Alleras/Sarella, The Sphinx traversing boundaries of sex and gender

[Note: this essay was originally published on July 19th 2020 on my tumblr]

CW: Transphobia, sexism, racism, sexual violence

In A Feast for Crows the reader is introduced to the mysterious Alleras, a student of the Citadel in Oldtown. Alleras is described in the prologue as a slight and comely youth, doted on by the serving girls at the inn The Quill and Tankard. We soon learn that he’s called “The Sphinx” by his friends, and the text tells us: “The Sphinx was always smiling, as if he knew some secret jape. It gave him a wicked look that went well with his pointed chin, widow’s peak, and dense mat of close-cropped jet-black curls.” This description, among other things, have led readers to think that Alleras is actually Sarella Sand, the child of Oberyn Martell (see more of the evidence laid out here). But what are we to make of Sarella’s appearance as Alleras in Oldtown? Is it simply a matter of convenience, since women aren’t accepted at the Citadel? Or could it be something more… queer? In this essay I therefore want to make the argument that it’s possible to read Sarella/Alleras as queer and/or trans character as well.

Theoretical background: concepts explained

Before I go any further, I want to clarify that I use both trans and queer very broadly here. When writing this essay, I’m mostly inspired by the field of transgender studies, which is described by Susan Stryker (one of its founders as an academic discipline) thusly:

Transgender studies, as we understand it, is the academic field that claims as its purview transsexuality and cross-dressing, some aspects of intersexuality and homosexuality, cross-cultural and historical investigations of human gender diversity, myriad specific subcultural expressions of “gender atypicality,” theories of sexed embodiment and subjective gender identity development, law and public policy related to the regulation of gender expression, and many other similar issues. It is an interdisciplinary field that draws upon the social sciences and psychology, the physical and life sciences, and the humanities and arts. It is as concerned with material conditions as it is with representational practices, and often pays particularly close attention the interface between the two. (…) Most broadly conceived, the field of transgender studies is concerned with anything that disrupts, denaturalizes, rearticulates, and makes visible the normative linkages we generally assume to exist between the biological specificity of the sexually differentiated human body, the social roles and statuses that a particular form of body is expected to occupy, the subjectively experienced relationship between a gendered sense of self and social expectations of gender-role performance, and the cultural mechanisms that work to sustain or thwart specific configurations of gendered personhood. (Stryker 2006, 3)

That is to say, when I say that I do a trans and queer analysis of a character I’m not necessarily saying that I think the character I’m analysing would identify as trans or queer in the modern conceptualisation of those terms. As I’ll expand on later, different cultures during different times of history have had different ways of conceiving of gender and transness. I do, however, still use trans as an umbrella term for people who disrupts and denaturalises the normative links between sex and gender etc (as Stryker puts it), while recognising that this is a very historically and culturally specific term. I similarly use queer as an umbrella term for that which disrupts normative links between sex/gender and sexuality. However, I do of course realise that people use both trans and queer as identity labels today, and not just theoretical tools (I do that myself). Nevertheless, for the purposes of this essay, I will use trans and queer more as descriptors of a myriad gender/sexuality expressions, than as specific identity labels. Having addressed that, I’ll now go on to some of the theory and analysis.

Theoretical background: trans history

Firstly, I want to take a brief look at research about historical trans people. Afterall, even if ASOIAF makes use of modern conceptualisations of gender, as I’ve argued before, it is set in a medievalesque time. Therefore, it could be useful to consider what we know about trans people historically, and furthermore, how historians have described them. When starting to do research for this essay, I was reminded of an article by Peter Boag which analyses gender nonconformity in the American West during the late nineteenth century (2005). While this is not the same time period as ASOIAF, I think his arguments can be applied to how trans people have been conceived of generally in research. He writes: “Feminist scholars and popular writers of women’s history have traditionally ignored the possibility of transgenderism among “ female-to-male” cross-dressers of the late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century West.” (ibid, 477) (Note: I would not use the term “transgenderism” today, but while the terminology is a bit dated in this article, the arguments still stand) He further notes that while feminist scholars have written about the existence of people who lived as another gender than they were assigned at birth during this time, they haven’t usually been interpreted as trans. When it comes to people who were assigned female at birth, but presented as men, they have usually been interpreted either as women attempting to find a place in a patriarchal world, or possibly as lesbians. One obstacle to analysing the existence of trans people during this time is of course the lack of sources (and obviously the fact that the term “transgender” didn’t exist then, even if gender nonconforming people did). However, as Boag also writes:

