The Free Folk and Colonialism

Content warning: racism, sexism, transphobia, homophobia, general violence, sexual violence

Spoiler warning: spoilers for all ASOIAF books and some spoilers for GoT.

Tormund, artwork by DREADlady, commissioned by Virginie. You can find the original post of the artwork here.

He remembered the hearth tales Old Nan told them. The wildlings were cruel men, she said, slavers and slayers and thieves. They consorted with giants and ghouls, stole girl children in the dead of night, and drank blood from polished horns. And their women lay with the Others in the Long Night to sire terrible half-human children.

A Game of Thrones, Bran I

Very early on in ASOIAF, we are told these horrible stories about the Free Folk and how monstrous they are. By referring to them as “wildlings” and telling these stories about their barbaric ways, a picture is painted of some sort of terrible uncivilised and threatening hoard of people. The careful reader, however, might be a bit sceptical of these “hearth tales” and wonder if there isn’t more to the story. Which there of course turns out to be. As the books go on, it becomes more and more clear that the treatment of the Free Folk is deeply unfair, and that the Night’s Watch are wasting precious resources on fighting them. As I will argue in this essay, the situation the Free Folk is facing is in many ways reminiscent of what people in our world have faced by colonialism. While the Free Folk weren’t the first people inhabiting their land (that would be the Children of the Forest and the Giants) their land has since been conquered by the Andals. Furthermore, the situation created by the artificial and restrictive border that is the Wall is something many people who have been subjugated by colonialism can relate to (even if they might not have experienced high ice walls specifically). For that and many other reasons, I want to discuss the Free Folk and colonialism. I will ground that discussion specifically in the history of Indigenous people and other marginalised ethnic groups in the Arctic and sub-Arctic of our world, given the Free Folk’s position in northern climates.

It is worth noting that many other people (such as Learned Hands, Girls Gone Canon, and NotACast) have noted how the relationship between the Free Folk and the Night’s Watch (and the Seven Kingdoms in general) bear similarities to relationships between colonial powers and the people they’re subjugating. I have definitely been inspired by their analysis when writing this essay. But I also wanted to add a perspective that I seldom hear discussed, and that is the specific northern flavour of this colonialism. As I will explain more below, I am from Sweden and have family from northern Sweden specifically. So, I can’t help but think of that specific context when considering the Free Folk. Especially once I realised that some of them (the people of the Frozen Shore) keep reindeer, similar to what several Indigenous people in the Arctic and sub-Arctic do and are well-known for doing (Saami Council & German Arctic Office 2021). I will therefore discuss the history of some of these groups. This is partly because I think it is relevant to the analysis, and partly because I think this history is not very well-known. Not in Scandinavia and even less so outside of Scandinavia. And it deserves to be more well-known. As part of my effort to highlight this history (and the current situation of these groups), I have decided to approach this essay a bit differently than my usual essays. For one, the theory and background section is longer than it usually is. This is because I wanted to allow this part to take up space so I could do it justice. But it is also because I have deliberately included a lot more quotes than I usually do because I want to highlight the voices of Indigenous people and other marginalised groups. I want to share their words and not just my interpretation/summery of them (I have however translated some quotes, those that were in Swedish and Norwegian). As such, this essay has become quite long. But I felt like it had to be in order to do the topic justice. I have also elected to include a lot of sources that aren’t traditional academic texts, in order to highlight that academic knowledge production isn’t the only valid form of knowledge. In fact – when it comes to Indigenous people and other marginalised groups, academia is often far from the most appropriate source of knowledge. But now that we have established that, let’s dig into some northern colonialism!

Some historical, geographical, and personal context

Before going further, I would like to talk a bit about my own position in writing this essay. I’m a white person, born and raised in Stockholm, the capital of Sweden. As such, I can obviously not speak to the experiences of Indigenous people. But because of the complexity of history and racialisation, I can still speak somewhat to ethnic discrimination and the results of colonialism. Let me explain.

The northern part of what is today called Sweden first became inhabited by the Indigenous Sámi people more or less as soon as the last ice age was over, with the earliest confirmed archaeological find being from 7 800 BCE ( n.d.a). Their traditional land is called Sápmi, and stretches across several contemporary countries, having been colonised by different states throughout the years.

Map of Sápmi. Picture credit: Nordiska Museet 2007.

