The Queer Song of Achilles

Content warnings: homophobia, sexism, discussion of sex between minors, discussion of sex between minors and adults.

Spoiler warning: spoilers of the entirety of The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller.

When I started reading The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller, I knew it would be gay and sad (as Chloe of Girls Gone Canon put it when recommending it), but I didn’t anticipate just how invested I would become in this novel. And I’m not just talking about how I cried my eyes out for ten minutes straight after finishing reading the last chapter. I also spent the next 24 hours going through different parts of the books in my head, thinking about how they compared to the theory and history of sexuality that I have read. So eventually I came to the conclusion that I had to write something about it. Hence this essay.

”Achilles lamenting the death of Patroclus” by Gavin Hamilton

The Song of Achilles tells the story of Achilles and Patroclus from the Iliad, their life, love, and eventually their death. This relationship has been interpreted in a myriad of ways through the ages, with some focusing on their friendship and others on the erotic aspects of their relationship. A reading that in my opinion is more in line with how the relationship is presented in The Song of Achilles, however, comes from Warwick (2019). Warwick argues that in the Iliad, Achilles and Patroclus are portrayed similarly to the husband-wife relationships of the story (such as Odysseus and Penelope or Hector and Andromache). It seems like Miller had a similar idea when writing A Song of Achilles since there’s even a scene where Odysseus compares his relationship to his wife to that of Achilles and Patroclus when he is trying to convince Pyrrhus to allow Patroclus’ name to be carved into their joint tomb (Miller 2017, 348). In the novel, Achilles and Patroclus’ relationship is clearly both romantic and sexual (even if the sex scenes aren’t explicit). It is clear that the two of them both love each other and desire each other sexually. In an interesting way, their relationship, therefore, reads as queer both in a modern context and in the context of Ancient Greece. As Warwick notes, in Ancient Greece, their relationship would potentially be seen as anomalous (or queer) not because they were both men (as it does today) but because of their similarity in status. This is quite an interesting contrast to modern conceptualisations of sexuality. To explore this further, I will therefore analyse the way Achilles and Patroclus’ relationship is presented in The Song of Achilles in relation to sexuality and gender norms in Ancient Greece.

Sexuality in Ancient Greece

Before getting further into the norms and structures of sexuality in Ancient Greece, it is worth noting that some, including Warwick, has argued that these social norms and conventions are less pronounced in Homer’s work than in other sources (2019). Nonetheless, it seems relevant to consider the social context in which Homer worked and where the story of Achilles and Patroclus would be heard.

In many ways, the norms of Ancient Greece surrounding sexuality and gender were quite different from those of today, even while there are some similarities (that I will get into later). One big difference is that they didn’t use terms such as heterosexuality, homosexuality, bisexuality, or anything similar, and didn’t really conceptualise sexuality as a stable identity like we do today. This makes sense considering that it wasn’t really until the 18th century that the homosexual started to be conceptualised as a specific type of person (Foucault 2002 [1976], 64). Before then homosexual acts were generally seen just as that, acts, not as something that informed someone’s identity. They could be shameful or even criminal acts, but as Foucault notes, the difference is that the homosexual of modern times is seen as a type of person, a part of a different species. Some researchers have questioned this, arguing that individual people living before the 18th century might have considered their sexuality as a stable identity, even if society didn’t (eg. Goldberg & Menon 2005; Roelens 2017). Nevertheless, based on the sources that do exist it seems that the people of Ancient Greece didn’t see sexuality as an identity. Still, what sexual acts one participated in could impact one’s reputation, because there were definitely sexual norms to consider in Ancient Greece, even if those were different from those of today.

As many researchers have noted, Ancient Greek societies were very hierarchical, with adult free-born men on top of the hierarchy and everyone else (women, children, slaves, etc) below them. As for instance Mottier (2008) has noted, these norms surrounding gender and status also impacted sexual life:

Normative ideas of masculinity valued aggressive, dominant behaviour, both in public speaking and in other areas of life, including sexual activity. Masculinity was identified with the active, penetrative sexual role. Sexual desire was seen as normal or deviant in relation to the extent to which it transgressed normative gender roles. Specific practices such as sodomy or masturbation did not give rise to moral anxieties in classical sexual culture. Questions of sexual etiquette centred instead on penetration. Penetration symbolised male as well as social status, but it mattered little whether the penetrated was a woman or a boy. What did matter was who penetrated whom. Penetration was seen as active, submission as passive. It was considered unnatural and demeaning for a free-born man to desire to be penetrated, since that would reduce him to the socially inferior role of a woman or slave.

(Mottier 2008, 9)

That is to say, a “real man” was supposed to be the active party in sexual intercourse. It didn’t matter who he had sex with (woman, boy, slave, sex worker, etc), as long as he was the one penetrating them. That of course doesn’t mean that there weren’t adult free-born men who enjoyed penetration, it just means that they would be looked down upon for it. One’s sexual behaviour could also impact one’s honour and reputation (Foucault 2018 [1984], 56). As Foucault notes, to have a spotless sexual reputation was especially important for men with large authority who might wish to leave an impressive legacy, since sexual scandals might ruin that legacy.

When discussing sexuality in Ancient Greece, it is impossible to avoid the question of pederasty, i.e., the sexual relationship between boys/teenagers (about 12-20 years old) and adult men, which was often seen as a form of mentorship (Mottier 2008, 12). While obviously deeply problematic to us today, these types of relationships were very normalised at the time, as long as the proper sexual etiquette was upheld. This etiquette included, for instance, that the boy only gives his consent after a significant amount of courting (Foucault 2018 [1984], 203). He should furthermore not gain pleasure from the sexual intercourse, only participate as a form of gift to this older man that he respects. This, in combination with the fact that these boys had not yet grown into manhood, made it possible for them to engage in these relationships without it being considered a blight on their honour (Mottier 2008, 11). It should be noted, however, that relationships between teenagers/young men of the same age were also seen as normal (Foucault 2018, [1984] 176). As Foucault describes it, it was considered natural that boys of a certain age would have these types of relationships. Sometimes it would even be accepted that these relationships continued beyond boyhood, but then there would often be speculation about the exact nature and mechanics of the relationship. As mentioned above, the Greeks didn’t disapprove of sexual relations between men per se, but they did find it shameful for a man to be (what they considered to be) the passive part of such a relationship. It was therefore seemingly easier to accept relationships between men where there existed a clear difference in status (e.g. in age or that one was a slave). Warwick makes a similar point, arguing that it was in a way easier to discuss sex between men and boys because then it is clear who is in power, and the subordinate party is expected to grow out of that position when he becomes a man (2019). But relationships between adult free men were more complicated because then one of the adult men has to be passive/subordinate (in the eyes of society).

”Achille, jouant de la lyre sous sa tente avec Patrocle, est surpris par Ulysse et Nestor” by Giuseppe Cades

Interestingly, one example that Foucault mentions when discussing this topic is actually Achilles and Patroclus, describing how their relationship was fascinating for the Greeks because it was unclear who was the more powerful in their dynamic (2018 [1984], 177). As Foucault notes, Homer described Achilles as the one with higher birth and more strength, but Patroclus as the older one and the one with more intelligence. Warwick makes a similar point:

Although pederastic relationships were strictly hierarchical with no ambiguity of active and passive roles permitted (Dover 1978, 16), Achilles and Patroclus do not fit into this paradigm. Patroclus is older than Achilles and is instructed by Menoetius to advise Achilles on the basis of his greater experience and wisdom (Il. 11.785–789). The fact that Achilles is younger (and more beautiful, Il. 2.673–675) than Patroclus should by rights make him the erōmenos, the passive partner in the relationship, but Achilles is also clearly socially dominant over Patroclus, both in terms of his rank and his greater prowess in battle. As has been noted, this ambiguity of statuses led to some confusion among ancient authors over who should properly be seen as the erastēs of the relationship, Patroclus or Achilles.

(Warwick 2019, 128)

In a modern context, we might very well find it ridiculous to focus so much on this aspect of a relationship, but then again, it’s not too different from how top/bottom dynamics are sometimes discussed today (cf. Johns, Pingel, Eisenberg, Santana & Baeuermeister 2012). As mentioned previously, the reason it was considered so important who was the active/passive part of a sexual relationship was because it was considered to reflect one’s gender position as well. Men who enjoyed the “passive” position in sex were seen as soft, effeminate, and women-like (Mottier 2008, 11). Essentially, a man being in this position was seen as him relinquishing his position as a man (Foucault 2018, 21). And to voluntarily relinquish the prestige and status of a man was obviously seen as deeply shameful. Similarly, men who dressed or acted in a feminine manner (for instance curling one’s hair, speaking with a soft/feminine voice, singing and dancing, etc) were looked down upon. Clearly, sexuality, gender, and status were very closely intertwined in Ancient Greece.

Queer sexuality in The Song of Achilles

So, how is all of this portrayed in The Song of Achilles? Well, generally, quite accurately. One clear example is in chapter 15 when Odysseus discusses Achilles and Patroclus’ relationship with them as they travel towards Troy:

‘One tent’s enough, I hope? I’ve heard that you prefer to share. Rooms and bedrolls both, they say.’

Heat and shock rushed to my face. Beside me, I heard Achilles’ breath stop.

‘Come now, there’s no need for shame- it’s a common enough thing among boys.’ He scratched his jaw, contemplated. ‘Though you’re not really boys any longer. How old are you?’

‘It’s not true,’ I said. The blood in my face fired my voice. It rang loudly down the beach.

Odysseus raised an eyebrow. ‘True is what men believe, and they believe this of you. But perhaps they are mistaken. If the rumour concerns you, then leave it behind when you sail to war.’

(Miller 2017, 165)

As he says, relationships between boys were considered normal (cf. Foucault 2018 [1984], 176). But the tension comes from them almost entering adulthood, and with that comes the potential of rumours and shame… Achilles and (particularly) Patroclus reflects on this afterwards:

Inside the tent there was quietness between us. I had wondered when this would come. As Odysseus said, many boys took each other for lovers. But such things were given up as they grew older, unless it was with slaves or hired boys. Our men liked conquest; they did not trust a man who was conquered himself.

Do not disgrace him, the goddess had said. And this was some of what she had meant.

‘Perhaps he is right,’ I said

Achilles’ head came up, frowning. ‘You do not think that.’

‘I do not mean—’ I twisted my fingers. ‘I would still be with you. But I could sleep outside, so it would not be so obvious. I do not need to attend your councils. I—’

‘No. The Phthians will not care. And the others can talk all they like. I will still be Aristos Achaion.’ Best of the Greeks.

‘Your honour could be darkened by it.’

‘Then it is darkened.’ His jaw shot forward, stubborn. ‘They are fools if they let my glory rise or fall on this.’

‘But Odysseus—’

His eyes, green as spring leaves, met mine. ‘Patroclus. I have given enough to them. I will not give them this.’

(Miller 2017, 166)

This quote gives so much information about the way they, and their society, views sexuality, relationships, and tangentially gender. For one, the line about their society not trusting men who were conquered is a really succinct way of summing up what I spent several paragraphs explaining above. A “real man” has to be active, conquering partners the way he would conquer land or people. So, as Patroclus says, if he wants to have sex with a man it must either be when he is a boy or as an adult with a slave or someone he hires. Therefore, Patroclus is worried about what the world might think about his relationship with Achilles, how that would be interpreted. He worries that it would damage Achilles’ reputation and honour, making people see him as less of an honourable man because they might suspect him of being submissive. As Foucault notes, this is something men in a high position in Ancient Greece would worry about, since their sexual behaviour would impact their reputation and their legacy (2018, 56). But Achilles refuses to let this fear affect their relationship, refuses to give it up. Throughout the novel, it is very clear that Achilles and Patroclus do not only desire each other but also love each other deeply. This, in combination with their similarity in status, is what makes their relationship queer in the eyes of society.

By Venessa Kelley

Of course, me calling the relationship queer doesn’t mean that the characters think of it in those terms. As mentioned in the theory section above, terms like homosexual, bisexual or queer didn’t exist at this time and people didn’t really think of sexuality as a stable identity. Still, it is interesting to consider how Achilles and Patroclus’ sexual (and romantic) orientations are portrayed. It’s clear that their most important relationship is the one they have with each other, but they do both sleep with women. From the way it’s portrayed in the book, it’s a bit unclear how much they enjoy this experience. It seems as it wouldn’t be their first choice, they clearly prefer each other. But it is unclear if this is because they prefer sex with men in general or just that they prefer sex with each other. Another aspect to consider here is their relationship with Briseis. When they first rescue her, she is afraid that Patroclus is a threat to her, but he convinces her that he’s not by kissing Achilles. It’s interesting to consider why this works. Is it meant to show her that he prefers men over women? Or is it meant to show that he’s not a threat because he is in a relationship? I imagine modern readers, who tend to see sexuality as an identity, probably read it the first way, even if it shouldn’t work based on the way Greek society viewed sex (but since Miller is writing for a modern audience, I don’t really consider that a problem). A third interpretation could possibly be that this is meant to make Briseis trust them because Patroclus showed her an aspect of their relationship that could damage their reputations if it became known. Throughout the story, Briseis continues to be close to them, not exposing them, even if she sometimes becomes a bit of a threat to the relationship in other ways. One such moment is of course when she kisses Patroclus, in chapter 24. She says that she knows he loves Achilles but that she knows that some men have both wives and lovers. Then she asks if he wouldn’t want to have children. As Patroclus tells her: ‘If I ever wished to take a wife, it would be you.’ (Miller 2017, 253) But as he also explains, he does not wish to take a wife. Afterwards, Patroclus mentions their discussion to Achilles and…

‘Does she wish to have a child?’

‘Maybe,’ I said.

‘With me?’ he said.

‘No,’ I said.

‘That is good,’ he said, eyelids dropping once more. Moments passed, and I was sure he was asleep. But then he said, ‘With you. She wants to have a child with you.’

My silence was his answer. He sat up, the blanket falling from his chest. ‘Is she pregnant?’ he asked.

There was a tautness to his voice I had not heard before.

‘No,’ I said.

His eyes dug into mine, sifting them for answers.

‘Do you want to?’ he asked. I saw the struggle on his face. Jealousy was strange to him; a foreign thing. He was hurt, but did not know how to speak of it. I felt cruel, suddenly, for bringing it up.

‘No,’ I said. ‘I don’t think so. No.’

‘If you wanted it, it would be all right.’ Each word was carefully placed; he was trying to be fair.

I thought of the dark-hair child again. I thought of Achilles.

‘It is all right now,’ I said.

The relief on his face filled me with sweetness.

(Miller 2017, 256)

In a sense, this becomes a moment where Achilles and Patroclus reaffirm their relationship to each other. Patroclus gets an opportunity to go down a more traditional path, taking a wife and having a bunch of cute dark-haired children with her, even as he keeps Achilles as a lover. But he rejects that, choosing Achilles. He doesn’t need a wife when he has Achilles as a partner.

This is of course not the only time their relationship is compared to a marriage. As mentioned in the introduction, Odysseus compares their relationship to his marriage at one point. But there is also the moment on Scyros when Achilles and Patroclus are reunited and Achilles (being dressed as a woman) calls Patroclus his husband. It is worth noting that if this behaviour, Achilles positioning himself as Patroclus’ wife, became public knowledge, he would most likely be severely shamed by others. Even just the fact of his dress could be used to shame him, as Diomedes makes clear when he notes that they could make Achilles’ dressing as a woman known if he won’t come to Troy. Achilles’ reaction is telling:

Achilles flushed as if he’d been struck. It was one thing to wear a dress out of necessity, another thing for the world to know of it. Our people reserved the ugliest names for men who acted like women; lives were lost over such insults.

(Miller 2017, 154)

Again, a man being interpreted as being feminine is seen as deeply shameful. But while Achilles clearly doesn’t want this known, he doesn’t mind people speculating about his relationship with Patroclus. This is somewhat remarkable as that could also be seen as a stain on his reputation, given that people might speculate that it means he is submissive (and therefore unmanly in their eyes). It is worth noting that the book doesn’t comment on how exactly Achilles and Patroclus have sex, if one tends to be the penetrating party, or if they even have sex in that way. In this way, Miller doesn’t have to take a position in this debate around their relationship that’s been going on for thousands of years. But at the same time, not including those details sort of becomes a statement about how it doesn’t matter exactly how they had sex, what matters is their passion and love.

However, the specifics of their relationship did of course matter to their surroundings. This becomes very clear after their death when Achilles’ son Neoptolemus (aka Pyrrhus) comes along and has very strong opinions on the matter.

‘We were talking of your father’s tomb, and where to build it.’

‘On the hill,’ Odysseus says.

Menelaus nods. ‘A fitting place for them.’


There is a slight pause.

‘Your father and his companion. Patroclus.’

‘And why should this man be buried beside Aristos Achaion?’

The air is thick. They are all waiting to hear Menelaus’ answer.

‘It was your father’s wish, Prince Neoptolemus, that their ashes be places together. We cannot bury one without the other,’

Pyrrhus lifts his sharp chin. ‘A slave has no place in his master’s tomb. If the ashes are together it cannot be undone, but I will not allow my father’s fame to be diminished. The monument is for him, alone.’

(Miller 2017, 341)

The specific way that Pyrrhus insists on disrespecting Patroclus here is interesting (if infuriating). He keeps describing Patroclus as being of a lower status, even calling him a slave. As mentioned previously, a man having a sexual relationship with a slave was much more accepted in Greek society than him having a relationship with an equal. So, one can argue that what Pyrrhus is doing her is sort of straightening out the queerness of his father, after death. Again, it’s not that it’s illegal for Achilles to sleep with Patroclus, but it’s frowned upon and impact’s his reputation/honour. This is unacceptable for Pyrrhus who wants to have his father be seen as Aristos Achaion. So, casting Patroclus as a slave rewrites the story to make Achilles seem as the unquestionable active and masculine party.

Later, Odysseus tries to convince Pyrrhus to reconsider and Pyrrhus notes that he will not have his father’s name tainted by a commoner (again, positioning Patroclus as having a lower social standing). He also says that Patroclus is a “blot on my father’s honour, and a blot on mine.” (Miller, 347) Odysseus then continues by asking if Pyrrhus has a wife and says:

‘I have a wife. I have not seen her for ten years. I do not know if she is dead, or if I will die before I can return to her,’ (…) ‘My consolation is that we will be together underworld. That we will meet again there, if not in this life. I would not wish to be there without her.’

‘My father had no such wife,’ Pyrrhus said.

Odysseus looks at the young man’s implacable face. ‘I have done my best,’ he says. ‘Let it be remembered that I tried.’

(Miller 2017, 348)

Here, at least, someone tries to have the truth of their relationship be remembered. To not have it be taken away from them, as Achilles so adamantinely refused in life.

By Venessa Kelly

When the podcast Girls Gone Canon discussed this novel, Chloe made a wonderful point about how this is tragically similar to what many queer people have to go through after death:

There’s something about being different, you know from everyone, that knowing someone has control over your body, and your body’s meaning and what your body stood for, when you die. When your partner or the only person you trusted doesn’t have that control, is horrendous. It is scary. It makes their joint tomb really symbolic.

