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Friedemann Pfäfflin,
Ulm University, Germany

Walter O. Bockting,
University of Minnesota, USA

Eli Coleman,
University of Minnesota, USA

Richard Ekins,
University of Ulster at Coleraine, UK

Dave King,
University of Liverpool, UK

Managing Editor:
Noelle N Gray,
University of Minnesota, USA

Editorial Assistant:
Erin Pellett,
University of Minnesota, USA

Editorial Board


book Historic Papers


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Published by
Symposion Publishing

ISSN 1434-4599

Harry Benjamin, M.D.

Appendix C
Transsexualism: Mythological, Historical, and Cross-Cultiral Aspects
by Richard Green, M.D.

Evidence for the phenomenon today called transsexualism can be found in records backward through centuries and spanning widely separated cultures. Classical mythology, classical history, Rennaissance, and nineteenth-century history along with cultural anthropology point to the widespread pervasiveness of the transsexual phenomenon.

The term "transsexual," being of comparatively recent origin, cannot be found in historical sources. Therefore, many inferences must be made in interpreting reference material. Even specific mention of "change of sex" may only imply a "change of dress" or the practice of genital homosexuality, the fuller assumption by the individual of cross-gender identity not being apparent. In the following references, the criterion of cross-gender identity is met.

Mythology and demonology

In Greek mythology the transsexual influence is dramatized in the designation of the Goddess, Venus Castina, as the goddess who responded with sympathy and understanding to the yearnings of feminine souls locked up in male bodies. [4] [1]

Specific myths of sex change, not only as a result of desire but also as a form of punishment, appear frequently. For example, Tiresias, a Theban soothsayer, is reported to have been walking on Mt. Cyllene when he came upon two snakes coupling. He killed the female, and for this act was changed into a woman. Later, after coming to look favorably on his new form and testifying that woman's pleasure during intercourse was ten to man's one, he was changed back into a man - again as punishment. [13]  [2]

Another mythical account concerns the Scythians, whose rear guard pillaged the temple of Venus at Ascelon while leaving Syria and Palestine, which they had invaded. The goddess was supposed to have been so enraged that she made women of the plunderers, and further decreed that their posterity should be similarly affected. [19] Hippocrates describing among the Scythians "No-men" who resembled eunuchs, wrote: "they not only follow women's occupations, but show feminine inclinations and behave as women. The natives ascribe the cause to a deity... . " [21] Still another account deals with the ancient kingdom, Phrygia, where the priests of the God, Attis, the consort of Cybelle, the Earth Mother, were obliged to castrate themselves. This was in deference to the God, Attis, who is said to have emasculated himself under a pine tree. The priests were said (following castration) to become transvestites and perform women's tasks. Some of the priests were believed to have gone beyond testicular castration and completely removed their external male genitalia. [29]

The Tiresias myth noted previously parallels a related folk tale in East Indian lore. According to legend in the Mahabharata, a king was transformed into a woman by bathing in a magic river. As a woman he bore a hundred sons whom he sent to share his kingdom with the hundred sons he had had as a man. Later, he refused to be changed back into a man because the former king felt that "a woman takes more pleasure in the act of love than does a man." Contrary to the fate of Tiresias, the transformed king was granted his wish. [13]

Not only were the gods empowered with the ability to change one's sex but change of sex was performed on both human and beast by witchcraft and by the intervention of demons. Witches were claimed to be possessors of drugs [3] that had the capacity to reverse the sex of the taker. Some said that males could be transformed into females and females into males, but it was also argued that the sex change worked in only one direction. Thus it was declared that the Devil could make males of females, but could not transform men into women, because it is the method of nature to add on rather than to take away. In Malleus maleficarum (Hammer against Witches), published in 1489, the book which served as the source of "treatment" of the insane for nearly three hundred years, an eyewitness accounting was reported of a girl changed into a boy, by the devil, at Rome. [25]

Classical history

Accounts exist from the legacy of ancient Greece and Rome of those grossly discontent with their gender role. Philo, the Jewish philosopher of Alexandria, wrote, "Expending every possible care on their outward adornment, they are not ashamed even to employ every device to change artificially their nature as men into women ... . Some of them ... craving a complete transformation into women, they have amputated their generative members." [26]