In this essay, I will use the word Sámi to refer to this group of people and Sápmi to refer to this land. There are slightly different versions of those words, used by different groups in different contexts. For instance, Sámi is sometimes spelt Saami, while Sábme, Sábmie, and Saepmie are other terms for Sápmi. Those terms are used by different Sámi groups. Besides that, there also exists derogatory terms that have been used both historically and today. One such is “l*pp” (or “l*ap” in English). I will generally avoid this term and will only write out the word when it is used in quotes by Sámi people themselves.

As mentioned previously, I am not Indigenous. But I’m not fully Swedish either. My family belongs to the ethnic group called Tornedalians, named after the Torne Valley and Torne River (which constitutes the current border between Sweden and Finland). Nowadays, the area (on both sides of the river) where we have traditionally lived is sometimes called Meänmaa – “our land” in our language (Meänkieli). When exactly Tornedalians came to live in this area is disputed. Some say they emigrated to what is now Sweden from the east around 1 000 CE (Wikipedia n.d. a). Others note theories that they arrived there around 2 000 years ago, or that maybe some version of Tornedalians have always lived in the area but later mixed with groups who have migrated into the area (Pohjanen 2022, 20). Regardless, we have lived there long before Sweden was consolidated into a nation. Some Tornedalians would later move further west and are therefore sometimes referred to by other names, such as Lantalaiset and Kvens.  Today, this is the area that’s considered to be part of Meänmaa:

Map of Meänmaa. Picture credit: Wikipedia n.d. b

On the whole, the migration of the Tornedalians, while it caused some disputes with the Sámi already living in the area, did not amount to the type of colonialisation I will talk about later. It can mainly be seen as the type of migration that has always happened in human history. People moving into an area where people already lived, which causes some conflict but also intermingling. Eventually, however, the area would be colonised by the Swedish state. This led to abuses of both Sámi and Tornedalians. I will begin with the impact on the Sámi.

The Swedish colonialization of Sápmi began during the 14th century but became even more forceful during the 17th century when the Swedish crown realised it could lay claim to the iron and silver resources in the land ( n.d. b). The crown was at that time constantly at war and in need of more resources. When silver was discovered in the Nasafjäll mountain, the crown realised that Northern Sweden, Norrland (“North Land”), could become what colonies in the Caribbean had been to other European nations. The famous chancellor of the realm Axel Oxenstierna apparently said, “I don’t need a colony – I have Norrland!” (ibid). As often is the case with colonialism, the colonization of Sápmi was highly tied up in the Christening of the Sámi, who traditionally practised their own religion. The website which is run by Sametinget, the governmental body of Swedish Sámi, puts it like this:

In order to force the Sámi to abandon their religion and instead attend church services and church education, the Church used different forms of punishment: fines, prison, or death penalties. The holy sites were defiled and drums [used in religious rituals] were burned.

For centuries the Sámi religion had been able to live side by side with Christianity. But from the 17th century onward, the attempts to Christen the Sámi went hand in hand with the Crown’s attempt to conquer the land in the north. When religion became a means of power, the Sámi were made to suffer many forms of abuse, just as has been the case with other Indigenous people throughout the world. n.d. c [my translation from Swedish]

As mentioned above, one motivation for colonialization was to claim natural resources such as silver and iron. In order for the crown to mine these minerals, they often made use of the Sámi, by forcing them into labour. During the industrialisation of Sweden over the coming centuries, even more parts of Sápmi became settled in order to open more mines, mainly iron mines. This continued colonialism was justified by arguing that the Sámi were a primitive people, and the land could be put to better use by a civilised state. Again, a familiar story when it comes to colonialism.

Another event of large historical importance would take place around this time, namely the splitting of Norway and Sweden in 1905. This impacted many Sámi who had previously travelled between land on both the Swedish and (now) Norwegian side of the border, for instance having their reindeer graze by the Norwegian coast in the summer and in the Swedish inland in the winter (Labba 2020). Not all Sámi are reindeer herders, but the reindeer is an important part of Sámi culture and reindeer herding has constituted the livelihood for many Sámi for centuries. Now, however, the Norwegian state started opposing the Sámi moving their reindeer (and themselves) across the border, considering “the nomad life” to be a burden on the country and a “lifestyle” that was incompatible with the interests and structures of “civilised society.” (ibid, 16) The solution to this? Well, in the words of Sámi author Elin Anna Labba:

In 1919 Sweden and Norway solve their common problem through a reindeer grazing convention, which limits how much reindeer can move across the border. Indirectly the states simultaneously decide how many people have to move from their homes by the Atlantic coast.