Further obfuscating the trans in the gender history of the West is the narrative structure that scholars and popular writers have employed to tell the story of the cross dresser. Marjorie Garber has termed this storytelling device the “progress narrative.” Within it, transvestism is normalized, the argument being that the subject changed her clothing in order to obtain employment in a man’s world, or because she wanted to succeed in a profession that her biological sex otherwise excluded her from, or because she needed to support her family, or because she desired to follow a husband or male lover into a milieu, such as the army, which excluded women. While the progress narrative has been a storytelling device utilized by scholars who have studied cross-dressing “women” in all eras and places, it has been particularly strong in the historiography of the West. (Boag 2005, 483)

Now, Boag also notes that women at the time (and at other times) might have cross-dressed for these (more practical) reasons too. But the records that do exist also indicates that others didn’t just dress as men, they considered themselves to be men, and some were considered as such by their community too, even when said community suspected they were assigned female at birth.

The description of this “progress narrative” is reminiscent of a lot of what trans activist and researcher Leslie Feinberg describes in hir ground-breaking book on trans history, Transgender warriors (1996). Feinberg describes that book as:

Transgender Warriors is not an exhaustive trans history, or even the history of the rise and development of the modern trans movement. Instead, it is a fresh look at sex and gender in history and the interrelationships of class, nationality, race, and sexuality. Have all societies recognized only two sexes? Have people who traversed the boundaries of sex and gender always been so demonized? Why is sex-reassignment or cross-dressing a matter of law? But how could I find the answers to these questions when it means wending my way through diverse societies in which the concepts of sex and gender shift like sand dunes over the ages? And as a white, transgender researcher, how can I avoid foisting my own interpretations on the cultures of oppressed peoples’ nationalities?(…). I’ve also included photos from cultures all over the world, and I’ve sought out people from those countries and nationalities to help me create short, factual captions. I tried very hard not to interpret or compare these different cultural expressions. These photographs are not meant to imply that the individuals pictured identify themselves as transgender in the modern, Western sense of the word. Instead, I’ve presented their images as a challenge to the currently accepted Western dominant view that woman and man are all that exist, and that there is only one way to be a woman or a man. (ibid, XI)

I include this whole quote because thought it was important to preface the discussion of Feinberg’s arguments in this book by explaining hir intent with the book, and how zie reasoned while researching and writing it. Now, throughout the book Feinberg writes about how different people throughout history have traversed the boundaries of sex and gender (I love how zie puts that), including for instance Joan of Arc. Zie describes how researching Joan of Arc was one of the inspirations of this entire book, when zie started thinking about the fact that: “If society strictly mandates only men can be warriors, isn’t a woman military leader dressed in armor an example of cross-gendered expression?” (ibid, 31) When researching Joan of Arc zie realised that the fact that she dressed in “men’s garb” did contribute to her persecution by the Inquisition, and that was ultimately the crime for which she was killed. Feinberg also notes that Joan were often referred to as “hommasse”, a slur meaning man-woman. Allow me to quote Feinberg again:

