In The Homosexuality of Men and Women (1914), German physician Magnus Hirschfeld developed his model of ‘sexual intermediacy’ (sexuelle Zwischenstufen), an umbrella term which he used to describe gender non-conforming people, as well as those that were considered sexually non-normative. Like many sexual scientists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth-century, Hirschfeld combined his clinical observations with a range of cultural and social evidence. In Homosexuality, Hirschfeld looked to ancient Egypt, drawing specifically on the figure of Queen Hatshepsut who lived in fifteenth century BCE and who ruled Egypt in the conventionally ‘male’ role of Pharaoh. Hirschfeld understands Hatshepsut as a gender-variant person, an example of one of his ‘intermediate’ types. This turn to Egyptology, within early twentieth-century sexual science, raises issues for thinking about why and how the ancient world matters in the history of sexuality. And it can also open up questions about how the past might play a role in our rapidly expanding debates about gender today.
To begin with, Hirschfeld’s use of Egypt encourages us to look beyond Classical cultures when we want to examine how the modern reception of the ancient world and the history of sexuality have intersected. The importance of ancient Greece, and to an extent Rome, in developing modern concepts of male same-sex desire has been well-documented. Within the history of early sexual science, a well-known example is the publication of Sexual Inversion (1896/1897) by English doctor Henry Havelock Ellis and Classical scholar John Addington Symonds. This drew on Symonds’s scholarship on ancient Greek practices in order to defend contemporary male same-sex desire but also to think through the challenges of creating a paradigm which meant such desire could be treated as neither a disease nor a crime in Victorian society. Scholars such as Richard Armstrong have stressed the importance of Egyptology and the collecting of Egyptian artefacts as part of psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud’s fascination with archaeology and ancient history. But, as the example of Hirschfeld suggests, there is more to say on the sexological reception of Egypt and potentially other ancient cultures too.
Furthermore, Hirschfeld’s engagement with Hatshepsut suggests ancient history has been influential in modern debates about both sexual orientation (especially desire between men) and the concept of gender identity. As popular, political, medical, and legal discussions about gender identity have increased rapidly over recent years, so has the call for histories of diversity to go further than discussions of gay men. Hirschfeld’s own historical interests went far beyond the connection between Hellenism and male homosexuality, revealing other productive but as yet less familiar engagements with the past.
Some surviving representations show Queen Hatshepsut as a ‘male pharaoh’—with a ‘masculine’ physique and wearing the traditional ceremonial clothes of a male ruler. Some inscriptions refer to Hatshepsut as ‘His Majesty’ and it is worth noting that the role of pharaoh was seen in ancient Egypt as the embodiment of a male god, Horus. Hirschfeld interpreted this as evidence of a personal, non-conforming gender identity. However, he does not pathologise the pharaoh, as other twentieth-century medical writers might have done, but rather used Hatshepsut to demonstrate that gender non-conforming people had existed across history and to call for greater acceptance of such individuals in contemporary society. Hatshepsut’s ‘masculine’ image has been explained elsewhere as a purely political act—a woman conforming to the conventions of royal representation in order to express power within a traditionally male role. Notably, the false beard Hatshepsut is sometimes depicted wearing was also worn by male pharaohs in their images to signify their high status as royalty.
In addition to what this research can tell us about the history of early twentieth-century concepts of gender, I am interested in how this approach found in sexual science—of looking to the ancient world and in this case to ancient Egyptian archaelogical remains to contemplate contemporary gender identities—might still be useful today. Dr Jana Funke and I recently presented the above research at the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology as part of a public workshop. Museums are increasingly being recognised as spaces with the potential to generate greater acceptance of sexual and gender diversity, especially this year in England as institutions across the country mark the fiftieth anniversary of the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality. The Petrie Museum has been a leader in UK museums in this regard: for many years they have consulted their local LGBT+ community in order to find out how the display and discussion of ancient Egypt, and historical research more widely, might be relevant to their interests. For the event we took part in, members of a local group of people who identity as trans and non-binary were invited to attend and discuss the relevance of Hatshepsut for their lives and experiences.
