The queer potential of a blank slate- Stories of transition at The Wall, The Citadel, and The House of Black and White

Content warnings: transphobia, sexism, homophobia, racism, sexual violence, murder, death generally

In the world of ASOIAF, there are several orders that offer their members a chance to start their lives over, to leave behind family names and past deeds. Perhaps the most prominent of these is The Night’s Watch, where, as The Old Bear puts it:

Your crimes will be washed away, your debts forgiven. So too you must wash away your former loyalties, put aside your grudges, forget old wrongs and old loves alike. Here you begin anew. (AGOT, Jon VI)


But there are other places where one can get a clean slate, such as the Citadel when becoming a maester. And, of course, one can quite literally shed one’s old identity at The House of Black and White. One might therefore ask if characters in the story could use these opportunities of shedding their identities to also make gender-related transitions. I have previously written about how the character Alleras might not just be presenting as male at the Citadel to gain entry, but also because they feel like this more closely reflect their gender identity. In this essay, I want to explore that further, as well as the potential other institutions like the Night’s Watch and the House of Black and White have for transitions. I will do this specifically through characters who have a somewhat liminal gender position: Alleras, Brave Danny Flint, and Arya Stark. Essentially, this essay asks: how can certain institutions offer a way to transition for gender nonconforming people in the world of ASOIAF, and which limitations exist for such transitions?

Alleras the Sphinx

Artwork of Alleras the Sphinx. They are standing before a door which is guarded by two sphinx statues, one masculine one and one feminine one. 
Alleras has brown skin and dark curly hair. They're holding a book and has a bow slung over their back.
Their appearance straddles the line of androgynous and masculine.
Alleras the Sphinx. Artwork by Sanrixian, commissioned by me.

In the prologue of A Feast for Crows, the reader is introduced to the mysterious Alleras (“The Sphinx”), a novice at the Citadel in Oldtown. Alleras is described as a slight and comely youth, doted on by the serving girls at the inn The Quill and Tankard. The prologue tells us that he “was always smiling, as if he knew some secret jape. It gave him a wicked look that went well with his pointed chin, widow’s peak, and dense mat of close-cropped jet-black curls.” This description, among other things, has led readers to think that Alleras the child of Oberyn Martell, named Sarella Sand at birth (see more of the evidence laid out here). As mentioned above, I have previously argued that Alleras might not just be presenting as male for convenience, but also for more queer/trans reasons. One reason I think it’s important to recognise this possibility is that, as I have written about previously, trans people are often written out of history. As scholars Alicia Spencer-Hall and Blake Gutt note:

Marginalised identities are often written out of the historical record by those with the privilege of formulating “historical truth”. The Middle Ages is frequently viewed as a time “where men were men, women were women, everyone was the same race and practised the same faith, and no one was corrupted by technology, sexuality or democracy”. This is not how any medievalist worth their salt would put it.

Disingenuous interrogation of the presence of trans people in history is rarely about the factual specifics of the past alone. If talking about trans lives is “anachronistic”, then “trans-ness [is] not an inextricable part of humanity or human diversity”. The transphobe’s dream is an imaginary medieval past in which everyone knows their (gendered) place. Similar themes emerge in the usage of the Middle Ages by the alt-right and beyond: those who fantasize a past in which everyone who mattered was straight, cisgender, white, and Christian. White supremacists and fascists weaponize the Middle Ages to justify their hatred.

(Spencer-Hall & Gutt 2021, 19)

So, there is value in recognising the possibility of trans people even in Medievalesque stories. Furthermore, there are plenty of examples from our world of people who we might today read as trans (even if that language wasn’t used then). One such example, that I think is interesting to compare to Alleras, is Saint Marinos. Saint Marinos was born around the year 300 in what is today Syria, and his story is shared in several medieval chronicles (Bychowski 2018; Bychowski 2021). He was assigned female at birth, yet he lived for a long time as a monk and passed as a man during this time. After Marinos’ mum died his dad joined a monk order and Marinos did the same. He was considered an exceptional monk until a village girl falsely claimed that he had impregnated her. At this point, he could have told people about how he physically could have not impregnated anyone, but he apparently decided not to. He was allowed to stay at the monastery and raise the child there but was obviously disgraced. When he eventually died and his body was prepared for the funeral, the other monks realised he had a body that would usually be termed female. They then also realised that they had wronged him, as he could not have impregnated someone, and prayed for forgiveness.