The English urged the Catholic Church to condemn Joan for cross-dressing. The king of England, Henry VI, wrote to the infamous Inquisitor Pierre Cauchon, the Bishop of Beauvais: “It is sufficiently notorious and well-known that for some time past a woman calling herself Jeanne the Pucelle (the Maid) , leaving off the dress and clothing of the feminine sex, a thing contrary to divine law and abominable before God, and forbidden by all laws, wore clothing and armour such as is worn by men.” Buried beneath this outrage against Joan’s cross-dressing was a powerful class bias. It was an affront to nobility for a peasant to wear armor and ride a fine horse. (…) On April 2, 1431, the Inquisition dropped the charges of witchcraft against Joan, because they were too hard to prove. Instead, they denounced her for asserting that her cross-dressing was a religious duty compelled by voices she heard in visions, and for maintaining that these voices were a higher authority than the Church. Many historians and academicians view Joan of Arc’s wearing men’s clothing as inconsequential. Yet the core of the charges against Joan focused on her cross-dressing, the crime for which she ultimately was executed. (…) Even though she knew her defiance meant she was considered damned, Joan’s testimony in her own defense [sic] revealed how deeply her cross-dressing was rooted in her identity. “For nothing in the world,” she declared, “will I swear not to arm myself and put on a man’s dress.” (ibid, 34-35)

(Note: I find it interesting that Henry VI pops up here, considering that GRRM has said that he and The War of the Roses on a whole has influenced ASOIAF, but I’m not sure exactly what to make of it.) It seems clear then that Joan of Arc were persecuted partly because she insisted on dressing in “men’s clothes”. Now, one could argue that Joan only cross-dressed for practical reasons. That’s an argument that’s often brought up with historical people who traversed sex and gender boundaries, like Boar also writes (2005). Feinberg discusses this in hir book as well, and how zie have heard similar explanations of hir own life:

”No wonder you’ve passed as a man! This is such an anti-woman society,” a lesbian friend told me. To her, females passing as males are simply trying to escape women’s oppression – period. She believes that once true equality is achieved in society, humankind will be genderless. I don’t have a crystal ball, so I can’t predict human behavior in a distant future. But I know what she’s thinking – if we can build a more just society, people like me will cease to exist. She assumes that I am simply a product of oppression. Gee, thanks so much. (Feinberg 1996, 83).

That is to say, we should be careful when assuming that gender nonconforming people of the past are “simply a product of oppression.” Feinberg also makes the important point that, for instance, someone being assigned female at birth presenting as a man isn’t necessarily safer than if they were to continue presenting as a woman. If other people discover the circumstance of one’s birth that can lead to quite a lot of violence.

The last point I want to make about historical trans people before moving on is the need to consider the context of the narratives we have about such people. In their PhD thesis Fleshing out the self- Reimagining intersexed and trans embodied lives through (auto)biographical accounts of the past trans scholar M. Holm cautions against both taking historical accounts of transness too literally and viewing them through a contemporary lens too much (2017). When analysing trans and intersex accounts from the beginning of the 20th century they write:

My postmodern approach to experience and experiential accounts means that I do not read the (auto)biographical texts as representational accounts in relation to a project of discovering the hidden truth about how it was to be an intersex or trans person (understood from current definitions and as stable identity categories) during the first three quarters of the 20th century. (…) I regard (auto)biographical accounts as containing traces of events, bodies, feelings, actions, relationships, institutions, politics, and much more that existed in this period and made specific kinds of impressions on individuals, in relation to which they have acted. However, I do not regard any account as an unmediated representation of, or truthful testimony to, any of these phenomena. Rather, I perceive all accounts as articulations that are dependent on the concepts and narrative models available to the narrator and on the general socio-historical and specific local and temporal situation of their narration, including the narrator’s specific relation to the receiver(s) of the account and the conscious and unconscious intentions, hopes, and fears related to the telling. (ibid, 70) [my bolding of the text]

That is to say, the way someone describes their gender is dependent on the circumstances surrounding this description, including the concepts and language available to them. As Holm outlines further on in their thesis, at times trans people might have had to tell their stories in accordance to certain narratives in order to get access to health care, or simply to make themselves make sense to other people.