(Girls Gone Canon 2022, 1 h 31 min)

As Chloe notes, queer people (and other marginalised people, such as disabled people) seldom get control over their bodies or their narratives after death. The people they might have trusted to have their wishes carried out aren’t allowed to, because their relationship isn’t seen as legitimate. This is also something that Judith Butler discusses when writing about what types of kinship and relationships are deemed legitimate by the state, and what consequences that has:

Of course, there are consequences to this kind of derealization that go beyond hurting someone’s feelings or causing offense to a group of people. It means that when you arrive at the hospital to see your lover, you may not. It means that when your lover falls into a coma, you may not assume certain executorial rights. It means that when your lover dies, you may not be able to be the one to receive the body. It means that when the child is left with the nonbiological parent, that parent may not be able to counter the claims of biological relatives in court and that you lose custody and even access. It means you may not be able to provide health care benefits for one another. These are all very significant forms of disenfranchisement, ones that are made all the worse by the personal effacements that occur in daily life and that invariably take a toll on a relationship. If you’re not real, it can be hard to sustain yourselves over time; the sense of delegitimation can make it harder to sustain a bond, a bond that is not real anyway, a bond that does not “exist,” that never had a chance to exist, that was never meant to exist. (…) And if you’ve actually lost the lover who was never recognized to be your lover, then did you really lose that person? Is this a loss, and can it be publicly grieved? Surely this is something that has become a pervasive problem in the queer community, given the losses from AIDS, the loss of lives and loves that are always in struggle to be recognized as such.

(Butler 2002, 25-26)

It should be noted that Butler also recognises the risks of legitimisation by the state, in that this can cause more control and create new boundaries of normativity, but their point about the consequences of not being seen as legitimate still stands. It also definitely speaks to what happens to Achilles and Patroclus after death. Their wishes aren’t respected because their bond is not respected. Pyrrhus refuses to let them share a tomb because he refuses to allow their relationship to be acknowledged and recognised. Even as Odysseus tries to appeal to him by talking about how they would want the opportunity to be reunited in the underworld, he still refuses. He only sees Patroclus as a blot on his father’s honour since their relationships make it possible to question Achilles’ masculinity.

Yet in the end, their love and their bond are recognised. Thetis is convinced by Patroclus talking about his memories of Achilles and she allows for both their names to be on the tomb. As I was reading, this is where I truly started sobbing. Reflecting on it now, I think it wasn’t just that I was happy that they got to reunite in the afterlife, but also that I got so emotional about their relationship being acknowledged. Living in a world where queer people’s lives and loves are still erased so often, especially after death, this ending was truly beautiful to read. Yet it still hurt, because it was clear how much of a struggle it had been to have their love be publicly recognised. You can be Aristos Achaion, yet still lack power over how you and your love is remembered.


In many ways, The Song of Achilles accurately depicts how sexuality was viewed in Ancient Greece. For the modern reader, this way of thinking of sexuality might seem very strange. But The Song of Achilles manages to describe the norms of the society succinctly and most of all imbue it all with a ton of emotion. From the plot, it also becomes very clear that there are consequences to these societal norms. We read about Patroclus thinks how their actions could impact Achilles’ reputation and honour, and at the end of the novel, we see that it very well could. Achilles asserts that he doesn’t care if their love darkens his honour, but in the end, their love is almost erased by other people trying to protect his honour.

But for all the way that the conventions of Achilles and Patroclus’ society are different from our own, there are a lot of events from the story that might feel painfully familiar for queer readers. There is family trying to stop you from being with the one you love, there are your surroundings judging you for the way you love, and there is a world trying to erase who you truly are. Achilles and Patroclus’ story might not be queer in the way we think of queerness today, but their story still resonates for anyone who has had to fight for who they are and who they love. It also provides a small hope that maybe, just maybe, you can have a happy ending.

Art by Venessa Kelley

May you also find what will make you shine like the sun.


Burgwinkle, William E. 2006. “Queer Theory and the Middle Ages.” French Studies: A Quarterly Review 60(1): 79-88.

Buter, Judith. 2002. ”Is Kinship Always Already Heterosexual?” differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 13(1): 14-44.

Foucault, Michel. 2002/1976. Sexualitetens historia 1: Viljan att veta. Translated by Birgitta Gröndahl. Göteborg: Bokförlaget Daidalos AB. [This is the Swedish translation of Histoire de la sexualité I :La volonté de savoir/The History of Sexuality I: The Will to Knowledge]

Foucault, Michel. 2018/1984. Sexualitetens historia 2: Njutningarnas bruk. Translated by Britta Gröndahl. Göteborg: Bokförlaget Daidalos AB. [This is the Swedish Translation of Histoire de la sexualité, II: l’usage des plaisirs/The History of Sexuality II: The Use of Pleasure]

Girls Gone Canon. 2022. “Patreon Episode 41 — New POV Character: Patroclus (The Song of Achilles episode”

Jones, Michelle Marie, Emily Pingel, Anna Eisenberg, Matthew Leslie Santana & José Bauermeister. 2012. “Butch Tops and Femme Bottoms? Sexual Positioning, Sexual Decision Making, and Gender Roles Among Young Gay Men.” American Journal of Men’s Health 6(6): 505–518.

Miller, Madeline. 2017. The Song of Achilles. London: Bloomsbury Publishing.

Mottier, Véronique. 2008. Sexuality: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Roelens, Jonas. 2017. “A Woman Like Any Other: Female Sodomy, Hermaphroditism, and Witchcraft in Seventeenth-Century Bruges.” Journal of Women’s History 29(4): 11–34.

Warwick, Celsiana. 2019. “We Two Alone: Conjugal Bonds and Homoerotic Subtext in the Iliad.” Helios 46(2): 115-139.

Guest episode- Girls Gone Canon

This week, I had the absolute honour of joining one of my favourite podcasts to talk about one of my favourite characters, Brienne of Tarth. We talked about gender, religion, knighthood, the cost of war, and so much more while both laughing and crying.

Anyone who has spent any time following me here or on social media knows I have a lot of thoughts and feelings about Brienne, especially in regards to their gender since I’m a non-binary trans person myself. So to have the opportunity to talk about all of this in depth was brilliant. Thank you so much Chloe and Eliana for the opportunity!

Guest podcast appearances- Davos’ Fingers & TroyeTalk

This past week, I have had the honour of making a guest appearance on not one but TWO podcasts.

One is on the esteemed ASOIAF podcast Davos’ Fingers, where I joined Matt and Scad to discuss the prologue to A Feast for Crows. We ended up having a great discussion about the mysterious and magical events of that prologue, but also all the fascinating power dynamics on display. And boy is there a lot to cover, from the gender and sexuality norms apparent in the situation between Rosey and Pate, to Alleras’ position in relation to structures surrounding gender and race. I had a great time, so if you have three hours (!) to spare, I encourage you to take a listen!

I also had the opportunity to join my friend Jonas on his excellent podcast TroyeTalk, where he discusses the music of Troye Sivan. We talked about the song ”WILD”, but also a lot about heteronormativity, queer longing, and our own wild (and drunk) adventures. And somehow also eugenics. It was a blast to sit down and chat about all of this, and I think that comes across on the episode too.

Hoping I’ll have more opportunities to collaborate with friends soon!

A Brief Trans History

CW: transphobia, racism, sexism, sexual violence

This fall, I had the honour of organising workshops for a non-profit involved in sexual and reproductive health and rights, talking about trans inclusion. As part of those workshops, I talked for a bit about trans history. One response I got after every workshop was that people appreciate learning this history because this was something they had never been taught before. As several people also noted, it’s also great to know these facts when arguing with transphobes who use their inaccurate view of history to argue that being trans is just a trend. So, in this essay, I wanted to discuss the history of trans and gender-nonconforming people, to raise awareness about how transness is nothing new. Before going any further though, I want to point out that while I have a master’s degree in gender studies, I am no historian. What I do know of trans history is a mix of things I’ve studied at university (which, with some exceptions, mainly focused on history from the 19th century going forward), and me reading up on these topics on my own. I will discuss trans and gender-nonconforming people from a variety of historical periods and cultural backgrounds, but I cannot possibly cover all of world history in one essay. That said, here is a brief(ish) trans history.

An illustration of an Iron Age Grave from Birka, Sweden, containing a possible gender-nonconforming person. Illustration made by Hjalmar Stolpe in 1889.

Concepts and conceptualisations

Before going any further, I should clarify what I mean by trans in this essay. The term trans is sometimes used in different ways in different contexts, but for the purposes of this essay, I use it similarly to how Dr Susan Stryker uses “transgender” in her book Transgender History:

 I use [transgender] in this book to refer to people who move away from the gender they were assigned at birth, people who cross (trans-) the boundaries constructed by their culture to define and contain that gender. Some people move away from their birth-assigned gender because they feel strongly that they properly belong to another gender in which it would be better for them to live; others want to strike out toward some new location, some space not yet clearly defined or concretely occupied; still others simply feel the need to get away from the conventional expectations bound up with the gender that was initially put upon them. In any case, it is the movement across a socially imposed boundary away from an unchosen starting place- rather than any particular destination or mode of transition- that best characterizes the concept of ‘transgender’ that I want to develop here.

(Stryker 2008, 1)

Now, while I think this definition is very useful for my purposes here, I feel like I must also point out that not everyone who is included in this definition of transness would identify as trans (see for example Finn Enke 2012). For instance, not all non-binary people self-identify as trans, even if they could be seen as trans using the above definition. When talking about real-life people we should therefore always be cautious when ascribing such labels to them, especially since the term “trans” comes from a very specific historical Western context. I will get into that history further on.

Furthermore, we should be especially careful when assigning the term “trans” to people from outside a Western context, who might have other terms to describe themselves (for more on this, see for instance Boellstorff, Cabral, Cádenas, Cotten, Stanley, Young, and Aizura 2014). Because throughout history and the world, people have understood gender in a variety of different ways. Sometimes it has been as something fixed, determined by the way one’s body looks at birth, and sometimes it has been more fluid. One example I would like to highlight is from a land that my country (Sweden) has colonised, namely Sápmi. As non-binary Sámi activists have pointed out, traditionally speaking Sámi culture wasn’t as binary as many Western cultures are and have been (Märak & Nilla Pinja 2021). Märak and Nilla Pinja also describe that in Sámi religion, the goddess who decides which sex/gender a child would have might sometimes decide to make the child into neither a girl nor a boy, but something else. Non-binary Sámi people are therefore nothing new. But as many Sámi people have also noted, this traditional way of seeing gender has been negatively impacted by colonialism, which insisted on reinforcing a gender binary and heteronormativity (see for example Káddjá Valkeapää 2021; Lifjell 2021; Sandberg McGuinne 2021; Finbog 2022). This is of course similar to what has happened with many other indigenous people, where colonialists have tried their best to stamp out any gender identities and expressions that did not conform to the Western binary view of gender (eg. Roen 2006; Spencer-Hall & Gutt 2021, 28).

There are many too many examples of different cultural understandings of gender to name them all here, and as a white European, I do not feel like it is my place to speak for these people. But I want to highlight just a few places where you can learn more:

  • KUMU HINA is a documentary about what it’s like to live as māhū in Hawai’i. You can also find educational material related to the movie here, and an explanation of māhū here.
  • This article discusses multiple Pacific Islander gender identities, such as fa’afafine (Samoa) or fakaleitī (Tonga) while interviewing people living with those identities and different activists.
  • This video follows fakaleitī Eva Baron who talks about her experiences.
  • In this video, Geo Neptune explain the term two-spirit, its history and discusses other terms that has been used by native Americans.
  • This Ted talk by Laxmi Narayan Tripathi, talking about gender in India and living as hijra.
  • All work by two-spirit trans woman Arielle Twist.
  • The poetry collection you are enough: love poems for the end of the world by Smokii Sumac, a Ktunaxa queer, transmasculine and two-spirit person. You can find videos of readings of some of the poems here.
  • The article “Can You See Me? Queer Margins in Aboriginal Communities” by Andrew Farrell, a queer Aboriginal person.
  • The documentary and article “InsideOUT” by Peter Waples-Crowe, a non-binary Ngarigo person.
  • This zine, containing conversations with young two-spirit, trans, and queer indigenous people in Toronto.
  • This article by transgender Aboriginal professor Sandy O’Sullivan, discussing the colonial project of gender.
  • The book Colouring The Rainbow: Blak Queer and Trans Perspectives- Life Stories and Essays by First Nations People of Australia.

There is of course a much more to read on this topic, and I really recommend looking into it further, and especially listening to the voices of people who belong to the groups they describe.

Finally, I would just like to make clear that while I’m discussing these gender diverse people in the context of this essay on trans history, that is not to suggest that these people are necessarily trans. Some of these groups and people do describe themselves using terms such as trans or non-binary, but many do not. It is not my place, especially as a white European to label them as trans, that would be a form of colonial violence. The reason I wanted to mention these groups here is rather as a way of highlighting how the Western binary notion of gender is not the only way of understanding gender and have in fact been a part of colonialist violence against gender diverse people.

Trans history

As mentioned above, there have existed a lot of different conceptualisations of gender historically speaking, and there have always existed people who lived outside the Western binary view of gender. Yet, terms like transgender, non-binary, genderqueer etc are of course relatively new, historically speaking. So, one might wonder how it makes sense to speak of people who lived before then as trans. Well, as some scholars would argue, one reason for doing this is to counter the many voices who try to use history to legitimise their transphobia by arguing that trans folk didn’t exist historically (Spencer-Hall & Gutt 2021, 19). We know gender-nonconforming people existed historically too, even if their lives have often been forgotten or actively hidden. By holding them up, we help create a trans legacy that contemporary trans people can gain strength from.

In the next part of this essay, I will therefore touch on a few historical periods and what we know of trans/gender nonconforming people from those periods. I have chosen to limit this to mostly a Western perspective, partly because I cannot possibly speak about the whole world at once, and partly because that’s what I have the most knowledge about. Another reason for doing so is, as I mentioned above, that history, specifically that of Europe, is often used to legitimise transphobia. It, therefore, makes sense to understand what that history actually looked like to counter those arguments.

With that said, let’s dig into some trans archaeology.

Transgender Archaeology

As many have noted, archaeological researchers have long had a tendency to (sometimes forcefully) sort their finds into very strict binary categories (Weismantel 2013; Colwill 2021; Turek 2016). This can be seen in how many archaeologists have had difficulties with how to interpret burial sites containing bodies that seem to belong to one sex but are buried with items which do not seem to match that sex. As Weismantel notes, these kinds of finds have often been ignored or hidden away. Alternatively, these burial finds have been assumed to be some kind of mistake on the part of those doing the burial (Colwill 2021). Another problematic aspect of archaeological gendering/sexing of remains is the methods used to gender/sex both the body and the items buried with it. As Colwill notes:

Archaeological sexing is far from a fail-safe tool, particularly for exploring the often-intangible concept of identities. Remains are sexed osteologically (by examining the size and shape of the bones) or on the basis of genomic analysis (‘genomic’ or ‘chromosomal sexing’), and assigned to a particular sex, most frequently a binary male/female one, on this basis. The inaccuracy of such an approach has been criticized by numerous gender archaeologists for its frequent disregard of the possibility of intersex remains (…) Moreover, it is virtually impossible to accurately assign sex to children and adolescents based on osteological sexing alone (…) Genomic sexing is likewise not the magical bullet it is often presented as, offering a ratio of X and Y chromosomes from which a chromosomal arrangement is extrapolated.

(Colwill 2021, 179)

So, as Colwill notes, sexing of remains often risks being inaccurate. But what is more, with many archaeological finds, researchers haven’t even used those methods but instead interpreted the sex/gender of the remains based on the grave goods found with it. As Colwill notes:

When it comes to exploring gender identity through grave goods, it is difficult to avoid the sort of circular reasoning which declares, for example: ‘oval brooches are items of female dress, so graves containing them must be women’s graves; we know that oval brooches are items of female dress because we find them in women’s graves.

(Colwill 2021, 181)

One example of how this might lead to mistakes comes from an Iron Age grave found near the settlement of Birka (in contemporary Sweden). There a person in a grave was first interpreted to be male based on grave goods but then found to have XX chromosomes. As Weismantel and Colwill both point out, situations such as these have made some researchers question traditional interpretative practices, arguing that some archaeological finds could be interpreted as examples of gender nonconformity (2013; 2021). Colwill describes some such examples from Iron Age Scandinavia that possibly reveal some quite interesting ways the people of that time conceptualised gender. Interestingly, some examples of what seems to be burials of gender nonconforming people from this area and time seem to be burials of seiðr practitioners (Colwill 2021, 182). Seiðr was a practice that could probably most closely be described as a magic ritual, or possibly a shamanic ritual. Some have argued that at least some (if perhaps not all) seiðr practitioners held some sort of liminal gender position, partly outside of female and male binarities. This seems to be reflected in some of their burials, with individuals buried with a mix of “feminine” and “masculine” grave goods for instance. That these individuals are buried with those items, in what is often very elaborate and seemingly thought through burials, also indicate that their contemporaries recognised their liminal gender position.

Illustration of one of the burials with a seiðr practitioner, namely Ka.294-97 from Kaupang in Norway

The Trans Middle Ages

Moving forward a bit in history, I would next like to touch a bit on the Middle Ages and the gender-nonconforming people of that era. As for instance, M.W. Bychowski has pointed out (2018), it is often assumed that the Middle Ages was a time when “men were men” and “women were women” and no trans of queer people were around to make things complicated. Yet, there is a fair bit of evidence that gender-nonconforming people, and people who might call themselves trans had they lived today, existed then as well Below, I want to share just a few of these stories. I’ll start with some trans saints.

First out is Saint Marinos, a saint who was assigned female at birth yet lived for a long time as a monk (Bychowski 2018; Bychowski 2021). He was born around the year 300 in Syria and his story is shared in several medieval chronicles. After his mum died his dad joined a monk order and Marinos did the same. He was considered an exceptional monk until a village girl falsely claimed that he had impregnated her. At this point, he could have told people about how he physically could have not impregnated anyone, but he apparently decided not to. He was allowed to stay at the monastery and raise the child there but was obviously disgraced. When he eventually died and his body was prepared for the funeral, the other monks realised he had a body that would usually be termed female. They then also realised that they had wronged him, as he could not have impregnated someone, and prayed for forgiveness.

Saint Marinos (Bychowski 2018)

A common argument against interpreting people like Saint Marinos, and other people who were assigned female at birth yet passed as men, as trans is that they only did what they did to get access to spaces the strict patriarchal order didn’t allow them to enter. But as many people have pointed out, we do not have to assume that these people only did this gender transition for practical reasons (eg. Boag 2005; Feinberg 1996, 87). We seldom have records that show how these historical people understood themselves, we usually just have second-hand accounts, and when it comes to queer history, history rarely remembers faithfully (cf. Spencer-Hall & Gutt 2021, 19). There has therefore often existed a tendency to “straighten out” all instances of queerness/transness in history. Seeing gender nonconforming behaviour as just a pragmatic/practical choice is one example of this. As Spencer-Hall and Gutt puts it: “the reflexive assumption that non-normative gender expressions can only ever indicate cross-dressing is reductive.” (2021, 27) Furthermore, as Feinberg points out, it is arguably insulting to only see trans identities as the product of sexist oppression (1996, 83).

The next life I want to describe is that of Joseph of Schönau, who was born in Cologne and assigned female at birth (Newman 2021). His very eventful life has been retold in several 12th-century chronicles, which is much too long to describe in their entirety here, but I will include the major events here. The chronicles describe that as a child Joseph accompanied his father on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, but his father died on the way. While making his way back to Europe, he encountered a variety of challenges which culminated with some people trying to kill him via hanging. In the retelling, it is said that Joseph survived by an angel arriving and supporting his feet until he could be rescued by some local shepherds. Afterwards, he entered a Cistercian monastery as thanks for the divine aid he had received. He eventually died at the monastery, as a monk. What is interesting is that at least one chronicle consistently describes Joseph as male during this part of his life, using male pronouns etc. The retelling of the story also presents Joseph’s identity as a man as neither a choice on his part nor as a disguise, but rather as a divine gift, another part of the divine interventions in Joseph’s life. Another interesting part of the story is that for the monks that knew Joseph as a man, it seemed as if he had transformed into a woman in death. This was perceived as a form of miracle. One interpretation is that through his holy actions, Joseph’s soul was so perfected that he became so intertwined with the divine that he managed to transcend gender. This was made literal in how he had a body that was morphologically interpreted as female even while he was a man. This carries fascinating implications for the gender of the divine, and the possibility to transcend gender.  