Starting in 1919 and continuing through the 1920s and part of the 1930s, the county boards in Sweden enact straight-up forced relocations of reindeer herders in order to live up to the agreement with their neighbour country. In the convention, it says that the relocations are to be done in agreement with wishes “from the lap population.” In reality, they have no say.

The government agencies call the solution dislocation. In Sámi another word is born. Bággojohtin. Forced displacement. Or sirdolaččat, like the elders that have been forcibly displaced, call themselves. The moved ones. The first to leave their homes in the belief that they will get to return.

Labba 2020, 16 [my translation from Swedish]

But not only are people forced to relocate from the Atlantic coast, but Sámi in Sweden are also forced to relocate. With so many Sámi moving in from the Norwegian side of the border, the Swedish state feels that there are too many Sámi in the area around Giron, Jielleváre, Jåhkåmåhkke, and Árjepluvve. The so-called “l*ppfogdarna” (“l*p bailiffs”) were the ones calling the shots on behalf of the state and pressured or straight-up forced people to move. And even when l*p bailiffs didn’t directly force Sámi to move, their reindeer weren’t used to being confined to such a small area with so many other reindeer. It wasn’t sustainable. People were forced to move further south. Moving to unfamiliar lands. These were lands where other Sámi have lived before, but it was new to these groups. People longed for their own homelands.

They cried. Eidde told me that. They said farewell to the cot places and the cot meadows. Bloody hell. I’ve thought that they should have gotten something for it. There are such sleek mountains there, and here they’re so ugly. I’ve heard that the mountain Bealčán in the north has such beautiful flowers. My aunt always cried over Bealčán. She who loved flowers. They took farewell to that too. There was like a kiosk with a window. They stood there on either side and cried.

It was lap is to be lap, you know. It was a rule by the bailiffs, like hell. They were so scared for those bailiffs. Isá wasn’t allowed to move from Guvtjávrre but he moved to Vássjá anyway. They snuck down, lawless.

They were supposed to live in dark black cots. Eidde said to “make a big cot for us” and isá built up on a hill, a cot with a window. There was so much light in that cot. And eidde ordered a stove so she could bake. Then they came, the lap bailiff and the land notary and whoever else it was, and you know, lap was to live black. They weren’t allowed to have windows. They were to tear them out. And she was to pay a fine for installing a stove, and for the windows. Whoever touches my stove I’ll report, said eidde. Whoever touches a single nail on the cot I’ll report. She wasn’t scared of anyone. But they were terrible, those lap bailiffs.

Just put that in the book, our history. It’s true.

Válkko Elle Susá, quoted in Labba 2020, 121 [my translation from Swedish, I’ve deliberately not translated Sámi words that aren’t translated in the Swedish copy]

What Válkko Elle Susá says here of the policy “l*p is to be l*p” (“l*pp skall vara l*pp”) was a broad policy the Swedish state enacted at this time, which had its roots in racist and eugenic thought. Sametinget writes this about the political thought at the start of the 20th century, and its consequences:

It began being claimed that the Sámi were born with certain “race characteristics” that made them inferior to the rest of the population. Therefore, they could not live as “civilized” people in real houses. If they did, they would become “lazy” and start neglecting their reindeer. That would result in all Sámi people having to become beggars because they did not have any skills besides reindeer husbandry. The Riksdag [the Swedish parliament] decided in 1928 that the Sámi who were not reindeer herders would not have any Sámi rights either. For example, they were given no special right to hunt and fish in the areas where their ancestors had lived. In this way, the state drew a sharp boundary between the Sámi living on reindeer husbandry and those who support themselves in other ways. The Sámi schooling was also affected by racism. A law about a special nomad school came in 1913 which stated that teachers would walk around the mountainous regions in the summer. There, the youngest schoolchildren would be taught in the family’s cot for a few weeks each year during the first three school years. The rest of the school time consisted of winter courses in regular schools for three months a year for three years. The teaching would only cover a few subjects and it had to be at such a low level that the children were not “civilized”. Children of nomadic Sámi were not allowed to attend public primary schools. n.d. d [my translation from Swedish]