All of this is essentially to say that since we don’t know how Sarella/Alleras would describe their gender themselves, we can’t be sure that they’re presenting as a man just to gain access to a male institution (the Citadel). As Boag points out with similar examples from the 19th century, this might be a contributing factor, but one should not assume it’s the only factor in play. Furthermore, as Feinberg writes, someone being assigned as female at birth but presenting as a man is not necessarily safer for it. This is something I’ve explored in an ASOIAF context before, for instance in this text about Brienne and Arya. I’ll return to some of these historical parallels further on, but before that I want to look at some more theory on traversing boundaries of sex and gender.

Theoretical background: queering and trans-ing gender

In his book Female Masculinity Jack Halberstam writes about masculinity is interpreted in people who were assigned female at birth (1998). He notes that:

Tomboyism tends to be associated with a ‘natural’ desire for the greater freedoms and mobilities enjoyed by boys. Very often it is read as a sign of independence and self-motivation, and tomboyism may even be encouraged to the extent that it remains comfortably linked to a stable sense of a girl identity. Tomboyism is punished, however, when it appears to be the sign of extreme male identification (taking a boy’s name or refusing girl clothing of any type) and when it threatens to extend beyond childhood and into adolescence. (ibid, 6)

Here we once again see how masculinity in “girls” is interpreted as a wish for freedom, while more persistent masculine identification is punished. Halberstam goes on to discuss how lesbians are often seen as masculine (in our contemporary society), writing that “the bulldyke, indeed, has made lesbianism visible and legible as some sort of confluence of gender disturbance and sexual orientation.” (ibid, 119) He also notes that black women are generally seen as more masculine than white women, and that black lesbians are often stereotyped as the “butch bulldagger”. All this is to say that bodies who are assigned female at birth can inhabit masculinity in a myriad of ways, and both race and sexuality is often tied up in how the surroundings perceive their gender. Halberstam also makes note of how the concept of passing as a gender is not necessarily a useful concept for all gender nonconforming bodies:

For many gender deviants, the notion of passing is singularly unhelpful. Passing as a narrative assumes that there is a self that masquerades as another kind of self and does so successfully; at various moments, the successful pass may cohere into something akin to identity. At such a moment, the passer has become. What of a biological female who presents as butch, passes as male in some circumstances and reads as butch in others, and considers herself not to be a woman but maintains distance from the category ‘man’? For such a subject, identity might best be described as process with multiple sites for becoming and being. (ibid, 21)

(Note: when Halberstam writes “gender deviants” he means it in the eyes of society, he’s not condemning such people himself). What Halberstam says here is essentially that a person might pass/read differently in different situations, and for some that might mean that their identity is a bit fluid (“a process with multiple sites for becoming and being”). I think this is relevant to connect to what another trans studies scholar, Signe Bremer, writes about passing, as well as interpellation (2017). I wrote more about Bremer’s arguments in this essay about Brienne, but essentially Bremer describes the act of passing as having one’s body become invisible when inhabiting a space, and thus fitting comfortably (ibid, 134). Bremer furthermore writes about interpellation:

What is meant with interpellation, in the way that Judith Butler conceives of it, is the performative acts of speech through which bodies, by the act of being named, step into the sphere of coherence, and are constituted as possible subjects and ‘real’ people. (ibid, 196) (my translation)

What Bremer is saying here, is that when someone is named as something (for instance as a man), that person is understood as that thing (for instance as a man). People and society make sense of someone through the naming of them. Bremer also notes, however, that interpellation does not require the consent of the individual, interpellation can also be forced upon the individual. This is because, for a body to be interpaled it must follow the lines/norms of society which makes it possible for the body to be recognised as a human. As Bremer notes, this can often result in trans people being interpaled as a wrong gender.