Next up, I want to talk about the saint Esmarade, whose story is recounted in a 13th-century verse hagiography (Wright 2021). Esmarade was someone who was assigned female at birth, but who left secular life for a monastery where they would go on to present as a eunuch. Vanessa Wright argues that Esmarade can be read as genderqueer since the identity they express does not fit into a binary understanding of gender. The story describes how Esmarade did not wish to marry the partner chosen by their father, instead wanting to remain a virgin and join a religious order. Being afraid of their father being able to find them, they decided to enter a monastery while presenting as a eunuch. As Wright argues, this can be seen as a way for them to articulate a genderqueer identity with the language available to them, since eunuchs were often seen as a sort of in-between between male and female. This is in fact similar to what trans people have done much later in history too. Sølve Holm for instance describes Danish trans people at the beginning of the 20th century describing themselves as “hermaphrodites” because that was language that would be understood by their surroundings (2020).

But, returning to Esmarade, their father came to the monastery to seek advice and met Esmarade without recognising them. This arrangement went on for years, and right before their death, Esmarade told their father the truth and asks that he alone prepare their body for the funeral so that no one else could see their body. This seems to be so that no one else can “discover” what their body looked like and what their assigned gender would have been. This request isn’t followed, however, and a fellow monk prepared their body, leading them to be seen as venerated as female after death by their fellow monks.

Illustration showing Esmarade (in the left illustration the furthest to the right, in the right illustration on the bed) (Wright 2021, 166).

Another possibly trans medieval saint is of course Joan of Arc. I’ve talked about Joan in other essays too when discussing the possibility to analyse medieval people (and fictional characters in mediaevalesque settings) as trans, those essays are available here and here. Joan of Arc is probably most remembered today for her claims of holy visions and successful military leadership and has as such been turned into a symbol of French nationalism and white supremacy (Spencer-Hall & Blake Gutt 2021, 12). Yet her story is undeniably a queer one, regardless of how much white supremacists try to scrub off the queerness. As trans writer and activist Leslie Feinberg once wrote about Joan: “If society strictly mandates only men can be warriors, isn’t a woman military leader dressed in armor an example of cross-gendered expression?” (1996, 31) It is clear that her contemporaries viewed her gender expression with contempt, with for instance the English king Henry the VI writing to 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.

(quoted in Feinberg 1996, 34)

Joan of Arc was eventually brought before an Inquisitorial court, charged with a variety of crimes (such as witchcraft and heresy). The court could not prove the witchcraft, so they chose to focus on how Joan’s crossdressing (according to them) constituted heresy since it went against God’s will. For this crime, she was eventually burned at the stake. As both Feinberg (1996) and Bychowski notes (2018), Joan continued to refuse to stop wearing “men’s clothing” even while being accused of heresy. For this crime she was eventually burned to death. As Bychowski notes, it is difficult to say if Joan would have identified as trans had she lived today, but it is clear that what killed her was transphobia.

I have thus far only talked about possible trans people of the Middle Ages who were assigned female at birth, so before moving on I wanted to mention one who seemed to have been assigned male at birth. Eleanor Rykener was a seamstress living in London during the 14th century who was arrested on charges of sexual misconduct, having been caught in the act of selling sex (Bychowski 2018). She presented as a woman when appearing at the court and gave her name as Eleanor, but during questioning, she was forced to reveal that she had previously lived in London under a male name. This provided the court with several quandaries: firstly, which name should they use in the records (they ended up using both), and secondly, if Eleanor is a man, does that mean that sodomy was committed when she slept with men? No verdict is recorded, but it is clear that the court was very confused about how to handle Eleanor’s gender. It is also clear that both someone’s gender identity and how their gender is perceived by their surroundings can have very clear material consequences.

The 19th century and beyond

I am now jumping forward quite a bit in time, but in many ways, the 19th century was a turning point for how trans people were perceived in the West. As Dr Susan Stryker points out: “One of the most powerful tools for social regulation in this period was the rapid development of medical science.” (2008, 36). During this time, sexology and other scientific disciplines started to examine and categorise human sexuality and gender, dividing people into groups and dictating what was normal and abnormal. One such researcher was the Austrian Karl Heinrich Ulrichs who published a series of booklets in 1864-1865. In these booklets, he described people who he called “urnings” that he described as having a female soul enclosed within a male body. This term encompassed both what we might today call homosexuality and transgender. Over the next couple of decades, several other researchers proposed different terms to describe trans people, with the only one that has really survived until today being “transvestite”, as suggested by German sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld in 1910. While the usage of that word is slightly different today, Hirschfeld originally used it to (more or less) mean someone who dressed or lived as another sex than they were assigned at birth (Bychowski 2021). It is also worth noting that in his book Die Transvestiten, Hirschfeld actually discusses the life of Saint Marinos which I also mentioned above. Besides being a scholar, Hirschfeld also advocated for LGBTQ+ people (he was gay himself) and he was very involved in the queer community in Berlin at the time.

Picture of a costume party at Hirschfeld’s Institute for Sexual Science, Hirschfeld is seated to the right, adorned with a spectacular moustache and wearing a suit.

I’ll return to Hirschfeld shortly, but before moving too far into the 20th century I would like to touch a bit more on the 19th century.

Because another relevant event to discuss is the way gender nonconforming expressions started to become more formally criminalised during the 19th century, especially in the U.S. While gender nonconformity had hardly been approved of earlier either, in the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, a wave of anti cross-dressing laws became enacted across the U.S. These were often municipal laws and were enacted in 40 American municipalities between 1848 to 1974. As Stryker notes, there isn’t much historical research to explain the sudden explosion of such laws in the latter half of the 19th century, but one explanation might be the rise of modern industrial cities (2008, 33). In such places, people had more opportunities to express their sense of gender than they might have had in close-knit communities in smaller towns. Another contributing factor to these anti cross-dressing laws was the rise of feminism, and with it calls for dress reform allowing for women to wear pants. But another important aspect to consider is the immigration to the US from a variety of Asian countries, especially on the West Coast. As Stryker notes:

Gold rush-era newspapers are full of stories about how difficult it was for European Americans to tell Chinese men apart from Chinese women, because they all wore their hair long and dressed in silky pajamalike costumes. To understand the historical conditions for contemporary transgender activism, we thus have to take into account race, class, culture, sexuality, and sexism and we have to develop an understanding of the ways that U.S. society has fostered conditions of inequality and injustice for people who aren’t white, male, heterosexual and middle class- in addition to understanding the difficulties particularly associated with engaging in transgender practices.

(Stryker 2008, 36)

As I have mentioned previously in this essay, norms of gender are heavily culture dependant, and Europeans (and European Americans) have a long history of judging other cultures as inferior because of their perspectives on gender. It is also worth noting that while cross-dressing and dressing in certain cultural clothing was being criminalised, so-called freak shows were busy exhibiting people whose appearance would have been criminalised in public (Sears 2008). In such a way, these people were doubly classified as abnormal: their existence was both criminalised and made into something freakish to be shown off at a show. Sears even mentions one person who after having been arrested for cross-dressing, got recruited by a freak show who made use of their infamy when advertising the show.

Now, I would like to return across the Atlantic to Europe, and Germany… As mentioned previously, Magnus Hirschfeld was one of the more significant sexologists there at the turn of the century (Stryker 2008, 39). But he didn’t just research trans people, he was also an early advocate for them. For instance, he worked with the Berlin police department to end the harassment of trans people, and he employed trans people at his institute (as receptionists and maids, but still). Said institute was called Institut für Sexualwissenschaft (”the Institute for Sexual Science”) and was opened in 1919. There Hirschfeld and his colleagues held lectures and collected historical documents detailing the diversity of sexuality and gender throughout the world. They also had a clinic, where trans people could receive gender-affirming treatments starting in the early 1920s (Holm 2020). It was there the world’s first documented gender-affirming genital surgery was performed in 1931, on one of Hirschfeld’s employees and friends, Dora Richter.

Picture of Dora Richter.

Later during the same year, Lili Elbe (who some might know from the movie The Danish Girl) received the same treatment at the institute. Unfortunately, the institute was attacked by Nazis in 1933, its books burned, and many of those working there were killed (Stryker 2008, 40). Hirschfeld himself survived, not being in Germany at the time.

Burning of the Institute for Sexual Science’s library (Stryker 2008, 40).

Even if much research was destroyed in the destruction of the Institute for Sexual Science, not all knowledge was lost. One key example of this can be seen in the person of Harry Benjamin, a former colleague of Hirschfeld who had migrated to the U.S. in 1913 yet had remained in contact with Hirschfeld for several years (Stryker 2008, 45). In the U.S. Benjamin eventually ended up being one of the leading medical authorities on trans people. For example, he advised on a court case in San Francisco in 1949, arguing against the opinion of other experts (including Alfred Kinsey) who thought that:

…transsexual genital modification would constitute ‘mayhem’ (the willful destruction of healthy tissue) and would expose any surgeon who performed such an operation to possible criminal prosecution. That opinion cast a pall, lasting for years, over efforts by U.S. transgender people to gain access to transsexual medical procedures in their own countries.

(Stryker 2008, 45)

As is hinted at in that quote, however, treatments were available in other countries, for instance in Europe. This was something for instance Christine Jorgensen, who can perhaps be called the world’s first modern trans celebrity, made use of when she travelled to Denmark in 1951 to receive gender-affirming surgery.

Picture of a newspaper cover from Daily News with the headline “EX-GI BECOMES BLONDE BEAUTY- Operations Transform Bronx Youth” with a picture of Christine Jorgensen before and after gender-affirming treatments.

This immediately made Denmark famous for allowing trans people access to gender-affirming treatments, although as Holm notes, this also led them to quickly stop allowing non-Danish citizens access to such treatments (Holm 2017, 36). In the U.S. gender-affirming treatments slowly started to become more accessible during the 60s and 70s, but mainly through university-based research programs (Stryker 2008, 93). This was partly thanks to Harry Benjamin, who had in 1966 published a book called The Transgender Phenomena. In this book, he argued that trans people should be given access to medical treatments, instead of being subjected to psychotherapy. He also proposed diagnostics criteria and medical treatments that have influenced trans health care worldwide way into the 21st century (Krieg 2013). It should therefore be noted that while Benjamin did a lot for the transgender community of his time, many trans scholars and activists today criticise the way his work is still used today (eg. Krieg 2013).

Even while this was all happening, queer and trans communities were being formed both in the U.S. and other parts of the world, taking up more and more visible space. Or rather, some did. As Susan Stryker notes, while many white suburban trans people organised discreetly in private, trans people of colour in urban settings were often decidedly more visible (Stryker 2008, 56). One example of this was the drag ball subculture emerging in several American cities. But another example is of course the increasing activism and resistance shown by especially poor queer and trans people of colour. The most famous example of this, which has often been called the start of the modern LGBTQ+ movement, is of course the Stonewall Riots in 1969. There queer people, the majority being poor and/or people of colour, fought back against police brutality, racism, homophobia, and transphobia.

Picture of Marsha P. Johnson, Joseph Ratanski, and Sylvia Rivera at the Christopher Street Liberation Day Parade in 1970, organised in honour of the Stonewall Riot. Picture by Leonard Flink.

But Stonewall wasn’t the first such instance, a very similar one happened at Compton’s Cafeteria in the Tenderloin neighbourhood San Francisco in 1966. As Stryker describes it:

One weekend night in August- the precise date is unknown- Compton’s, a twenty-four-hour cafeteria at the corner of Turk and Taylor streets, was buzzing with its usual late-night crowd of drag queens, hustlers, slummers, cruisers, runaway teens, and down-and-out neighbourhood regulars. The restaurant’s management became annoyed by a noisy young crowd of queens at one table who seemed to be spending a lot of time without spending a lot of money, and called in the police to roust them- as it had been doing with increasing frequency throughout the summer. A surly police officer, accustomed to manhandling Compton’s clientele with impunity, grabbed the arm of one of the queens and tried to drag her away. She unexpectedly threw her coffee in his face, however, and a melee erupted: Plates, trays, cups and silverware flew through the air at the startled police officers, who ran outside and called for backup.

(Stryker 2008, 64-65)

As Stryker notes, a variety of societal factors impacted the outcome at Compton’s Cafeteria, one of the main ones being that the residents of the area were very socially disadvantaged on several levels. This was especially true for trans women who often had very few options both regards to where to live and where to work due to discrimination. They were also often harassed by police, often being arrested for selling sex, regardless if they did so or not, and were then mistreated in a variety of horrible ways. But by 1966 some changes had begun happening, and the inhabitants of the area had begun to organise in a variety of ways, including getting involved in anti-poverty activism. One consequence of this organising was the formation of the organisation Vanguard, an organisation mostly made up of “young gay hustlers and transgender people.” (Stryker 2008, 70) Being formed in the summer of 1966, this was the first known queer youth organisation in the U.S. Considering this background, it’s not surprising that the queens at Compton’s Cafeteria had enough of the police’s harassment and decided to fight back.

Yet, with the increasing trans activism across the U.S. there came a backlash too, of course. This happened in a variety of ways, but one I thought especially worth noting is the backlash within the feminist movement. The opposition to trans people in feminism can be said to have started in the early 1970s, with some feminists arguing that trans people should not be welcome in feminist spaces, and trans women especially should not be welcome in women-only spaces (Stryker 2008). By the late 70s, this view was being expressed by feminist scholars as well, with for instance feminist theologian Mary Daly calling transsexuality a “necrophilic invasion” of women’s spaces. But it was perhaps another scholar, Janice G Raymond who would leave the biggest mark on anti-trans feminism, influencing people for decades to come. In 1979, Raymond published her book The Transsexual Empire: The Making of the She-Male where she, among other things writes “I contend that the problem of transsexualism would be best served by morally mandating it out of existence.” (quoted in Stryker 2008, 109) She also writes the following about trans women (TW sexual violence):

Rape, of course, is a masculinist violation of bodily integrity. All transsexuals rape women’s bodies by reducing the real female form to an artifact, appropriating this body for themselves. However, the transsexually constructed lesbian-feminist violates women’s sexuality and spirit, as well. Rape, although it is usually done by force, can also be accomplished by deception. It is significant that in the case of the transsexually constructed lesbian-feminist, often he [sic] is able to gain entrance and a dominant position in women’s spaces because the women involved do not know he [sic] is a transsexual and he [sic] just does not happen to mention it. (…) Because transsexuals have lost their physical ‘members’ does not mean that they have lost their ability to penetrate women—women’s mind, women’s space, women’s sexuality.

(Raymond 1979, 134)

Raymond’s argument is basically that not only are trans women not women, but by “appropriating” female bodies they exploit women. And if trans women want to join women-only spaces, that is a violation. If this sounds familiar, it is because many anti-trans feminists use similar arguments today as well. It is as hateful and untrue now as it was then.


I will stop here, at the beginning of the 1980s, with trans people fighting back against oppression, and their oppressors fighting them in return. In many ways things have of course changed since then, we have more legal equality in many countries, but in other ways, it feels like we are stuck in the same type of backlash again. Globally, the situation for trans people is currently getting worse again (Pearce; Erikainen & Vincent 2020). There is increased societal backlash against trans people in many places, and anti-trans legislation is also being introduced in many countries. We are also in the middle of what Pearce, Erikainen and Vincent call the “TERF-wars”, with anti-trans feminism running rampant. In many current debates, it is claimed that trans identities are something new, just some trend that young people are following. I hope that this essay has helped make it clear that this is most definitely not the case. Across the world, we have evidence that gender diverse people who don’t fit into Western binary gender norms has always existed. Even if one would just focus on the West, there is evidence as far back as the Iron Age that gender nonconforming people existed. There is evidence of medieval trans people who lived and died, as another gender than they were assigned at birth. And in modern times, we have had access to gender-affirming treatments for trans people for a hundred years. Trans people are not a trend, and we will not be erased.

This essay was edited on March 31st 2022 to include a reference to a post by Dr Liisa-Rávná Finbog (2022).


All Lit Up. 2019. “Poetry in Motion: You Are Enough.” Blog post, January 10, 2019.

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.

Boellstorff, Tom, Mauro Babral, Micha Cárdenas, Trystan Cotton, Eric A. Stanley & Aren Z. Aizura. 2014. “Decolonizing Transgender: A Roundtable Discussion.” TSQ: Transgender Studies Quarterly. 1(3): 419-439.

Bychowski, M.W. 2018. “Were there Transgender People in the Middle Ages?” The Public Medievalist, November 1, 2018.

Bychowski, M.W. 2021. “The Authentic Lives of Transgender Saints: Imago Dei and imiatio Christi in the Life of St Marinos the Monk.” In Trans and Genderqueer Subjects in Medieval Hagiography, eds Alicia Spencer-Hall & Blake Gutt, 245-265. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press.

Colwill, Lee. 2021. «The Queerly Departed: Narratives of Veneration in the Burials of Late Iron Age Scandinavia.” In Trans and Genderqueer Subjects in Medieval Hagiography, eds. Alicia Spencer-Hall & Blake Gutt, 177-197. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press.

Farrell, Andrew. 2015. “Can You See Me? Queer Margins in Aboriginal Communities” Journal of Global Indigeneity, 1(1).

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

Finbog, Liisa-Rávná. 2022. ”On the toxicity of colonial sexuality and gender-structures.” Instagram photo, March 28, 2022.

Finn Enke, A. 2012. “Note on Terms and Concepts.” In Transfeminist Perspectives in and beyond Transgender and Gender Studies, eds. Finn Enke, A., 16-20. Temple University Press: Philadelphia.

Hodge, Dino. Colouring the Rainbow: Blak Queer and Trans perspectives – Life Stories and Essays By First Nations People of Australia. Adaleine: Wakefield Press.

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

Holm, Sølve M. 2020.“Current and Historical Notions of Sexed Embodiment and Transition in Relation to Lili Elvenes.” In Man into woman : a comparative scholarly edition, eds. Sabine Meyer & Pamala L. Caughie. New York: Bloomsbury Academic.

Káddja Valkaepää, Sunná. 2021. ” Sámi queer words are coming!” Instagram video, April 1, 2021.

Krieg, Josephine. 2013. “A Social Model of Trans and Crip Theory. Narratives and Strategies in the Redefinition of the Pathologized Trans Subject.” lambda nordica 3-4/2013, 33-53

Laing, Marie. N.d. Two-Spirit: Conversations with Young Two-Spirit, Trans and Queer Indigenous People in Toronto.

Lifjell, Ole-Henrik B. 2021. ”-skeiv same-« Instagram photo, Mars 14, 2021.

Märak, Timimie & M-Á. Ivvár Ovllá Nilla Pinja. 2021. “❤🧡💛💚💙💜 #native2native #queer2queer talk with @pinjapiezki ❤🧡💛💚💙💜🖤” Instagram video, April 2, 2021.

Newman, Martha G. 2021. ”Assigned Female at Death: Joseph of Schönau and the Disruption of Medieval Gender Binaries.” In Trans and Genderqueer Subjects in Medieval Hagiography, eds. Alicia Spencer-Hall & Blake Gutt, 43-64. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press.

PacificHeartbeat. 2019. “Pacific Pulse 107- Lady Eva.” Youtube video, April 25, 2019.

Pearce, Ruth, Sonja Erikainen & Ben Vincent. 2020. ”TERF wars: An introduction.” The Sociological Review Monographs 68(4) 677-698.

Raymond, Janice. 1979/2006. “Sappho by Surgery: The Transsexually Constructed Lesbian-Feminist.” In The Transgender Studies Reader, eds. Susan Stryker and Stephen Whittle, 131-143. New York: Routledge.

