This talk analyzes the social and cultural role of gender-crossing figures in the premodern Eastern Mediterranean studying transgender narratives and art from the early Byzantine to post-Byzantine period. Trans saints presented hagiographers and artists with a challenge. How could ‘harlots’, like Pelagia of Antioch and Mary of Egypt, achieve the standards of Christian piety, let alone saintly behavior? In portraying their fictional transmasculine protagonists as exempla of gendered virtues in the context of Palestinian asceticism and monasticism, the authors of the anonymous saints’ lives, as well as iconographers, highlight the non-binariness of social identities, unsettling fixed gender categorization. Conceiving a trans figure of an ascetic subverting conventional binaries, the texts and images create a model for incorporating non-conforming masculinities of Byzantine society within the normative hagiographic and iconographic genre. Ideas about nonbinary sex and gender were a part of how subjects of the medieval Eastern Roman Empire defined themselves as Christian, gendered, or human. This talk presents my project of transgender history and aims to shed light on how these foundational categories developed, anticipating our own. By turning to the past which introduces us to radically different cultures we are enabled to imagine radically different futures for ourselves too.
Image: Susanna of Eleutheropolis, manuscript illumination. Menologion of Basil II (Vat.gr. 1613, c.1000), Vatican Apostolic Library, f.98. Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0