Dreams of Love: Franz Liszt and la Dame aux Camélias

Marie Duplessis in 1845. J.C. Olivier

The archetype of the beautiful, doomed courtesan has appeared so often in media over the past two centuries that it has become a cliché. Think of La Traviata, Carmen, Les Misérables, even Moulin Rouge—their stories have become tragedies that titillate while serving as precautionary tales about the dangers of sex work. People live vicariously through these stories while condemning the heroines they want to emulate and their real-life counterparts. Real life isn’t like an opera.

Except for when it is. Though there have been countless sex workers in history living extraordinary lives, this archetype in popular media can be traced back to just one: Marie Duplessis (1824 – 1847), known by her contemporaries and immortalized by Alexandre Dumas fils as la Dame aux Camélias.

Though much of what people know about her today comes from Dumas’s fictionalized version of her life, there’s more to the story of the woman who inspired so much art—and possibly music—during her short life. Today, we’re going to look at the real story of Marie Duplessis and the romance that inspired Liszt’s Liebesträume.

Marie Duplessis was born Alphonsine Plessis in Saint-Germain-de-Clairfeuille on January 15th, 1824. Her father, Marin Plessis, was the son of a sex worker and a country priest. Marin Plessis was far from a model father—Alphonsine was his second daughter, and he was apparently so disappointed she wasn’t a boy that he abused his wife until she left the family to seek out work as a maid in Paris, where she died when Alphonsine was eight.

Neglected and unwanted, Alphonsine was sent to live with her mother’s cousin, Madame Boisard, who raised her with her own daughters until Alphonsine was raped by a farmhand at age twelve. Blaming Alphonsine for her own attack, Boisard sent Alphonsine back to her father, who promptly sold her to a man in his seventies who lived in the middle of nowhere.

Although Alphonsine had no idea where she was, she escaped a number of times and attempted to find work in laundries or shops in the surrounding villages. Eventually she made it Exmes, where she worked as a maid until her father reappeared, briefly sold her to an umbrella manufacturer, then took her to Paris. Marin Plessis died later that year.

Paris is where the legend of la Dame aux Camélias really begins. At fifteen, Alphonsine was an orphan temporarily staying with poor relations in the Rue des Deux-Écus. Later, it was claimed that she became a courtesan because she had expensive tastes, but the truth was probably less glamorous. Abandoned, raped, or abused by everyone who was supposed to care for her, she was alone again, and she was hungry. Nestor Roqueplan, the director of the Théâtre des Variétés, later remembered meeting her before she changed her name. Dressed in rags, she was “gazing longingly at a friend potato stall” on the Pont-Neuf. Feeling sorry for her, he bought her a cornet of pommes frites.

Not a year later, Roqueplan was stunned to see that same starving girl on the arm of a nobleman in the Ranelagh Gardens. Marie Duplessis had arrived.

She named herself Marie after the Virgin, and she claimed she added “du” to her surname because she wanted to buy the Plessis estate at Nonant. It wasn’t the new name that made her a success, however. As Gustave Claudin describes her in Mes Souvenirs:

Her distinction, grace, and charm were sure to make her a star in the world of gallantry…Marie Duplessis was thin and pale, and had magnificent hair which came down to the ground. She was wayward, capricious, and wild, adoring today what she had hated yesterday, and vice versa. She possessed the art of elegance to the highest degree. You could certainly say of Marie Duplessis that she had style. No one tried to copy her inimitable originality. As long as the florists could provide them, she carried bouquets of white camellias.

She was charming and tirelessly kind in a way that endeared her to polite society, gaining her access to places other courtesans could never hope to enter. Still in her teens, Marie had seen too much, but it wasn’t her past that gave her the melancholy that was noted to interrupt her joyful moods—it was her lack of future. From Albert Vandam, An Englishman in Paris:

She had a natural tact and an instinctive refinement which no education could have enhanced. She never made grammatical mistakes, no coarse expression ever passed her lips. Lola Montes could not make friends; Alphonsine Plessis could not make enemies. She never became riotous like the others, not even boisterous; for amidst the more animated scenes she was haunted by the sure knowledge that she would die young, and life, but for that knowledge, would have been very sweet to her. 

