, Akhenaten, was a male with a naturally feminized body. His body was so feminine that recent archaeologists have referred to him as a “natural transsexual,” though he was certainly intersex. Thought he fathered several children, he also had wide hips and breasts. In ancient Egypt and Babylonia, images of what we, today, would call “gender transgression” were common.

Across the sea in the Americas there has been a long standing history of transgender or intersex deities, and indeed these transgendered Gods often were the creator god. A principal creator god in Mesoamerican cultures was Quetzalcoatl or Kukulcan (or Nine Wind or Gukumatz); as a matter of fact, Quetzalcoatl was so important to all the cultures of Mesoamerica that nearly no aspect of every day life is untouched by him. He is the sky god, lord of the winds and the celestial waters and rain; he is also associated with the morning star and he is the deity who created civilization and the calendar. Quetzalcoatl’s story extends far beyond this brief blurb as surely he was one of the most important figures in Mesoamerican myth, but what is not widely known about him is his nature of duality. In Quetzalcoatl—and in many serpent symbols—lies a quality analogous to the yin/yang; Quetzalcoatl is seen as a balance of two opposing forces. Even balance of sex. Quetzalcoatl was both male and female at once. Just north of the Aztecs and Mayas was a rich plethora of other indigenous cultures that had creator Gods who were at once male and female. Nadleeh in Navajo creation stories was a creator god that was both male and female. The Nadleeh are also a distinct third gender category (aside from male and female), and are regarded as being somewhat both and neither male and female. In addition to the Navajo Nadleeh, several other Native American nations had multiple gender systems, including the Ho’vo of the Hopi and the Winktah of the Santee/Dakota. In 1988 the term Two Spirit was constructed as a distinct cultural marker for those who identified as having masculine and feminine, male and female, duality to their person or who fulfilled one of the many mixed gender roles. Universally, the Two Spirit people were seen as powerful spiritual beings, and often held prominent and respected social roles ranging from warriors to ambassadors, healers and artists, peace makers and spiritual leaders. Two Spirit people often dressed and lived as the gender they identified with—for male-bodied individuals this could mean wearing women’s clothes, taking on women’s social roles, and marrying a man, with the reciprocal true for female-bodied individuals. The term Two Spirit brings with it the ideas of transformation, and, indeed, Nadleeh means “changing woman” or being in continuous state of transformation.

We’ve lost our spiritual, divine roots. Certainly the modern, Western world has forgotten our divinity; instead, they have disenfranchised us of our spiritual statures in place of medical jargon, religious slander and psychoanalysis. And while rigid gender expectations of patriarchy and the staunch conservativeness of Christianity are largely to blame for robbing us of our profound spiritual significance, we, too, often buy into the propaganda. We explain away our transsexuality or intersexuality as birth defects; corrupted chromosomes running amok. Often it is seen as merely a medical condition or a trap—as in a man trapped in a woman’s body, “Born in the wrong body.” It’s all a denial of what our genes are really trying to tell us: that we’re in the Trans Configuration.

We naturally developed to this trans configuration, our bodies and our minds on opposing orientations about an imaginary plane. It is who we are, and if human history and human mythology has anything to teach us about the transgendered, it’s that we are divine. Maybe we are not Gods like Agdistis or Vishnu, but we have a profound spiritual energy that is emitted from deep within us; a transcendental ambiance that, for lack of a better term, is a projection of inner peace and harmony. If you’ve ever met a transsexual who has started living comfortably in the gender to which they identify—started living as themselves—then you know just how powerfully they emanate inner peace and absolute bliss. There’s something intangible there—Julia Serano described it thus:

In a trans woman’s eyes, I see a profound appreciation for how fucking
empowering it can be to be female, an appreciation that seems lost on many
cissxeual women, who sadly take their female identities and anatomies for
granted, or who perpetually seek to cast themselves as victims rather than
instigators…I see wisdom that can only come from having to fight for your right
to be recognized as female in an inhospitable world…I see someone who
understands that, in a culture that’s seemingly fueled on male homophobic
hysteria, choosing to be female and openly expressing one’s femininity is not a
sign of frivolousness, weakness, or passivity, it is a fucking badge of courage.

I feel this is an important message to get across, and this is exactly why I chose this topic for my first blog post. I realize that my experience as a transsexual woman is going to limit this a great deal, and I also recognize that throughout this blog post I have focused on a large variety of identities that could range from intersex to transsexual to transgender, and many that are cultural identities which the term transgender cannot adequately describe. Keeping all of this in mind, I see an overlapping arch that encompasses all these identities. Deep down, we are all like the myths—we have a divine, magical quality. We have the power of Agdistis, the spiritual duality and balance of Quetzalcoatl, the constant transformation of the Nadleeh—the power of death and rebirth of a phoenix, dying in the ashes of the obscure to emerge as the epitome of spectacular beauty and divinity.