While Saint Marinos is quite different from Alleras, there are some parallels. Alleras isn’t a monk, but the Citadel is somewhat similar to a monastery in some ways. In medieval times, monks were scholars in a sense, being learned in healing and recording history for instance. And similar to the maesters, they were supposed to be celibate and leave their families behind. Another similarity between Marinos’ story and Alleras’ story is that they both followed in the footsteps of their fathers in a sense, Marinos’ father who joined this monk order and Alleras’ father Oberyn who had studied at the Citadel for a while. Based on the gender they were assigned at birth, they would not have been welcome at these institutions, and wouldn’t be able to follow their fathers, but they did anyway. Some might see that as them only wanting access to spaces denied to them due to their gender, and while that certainly might be the case, I think it’s important to consider the possibility of that not being the only reason. When I’ve written about historical trans people previously, I’ve quoted trans writer Leslie Feinberg and I wanted to do so again. In hir book Transgender warriors, Feinberg talks about historical trans people and how many, especially those assigned female at birth, are often assumed to just pass as another gender for practical reasons. Zie relates this to hir own experiences, writing:

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

(Feinberg 1996, 83)

I think this perspective is important to keep in mind when discussing both historical people like Saint Marinos and fictional characters like Alleras. Someone passing as a man might do it for more reason than pure practicality, and to reduce gender nonconformity to just a result of oppression is insulting.

Another aspect I wanted to discuss is how coming to the Citadel might be a way for someone to not only transition but also get away from heteronormative expectations put upon them. To do that, I would like to start by discussing another Medieval Saint, namely Saint Esmarde, whose story is recounted in a 13th-century verse hagiography (Wright 2021). Esmarade was assigned female at birth but left secular life for a monastery where they would go on to present as a eunuch. The story of Esmarde describes how they did not wish to marry the partner chosen by their father, instead wanting to remain a virgin and join a religious order. Being afraid of their father being able to find them, they decided to enter a monastery while presenting as a eunuch. As Wright argues, this can be seen as a way for them to articulate a genderqueer identity with the language available to them, since eunuchs were often seen as a sort of in-between between male and female. This is in fact similar to what trans people have done much later in history too. Sølve Holm for instance describes Danish trans people at the beginning of the 20th century describing themselves as “hermaphrodites” because that was language that would be understood by their surroundings (2020). But, returning to Esmarade, their father would later come to the monastery to seek advice and met Esmarade without recognising them. This arrangement went on for years, and right before their death, Esmarade told their father the truth and asked that he alone prepare their body for the funeral so that no one else could see their body. This seems to be so that no one else could “discover” what their body looked like and what their assigned gender would have been. This request isn’t followed, however, and a fellow monk prepared their body, leading them to be seen and venerated as female after death by their fellow monks.

Again, we have someone seeking refuge at a monastery and articulating a new gendered identity while doing so. But it’s worth noting that Esmarade in this story was specifically fleeing heteronormative pressure, not wanting to marry the man their father had chosen for them. In ASOIAF, joining an institution like The Citadel provides a similar escape. I also want to make a note here of how Wright argues that Esmarade’s use of “eunuch” to describe themselves can be seen as an attempt to articulate a genderqueer identity. As I mentioned previously, it is often assumed that trans people didn’t exist historically, but in actuality, historical people just didn’t have the same language available to them as we do today.

As I mentioned, there are of course differences between Alleras’ story and those of Saint Marinos and Saint Esmarade, but I think it is interesting that Alleras in some way parallel these stories of historical people who were assigned female at birth but who joined monk orders. There exist even more such stories than the ones I described here, indicating that this was a possible path for some gender-nonconforming people in The Middle Ages. One could create a new identity by joining such a celibate order and pass as a man. Maybe that indicates that such a path would be possible in ASOIAF too.