This occurred during a time of generally increased nationalism and racism. In 1922, The State’s Race Biological institute (Statens rasbiologiska institut) was created in Uppsala in Sweden, by the “scientist” Herman Lundborg (Hagerman 2016, 961). He wished to research the Swedish race and the mixing of races in Sweden. This was done in several ways, both by looking at records of marriages and births (often supplied by church officials who had access to so-called “church books” that recorded this), and physical examinations of people. He, and other “scientists”, travelled around Sweden to examine the Sámi people and other groups that were considered inferior (such as Finns, Tornedalians, Roma, Jews, disabled people, etc). The physical examination of Sámi people often happened in collaboration with local churches or schools (Hagerman 2016, 984). Another part of the eugenics movement in Sweden that is worth mentioning here is the forced sterilisations that took place during this time. Again, the minorities mentioned above (as well as working-class women) were the main targets of these policies (Hübinette & Lundström 2014). This was an attempt to “better” the “stock” of the Swedish nation. In total, around 60 000 people were sterilised between 1935 and 1975 (Johannisson 1991). Sweden’s population in 1975 was approximately 8 million (SCB 1977, 9).

As Hübinette and Lundström point out, in Sweden at the time, ethnic minorities were either to be completely assimilated or completely segregated from the rest of society (Hübinette & Lundström 2020, 33). The former was the case with the Tornedalians (more on this later) and the latter with the Sámi. All as part of a process to make Sweden Swedish. A similar process took place in other states that colonised Sápmi, which Liisa-Rávná Finbog describes in the Norwegian context (2022b). During the 19th and 20th centuries, Norway was properly establishing itself as a nation and “as part of that work, much focus was given to establishing an own Norwegian identity. In other words, in the state of Norway, you were to be Norwegian.” (ibid) [my translation from Norwegian] This led to a forced Norwegianization of the Sámi, which for instance took place at the schools Sámi children were forced to attend (Minde 2005). As one person, Per Fokstad, who lived through this process put it as an adult:

“Now and then I think about this, there is such a large pain that I can’t sleep. I lay awake at night, I feel like I need to speak out. Tell someone about this, all of it that hurts, that’s been pushed down. There is something inside of me that screams: don’t smother me. Something that needs air, that wants to rise, that wants to live. But we got branded. We got pushed down and I can never forget it. Never forget what it was like. Everything was taken from us. We weren’t allowed to speak our mother tongue. No one listened to us.”

Dahl 1970, 10. Quoted in Minde 2005, 15. [my translation from Norweigan]

Policies like that, and the corresponding Swedish policies, might not exist anymore, but that doesn’t mean that the oppression has ceased. Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia are still colonising the Sápmi. Many of these nations have taken steps to recognise the Sámi as an indigenous people and national minority (in Sweden it’s one of five official national minorities, the other ones being Finns, Tornedalians, Jews, and Roma) but again, this doesn’t mean the oppression is over. The nations are still laying claim to land and resources, as has for instance been seen in Sweden in the fight against logging and mining (Johansson 2022) and recently in Norway against the green colonialism that is windmills on reindeer grazing lands (Ahtone 2023).

Members of the Sámi youth organisation Sáminuorra as well as the youth climate organisation Fridays for Future protesting proposed mining plans in Gállok, on the Swedish side of Sápmi. Sámi has protested this mine since around 2013. This photo is from 2022. Photo credit: Fridays for Future (retrieved from Johansson 2022).

But before moving on, I would like to return to Tornedalians. Similarly to Sámi in Norway, Tornedalians in Sweden were expected to assimilate into Swedish culture, and this too was intensified during the 19th and 20th centuries. One big shift was of course when the border was drawn between Finland and Sweden in 1809. The border was drawn along the Torne River, splitting Meänmaa and its people in two. As author Bengt Pohjanen says of the border:

”Us Meänkieli-speaking shore-dwelling Finns have always lived in Meänmaa and experienced both sides of the Torne River as part of one culture. After all, our friends and cousins lived on the other side of the river. The border has created three-eyed people. We needed two eyes to see, and a third so we could overlook.

“There isn’t a whiff of sin in smuggling,” said a Laestadian preacher who had been fined for smuggling knives. We have experienced the customs as offensive gates and unnecessary obstacles. There’s no wonder that the customs officers are called hurtat, dogs.

Pohjanen 2022, 20. [[my translation from Swedish, “hurtat” and the Swedish translation Pohjanen gives, “byracka” is difficult to translate. It’s maybe closer to hound or perhaps mongrel, used to describe a mean/feral/wild dog. It is definitely used derogatory here.]