Roen, Katrina. 2006. “Transgender Theory and Embodiment: The Risk of Racial Marginalization.” In The Transgender Studies Reader, eds. Susan Stryker & Stephen Whittle, 656-665. New York: Routledge.

Sandberg McGuinne, Johan. 2021. “Queer terminology in South and Ume Saami.” Instagram story, April 2, 2021. (saved Instagram story under the highlight Saepmie, slide 26-27)

Sears, Clare. 2008. “Electric Brilliancy: Cross-Dressing Law and Freak Show Displays in Nineteenth-Century San Francisco.” WSQ: Women’s Studies Quarterly, 36(3 & 4):170-187.

Spencer-Hall, Alicia & Blake Gutt. 2021. “Introduction.” In Trans and Genderqueer Subjects in Medieval Hagiography, eds. Alicia Spencer-Hall & Blake Gutt, 11-40. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press.

Stryker, Susan. 2008. Transgender History. Berkley: Seal Press.

O’Sullivan S. 2021. “The Colonial Project of Gender (and Everything Else).” Genealogy 5(3):67.

The Kumu Hima Project. n.d. KUMU HIMA.

The Kumu Hima Project. 2015. ”The Meaning of Mahu.” Youtube video, April 3, 2015.

them. 2018. “What Does ”Two-Spirit” Mean? | InQueery | them.” Youtube video, December 11, 2018.

Tripathi Narayan, Laxmi. 2018. “Demystifying Gender in Indian Culture | Laxmi Narayan Tripathi | TEDxAcropolisGroupofInstitutions.”

Turek, J. 2016. “Sex, Transsexuality and Archaeological Perception of Gender Identities.” Archaeologies 12: 340–358.

Twist, Arielle. n.d. [Website]

Waples-Crowe, Peter. n.d. “InsideOUT.” Bent Street: A Journal of Australian LGBTQA+ Arts, Writing & Ideas.

Weedon, Alan. 2019. “Fa’afafine, fakaleitī, fakafifine — understanding the Pacific’s alternative gender expressions.” ABC News, August 31, 2019.

Weismantel, Mary. 2013. “Toward a Transgender Archaeology: A Queer Rampage Through Prehistory.” In The Transgender Studies Reader 2, eds. Susan Stryker & Aren Z. Aizura, 319-335. New York: Routledge.

Wright, Vanessa. 2021. “Illuminating Queer Gender Identity in the Manuscripts of the Vie de sainte Eufrosine.” In Trans and Genderqueer Subjects in Medieval Hagiography, eds. Alicia Spencer-Hall & Blake Gutt, 155-176. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press.

A MOST UNCOMMON WOMAN: Cersei Lannister’s Gender Trouble

By: Lo the Lynx and Rohanne Lily

Art by annasassiart


  • This essay often uses the term “non-cis” when describing Cersei to avoid giving her a label when she likely wouldn’t label herself
  • We think it is important to mention who we are/our identities to contextualize the analysis and show how our lived queer experiences contribute to it. Rohanne Lily is a cisgender lesbian woman. Lo is a genderqueer trans person (who’d also describe their sexuality as queer).
  • This essay is not about exploring whether Cersei’s attraction to Taena is genuine queer desire, and functions under the beliefs that 1. it is 2. that her sex scene with Taena is absolutely about her trauma with Robert and also her complicated same-sex desire/how trauma informs it. Co-author RL has already discussed this extensively in various places including The Learned Hands Podcast’s “Let’s Talk About Sex Part II” episode, Through The Moon Door’s “Gays of Thrones” episode, and Aemy Blackfyre’s “The Lioness and The Dragon Lady: Cersei Analysis” episode. This essay does not engage with arguments that she has sex with Taena exclusively as a way to know how Robert felt while raping her or only as a reaction to her sexual assault, without genuine attraction to Taena. Sex and power are inextriably intertwined, and not only Cersei but also many humans experience sexual desire in ways that are linked to desire for power/control far from limited to sexual dominance. This article also does not intend to glamorize or endorse the practice of sex without consent when discussing this scene, and the authors sincerely apologize and can revise if this was not clear in the essay.


As Pycelle once puts it, Cersei is certainly “a most uncommon woman.” Raised in the Lannister household by Tywin, Cersei experienced both immense socioeconomic privilege and immense sexism from a young age. She later was married off to King Robert, earning her one of the highest positions in the land and an abusive husband. All of this has resulted in Cersei having seemingly endless bitterness toward her social position as a woman. Due to her privilege she is more able to question the limitations of being gendered as “woman” because of all women in Westeros, she has the fewest other barriers to power and respect. As a member of the richest family in and the queen of the seven kingdoms, and as a white woman, essentially every other form of discrimination besides sexism does not harm her and in fact empowers her. Because her gender is the only thing different between her and a man in her exact social position, she is able to isolate it as the cause of her unhappiness and differential treatment, as opposed to, for example, a “lowborn” woman whose gender and socioeconomic class both disenfranchise her. 

On several occasions, Cersei expresses how she wishes that she had born a man, and it’s clear that she resents the social position she has been put in. In our opinion, there are multiple ways of interpreting this discomfort and unhappiness with her assigned gender. One could see it as anger and resentment toward a patriarchal society which disempowers her and has hurt her through her life in many ways, including sexual abuse. Or one could see it as an expression of how she doesn’t identify with her assigned gender and that she could be read as a trans/gender nonconforming or at least a non-cis character. In this essay, we will explore both those possibilities in order to dig deeper into Cersei’s relationship with both her own gender and her place in society.


Art by cabepfir

In many ways, Cersei consistently “troubles” both Westerosi and contemporary notions of gender. As influential gender scholar Dr Judith Butler puts it, in order for one’s gender to be seen as coherent in the eyes of society, one’s sex, gender, and desire must match up in the way society expects (Butler 1990). To be a “real woman” you have to be born with a vagina, identify and act as a woman, and have sex with men. If you don’t fulfill those criteria, for instance if you’re a lesbian woman and/or a trans woman, you’re often labeled as not being a proper woman. In this sense, Cersei certainly troubles gender since she both has desires toward women and often acts in a manner that society would deem masculine, particularly that her main motivation is arguably gaining power. Just because you trouble or queer gender, however, doesn’t mean you are trans. You can obviously consider yourself to be a woman and have traits society codes as masculine, because society has a limited way of understanding gender. But trans people do of course also trouble established gender norms. A useful definition of what it means to be trans comes from scholar Dr Susan Stryker:

(…) people who move away from the gender they were assigned at birth, people who cross (trans-) the boundaries constructed by their culture to define and contain that gender. Some people move away from their birth-assigned gender because they feel strongly that they properly belong to another gender in which it would be better for them to live; others want to strike out toward some new location, some space not yet clearly defined or concreatly occupied; still others simply feel the need to get away from the conventional expectation bound up with the gender that was initially put upon them. In any case, it is the movement across a socital imposed boundery away from an unchosen starting place– rather than any particular destination or mode of transition- that best characterizes the concept of ‘transgender’(…)

(Stryker 2008, 1)

So, there are many different ways to be trans, but what can be said broadly is that trans people move away from the gender they were assigned at birth. You could also say that trans people (and non-binary, genderqueer, etc people) often disidentify with their assigned gender, having a felt sense of gender that instead aligns with another binary gender or as something beside binary genders. Co-author Lo the Lynx have written extensively about this topic before . What is important to note, however, is that not everyone who fits this definition of trans would see themselves as trans. As Lo has written about, some non-binary people, for instance, doesn’t use that term because they feel like it connotates identities and experiences that are far away from their own. Furthermore, some people might not like to label themselves at all. 

So, how does Cersei’s experience and inner life match up with this definition of being trans? One of the more obvious ways is how she on several occasions describes herself using masculine terms, such as:

I am the only true son he ever had.

(AFFC, Cersei II)

Lord Tywin’s eyes are closed forever now, Cersei thought. It is my look they will flinch from now, my frown that they must fear. I am a lion too.

(AFFC, Cersei II)

It pleased her to think she made a better king than Robert.

(AFFC, Cersei VII)

In these instances she describes herself as a son, lion (not lioness), and king. This hints at a masculine identification, and seeing herself as more masculine than feminine. On other occasions, she expresses wanting to be a man and having a “male” body:

“She hated feeling weak. If the gods had given her the strength they gave Jaime or that swaggering oaf Robert, she could have made her own escape. Oh for a sword and the skill to wield it. She had a warrior’s heart, but the gods in their blind malice had given her the feeble body of a woman.”

(ADWD, Cersei I)

One part of what she expresses here is clearly about how she wishes she could wield more power in society, similarly to what she says in other instances:

“It is because I am a woman. Because I cannot fight them with a sword. They have Robert more respect than they give me, and Robert was a witless sot.”

(AFFC, Cersei V)

But we would argue that there are hints of a deeper discontent with her assigned gender and her body in the quote from Cersei I in ADWD. This seems similar to the kind of emotions a trans or non-binary people might have about their gender and body, experiencing how one’s own felt sense of oneself clashes with other people’s perception of oneself (Stachowiak 2017).

Another interesting instance of Cersei’s masculine identification is when she thinks about one of the new warships that is being built, and how it has a figurehead in her likeness:

Another of the ships would be named Sweet Cersei, and would bear a gilded figurehead carved in her likeness, clad in mail and lion helm, with spear in hand.

(AFFC, Cersei VI)

It is interesting to note here that this figurehead is created not just in her likeness, but how she would like her likeness to look. Here the figurehead is wearing mail, in what essentially would constitute cross-dressing in Westeros. When reading this, co-author Lo couldn’t help but think of this quote from trans activist Leslie Feinberg’s history book Transgender Warriors:

“Didn’t Joan of Arc wear men’s clothes?” I asked a friend over coffee in 1975. She had a graduate degree in history; I had barely squeaked through high school. I waited for her answer with great anticipation, but she dismissed my question with a wave of her hand. ”It was just armor.” She seemed so sure, but I couldn’t let my question go. Joan of Arc was the only person associated with cross-dressing in history I’d grown up hearing about. I thought a great deal about my friend’s answer. Was the story of Joan of Arc dressing in men’s clothing merely legend? Was wearing armor significant? If a society strictly mandates only men can be warriors, isn’t a woman military leader dressed in armor an example of cross-gendered expression?

(Feinberg 1996, 31)

This topic is something Lo has explored greatly in relation to Brienne (see for instance this essay), but it seems relevant to Cersei’s story too. Cersei seems to wish to express herself in a more gender nonconforming manner, even if she feels limited in her ability to do so—note that she calles this weaponized, masculine version of herself “Sweet Cersei” to perhaps offset the figurehead’s subversion of feminine sweetness, or perhaps to mock that feminine expectation. There is also something to be said about the similarity to how trans and non-binary people in our own world might use different tools and clothing to embody their felt gender. For instance, a trans or non-binary person who is assigned female at birth might use a binder to flatten their chest or simply dress in a more traditionally masculine way. This can be a way to create a more masculine embodiment. So perhaps Cersei’s wish to dress in armor can be seen in a similar way, as her dreaming of a more masculine embodiment.

Art: Bidonicart

Another interesting example of where gendered embodiment is discussed is this quote from Cersei VIII, where Taena says:

It saddens me to see Your Grace so careworn. I say, run off and play and leave the King’s Hand to hear these tiresome petitions. We could dress as serving girls and spend the day amongst the smallfolk, to hear what they are saying of the fall of Dragonstone. I know the inn where the Blue Bard plays when he is not singing attendance on the little queen, and a certain cellar where a conjurer turns lead into gold, water into wine, and girls into boys. Perhaps he would work his spells on the two of us. Would it amuse Your Grace to be a man one night?”

If I were a man I would be Jaime, the queen thought. If I were a man I could rule this realm in my own name in place of Tommen’s.

(AFFC, Cersei VIII)

Perhaps Taena has an inkling that Cersei might like the idea of turning into a man, and Cersei’s internal response confirms that she desires the changes it would bring her. The story Taena shares is also interestingly reminiscent of a real-world queen whose gender expression has fascinated scholars, Queen Christina of Sweden. Christina was queen of Sweden during the 17th century before she abdicated, converted from Protestantism to Catholicism, and moved to Rome. She was known for being very masculine throughout her life, and sometimes preferred to refer to herself as Alexander (Darling n.d.). Another obviously queer aspect of her life is that she was known for having female lovers. But what makes her interesting to consider in relation to the above quote from Cersei VIII is that she was interested in alchemy, which is what it sounds like this conjurer does (turning lead into gold being a famous alchemic goal). A goal of alchemy generally speaking is of course to transform one material into another, turn it into the perfection it has the potential to be. Something Christina was interested in doing with her alchemic pursuits was to change her body from feminine to masculine (Åkerman 2013, 184). As Åkerman notes, based on Christina’s own writing, she described herself as having a male soul in a female body (ibid, 191). She therefore wanted to change her body through alchemy, to transform it to reach its full potential. Christina’s writings even contain records of what she refers to as a prophecy that she was given, which told that she would be turned into a young powerful man called Alexander. As Åkerman notes:

Since Christina, as an ex queen in Rome, used the name Christine Alexandre/Cristina Alexandra, it seems as if the prophecy of this wonderful metamorphosis spoke to her dream of changing herself into a higher androgyne shape, perfecting herself. In this dream, the Aristotelian view of women as underdeveloped men plays a significant part, but also the alchemical vision of polarities and the perfection of that which is incomplete. It is clear that the idea of Christina’s transformation to Alexander is inspired from spiritual-alchemical ideas about rebirth through the exaltation of the body.

(Åkerman 2013, 184) [Lo’s translation]

What Åkerman describes here about Christina resonates in interesting ways with Cersei’s story. For one, the process of changing one’s body through alchemy sounds quite similar to what the conjurer purports to be able to do. Now, Cersei herself doesn’t precisely express a wish to use this conjurer’s powers to change her body. But the suggestion of a wish is still there, and is manifest enough in Cersei’s behavior for Taena to bring it up. Furthermore, Cersei’s thought that if she was a man she would be Jaime merits interest when considering that she occasionally used to dress as Jaime as a child, which we will discuss further later in this essay. Another interesting parallel between Christina and Cersei is in how they both express similar thoughts about the contrast between their inner identity and their bodies. As mentioned above, Christina considered her soul to be male, while Cersei thinks this in A Dance with Dragons: “She had a warrior’s heart, but the gods in their blind malice had given her the feeble body of a woman.” (ADWD, Cersei I) So, it seems like both queens feel a disconnect between their identity and their body. Part of that might be due to internalised misogyny on their parts, but it seems to us that it’s not just that.

To be clear, comparing Cersei to Christina isn’t meant to imply that this is a purposeful parallel by GRRM, rather that it is interesting to compare and contrast these two figures. One clear contrast is of course that Christina willingly gave up the throne, something Cersei would most likely never do (although it should be noted that Christina continued to try to gain different types of political power throughout her life). But there are other interesting differences too. Christina was raised as heir to the throne (being her father’s only child) and thus got a typically masculine upbringing, clearly different from Cersei who wished she could have the type of upbringing her brother had. Furthermore, Christina often dressed in masculine clothing, while Cersei tends to very carefully dress as a proper noble lady is expected to. This leads us to another interesting aspect of Cersei’s relationship to gender, how she expresses it outwardly.


Game of Thrones, season 2 episode 9 ”Blackwater”

Generally speaking, when analysing the way Cersei expresses her gender, it she has learnt how to adeptly perform womanhood even while not necessarily identifying with it. Some examples of this are:

“Certain things are expected of a queen.”

(ACOK, Sansa VI)

Bad enough I must wear mourning again. Black had never been a happy color on her. With her fair skin, it made her look half a corpse herself. Cersei had risen an hour before dawn to bathe and fix her hair, and she did not intend to let the rain destroy her efforts. (AFFC, Cersei II)

(AFFC, Cersei II)

She had played the dutiful daughter, the blushing bride, the pliant wife.

(AFFC, Cersei V)

As these quotes show, Cersei knows what is required of her, and often plays her part even if she resents it. One way of understanding this is through what Dr Sara Ahmed writes about womanhood, how it’s an assignment given to some, a task, and imperative. 

No one is born a woman; it is an assignment (…) that can shape us; make us; and break us. Many women who were assigned female at birth, let us remind ourselves, are deemed not women in the right way, or not women at all, perhaps because of how they do or do not express themselves (they are too good at sports, not feminine enough because of their bodily shape, comportment, or conduct, not heterosexual, not mothers, and so on). Part of the difficulty of the category of woman is what follows residing in that category, as well as what follows not residing in that category because of the body you acquire, the desires you have, the paths you follow or do not follow. There can be violence at stake in being recognizable as women; there can be violence at stake in not being recognizable as women.

(Ahmed 2017, 15)

As Cersei well knows, there certainly exists a risk of violence when residing in the category of woman, one just has to look at the abuse she suffered by her husband. Yet, she seems to realise that if she strays too far from the assignment she has been given, she faces risks as well. Arguably, what befalls her in the end of ADWD with her walk of shame is because she has strayed too far from the accepted path of womanhood (at least in the eyes of the men in power). So Cersei tries to balance on this seeming knife’s edge of both rejecting the assignment of womanhood, and not rejecting it too much, still making use of it. 

Another example of her ambiguous relationship with her gender is her relationship to motherhood, and to the Mother. She is sometimes associated with the Mother, for instance by Catelyn:

”Does Cersei pray to you too, my lady?” Catelyn asked the Mother. She could see the proud, cold, lovely features of the Lannister queen etched upon the wall. (ACOK, Catelyn IV)

(ACOK, Catelyn IV)

Yet, as Cersei herself says (to the Blue Bard): “I am not your mother.” (AFFC, Cersei IX) Through her selfish form of parenting, she rejects the position given to her of mother, of someone expected to be soft and caring. Another interesting passage of Cersei, gods, and gender comes from Jaime:

I thought that I was the Warrior and Cersei was the Maid, but all the time she was the Stranger, hiding her true face from my gaze.

(AFFC, Jaime IV)

That Jaime likens Cersei with the Stranger is very interesting considering what the Stranger tends to represent. As Lo has pointed out elsewhere, the Stranger tends to be tied up with (among other things) gender nonconformity, monstrosity, and death. As the only genderless god of the Seven, the Stranger often represents liminality but also the abject. As feminist scholar Julia Kristeva might put it, the abject is that which is uncomfortably close to us (the subjects) but which is impossible to assimilate into ourselves (Kristeva 1984). The abject represents that which we reject for being unbearable and unthinkable, but still resides inside ourselves. For the subject to come into being, it needs to reject the abject which we see in ourselves, but also that which we see in others. For us to make sense as people, not just to ourselves but also to others, we must reject that which is abject, monstrous, weird. So that Cersei becomes associated with this abject genderless god in Jaime’s eyes is defenitly interesting. It’s clear that Jaime has started to not see her as the perfect woman anymore, but more as something strange. No longer the feminine maid to balance out his masculine warrior, but as the nonconforming strangeness that threatens to distable the neat gender binary. In that way, Cersei seems more similar to Brienne than a mother like Catelyn, who while she strains against gendered restraints, still ultimately seems comfortable with her womanhood. And as Lo has written about previously, the way Brienne gets positioned as a freakish abject by those around her is one of the reasons why she can be read as trans/genderqueer. 

Now, even if one thinks some of the above mentioned trans aspects fit Cersei, it is in our opinion important to be careful when labelling someone as trans, be they a fictional character or a real historical person. There’s a big danger both in telling a trans person that they aren’t trans and that they simply dislike gender norms and telling a cis person they are trans if they dislike gender norms. One obvious thing to consider is how the language of trans, non-binary, or genderqueer wouldn’t be avaible to Cersei or someone who lived in the Middle Ages of our world. Still, research tells us that gender nonconforming people did live then, and maybe some of them would describe themselves as trans or non-binary if they had access to that language (eg. Bychowski 2018). As it stands, however, we can only make use of the vocabulary and concepts that we know. As Dr Sølve M. Holm puts it when writing about their work analysing historical trans autobiographies:

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.