The Roman poet Manilius wrote:

These (persons) will ever be giving thought to their bedizement and becoming appearance; to curl the hair and lay it in waving ripples ... to polish the shaggy limbs ... . Yea! and to hate the very sight of (themselves as) a man, and long for arms without growth of hair. Woman's robes they wear ... (their) steps broken to an effeminate gait ... . [26]

A further description written of some Romans has been translated:

But why
Are they waiting? 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? [5]

Even among the histories of Roman emperors are reported instances of "change of sex." One of the earliest sex conversion operations may have been performed at the behest of the infamous Emperor Nero. Allegedly, Nero, during a fit of rage, kicked his pregnant wife in the abdomen, killing her. Filled with remorse he attempted to find someone whose face resembled that of his slain wife. Closest to filling the order was a young male ex-slave, Sporum. Nero then is reported to have ordered his surgeons to transform the ex-slave into a woman. Following the "conversion," the two were formally married.

Another Roman emperor, Heliogabalus, is reported to have been formally married to a powerful slave and then to have taken up the tasks of a wife following the marriage. He is described as having been "delighted to be called the mistress, the wife, the Queen of Hierocles" [4] and is said to have offered half the Roman Empire to the physician who could equip him with female genitalia. [1]

Interposed between the era of the Roman Empire and Europe of the sixteenth century is a perhaps apocryphal, but still extraordinary accounting of ninth-century Rome. This concerns a figure known as Pope John VIII. The report goes that this person, nominated as successor to Pope Leo IV in 855, was, in fact, a woman. In an accounting published with the approval of Pope Julius III it was stated that "she gave birth to a baby and died, together with her offspring, in the presence of a large number of spectators." [9]

Renaissance period to the close of the nineteenth century

French history of the sixteenth to the eighteenth century contributed a number of public transsexual figures. Moreover, at this time the term of reference to the sovereign was "Sa majesté," which means literally, "her majesty." The feminine gender was used, initially, in deference to King Henry III of France, who wished to be considered a woman. It is reported that once, during February, 1577, sa majesté made his point strongly felt by appearing before the Deputies "dressed as a woman, with a long pearl necklace and low cut dress ... ." [9]

Among the notable Frenchmen of the seventeenth century, the Abbé de Choisy, also known as François Timoléon, has left for posterity a vivid firsthand description of a strong cross-gender wish. During his infancy and early youth, his mother had attired him completely as a girl. At eighteen this practice continued and his waist was then "encircled with tight-fitting corsets which made his loins, hips, and bust more prominent." As an adult, for five months he played comedy as a girl and reported: "Everybody was deceived; I had lovers to whom I granted small favors."At thirty-two he became the Ambassador of Louis XIV to Siam. Regarding his gender identity he wrote,

I thought myself really and truly a woman. I have tried to find out how such a strange pleasure came to me, and I take it to be in this way. It is an attribute of God to be loved and adored, and man - so far as his weak nature will permit - has the same ambition, and it is beauty which creates love, and beauty is generally woman's portion ... . I have heard someone near me whisper, "There is a pretty woman," I have felt a pleasure so great that it is beyond all comparison. Ambition, riches, even love cannot equal it ... . [4, 9, 15]

One of the most famous examples of cross-gender behavior in history is the Chevalier d'Eon, whose name became the eponym "eonism." He is reported to have made his debut into history in woman's garb as the rival of Madame de Pompadour as a pretty new mistress for Louis XV. When his secret was made known to the King, the latter capitalized on his initial mistake by turning the Chevalier into a trusted diplomat. On one occasion, in 1755, he went to Russia on a secret mission disguised as the niece of the King's accredited agent and the following year returned to Russia attired as a man to complete the mission. Following the death of Louis XV he lived permanently as a woman. There was great uncertainty in England, where he spent his final years, as to whether his true morphologic sex was male or whether the periods in male attire were not, in fact, the periods of impersonation. When he died, the Chevalier d'Eon had lived forty-nine years as a man and thirty-four years as a woman. [4, 9, 15]