But another point I think is important to note here is that both Saint Marinos and Saint Esmarade were seen as female after their deaths when their bodies were examined. Even though they hadn’t lived as women for years, they were seen as such because of their bodies. That shows that even while someone might transition and live for years as the gender that they consider themselves to be, people might still think their assigned gender is their “true gender.” And there are risks associated with such discoveries, as will become clear with the character I want to discuss next.

Brave Danny Flint

Artwork of Brave Danny Flint. The artwork is in black and white. It shows Danny sitting on a bed, binding their chest. They're wearing black pants and a black cloak is hanging over a chair.
Their appearance straddles the line of androgynous and masculine.
Brave Danny Flint. Artwork by DREADLady Forlorn, commissioned by me.

We don’t get many mentions of Brave Danny Flint in the ASOIAF books, but what we get is grim. In ASOS, Bran IV we hear that the Nightfort is “where brave young Danny Flint had been raped and murdered” and in ADWD The Prince of Winterfell Wyman Manderly requests “Or sing to us of brave young Danny Flint and make us weep.” We get another mention in ADWD when Jon and Tormund discuss which Nights’ Watch castle different Free Folk should be assigned to. When discussing some of the Free Folk women, Jon says this:

“Did Mance ever sing of Brave Danny Flint?”

”Not as I recall. Who was he?”

”A girl who dressed up like a boy to take the black. Her song is sad and pretty. What happened to her wasn’t.” In some versions of the song, her ghost still walked the Nightfort. ”I’ll send the girls to Long Barrow.” The only men there were Iron Emmett and Dolorous Edd, both of whom he trusted. That was not something he could say of all his brothers.

The wildling understood. ”Nasty birds, you crows.” He spat.


So, what we know of Danny Flint is that they were someone who was assigned female at birth but presented themselves as a man and joined the Nights’ Watch. This is similar to Alleras and the medieval saints discussed above who also joined all-male orders that are celibate. But with Danny we see the risks of these types of actions.  Many of the medieval saints mentioned above were interpreted as female after death, but with Danny we have a person where their supposed true sex directly leads to their death.

Before discussing Danny’s violent end further, I would like to briefly look at some historical parallels for them. There are many historical examples of people who were assigned female at birth dressing in masculine clothing to join military orders or armies, from the English civil war (Stoyle 2018) to the American civil war (Hendrix 2017). Fellow ASOIAF analyst Aemy Blackfyre has also compared Danny Flint to the legend of Hua Mulan. There are also quite a few examples of people assigned female at birth who left for the American West in the 19th century and went on to pass as men, some living as cowboys (Boag 2005). Here we have people leaving their families behind to hold traditionally male positions, often in all-male spaces. While it is of course possible that they did that because they wanted to escape female oppression, it should be noted that many of these people lived as men for years. And if they did that for purely practical reasons, to gain freedom, that was a risky strategy. I previously quoted Leslie Feinberg who discussed that historical people assigned female at birth might not just choose to pass just to escape oppression. Feinberg goes on to talk about how just how difficult it can be to pass as a man:

But could she pass as male on board ship, sleeping with and sharing common facilities with her fellow sailors for decades and not be discovered? Of course, hundreds of thousands of women have dreamed of escaping the economic and social inequities of their lives, but how many could live as a man for a decade or a lifetime? While a woman could throw on men’s clothing and pass as a man for safety on dark roadways, could she pass as a man at an inn where men slept together in the same beds? Could she maintain her identity in daylight? Pass the scrutiny of co-workers? Would she really feel safer and more free?

(Feinberg 1996, 85)

Feinberg’s point here is partly that it’s difficult to pass as a man, and partly that it’s dangerous to try it. It requires dedication. With Brave Danny Flint we see just how dangerous it can be to be discovered.

