Note: This post is part of a series. Read more about the LGBTimeMachine series here.
By Sabeau Rea, Communications Intern
How many feminists does it take to screw in a lightbulb?
Trick question. Feminists don’t need light bulbs–they’re bright all on their own. Additionally, who needs a lightbulb…when you have a glass ceiling? (The legitimate only perk of that situation is phenomenal acoustics.)
Speaking of lightbulbs, you know who didn’t have any because they lived before the invention of electricity? The Ancient Romans. Let’s go visit them….
Romans, Countrymen, Friends, Lend Me Your Queers!
The LGBTime Machine is probably the least safe-looking piece of machinery either of us have ever seen. It looks like it was made with leftover tinfoil during a union strike at the time machine factory. Which in fact, it was. A shout out to Time Workers’ rights. Time Workers’ Rights Now… or the past…or the future…or really whenever you get to it, time is relative.
We crawl into the machine as it hums to life. I commence the punching of a series of buttons that look suspiciously like several Cheerios it appears I’ve personally superglued to the dashboard. You reach for the emergency instructions manual. It is absolutely coated in dust. Ignoring an aggressive urge to sneeze, you clutch the manual for dear life as the machine takes off. We zip through time and space in awkward silence as a truly disconcerting rattling sound emits from the engine. In nothing short of a miracle, we miraculously descend to our destination safely.
“Ancient Rome!” I shout, gratuitously hollering through cupped hands before scrambling out of the machine. Clambering out behind me, you realize that you have to put up with seven more installments of this malarkey. The education may not be worth it. The word malarkey was.
The first stop on our Ancient Roman visit is the hallowed city of “The Roman Culture’s Contextual Backstory.” The Ancient Romans are well-known for their bacchanalia, aggressive land acquisition tactics, and penchant for—well, if we’re being honest— ripping-off the Greek’s culture.
The Romans’ possession of transgender, genderqueer, and intersex communities was no exception to this plagiaristic rule. The Greeks also had numerous genderqueer, intersex, and transgender spaces in their society, which we’ll cover in our next installment in this series.
For now, we’re going to focus the numerous spheres in which Roman society possessed transgender and intersex communities, starting with religion.
I Met God. She’s Intersex.
In the pagan religion of the goddess Cybele, the goddess Cybele herself was an intersex female-identifying goddess. Further diversifying the LGBTQIA+ aspects of the group, Cybele possessed a devout following of MTF (Male to Female) transgender priestesses.
While the religion thrived nearly as long as the Roman Empire itself, and has roots tracing back to the prehistoric era, a transgender following and exclusively intersex portrayal of Cybele did not become consistent until the Greek Empire. Therefore, in the interest of creating the most irrefutable historical accuracy in this series we will date the inception of the intersex and transgender aspects of the religion during the Greek Empire.
Because of my overwhelming need to cultivate arbitrary suspense, we’ll leave the rest of the discussion of these priestesses till next time (pun regretfully intended) when we travel to Ancient Greece. For now, we’re going to shimmy over to learn about one of my favorite leaders of the empire.
Can’t Spell Elagabalus without “Gal” (Ok, it’s backwards but I’m trying to be clever.)
This being the National Organization for Women’s blog, we would be utterly remiss if we didn’t highlight the first, and tragically only Roman empress. The only thing that could make her even cooler is if she was a transgender empress at age 14. Oh, wait…she was.
In the ancient timeworn tradition of electing children to rule empires, Elagabalus, who was assigned male at birth, was appointed emperor of Rome at the tender age of 14.
Shortly after taking up the crown (er, laurel leaves?) Elagabalus began to wear exclusively perceived-female attire, and decreed that she be referred to as Empress Elagabalus. Furthermore, she insisted she be referred to with feminine (she/her/hers) pronouns.
By far the cutest effect of this pronoun decree is the peace and joy Elagabalus derived from it. Her happiness at being referred to with feminine pronouns was so pronounced that several formative members of Roman society even remarked upon it in their writings.