At some point during her short life, Marie had contracted tuberculosis. It was both common and very contagious, though it was still not widely known how it was spread. Though many people were able to live with it, Marie’s case was already advanced. She knew she was dying, and so did everyone else.

Marie Duplessis, by Édouard Viénot

It didn’t detract from her popularity, however. She was widely regarded as a great beauty, with actress Judith Bernat gushing, “She had an angelic oval face, black eyes caressing in their melancholy, a dazzling complexion and, above all, splendid hair. Oh, that beautiful black silk hair!” Her considerable beauty was made all the more poignant by the knowledge that it wouldn’t last forever.

Still, Marie lived an exciting life. After learning to read with the help of one of her lovers’ grandmothers, she read the papers every morning, played piano, and attended the theater religiously, where she was a favorite patron and given box seats to the opening night of every show. She collected art and artists in equal measure, hosting literary salons at her museum-like apartment, where she impressed Honoré de Balzac, Eugène Sue, and Théophile Gauthier with her wit.

At the height of her popularity, she was said to have one lover for every day of the week. She chose each one, and she was so in demand that they were obliged to accept the arrangement and settle for sharing a wardrobe in her room. Still very childlike in many ways—by 1845, she was only twenty-one and still went to expensive restaurants just to fill up on sweets and macarons—she didn’t spend all of her money on frivolities; while she lived, she donated twenty thousand francs to the church every year.

Lisztomania

Exhibit A: Liszt in 1837. Ary Scheffer. I mean–

By 1845, the only person in Paris with more of a following than Marie was composer Franz Liszt (1811 – 1886). Liszt was a Hungarian piano virtuoso who had shown such promise as a child, he’d been sent to study piano in Vienna at nine, gave his first formal concert there at eleven, and published his first piece of music in an anthology with adult experts at age twelve. By sixteen, he was living in Paris with his mother, who he supported by teaching piano lessons while drinking and smoking heavily, a habit that made him so ill that a Paris newspaper ran an obituary on him in error when he was seventeen. Needless to say, he didn’t have much of a childhood either. Like Marie, he made up for his lack of traditional schooling by reading as widely as he could in what little spare time he had.

Women liked Liszt. So much so, in fact, that Countess Marie d’Agoult left her husband and family to live with Liszt in Geneva when he was still in his early twenties. They had three children—Blandine, Cosima, and Daniel—but had more or less called it quits by 1840, when Liszt returned to touring.

When Lisztomania struck Paris shortly thereafter, Liszt was thirty-three and, by all accounts, a total smokeshow. It wasn’t only that he was considered handsome, which he absolutely was, but his skill and stage presence made his audiences crazy—particularly the women. His music was exciting, avant-garde, and technically challenging, and he threw himself into it, regularly adding or changing things as he went to play up to the crowd. They ate it up in a way that wouldn’t be seen until Elvis entered the building a century later.

Exhibit B: Liszt in 1843

Women literally climbed over each other to touch him, fighting over his discarded handkerchiefs and gloves. Broken piano strings were turned into keepsake bracelets, stolen coffee dregs were preserved in tiny glass bottles, and one woman even saved one of his cigar butts from the gutter and had his initials embedded into it with diamonds.

Lisztomania was viewed as a serious and likely contagious condition by medical professionals at the time, who warned of its ability to cause mass hysteria—his audiences were rowdy in a way other classical audiences weren’t—and asphyxia, given how many ladies fainted in his presence.

Liszt wasn’t immune to the attention, but he must have loved his work—throughout the 1840s, he toured constantly, regularly giving four concerts a week.