This brings me to the final theoretical point I want to make, namely that sometimes trans people aren’t “constituted as possible subjects and ‘real’ people” as Bremer puts it (2017, 196). Susan Stryker makes a similar point about how trans people are often seen as unnormal and monstrous (1994) Stryker writes that in society there exist a regulatory schemata (e.g. gender and sexuality norms) which determines which bodies and lives “make sense” and are considered “livable”. Since trans people are generally not able to comply with such regulatory norms they are relegated to the “domain of abjected bodies” that exists outside of the domain of normalcy (ibid, 249). Such a domain exists since, for something to be considered normal, something else must be considered unnormal. So, for cis gendered heterosexual people to be considered normal trans and queer people have to be considered unnormal. This is one of the reasons trans people are often seen as abnormal and monstrous according to Stryker (which can often be painful, and lead to trans people feeling rage against the structures that try to constrain us). Another reason for trans people being seen as monstrous, according to her, is that trans people make cis people aware of “the constructetiness of the natural order” (ibid, 250). Stryker specifically discusses how trans people have often been compared to Frankenstein’s monster, and argues for reclaiming the identity of the monster (similar to how the word queer has been reclaimed by LGBTQ+ people). She notes that the word monster is derived from the Latin noun “monstrum” which means “divine portent” and is formed from the verb “monere” which means “to warn”. Monster ended up referring living things of anomalous shape, or fantastical creatures such as the sphinx “who were composed of strikingly incongruous parts” (ibid, 240). This was because the people of the time thought such beings were the sign of some supernatural events and considered monsters (similarly to angels) to be messengers and heralds of the extraordinary. Stryker therefore takes up the voice of the monster to convey this message (and I really have to quote this because it’s so brilliant):

Hearken unto me, fellow creatures. I who have dwelt in a form unmatched with my desire, I whose flesh has become an assemblage of incongruous anatomical parts, I who achieve the similitude of a natural bodyonly through an unnatural process, I offer you this warning: the Nature you bedevil me with is a lie. Do not trust it to protect you from what I represent, for it is a fabrication that cloaks the groundlessness of the privilege you seek to maintain for yourself at my expense. You are as constructed as me; the same anarchic womb has birthed us both. I call upon you to investigate your nature as I have been compelled to confront mine. I challenge you to risk abjection and flourish as well as have I. Heed my words, and you may well discover the seams and sutures in yourself. (ibid)

Essentially what she’s saying is that trans people can function as a wake-up call to question the limiting norms of society if people have the sense to listen, and not demonise us. It should be noted that in the years since its publishing several people have questioned Stryker’s omission of race when discussing transgender monstrosity, which she acknowledges herself in a 2019 article.

Other writers, however, such as black trans scholar Marquis Bey have noted the ways (trans)gender and race interact, and specifically the similarities between transness and blackness (2017). Bey argues that there is a transness within blackness, and a blackness within transness, since both categories are disruptive of gender and other hegemonic structures. Historically neither black people nor trans people have seen as gendered in the same way as cis white people have, with both black femininity and black masculinity being seen as very different from their white counterparts. Furthermore, both trans people and black people are often not granted personhood and humanity in the same way as cis white people are. Both groups are often seen as unhuman in different ways (and there is obviously also overlap over the groups). Bey writes: “By now we know that trans* suggests, and has suggested, the unclassifiable and illegible, but I would assert that it also suggests the pervasive moving nonmovement that precedes that which is human, that which is animal, that which legibly is.” (ibid, 285) This, he argues, is similar to blackness. Finally, it should be noted that Bey isn’t claiming that blackness and transness is the exact same, just that there are similarities, which is understandable given how structures of race and gender are intertwined.


