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, https://translannisters.tumblr.com 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: https://archiveofourown.org/works/30240012 

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 Historyhttps://www.makingqueerhistory.com/articles/kristina

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” https://racefortheironthrone.wordpress.com/2015/12/26/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.

“Identity, Essentialism, and Gender Fluidity in Loki”- Guest post on History of the MCU

I recently did a guest post on the History of the MCU podcast’s website, and I wanted to share the link in a post here! In the essay I do a trans and queer analysis of the recent Disney+ show Loki, discussing how it portrays gender fluidity. Have a read if you like, and check out the History of the MCU podcast!

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. https://www.rfsl.se/wp-content/uploads/2017/11/Trans_health_2017_RFSL.pdf

International Women’s Day- Thoughts on Womanhood

Tomorrow is International Women’s Day, a day that I have a somewhat complicated relationship to. For those who are unaware, I’m genderqueer but was assigned female at birth, so I have spent a significant part of my life moving through the world as if I were a woman. As a teenager, I spent a significant part of my time being involved in a feminist club at my high school (shout out to Femmetopia KG, keep up the good work). I remember spending the better part of a school break preparing for a campaign we were going to do for International Women’s Day, making posters with facts about women’s oppression throughout the world. Looking up economic inequality statistics, cursing under my breath at how immigrant women earn even less than Swedish-born women who of course earn less than Swedish-born men. Fuming at crime statistics about sexual violence, and how few cases lead to convictions. Reading reports about deadly violence toward black trans women and challenging my rage into educating my classmates about it all. In a way, things were simpler back then. Back when I still thought I was a woman, before I realised that I was genderqueer. It was easier to fight for women’s rights when I thought I fit into the category I had been assigned at birth, before I realised that while the world sees me as a woman, I’m not.

When I think about what the definition of being a woman is, I’m reminded of this quote by one of my favourite feminist scholars, Sara Ahmed:

Feminism requires supporting women in a struggle to exist in this world. What do I mean by woman here? I am referring to all those who travel under the sign woman. No feminism worthy of its name would use the sexist idea ‘women born women’ to create edges of feminist communities, to render trans women into ‘not women,’ or ‘not born women,’ or into men. No one is born a woman; it is an assignment (not just a sign, but also a task or an imperative, as I discuss in part I) 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, 14-15)

As Ahmed notes here, woman is an assignment that some of us are given or take up. That’s not to imply it’s a conscious choice, even if it sometimes is. We can choose to break free (deliberately and openly) from the assignment and refuse it. I have tried to. Yet, people try to insist that I should take it up. They keep assigning me this assignment of womanhood. So, in a way I’m still included in the category of women, because society insists on placing me there. That means that I know that, to a large degree, when people fight for women and women’s rights, that includes me. Abortion rights, fighting sexual violence, gender discrimination on the labour market… All of that applies to me too. Yet, the path I have followed through life has moved me away from womanhood too. And as Ahmed notes, there can be violence at stake both in being recognizable as a woman and in not being recognizable as a woman. There’s institutional violence in being forced into the gender binary by the state; that small marker on my passport labeling me as ”female”. There’s violence in the words that cut as knives; ”really a girl”, ”confused”, ”mentally ill.” There’s a price to pay when refusing the assignment of woman.

All the while I know I share a lot of struggles with women. Yet I’m not a woman. Sometimes this isn’t a problem, I can intellectually hold both these thoughts in my head at the same time. But sometimes, some so-called feminist will insist that people like me either don’t exist or that we’re really just women who have a lot of internalised misogyny. That makes it complicated. Then there’s days such as International Women’s Day. Where do I, someone who aren’t a woman, but who people try to assign as a woman, fit in during that day? I’m to a large part impacted by the fights for equality that people focus on during that day. But I’m not a woman, and I don’t want to remove focus from women on International Women’s Day (hence this essay being published the day before). I’m someone who has refused the assignment of woman, but who stand in solidarity with those who have taken up that assignment.

In a way this day was easier to handle when I was just an angry teenager who made posters for their high school and believed themselves to be a woman. Now it’s complicated. It forces me to confront my relationship to womanhood. It forces me to confront my place in the women’s movement and feminism. I don’t have any answers, but I will keep doing the work. While I refuse the assignment of woman, I do take up the assignment of feminist and will support women in their struggle to exist in this world.


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

Lyanna Stark, The Knight of the Laughing Tree, and gender nonconformity

TW: sexism, transphobia, sexual violence, rape

“Beautiful, and willful, and dead before her time.”- Eddard Stark (AGOT, Arya II)

Almost from the first moment we hear of Lyanna Stark in A Song of Ice and Fire there’s an air of tragedy surrounding her, in fact the very first time she’s mentioned by name is when Ned thinks:

Lyanna had only been sixteen, a child-woman of surpassing loveliness. Ned had loved her with all his heart. Robert had loved her even more. She was to have been his bride. (AGOT, Eddard I)

Lyanna is here presented in relation to the men in her life; her brother, and man who she was to marry who both mourn her (albeit in slightly different ways). The next fact about Lyanna’s life that the reader learns is that she was apparently kidnapped by Rhaegar Targaryen, and that this somehow led to her death. ASOIAF fans have for a long time doubted just how true this story is, a point I’ll return to later in this essay. But nevertheless, Lyanna is at first defined by her relationship to these three men in her life, Ned, Robert, and Rhaegar. The reader does eventually learn a bit more about her, such as that she would have liked to carry a sword, and that she wasn’t very pleased about being betrothed to Robert. And, of course, many fans speculate that she was the mysterious Knight of the Laughing Tree that appeared at the Tourney at Harrenhal to defend Howland Reed. From all accounts, Lyanna was definitely a bit wild and did not wish to conform to the expectations put upon her by society. As Ned noted in the quote that I started this essay with, he saw Lyanna as being beautiful, willful, and dead before her time. Ned here seems to attribute her death to her wilfulness, which is an interesting interpretation. In this essay I want to look a bit deeper into this wilfulness, and the ways Lyanna didn’t conform to societal expectations. I specifically want to look at her (probable) presenting as The Knight of the Laughing Tree, and what consequences this, and her gender nonconformity in general had for her.  

Fandom theory background

Now, I first want to note that it’s of course not completely canon that Lyanna was The Knight of the Laughing Tree, but for the purposes of this essay I will assume that is the case. Many other writers and content creators have laid out the evidence for why that could be the case, and why it would explain a lot of the circumstances surrounding the Tourney at Harrenhal and its aftermath, so a lot of my analysis is inspired by their work. I’m especially inspired by the work made by Lady Lady Gwynhyfvar who have suggested that the reason Rhaegar ran off with Lyanna was to protect her from king Aerys, who might have found out that Lyanna was The Knight of the Laughing Tree (Lady Gwynhyfvar 2014). This is also an interpretation supported by The Learned Hands podcast in their episode about Rhaegar’s possible sentencing to Horny Jail (where I had the opportunity to play Howland Reed), where they argue that this could possibly be a mitigating circumstance in Rhaegar’s absconding with Lyanna (Learned Hands 2021a). Essentially, what both Lady Gwynhyfvar and Learned Hands argue is that Aerys, who was known to be paranoid and unstable at the time, would pose a real threat to Lyanna if he realised that she was The Knight of the Laughing Tree. As The World of Ice and Fire points out:

King Aerys II was not a man to take any joy in mysteries, however. His Grace became convinced that the tree on the mystery knight’s shield was laughing at him […] he commanded his own knights to defeat the Knight of the Laughing Tree when the jousts resumed the next morning, so that he might be unmasked and his perfidy exposed for all to see. But the mystery knight vanished during the night, never to be seen again. This too the king took ill, certain that someone close to him had given warning to “this traitor who will not show his face.”