In my view, it is clear that what happens to Danny Flint isn’t just your run-of-the-mill sexual violence that we often see in ASOIAF. They were targeted specifically because of their gender nonconformity. As my friend Sam of the Rainbow Guard put it on our panel Gays of Thrones at Ice and Fire Con 2022, it seems likely that GRRM was inspired by the highly publicised fate of Brandon Teena. For those not aware of Brandon Teena, he was a trans man who was raped and later murdered in Falls City, Nebraska, in 1993 (Halberstam 2006, 22). Or rather, Brandon was one of three murder victims (the other being his friend Lisa Lambert and her friend Philip DeVine, a disabled African American man). After the fact, the main focus has been on Brandon, but it is worth noting that one of the murderers had ties to white supremacist groups, so it seems likely that this influenced the murder of the other victims. I will, however, mainly focus on Brandon for the purposes of this essay. Brandon’s life and death were also the inspiration for the movie Boys don’t cry (1999). Given that these events happened during the nineties, it is therefore quite possible that GRRM would be aware of this when he was coming up with the fate of Danny Flint.

Brandon Teena was not originally from Falls City but moved there because he had friends there. It seems like his version of masculinity was quite different from the mainly white working-class town he moved to, and not just because he was assigned female at birth. While living in Falls City, Brandon had dated several women, who in a documentary after his death described him as a dream guy, a man who knew what women wanted (Halberstam 2005, 28). Halberstam notes that:

We might conclude that Brandon lived up to and even played into the romantic ideals that his girlfriends cultivated about masculinity. Brandon’s self-presentation must be read, I believe, as a damaging critique of the white working-class masculinities around him; at the same time, however, his performance of courtly masculinity is a shrewd deployment of the middle-class and so-called respectable masculinities that represent an American romantic ideal of manhood.

(Halberstam 2005, 28)

So, in a way, Brandon was “better” at being a man than the other men in his surroundings. At least according to the women in Falls City. But being assigned female at birth, he was still seen as a fraud. This, in the end, contributed to his rape and murder. So, what I think is important to consider with Brandon Teena, and how his fate relates to characters like Danny Flint, is the motives behind the attack. It’s not just “ordinary” sexual violence, it’s sexual violence (and murder) because of gender nonconformity. As Halberstam writes regarding Brandon Teena:

(…) for the men, the body must be the final arbiter of manhood, because, in a sense, this is the only competition within which they can beat the version of masculinity that Brandon champions. When Brandon literally did not measure up to the physical test of manhood, his two male “friends” took him out to a remote spot, where they then raped and sodomized him. The punishment, as far as they were concerned, fit the crime inasmuch as Brandon must be properly returned to the body he denied.

(Halberstam 2005, 66)

Essentially, Brandon was punished for his gender nonconformity and masculine identity by sexual violence and then lethal violence. His embodiment forcibly straightened out, any trans and queer tendencies crushed by male sexual violence. As Halberstam puts it “gender nonconformity must be corrected through the enforcement of heterosexuality.” (ibid)

It also bears mentioning that in the aftermath of Brandon’s death, his suffering and story were claimed by some different groups. Some understood his fate as that of a masculine and/or queer woman and read the attack as misogyny and homophobia. Today, most people would probably agree that Brandon was trans and that this attack was fuelled by transphobia. But that shows how in death, someone’s identity is easily misunderstood and misconstrued for future histories. We see a similar tendency in the stories of medieval saints I shared earlier, they too were understood as female in death. And in ASOIAF we hear of the story of Brave Danny Flint, “A girl who dressed up like a boy to take the black” (AWDW, Jon XII). My point here is that we shouldn’t assume that Danny was a girl. It is very possible that they identified as another gender than they were assigned at birth. And regardless, it is clear to me that the violence done toward them is fuelled by transphobia.