(Holm 2017, 70)

This way of thinking can be applied while analyzing Cersei too; she can only work with the concepts and narrative models that are available to her.

This leads us to reasons for cishet (cisgender, heterosexual) readers to be careful with interpreting Cersei as not being cisgender.


Art: Sanrixian (website)

One drawback of reading Cersei as non-cis is potentially committing the the same errors as Westerosi society by conflating strength/the desire to be “strong” as masculine and weakness/complacency with being seen and treated as inferior as feminine. As Race for The Iron Throne writes, to do this makes outward markers of gendered power congruent with lived experiences of gender, although her conception of masculinity does in fact extend to bodies as we will later explore :

Cersei doesn’t necessarily want to be a man, she wants to be treated like a man, with all of the privileges that come with being a highborn male. Cersei’s conception of masculinity is focused almost entirely on warfare (an interest she shares with Jaime) and inheritance (an interest that she does not share with Jaime, although it is one that Tyrion shares), as opposed to bodies. 

When I (co-author RL) initially read Monique Wittig’s work describing that “the lesbian is not a woman” because lesbians’ same-sex desire transgresses heteropatrarchal definitions of womanhood as heterosexual and passive, I simultaneously felt liberated in my rebel status and wondered “why don’t we expand our definition of womanhood to make it queer and more inclusive, instead of maintaining such a narrow definition of womanhood circumscribed by heteropatiarchy?” In a similar vein, reading Cersei as existing outside womanhood because she longs to transgress a conventional definition of “woman” threatens to reify the oppressive and arbitrary definition that causes her and many women so much pain. To say someone who resents her assigned sex and gender because her assigned sex and gender directly cause her experiences of trauma and powerlessness is therefore not a woman, potentially reinforces a binaristic prescriptions of gender that leads to violence against women, especially women who don’t conform to conventional definitions of womanhood. 

One of Cersei’s most vulnerable moments illustrates how living in a world that inextricably links womanhood with trauma creates a dysphoria based more on wanting privileges men have and wanting to avoid the pain women suffer than wanting manhood or non-womanhood. When Cersei learns Myrcella has been placed into an arranged marriage with Prince Trystane of Dorne, she summons Tyrion to her chamber to let him know her anger. “Myrcella is my only daughter. Did you truly imagine that I would allow you to sell her like a bag of oats?” she asks him, before understandably insisting “I say that Myrcella will not be shipped off to this Dornishman the way I was shipped to Robert Baratheon.” In light of the A Feast For Crows revelation that Robert brutally raped Cersei, we can understand why learning her own daughter might share the same fate so deeply impacts her, for then “Cersei began to cry.” Tyrion “had not seen his sister weep since they were children together at Casterly Rock,” but she rejects his overture of comfort, replying to his assurance that “nothing will happen to Myrcella,” with:

“Liar,” she said behind him. “I’m not a child, to be soothed with empty promises. You told me you would free Jaime too. Well, where is he?”

“In Riverrun, I should imagine. Safe and under guard, until I find a way to free him.”

Cersei sniffed. “I should have been born a man. I would have no need of any of you then. None of this would have been allowed to happen. How could Jaime let himself be captured by that boy? And Father, I trusted in him, fool that I am, but where is he now that he’s wanted? What is he doing? ”

(ACOK, Tyrion V)

When Cersei says she “should have been born a man,” we can interpret this as her saying she should have been born with the assurance that she would be taught to protect herself and her loved ones, not subject to being sold off to a rapist by a father who claimed to love her and having her daughter sold off to a stranger by a brother who poisons her within the same book and, at one point in A Dance With Dragons, expresses glee at the prospect of raping her. Under patriarchy, women have not been given the tools to protect themselves and have instead been made reliant on men who use and abuse them for protection. Small wonder, then, that Cersei should want to determine her own fate, to “sooner face any number of swords than sit helpless like this.” Cersei, in her position as even the most powerful woman in Westeros is a woman nonetheless, and has to rely on men to dictate her life’s path. Very little about her life is in her control no matter how hard she tries, and instead is always in the hands of men, even her own daughter’s fate, which she so desperately wants to be unlike the fate that led to her rape. 

Without any reason to believe Myrcella won’t share the same fate, Cersei recognizes that just because of her genitalia, society does not let her protect herself or, by extension, her loved ones. Cersei therefore rages at men squandering their opportunities to fulfill their role as protectors, including self-protection (“How could Jaime let himself be captured by that boy?”). She fantasizes about how she could do a better job at serving herself if she had a man’s power than any man has done in serving her. Myrcella’s marriage makes Cersei have to confront how she’s been denied a chance at self-determination based on something as meaningless and arbitrary as what’s between her legs, and confronting how arbitrary and meaningless this is makes her finally cry. Writing off the pain and anger of a woman who resents this as them being less of a woman because she resents something that is unjust lets the men who create the patriarchal standards they rage against off the hook. As Soraya Chemaly writes in Rage Becomes Her: The Power of Women’s Anger, anger and pain signals to women that their circumstances are unjust, and that society, rather than themselves, need to change: 

In truth, anger in girls is highly rational…They acutely feel the very real disparate impact of limitations on their physical freedom and behavior. Feelings of anger become enmeshed in ideas about being ‘good’ and about beauty, bodies, food, relationships, and power. Experiences like these provoke frustration, depression, anxiety, and sometimes violence in even the most rational men.

(Chemaly 2018, 22)

Thus reading her hatred of her assigned gender potentially reifies the misogynistic view of “anger [in women] as unfeminine, unnattractive, and selfish” (Chemaly 2018, xvi). It is our impression that cishet readers sometimes characterize Cersei’s rage at her treatment as a woman as non-cis/distancing her from womanhood itself because they cannot tolerate that many women “want a storm to match [their] rage,” and that this is part of women’s experiences. 

Relatedly, automatically assuming Cersei is trans based on her hatred of womanhood and her internalized misogyny could incorrectly conflate misogyny with transmasculine identity. This therefore replicates the mistaken transphobic idea that people assigned female at birth who transition hate womanhood and women. Thinking Cersei is trans because she looks down on women, speaks of them hatefully, and sees herself as superior to all other women, could be in line with “gender-criticals” who assume trans people assigned female at birth are being anti-feminist or misogynistic by not aligning with womanhood (for more discussion on this, see for instance Carrera-Fernández & DePalma 2020). Trans identity is about more than just rejecting gender norms or suffering from internalised misogyny, something that Lo has written about previously


Art: Lady-Junina

Some cisgender and heterosexual commentors—especially, but likely not coniceicentally men—have read Cersei as not-cis because she mentally assumes a male role during sex with Taena Merryweather. Yet this reinforces stereotypical and dangerous ideas cishet people have often imposed onto queer women to discredit their sexuality and fit it into binaristic heteropatriachal standards (see preface at the start of this essay for trauma discussion). As co-author Rohanne has discussed on numerous occasions mentioned in preface note, Cersei’s assumption of what she believes to be a “male” role during sex with Taena appears to be her way of rationalizing and justifying her same-sex attraction. Her desire to be a man in this instance is more accurately a desire to be able to freely feel and explore her attraction to Taena within a world that defines attraction to women as masculine. Cersei lives within a binaristic system in which only men can be “allowed” to desire women. Therefore, when Cersei finds herself attracted to Taena throughout the book, it is logical that she’d ascribe her desire to have sex with Taena as part of her gender envy. 

Her attraction has no framework or language within Westeros, a world that does not have labels for queer desire. As Monique Wittig explored when she wrote that “the lesbian is not a woman,” queer women’s desire and sexuality inherently violates feminine gender norms and makes us gender outlaws. To deduce that Cersei is not a woman because she takes on an aggressive, dominant role during sex that the world she lives in defines as a male role is to legitimize oppressive notions of what women are and aren’t allowed to desire and feel. Defining Cersei’s sexual experience as simply her “wanting to be a man” overlooks the ways that all people use sex as playground for gender role exploration and power/control exploration. It is reductive in a similar way to the concept that a woman who enjoys penetrating other woman using a dildo/strapon is not cisgender due to this preference (this sentence is not meant to imply that women with this preference have the same trauma-informed mindset, goals, or disregard for consent as Cersei).

Art: ”Cersei’s experiment” by Pojypojy


And yet, as co-author Lo once said to co-author Rohanne in private conversation, people don’t necessarily need a “good” reason to be TGNC. To paraphrase Lo’s comment to the best of my memory, they might identify as such to break from gender norms, and their dysphoria might come from a desire to gain power rather than the traditional narrative of someone who transitions because they “feel wrong in their body.” As mentioned above in regards to the parallels between Cersei and Queen Christina, someone can experience dysphoria and wish they could have the social position of a man because it gives them more power in a patriarchal world. Someone can disidentify with the female gender they were assigned at birth and have internalised misogyny. Things are rarely straightforward or black and white, so it is absolutely possible that Cersei’s feelings about her gender comes from a mix of dysphoria, wanting power, and having been traumatised through her position as a woman.

One interesting instance to consider when trying to untangle that is how Cersei and Jaime cross-dressed as very young children, prior to Cersei’s gendered use as a political tool, arranged marriage, and rape. As a child, as she recounts to Sansa, she was confused at being seen as different from Jaime based on her assigned sex and gender:

…when we were little, Jaime and I were so much alike that even our lord father could not tell us apart. Sometimes as a lark we would dress in each other’s clothes and spend a whole day each as the other. Yet even so, when Jaime was given his first sword, there was none for me. ‘What do I get?’ I remember asking. We were so much alike, I could never understand why they treated us so differently.

(ACOK, Sansa VI)

Cersei also thinks about this instance in her own point of view chapters:

Men had been looking at her in that way since her breasts began to bud. Because I was so beautiful, they said, but Jaime was beautiful as well, and they never looked at him in that way. When she was small she would sometimes don her brother’s clothing as a lark. She was always startled by how differently men treated her when they thought that she was Jaime. Even Lord Tywin himself…

(AFFC, Cersei IV)

This childhood surpise and difficulty understanding the arbitrary construction of gender, based on the belief that she and Jaime were identical regardless of genetalia, feels different in nature from her bitterness at an older age about how her assigned sex and gender led to her disenfranchisement. In early childhood, Cersei could not possibly know the full implications of being gendered as a woman, but still felt deeply that being gendered as woman and thus treated differently from Jaime did not make sense and was unjust. 

One could also read this instance as a form of disorientation, a sudden feeling of being unsettled. Disorientation can be experienced as the ground suddenly disappears underneath your feet, as if you are suddenly knocked off the path you were following. As Dr. Igi Moon writes, experiencing disorientation is often one of the first steps for trans/non-binary people to realising that they do not identify with their assigned gender (2019). Dr Signe Bremer also writes about how trans people might experience disorientation, and how this can be seen as quite central to the trans experience (2017, 43). Bremer describes disorientation as the embodied experience of gaining awareness of the outside world, while also recognising that one lacks a place in it. She also notes that being trans can be seen as an embodied experience of inhabiting the world uncomfortably, of not comfortably blending into the background of the world but sticking out like a sore thumb. This seems to fit with Cersei’s experience of gender, how she never seems quite comfortable with the gender she was assigned. Perhaps the experimentation as a child was what first made her experience this type of disorientation, yet given the environment she grew up in, she never had the opportunity to explore this much further. 

Art by Azuela89

Although Jaime had the same experience of cross-dressing, which begs more exploration from GRRM, he does not recall or express any feelings of discomfort with being assigned as male after experiencing the world as a little girl. He might be more comfortable with his assignment as male than Cersei was with her assignment as female because it gives him power, but that might not be the only reason that she feels more strongly than he does about their gendering. This points to the tension between recognizing the ways that someone is a gender outlaw while not forcing labels onto them, and the tendency to assume that cisgender people cannot act in gender-nonconforming ways.

To support the analysis we have presented here, we wanted to include comments from Atlas (@dirkapitation on twitter, on tumblr), who writes:

“I don’t think Cersei was meant to read as TGNC, I don’t think GRRM understands what a trans narrative even is, but I do think that Cersei’s characterization in its questionable muddling-together of sexual archetypes is accidentally in some sense representative of certain dysphoric/GNC feelings. What really strikes me, as someone who’s encountered a ton of ‘woman in medieval fantasy universe wishes she were a man so her life would be easier’ characters over the years, about Cersei is that Cersei’s dissatisfaction goes beyond the pragmatic and into the realm of self-conceptualization. We see her feeling agony about not being able to enjoy sex in the body she has, we see her trying to compete with her father and brothers for masculinity, and most importantly (and most exploitatively written, unfortunately) we see her try to literally project herself through the body of the man in her life, to possess his body sexually as a gateway to possessing his body for her own.

We also see her and Jaime going through a sort of narrative ‘inversion’ where, in their actions, Jaime becomes what others see Cersei as (diplomatic, conniving, physically vulnerable) and Cersei becomes what others see Jaime as (impulsive, sadistic, implacable). This isn’t necessarily a trans narrative but I have a hard time not seeing it as gendered simply because the implication is that this isn’t actually a shift as much as who they both ‘truly’ were all along. They had to take on each other’s skin to survive, in a metaphorical sense. And ultimately *not* headcanoning Cersei as TGNC is feels reductive to me personally because it means GRRM ‘gets away’ with the penis envy trope – with portraying a woman wanting to possess a phallus as synonymous with a woman wanting instrumental power, with nothing else, nothing complicated, nothing sexual or relational or individual to it.”

To conclude then, there are many complicated layers to Cersei’s experience of gender. It can be read in several different ways, which we have tried to explore here. So what we really wish to emphasise is that it is important to be a bit careful when analysing Cersei, especially in regards to gender, and especially if you’re not queer/trans yourself. The issues that Cersei struggles with are very real and present in the lives of real queer and TGNC people, and that should be remembered.

References/further reading:

Co-author Rohanne Lily’s fictional exploration of Cersei and TGNC identity: 

Ahmed, Sara. 2017. Living a Feminist Life. Durham: Duke University Press.

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

Butler, Judith. 1990. Gender Trouble. New York: Routledge.

Carrera-Fernández, María Victoria & Renée DePalma. 2020. “Feminism will be transinclusive or it will not be: Why do two cis-hetero woman educators support transfeminism?” The Sociological Review Monographs 68(4): 745–762.

Chemaly, Soraya. 2018. Rage Becomes Her: The Power of Women’s Rage. New York: Simon & Schuster, Inc.

Darling, Laura. N.d. “Kristina: King of Sweden.” Making Queer History

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

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

Kristeva, Julia. 1984. Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. New York:  Columbia. University Press.

Moon, Igi. 2018. “‘Boying’ the boy and ‘girling’ the girl: From affective interpellation to trans-emotionality”, Sexualities, 22 (1-2): 65-79.

Race for the Iron Throne. 2015. “CHAPTER-BY-CHAPTER ANALYSIS: SANSA VI, ACOK” 

Stachowiak, Dana M. 2017. “Queering it up, strutting our threads, and baring our souls: genderqueer individuals negotiating social and felt sense of gender.” Journal of Gender Studies 26(5): 532-543.

Stryker, Susan. 2008. Transgender History. Berkley: Seal Press

Wittig, Monica. 1980. “The straight mind.” Feminist Issues 1: 103–111.

Åkerman, Susanna. Fenixelden: Drottning Kristina som alkemist. Möklinta: Gidlunds förlag.

Davos and the class struggles of Westeros

Even dressed in silk and velvet, an ape remains an ape,” Ser Axell said. ”A wiser prince would have known that you cannot send an ape to do a man’s work.

(A Dance with Dragons, Davos II)

Davos Seaworth is possibly one of the most beloved characters in A Song of Ice and Fire, an honest man who is often hindered in his efforts to do good by other people’s prejudiced views on him. Even as Davos gets awarded a knighthood, then a lordship, and the position as Hand of the King, people such as Axell Florent still see him as an ape dressed in silk and velvet. It is clear that Davos’ low birth impacts how other see him, even as he has one of the highest positions in the realm. So, in this essay I will analyse Davos’ class position in through the ASOIAF books, and through that discuss the structural mechanism which hinders class mobility in Westeros.

As anyone who have any form of familiarity with politics or social science will know, there are many different ways of theorising class differences. In this essay, I’ll mainly rely on one specific one, however, namely the theoretical framework put forth by French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu. Bourdieu’s writing on class and culture has been influential in many academic fields, including (but not limited to) sociology, anthropology, ethnology, culture studies, and gender studies. One of his main contributions to class theory is the way he described how someone’s position in society is not just due to economic capital, but also social capital, cultural capital, and symbolic capital (1987). One’s position in what he calls social space is furthermore dependent on not only the volume of one’s capital, but also the composition of said capital, and one’s trajectory. This essentially means that it matters much capital do you have, how much of each type of capital in comparison to each other you have, and where you started in the social space and where you have moved. I’ll get back to the trajectory aspect, but first I want to describe the different capitals a bit further.

Economic capital refers to, as one might guess, the amount of money one has. Social capital on the other hand refers to what social connections one has, which networks one has access to etc.  But cultural capital is perhaps the most interesting one, and one that becomes very relevant for this analysis. Cultural capital refers to for instance education, knowledge of culture (books, movies, music, etc.), and general taste (in clothes, décor, etc). As Bourdieu argues, different type of cultural capital is valid in different social spaces. In one of his texts, he illustrates this with a diagram, mapping out how people in different professions tend to have different tastes in for instance food and entertainment, and how this tends to correlate to how people vote:

(Bourdieu 1994a, 338)

The ASOIAF equivalent of this would probably be how the smallfolk might hang out in the Inn of the Kneeling Man, drinking ale while listening to bawdy songs sung by Tom of Sevenstreams, while the nobles sit in their high halls, drinking fancy Arbor Gold, and listening to music played on the high harp. What is important to realise here is that while what culture one has access to depends on one’s economic capital (a smallfolk person just can’t afford Arbor Gold), but what “tastes” and cultural capital one possesses also impacts one’s status. In our world we can think of how nouveau-riche people often are perceived as less fancy than those born with money. Bourdieu would explain this by noting that they do not possessing the right cultural capital, they haven’t been brought up with the right “tastes” for their economic class. They don’t have the right clothes, the right décor in their house, they don’t have quite the right manners and ways of speaking. This also relates to another central concept in Bourdieu’s works, namely “habitus.” Bourdieu describes habitus as having a sense of one’s place, and how to act, a sense that is often subconscious.

The habitus, a product of history, produces individual and collective practices- more history- in accordance with the schemes generated by history. It ensures the active presence of past experiences, which, deposited in each organism in the form of schemes of perception, thought and action, tend to guarantee the ‘correctness’ of practices and their constancy over time, more reliably than all formal rules and explicit norms. (…) The habitus- embodied history, internalized as second nature and so forgotten as history- is the active presence of the whole past of which it is the product. (1994b, 348-349)

Another way of saying that would be that our habitus is how we have internalised our class status and the norms that goes with it. We are seldom aware of our habitus, as long as we move in spaces we are used to, because then our habitus match our surroundings. But when we move in differently classed spaces, then we become aware of how we don’t fit in, how we just don’t know the right social codes.

Before I move back to ASOIAF, I just want to touch on two more concepts from Bourdieu’s writings. The first one is symbolic capital, which I mentioned briefly previously. Symbolic capital refers to the form the other capitals take when they are deemed legitimate. An example of this would be how a university degree (especially from a “fancy” university) makes one’s cultural capital (in this sense education) legitimate, and thus it functions as symbolic capital. As Bourdieu notes, for capital to matter, for it to wield any power, people need to believe that it does.