(The World of Ice and Fire- The Targaryen Kings: Aerys II)

As many others have noted, Aerys also ordered Rhaegar to go find The Knight of the Laughing Tree (as told to us by Meera when she relates the story to Bran), and many fans assume that he did find her and that’s why he decided to honour her by naming her Queen of Love and Beauty. This decision also made Aerys suspicious, as Lady Gwynhyfvar also notes. If Aerys later found out, or figured out, that Lyanna was The Knight of the Laughing Tree, it would make sense if he sent soldiers after her, and Rhaegar felt the need to intervene. Or, so goes the theory at least. Other people, such as Learned Hands have also speculated on additional motives on both Rhaegar and Lyanna’s parts, such as Rhaegar being driven by prophesy and Lyanna being driven by a wish to be free from the life her family had planned for her. Or that both of them were driven by lust and romance. But before I look deeper into this, and analyse the circumstance further, I want to look at some scholarly work that I think is relevant to the topic.

Scholarly theory background

I’ve written a lot previously on gender nonconformity in ASOIAF, such as my three Brienne essays, my Alleras/Sarella essay, and Aemy Blackfyre’s and mine essay on Lysano Maar. One of the points I’ve argued there is that even if we can’t completely apply contemporary understandings of gender on ASOIAF, we can do so to a certain degree. This is for three reasons: that the way sex/gender is understood in ASOIAF is more similar to a contemporary understanding of the concepts than a medieval one, that GRRM in general seems to want to examine contemporary issues through a medievalish lens, and that many contemporary theories on gender nonconformity can be applied to older times (I’ll get back to this). I’ve discussed those first two points more extensively here and here if anyone is interested, so I won’t go further into that here. But I do want to discuss how we can analyse gender and gender nonconformity in a historical perspective a bit.

Firstly, people who have transgressed societal boundaries of sex and gender have always existed, as trans activist Leslie Feinberg noted in hir ground-breaking book Transgender warriors (1996). These people have obviously used different words to describe their experiences, depending on what language was available to them, but they have nevertheless existed. Just take a figure like Joan of Arc, who might today have identified as a trans man, as maybe as non-binary, or maybe as a woman but one who enjoyed cross-dressing. As Feinberg writes 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) Trans historian Sølve M. Holm writes this when discussing how to analyse historical narratives of transness and/or gender nonconformity:

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. (2017, 70)

As Holm writes here, they see historical accounts left about gender nonconforming people as traces of the experiences these individuals had, but not necessarily as completely accurate representations of the true events. This, I think, is a fruitful way of approaching looking at gender nonconformity both in real life history and fictional history. As the reader, we don’t always know how the person/character themselves perceive their gender and gender expression, but we see the effects of their behaviour. We can read the accounts told by others of their behaviour, and we can infer a lot based on the reactions of others. If someone acts in a way that others see as inappropriate based on their sex/gender, that can often be seen in their reactions to this behaviour.

Besides this, I also want to note a few more theoretical perspectives that I think can be relevant to understanding Lyanna Stark’s story. The first such is the concepts of straight lines and life lines. As for instance researcher Anna Siverskog notes, society generally assumes that a person will follow certain paths through life, and these expectations are furthermore generally based in heteronormativity. That is to say, a person born with a vagina is expected to identify as a woman, be attracted to men, and behave like a woman should in general. This should include, for instance, dressing feminine, wanting to pursue relationships with men (but not sleeping around), and eventually settle down with a man, marry, and have children. People who do not follow this expected path in some way are seen as queer to different degrees. When it comes to sexuality, Siverskog notes that people are expected to follow the straight line of heterosexuality, and so to say ‘fall in line’ because:

[H]eterosexuality is something that is expected in the family, through insistence that children should repay their debt (life) through life. The pressure to reproduce (family heritage) often happens through language about love, happiness, and care which pushes one to follow certain lines. To refuse to follow the line is to be seen as ungrateful, a source of sorrow for the family. (Siverskog 2016, 48) [my translation from Swedish]

Siverskog goes on to describe how people who do not follow these straight lines through life, either in regards to sexuality or gender, often are punished by society in different ways. This can include everything from discrimination and (fear of) harassment to loneliness and isolation. This is, of course, also something several other researchers have written loads about. What I want to focus primarily on here is violence toward gender nonconforming people. As for instance researcher Thalia Mae Bettcher notes, it is sadly very common that violence toward trans and gender nonconforming people is explained by the perpetrators by saying that the victim were deceiving them in some way by not dressing/behaving as the gender they were assigned at birth. As Bettcher writes:

Fundamental to transphobic representations of transpeople [sic] as deceivers is an appearance-reality contrast between gender presentation and sexed body. For example, an MTF who is taken to misalign gender presentation with the sexed body can be regarded as “really a boy,” appearances notwithstanding. Here, we see identity enforcement embedded within a context of possible deception, revelation, and disclosure. In this framework, gender presentation (attire, in particular) constitutes a gendered appearance, whereas the sexed body constitutes the hidden, sexual reality. (2007, 48)

So, by not revealing their trans status, a trans person might risk violence by someone who feel as if the trans person is deceiving them (even if this is obviously not the case, the trans person is just living their life). But, as Bettcher also notes, revealing their trans status might also lead to violence or other negative consequences. No matter what you do, people might decide to punish you very violently for being gender nonconforming. Researcher Jack/Judith Halberstam makes a similar point, when writing about the rape and murder of Brandon Teena, ostensibly for being trans. Halberstam notes that, in the eyes of society “gender nonconformity must be corrected through the enforcement of heterosexuality” (2005, 66). That, according to Halberstam, is why two ‘friends’ of Brandon Teena felt compelled to rape and murder him for not conforming to gender norms. As Halberstam puts it: “The punishment, as far as they were concerned, fit the crime inasmuch as Brandon must be properly returned to the body he denied.” (ibid) So to sum up, if one deviates from one’s expected path through life, the consequences can be absolutely horrible. On that sad note, lets return to our wilful wolf, Lyanna Stark.


As Ned noted, Lyanna was known for being wilful and not necessarily following the rules. It should, by the way, be noted that the word “wilful” is much more commonly attributed to girls than boys (who are more likely to be called “strong willed”), especially girls who won’t fall in line (Ahmed 2017, 68). So, it’s rather appropriate in a way that Lyanna is described this way, since she seemingly did not want to follow the path set out for her. We see from Bran’s weirwood visions that she would practice sword fighting as a child, even if she apparently wasn’t allowed. But this is truly only the precursor to her deciding to take on the persona of The Knight of the Laughing Tree.

Now, Lyanna probably had several motives for doing this, including wanting to stand up for Howland Reed after he had been attacked by several knights’ squires. Another motive was probably simply that she liked fighting and horseback riding and that she was a bit of a wild wolf. Perhaps she also relished breaking free of the gendered expectations put upon her, if only for a little while. Regardless of her exact motives, the result can be seen as a form of cross-gender expression, similarly to what Leslie Feinberg wrote about Joan of Arc. If we assume that Lady Gwynhyfvar is correct in her assertion that Lyanna was discovered by Rhaegar and later Aerys, this might make us look upon the situation slightly differently. As I noted above, in our real-world gender nonconforming people (including trans people) might face violence for being seen as “deceivers”. In ASOIAF, we have a similar example in the story of Danny Flint who dressed as a man and joined the Nights Watch and was later raped and murdered after their “brothers” discovered what they saw as Danny’s true sex. Now, I’m not saying Lyanna is trans. We have no information about how she saw her gender herself. But I think her dressing as The Knight of the Laughing Tree had similar consequences to what trans people might face and could’ve ended similarly to the story of Danny Flint. There is plenty of evidence that Aerys was violently sexist, besides just being violent in general. We can see that in his treatment of his wife, but for instance also in how he treated Lady Serala Darklyn after the Defiance of Duskendale. While Aerys ordered the death of all of the Darklyns, it’s noted in The World of Ice and Fire that he specifically ordered that Lady Serala’s tongue and genitals were torn out before she was burned alive. Rhaegar would be aware of this and might very well fear that Aerys would react extremely violently upon finding out that Lyanna had been The Knight of the Laughing Tree. Afterall, Aerys had already deemed the mystery knight a traitor at the tourney, and that was before he found out that it had been a woman. It seems very likely that he would be extremely enraged if he found out the truth and would see Lyanna as a deceiving traitor who had to be punished.