The story of Danny Flint shows how perilous it can be to be trans/gender nonconforming. So, while I have been discussing how places like The Citadel and The Night’s Watch can offer a blank slate for those who want to escape their previous lives, doing so isn’t without risk. Such transitions can result in pain or even death. And speaking of death…

Arya of House Stark

Artwork of Arya Stark in acolyte robes. Behind her are two faces, one feminine one looking like her mum, and one masculine one looking like her dad. She's holding a third face, looking like her sister's face.
Arya at the House of Black and White. Artwork by Sasha, commissioned by me.

Arya Stark is a character who defies gender expectations in so, so many ways. I have previously written an essay about how she troubles gender norms, and how her story can resonate with many trans and gender nonconforming people. I want to be clear that I don’t necessarily think she’s trans, but I know people who read her as such, and I do think her story is still relevant to consider in relation to trans topics. For instance, her passing as a boy while out on the road exposes her to a lot of the same risks as trans people experience. But here I want to focus on a slightly different aspect of her story, her connection to death and the House of Black and White.

Even before Arya ends up at the House of Black and White, she is connected with death in many ways. She has her revenge/kill list, she hangs out with the resurrected Beric, and later with Sandor and his horse Stranger. Arya’s connection to death is interesting to consider since the Stranger of the Faith of the Seven is quite… queer. The Stranger is someone you don’t really worship in the Faith, but he constitutes a sort of necessary shadow to life. He’s described as both male/female and half-human/animal, for instance:

They were all afire now, Maid and Mother, Warrior and Smith, the Crone with her pearl eyes and the Father with his gilded beard; even the Stranger, carved to look more animal than human.

(ACOK, Davos I)

And the seventh face… the Stranger was neither male nor female, yet both, ever the outcast, the wanderer from far places, less and more than human, unknown and unknowable. Here the face was a black oval, a shadow with stars for eyes. It made Catelyn uneasy. She would get scant comfort there.

(ACOK, Catelyn IV)

So, the Stranger is genderless (or genderfull?) and there is also something not quite human about him. Given all that and that he’s also the god of death, it makes sense that he’s not the most worshipped god. But even if people don’t tend to pray to the Stranger, some do.

Tyrion lingered after his cousin had slipped away. At the Warrior’s altar, he used one candle to light another. Watch over my brother, you bloody bastard, he’s one of yours. He lit a second candle to the Stranger, to himself.

(ACOK, Tyrion X)

Tyrion who often sees himself as an outsider and is seen as monstrous, not quite human, clearly relates to the Stranger. As I’ve discussed previously, trans people are also often seen as monstrous and not quite human. To me, the reason the Stranger relates both to someone as Tyrion and Arya, outsiders in their own ways, is that he represents the abject. As feminist scholar Julia Kristeva might put it, the abject is that which is uncomfortably close to us (the subject) but which is impossible to assimilate into ourselves (Kristeva 1984). The abject represents that which we reject for being unbearable and unthinkable, but which 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, queer. That is why trans people are often pushed into the zone of the abject by cisnormative society (Stryker 1994).

So, Arya is associated with this genderless and abject god. And then she joins the House of Black and White, where someone can quite literally shed their identity and transform their body. As my friend Elena pointed out on our panel Gays of Thrones at Ice and Fire Con 2022, the House of Black and White really have some interesting potential for people who might want to change their body. Of course, the downside is that you have to join a death cult and completely abandon your previous life and identity. But to some people, that might be preferable to living in accordance with the expectations of your assigned gender, that you don’t identify with. It is interesting that this death cult offers an opportunity to completely change your body. You can literally change your face, and assumedly this also means you can change how your gender is perceived by others. Someone assigned female at birth could get a masculine face, and pass as a man with this new identity. That we get this possibility in specifically a death cult is noteworthy. As mentioned previously, in Westeros at least, the death god is somehow associated with the queer and monstrous. He’s the abject. That we get the association between that and the Faceless men who can change their appearance makes sense in a way. In abjection, you can find more possibilities than in normative conceptions of personhood. If you embrace the abject, you can do and become more. Trans scholar Susan Stryker makes a similar point when discussing the way trans people are often seen as monstrous and abject. She gives the reader this message:

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

(Stryker 1994, 241) [my bolding of text]

If you are to embrace a form, an existence, outside of the normative, you must risk abjection. You must question that which is taken for granted. That way you can discover the seams and sutures in yourself and unravel those to give yourself a new form. Arya, and others who seek the House of Black and White, have accepted abjection when giving themselves over to the Many-Faced God. Giving themselves over to death. For Arya, when she comes to the House of Black and White, she has lost almost everything. She has already had to give up parts of her identity so many times and she’s had to take note of her seams and sutures when creating the different personalities that she’s embodied (Arry, Nan, Salty, etc). When she arrives at the House, she willingly eats the Kindly Man’s worm. In doing so, she embraces this symbol of death. The abject. She moves toward abjection, like the others at the House of Black and White. And in this abjection, a new subject can be created. In death, a new life can be created. Death must pay for life, as they say.

It should be noted that this way of creating a new subjectivity and new bodily form is hardly as healthy as what Stryker proposes. The harm that it does to Arya’s psyche and body seems more similar to what transphobes fear gender-affirming healthcare means. And one does wonder about the ethics of using these faces- did the previous face owners consent to their faces being used like this? I can’t help but think of some early transphobic feminists’ criticism of trans people, where transsexuality was referred to as “necrophilic invasion” and trans women were accused of exploiting women by “appropriating” female bodies (see my essay about trans history for more on this). Given all of that, I want to acknowledge that it is not completely unproblematic to compare the Faceless men and the House of Black and White to the transition trans folk might go through today. But it’s also worth noting that it seems like in the world of Planetos, this might be one of the few ways people can see of completely escaping their circumstances. Which says a lot. At the House of Black and White, the erasure of one’s previous identity is more complete (and effective) than in the other orders I’ve discussed. The past won’t come back to haunt you as it did for Brave Danny Flint. You can completely remake yourself.

There are also some other key differences between the House of Black and White and the other institutions I’ve discussed. For one, even though the people there are referred to as the Faceless Men, there are women at the House too. In fact, in contrast to the black brothers of the Wall, the House of Black and White seems to embrace a slightly more dualistic approach, being open to more people. This is evident even in their symbolism, with the black and white door to the House and the black and white robes that acolytes wear as compared to the black clothing of the Night’s Watch. But on the other hand, the House has a very strict (black and white) approach to who can become a full-on member of the order. One has to completely surrender one’s previous identity, to a much more extreme extent than what the Citadel or the Night’s Watch require. But as mentioned above, that also means you can truly leave your old life behind.


So, in conclusion, it seems like characters in ASOIAF could use these institutions of the Citadel, the Night’s Watch, and the House of Black and White to get a clean slate- pursuing a life and identity that feels more right to them. In this cisnormative world, it might very well be easier to start over than to transition in your old community. Of course, some of these orders require more extreme commitment to starting over, but for some that might be preferable to the life they were living previously.

These stories of transition also echo the history of our world, for instance with people who were assigned female at birth joining monk orders or the military. But as our own history tells us, even if you manage to transition there are risks of violence if your past or body is revealed. Because people tend to think those aspects of you speak to your “true” being and “true” sex. This can lead to tragedies like that of Brandon Teena in our real world or Brave Danny Flint in ASOIAF. Such fates make me worry for Alleras in the upcoming ASOIAF books… But even if that isn’t the case, if you don’t die a violent death, your identity might very well not be recognised after your death. The histories might erase your transness/queerness. This is why it’s important that we uplift trans histories and trans stories in medieval-esque fiction. Stories are powerful and they help us fight for a better world. A world where someone can transition without having to join a literal magical death cult.

Special thanks to Sam and Elena for helping inspire this essay, and extra thanks to Sam for helping me access some theoretical writing while I was on the road. Thank you also to Merry for discussing Arya with me and helping me sort out my thoughts. Thank you to Virginie for beta-reading. And of course, thank you Sanrixian, DREADLady Forlorn, and Sasha for the artwork!