Another abbé of interest was l'Abbé d'Entragues who attempted to replicate feminine facial beauty "pale and interesting" by undergoing frequent facial bleedings. [9] One last pertinent abbé was Becarelli, a false messiah, who claimed to be able to command the services of the Holy Ghost and boasted of possessing a drug which could "change sex." While physical sex was not changed, men who took the drug temporarily believed themselves transformed into women and women thought themselves transformed into men. [25]

Finally, a person who throughout the whole of her life had been known as Mlle. Jenny Savalette de Lange died at Versailles in 1858 and was discovered to be a man. During his lifetime he had managed to get a substitute birth certificate designating himself female, was engaged to a man six times, and was given a thousand francs a year pension by the King of France with a free apartment in the Chateau of Versailles. [9]

The following brief case histories reported by physicians bring the historical review to the close of the nineteenth century. Bloch described a person of the mid-nineteenth century "who from doing feminine tasks (sewing and knitting) at the bidding of his mother became completely effeminate, plucked his beard, put up his hair, padded his breast and hips, and behaved in every respect as a woman ... . He called himself Frederica ... . He managed to deceive (men) so completely that they (unwittingly) performed coitus in anum with him." [2] Krafft-Ebing reported this firsthand account by a patient:

I feel like a woman in a man's form ... . I feel the penis as clitoris, the urethra as urethra and vaginal orifice, which always feels a little wet, even when it is actually dry, the scrotum as labia majora. In short I always feel the vulva ... . Small as my nipples are, they demand room ... . Of what use is female pleasure, when one does not conceive? ... [23]

Cross-cultural data

Americans Indians
Anthropologic studies of peoples from several parts of the world furnish varied material on cross-gender behavior and identity.

During the first quarter of this century, extensive data were gathered on traditional practices among several tribes of North American Indians. "In nearly every part of the continent there seem to have been, since ancient times, men dressing themselves in the clothes and performing the functions of women ... ." [32]

Among the Yuman Indians there existed a group of males called the elxa who were considered to have suffered a "change of spirit" as a result of dreams which occurred generally at the time of puberty. A boy or girl who dreamed too much of any one thing "would suffer a change of sex." Such dreams frequently included the receiving of messages from plants, particularly the arrowseed, which is believed to be liable to change of sex itself. One elxa, however, dreamed of a journey. "This dream implied his future occupation with woman's work. When he came out of the dream he put his hand to his mouth and laughed ... with a women's voice and his mind was changed from male into female. Other young people noticed this and began to feel towards him as to a woman.

As a small child the female counterpart of elxa, the kwe'rhame, play with boy's toys. It is alleged that such women never menstruate; their secondary sexual characteristics are underdeveloped, and in some instances are male (apparently some form of hermaphroditism or virilism). [12]

In the Yuma culture it was believed, further, that the Sierra Estrella, a mountain, had a transvestite living inside and that both this mountain and another nearby had the power to "sexually transform men." Signs of such transformation were said to come "early in childhood." Older people knew by a boy's actions he would "change sex." Berdache was the term for those who behaved like women.[4] Berdaches in the Yuma culture married men and had no children of their own. The tribe also included women who passed for men, dressed like men, and married women. [30]

Among the Cocopa Indians, males called e L ha were those reported to have shown feminine character "from babyhood." As children they were described as talking like girls, seeking the company of girls, and doing things in woman's style. Females kown as war'hemeh played with boys, made bows and arrows, had their noses pierced, and fought in battles. "Young men might love such a girl, but she cared nothing for him, wished only to become man." [14]

Among the Mohave Indians, boys who were destined to become shamans (priest-doctors who used magic and mediumistic trances to cure the sick, to divine the hidden, and to control the events that affected the welfare of the people), would "pull back their penis between their legs and then display themselves to women saying, 'I too am a woman, I am just like you are.'"

For those Mohave boys who were to live as women, there was in initiation rite during the tenth or eleventh year of life. "Two women lift the youth and take him outdoors ... . One puts on a skirt and dances, the youth follows and imitates ... . The two women give the youth the front and back pieces of his new dress and paint his face ... ." Such persons speak, laugh, smile, sit, and act like women. The initiates then assumed a name befitting a person of the opposite sex. These alyhas insisted that the penis be called a clitoris, the testes, labia majora, and the anus, vagina. The female counterpart, hwane, did not insist that the genitalia be referred to by male terminology.