After this very long theoretical background, I will now return to the matter at hand, Alleras/Sarella (henceforth referred to as A/S). As I noted in the introduction to this essay, A/S is described as comely and slender in the text on several occasions. In the prologue of A Feast for Crows Pate thinks this for instance: “The Sphinx looks slight, but there’s strength in those slim arms.” Later in the same book Sam (Samwell V) describes them as “a slim, slight, comely youth.” Sam also notes that after he has finished talking to A/S, they “touched him lightly on the forearm with a slim brown hand”, which is once again similar language. Other readers have picked up on the continual description of A/S as slender and argue that this works as a clue that Alleras and Sarella is the same person, which seems very probable. Nonetheless, the other characters interacting with A/S clearly read A/S as a young man. I can’t help but think of the men in the American West that Boag writes about, who despite being assigned female at birth managed to live their life as men and was accepted as such by their community (2005). Now, just as Boag writes about with these people, a common interpretation of A/S’s behaviour is that they simply dress as a man to get into the citadel. There is definitely evidence in the text that they would be interested in the Citadel, for instance in the chapter The Queenmaker Arianne remembers how they were fascinated by Shandystone when they visited there with Oberyn: “Sarella turned over rocks, brushed sand off the mosaics, and wanted to know everything there was to know about the people who had lived there.” Later, in the chapter The Princess in the Tower, Arianne also reflects on how “Sarella was forever pushing in where she didn’t belong.” Both these quotes have been seen by fans as evidence that Sarella is in fact Alleras, since they support them being interested in scientific pursuits and pushing into places where they don’t belong (such as an all-male institution like the Citadel). Furthermore, in The Captain of Guards chapter, when Doran Martell is rounding up the sand snakes, he notes that Sarella is not in Dorne and says: “Leave her to her… game.” That might indicate that A/S is simply dressing up as a man as a game, as a fun way to get information from the Citadel. However, as I’ve noted previously in this essay, we don’t have A/S’s own point of view. Doran might just be assuming that their motivation is to get into the Citadel and that they see it as a game. Again, I find it similar to how Boag references the “progress narrative” which reduces cross-dressing among people who were assigned female at birth to a tool to get around patriarchy (2005). As Boag writes, this could be one motivation, but there is also very possible that some of these people did genuinely consider themselves to be men. As Feinberg writes, one shouldn’t assume that someone’s being and identity is simply a result of their oppression (1996, 83). Furthermore, as Feinberg argues in the case of Joan of Arc, someone dressing in clothes other than the ones “belonging” to their gender is still a case of cross-gender expression. It’s still someone traversing the boundaries of sex and gender. It’s still somewhat queer or trans, if one uses the broad definition that I explained in the beginning of this essay. Moreover, as Holm argues, one needs to consider the context that a narrative is told (2017, 70). In the case of the (possibly) trans men in the West, these people most likely used the language available to them to describe themselves (this is by the way also a note that Boag himself raises). It’s also relevant to consider who wrote down their narratives, and for what purpose. In A/S’s case, we do not have their own point of view, and therefore rely on impressions from others. There’s also no reason to believe that these narrators of A/S’s story would know how to describe for instance a trans person. Maybe they would just think they were playing dress up, just playing a game.

Somewhat related to this, as discussed in the theoretical background, Halberstam also notes that one’s own identity can become a bit difficult to pin down when one passes and reads differently in different contexts (1998). The example that he brings up is especially pertinent to the discussion about A/S, I think:

What of a biological female who presents as butch, passes as male in some circumstances and reads as butch in others, and considers herself not to be a woman but maintains distance from the category ‘man’? For such a subject, identity might best be described as process with multiple sites for becoming and being. (ibid, 21)

Now, A/S clearly passes as a man in some circumstances despite being assigned female at birth. What their sexuality is seems unclear, even if we know that the serving women at The Quill and Tankard flirts with them there’s no indication that they flirt back. But one could read them as a butch lesbian too, who chooses to pass as a man for convenience sake (as discussed above). While on the topic of butch lesbians, it seems relevant to note that A/S is black, and as Halberstam notes, black women and black lesbians are often seen as more masculine. This could very well be a factor in how A/S passes as a man. However, even if A/S didn’t start passing as a man for specifically trans reasons, what becomes of one’s identity if one does pass as a man regularly? Could such a person consider themselves to be not-quite-woman but not-quite-man (as Halberstam suggests) perhaps?

