I am so excited to host fellow Harmony Ink author, Christopher Hawthorne Moss as he shares this EXCELLENT essay about being transgender throughout history.
Times change. People don’t. Well, that’s mostly true. The truism applies to every aspect of human nature no matter the circumstance, location, period, religion, social status, you name it.
What if, as is very likely given that the brain has not changed since the dawn of time, a person’s brain that has been bombarded with the same hormones he or she experienced in 2015 will have the same effect in 1101 C.E, or for that matter, 375 B.C.E. or 150 C.E. or 1575 C.E. or any time before or after that? The fact is that any brain, hit with the opposite gender hormones when it is developing from those that made the body of the person one gender will grow up, confused, feeling the opposite gender no matter what his or her senses tell him or her. You can’t change a brain of one gender into another, no matter what the body shows.
OK, I am sure I have totally confused everyone reading this blog post, everyone, except of course, those readers whose bodies and brains don’t match. That is, fictionally, the case with Elisabeht/Elias von Winterkirche, the hero/ine of my novel, BELOVED PILGRIM from Harmony Ink Press 2014. Elias was born with girl’s genitalia, so she was raised as a girl, but for her entire life she knew her mind and soul were male. When in her late teens she had the chance to don her late brother’s armor and go to fight in the Crusades, she was able to live his life as the boy he knew he was. Phew! Even that sentence was hard to write, but the only reason for that was that English has a binary view of gender. And that is the challenge of writing any novel about people whose bodily gender does not match their brain’s.
This indeed was the challenge of writing BELOVED PILGRIM. In fact, I wrote it twice. The first edition, published in 2011 by Shield-wall Books, was about a lesbian knight. It was not until I realized I was myself transgender in 2012 that I also realized that my character Elisabeth was as well. That set me on the path of revising the novel to make it truer to my own experience, in other words, I applied the same “sex change” to the novel I am doing to myself. I can tell you right now that the novel’s “sex change” was actually harder. The main difference is that it is done. My own transition is an ongoing project of mistaken pronouns, getting called ma’am by restaurant servers and bus drivers. Lucky Elias.. his gender was set when the book came out.
Many historians, and many historical novelists, will refuse to accept that a transgender person could even have existed in 1101 C.E. and this is actually understandable. The facts about the brain’s development and the gender hormones impact on it is a very new idea. It is in fact still somewhat under debate, since there is variance in the data about transgender people. Not every such person can be shown to have the same sort of brain and brain waves, leaving something of a doubt even in the minds of scientists. On top of that imagine being born into a society and species who, say, refused to accept the existence of left-handed people, insisted everything we think we know about how left-handed people is unproved, that these people are simply deluded or mistaken or are nuts. If the society, which actually was the case many periods and places in the past, did not accept the existence of left-handed people, how would the child, growing up left-handed, have accepted his or her nature as such? They believe their left hands are the dominant ones, but no one else does and what’s more they will be discouraged to pursue training that hand. Time change, people don’t. But people who are unaware of or discouraged to act on their inner knowledge of left-handedness or transgenderism will not act on that knowledge. Times change, but people can only be what they know they can be.
In my novel, Elias has only his own conviction he is male and the support of those who love and trust him enough to accept that conviction. He learns that he is male by dressing and acting as if he was a male knight. He comes to that realization when on the journey to join the crusaders in Austria he tells his companion, Albrecht, that he does not want to go back to living falsely as a woman. He wants to travel to the Holy Land as a knight, as a male knight. His friend has spent enough time with him to begin to accept him as he defines himself. Albrecht, who knew and loved the man he is identifying himself as, as Elias, can accept that “she” is in fact “he”.
Perhaps the most amazing thing Elias discovers in his new role is that by and large people accept what they perceive. In the streets of the Margrave’s city he notices that as long as he dresses, wears his hair, walks like, talks like, fights like and represents himself as a man, no one doubts this as a fact. He is able to live as a man because others accept him the way he sees himself. His first challenge comes when he is on the ship to Constantinople. In those days the ships were tiny and had no staterooms. Everyone stood or sat, if they could, the entire voyage. There was utterly no privacy for anyone but the captain. So Elias was forced to find a way to relieve himself where his gender would be overlooked. He cleverly uses a combination of a tool Albrecht fashions for him, a sort of 12th century “stand-to-pee” device, and his own clever way of using men’s embarrassment about observing other men in the act, to protect his secret. He manages to hide his bodily gender throughout his travels in Turkey.
Except once. When he first kisses the half–Turkish, half-Greek woman Maliha she can’t but notice the breasts restrained under the cloth of Elias’s tunic. He must “come out” to her, but as it happens, she has always been drawn sexually to females and can make the leap for both their benefits. This comes in handy since Maliha is part of Elias’s “cover”.
What can Elias’s story tell young transgender people of today? It can be inspiring, since so many aspects of life in the early 12th century stand against his accepting himself as a man. There is little in the way of stories of transgender people on which Elias can model himself. He knows he will not be accepted as dual gender. He can anticipate ridicule or even violence if found out. But is that so different from today? That he persists and lives his life as a man is a testament to his own faith in himself and his ability to be “natural” as well as his ability to adapt to situations where he might get “outted”. If he can stay safe, he can live just as he knows he is, a man inside. The same holds true for me and for those other individuals who are transgender in a society just beginning to accept the truth they know inside that in spite of bodies that say one thing, it is our brain that is the real Us.
My hope is that this story, backed up by histories of transgender people who lived as they knew they were throughout time, will give modern transgender young people the courage to live their lives as they should, in their proper gender, people such as Catalina de Erauso in the 17th century, a Basque nun-soldier who served in the Spanish colonial army, James Barry, the 18th century Royal Navy doctor whose physical gender was only discovered when he died, or the Chevalier d’Eon also of the 18th century who tricked the French army and the world until her own death. The American Civil War was replete with transmen like Albert D. J. Cashier who served in the Union Army, and of course, the jazz pianist Billy Tipton who fooled not only his countless fans but his own wife and their adopted children. We do have a history, a rich one, of men and women, “trans” of course, who lived exceptional lives in spite of the greatest odds they could encounter. Read BELOVED PILGRIM, the intimate story of Elias von Winterkirche.. and believe.
Christopher Hawthorne Moss wrote his first short story when he was seven and has spent some of the happiest hours of his life fully involved with his colorful, passionate and often humorous characters. Moss spent some time away from fiction, writing content for websites before his first book came out under the name Nan Hawthorne in 1991. He has since become a novelist and is a prolific and popular blogger, the historical fiction editor for the GLBT Bookshelf, where you can find his short stories and thoughtful and expert book reviews. He lives in the Pacific Northwest with his husband of over thirty years and four doted upon cats. He owns Shield-wall Productions at http://www.shield-wall.com. He welcomes comments from readers sent to firstname.lastname@example.org and can be found on Facebook and Twitter.