So, assuming this was the case and Rhaegar decided to try to rescue Lyanna, and that this led to the alleged kidnapping of Lyanna, I now briefly want to touch on the last part of her life. From what we know, Lyanna and Rhaegar ran off together, maybe got married, and then Lyanna had a child by Rhaegar before dying (presumedly due to the childbirth). Many have speculated on why Lyanna would agree to go off with Rhaegar, if indeed it was a choice. I support the interpretation that Learned Hands put forth in their Rhaegar episode, that it was a mix of not wanting to be with Robert and being in love with Rhaegar, as well as being a bit of a spur of the moment decision due to the threat posed by Aerys. Nevertheless, Lyanna clearly proved to be the wilful young woman that Ned describes by running off with someone who wasn’t her betrothed. She did not follow the path set out for her by her family. Once again, she refused the expectations set down on her. As The Knight of the Laughing Tree she broke gender norms, by running off with Rhaegar she broke norms around respectable sexuality. It’s tragic then to consider how her life ended, as for instance Maester Merry of Learned Hands have noted (2021b). Lyanna spent her whole life running away from all these norms, but in the end she ended up getting trapped by her uterus, literally, and dying. It’s in a way as the story itself punished her for her gender deviance and, as Halberstam might put it, corrected it through the enforcement of heterosexuality.


Lyanna Stark’s story is a sad one in many ways. We first hear of her as she’s being mourned by two of the men in her life, and throughout the story she’s almost always referred to in relation to one man or another. Yet she tried to be her own woman, making her own path through life. She learnt how to fight, she jousted, and seemingly she ran off with the man she wanted. Yet, as many gender nonconforming people she met resistance. I’ve argued here that one of the reasons why she had to run off with Rhaegar in the first place was that Aerys would react very violently if he found out about her actions. Not just because Aerys was paranoid and violent in general, but especially because Lyanna transgressed the accepted boundaries for sex and gender in Westeros.

Lyanna spent her life transgressing boundaries, deviating from the path set out for her by her family. But in the end, what killed her was just the sort of thing she had tried to outrun. It’s almost as if the world couldn’t quite let her get away from the heterosexual narrative. Her gender deviation had to be corrected through heterosexuality and motherhood, even if it cost her life. It’s tragic.


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

Bettcher, Thalia Mae. 2007. “Evil Decievers and Make-Believers: On Transphobic Violence and the Politics of Illusion.” Hypatia, 22(3): 43-65.

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

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

Lady Gwynhyfvar. 2014. “Rescue at the Crossroads.” November 6, 2014. https://ladygwynhyfvar.com/2014/11/06/rescue-at-the-crossroads/

Learned Hands. 2021a. “Episode 15: ‘The Horny Trial of Rhaegar Targaryen’.” January 21, 2021. https://www.stitcher.com/show/learned-hands-the-official-podcast-of-the-westerosi-bar-association/episode/episode-15-the-horny-trial-of-rhaegar-targaryen-80997050

Learned Hands. 2021b. “Episode 15.5: BONUS Horny Jail Livestream Audio.” January 30, 2021. https://www.stitcher.com/show/learned-hands-the-official-podcast-of-the-westerosi-bar-association/episode/episode-15-5-bonus-horny-jail-livestream-audio-81239893

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

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

Martin, George, Linda Antonsson & Elio García. 2014. The World of Ice and Fire. New York: Bentam Books.

Siverskog, Anna. 2016. Queera livslopp- Att leva och åldras som lhbtq-person i en heteronormativ värld. PhD thesis, Linköping: Linköping University.

Navigating geographies of fear- themes of disability and queerness in The Secret Commonwealth

Spoiler warning: all His Dark Materials and The Book of Dust books.

TW: sexual assault, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism.

When the reader opens up The Secret Commonwealth for the first time, they’re probably not ready for the heart-breaking sadness they’ll feel when reading about Lyra and Pan’s relationship. After the trauma they experienced in the end of their journey as children, they have a strained relationship, and eventually Pan decides to leave Lyra. Lyra then goes on her journey to find Pan, coming across both people who are sympathetic to her situation, and those who are decidedly less so. There are many ways of understanding Lyra and Pan’s estrangement, it can for instance be read as a metaphor for depression and trauma as for instance Girls Gone Canon have noted (2020). In this way, Lyra’s relationship with Pan parallels her mother’s toxic relationship to her own daemon, which I’ve covered on multiple occasions. But in this essay I want to focus on a slightly different aspect of Lyra and Pan’s separation; how the surrounding world perceive them (and specifically Lyra) when they are separated, and how it parallels experiences of disabled and queer people in our world.

Now, I first want to point out that I don’t think daemon separation is an exact parallel to disability or queerness. What I will attempt to point out here is instead how the experience of daemon separation and the marginalisation it leads to, in some ways parallels the experience of disabled and queer people. I especially want to focus on what it’s like to move through the world as a daemon-less person, and the similarities to the experience of queer and disabled people. This is what I mean by navigating geographies of fear, how do you navigate a hostile society as a marginalised person? To examine that I’ll first do a brief breakdown of some relevant aspects of daemon separation, and how people who are separated from their daemons are treated, and then move on to describe a bit of theoretical writings about disability and queerness in our world. Then I’ll go on to analyse three specific scenes from The Secret Commonwealth that I think make this parallel clear.

Background- daemon separation and marginalisation

Our first insight into daemon separation comes, of course, from Northern Lights where we see children being taken by the GOB and then forcibly severing them from their daemons as part of the Magisterium’s investigation/control of Dust (Pullman 2011). The reason the Magisterium is doing this is so to control sin, since they think Dust comes from original sin. I’ve previously compared this process to eugenics and forced sterilisations in our world, a process for controlling unwanted sexuality and reproduction. In our world a variety of marginalised people have been forcibly sterilised, from ethnic minorities, to lower-class women, to disabled people, to trans people. In Lyra’s world the people who are used for the GOB’s experiments are similarly marginalised people, mainly children from the lower classes and/or ethnic minorities such as the gyptians. The severing process is less explicitly about sexuality than sterilisation is, but it still concerns controlling sin and (implicitly) sexuality. The forced severing seems to be very traumatic for the children, and many don’t survive it. Yet, in the same book we learn of the witches’ ability to separate from their daemons, without these adverse effects. As the books go on, we learn a bit more about this voluntary form of separation, for instance with Malcom and Asta in La Belle Sauvage (Pullman 2018). It seems as if there is a spectrum of separation, and that the process affects people differently depending on the circumstances. Yet, we see similar reactions from other people when they’re confronted with people who are separated from their daemons; namely disgust and fear.

I think a telling example of how the general population sees daemon separation comes from Northern Lights, when Fader Coram tells a group of gyptians of his first meeting with Serafina Pekkala and how she had no daemon with her. It says that:

It was as if he’d said, ‘She had no head.’ The very though was repugnant. The men shuddered, their daemons bristled or shook themselves or cawed harshly, and the men soothed them. (Pullman 2011, 164)

Clearly, the very idea of someone not being close to their daemon is inconceivable and scary. Another example that I want to raise is from The Secret Commonwealth, when Lyra meets some Tajik people Seleukeia, Chil-du (“Forty-two”) and Yozdah (“Eleven”) who work collecting nightsoil. A priest Lyra meets explains:

‘Your Tajik friends,’ he said quietly, ‘their daemons would’ve been sold.’