The border also had huge consequences on language. Tornedalians have traditionally spoken a version of Finnish, which is today referred to as Meänkieli (“our language”), not Swedish. As mentioned, when the border between Finland and Sweden was drawn, no one bothered about ethnic or language borders. Loads of Tornedalians ended up on the Swedish side of the border, and they were increasingly pressured to assimilate into Swedish culture and speak Swedish (Kväner, Lantalaiset, Tornedalingar: Sannings- och Försoningskommissionen n.d. a). I have several relatives who have put in so-called “work cottages” during the 1920s, vocational schools for poor children. The children lived at these cottages where they got basic schooling and were taught different trades while having to work to earn their upkeep (UR 2018, 12:36). They were also taught to be productive Christian Swedish citizens. This is one example of how the oppression of Tornedalians has been (and is) wrapped up in class oppression as well. Many Tornedalians have lived in rural areas, often working in the mines and forests. Author Bengt Pohjanen also points out how language plays into the intersecting oppressions, both from one’s own community and those outside of it:

“…the oppression from our own, the fancy folk, finiit ihmiset, “the masters on the devil’s level”, police, teachers, customs’ officials who had denied their languages, their culture for our own good. (…) Our own middle class has been, and seems to remain, the Meänkieli-speaking cultural bearers’ ever-present problem. (…) Hullunfinit ihmiset, crazy fancy people, were ummikot (monolingual Swedes). Niitä hääty passata ja varoa. (You had to wait on them, watch for them, it wasn’t even proper to speak to them).”

Pohjanen 2022, 16. [my translation from Swedish]

Swedish was the language of fancy folk, of civilised folk. Of course, this also permeated the education the poor children in rural areas were to get in working cottages. They were forbidden from speaking Meänkieli, were only to speak Swedish, and those who disobeyed were often beaten. All to turn them into Godfearing, proper productive citizens. As my own grandfather put it:

“First and foremost, I have to say that there was an iron discipline. If we turned into anything – we turned into either ruffians or weaklings.”

UR 2018, 13:09-13:19. From the documentary ”Man grät och längtade hem” from 1977, a cli of which is shown in the UR documentary. Quote translated from Swedish to English by me.

Many internalised this discipline to the degree that they tried to get their children to only speak Swedish too, an experience that Tornedalian Roland Jatko has written about (Jatko 2011). As he puts it, this can be considered a form of colonialism and cultural imperialism. What’s more, this colonialism has been so successful that many Tornedalians now feel unsure of what their cultural identity really entails. As Jatko writes:

What does it matter where we come from, when we arrived, and what we’ve called ourselves through history? No people on the taiga can say that we’ve always been here because we all arrived after the ice melted. Where did those who made the rock carvings at Aarevaara come from, those who named the places, and those who renamed them? (…) My homelands have been Sámi hunting grounds and fishing waters once. When we came and took their fishing waters, hunting grounds, and reindeer aren’t written down in any history book, and neither where we came from and why we took their land. The only thing I know is that we did it because we could. (…) Do we have to rely on unreliable DNA tests to try to prove who we are? What are we to do with that evidence? Argue that we are an Indigenous people because we lived in the river valleys before Sweden even existed? The Kvens tried that, but after swallowing the Swedish culture in full the state said we weren’t culturally distinct enough to be an Indigenous people. (…) The only thing I can say is that we’re still here, even though everyone is trying to kill our culture with their silence.

Jatko 2019. [my translation from Swedish]

As researchers Hübinette and Lundström puts it, what the Swedish state did against both the Sámi and Tornedalians amounted to “forced assimilation aiming at outright cultural and linguistic extermination” (2014, 429). And as mentioned above, similar to the Sámi, Tornedalians were also subject to eugenic examinations. However, there are some relevant differences between Tornedalians and Sámi. One such is that some Tornedalians have participated in the oppression of Sámi both historically and today (Moreno 2020; Jatko 2021). Trying to assert their own rights and fighting for their interests have often resulted in opposing Sámi. That’s not to say all Tornedalians have acted that way, and with the long history between the ethnic groups, there are also plenty of people who are both Sámi and Tornedalian (Karvonen 2022). But another difference between Sámi and Tornedalians is that while a few generations back, Tornedalians weren’t considered white and Swedish, we generally are today. This is something Hübinette and Lundström discuss as a way racial boundaries are constantly renegotiated. We’ve been successfully assimilated.