The power of words and commands, the power of words to give orders and bring order, lies in belief in the legitimacy of the words and of the person who utters them. (Bourdieu 1979, 83)

Readers of ASOIAF might very well recognise this sort of concept from Varys’ famous speech about how “power resides where men believe it resides” (A Clash of Kings, Tyrion II). Where people believe power resides are often dependant on what Bourdieu calls “doxa”, which can be described as that which is taken for granted in a specific social field (Bourdieu 2013). Doxa are sort of core beliefs and values that people view as fundamentally true, and that are seldom if ever questioned. So, for instance, a doxa in Westeros might be that a king should rule the realm and that he as king has (more or less) unlimited power.

But how can we use all of this to analyse Davos’ experience? When the books start, Davos is a knight in the service of Stannis Baratheon, with his own lands and keep on Cape Wrath. His knighthood in combination with his lands provides him some cultural and economic capital, and his relationship with Stannis gives him some social capital. Having Stannis as a patron of sorts also legitimises his cultural and economic capital, turning it into symbolic capital. Yet, it is clear from his first chapter that the other nobles don’t fully respect him:

Davos would have given much to know what he was thinking, but one such as Velaryon would never confide in him. The Lord of the Tides was of the blood of ancient Valyria, and his House had thrice provided brides for Targaryen princes; Davos Seaworth stank of fish and onions. It was the same with the other lordlings. He could trust none of them, nor would they ever include him in their private councils. They scorned his sons as well. My grandsons will joust with theirs, though, and one day their blood may wed with mine. In time my little black ship will fly as high as Velaryon’s seahorse or Celtigar’s red crabs.

(A Clash of Kings, Davos I)

From this passage it is clear that Davos lacks a certain social capital, he’s not included in the nobles’ discussions. But it also seems like an issue for Davos is what Bourdieu might call his trajectory, with Davos getting his start with “fish and onions” as he puts it. Since he is lowborn and has risen high, he doesn’t have the same status as knights who were born into nobility. That this is an issue becomes clearer and clearer throughout Davos’ chapters:

Seaworth had a lordly ring to it, but down deep he was still Davos of Flea Bottom, coming home to his city on its three high hills. He knew as much of ships and sails and shores as any man in the Seven Kingdoms, and had fought his share of desperate fights sword to sword on a wet deck. But to this sort of battle he came a maiden, nervous and afraid. Smugglers do not sound warhorns and raise banners. When they smell danger, they raise sail and run before the wind. Had he been admiral, he might have done it all differently. (…) When he had suggested as much to Ser Imry, the Lord High Captain had thanked him courteously, but his eyes were not as polite. Who is this lowborn craven? those eyes asked. Is he the one who bought his knighthood with an onion?”

(A Clash of Kings, Davos III)

Here, Ser Imry clearly does not respect Davos because of Davos’ background, and sees Davos’ position as a knight less legitimate because he “bought it.” This ignores how all knights have to earn their knighthood in some way, be it at a tourney or for valour in battle. But Davos’ way of earning his knighthood wasn’t as fancy and proper, leading people to question it. I would argue that this is an obstacle to this cultural capital being fully transformed into symbolic capital. While Davos getting the knighthood directly from Stannis, a lord, does legitimise it somewhat, it is clear that his way of getting that position isn’t seen as fully legitimate in the eyes of others. That makes Davos’ position very dependant on Stannis, since Stannis’ support is the main factor that makes others (somewhat) recognise Davos’ capital and position. As Davos puts it: “Should Stannis fall, they will pull me down in an instance.”  (A Clash of Kings Davos I).

Another interesting point brought up in the quote from Davos III is that while Davos is very knowledgeable about seafaring, other nobles don’t listen to him. Davos har learnt how to sail, read maps of the sea, how to fight, and a number of other skills that the nobles also need when sailing and fighting at sea. But while the nobles other were taught by maesters and masters of arms, Davos was taught by the other people he served with on ships. So, while Davos has an education of sorts, it’s not as formal and “fancy” as that of the other nobles. That makes this cultural capital (education) less valuable in this social field (the realm of the nobility), even while it might be worth a lot in other fields/circumstances. Davos’ lack of correct cultural capital comes up again when Stannis makes him Hand of the King:

“Your Grace, you cannot . . . I am no fit man to be a King’s Hand.”

”There is no man fitter.” Stannis sheathed Lightbringer, gave Davos his hand, and pulled him to his feet.

”I am lowborn,” Davos reminded him. ”An upjumped smuggler. Your lords will never obey me.”

”Then we will make new lords.”

”But . . . I cannot read . . . nor write . . .”

”Maester Pylos can read for you. As to writing, my last Hand wrote the head off his shoulders. All I ask of you are the things you’ve always given me. Honesty. Loyalty. Service.”

(A Storm of Swords, Davos IV)

As Davos points out here, him not knowing how to read or write is an obstacle to him moving up higher in social space of Westeros. I would argue, however, that the issue isn’t necessarily that this could limit him in performing his job, because as Stannis points out, he can get assistance in reading and writing. I rather think the issue is that this shows his lack of (correct) cultural capital, and thus becomes yet another point against him in the eyes of other nobles. Another reason for them to not accept him is, as Davos puts it, that he’s lowborn and an upjumped smuggler. As mentioned previously, this shows how it’s not what volume or composition of capital you have that matters, but also which trajectory you have taken through the social space through your life. Clearly the other nobles can’t forget where Davos started out and see him as lesser because of it. Ser Axell Florent perhaps expresses this the clearest:

Ser Axell Florent had entertained the table with the tale of a Targaryen princeling who kept an ape as a pet. This prince liked to dress the creature in his dead son’s clothes and pretend he was a child, Ser Axell claimed, and from time to time he would propose marriages for him. The lords so honored always declined politely, but of course they did decline. ”Even dressed in silk and velvet, an ape remains an ape,” Ser Axell said. ”A wiser prince would have known that you cannot send an ape to do a man’s work.” The queen’s men laughed, and several grinned at Davos. I am no ape, he’d thought. I am as much a lord as you, and a better man.

(A Dance with Dragons, Davos II)

It is clear that Ser Axell thinks that even if Davos gains some cultural capital (such as clothing, titles, etc), he still remains an ape because of his birth. This is a clear example of how one’s trajectory through the social space matters. I would also argue that this indicates that Davos’ habitus might be more aligned with the circumstances of his birth (and life before knighthood), that is to say, he doesn’t fully act like a nobleman “should.” Interestingly enough, Stannis repeatedly expresses how he appreciates this, that Davos is honest and doesn’t try to kiss up to him like other nobles do. But nonetheless, that and other parts of Davos’ (subconscious or not) behaviour sets Davos apart from other nobles. Davos hasn’t internalised the same norms as his “fellows”, he doesn’t implicitly believe the same doxa about how the world should work.

Now, while Davos’ background, cultural capital, and habitus often hinders him in his dealings with nobles, it does benefit him in other situations. One such example is when he arrives in White Harbour and notes that no one pays attention to him because he looks “common.” This can be attributed to several factors, partly his looks (his general appearance and clothing) and his behaviour. That is to say, it is partly because of his cultural capital, but probably even more because of his habitus. He knows how to act among commoners, he has internalised the norms of that social field to the degree that it comes naturally. This is an interesting contrast to when Arya first hides in Flea Bottom at the end of A Game of Thrones, and clearly has the wrong habitus:

She had tried talking to the children she saw in the street, hoping to make a friend who would give her a place to sleep, but she must have talked wrong or something. The little ones only looked at her with quick, wary eyes and ran away if she came too close. Their big brothers and sisters asked questions Arya couldn’t answer, called her names, and tried to steal from her.

(A Game of Thrones, Arya V)

Clearly these kids can tell that Arya isn’t from this space, her behaviour and way of speaking makes her stick out. This isn’t the case with Davos in White Harbour, he has the right habitus for that space.

Before wrapping up this essay, I want to discuss one aspect of Davos’ story that I haven’t touched on previously, and that is his relationship with Salladhor Saan and what their similarities and differences can tell us about Westerosi society. Salladhor is clearly a very rich man, who through this economic capital wields a certain amount of influence. But he’s absolutely not respected by the nobles of Westeros. Partly, I would argue that this is because he has gotten his wealth through pirating, i.e., not legitimate means in the eyes of the nobility. He lacks the cultural and symbolic capital required to gain the respect of the nobles. In that sense he has some similarities with Davos, they both have some economic capital but lack other capital. However, I think it is quite clear that another reason Salladhor isn’t respected is xenophobia. This is something that Bourdieu doesn’t touch on in his own writing, but other scholars inspired by Bourdieu’s writing have considered how intersecting social structures impact one’s position in the social space (eg. Bettie 2000; Skeggs 2005). These writers have noted that race, ethnicity, gender, etc often impact how someone’s cultural capital is perceived, for instance. As Skeggs notes, clothes that might be seen as “cool” on a middle-class white person often doesn’t have the same positive connotations when worn by a poor person of colour. Somewhat similarly, Salladhor might own fancy clothes, jewellery, ships, and whatnot, but this cultural capital isn’t interpreted in the same way as if it was owned by a Westerosi noble. Salladhor’s position as a pirate from Lys changes the sociocultural meaning of that capital. I do not have the space here to fully analyse Salladhor to the degree he deserves, but I thought it important to note how ethnicity can impact one’s class position.

In conclusion then, it is clear that the way Westerosi society is structured makes class mobility very difficult. Even if someone gains some economic capital and perhaps even some cultural and social capital (as Davos has), they will be limited by their trajectory and habitus. The legitimacy of their position will be questioned. If they also belong to a minority or marginalised group, such as not being Westerosi born, they will encounter even more obstacles. It is clear that just as in our world, you can’t just pull yourself up by your bootstraps. It is much more difficult than that.

Special thanks to Shiloh for helping me out with research for this essay, everyone should go check out her twitter, her blog, and her book about medievalism in ASOIAF.


Bettie, Julie. 2000. ”Women without class: chicas, cholas, trash and the absence/presence of class identity”. Signs 26(1): 1-35.

Bourdieu, Pierre. 1979. “Symbolic Power.” Critique of Anthropology 4(77): 77-85.

Bourdieu, Pierre. 1987. “What makes a social class? On the theoretical and practical existence of groups.” Berkley Journal of Sociology, 32: 1-17.

Bourdieu, Pierre. 1994a/2012. “Social Space and Symbolic Space.” In Contemporary Sociology Theory, eds. Craig Calhoun, Joseph Gerteis, James Moody, Steven Pfaff, and Indermohan Virk, 335-344. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.

Bourdieu, Pierre. 1994b/2012. “Structures, Habitus, Practices.” In Contemporary Sociology Theory, eds. Craig Calhoun, Joseph Gerteis, James Moody, Steven Pfaff, and Indermohan Virk, 345-358. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.

Bourdieu, Pierre. 2013. “Symbolic capital and social classes.” Journal of Classical Sociology 13(2): 292-302.

Martin, George RR. 2011a. A Game of Thrones. London: Harper Voyager.

Martin, George RR. 2011b. A Clash of Kings. London: Harper Voyager.

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

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

Skeggs, Beverley. 2005. ”The Re-Branding of Class: Propertising Culture”. In Rethinking Class: Culture, Identities & Lifestyle, eds. FionaDevine, Mike Savage, John Scott, and Rosemary Crompton, 46-68. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

The queer stories of Fire and Blood

“Dear companion”, “friend”, “favourite”, “her true love”, “lover”… There are many terms used to describe queer relationships in the world of A Song of Ice and Fire, some of them more explicit than others. In honour of Pride Month, I decided to take a deep-dive into the queer characters of Fire and Blood, to see how queerness is presented in this in-world history book. Since this book is written from a maester’s perspective, it provides an interesting opportunity to examine what might be considered the sort of general views on sexuality and queerness in Westeros. Therefore, I will here analyse how queer sexualities are portrayed in Fire and Blood and compare that to how sexuality was understood and described historically in our world.

But first of all, what examples of queer sexuality are there in Fire and Blood? Well, there are quite a few, but for the purposes of this essay I will focus on Rhaena Targaryen and Laenor Velaryon (and their respective lovers), while also briefly touching on Jeyne Arryn, Sabitha Frey, and Alysanne “Black Aly” Blackwood. I will begin by describing their stories before shifting over to discussing the history of sexuality in our world, and then finally asking myself what this all says about how queer sexualities are perceived in ASOIAF and how it compares to our world.

The queer canon

Rhaena Targaryen, daughter to king Aenys I, was described as a quiet child. She preferred spending time with her dragon to for instance coming to court. Fire and Blood also describe how she found her “favourites” at an early age, and that at age twelve:

(…) Rhaena made her first true friend in the person of her cousin Larissa Velaryon. For a time the two girls were inseparable… Until Larissa was suddenly recalled to Driftmark to be wed to the second son of the Evenstar of Tarth. The young are nothing if not resilient, however, and the princess soon found a new companion in the Hand’s daughter, Samantha Stokeworth.

(“Three Heads Had the Dragon: Governance under King Aegon I”, page 57 of Fire and Blood)

From this quote we can infer that Rhaena and Larissa had some sort of close relationship, perhaps a teen romance of sorts, which was ended when Larissa was married off suddenly. It also seems possible that Larissa was married off so suddenly because of Rhaena and Larissa’s relationship. However, Rhaena did find a new partner in Samantha Stokeworth, and this relationship would continue for many years to come. Something else worth noting about this time is that further on in Fire and Blood, it is remarked upon that Rhaena’s mother, Alyssa, was aware that there were rumours about Rhaena’s close relationship to her companion. Alyssa was therefore keen to prevent the same to happen to Rhaena’s sister Alysanne:

Her sister Rhaena’s penchant for showering an unseemly amount of affection and attention on a succession of favourites, some of whom were considered less than suitable, had been the source of much whispering at court, and the queen did not want Alysanne to be the subject of similar rumors.

(“A Surfeit of Rulers”, page 154 of Fire and Blood)

It is not entirely clear exactly what rumours surrounded Rhaena, but it seems as if her closeness to her female “companions” was seen as unseemly generally speaking. Rhaena did have many so-called “favourites” through both her youth and later life. These included the previously mentioned Larissa Velaryon and Samantha Stokeworth, but some other ones mentioned are Alayne Royce, Melony Piper, Lianna Velaryon, Cassella Staunton, and of course Elissa Farman. But even while Rhaena had all these “favourites”, she still married a man, her brother Aegon, aka Aegon the uncrowned. With him she had two children, the twins Rhaella and Aerea. However, Aegon was killed by his uncle Maegor the Cruel, and Rhaena had to flee. For a while she hid on Fair Isle, where she had some allies, but eventually Rhaena was forced to marry Maegor (partly due to threat to her daughters). After some time of further warring, Maegor was finally ousted as a king and Rhaena’s younger brother Jaehaerys claimed the throne. Rhaena then returned to Fair Isle, and married the second son of house Farman, Androw. However, it is said that while Rhaena found her “true love” on Fair Isle, that love was not Androw but his sister Elissa Farman. It is noted that Elissa’s father had wanted Elissa to marry, but that she had “scared off” any suitors. She was quite obviously more content to spend her time with women.

For a time, Rhaena resided on Fair Isle with her husband and a number of her so-called “favourites”. In fact, Rhaena and her companions (Samantha Stokeworth, Alayne Royce, and Elissa Farman) was sometimes called “the Four-Headed Beast” because of their closeness. Eventually, however, they had overstayed their welcome, and were forced to move. Through negotiations with her brother, the king, Rhaena got possession of Dragonstone and moved there with her ladies. After a while on Dragonstone, Elissa Farman got restless, however, and after arguing with Rhaena she ended up sailing off (stealing some dragon eggs in the process). Not long after, tragedy struck Rhaena and her partners again, when Androw Farman in an incel-like move decided to poison all Rhaena’s ladies out of anger and jealousy. After Rhaena finally found out what he had did, he decided to kill himself. After his death, Rhaena fed his body to her dragon. However, Rhaena’s life didn’t exactly improve after that, in fact it continued being quite tragic. Her daughter, Aerea, wasn’t content staying on Dragonstone, and argued fiercely with her mother about this. Eventually she decided to fly off on Balerion. This ended in tragedy, with her eventually returning gravely wounded and dying. After all this tragedy, losing her partners and child, Rhaena’s sister Alysanne had this advice to give:

‘You are still a young woman. If you like, we could find some kind and gentle lord who would cherish you as we do. You could have other children.’ This only served to bring a snarl to Rhaena’s lips. She snatched her hand away from the queen’s and said: ‘I fed my last husband to my dragon. If you make me take another, I may eat him myself.’

(“Jaehaerys and Alysanne: Their Triumphs and Tragedies”, page 253 of Fire and Blood)

And so, it happened that Rhaena instead retired to Harrenhal, where she lived out her life in solitude.

Moving forward into the future, I would next like to turn to Rhaena’s great-great-great-nephew, Laenor Velaryon. Laenor was the son of Rhaenys the Queen Who Never Was (but should’ve been!) and Corlys Velaryon and was betrothed and later married to Rhaenyra Targaryen. When the match was proposed some objections were raised, as Fire and Blood tells us:

Laenor Velaryon was now nineteen years of age, yet had never shown any interest in women. Instead he surrounded himself with handsome squires of his own age, and was said to prefer their company. But Grand Maester Mellos dismissed this concern out of hand. ‘What of it?’ he said. ‘I do not like the taste of fish, but when fish is served, I eat it.’

(“Heirs of the Dragon: A Question of Succession”, page 372 of Fire and Blood)

It seems as if Rhaenyra had heard the same tales of Laenor, because she was against the match as well:

The princess knew much and more about Laenor Velaryon, and had no wish to be his bride. ‘My half-brothers would be more to his taste,’ she told the king.

(“Heirs of the Dragon: A Question of Succession”, page 372 of Fire and Blood)

What Laenor’s views on the subject was is not mentioned, but nonetheless, the two were married after pressure from the king. During the tournament to celebrate their wedding, Ser Criston Cole (rumoured former lover of Rhaenyra) decided to target both Ser Harwin Strong (rumoured to be Rhaenyra’s new lover) and Ser Joffrey Lonmouth (Laenor’s “favourite”). This resulted in the death of Ser Joffrey, albeit not until after he had lingered for several days in unconsciousness. Fire and Blood notes how Laenor spent every hour of those days beside him and wept bitterly when he finally passed.

Ser Joffrey was, however, not Laenor’s last partner that is recorded in Fire and Blood. It is mentioned that he eventually found a “new favourite” in a household knight called Ser Qarl Correy. Furthermore, it’s noted that Laenor apparently seldom shared the bed of his wife:

Septon Eustace says they shared a bed no more than a dozen times. Mushroom concurs, but adds that Qarl Correy oft shared that bed as well; it aroused the princess to watch the men disporting with one another, he tells us and from time to time they would include her in their pleasures. Yet Mushroom contradicts himself, for elsewhere in Testimony he claims that the princess would leave her husband with his lover on such nights and seek her own solace in the arms of Harwin Strong.