She wasn’t sure she’d heard him. ‘What? Did you say sold? People sell their daemons?’

‘It’s poverty,’ he said. ‘There’s a market for daemons. Medical knowledge here is quite advanced, unlike other things. Big corporations are behind it. They say the medical companies are experimenting here before expanding into the European market. There’s a surgical operation… Many people survive it now. Parents will sell their children’s daemons for money to stay alive. It’s technically illegal, but big money brushes the law aside… When the children grow up, they’re not full citizens, being incomplete. Hence their names, and the occupations they have to take up.’ (Pullman 2020, 660)

Now, there are many interesting things going on in this quote, including the way this area is described as backward and almost barbaric while it’s European corporations who use their resources. This neo-colonial discourse is something I discussed in this essay, so I won’t go further into that here. Instead I want to focus on how these daemon-less people are treated. These people are used by corporations for profits, and then discarded by society because they are seen as worthless for “being incomplete.” This is extremely reminiscent of how corporations in our world will use workers in the Global South, and then discard those people when their bodies are used up (eg. Puar 2009). I’ve written about this previously in connection to those who are spectred in Cittàgazze. I would also like to point out how this language around daemon-less people not being “full citizens” is very reminiscent about how different disabled people have for a long time been denied legal rights, such the right to vote, in many countries. For instance, in Sweden many people with intellectual and mental disabilities were denied the right to vote until 1989 if they were “omyndigförklarade” (being under a form of guardianship where they were not legally speaking considered to be an adult, this was abolished in 1989) (Nordiska Museet n.d.) Similar laws are still in place in 39 states in the US, where people who are considered “incapacitated” or “incompetent” can be stripped of their right to vote (Vasilogambros 2018). In the UK, patients living in mental hospitals weren’t allowed to vote until 2000 (NHS 2013).  

Theoretical background- disability studies and gender studies, queer theory and crip theory

Both disability studies and gender studies are huge fields, and many researchers have done work that touch on the ways gender, sexuality, and ability are connected. So, I can in no way cover all of that theoretical writing here, but I wanted to give a brief background to explain why you can talk about disability and queerness together.

A person who has been extremely influential in this field is the researcher Robert McRuer who in 2006 wrote the book Crip Theory: Cultural Signs of Queerness and Disability. In this book he drew inspiration from queer theory as well as disability studies to compare norms and structures of sexuality and disability. He argues that in our society, both the able-bodied person and the heterosexual person are invisible, while the “abnormal” people (the queer and disabled people) are visible and pathologized. To illustrate this point, he compares two dictionary definitions of heterosexual and able-bodied: “heterosexual: pertaining to or characterized by the normal relations of the sexes; opp. to homosexual.”(ibid, 6), compared to “able-bodied: having an able body, i.e. one free from physical disabilities, and capable of the physical exertions required of it; in bodily health; robust.” (ibid, 7). McRuer himself has a somewhat different definition of what being able-bodied means; “being able-bodied means being capable of normal physical exertions required in a particular system of labor.” (ibid, 8) That is to say, society assumes everyone will live up to its standards/ideals, that which is considered “normal”, both when it comes to sexuality, gender, and ability. Society also assumes that being able-bodied, heterosexual, and cisgender is the preferable option, that everyone would want to be that given the choice. But as disability and trans activist Eli Clare puts it:

I’ve been asked more than once whether I’d take the hypothetical cure pill. I usually explain that having CP is like having blue eyes and red hair. I simply don’t know my body any other way. Thank you very much but no: no to the New Age folks who have offered crystals and vitamins, no to the preachers who have prayed over me, no to the doctors who have suggested an array of drugs and possible surgery, all with uncertain outcomes. (Clare 2007)

What many disability activists have promoted instead is a focus on how society should be adapted so it can work for people with different abilities, i.e. placing the problem with society instead of with the disabled person. Trans activists have suggested a similar approach to allow for trans people who want access to medical treatments, without pathologizing them (eg. Krieg 2013).

Another similarity between queer, trans, and disabled experiences that I want to discuss is the reaction heterosexual, cisgendered, and able-bodied people can have to queer/trans/disabled people. Queer theory argues that queer and trans people aren’t seen as “properly” gendered, for instance with gay men being seen as overly feminine and trans women not being seen as real women because of the genitalia they had at birth (eg. Butler 1990). Somewhat similarly, disabled people are often not seen as “real men” or “real women” (Malmberg 2012). Disabled women are for instance often seen as “un-gendered”, not proper women, and somehow unclean/impure. Researcher Denise Malmberg furthermore points out that disabled people are often harassed in different ways for deviating from the norm:

The deviation, the otherness, seems to stir a fascination that is built on a tension between attraction and dread, threat and fear, and also contempt. (…) There is fear of being afflicted with or contaminated by the life of a physically disabled person, a life that is seen as so miserable and poor that it is hardly worth living. (Malmberg 2012, 209)

This is very similar to a point trans scholar Susan Stryker makes; that part of the reason why people despise trans people so much, and call them unnatural etc, is that trans people make them question boundaries of sex and gender. As she puts it, cis people are inclined to reject trans people as monsters to avoid accepting that trans people could make them notice the “constructedness of the natural order.” (1994, 250) If they were to accept the “constructedness” of the gender order, they might notice that they too have “seems and sutures”, just as the trans people they call Frankenstein’s monster (ibid, 241).

Analysis- the ferry scene

The first scene I would like to analyse is the scene where Lyra is travelling by ferry from Brytain to the Dutch coast, and she’s accosted by a man who asks her where her daemon is. She tries to say that her daemon is not feeling well and is just inside of her coat, but the man won’t let up. Both the man and his daemon are visibly upset at her just being there, and he starts harassing her louder and louder. Some of the things he says are:

‘You shouldn’t be in a public place in the state you are. There’s something the matter with you. Something not right.’ (…)

‘She hasn’t got a daemon! I keep telling her, it’s not right to come out in public like that, there’s something badly wrong-’

(Pullman 2019, 336)

Here he also gets other people involved, yelling to them about how something is wrong with Lyra. The scene continues with the man saying:

‘People with that degree of disfigurement ought to keep out of public view,’ he said, and his daemon howled again. ‘Look at the way you’re frightening people. Not fit to be seen in public. There are places for people like you to stay…’

A child was beginning to cry, and his mother picked him up ostentatiously, holding his coat clear of Lyra’s rucksack as if it was tainted. (Pullman 2019, 337)

Eventually, of course, a group of Welsh miners intervene and get Lyra out of the situation. But we can here clearly see the way someone with some sort of bodily difference can be harassed in public, with this man saying that she’s wrong to even subject others to her “disfigurement.” This quote reminded me very clearly of laws that have existed in our world about which people are allowed to appear in public. One example of this is the very harsh laws that existed in San Fransisco in the 19th century that prohibited, among other things, cross-dressing in public. The full text stated that:

If any person shall appear in a public place in a state of nudity, or in a dress not belonging to his or her sex, or in an indecent or lewd dress, or shall make any indecent exposure of his or her person, or be guilty of any lewd or indecent act or behavior, or shall exhibit or perform any indecent, immoral or lewd play, or other representation, he should be guilty of a misdemeanor, and on conviction, shall pay a fine not exceeding five hundred dollars (Revised Orders 1863, quoted in Sears 2008, 171).