Another relevant aspect to consider is interpellation. As Bremer writes, interpellation is what makes someone seem coherent, what makes one a real person in the eyes of others (2017). Currently in the story A/S is being interpelled as a man, regardless of how they actually identify. People see them as a man and interact with them accordingly. Something that would be relevant to consider then is what would happen if it was revealed that A/S was in fact assigned female at birth. As Feinberg rightly points out, it’s not necessarily safer for a woman to dress up as a man, and such a revelation could lead to violence (1996, 83). I discussed this in depth in my essay about Brienne and Arya, but to summarise; likely nothing good would happen. Another parallel in ASOIAF that is worth raising here is the story about Danny Flint, who was raped and murdered for the “crime” of dressing as a man and joining the Night’s Watch (as told in Bran IV in ASOS and Jon XII in ADWD). Why? Well, in the essay about Brienne and Arya I argued that it was because in the eyes of society, gender nonconformity must be corrected through the enforcement of heterosexuality. Someone who, as Arianne puts it, pushes in where they do not belong might face significant violence. This is something Halberstam discusses in several texts (1998; 2005), as I go into depth about in the Brienne and Arya essay.

Another reason for such violence, as I’ve argued in this essay, is that trans people (in the broad definition of the term) aren’t seen as fully human. As Stryker writes, we’re seen as monstrous, as an assemblage of incongruous parts (1994). Stryker herself, in her mission to reclaim power by reclaiming the figure of the monster, likens this to a Sphinx. I therefore want to compare what Stryker writes about the Sphinx (and the transgender monster), and the explanation of why A/S is called The Sphinx:

[Monster] came to refer to living things of anomalous shape or structure, fabulous creatures like the sphinx who were composed of strikingly incongruous parts (…) Hearken unto me, fellow creatures. I who have dwelt in a form unmatched with my desire, I whose flesh has become an assemblage of incongruous anatomical parts, I who achieve the similitude of a natural body only through an unnatural process… (Stryker 1994, 240)

A sphinx is a bit of this, a bit of that: a human face, the body of a lion, the wings of a hawk. Alleras was the same: his father was a Dornishman, his mother a black-skinned Summer Islander. (AFFC, Prolouge)

Now, I’m not suggesting that GRRM has read Susan Stryker’s article, but I think it’s very interesting that they both draw on the imagery of the Sphinx. It also seems relevant to note that A/S’s sphinxness is specifically connected to their race (even if a reader should probably also connect it to their gender by reading between the lines). Later in the prologue Leo Tyrell calls A/S a “mongrel” due to their racial background, which reinforces this connection. He also says: “Your mother is a monkey from the Summer Isles. The Dornish will fuck everything with a hole between its legs.” This is something I discussed further in an old essay about the sexualised Other in ASOIAFBut in light of the way sexuality, gender, and race become intertwined in these comments from Leo, it becomes very relevant to return to what Bey writes about blackness and transness being similar (2017). As Bey writes, both trans people and black people disrupt hegemonic structures around gender, and both are often dehumanised. A/S most definitely do both these things, both by passing as a man while being assigned female at birth, and by their racial background. Bey writes this following quote about transness, and I think that for A/S it is just as true for their race: “By now we know that trans* suggests, and has suggested, the unclassifiable and illegible, but I would assert that it also suggests the pervasive moving nonmovement that precedes that which is human, that which is animal, that which legibly is.” (Bey 2017, 285) A/S is truly a Sphinx, both in relation to their gender and their race, and those are very much connected. If A/S’s assigned gender at birth is revealed, both those aspects will most likely contribute to their dehumanisation in some people’s eyes.