As for Hirschfeld a hundred years ago, Hatshepsut remains today a reference point for debating gender in some communities. For instance, some online trans forums consider whether the pharaoh’s ‘fluid gender expression is one of the earliest accounts of a trans male life experience’, and whether it might be appropriate to use male pronouns for Hatshepsut. As many of these popular/political engagements with Hatshepsut acknowledge, it is incredibly difficult to reconstruct gender identity historically, and especially in the ancient past. We should note that Hirschfeld did not use the term ‘transgender’ to describe Hatshepsut, a term not yet coined in 1914. Neither does he use ‘transvestite’, a term he himself had invented a few years earlier (Hirschfeld did not make a clear distinction between people who cross-dress but who identify as the gender assigned at their birth, people who we might now describe as ‘trans’, and people who identify with both groups). But he did apply his own, arguably also anachronistic, term of ‘sexual intermediate’ to Hatshepsut. As historians wanting to avoid anachronism, we are often very wary of applying contemporary labels such as ‘trans’ to historical people. Across the UK those museums holding LGBT-related historical exhibitions this year will no doubt be agonising over their object descriptions. Of course there are other motivations at play in not labelling Hatshepsut a trans man: for example, so the pharaoh can function as a feminist role model—a powerful woman within a highly patriarchal society. Evidence for this reading of Hatshepsut is found, for instance, in the use of feminine variants of royal titles and epithets in ancient inscriptions referring to the pharaoh.
For many years, gay activists and historians who critique the idea that sexuality is a social construction have argued that the ‘myth that the homosexual was born circa 1869 runs the risk of obscuring the rich history of people who have been attracted to their own gender. Increasingly, trans historians and activists are highlighting the risks of a reluctance to apply the label ‘trans’ to past people. For example, Cheryl Morgan has suggested that there is a real danger in implying that being transgender itself—and not just the specific label or identity—is a socially constructed concept of the twentieth-century, as this can be used as an excuse for the ‘invalidation of modern identities’. Rather than try to label a figure like Hatshepsut definitively, I wonder if, while maintaining our caution about anachronism, it is possible to embrace a broad and open understanding of ‘trans’ that encompasses diverse forms of gender expression and gender variance in the past. As the debates in trans forums themselves suggest, even where other possible motivations exist, is there nonetheless inherent value in preserving knowledge of historical gender non-conformity?
However, I want to end by suggesting it may be useful to question a reliance on individual historical figures altogether—the ‘Heroes of Identity Politics‘, as Debbie Challis, organiser of the event at the Petrie, puts it. As for the early twentieth-century, clearly it remains important today to show that gender diversity is part of human history by referencing figures like Hatshepsut. However, the move in twentieth-century academic history away from accounts of individuals (usually wealthy and powerful ones), to the stories of the previously unheard, has important implications for modern gender politics which seeks to champion the voices of marginalised people. As UK museums mark the anniversary of 1967 this year, can the past be of use in increasing public acceptance of gender and sexual diversity beyond the singular role model such as Hatshepsut? Rather than focusing on specific identities for past individuals, can we work to highlight a range of different historical expressions and understandings of gender which might be used as a springboard for thinking critically about, and understanding more about, gender identity and gender expression today?
The research for this blog was carried out in collaboration with Dr Jana Funke as part of the Rethinking Sexology Project at the University of Exeter.
Jen Grove is an Engaged Research Fellow in the Centre for Medical History at the University of Exeter. She is currently employed on a Wellcome Trust-funded project ‘Rethinking Sexology: The Cross-Disciplinary Invention of Sexuality: Sexual Science Beyond the Medical, 1890-1940’. She has published several book chapters on the modern collection and reception of ancient sexually-related artefacts. She is the editor of a forthcoming book Sculpture, Sexuality and History: Encounters in Literature, Culture and the Arts from the Eighteenth Century to the Present (Palgrave, 2017, with Jana Funke). Since 2009, Jen has been part of Sex and History project, which collaborates with museums, schools, charities and young people throughout the UK, using artefacts to get people talking about sex and gender today. She tweets from @jenniferegrove
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