He met Marie Duplessis in the foyer of a theater in 1845. He was there with drama critic Jules Janin, who described their first conversation:

Head held high, she made her way through the astonished throng, and we were surprised, Liszt and I, when she came and sat down familiarly on the bench beside us, for neither of us had ever spoken to her. She was a woman of wit and taste and good sense. She began by addressing herself to the great musician; she told him that she had recently heard him, and that he had made her dream…and so they talked throughout the third act of the melodrama…

As different as their backgrounds were, they had a lot in common. Though he was still touring Europe and playing several nights a week, he gave her piano lessons in her apartment. They were lovers while he was in town, and though she continued to see others, her love for Liszt endured.

While he was away, Alexandre Dumas fils, the son of the author of The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo, convinced her to move to the country with him so her tuberculosis might be helped by the fresh air away from the city. When her condition did not improve and her patience with Dumas wore thin, she returned to Paris.

There, Marie surprised everyone by quickly marrying the Comte de Perregaux, becoming a countess in 1846. It ended as quickly as it began. With Marie’s tuberculosis worsening, Perregaux grew tired of her and left her at her Paris apartment, refusing her money for maintenance or medical bills. Marie’s time was running out.

When Liszt returned to Paris, they stayed together once again. He later wrote about this visit and what she’d said that had haunted him:

“I shall not live; I’m a strange woman, I shan’t be able to cling to this life that I cannot live and I cannot bear. Take me with you, take me away wherever you want; I shan’t be in your way, I sleep all day, in the evening you’ll let me go to the theater, and at night you can do what you like with me!” 

In the same letter, Liszt continued:

I’ve never told you how strangely attached I became to that charming creature during my last stay in Paris. I’d told her that I would take her to Constantinople, because it was really the only possible journey I could take with her.

Although Liszt had wanted to take her away, Marie didn’t make it to Constantinople. Desperate to extend her short life, Marie spent the rest of her money visiting health spas around Europe, but it was no use. At the end of January, she went to her last play, Les Pommes de Terre Malades, a vaudeville act at the Palais-Royal. She died at three o’clock in the morning on February 3rd. She was 23.

Her grave today. Note the lipstick hearts and kisses.

Marie was buried at the Cimetière de Montmartre. She had asked to be buried in a quiet place at dawn with no fuss, but her funeral became a public event, after which her apartment was opened up and all of her possessions and carefully curated treasures were sold off. Like Liszt’s fans, everyone wanted a piece of her, some souvenir to help them emulate the timeless, haunting beauty of la Dame aux Camélias. A year later, Dumas published his story, setting himself up as the romantic hero in the tragedy of her life.

The real romantic hero, however, was on tour when it happened, but he was rather quieter about it. “Poor Mariette Duplessis. She was the first woman with whom I was in love,” Liszt wrote to the Countess d’Agoult, the mother of his children and still a friend. “Some unknown, mysterious chord from an antique elegy echoes in my heart when I recall her.”

Liszt lived another forty years after Marie’s death. By the late 1850s, he had made so much money from touring that, like Marie, he gave most of his income to charity. He continued to tour and taught free piano classes, and though he had a few other affairs, none of them lasted. After two of his children, Blandine and Daniel, died in the early 1860s, he entered the church, where he became an abbé and was ordained as an exorcist in 1865. He continued teaching, performing, and working with the church until he died of pneumonia at 74.

La Dame aux Camélias

The advertisement for La Dame aux Camelias starring Sarah Bernhardt, by Alphonse Mucha

Barely a year after Marie passed away, Alexandre Dumas fils published La Dame aux Camélias, a thinly veiled dramatization of her life. Because he had been one of her lovers and was young enough that no one believed he could have made it up, it was mostly taken at face value and became a runaway success when it was adapted into a play. In spite of his famous father, Dumas was illegitimate and had no fortune of his own, so he must have been delighted to make his while cashing in on the death of the woman who broke his heart.

Because his depiction of her is flattering if sensational, readers assumed he was in love with her; if he had been, he wasn’t anymore, only playing to the public’s adoration of her. They loved her, and they were the ones buying the book. On opening night of the play years later, he took his final act of strange revenge on Marie by giving Sarah Bernhardt, the actress playing her onstage, the last letter he had written to Marie, denouncing her and ending the relationship she had already given up on by returning to Liszt in Paris.