Unfortunately it was not all adorable anecdotes and stylish togas for Elagabalus. Not surprisingly, children are really terrible at running empires. Elagabalus was tragically no exception. She appointed several terrible senate officials, and was overly focused on the culture of the empire, rather than governing it. In this misguided pursuit to improve Roman culture, she made numerous empire-wide mandates that would’ve been considered downright heretical to the “cultured” and “traditional” Romans (Read: Ancient Hipster Trump Supporters). A political decision that would come back to haunt her as we’ll later see.
In the most irresponsible choice by far, on one occasion Elagabalus actually offered HALF OF THE LITERAL ROMAN EMPIRE to any surgeon who could perform a Sex Reassignment Surgery for her. While this was a terrible political choice, the proposition sheds light on how deeply Elagabalus was struggling to feel that her body was the correct one for her, a pain and need with which many trans people can relate. Unfortunately, because no such surgery had been invented at the time, the young empress would pass away without obtaining the physicality she knew to be true.
The result of all these questionable governing choices—but let’s be honest, more due to her gender than anything—was her brutal impeachment.
This is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things, Rome
Essentially, the combination of her continued pursuit to live as her correct gender, along with appointing a second advisory cabinet comprised of exclusively women to parallel the all-male cabinet were the last straws for the Roman Empire. They were a little bit super sexist.
After a miniscule four-year reign, a disconcerting number of people (including some of the those whom she appointed to positions of power) turned on her, chased her to a river outside the city, and had her viciously drowned along with her mother.
Following this horror, her cousin assumed the throne, and in an attempt to rectify the “avant-gardism” Elagabalus had instituted, he destroyed many of her relics, excluding the negative depictions of course. Little twerp. The result of this erasure campaign, along with a persisting transphobia towards her, even today, often places Elagabalus in a position likened to Nero. (Yeah, the guy who literally set the city on fire. Unbelievable.)
In actuality, she was not a malicious or mentally ill leader. Was she an incompetent one? Totally. Remember, Elagabalus was a CHILD. The Romans literally asked a fourteen-year-old to govern the greatest empire in the world. Why did they expect her to do a good job?
No, really, when I was fourteen I’d still never had a Pop-Tart and thought The Vampire Diaries was one of the greatest cinematographic masterpieces in history. I would have wrecked an Ancient Roman GDP in like two days by spending it all on something like Heeleys, or thousands of Kidz Bop CDs. As far as I see it, this one was on them as much as, if not more so, than Elagabalus. I’m with you, girl.
Heeley-dependant GDP’s aside, Empress Elagabalus was not a tyrant as history would postulate, but merely a young girl—torn between being able to live her truth, and trying her best to lead the largest Empire in the history of the ancient world.
It’s about time now to take our leave. I hop back gracefully into the LGBTime Machine, you soon follow, and the door swings (read: creaks agonizingly slowly) closed. Before we depart, I pose this question: With everything we’ve discovered today, is it possible we know less about history than we thought we did?
Join us next time as we travel to Ancient Greece to discover the origins of the religion of Cybele, a trans priestesses, and even find the first medically supported evidence of the genderqueer community. See you there …or then.
- Legge, F. (1917). The Most Ancient Goddess Cybele. Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland, 695-714 (698). Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org.goucher.idm.oclc.org/stable/25209314
- Mijatovic, A. (n.d.). A brief biography of elagabalus: The transgender ruler of rome. Retrieved November 11, 2016, from Out History website: http://outhistory.org/exhibits/show/tgi-bios/ elagabalus
- Northrop, C. (2016, April 1). The amazing story of the intersex goddess cybele and her trans priests. Retrieved November 24, 2016, from Gay Star News website: http://www.gaystarnews.com/article/intersex-goddess-cybele-trans-priests/#gs.yiu15c
- Icks, Martijn. “The Boy on the Throne.” In The Crimes of Elagabalus: The Life and Legacy of Rome’s Decadent Boy Emperor, 9. Illustrated, reprint ed. I.B.Tauris, 2011
- Osowski, Marybeth. ““Call Me Not a Lord, for I Am Lady”: Elagabalus’ Effeminacy and Subversion of Roman Sexual and Gender Paradigms.” Pseudo Dionysius 15 (2013): 3.