A Timeline of Gender Diversity in Christian History
Creating this website has been a powerful spiritual experience for me as a trans, nonbinary Christian. I knew that we -- people who do not fit neatly into a gender binary -- have always existed, but I did not realize just how many of us I would be able to uncover when digging into Christian history. I did not realize just how transphobia was born, how it grew side-by-side with patriarchy and classism, and was spread with the help of church authorities even while those they tried to control continued to live gender-diverse lives. Learning this history fills me with so much pride and love for my people, who will never be stomped out and who offer such invaluable gifts and wisdom to the world.
As trans and nonbinary Christians fight for recognition in church fellowship and leadership, and churches seek to become more affirming spaces, learning our place in the history of Christianity is imperative for two reasons: the first is that it proves that our existence is not some new fad, and that we have not always been considered "unnatural." I turn to Leslie Feinberg for an explanation of just how significant that discovery can be for a trans person who has had their "abnormality" drilled into them from birth:
"I grew up thinking that the hatred I faced because of my gender expression was simply a by-product of human nature, and that it must be my fault that I was a target for such outrage. I don't want any young person to ever believe that's true again, and so I wrote this book to lay bare the roots and tendrils of sex and gender oppression" (Transgender Warriors, p. xiii).
Just as Feinberg wrote hir book to help trans youth understand that the discrimination they face is not their fault, so I have created my site to empower and inspire trans folks and connect them to their "trans-cestors". I also hope that would-be allies who explore this site will realize that their bigoted behavior is what is abnormal in the grand scheme of human history -- and that they can unlearn it. There was a time before that hatred arose, and there can be a time when acceptance reigns again.
c. 1500 BCE: Joseph receives a "princess dress" from their father Jacob and is sold into slavery by their brothers; Joseph will become a respected leader in Egypt. (Note: this figure hails from Jewish history, but is part of our shared scripture.)
c. 6 BCE: according to Christian theology, God became incarnate and was born fully human and fully divine; some 30 years later Jesus would become an itinerant preacher and call himself a Mother hen.
1431 CE: Joan of Arc was burned at the stake by the Catholic Inquisition for insisting that God commanded her to dress as a man.
1996 CE: Rev. Dr. Erin Swenson becomes the first ordained minister to retain her ordained status after openly transitioning.
600s BCE: a eunuch called Ebed-melech helps the prophet Jeremiah out of a cistern into which his enemies threw him. (Note: these figures hail from Jewish history, but are part of our shared scripture.)
c. 700s CE: Marius the monk is cast out of his monastery after a woman accuses him of fathering her child; only at his death is Marius revealed to have been assigned female at birth.
1800s CE: We'wha, a Zuni Lhamana, served as an ambassador between her nation and the US government.
1990s (or earlier) to the present day: various transgender theologians publish texts defending trans persons against the scripture used against them and exploring God's affirmation and calling of trans people as they are.
[Image description: a timeline featuring 8 examples of gender diversity throughout Christian history.
Each example is explored in greater detail on the other pages of this website.
If you are viewing this site on mobile, this timeline is unfortunately not visible to you; switch to desktop view of the site if you want to view it.]
The second reason that learning this history is so imperative is because part of what pushes trans and nonbinary people out of faith communities is the false teaching that they have no place in that faith's history.
Those in power have worked hard to erase all evidence of gender diversity in our history; and, as the authors of Queer Myth, Symbol, and Sprit note in their introduction, "the result of that suppression is clear. Narratives or descriptions of gender fluidity and same-sex desire typically are reported in a hostile or apologetic manner; ...are camouflaged, as in the case where same-sex lovers become “friends”...; or disappear altogether. ...Tragically, the suppression of this data has resulted in [LGBT] persons reaching the conclusion that they (we) are without history – or herstory. As gay Beat poet Jack Spicer expressed it in 1953, '...We have no songs, no folklore'" (p. x).
The lie that we have no folklore of our own, and no place in Christianity's lore, must be exposed in order for us to regain our rightful place as fully included and respected members of our faith communities. Again I turn to Feinberg for an anecdote that conveys just how powerful it is for a trans person to realize that people like them have a history.
Feinberg writes of the time zie was given a pamphlet that presented an overview of gender diversity throughout human history; the emotional impact of reading that pamphlet is intense: "As I shivered next to a bus window thick with ice, I cried with relief. I realized how important it was for me to know I had a place in history, that I was part of the human race" (39).
Trans and nonbinary persons are part of the human race. More particularly, we are part of the Body of Christ; and Christian history is richer when our place in it is acknowledged.
Knowing this history solidifies my desire to stay with this religion despite the harm it has done to me and my people -- I will stay in order to honor the gender diverse Christians who came before me; to lift up the voices of the ones who live beside me; to pave the way for the ones who will come after me.
For too long Christian institutions have been a source of pain and suffering for gender variant persons, and the Bible has been weaponized against us; for too long have churches sought to erase all that is queer in the Body of Christ. It is my hope that this website can play a role in the fight to uncover what has been buried -- by making that information more widely accessible than it currently is. Not everyone can afford to purchase all of the books I bought in order to make this website. And not everyone has the time to read all those books! Now, some of the beautiful insight stored in those books is available here, online, free.
I also did my best to use simple-ish language so that you don't need an advanced reading level or knowledge of much academic jargon to understand what's being said (hopefully; let me know if there are things I could have conveyed with simpler language).
For a full bibliography of the books and other sources I used on this website, see the resources tab. I am so grateful that those works have been compiled, and I hope that others feel the same sense of empowerment and responsibility while exploring this site that I have felt.
A NOTE ON LANGUAGE USED ON THIS SITE.
It is impossible to know how any of the following historical figures would identify if they lived today in regions that use the language of the LGBTQIA+ community. I do not argue that any of these persons were absolutely transgender / nonbinary; in fact, to try to put those contemporary and culturally-specific labels on them would be wrong in many ways. Rather, I argue that something in their stories resonates with trans and nonbinary persons today, and with all persons who do not fit neatly into the Western binary gender construct, however they describe themselves based on cultural context and personal choice.
These figures were often targeted by the Church and by their societies for being gender nonconforming, just as many trans persons experience in our own day. Nevertheless, they lived vibrant and powerful lives, which also rings true for many contemporary trans persons.
Because I try to avoid flat-out calling any of these historical figures trans / nonbinary, or (for the most part) applying pronouns to them other than the ones that they used (despite what they may have used if more options had been open to them), I sometimes use language that I would not use for modern trans people unless I knew that a specific individual wanted those terms used for them: such terms include "cross-dressing," "lived as male," "sex-shifting," and "gender variant."