An alyha, after finding a husband, would begin to imitate menstruation. He would take a stick and scratch himself between the legs until blood was drawn. When they would decide to become pregnant they would cease "menstruations." Before "delivery" they would drink a bean preparation, which would induce violent stomach pains that were dubbed "labor pains." Following this would be a defecation designated as a "stillbirth," which would be ceremoniously buried. There would then ensue a period of mourning by both the husband and "wife." [10]

Available anthropologic sources make brief mention of similar practices in other tribes.

Among the Navaho, persons called nadl E, a term used for either transvestites or hermaphrodites but usually the former, were addressed by the kinship term used for a woman of their relationship and age and were granted the legal status of womanhood. [20]

The i-wa-musp (man-woman), of the California Indians, formed a regular social grade. Dressed as women, they performed women's tasks. When an Indian would show a desire to shirk his manly duties, he would be made to take his position in a circle of fire; then a bow and a "woman-stick" would be offered to him. He would have to make a choice and forever after abide by that choice. [27]

Finally, among the Pueblo, the following alleged practice was described. A very powerful man, "one of the most virile," was chosen. He was masturbated many times a day and made to ride horseback almost continuously.

Gradually such irritable weakness of the genital organs is engendered that, in riding, great loss of semen is induced ... . Then atrophy of the testicles and penis sets in, the hair of the beard falls out, the voice loses its depth and compass ... . Inclinations and disposition become feminine. (This) "mujerado" loses his position in society as a man ... his endeavor seems to be to assimilate himself as much as possible to the female sex, and to rid as far as may be all the attributes, mental and physical, of manhood.

A former Surgeon-General of the United States Army vividly described one such person: "The first thing that attracted my notice was the extraordinary development of the mammary glands, which were as large as those of a childbearing woman. He told me that he had nursed several infants whose mother had died, and that he had given them plenty of milk from his breasts ... . (A phenomenon which from a scientific standpoint sounds confabulatory.) [18]

Peoples other than American Indians

In paleo-Asiatic, ancient Mediterranean, Indian, Oceanic, and African tribes, men who adopted the ways and dress of women enjoyed high esteem as shamans, priests and sorcerers - all persons whose supernatural powers are feared and revered.

Among the Yakut of aboriginal Siberia there were two categories of shamans, the "white" representing creative, and the "black," destructive forces. The latter tended to behave like women. The hair was parted in the middle like women, they wore iron circles over the coat representing breasts, and along with biologic females were not permitted to lie on the right side of the horse-skin in the living quarters. [7]

As to the people of Siberia, the change of sex was found chiefly among paleo-Siberians, namely the Chukchee, Koryak, Kamchadeb, and Asiatic Eskimo. [7]

Among the Chukchees living near the Arctic Coast, there was reported a special branch of shamanism in which men and women were alleged to undergo a change of sex in part, or even completely. A man who changed his sex was called "soft man being" (yirka'-la' vl-ua' irgin) or "similar to a woman" (ne'vc h i c a) and a "transformed woman" (ga' c iki cc e). Transformation would take place by the command of the Ke'let during early youth.

There were various degrees of transformation. In the first stage, the person subjected to it would impersonate a woman only in the manner of braiding and arranging hair. The second stage was marked by the adoption of female dress. The third stage of transformation was more complete. A young man who underwent it left off all pursuits and manners of his sex and took up those of a woman. His pronunciation would change. "At the same time his body alters, if not in its outward appearance, at least in its faculties and forces. The transformed person ... becomes ... fond of ... nursing small children. Generally speaking, he becomes a woman with the appearance of a man." The "soft-man" after a time would take a husband. The "wife" would take care of the house, performing all domestic pursuits and work. Legend had it that some would even acquire the organs of a woman.[5] A transformed woman was described who donned the dress of a male, adopted the pronunciation of men, provided herself with a gastrocnemius from the leg of a reindeer, fastened it to a broad leather belt, and "used it in the way of masculine private parts." [3]

In Madagascar men described among the Tanala as exhibiting feminine traits from birth, dressed like women, arranged the hair like women, and pursued feminine occupations. They were known as Sarombavy. Among the Sak a lavas of Madagascar, children who were noted to be delicate and girlish in appearance and mannerisms were selected out from their peers and then raised as girls. Madagascans who were treated as female "finally ... regard themselves as completely feminine ... The autosuggestion goes so far that they quite forget their true sex ... . They are exempt from military service." [2]

The following brief anecdotal accountings suggest the existence of the transsexual phenomenon in other scattered cultures as well.