Throughout this essay I have tried to argue that it is possible to read Alleras/Sarella as not just a woman trying to get access to an all-male institution as a game (as their uncle describes it), but possibly as a trans person. Part of my argument for this has been to point to historical examples where researchers argue that such an interpretation of similar situations might be too simplistic, as with the texts by Boag and Feinberg (2005; 1996). Furthermore, I’ve also pointed out that one needs to consider trans narratives in their context, for instance by looking at who tells the narrative and what language and narrative is available to them. I’ve also argued, by once again referencing Feinberg, that someone’s identity can’t simply be reduced to the result of one’s oppression. My intent with these arguments has been to open up the possibility of reading A/S as trans, to then be able to proceed with such a reading. As I’ve shown with that analysis, multiple things could support such a reading. However, even after that, I would not be comfortable with labelling A/S as a certain gender. I could see A/S being a butch lesbian, some sort of non-binary/genderqueer person, or as a trans man. Even so, I think the fact that they pass as a man is very significant as an expression of transness (in the broad definition of the term). It is a form of cross-gender expression and it has similar implications and possible consequences as it would for someone who identifies as trans. This becomes especially clear when one considers that A/S is also black and have already been the target of dehumanising comments from for instance Leo Tyrell. Were people in Oldtown to become aware of A/S’s assigned gender at birth there’s a pretty good chance they wouldn’t think of A/S as a Sphinx in a positive light, but rather as them being monstrous and/or inhuman. Nevertheless, if I were to give Alleras/Sarella some sort of label, it would be as a sphinx. They’re a mix of this and that, both regarding gender and race. Others might revile them for that, but I hope they can find pride in it. Afterall, as Stryker and Bey point out, both inhabiting transness and blackness gives one the opportunity to disrupt the oppressive structures that exist in the world. Even if they can’t do that in the story, I hope that they might inspire readers to, in the words of Stryker, “discover the seams and sutures in yourself.” (1994, 240) I would therefore like to finish this text by quoting the final passage of Stryker’s article (1994, 251), signing off on behalf of us monsters:

If this is your path, as it is mine, let me offer whatever solace you may find in this monstrous benediction: May you discover the enlivening power of darkness within yourself. May it nourish your rage. May your rage inform your actions, and your actions transform you as you struggle to transform your world.


A Wiki of Ice and Fire. n.d. Alleras/Theories. Accessed July 18, 2020.

Bey, Marquis. 2017. “The Trans*-Ness of Blackness, the Blackness of Trans*-Ness.” TSQ, 4(2): 275–95.

Boag, Peter. 2005. “Go West Young Man, Go East Young Woman: Searching for the Trans in Western Gender History.” Western Historical Quarterly, 36(4): 477-497.

Bremer, Signe. 2017. Kroppslinjer: Kön, transsexualism och kropp i berättelser om könskorrigering. Makadam: Göteborg.

Feinberg, Leslie. 1996. Transgender Warriors: Making History from Joan of Arc to Dennis Rodman. Boston: Beacon Press.

Halberstam, J. 1998. Female Masculinity. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

Halberstam, J. 2005. In a Queer Time and Place. New York: New York University Press.

Holm, M. 2017. Fleshing out the self: Reimagining intersexed and trans embodied lives through (auto)biographical accounts of the past. PhD thesis, Linköping: Linköping University.

Martin, George RR. 2011a. A Storm of Swords. London: Harper Voyager

Martin, George RR. 2011b. A Feast for Crows. New York: Bentam Books.

Martin, George RR. 2012. A Dance with Dragons. Harper Voyager: London.

Stryker, Susan. 1994. “My words to Victor Frankenstein above the village of Chamounix: Performing transgender rage” GLQ, 1(3): 237-254

Stryker, Susan. 2006. “(De)Subjugated Knowledges: An Introduction to Transgender Studies”, in The Transgender Studies Reader, eds. Susan Stryker & Stephen Whittle, 1-17. New York: Routledge.

Stryker, Susan. 2019. “More Words about “My Words to Victor Frankenstein”” GLQ, 25(1): 39-44.

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