(“Heirs of the Dragon: A Question of Succession”, page 373 of Fire and Blood)

While the account given here is contradictory, this is by far the most explicit reference to queer sexuality in Fire and Blood, with words such as “disporting”, “pleasure”, and “lover” being used. As hinted at in this quote, Laenor and his wife Rhaenyra were never very physically intimate, yet they seem to have had some sort of mutual understanding regarding this. They did have three children during their marriage, Jacaerys, Lucearys, and Joffrey (many suspected these children were actually the children of Harwin Strong). According to Fire and Blood, the youngest child was named Joffrey as tribute of Laenor’s former “favourite”. Unfortunately, even if this seemed to be a happy-ish arrangement, Laenor did not get a happy ending. He was killed by “his friend and companion” Ser Qarl Correy after the two had been “quarrelling loudly” according to Fire and Blood. The motive for the killing remains unclear, with sources differing. Mushroom suggests that Ser Qarl was payed to kill Laenor, perhaps by Daemon Targaryen. Septon Eustace suggests that jealousy Ser Qarl’s motive and that: “Laenor Velaryon had grown weary of Ser Qarl’s companionship and grown enamoured by a new favourite, a handsome squire of six-and-ten.” (“The Heirs of the Dragon: A Question of Succession”, page 379 of Fire and Blood)

Even after his death, the rumours surrounding Laenor’s sexuality would play a role in the politics of Westeros, however. Part of this was of course the fact that most people doubted that Rhaenyra’s children were by Laenor. This was used as an argument against Rhaenyra claiming the throne. Fire and Blood also describes another way that Laenor’s sexuality was used as propaganda against his side of the family, when describing how Ser Criston Cole argued against Rhaenyra claiming the throne after king Viserys’ death. Cole mainly focused on the unfitness of Rhaenyra and her second husband, Daemon Targaryen, but he also hints at his views on Laenor:

Ser Criston Cole spoke up. Should the princess reign, he reminded them, Jacaerys Velaryon would rule after her. ‘Seven save this realm if we seat a bastard on the Iron Throne.’ He spoke of Rhaenyra’s wanton ways, and the infamy of her husband. ‘They will turn the Red Keep into a brothel. No man’s daughter will be safe, nor any man’s wife. Even the boys… we know what Laenor was.’

(“The Dying of the Dragons: The Blacks and the Greens”, page 396 of Fire and Blood)

It’s interesting to note here that Cole suggests that Laenor was interested in “boys”. I’ll get back to this later when I do further analysing, but it is worth noting that the rest of Fire and Blood doesn’t really provide much evidence of him being interested in “boys.” Before his marriage to Rhaenyra, when he was 19, it is said he enjoyed the company of squires of his own age. Both of his named lovers, Ser Joffrey Lonmouth and Ser Qarl Correy seems to be of his own age. The only instance that would suggest an interest in “boys” is if we believe Septon Eustace theory about Ser Qarl’s reason for killing Laenor, that he had found a new favourite in a sixteen old squire. Laenor would have been 26 himself at this time, so as modern readers we might very well think this age gap is inappropriate. However, it seems unlikely that the characters of ASOIAF would think such a difference was problematic if it was a heterosexual relationship. So, it seems more likely that Cole is just accusing Laenor of being predatory because Cole is bigoted.

Before wrapping up this description of queer sexualities in Fire and Blood, I want to discuss some of the queer women that we meet during The Dance of the Dragons. One of these is Lady Jeyne Arryn, who was also referred to as The Maiden of the Vale. When the Dance begins, she was thirty-five, unwed, and the ruler of the Vale. Early during the conflict, Prince Jacaerys went to treat with her, and the sources differ in their description of this:

Mushroom tells us that this famous maiden was in fact a highborn harlot with a voracious appetite for men, and gives us a salacious tale of how she offered Prince Jacaerys the allegiance of the Vale only if he could bring her to climax with his tongue. Septon Eustace repeats the widespread rumour that Jeyne Arryn preferred the intimate companionship of other women, then goes on to say it is not true.

(“The Dying of the Dragons: A Song for a Son”, page 415 of Fire and Blood)

It seems more likely that Jeyne and Jacaerys came to a diplomatic agreement, as is suggested by Grand Maester Munkun, but it is interesting to note these two differing accounts of Lady Jeyne’s sexuality. We are not told much more about Jeyne Arryn’s sexuality through the book, besides the fact that she never married, and this telling passage about her death:

Forty years of age, she perished in the Motherhouse of Meris on its stony island in the harbour of Gulltown, wrapped in the arms of Jessamyn Redfort, her ‘dear companion.’

(“The Lysene Spring and the End of the Regency”, page 669 of Fire and Blood)

Here we again see that she had a female “companion”, familiar language at this point. Lady Jeyne Arryn was not the only queer woman on that side of The Dance, however:

Amongst their supporters were two extraordinary women. Alysanne Blackwood, called Black Aly, a sister to the late Lord Samwell Blackwell, and thus aunt to Bloody Ben, and Sabitha Frey, the Lady of the Twins, the widow of Lord Forrest Frey and mother to his heir, a ‘sharp-featured sharp-tongued harridan of House Vypern, who would sooner ride than dance, wore mail instead of silk, and was fond of killing men and kissing women’, according to Mushroom.

(“Aftermath: The Hour of the Wolf”, page 572 of Fire and Blood)

In this passage we learn a few interesting things about Sabitha Frey in particular, for instance that she had been married to a man, had a child, yet liked to kiss women (and enjoyed more masculine coded pursuits in general). Later, we find out a bit more about Black Aly and her connection to Sabitha:

Huntress, horse-breaker, and archer without peer, Black Aly had little of a woman’s softness about her. Many thought her to be of that same ilk as Sabitha Frey, for they were oft in one another’s company, and had been known to share a tent whilst on the march. Yet in King’s Landing, whilst accompanying her young nephew Benjicot at court and council, she had met Cregan Stark and conceived a liking for the stern northman.

(“Aftermath: The Hour of the Wolf”, page 586 of Fire and Blood)

This suggests that Black Aly had a relationship with Sabitha Frey, and that people thought they were both gay (being of the same “ilk”), but that this was considered disproven when she eventually started her relationship with Cregan Stark. Black Aly did eventually marry Cregan and had several children with him.

The queer history of our world

So, now that we have discussed some of the queer people in Fire and Blood, how does that compare to (depictions of) queer sexuality during the Middle Ages in our world? Well, what we must first realise is that people have conceptualised both sex/gender, sexuality, and sexual acts differently through the world and its history. For the purposes of this essay, I will mainly focus on Europe since that’s the main inspiration for ASOIAF, but even in Europe, the understanding of sexuality has varied widely historically. During Ancient Greece, for instance, it was considered perfectly acceptable for an adult free Athenian-born man to have sex with anyone from a lower social status than him as long as he was the active (penetrative) party (Mottier 2008, 9). So, he could sleep with women, but also slaves and immigrants of any gender, and younger men. A man who broke this norm in some way, however, was seen as abdicating his position as a man, and actually risked losing his citizen status. Interestingly enough, the Ancient Greeks didn’t have as many opinions about female queer sexuality (it’s not recorded as much at least). The notable exception is of course the descriptions that can be found in the poet Sappho’s work, which often describes love between women (Mottier 2008, 12). To the extent male writers of this time discussed women having sex with women, it was mostly in disapproving or contemptuous ways.

With the further influence of Christianity on Europe came new sexuality norms, however. Generally speaking, sex was seen as sinful, especially because its connection to “original sin” and humanity’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden (Mottier 2008, 18). However, the Church would accept sexual intercourse within the space of the marriage, but only for reproductive purposes. This generally led to same-sex relationships being condemned, but through the Middle Ages it varied widely how much people engaging in such relationships were actually punished (Mottier 2008, 22). In fact, one could argue that the Middle Ages were a better place to live as a queer person compared to later historical periods. As researcher William E. Burgwinkle puts it:

Though it might surprise many, the Middle Ages are emerging as a kind of queer utopia, a historical period in which institutional state regulation as we know it hardly existed, in which marriage practices were not yet controlled entirely either by state or church and varied widely by class and region, in which same-sex segregation was a norm, particularly in intellectual communities, and in which love stories between men were common, if covert. Texts, both literary and historical, actually spoke of same-sex eroticism, albeit it in a derogatory way, referring to such relations as sodomy, bougrerie, or heresy. Over the course of 1000 years, (c. 500–1500), when almost any sexual act or impulse which did not focus on sex exclusively in terms of procreative potential was branded as sodomitical, all readers conveniently find themselves in the same crowded boat, cast out one and all as sodomites. When that sodomite’s every thought is ripe for interrogation, as we see in many of the major penitentials and theological works, we arrive, however proleptically, at that magic moment when the inviolable modern status of hetero and homo as polar opposites simply dissolves. (2006, 79)

What is interesting to note here is that while same-sex relationships would be seen as sodomitical, so would a variety of sexual acts between men and women. Furthermore, as mentioned previously, it varied quite a lot how harshly these norms would be enforced by either the state or the church. Something else worth noting that Burgwinkle mentions is that based on a lot of historical records, it seems as if people engaging in same-sex relationships were mostly described as committing a sinful act, similar to other acts one could commit. As famous French philosopher Michel Foucault put it when discussing the history of sexuality; before the 18th century, the sodomite was seen as someone who committed a specific sinful or criminal act, it wasn’t until the 18th century that the homosexual started to be conceptualised as a specific type of person (Foucault 2002 [1976], 64). This modern view of homosexuality saw the homosexual person as someone with stable identifiable characteristics, someone who could be classified (or diagnosed) by psychologists or sexologists. The sodomite of medieval times was just someone suspected of a forbidden act, possibly a repeat offender, but that was it. But the homosexual of modern times was a type of person, a part of a different species, as Foucault puts it. However, just because we in contemporary times tend to see sexuality more as a stable identity, and conceptualise it in terms of psychology, biology, etc, doesn’t mean the older ways have been completely rejected (Mottier 2008, 48). People still discuss sex/sexuality through moral and religious lenses and see same-sex desires as something you can, and should, just chose to not act on, to avoid doing a morally wrong act. These different conceptualisations of sexuality exist parallel to each other.

Similarly, some researchers have questioned if we can be sure that all people during the Middle Ages understood sexuality in the same way, as act, not identity (eg. Goldberg & Menon 2005; Roelens 2017). It’s important to remember that what can be gleaned from official sources such as court documents or other written historical accounts might be very different from what everyday peasants thought, for instance. One fascinating example of this is described in an article by Jonas Roelens, which examines the sodomy trial in the town of Bruges (in what is now Belgium) in 1618 during which two women were accused of several sexual and moral transgressions. Roelens argues that, based on the court transcripts, it seems as these women saw their sexuality as a more stable form of identity than one might expect. As he says:

While I do not want to portray Mayken and Magdaleene as “premodern lesbians,” I do want to highlight that there have always been individuals who preferred same-sex relations over “heterosexual” ones and were very much aware of this long before the “homosexual as a species,” to use the theorist Michel Foucault’s resonant phrase, came into existence. (ibid, 12)

So, while society at large might not have understood queer sexualities as some sort of fixed identity, individual people might have understood themselves like that. Roelens also points out that this trial is interesting because it concerns two women, which gives some insight into contemporary understanding of female sodomites, or rather how difficult it was for society to understand such people. Many people had a hard time imagining how two women could have sex with each other, and to wrap their heads around it some even imagined that one of the women had to be a “hermaphrodite” or possibly possessed by the devil. As Roelens notes, this difficulty of understanding sex between women also led to Medieval societies generally focusing less on female sodomites than male sodomites, since it was assumed that sex must involve penetration, so sex between women wasn’t fully recognised. Therefore, sodomy trials involving women were generally less common, even if they did exist. Furthermore, as discussed above, male sodomy wasn’t prosecuted at all times either (Mottier 2008, 22). How problematic male sodomy was perceived to be depended in large part on the circumstances; for instance, sexual relations between a king and his lover was seen as problematic, but a similar relationship between men of other social classes might not condemned in the same way (Burgwinkle 2006). In the case that Roelens describes, it seems as if the trial occurred partly because the situation became a very public affair (one of the women’s husband told the court about it after he was accused of horse stealing, and rumours were spreading through the area). The accused sodomy had also interfered in married life, with one of the women leaving her husband for her lover. This is in line with how Medieval courts often focused on crimes that somehow disrupted the norms of marriage (Foucault 2002 [1976], 60).

The queer analysis

So, how does the queerness in Fire and Blood compare to our world? I think the first thing worth pointing out is that Fire and Blood seems to be using a modern conceptualisation of sexuality, rather than a medieval one. I say this because it seems as if queer sexuality is seen more as something that is indicative of someone’s identity than just as an immoral/illegal act. To paraphrase Foucault; in Fire and Blood queer people are seen as part of a species, not just repeat offenders. This can be seen in several instances, for instance in how people viewed Laenor’s sexuality. It seems quite clear that most people were convinced he was only interested in men, as Rhaenyra said for instance:

The princess knew much and more about Laenor Velaryon, and had no wish to be his bride. ‘My half-brothers would be more to his taste,’ she told the king.

(“Heirs of the Dragon: A Question of Succession”, page 372 of Fire and Blood)

Most people seemed to view his sexuality as a sort of stable characteristic of him as a person, not just seeing his sexual behaviour as wrongful acts. The notable exception is Grand Maester Mellos, who argued that even if someone doesn’t like fish, they can eat it when served. But that more seems to be a result of him being ignorant and homophobic than it being indicative of how sexuality is generally perceived. As mentioned previously, it is also possible that several different conceptualisations exist parallel in a society, and even in our world we see people making similar arguments as Grand Maester Mellos, that someone should just choose not to be queer. Another instance that indicates that sexuality is conceptualised similarly to our modern view is when Ser Criston Cole argues that Laenor was a danger to boys, saying that “we know what Laenor was.” (“The Dying of the Dragons: The Blacks and the Greens”, page 396 of Fire and Blood) This quite obviously casts Laenor as a specific type of person with specific identifiable characteristics. What Cole says here also clearly plays into the stereotype of seeing gay men as predators, and a danger to children (eg. Mottier 2008, 107). This idea is quite new historically speaking and is in large part of conservative anti-gay propaganda from the 1980s. That is to say, while both the paedophile and the homosexual person were seen as problematic before then, they were not connected to each other in the minds of the public until quite recently. This very idea relies on seeing queer people as a specific type of person with specific traits, which then these bigots argue include being a predator.

When it comes to the queer women, I would argue that they too are seen as part of a specific type of people. The clearest example of this is how Sabitha Frey is described, with it being said that she preferred kissing women, and people speculating that Black Aly was of “the same ilk” as Sabitha. Sabitha being of a specific ilk indicates that people see her sexuality as a stable characteristic. Black Aly is clearly suspected of the same, but this is seemingly dismissed after she gets into a relationship with Cregan Stark. I would argue that this is an example of how bisexual people are often seen as stopping being queer if they get into a heterosexual relationship, which is of course untrue. But that the people of Fire and Blood assumes this does once again indicates that queer people are seen as a specific type of people, if Black Aly can be seen as not being part of that type of people. When it comes to Jeyne Arryn, it is interesting to note how she’s accused of two different types of sexual “misconduct” by Fire and Blood; Mushroom says she was a highborn “harlot” who slept with men, while Septon Eustace notes the rumour that she preferred the intimate companionship women. Both of these behaviours would be seen as sinful in the eyes of the medieval church of our world, and most likely the Faith in Westeros too. But regardless, the description of Jeyne preferring the intimate companionship of women once again points to sexuality as a stable preference and characteristic. It is interesting to compare this to Rhaena; Rhaena is consistently described as being closer to her “favourites” than her male partners, and Fire and Blood clearly outlines how she had female partners since she was a teenager. This indicates that her sexuality is seen as consistent, a part of her identity, that she’s not just seen as a repeat sodomite. However, we do not find not the same descriptions of her sexual behaviour as with the other characters I’ve mentioned, nothing about kissing women, having intimate companionship with them, or having same-sex lovers (as with Laenor). One possible explanation for Rhaena’s sexuality being less explicitly described than for instance Laenor’s could be that queer women’s sexuality have generally been less understood than queer men’s sexuality (Roelens 2017). Sex between women were simply not recognised as sex, as people assumed that sex must include penetration. As a contrast, Laenor is described as having a lover and it is quite clear that he slept with men. Sabitha Frey is described as kissing women, but I would still argue that this is less explicit than Laenor being described as “disporting” with his lover. It does seem as if description of queer women’s relationships focuses more on their companionships than their sexual acts, which is described more explicitly with queer men.

Another interesting aspect to note is the degree same-sex relationships are prosecuted legally in Fire and Blood. In my reading, I could find no instances of someone being prosecuted or convicted of anything relating to having a same-sex relationship, and this would be a contrast to medieval times in our world. The podcast Learned Hands came to the same conclusion in one of their episodes, noting that it doesn’t seem as if same-sex relationships are illegal in Westeros (2020). However, as they point out, this doesn’t mean they aren’t stigmatized, and it does not mean that they are protected by the law. It does seem like the Faith of the Seven would disapprove of same-sex relationships since they think sex should happen between one man and one woman in order to produce children, as Learned Hands point out in that same episode. But as we learn in Fire and Blood, the Faith loose the right to put people on trial quite early in the Targaryen regime. So, it would seem as if even if they wanted to, they couldn’t legally prosecute people for same-sex relationships. They might preach that it’s sinful, but they can’t put someone on trial (at least during most of the time I’m covering here, and they honestly seemed too busy before to bother with same-sex relationships when there was Targaryen incest and Maegor being Maegor to consider). Still, the crown might have chosen to enact laws prohibiting same-sex relationships, but if those exist it doesn’t seem as if they are enforced. This can be seen as being consistent with how medieval courts didn’t always chose to prosecute sodomy, as I’ve mentioned before. When they do prosecute, as in the case Roelens analyses (2017), it might be because the sodomy clearly interfered with the marriage. I would argue that this in line with another point that Learned Hands make, that the point of sexuality during the medieval times was producing legitimate heirs. As long as someone’s queerness isn’t interfering with that, the crown won’t care. And for the most part, the queerness didn’t interfere in the instances I have looked at. Rhaena, Laenor, Sabitha, and Black Aly still married. Jeyne didn’t, which is described as causing some issues with inheritance, but she didn’t stray too far from the accepted path in other regards, so this seems to have been mostly accepted.

The queer conclusions

So, what we can see here is that there are loads of queer characters in Fire and Blood, and generally speaking their sexualities are described more similarly to how modern society view sexuality than medieval society would. That would indicate that that’s how the character in ASOIAF generally see it as well. But what does that mean? Is that bad? I wouldn’t necessarily say so. As I’ve argued elsewhere, ASOIAF is George RR Martin’s world, he can do as he pleases. It also makes more sense for him as a modern writer, writing for a modern audience. For instance, if we all have a common understanding of queer sexuality as being a part of someone’s identity, we can be sad and angry on behalf of the characters forced into heterosexual relationships. If we all assume that Laenor, for instance, is gay we all get frustrated when Grand Maester Mellor says that he should chose to ignore that and sleep with women. In this way, GRRM can implicitly criticise the bigotry and ignorance of the characters in world, and the same type of bigotry that exists in our world. Which he often seems to want to do, as Shiloh Carroll has pointed out: “(…) A Song of Ice and Fire examines contemporary concerns or anxieties while placing them in a far-distant past, allowing the reader to consider them at a distance.” (Carroll 2018, 7) In that context it makes absolute sense to use a more contemporary understanding of sexuality.

It is also interesting to note that, similarly to a lot of medieval contexts in our world, the crown and the Faith of Westeros doesn’t always seem that interested in prosecuting same-sex relationships. They might not approve, but as long as it’s not too obvious or provides too big of an obstacle, they seem to chose to ignore it. That’s obviously a long way from acceptance and equality, but as some researchers have pointed out about the Middle Ages, it’s also much better than other historical periods. It’s suboptimal, but not as terrible as it could be.


Burgwinkle, William E. 2006. “Queer Theory and the Middle Ages.” French Studies: A Quarterly Review 60(1): 79-88.

Carroll, Shiloh. 2018. Medievalism in A Song of Ice and Fire and Game of Thrones. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer.

Foucault, Michel. (2002/1976). Sexualitetens historia 1: Viljan att veta. Translated by Birgitta Gröndahl. Göteborg: Bokförlaget Daidalos AB [This is the Swedish translation of L’Histoire de la sexualité I :La volonté de savoir/The History of Sexuality I: The Will to Knowledge]

Goldberg, Jonathan & Madhavi Menon. 2005. “Queering History.” PMLA, 120(5): 1608-1617. 