If he had loved her in life, Dumas hated her in death, so it’s ironic that it was his book made her immortal. Marie’s beauty made tuberculosis a fashionable disease, the symptoms of which are still held up to be beauty standards to this day. La Dame aux Camélias was later adapted into La Traviata, which became the template for every tragic romance about young, beautiful, doomed sex workers ever since, up to and including Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge.

But we haven’t come all this way to let Dumas have the last word. A key hint to Marie’s true nature might have been in plain sight all along. In the Victorian language of flowers, camellias stood for longing. In Marie’s own words, spoken to actress Judith Bernat not long before she died:

“Why did I sell myself? Because honest work would never have brought me the luxury I craved for, irresistibly. Whatever I may seem to be, I promise you I’m not covetous or debauched. I wanted to know the refinements and pleasures of artistic taste, the joy of living in elegant and cultivated society…I’ve always chosen my friends. And I’ve loved, oh, yes, I’ve really loved, but no one has ever responded to my love. That is the real horror of my life.”

Although Dumas’s book remains the most widely known memorial to Marie Duplessis, it wasn’t the only one. In 1850, Liszt completed Liebesträume (Dreams of Love), the title echoing the first conversation he had with Marie. It was a three-part series of piano solos based on poems by Ludwig Uhland and Ferdinand Freiligrath. It has been argued that he chose these to illustrate three different types of love, but read together, they are also three stages of one great one, played out in his brief yet monumental romance with Marie—love at first sight, erotic love, and love after loss. You can see (and listen) for yourself here:

Liebesträume No 1.
Hohe Liebe (Holy Love) by Ludwig Uhland

In the arms of your love you lie intoxicated,
The fruits of life beckon to you;
Only one glance has fallen upon me,
But I am richer than all of you.

I gladly do without earthly joy
And, a martyr, I gaze ahead,
For over me in the golden distance
Heaven has opened.

Liebesträume No 2.
Seliger Tod (Blessed Death) by Ludwig Uhland

I died
From the delight of love;
I was buried
In her arms;
I was awakened
From their kisses;
I saw the sky
In her eyes.

Liebesträume No 3. [excerpt]
O Lieb, so lang du lieben kannst (O Love, As Long As You Can) by Ferdinand Freliligrath

O love, as long as you can,
O love, as long as you may,
The time will come, the time will come
When you will stand at a grave and mourn!

You will kneel alongside the grave
And your eyes will be sorrowful and moist
Never will you see the beloved again
Only the churchyard’s tall, wet grass.

You will say: Look at me from below,
I who mourn here alongside your grave!
Forgive my slights!
Dear God, I meant no harm!

Yet the beloved does not see or hear you,
He lies beyond your comfort;
The lips you kissed so often speak
Not again: I forgave you long ago!

Jessica Cale

Sources
Baxter, John. Montmartre: Paris’s Village of Art and Sin
Ollivier, D. (ed): Correspondance de Liszt et de la Comtesse d’Agoult
Richardson, Joanna. The Courtesans: The Demi-Monde in 19th Century France
Walker, Alan. Franz Liszt, The Virtuoso Years (1811–1847)

Trans and Non-binary Identities from Mesopotamia to Ancient Rome: Inanna, Cybele, and the Gallai

Ishtar. Lewis Spence (1916)

How many times have you heard that trans and non-binary identities are a new thing? With more people becoming aware of differing gender identities and many feeling empowered to share their own, the subject has become a staple of lazy comedy at best and an excuse for horrific violence and harmful legislation at worst. While arguments for the repression of these identities vary, one theme seems to repeat—the idea that trans and non-binary identities are a new thing that manifested spontaneously in the modern world.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

To talk about trans and non-binary identities in history, I’m not going to start with Dr. James Barry. I’m not going to talk about William Dorsey Swann, the Chevalier d’Eon, or even the Molly houses of Georgian London. We’ll get there—don’t worry—but today, we’re taking it all the way back to the beginning.