Aemy Blackfyre. 2022. ”Hua Mulan Symbolism in A Song of Ice and Fire: Brave Danny Flint, Sarella/Alleras, and Lyanna Stark (Historical Parallels II).” Aemy Blackfyre’s Blog, May 15, 2022.

A Wiki of Ice and Fire. n.d. Alleras/Theories. Accessed November 13, 2022.

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

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

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

Elena K, Rohanne Lily, Sam Doran & Lo the Lynx. 2022. ”Gays of Thrones: IAFC 2022 Panel.” Ice and Fire Con [Youtube-channel].

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.

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

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

STOYLE, Mark. (2018), ‘Give mee a Souldier’s Coat’: Female Cross-Dressing during the English Civil War. History, 103: 5-26.

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

Hendrix, Steve 2017. «A history lesson for Trump: Transgender soldiers served in the Civil War.” The Washington Post, August 25, 2017.

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

A Brief Trans History

CW: transphobia, racism, sexism, sexual violence

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

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

Concepts and conceptualisations

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

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

(Stryker 2008, 1)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trans history

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

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

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

Transgender Archaeology

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

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

(Colwill 2021, 179)

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

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

(Colwill 2021, 181)

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

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

The Trans Middle Ages

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

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

Saint Marinos (Bychowski 2018)

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

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

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

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

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

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

It is sufficiently notorious and well known that for some time past a woman calling herself Jeanne the Pucelle (the Maid) , leaving off the dress and clothing of the feminine sex, a thing contrary to divine law and abominable before God, and forbidden by all laws, wore clothing and armour such as is worn by men.

(quoted in Feinberg 1996, 34)

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

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

The 19th century and beyond

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

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

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

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

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

(Stryker 2008, 36)

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

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

Picture of Dora Richter.

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

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

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

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

(Stryker 2008, 45)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Stryker 2008, 64-65)

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

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

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

(Raymond 1979, 134)

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


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

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


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A MOST UNCOMMON WOMAN: Cersei Lannister’s Gender Trouble

By: Lo the Lynx and Rohanne Lily

Art by annasassiart


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


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

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


Art by cabepfir

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

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

(Stryker 2008, 1)

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

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

I am the only true son he ever had.

(AFFC, Cersei II)

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

(AFFC, Cersei II)

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

(AFFC, Cersei VII)

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

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

(ADWD, Cersei I)

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

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

(AFFC, Cersei V)

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

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

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

(AFFC, Cersei VI)

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

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

(Feinberg 1996, 31)

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

Art: Bidonicart

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

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

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

(AFFC, Cersei VIII)

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

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

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

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

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


Game of Thrones, season 2 episode 9 ”Blackwater”

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

“Certain things are expected of a queen.”

(ACOK, Sansa VI)

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

(AFFC, Cersei II)

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

(AFFC, Cersei V)

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

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

(Ahmed 2017, 15)

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

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

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

(ACOK, Catelyn IV)

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

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

(AFFC, Jaime IV)

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

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

I regard (auto)biographical accounts as containing traces of events, bodies, feelings, actions, relationships, institutions, politics, and much more that existed in this period and made specific kinds of impressions on individuals, in relation to which they have acted. However, I do not regard any account as an unmediated representation of, or truthful testimony to, any of these phenomena. Rather, I perceive all accounts as articulations that are dependent on the concepts and narrative models available to the narrator and on the general socio-historical and specific local and temporal situation of their narration, including the narrator’s specific relation to the receiver(s) of the account and the conscious and unconscious intentions, hopes, and fears related to the telling.

(Holm 2017, 70)

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

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


Art: Sanrixian (website)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(ACOK, Tyrion V)

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

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

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

(Chemaly 2018, 22)

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

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


Art: Lady-Junina

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

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

Art: ”Cersei’s experiment” by Pojypojy


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

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

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

(ACOK, Sansa VI)

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

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

(AFFC, Cersei IV)

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

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

Art by Azuela89

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

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

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

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

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

References/further reading:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.