Note here that appearing in a “dress not belonging to his or her sex” is seen as the same type of indecency as being nude in public or indecent exposure.  As Sears notes, this law was used as a flexible tool to target a variety of gender transgressions, including but not limited to people who might identity as trans today. The laws at this time also prohibited “anyone who was ‘diseased, maimed, mutilated,’ or an otherwise ‘unsightly or disgusting object’ from appearing in public (General Orders 1869)” (Sears 2008, 174). This is very similar to the way the man on the ferry argues that Lyra should not be in public because her “disfigurement” frightens other people. The mother who removes her child and makes sure the child’s coat doesn’t touch Lyra’s rucksack also reminds me of how queer and disabled people might be seen as disgusting, and people might act as if they’re contagious.

I think the clearest parallel here is to how people might act toward disabled people, but I do also think there’s a gender/sexuality aspect to consider. Similarly to how queer theory argues that society doesn’t see queer or trans people as “real” men/women if they don’t have the “correct” gender expression, body morphology, and desire, people in Lyra’s world seem to think you’re “incomplete” if you don’t have a daemon. Daemons are also somewhat connected to sexuality in that they’re connected to Dust and therefore sin. There’s also the aspect to consider that they’re usually (but not always) the “opposite sex” from their human, which seems to imply some sort of balance of masculine and feminine that doesn’t exist if you lack your daemon. There is some sort of queer feel to Lyra lacking a daemon, and it upsets other people. Perhaps one could even argue that the anger and disgust they express is similar to what Stryker describes that trans people have to face for “disrupting” the boundaries of sex/gender. In this case Lyra shows that humans don’t have to always be attached to their daemons, you can exist apart from them, which upsets people who thought that humans and daemons (similarly to sex and gender) always come as a set. Now, this is clearly not a perfect parallel, but I think that the feelings this “wrongness” and “incompleteness” create among other people is similar.

Another aspect of this scene that I want to consider is how marginalised people have to navigate the risk of being harassed when out in public. After this situation, and discussing it with the miners she meets, Lyra takes more precautions when moving through public spaces. This reminds me of how queer, trans, and disabled people might act. Researchers have for instance noted that trans people who utilise public transport might create different strategies to avoid harassment, or to deal with it if it arises (Lubitow, Carathers, Kelly & Abelson 2017). Trans people who are harassed in public often report that the reason that they’re targeted is their visible transness, while those who are less often harassed generally attribute this to their relative normative gender expression. Therefore, some people attempt to look more normatively male/female, especially in public to avoid notice and therefore harassment. What experience someone has is often also impacted by other social categories, such as race, which this person explains when retelling an event:

She asks me [my gender] … I was like, ‘Oh, um … I’m a girl.’ Then, all of a sudden, it’s done, it’s done … I can see that she’s gotta get away from me because now I’m something that she totally doesn’t understand …. And sometimes if you’re stuck on a bus and the bus driver has watched you [talk with this person] and all of a sudden they’re clamming up and freaking out and they’re moved to the other side of the bus in fear … then everyone else is looking and everyone else who hasn’t been paying attention … is now trying to figure out what’s going on and all that they see is this giant non-normative – what looks like a black guy – intimidating this tiny old white lady. (quoted in Lubitow et al. 2017, 1406)

Here again we see this fear of the unknown, and wanting to get away from it, which was prevalent in the scene in The Secret Commonwealth. In their article, Lubitow et al. also notes that disabled trans people might be targeted both for being disabled and trans when traveling in public, for instance by not letting them have their seat even if they’re using a crutch, and instead harassing them about their gender. Trans people might have different strategies to avoid or deal with this harassment, from dressing in a way to not get noticed, to deliberately choosing travel routs that they deem safer, to even not getting off at the correct stop to avoid people figuring out where they live. This latter part is of course also similar to how women might approach public spaces when fearing violence, with many restricting their movement through public space (Sandberg & Tollefsen 2010). Restricting one’s movement in such a way can be described as geography being affected by fear, social space becomes less open and free for those who fear violence in it. As Sandberg and Tollefsen notes, researchers of this geography of fear have noted that this fear is related to gendered power dynamics as well as other power dynamics such as race (and disability, I would add). In this scene in The Secret Commonwealth, we see how Lyra has to learn how to navigate these power dynamics in a new way after her separation from Pan.

Analysis- finding community in Prague

The next scene I want to consider is when Lyra arrives in Prague and meets Vaclav Kubiček, another man without a daemon. When meeting him Lyra expresses how it’s been both a shock and a relief to find out that there are other people like her, that she’s not alone (Pullman 2019, 405). This passage of their conversation stands out to me:

‘I had no idea,’ she said again. ‘I knew nothing of this way of being. I was sure people would see it at once and hate me for it. Some did, in fact.’

‘We have all experienced that.’

Here Lyra and Kubiček bond over their similar experiences of being different and being marginalised. This reminds me a lot of how queer people might experience meeting other queer people, realising that there are others like oneself, and finding community in that. Now, this is of course true to a certain degree for many marginalised communities. But the part Lyra says about not knowing anything “of this way of being” specifically reminded me of a queer person finding that other people like them exist, perhaps reading a book or looking online and finding out that other people share their experiences and have a name for it (“gay”, “bi”, “queer”, “trans”, etc). To later find a physical community, a queer or trans space, can also be incredibly powerful. Many describe such queer spaces as extremely valuable as an escape from “the gendered logics of everyday which determine what a body should or should not do, what a body should or should not look like, and where a body should or should not go.” (Rooke 2010, 665) Lyra’s experience with Kubiček very much reminds me of that, of her finding someone she can be open with and relate to. Lyra also learns from Kubiček that:

‘There are some of us in Prague. A small number. We met by chance, or by hearing about one another from those who are not afraid of us- we do have a few friends- and we have discovered other networks of acquaintanceship in other places. It is a secret society, if you like. If you tell me where you are going next, I can give you the names and addresses of some people like us in that place. They will understand and help if you need it.’ (Pullman 2019, 405)

This sort of resource sharing and network building exist in many types of marginalised communities, but I here want to compare it to some early trans communities. One such example is the network that the American trans woman Louise Lawrence developed in the 1940s (Stryker 2008, 44). By placing personal ads in newspapers and contacting people who had been arrested for crimes such as cross-dressing, Lawrence had created a correspondent network with trans people from across the world. Her home in Northern California also became a way station for American trans people who sought medical procedures in San Francisco. This sort of support network very much reminds me of the one that the daemon-less people in Lyra’s world have set up, with contacts in different cities to call upon. There are of course parallels here to other networks that other marginalised groups utilise, and I by no means intend to imply that only queer and trans communities function in this way. But reading the passage from The Secret Commonwealth, this was the parallel that struck me the hardest.

Analysis- the train scene

The last scene I want to discuss is the scene when Lyra is assaulted by soldiers on the train when travelling to Seleukeia. I know many people dislike this scene and think it’s unnecessary, or unnecessarily detailed, something that for instance Girls Gone Canon cover in their episode about The Secret Commonwealth that they did with The Dark Materials Podcast and Her Dark Materials (2020). I’m inclined to agree with that and will discuss that later, but I first want to analyse the scene as an instance of violence toward a marginalised person. It is noted that the soldiers that Lyra meets are suspicious and angry about her lack of daemon, speaking about her “with an air of superstitious hatred.” (Pullman 2019, 632) Not too long afterward, they attack her, sexually assaulting her, and attempting to rape her. Lyra fights back, and eventually the sergeant in charge hears the commotion and intervenes. Later Lyra gets help with her injuries by the officer in charge, who attempts to pass on some “wisdom” to her, saying:

‘Well, if you ride on a train with soldiers, you must expect a little discomfort.’

‘I have a ticket that permits me to ride this train. It does not say that the journey includes assault and attempted rape. Do you expect your soldiers to behave like that?

‘No, and they will be punished. But I repeat, it is not wise for a young woman to travel alone in the present circumstances. (Pullman 2019, 640)

Later their conversation continues with the officer saying:

‘A little advice,’ he said as he helped her stiffly down on to the platform.


‘Wear a niqab,’ he said. ‘It will help.’