Learned Hands. 2020. ” Episode 6: ”Let’s Talk About Sex, Pt. I”, feat. Kristine Kippins.” Published June 15, 2020.

Martin, George RR. 2018. Fire and Blood. London: Harper Voyager.

Mottier, Véronique. 2008. Sexuality: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Roelens, Jonas. 2017. “A Woman Like Any Other: Female Sodomy, Hermaphroditism, and Witchcraft in Seventeenth-Century Bruges.” Journal of Women’s History 29(4): 11–34.

Brienne- not quite a lady, not quite a knight

Brienne of Tarth is one of my favourite character in ASOIAF for a myriad of reasons, but a major one is that I find her struggle with being herself in a world that rejects her so very interesting and relatable. I’ve written about Brienne on several occasions before, but in this mini-essay, in honour of her participation in Davos’ Finger’s “A Song of Madness”, I wanted to write a bit more about how she, as a gender nonconforming person, struggles to meet society’s gendered expectations. About how she’s not quite a lady, but also not quite a knight.

Since the reader is introduced to Brienne, we see how she is met with a mix of confusion of revulsion by many in her surroundings because she doesn’t conform to Westerosi gender norms. This quote from Randyll Tarly in AFFC demonstrates this view clearly:

‘As for you, my lady, it is said that your father is a good man. If so, I pity him. Some men are blessed with sons, some with daughters. No man deserves to be cursed with such as you.’ (Brienne V, A Feast for Crows)

It becomes even more heart-breaking when Brienne says this about her father (and herself) in a later chapter:

‘A daughter.’ Brienne’s eyes filled with tears. ‘He deserves that. A daughter who could sing to him and grace his hall and bear him grandsons. He deserves a son too, a strong and gallant son to bring honor to his name. Galladon drowned when I was four and he was eight, though, and Alysanne and Arianne died still in the cradle. I am the only child the gods let him keep. The freakish one, not fit to be a son or daughter.’ (Brienne VI, A Feast for Crows)

Clearly, she feels like she has failed her father by not living up to the expectations of her society. But crucially, both she and Randyll notes how she “fails” doubly, namely by not being feminine enough for a daughter but not being a son so her masculinity can be justified. Her in-betweenness is “freakish” or “a curse” in this view. I’ve written about this “freakishness” in Brienne before, so I won’t focus on that here, but I rather want to focus on how she “fails” at being a son or a daughter. A lady or a knight.

In Westeros, just as in our own world, people are expected to follow certain paths through life. What path a specific person is expected to take depends on a multitude of factors, including gender, race, class, etc. (Ahmed 2006). For instance, a woman is expected to find a male partner, eventually marry him, and afterwards have children. She’s expected to follow this straight line through life, and if she deviates from said line, she’s deemed a deviant. Furthermore, if she doesn’t follow the expected path, she’s often seen as a disappointment to her family because she doesn’t reproduce and therefore reproduce the family. This queer person becomes a threat to the family (something conservatives out there loves to argue in a myriad of ways). There are even more lines one is expected to follow, as Signe Bremer points out when explaining the concept of “linear gender”:

Linear gender explicates the heteronormative assumption that a person’s genitals, general bodily materiality, legal sex, gender identity, gendered expression, sexual desire, ways of reproduction, parental status, kinship and death point in the same direction through a life course – along a straight line from birth to death. (Bremer 2013)

That is to say, for someone to be seen as a “real” and “proper” woman, for instance, they are expected to have a vagina, a “feminine body”, have their passport say that they’re a woman, identify as a woman, dress and behave in a feminine manner, be attracted to men, birth biological children, be a mother to said children, marry a man and have a family with him, and then die happy at old age (preferably surrounded by grandchildren). It’s a lot to live up to. As we can see with Brienne, she doesn’t live up to most of this. It’s repeatedly noted how “unwomanly” she looks, be it because she doesn’t fulfill traditional beauty ideals or because she’s muscular and dresses in mail. She definitely doesn’t behave like a “proper” woman, going on to fight instead of staying in the home and doing typically feminine activities. When it comes to her sexuality, it does seem like she is attracted to men, but she doesn’t confirm to gendered expectations since she doesn’t marry and settle down with children. This is partly because she has had a hard time to find someone to marry, but as she also notes:

Brienne had been betrothed at seven, to a boy three years her senior, Lord Caron’s younger son, a shy boy with a mole above his lip. They had only met the once, on the occasion of their betrothal. Two years later he was dead, carried off by the same chill that took Lord and Lady Caron and their daughters. Had he lived, they would have been wed within a year of her first flowering, and her whole life would have been different. She would not be here now, dressed in man’s mail and carrying a sword, hunting for a dead woman’s child. More like she’d be at Nightsong, swaddling a child of her own and nursing another. It was not a new thought for Brienne. It always made her feel a little sad, but a little relieved as well. (Brienne III, A Feast for Crows)

As she thinks, it does make her a bit sad but also a bit relieved that she didn’t end up with a life where she did more closely conform to gender norms. But while she feels relieved, she also feels like she has failed her father in not being the daughter he deserves.

It does seem like Brienne is more comfortable living the life of a soldier, being a true knight even if she doesn’t have the title. But she still feels like she can’t be the son her father deserves either. Being born with the body she has, everyone expects her to be a woman, behave like a woman should, and won’t let her step into the role of a knight completely. One way of understanding that is by considering a concept that Sara Ahmed calls “stopping devices” (2006, 139). By this she means how certain people are stopped or blocked from moving freely through certain spaces. One example that Ahmed gives is how when she travels to the UK, where she’s a citizen, she’s still always stopped at the airport because her looks and name makes people associate her with the Middle East and Islam (and therefore terrorism, because racism). Ahmed argues that the same thing can happen in for instance academia when women or people of colour try to make their way into that very white and male institution (2017). You are stopped, blocked, questioned. People ask if you’re really the professor, if you really belong. Trying to create a space for yourself anyway will often feel like running up against a brick wall. I would argue that a similar thing is happening to Brienne, people don’t expect her to be in this space. To try to make her way as a knight, in tourneys, on battlefields. Her attempts to do so anyway are continually blocked. She’s questioned, mocked, harassed. But, as Ahmed also points out, while trying to get through these brick walls we do eventually weaken them (2017). Brienne’s efforts might, eventually, leave cracks in the sexism institutional walls of Westeros, making it easier for the next generation to get through.

In this essay, I have tried to show how Brienne fails by Westerosi standards to be both a lady and a knight. She can’t be a proper woman and lady because of her gender nonconformity and un-linear gender. But for the same reasons she can’t be accepted as a knight, because she’s not ”enough” of a man. She gets blocked at every turn, until she feels like she is a failure and a freak that her father doesn’t deserve. But nonetheless she fights on, doing her best to break down limiting boundaries and walls on her way. She fights on.


Ahmed, Sara. 2006. Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others. Durham: Duke University Press.

Ahmed, Sara. 2017. Living a Feminist Life. Durham: Duke University Press.

Bremer, Signe. 2013. “Penis as Risk: A Queer Phenomenology of Two Swedish Transgender Women’s Narratives on Gender Correction.” Somatechnics 3(2): 329–350.

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

Masculine girls, feminine boys, non-binary folk- what’s the difference?

As a genderqueer person who works with sexual education and in my free time write about gender, sexuality, etc, I often encounter people who are confused about what exactly it means to be genderqueer or non-binary. What’s the difference between being non-binary and just not conforming to gender norms, they ask. Well, as it is Transgender Day of Visibility, I thought I would attempt to answer.

First of all, I want to note that this is just one answer to this question, and I no means intend to speak for all non-binary people. Second of all, I here use non-binary as a sort of catch-all-term for people who describe their gender as being outside of the gender binary (i.e. not man or woman, or not exclusively man or woman), but I acknowledge that not everyone who fit that description would call themselves non-binary. Third of all, not everyone who see themselves as non-binary would describe themselves as trans. I personally do, which I thought it might be fitting to publish this on Transgender Day of Visibility, but not everyone does. I will get into some possible reasons for this why later on. But first off, I wanted to relate a bit of my own experience of being non-binary, which will then lead me into some more scholarly perspectives.

I was assigned female at birth and was therefore raised as a girl, however, I never really fit in with the other girls. For most of my childhood and teenage years I could probably be described as a “tomboy”, being much more comfortable when I was out in the forest with my scout troop, getting sweaty and dirty, than I was trying to fit in with the popular and feminine girls in school. I often felt like I had missed some unspoken rule, like there was a script or manual that everyone else was following, that I just hadn’t read. While I sometimes tried to dress more feminine, wearing makeup and push-up bras, I still didn’t feel like I fit in. I was also bullied for quite a lot of this time, mocked for being weird by my classmates. I’m sure a lot of people can relate to this, both people who are cis and trans. When I started high school, things got a bit better, I got new friends and, perhaps crucially, I found some feminist and LGBTQ+ spaces. This helped me understand myself more, and I got more tools for analysing gender norms, etc. At this point I saw myself as a queer woman, as I was (and am) attracted to people regardless of their gender. I generally dressed in a mix of feminine and masculine clothing at this point, but hadn’t started questioning my gender. I knew that people who were non-binary existed, I had several friends who were non-binary, but I didn’t see myself as non-binary.

When I was twenty, I started thinking more about what it really meant for me to be a woman. I had recently moved to a new town, where I was to live for a year while studying at the university there. Moving from the city where I grew up and getting to know new people made me consider a lot of things in a new light. At this time, I was also studying gender studies at university, reading a lot about both womanhood and gender in general. Now, I realise that it’s a stereotype that taking gender studies will make you queer, but it did influence me in a way. It’s not that it made my gender identity change in of itself, but spending all of my time reading about gender forced me to confront my own feelings and experiences. Crucially, it made me realise how much I didn’t identify with womanhood. I kept reading texts about women, about women’s oppression, about women’s experience, and I just felt “this isn’t me.” I could recognise myself in some of it, I had been raised as a woman after all, and I could relate to the expectations put upon women (be feminine! Be into guys!) but I just didn’t feel like the texts I read talked about me. After that slow realisation, I had what I jokingly called “my gender identity crisis”, where I over the next few months tried to figure out what the heck it meant that I didn’t identify with other women. I started realising that when someone referred to me as a woman, for instance saying “hi girls!” or “us women”, I didn’t feel like that included me. It’s honestly hard to describe, but it was just this gut feeling that told me that I didn’t belong in that group. After a while, I settled on describing the way I experienced my gender as being genderqueer, since I queered gender. I question(ed) what gender was, how people should act according to gender, and what it means to be a man or a woman. A lot of this was the same thing as I had done for years: I didn’t behave according to gender norms, I questioned gender norms. But what had changed was that I had realised that I didn’t feel like a woman. This feeling in my gut told me I wasn’t a woman, that when someone referred to me as a woman that was wrong. But I also definitely knew that I didn’t feel like a man, even if I was masculine at times.

After this realisation, I started coming out to people, and a few months later changed my name from my very feminine sounding name to a more gender neutral one. I felt like this more closely fit how I saw myself and would (perhaps) make people less likely to immediately assume I was a woman. After coming out, I slowly became feeling more secure and comfortable in myself. I could for instance dress more comfortably in feminine clothes, and still feel like me, still feel queer, because I knew in my heart that I was. I was also more comfortable about for instance not shaving my legs before going swimming, because I felt less pressure about conforming to feminine beauty ideals when I had accepted that I wasn’t a woman. There are still moments when I feel deeply uncomfortable, for instance when I get misgendered. When someone assumes that I’m a woman, refer to me as “she” or use feminine coded words (“sister”, “daughter”, “girl”, etc). When that happens, I often feel like I’ve been punched me in the chest. Sometimes it feels like a stab in the heart, sometimes just as a light push. The intensity depends, but it always hurts. I know people don’t mean it, but it still hurts. I think it hurts the most when people who didn’t know me before I came out does it. That makes me realise that they, deep down, don’t see me as me. They still see me as a girl, a woman. It’s always a little extra heart-breaking. Because I know so clearly, in my soul, in my bones, that I’m not a woman. I’m genderqueer.

So, now that I have described my experience, I would like to compare it to what different researchers have found when analysing non-binary people’s experience. As I noted above, for many non-binary people, gender is experienced as something you feel. You feel that you’re not the gender you were assigned at birth, you feel that you’re something else. One good explanation of this comes from Dr. Dana Stachowiak who writes:

This felt sense [of gender] manifests through our lived experiences in relation to the social construction of gender and the attributes that are socially linked to what mediates masculinity, femininity, androgyny, and so forth. How we identify or disidentify with socially constructed ideals is attached to the multiplicity of our identity. (…) Felt sense of gender essentially translates to a critical embodiment of self, driven by both the corporeal body and the psyche, and the impact of social, cultural, and institutional theories of hegemony on both the body and the psyche. (2017, 535)

Essentially, a non-binary person will identify and disidentify with different aspects of gender, perhaps identifying as feminine but not as a woman, or as androgynous and not a man or a woman. As a non-binary person, you spend your time negotiating your experience and feelings with what society assumes you should feel, and ending up with “a critical embodiment of self”, generally being quite aware of both your body and psyche and how they do or do not match in the way society assumes they should. As Dr. Igi Moon writes from a psychological perspective, when you first experience that divide between how you experience/feel your gender and what society expects (based on your body), that can be quite disorientating (2019). It can feel as if the rug is pulled from underneath you, it can feel unsettling. For many non-binary people, this first realisation leads to trying to negotiate one’s feelings of “in-betweenness” (not being quite a woman, not quite a man), and finding a one’s footing in this liminal space between genders. When that footing is then found, one generally finds it easier to express themselves, feeling more at peace. Moon describes this feeling as “the consolidation of dis-orientation and liminality. There is a sense of ‘self’ as somehow ‘beyond’ cis-gender male or female.” (Moon 2019, 74) This, I think, is what in the end differentiates being non-binary (or genderqueer or any similar term) from just being a man or a woman that breaks gender norms in terms of dress or behaviour. There’s a deep-seated feeling that one’s self is not male or female.

Another difference, I think, concerns one’s experience when moving throughout the world. As I mentioned when telling my story, when people refer to you as a binary gender even while you’re non-binary, that hurts. In a study of trans and non-binary people’s health, it’s described like this:

One of the stronger narratives concerned experiences of repeatedly being misgendered (being referred to by the wrong pronoun, name or gender) or in other ways not having one’s identity respected. (…) The repetitiveness created feelings of fear and self-doubt. Not having your identity recognised by others (a kind of repetitive violence) can affect your health and presence in the world. Participants described how they withdrew from particular spaces and how feeling unsafe limited their lives. Their experiences ranged from avoiding specific spaces that were seen as unsafe, such as pubs, gyms, baths and public toilets, to avoiding almost all spaces except for controlled environments with close friends. (Linander, Goicolea, Alm, Hammarström & Harryson 2019, 919)

As Linander et al. note, this is something that happens both with trans people in general and with non-binary people. In studies made by organisations that work to support LGBTQ+ rights, it has also been noted that non-binary people can often have it especially hard to have their gender be recognised by their surroundings (RFSL 2017, 30). One explanation for this could be that while binary trans people have gained some acceptance (albeit little), claiming a gender identity completely outside of the binary is still extremely difficult to grasp for many (most) people. As several researchers have noted, society in general assumes that if someone doesn’t identify as the gender they are assigned at birth, then they must want to transition into the opposite gender (eg. Krieg 2013; Bremer 2017; Bolton 2019). Much of this can be traced back to the medical understanding of being trans, i.e. that it’s a medical condition to be treated by turning the patient from one binary sex into the other. In that way the patient can then be reintegrated into society as a “coherent” man or woman. Many binary trans people have questioned this view and argue that they are not sick people to be fixed, regardless of if they want gender affirming treatment or not (see for instance Stryker 1994). This view has also made it difficult for binary trans people who don’t want to medically transition, or not “fully” do so, since they are then not seen as “proper” men/women (Bremer 2013). The way transness is sometimes understood as so binary is one reason that some non-binary people feel like that term doesn’t describe them. Personally, I see “trans” as describing a movement, a transition, away from something, so for me a movement away from my assigned gender toward being genderqueer/non-binary, but I obviously respect other people’s view. Regardless, for non-binary people, this societal view of (trans)gender means that their gender is not fully understood by people who don’t understand what it means to have a gender outside of the binary. This non-understanding can often lead to questions such as the one I started this essay discussing: What’s the difference between being non-binary and just not conforming to gender norms? What’s the difference between being a masculine girl or a feminine boy and being non-binary? As I’ve attempted to explain here, the difference is that you have this embodied feeling of not being a man or a woman. You feel it in your guts, in your bones. It feels wrong when someone refers to you as a man or a woman. Some non-binary people experience discomfort with their bodies, specifically body parts that are very gendered, like breasts (Bolton 2019). This can be due to feeling like this part of one’s body doesn’t fit one’s self-conception, or that it makes other people see oneself in a way that doesn’t fit one’s self-conception. For other non-binary people this is less of a big deal.

There’s a million different ways of being non-binary, but what one can say is the unifying trait is not experiencing one’s gender as being a woman nor a man. It’s not just dressing in a masculine way as someone assigned female at birth, or in a feminine way as someone assigned as male at birth. Non-binary people can be feminine, masculine, neither, or a mix of both. It isn’t just gender presentation. It’s how you conceptualise yourself, your identity, perhaps even your soul. It’s feeling strongly that you’re not a man nor a woman. For me it’s also a frustration with having to use these overly simplistic and binary terms to describe my gender, because I know in my heart that what my gender is cannot be captured by those words. My gender overflows these gendered boxes, it leaks through the confines made by the gender binary. It always has in the sense that I’ve been gender nonconforming all my life, but what makes me non-binary is that my very being exists outside of the any gendered script. Who I am cannot be described fully by words because this language is not accustomed to describing people such as me. In the words of writer and activist Eli Clare:

I’m hungry for an image to describe my gendered self, something more than the shadowland of neither man nor woman, more than a suspension bridge tethered between negatives. (2003, 260)

While we hunger for a language to fully describe us, we’ll have to make do with the imperfect tools we have. Which is what I have attempted in this essay, describing my queering of gender and my non-binary self. I hope it has been helpful to you, dear reader.


Bolton, Rillark M. 2019. “Reworking Testosterone as a Man’s Hormone: Non-binary People using Testosterone within a Binary Gender System.” Somatechnics 9(1): 13-31.

Bremer, Signe. 2013. “Penis as Risk: A Queer Phenomenology of Two Swedish Transgender Women’s Narratives on Gender Correction.” Somatechnics 3(2): 329–350.

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

Clare, Eli. 2003. “Gawking, Gaping, Staring.” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 9(1-2): 257-261.

Krieg, Josephine. 2013. “A Social Model of Trans and Crip Theory. Narratives and Strategies in the Redefinition of the Pathologized Trans Subject.” lambda nordica 3-4/2013, 33-53.

Linander, Ida., Isabel Goicolea, Erika Alm, Anne Hammarström & Lisa Harryson. 2019. “(Un)safe spaces, affective labour and perceived health among people with trans experiences living in Sweden.” Culture, Health & Sexuality 21(8): 914-928.

Moon, Igi. 2018. “‘Boying’ the boy and ‘girling’ the girl: From affective interpellation to trans-emotionality.”, Sexualities 22(1-2): 65-79.

Stachowiak, Dana M. 2017. “Queering it up, strutting our threads, and baring our souls: genderqueer individuals negotiating social and felt sense of gender.” Journal of Gender Studies 26(5): 532-543.

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

RFSL. 2017. “In society I don’t exist, so it’s impossible to be who I am.” – Trans people’s health and experiences of healthcare in Sweden.