Mesopotamia

For those of you just joining us, Mesopotamia was home to the first known civilization in human history. Located between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers where modern-day Iraq is now, the area was populated by the Sumerians and Akkadians from the earliest days of recorded history, around 3100 BCE.

Mesopotamia was polytheistic, and one of the many gods worshiped was Inanna. Also known as the Queen of Heaven, Inanna was the goddess of love, beauty, sex, violence, and justice. Although she was the goddess of sex, it’s interesting to note that she was not a goddess of procreation or indeed a mother herself. She was usually portrayed as promiscuous, but this wasn’t a negative thing—as far as Inanna was concerned, sex was a sacred rite to be enjoyed as an expression of love and not exclusively for the purpose of procreation. Sex wasn’t something shameful yet. An all-powerful goddess with a devoted cult, she is often portrayed with lions. Surviving artifacts from later periods, when she evolved into or was combined with Ishtar, even show her riding a chariot being pulled by lions.

If love, beauty, war, and justice aren’t enough for one goddess to handle, Inanna also had another very important ability.

She could change men into women and women into men.

That’s not just awkward phrasing there—that’s a quote. Around 2280 BCE, Enheduanna (2285-2250 BCE), the Akkadian High Priestess of the Moon in the Sumerian city of Ur, wrote a number of poems and hymns for Inanna, including “The Great-Hearted Mistress,” “The Exaltation of Inanna,” an “Goddess of the Fearsome Power.” She describes some of this power here:

Without your consent, no destiny is determined, the most ingenious solution finds no favour.
To run fast, to slip away, to calm, to pacify are yours, Inanna,
To dart aimlessly, to go too fast, to fall, to get up, to sustain a comrade are yours, Inanna.
To open high road and byroad, safe lodging on the way, helping the worn-out along are yours, Inanna.
To make footpath and trail go in the right direction, to make the going good are yours, Inanna.
To destroy, to create, to tear out, to establish are yours, Inanna.
To turn a man into a woman and a woman into a man are yours, Inanna.

This isn’t a metaphor, and it isn’t the only source that mentions this.

In the Epic of Erra, a Babylonian poem, there are references to kurgarra and assinnu, classes of servants of the goddess, “whose maleness Ishtar turned to female, for the awe of the people.” The British Museum has a fragment of a five-thousand-year-old statue with a still clear inscription that translates to: “Silimabzuta, hermaphrodite of Inanna.”

But these are only references to the goddess’s ability to transform gender. The most compelling evidence for trans and non-binary identities among her worshipers is the existence of her priests, known as the Gala.

The Gala were a class of priests sacred to Inanna. It was said they were initially created by the god Enki to sing “heart-soothing laments,” for the goddess, and they certainly did that. To begin with, one of their primary roles was to sing hymns and laments to the goddess in eme-sal, a Sumerian dialect spoken primarily by women that was used to render the speech of female gods. They presided over religious rites, healed the sick, predicted the future, made music, raised money for the poor, and “dissolved evil” during lunar eclipses. Akkadian omen texts said that having sex with them was lucky. They were well-known and respected members of their communities, and many of them were what we would think of now as transgender.

While it can be problematic to apply modern terminology to five-thousand-year-old gender identities, I’ll tell you what we know of them. Whether called in a dream, given a vision of the goddess, or driven by devotion, biological males entered into the service of the goddess and became female for all intents and purposes, taking on feminine pronouns and dressing and living as women. While various sources argue that ritual castration was involved, there isn’t a lot of evidence to support that this early, and in any case, surgery is still not necessary to validate gender identity today. As they saw it, Inanna had made them women, and though they didn’t have the same verbiage for it, their society accepted that identity.* After all, this change was a gift of the goddess.