‘I see. Thank you. It would be better for everyone if you disciplined your soldiers.’ (…)

‘You are probably right. They are trash. Seleukeia is a difficult city. Do not stay here long. There will be more soldiers arriving by other trains. Better move on soon.’ (Pullman 2019, 642)

Now, there are obvious gendered aspects to this situation, with the officer talking about Lyra being a target for sexual violence because she’s a woman. I would, however, also argue that she’s being targeted because she’s a daemon-less woman. Earlier in this essay I have argued that the harassment Lyra meets is similar to that which queer and disabled people might face, and that seems to be the case here too. As many researchers have pointed out, queer and gender nonconforming people are often targeted by violence, including sexual violence (eg. Halberstam 2005). As Halberstam puts it, people often think that “gender nonconformity must be corrected through the enforcement of heterosexuality” (2005, 66). Halberstam here specifically discusses the case of Brandon Teena, who was raped and later murdered for being trans, but it also works as broad statement on how society views gender nonconformity. Lyra, who is queer in the eyes of society for not having a daemon must be punished and corrected by forced heterosexuality.

Another read of the situation is to focus on how being daemon-less is similar to having a disability, and how disabled women can be targets of sexual violence. I mentioned earlier how disabled women are can be seen as non-gendered, sometimes being assumed to be asexual because people either infantilise them or objectify them (Malmberg 2012). The objectification can lead to these women being reduced to their disability or objects connected to their disability, such as a wheelchair. This all combined leads to some people assuming that no one would want to have sex with a disabled women, and that they therefore can’t be sexually assaulted, alternatively: “The objectification of a disabled woman constructs a ‘logic’ accor­ding to which the perpetrator does not violate or assault a human being, but an object, a ‘thing’.” (Malmberg 2012, 206) This latter explanation, that these people don’t see disabled women as human beings, feels more in line to what happens to Lyra. These soldiers don’t see her as a human being since she doesn’t have a daemon, and therefore think they can do what they want with her.

No matter if you go with the trans/queer explanation or the disability one, I think it’s clear that these soldiers dehumanise Lyra because of her lack of daemon, and therefore attack her. In that way, it’s very similar to the scene on the ferry, but even more violent and with added sexual violence. So, why the need for this scene? As I mentioned earlier, many people think this scene is unnecessary and/or unnecessarily descriptive. In my opinion, it doesn’t really provide much more than the ferry scene besides upping the stakes even more. Perhaps that’s the purpose of it, to heighten the tension for the last part of the book. I do, however, believe that could’ve been done without this level of sexual violence. However, I can’t shake the feeling that Pullman (consciously or subconsciously) felt like Lyra should be in more danger in the East than in the West, and that’s part of the reason he added this scene. That Lyra is in more danger here specifically is indicated by the officer saying that these soldiers are trash, that this is a dangerous area to travel through at present, and especially by his suggestion that she wear a Niqab. As I’ve discussed elsewhere, the Niqab and other veils are often seen as symbolic of the oppression of women, even if women themselves often do not see it that way. That “the East” is more patriarchal is a view long held in Western countries and is used to legitimise colonial and neo-colonial invasions. In my opinion, this scene in The Secret Commonwealth plays right into that idea.


In this essay I have attempted to show that living without a daemon in Lyra’s world is in some ways similar to navigating our world as queer or disabled. However, as I hope has been clear, it is of course not an exact parallel. Nonetheless, there are similarities in how daemon-less people are seen as disgusting, scary, unnatural, etc, and treated as such. Lyra has to learn how to navigate this hostile world, much as a queer or disabled person might. But she also realises that she’s not alone, and that there is a community out there who will help her on her way. In Lyra’s journey in The Secret Commonwealth, Pullman manages to describe the experience of moving through the world as a marginalised person very well. I might dislike parts of how he does this, especially the train scene, but he does capture a lot of it surprisingly well. I wish Lyra all the best in her future travels and hope she can find even more support and community on her way. There are a lot of us queer folk out there.


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Clare, E. 2007. “excerpt from “Trans Communities & Lessons from Disability Rights Activism.” Eli Clare- Lectures & Keynotes. Retrieved February 2, 2020. http://eliclare.com/what-eli-offers/lectures/lessons

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

Krieg, J. 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.

Lubitow, A., J. Carathers, M. Kelly & M. Abelson. 2017. “Transmobilities: mobility, harassment, and violence experienced by transgender and gender nonconforming public transit riders in Portland, Oregon.” Gender, Place & Culture, 24(10): 1398-1418.

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Sears, C. 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.

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

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Brienne of Tarth and Joan of Arc: on finding trans narratives in the middle ages

When I set out to write this essay, I planned to write about the parallels between Brienne of Tarth and Joan of Arc. To write about how they’re both warrior maids, have some connection to religion, have similar titles (Brienne of Tarth and Joan of Arc, The Maid of Tarth, The Maid of Orleans), and are both harassed and abused for their gender non-conformity. Then, as often happens, the text took me somewhere else. Instead, I here want to focus on how you can read both historical people and fictional character (such as Joan of Arc and Brienne of Tarth) as trans even while it’s not explicitly there in the text or the sources. I want to do this for several reasons. One is simply because I want to show such a trans read can be valid. Another reason is that I think that it provides an opportunity to discuss an aspect of gender that interests be greatly as a trans person, trans activist, and as someone interested in (trans)gender theory. That aspect is how the individual’s own experience of gender and how they would describe their gender sometimes contrasts how their surroundings and society as a whole perceive their gender. For trans people, these different aspects of gender often do not match. For non-binary/genderqueer people in particular, it can be very difficult, if not impossible, to make them match (Connell 2010; Garrison 2018). Society just won’t get that you are non-binary by looking at you, at most society might think you’re weird or don’t fit gender norms. So, with Brienne, for instance, people around her generally don’t care how she would describe her gender they just think she’s a freak for not confirming to gender norms (eg. Brienne V, A Feast for Crows). As I’ve written before, the way she gets punished by society for breaking these norms have very strong “trans vibes”. So, while it’s of course incredibly important to consider how someone would describe their experienced gender themselves in real life, I will here mostly focus on the effects of having one’s expressed gender clash with societal expectations.

Theoretical perspectives

Firstly, I want to be clear about what I mean by trans. For me, when I’m doing research or analysing texts, I see trans as a very broad term, similar to how trans scholar Susan Stryker describes the term transgender here:

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 (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 (for more on that I highly recommend Susan Stryker’s book Transgender History from 2008 that I cited above). This is especially important when considering how we label people’s experiences of gender when they come from outside of the Western context. As Boellstorff, Cabral, Cádenas, Cotten, Stanley, Young, and Aizura write:

The transnational circulation of the idea of transgender is a colonial operation, spreading Western ontologies and logics such as Western medicine; the idea of the individual, unchanging self; and the binary gender system. (…) [related to that is] the need to analyze the transnational circulation of transgender as a corpus, as a certain number of texts and theories, names and definitions, statistics, analysis, and interpretations. That circulation is heavily determined by geopolitics in a crude imperial capitalist landscape—and we, down here or far away there, circulate across the transnational routes of the industrial-academic complex, reified as the objects of colonial knowledge. Many denominations circulate currently as examples of a geographically neutral category—transgender, or trans*—and terms such as travesti, hijra, fa‘afafine, and meti or katoey become doubly local, localized in their own culture and in relation to the international scope of transgender as a culturally nonspecific umbrella term. (2014, 434-436)

Basically, imposing a Western way of thinking about gender upon groups of people can be considered colonial, even when we’re trying to challenge the Western colonial way of thinking about gender by discussing transness. However, while trans/transgender is a flawed term, I’m still using it in this essay because I still find it useful as a theoretical tool when analysing those who, as Stryker puts it, move across a socially imposed boundary from an unchosen starting place.