In Tahiti a set of men called by the natives mahoos or mahhus "assumed the dress, attitudes, and mannerisms of women, affected all the fantastic oddities and coquetries of the vainest of females ... ." They had chosen this way of living in early childhood. [31]

In some Brazilian tribes women were observed who abstained from every womanly occupation and imitated men in everything, They wore their hair in masculine fashion and "would rather allow themselves to be killed than have sexual intercourse with a man. Each of these women had a woman who served her and with whom she was married ... ." [8, 32]

A number of Lango men from Uganda, in East Africa, "dress as women, simulate menstruation, and become one of the wives of other males." [11] Elsewhere in Africa among the Malagasy (men called ts ecates), among the Onondaga of Southwest German Africa and among the Diakite-Sarracolese in the French Sudan, men assumed the dress, attitude and manners of women. [6] Among the Araucanians (Chile) were reported male and female sorcerers. The male sorcerers were required to forsake their sex. [2]

Sir James Frazer wrote in The Golden Bough: "There is a custom widely spread among savages in accordance with which some men dress as women and act as women throughout their life. Often they are dedicated and trained to their vocation from childhood." They were reported to be found among the Sea Dyaks of Borneo, the Bugis of South Celebes and the Patagonians of South America. In the Kingdom of the Congo there was described a sacrificial priest who commonly dressed as a woman, and glorified in the title of grandmother. "To the savage mind, the donning of anothers dress is more than a token ... it completes identity ... ." [6] Among Zulus change of sex (by disguise) was a method of changing or averting bad luck. In the Konkan (India) it was usual to bore the nose of a son as soon as be was born to turn him into a girl. [22]

On the Aleutians, boys - if they were very handsome - would be brought up entirely in the manner of girls (Shupans), and instructed in the arts women use to please men; their beards would be carefully plucked out as soon as they would appear. They would wear ornaments of glass beads upon their legs and arms, and bind and cut their hair in the same manner as women. [24] Arriving at ten or fifteen, they were married to some wealthy man. [32] It was further reported that sometimes if the parents had wished for a daughter and were disappointed by having a son they would make the newborn into an akhnutchik or shupan. [2] More recently, in mid-twentieth-century India, the city of Lucknow witnessed a great many eunuchs turning up at the polls and joining the line of female voters. The eunuchs, who were dressed in female garments, were reported to have been "amazed" at finding themselves listed as male voters. "Only after the insistence of the police officers ... did they bow to the law ... These eunuchs, though they resist further surgery to make them more female, have their male genitalia amputated, and the pubic area reshaped to give it the look of the female vagina." The event is celebrated by a grand feast restricted to eunuchs. [28]


Clearly, the phenomenon of assuming the role of a member of the opposite sex is neither new nor unique to our culture. Evidence for its existence is traceable to the oldest recorded myths. Diverse cultures present data demonstrating that the phenomenon is widely extant in one form or another and has been incorporated into cultures with varying degrees of social acceptance. Appraisal of contemporary clinical material regarding such patients assumes a fuller significance when cast against the backdrop of this historical and anthropological perspective. Ultimately a comprehensive understanding, evaluation and management of transsexualism will take into account the extensively rooted sources of this psychosexual phenomenon.


1. BENJAMIN, H., and MASTERS, R., "A New Kind of Prostitute," Sexology, Vol. 30, 1964, pp. 446-448.

2. BLOCH, I., Anthropological Studies on the Strange Sexual Practices of All Races and All Ages, New York, Anthropological Press.