Swapping genders and pronouns wasn’t a comment on their sexuality, as it could be in later years. I shouldn’t have to tell you that gender identity and sexual orientation are two different things: gender identity is who you are, and sexual orientation is who you love. We cannot make blanket assumptions about the sexual orientation of the Gala, but we do know that they had relationships as diverse as people do today—many served as sacred sex workers within Inanna’s temples, but others did not. Some were married (to men or women) and had families, often adopting children together. Queer families certainly existed, and homosexuality was not a crime. It wasn’t shameful or a hot-button issue—it was a normal aspect of everyday life, not even mentioned in the Code of Hammurabi, which provided the basis for law in the region for more than a thousand years.

Looking at the Gala in isolation, you might think their existence was an anomaly of the ancient world. Those cults got up to some strange things; that could hardly be common!

Except it was.

Inanna was a very popular goddess, and her worship spread and evolved throughout the ancient world. While her name changed to Ishtar, Rhea, Cybele, Bahucharā Mātā, and Astarte, one thing remained the same: her priests.

Cybele on a cart drawn by lions. Bronze, 2nd century AD. Metropolitan Museum of Art

All Roads Lead to Rome 

When Phrygian goddess Cybele became a part of the official state religion of Rome in 204 BCE, her Gallai came with her. At this point, genderqueer priests had served Cybele, Inanna, and other interpretations of the goddess for nearly three thousand years. They were a common sight in the ancient world, but Rome wasn’t quite sure what to do with them.

Concerned with inheritance and property law, Roman citizens were prohibited from becoming Gallai because of the ban on castration. Whether or not they actually practiced this is debatable, but as far as Rome was concerned, anyone who could not procreate for any reason—including disinterest, infertility, homosexuality, celibacy, or impotence—was neither truly male nor female. Castrated or not, the Gallai’s non-binary status meant they could not inherit property.

To the Romans, gender not only depended more on one’s ability to procreate than anything else, but it was subject to change. Greek and Roman medical texts from the time describe gender not as fixed, but fluid depending on humors like heat and moisture in the body. According to them, these factors could determine an infant’s sex during pregnancy, and they could also change one’s gender after birth. While the terminology was not there in the same way it is today, all of this points to the existence and tacit acceptance of a third gender in Ancient Rome, even if they did not have the same citizenship or property rights as their cisgender (and procreating) neighbors.

In spite of this, some Romans gave up their citizenship to become Gallai. Others had been slaves or had come from other parts of Asia. While it’s unclear how many Gallai were castrated or at what point in their service this happened, there is more documentation to support this happening at this point. Pliny does not go into detail but describes the process as relatively safe, and it was said to take place on Dies Sanguinis, “the Day of Blood,” on March 24th.

Still, castration alone does not change gender. Castrated or not, Gallai throughout the Roman Empire dressed, worshiped, and lived as women. They were noted for their saffron gowns, long hair, heavy makeup, and extravagant jewelry. They existed in every part of the Greco-Roman world at every level of society and were mentioned by Ovid, Seneca, Persius, Martial, and Statius as a common sight in the first century. Apuleius even described them in The Golden Ass:

“The following day they went out, wearing various colored undergarments with turbans and saffron robes and linen garments thrown over them, and every one hideously made up, their faces crazy with muddy paints and their eyes artfully lined.”

Statue of a priest of Cybele

If nothing else, the Gallai knew how to make an entrance. One of the ways in which they practiced healing was through a sort of music therapy that involved parading through town while singing and playing chaotic music to induce a sort of transcendental, joyful mania in the crowd. Others told fortunes—along with service to the goddess, castration was believed to give one the ability to see the future—or begged or danced for money on behalf of the poor. They were hard to miss, wonders in their own time. Diodorus called them terata—“marvels, monsters, prodigies, signs.” As historian Will Roscoe so beautifully put it, they were “the sacred breaking through to the level of the mundane.”