Secondly then, how can we look for trans narratives in history when we know that the people alive in that historical period didn’t use those words to describe their experiences? As I described in this essay, one way of doing that is the way trans activist and writer Leslie Feinberg describes in zie book Transgender Warriors:

Transgender Warriors is not an exhaustive trans history, or even the history of the rise and development of the modern trans movement. Instead, it is a fresh look at sex and gender in history and the interrelationships of class, nationality, race, and sexuality. Have all societies recognized only two sexes? Have people who traversed the boundaries of sex and gender always been so demonized? Why is sex-reassignment or cross-dressing a matter of law? But how could I find the answers to these questions when it means wending my way through diverse societies in which the concepts of sex and gender shift like sand dunes over the ages? (1996, XI)

Feinberg’s solution to this problem is to go through historical records and finding those people who have traversed the boundaries of sex and gender, without necessarily claiming them to be transgender, but showing how people who transverse these boundaries have always existed. Another relevant perspective is one put forward by Bychowski:

When history presents us with a lack of marginalized voices, we should ask: what has compelled this silence? This applies to transgender people in the Middle Ages. At times, we may wish that certain historical figures or historians could say more that would confirm what we want to hear about transgender life in the Middle Ages. Yet, when our desires are met with silence or deflection in the sources, we can nonetheless turn our attentions to the social conditions that would compel this silence. We can ask: what does transphobia look like in our histories? Furthermore, how might transphobic historians have added—or currently be adding—to the erasure of trans voices? Ironically, you can sometimes discern the unarticulated presence of transgender life by the articulated presence of transphobia. (2018)

This is very similar to the approach I mentioned in the introduction, the idea of looking at the clashes between expressed gender and societal expectations.

The trans life of Joan of Arc

I now want to take a brief look at the life of Joan of Arc and argue that one can read her life as a trans life. The reason for doing this is twofold: firstly, it’s because I think there are interesting parallels between Joan’s life and Brienne’s life, and secondly it provides an opportunity to show how researchers have written about a historical figure as a trans figure. To set the scene:

Joan of Arc was born in Domremy, in the province of Lorraine, around 1412. Only half a century before her birth, the bubonic plague had torn the fabric of the feudal order. One-third of the population of Europe was wiped out, whole provinces were depopulated. Peasant rebellions were shaking the very foundations of European feudalism. At the time, France was gripped by the Hundred Years War. French peasants suffered plunder and violence at the hands of the marauding English occupation armies. The immediate problem for the peasantry was how to oust the English army, a task the French nobility had been unable to accomplish. Joan of Arc emerged as a leader during this period of powerful social earthquakes. In 1429, dressed in men’s clothing, this confident seventeen year old presented herself and a group of her followers at the court of Prince Charles, heir to the French throne. In the context of feudal life, in which religion permeated everything, Joan asserted that her mission, motivation, and mode of dress were directed by God. She declared her goal: to forge an army of peasants to drive out the English. Prince Charles placed her at the head of a ten-thousand-strong peasant army. (Feinberg 1996, 32)

Joan did accomplish impressive military victories for the French cause, including winning an important victory in Orleans. However, she was later captured by the Burgundians, French allies of the English feudal lords. These Burgundians apparently referred to her as “hommasse”, a slur meaning ”manwoman,” or masculine woman, making their distaste for her dress apparent. As Feinberg notes, had Joan been a knight or a lord, she would probably had been ransomed, but being a peasant woman, this did not happen. Instead the English urged the Catholic church to condemn Joan for crossdressing, with 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). From the sources existing, it seems that besides there existing a hatred of crossdressing, a class bias also existed. The fact that she was not only a woman, but a peasant who dressed in knightly garb, infuriated many. Joan was eventually turned over to the Inquisition who condemned her both for crossdressing and accused her for being a pagan (the area where she was born was seen as a hotbed for paganism as well as witchcraft, and she was furthermore accused of associating with Fairies). As it turned out, however, the Church could not find enough proof for her witchcraft, and instead focused on her crossdressing. As Feinberg writes:

Instead, they denounced her for asserting that her cross-dressing was a religious duty compelled by voices she heard in visions, and for maintaining that these voices were a higher authority than the Church. Many historians and academicians view Joan of Arc’s wearing men’s clothing as inconsequential. Yet the core of the charges against Joan focused on her cross-dressing, the crime for which she ultimately was executed. However, the following quote from the verbatim court proceedings of her interrogation reveals it wasn’t just Joan of Arc crossdressing that enraged her judges, but her cross-gendered expression as a whole:

You have said that, by God’s command, you have continually worn man’s dress, wearing the short robe, doublet, and hose attached by points; that you have also worn your hair short, cut en rond above your ears, with nothing left that could show you to be a woman; and that on many occasions you received the Body of our Lord dressed in this fashion, although you have been frequently admonished to leave it off, which you have refused to do, saying that you would rather die than leave it off, save by God’s command. And you said further that if you were still so dressed and with the king and those of his party, it would be one of the greatest blessings for the kingdom of France; and you have said that not for anything would you take an oath not to wear this dress or carry arms; and concerning all these matters you have said that you did well, and obediently to God’s command. As for these points, the clerks say that you blaspheme God in His sacraments; that you transgress divine law, the Holy Scriptures and the canon law; you hold the Faith doubtfully and wrongly; you boast vainly; you are suspect of idolatry; and you condemn yourself in being unwilling to wear the customary clothing of your sex, and following the custom of the Gentiles and the Heathen.

Even though she knew her defiance meant she was considered damned, Joan’s testimony in her own defense revealed how deeply her cross-dressing was rooted in her identity. ”For nothing in the world,” she declared, ”will I swear not to arm myself and put on a man’s dress.” (Feinberg 1996, 35)

What becomes clear here, is that no matter how Joan herself would describe her sex or gender (which is hard to tell, even if it clear that crossdressing was central to her identity), the fact that she did not conform to gendered expectations was the central reason for her being executed. As Bychowski puts it:

Whether or not you accept that Joan of Arc might have been trans, it is clear that transphobia was central to Joan’s trial. The argument being made by the English court was, essentially, that a person cannot and should not be transgender. Joan refused to confirm all the English’s transphobic biases. Joan was ultimately killed on these grounds. This suggests that whether or not modern historians call Joan of Arc transgender, it seems as though the medieval court considered Joan transgender enough to die for it. (Bychowski 2018)

This, here, is my point. Even if we cannot know for sure how certain historical people would describe their experience of gender, we can see that they suffered the consequences of living in a society that did not accept deviating from the gendered expectations. No matter if Joan of Arc would use the word trans to describe herself (if that word would’ve been available for her, which it was obviously not), she suffered from the existence of transphobia, even if it was not called that at the time.

The trans life of Brienne of Tarth

As mentioned previously, there are several similarities between Brienne of Tarth and Joan of Arc. Some of those are the similarities in names, being a warrior maid, and having some connections to religion. Brienne has less obvious connections to religion than Joan does, but as for instance Radio Westeros have pointed out, she is often connected to holy oaths and to different aspects of the Seven (Radio Westeros 2015; Radio Westeros 2020). Another point of comparison is how both Brienne and Joan were active in a time where the peasant population had suffered greatly, partly because of the nobility, and both of them are seemingly sympathetic to the oppressed peasants. While Brienne is nobly born unlike Joan, Brienne’s ancestor Dunk could probably relate to the class bias that Joan had to suffer when dressing in knights’ armour to fight for and with the peasants. But the main reason why I wanted to compare Brienne and Joan is the similarities in the prejudice and violence they have to face as breaker of gender norms. As I’ve written previously, in a patriarchal gender binary society, those who traverse the boundaries of sex and gender are punished. In the context of ASOIAF this can for instance be seen with Arya and Brienne, who are continually threatened with sexual violence specifically for deviating from gender norms. I have also written previously about how, for someone like Brienne, not following the expected path through life (when it comes to gender etc) leads to being seen as a freak. That, I feel, is especially clear in these two passages from A Feast for Crows:

“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.”