3. BOGORAS, W., The Chukchee Religion, Leiden, E. J. Brill, Ltd., 1907, Memoirs Amer. Mus. Nat. Hist. Vol. XI.

4. BULLIET, C., Venus Castina. Famous Female Impersonators Celestial and Human, New York, Covici, Friede, 1928.

5. CREEKMORE, H. (tr.), The Satires of Juvenal, New York, Mentor, 1963.

6. CRAWLY, E., The Mystic Rose, New York, Meridian Books, 1960.

7. CZAPLICKA, M., Aboriginal Siberia, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1914.

8. DE MACALHAENS GANDAVO, P., Histoire de la Provine de Sancta Cruz, que nous nommons ordinairement le Brizil, cited by Crawly, E., The Mystic Rose.

9. DE SAVITSCH, E., Homosexuality, Transvestism and Change of Sex, London, Wm. Heinemann Medical Books, 1958.

10. DEVEREUX, G., "Institutionalized Homosexuality of the Mohave Indians," Human Biol., Vol. 9, 1937, pp. 508-527.

11. FORD, C., and BEACH, F., Patterns of Sexual Behavior, New York, Ace Books, 1951.

12. FORD, C., University of California Publications in American Archaeology and Ethnology, Vol. 28, 1931.

13. FUNK AND WAGNALL'S Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology and Legend, Leach, M. (ed.).

14. GIFFORD, E., The Cocopa, University of California Publications in American Archaeology and Ethnology, Vol. 31, 1933.

15. GILBERT, O., Men in Woman's Guise, London, John Lane, 1926.

16. GRAVES, R., The Greek Myths, Baltimore, Penguin Books, 1955.

27. GRINNELL, G., The Cheyenne Indians, New Haven, Yale University Press, 1923.

18. HAMMOND, W., Sexual Impotence in the Male and Female, Detroit, George S. Davis, 1887.

19. Herodotus cited by Krafft-Ebing.

20. HILL, W., "The Status of the Hermaphrodite and Transvestite in Navaho Culture," Amer. Anthrop., Vol. 37, 1935, pp. 273-279.

21. HIPPOCRATES, Air, Water and Environment, cited by Hammond.

22. JOSHI, P., "On the Evil Eye in the Konkan," J. Anthrop. Soc. (Bombay), Vol. 1, 1886-1889, p. 123, cited in Crawly, E., The Mystic Rose.

23. KRAFFT-EBING, R., Psychopathia Sexualis, Brooklyn, Physicians and Surgeons Book Co., 1931.

24. LANGSDORF, G., Voyages and Travels in Various Parts of the World During the Years 1803-7, cited in Crawly, E., The Mystic Rose.

25. MASTERS, R., Eros and Evil, New York, Julian Press, 1962.

26. MASTERS, R., "Effeminacy and the Homosexual" in Encyclopedia of Homosexual Behavior, Ellis, A. and Cory, D. (eds.), New York, Citadel Press, 1966.

27. POWERS, S., Tribes of California 1877, cited in Crawly E., The Mystic Rose.

28. SIDDIGUI, T., and REHMAN, M., Eunuchs of India and Pakistan, Sexology,Vol. 29,1963, pp. 824-826.

29. SPENCER, R., "The Cultural Aspects of Eunuchism," Ciba Symposia, Vol. 8, 1946, pp. 406-420.

30. SPIER, L ., Yuman Tribes of the Gila River, University of Chicago Press, 1933.

31. TURNBULL, Voyage Round the World, cited by Westermarck, E., The Origin and Development of the Moral Ideas.

32. WESTERMARCK, E., The Origin and Development of the Moral Ideas, Vol. 2, London, Macmillan, 1917.


[1] The bracketed references will be found on pages 185 and 186.

[2] To see snakes coupling is still considered unlucky in Southern India, the theory being that the witness will be punished with homosexuality. [16]

[3] Reference will be made later to an eighteenth-century abbé who claimed to possess a similar drug.

[4] Berdache derives from the Spanish, bardaja meaning "a kept boy," and bardashe from French; also Italian, bardascia; Arabian, bardaj (a slave) and Persian, bardah. The berdache may be variously regarded as (1) a sex-changed person; (2) a man-woman; or (3) a person who is neither man nor woman. [26]

[5] The change of sex was usually accompanied by future shamanship; indeed, nearly all the shamans were former delinquents of their sex

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