Early Christians weren’t as fond of the Gallai. They preached spiritual androgyny, but physical androgyny was complicated; although trans and non-binary identities had existed throughout the ancient world for more than three thousand years, they weren’t mentioned in the Bible. At this point, they may have been such a common part of society that they would have been more or less taken for granted.

Still, early Christian apologists describe the Gallai in less flattering but suspiciously familiar-sounding terms:

“They wear effeminately nursed hair and dress in soft clothes. They can barely hold their heads up on their limp necks. Then, having made themselves alien to masculinity, swept up by playing flutes, they call their Goddess to fill them with an unholy spirit so as to seemingly predict the future to idle men. What sort of monstrous and unnatural thing is this?” – Fermicus Maternus

“Even till yesterday, with dripping hair and painted faces, with flowing limbs and feminine walk, they passed through the streets and alleys of Carthage, exacting from merchants that by which they might shamefully live.” – St. Augustine, De civitate Dei, 7.26

Ugh! Buying groceries. How dare she?

It wasn’t only toxic masculinity and transphobia that fueled this distaste; the cult of Cybele was hugely influential throughout the ancient world and was one of early Christianity’s biggest rivals. In some places, Christians and followers of Cybele had street fights when their religious festivals overlapped in the spring, and the Gallai came to represent to some what they didn’t like about pagan culture.**

Nevertheless, Cybele continued to be worshiped until the fall of Rome, with the religion’s last known rites being celebrated in 394 CE.

So far, so Mediterranean. What about the rest of the world?

But Wait, There’s More 

In India, the Hijra are intersex and transgender people with history dating back to antiquity. Like Cybele’s devotees, they are connected to music. They are considered the third gender there, and they were even mentioned in the Kama Sutra. Beyond India, trans and non-binary priests have been documented throughout southeast Asia, Borneo, and Sulawesi. Like the Gala and Gallai, all of these roles involved the worship of a goddess, gender transgression, elements of healing, and actual or symbolic castration. In their capacity as religious figures focused on sacred rites and community care, they were all important and respected members of their various communities.

In the Americas, the term “two-spirit” was coined in 1990 to describe the non-binary people who had existed within Indigenous communities since time immemorial. Although written historical records on this are limited, historical references can still be found.

When Don Pedro Fages wrote his account of the 1769 Spanish Portolá expedition of what is now California, he reported meeting two-spirit people within the local tribes:

“I have submitted substantial evidence that those Indian men who, both here and farther inland, are observed in the dress, clothing, and character of women – there being two or three such in each village – pass as sodomites by profession. (…) They are called joyas (jewels) and are held in great esteem.”

Earlier, Bacqueville de la Potherie described a third, non-binary gender identity among the Iroquois in his Histoire de l’Amérique septentrionale (1722).

Trans and non-binary gender identities have existed in many cultures since antiquity, and the fact that they developed independently of each other strongly suggests that they are natural rather than learned. Not only are these identities older than 1960, but they predate Christianity by some three thousand years. So the next time someone tells you they want to “return to traditional values,” you be sure to ask them, “How far back do you want to go?”

Jessica Cale

*Note: worth mentioning that this presumably also happened for trans men, although there is unfortunately less documentation of them from this period.
**Like music, makeup, and having fun.

Sources

Berkowitz, Eric. Sex and Punishment: Four Thousand Years of Judging Desire.

Fages, P.; Priestley, H. I.; Museo Nacional de Arqueología, Historia y Etnografía (Mexico) (1937). A historical, political, and natural description of California. Berkeley, Calif: University of California Press. p. 33.

Lancellotti, Maria Grazia. Attis, between myth and history: king, priest, and God; Volume 149 of Religions in the Graeco-Roman world. BRILL. pp. 96–97.

Morgan, Cheryl. Evidence for Trans Lives in Sumer. Notches: http://notchesblog.com/2017/05/02/evidence-for-trans-lives-in-sumer/

Roscoe, Will. “Priests of the Goddess: Gender Transgression in Ancient Religion.” History of Religions 35, no. 3 (1996): 195-230. http://www.jstor.org/stable/1062813.