– Lord Randyll Tarly, Brienne V A Feast for Crows (Martin 2011, 520)

“’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. (…) I am the only child the gods let him keep. The freakish one, not fit to be a son or a daughter.’”

Brienne VI A Feast for Crows, (Martin, 672)

In both these quotes, Brienne is positioned as a curse and a freak for not living up to the role of son nor daughter. There is, in my opinion, something trans about this positioning. This positioning of the gender non-conforming as freakish is something I want to focus the majority of the rest of this analysis on.

To discuss how the gender non-conforming person is positioned as freakish, I must first return to theory once again. Gender theorist Judith Butler writes that sex can be considered to be a regulatory norm which is materialised in the body (1993). That’s essentially a complicated way of saying that while the human body can look very different depending on which combination of hormones and chromosomes it has (among other things), societal norms dictate that there are only two sexes and that all bodies must therefore belong to either of those. Those sexes must then correspond to the correct gender and the correct desire (i.e. a body with a vagina and uterus must belong to someone who identifies as a woman and is attracted to men). As Butler writes: “the heterosexual imperative enables certain sexed identifications and forecloses and/or disavowes other identifications.” (ibid, 3) They furthermore writes that the coherent subject (i.e. the subject that is recognised as a subject by society) is created in contrast to the abject (i.e. that person who is not recognised as a subject). The abject resides in the uninhabitable zone of the abject, where those who simply do not make sense according to society are relegated to. Trans scholar Susan Stryker has drawn on this description of the abject when describing the feeling of being transgender in a patriarchal gender binary world:

Transgender rage is the subjective experience of being compelled to transgress what Judith Butler has referred to as the highly gendered regulatory schemata that determine the viability of bodies, of being compelled to enter a “domain of abjected bodies, a field of deformation” that in its unlivability encompasses and constitutes the realm of legitimate subjectivity (16). Transgender rage is a queer fury, an emotional response to conditions in which it becomes imperative to take up, for the sake of one’s own continued survival as a subject, a set of practices that precipitates one’s exclusion from a naturalized order of existence that seeks to maintain itself as the only possible basis for being a subject. (1994, 249)

Stryker here notes that as a trans person one has to either reside in this realm of unlivability (which is obviously challenging), or move outside of it and try to fit in as a coherent subject, while then simultaneously accepting the very norms that has previously categorised one as the abject in the first place. This can quite obviously lead to a lot of emotions, including rage. Something that both Butler and Stryker notes is how language is often central in positioning a person as a coherent subject, or as the abject. From the moment when we are born and proclaimed to be a boy or a girl, we are expected to continue living up to this labelling, or risk being constituted as freaks instead. As black trans scholar Marquis Bey puts it:

Hegemonic gender’s process— the ways we are formed and inaugurated from without, the ways that y’all tell us what we are permitted to be and how our bodies should move— operates binaristically, slotting unruly subjects into viable social existence by way of legibility. The gendered name bestowed upon us, which is, all in all, more like a branding, claims to speak to something held deeply within, something unique to us and unfettered by our outside. Put paradoxically, this apparent fact said to emanate from us is an already- made badge stabbed into us by someone else. They tell us they call us “boy,” call us “girl,” because that is what we are, have been, will always be, because there is no outside to this. The violence proliferates; the designation lacks the proper size because what we yearn for are improper sizes that fit us ill- fittingly, it lacks the correct numerical measurements because all we want is to incorrectly measure up. What they’ve given us, godlike and tyrannical, is a stuffy room with no space to run around in. And they call it viable life. (Bey 2019, 136)

So, conform to the expectations laid down upon you by the branding at birth, or be seen as unruly, freakish, etc. This, then, is where I return to Brienne.

Throughout her story, Brienne’s gender is constantly in question, from Pod’s adorable “Ser? M’lady?” to when the Bloody Mummer’s question whether her or Jaime is the knight or the lady (A Storm of Swords, Jaime IV). There are tons of more examples of this, of this constant questioning of Brienne’s gender, because she doesn’t conform to the gendered expectations. As I’ve noted previously, this non-conformity often leads to threats of violence or actual violence. It also leads to that heart-breaking quote from Brienne, about how her father deserved a son or a daughter, not her, the freak. Throughout the narrative, Brienne is constantly positioned as this freakish, abnormal person, as the abject. That is why I think it’s valid to read her story as a trans story, similar to the life of Joan of Arc, even if we are unsure about exactly how Brienne might describe her own gender. Obviously, Brienne won’t describe herself as trans in her own point of view, that would be anachronistic. But, as I’ve argued elsewhere, we can see her being uncomfortable with the gendered expectations put upon her by society, and we can especially see her being the target of transphobic violence. So, similarly to Joan of Arc, regardless of if they would identify as trans had they lived in a time with that term available to them, they were seen as something akin to trans by their surroundings. And punished for it.

A final point that I want to discuss here is the how life outside of the gender binary is construed as unlivable. This is something mentioned both by Butler, Stryker, and Bey to a certain extent, and also something I have touched on in a previous essay about Brienne. This is something that often comes up in narratives from non-binary people, that they are seen as incoherent in the eyes of society (eg. Connell 2010; Stachowiak 2017). We can see this with Brienne too, to a certain extent. Everyone around her wants to label her as a man or a woman, a son or a daughter, a knight or a lady. But she’s trying to carve out a new path for herself. In that way, I would argue that she embodies the type of trans movement described by Susan Stryker as one taken up by those who:

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 (…) (Stryker 2008, 1)

It is this movement away from conventional expectation, toward some new location that makes her story a trans story to me. And perhaps more specifically, a non-binary or genderqueer story. Because she operates outside of the binary, she queers gender, and her surroundings notice and react to that.


As I have noted in this essay, one way of finding trans narratives in both fictional and historical stories is by looking for the ripple effects of those stories. Looking for the transphobic aftereffects, the rumblings that come after someone tries to find a new path through this gendered world. I have argued that this is the case with both Joan of Arc and Brienne of Tarth, that both their stories (real or fictional) show that we can find evidence of transness by looking for the records of transphobia left behind. Both their stories also show the hardship facing someone who tries to move beyond the life prescribed by the patriarchal gender binary. Their stories show that when trying to do that one risks being labelled as a freak and subjected to violence. Unfortunately, this is still the case today.


Bey, Marquis. 2019. Them Goon Rules: Fugitive Essays on Radical Black Feminism. Tuscon: University of Arizona Press.

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.

Butler, Judith. 1993. Bodies that Matter. On the Discursive Limits of “Sex”. New York & London: Routledge.

Bychowski, Gabrielle. 2018. “Were there Transgender People in the Middle Ages?” The Public Medievalist, November 1, 2018. https://www.publicmedievalist.com/transgender-middle-ages/

Connell, Catherine. 2010. “Doing, Undoing, or Redoing Gender? Learning from Workplace Experiences of Transpeople”. Gender and Society. 24:1, 31-55.

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

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.

Garrison, Spencer. 2018. “ON THE LIMITS OF ‘TRANS ENOUGH’: Authenticating Trans Identity Narratives”, GENDER & SOCIETY, 32:5, 613-637

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

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

Radio Westeros. 2015. “Brienne- In this Light a Beauty.” Radio Westeros. March 31, 2015. https://radiowesteros.com/2015/03/31/episode-13-brienne-in-this-light-a-beauty/

Radio Westeros 2015. “The Streams of Winter: Livestream 10- Brienne.” Acast. August 3, 2020. https://play.acast.com/s/radiowesteros/thestreamsofwinter-livestream10-brienne

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, 1(3): 237-254.

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