So, growing up, I never really experienced direct discrimination because of my ethnicity. Because it had in large parts been erased. My dad never taught me Meänkieli, probably partly because he was forced to stop speaking it at school as a child. Work cottages weren’t around anymore when he went to school, but Swedish was still to be spoken in schools (UR 2018, 13:48). Even by children like him who didn’t speak a word of it when they started school. However, in later years, my dad has started to relearn his mother’s tongue and I’m trying to learn it for the first time. This is also happening at a time when the historical discrimination against Tornedalians is gaining more attention. In 2020, the Swedish government appointed a truth and reconciliation commission that “shall investigate violations and abuse that Tornedalians, Kvens and Lantalaiset were subjected to as a result of the assimilation policies of the 19th and 20th centuries.” (Kväner, Lantalaiset, Tornedalingar: Sannings- och Försoningskommissionen n.d. b) This is all to say, I’m white and I’m not Indigenous. But I do have a personal and familial experience that relates to being part of a minority ethnic group in a northern climate that has been affected by colonialism.

Some more historical, geographical and theoretical context

Having said that, I thought it would be helpful to discuss colonialism some more. What it is, how it has worked historically and today, and specifically in some northern contexts.  First of all, what do I mean by colonialism? On a basic level, it is of course when one state lays claim to an area that it has not previously claimed, often exploiting its land and people along the way. But it’s also more than that. As Sámi scholar Dr Liisa-Rávná Finbog puts it:

However much we are accustomed to thinking of colonization as a process that aims to dispossess land from Indigenous peoples, colonialism is much more layered. In addition to the stealing of land and material things (and sometimes even people), the process of colonization is also about imposing the colonizers’ worldviews and values upon the colonized, erasing Indigenous knowledges and ways of live. This is epistemicide, a colonial killing of Indigenous ways of being, of knowing, and of doing- our ontologies, epistemologies, and methodologies.

Finbog 2022a.

That this has been the case in regards to Sápmi and the Sámi has probably been clear already in this essay. But they are of course not the only people of the north in our world that has suffered through these kind of processes. As a text by the Saami Council and German Arctic Office points out, there are a lot of different Indigenous people that live in these Arctic and sub-Arctic areas:

The distinct cultures and territories of Arctic Indigenous Peoples extend over 30 million square kilometres in seven countries and three continents. In Fennoscandia, Arctic Indigenous Peoples include the Saami in northern territories of Finland, Sweden, Norway and Northwest Russia, an area also named Sápmi. The land of Inuit, Inuit Nunaat, stretches over Chukotka (Russia), Alaska (USA), Canada, and Kalaallit Nunaat (Greenland). Some examples of Arctic Indigenous Peoples in the North American region are Aleuts, Yup’ik, Alutiiq, Dene, Gwich‘in and Athabaskans. Just like the Saami and Inuit, Gwich‘in and Athabaskans are cross border people. In the vast territories of the Russian Federation, a few examples of Arctic Indigenous Peoples are Nenets, Khanty, Mansi, Even, Evenk, Yukaghir and Chukchi, residing all the way from the Kola Peninsula, through Siberia and to the Far East.

Saami Council & German Arctic Office 2021, 2.

I, unfortunately, do not have the space to discuss all these cultures here, but I want to note their existence. People live across the Artic and sub-Arctic regions. These are not empty lands. People with varying cultures live here and have done for millennia. While the land could be considered scarce in resources in some ways, people have lived there and have had a very strong relationship with the land. For many cultures, this includes their connection to other beings residing on the land, with reindeer for instance holding a special status in several cultures. In total, there are about 24 reindeer herding peoples in the world, and the majority reside in these Arctic and sub-Arctic areas (Saami Council & German Arctic Office 2021, 4).  Today, reindeer herding is threatened in many places, both by colonialism and climate change. This is for instance the case in many parts of Sápmi. With the traditional grazing lands of reindeer being destroyed, so are the culture and livelihood of many people are too. Similarly, other Indigenous people are experiencing changes to the environment where they traditionally hunt and fish. But there is more than “just” food, culture, and livelihood at stake here. As Dr Liisa-Rávná Finbog explains (when discussing protests by Sámi activists in Oslo) Indigenous people often have a different conceptualisation and relationship to land than people in the West.

Sámi, like most Indigenous philosophies, teaches us that the world is made up of relations – a nexus of connections, between and to people, land, waters, beings, spirits, and entities. Born to and of the land, and grounded in these connections, said relationality seeds a system of kinship where we are made into kin as much as we make kin. The worlds we live in (and besides) are as such performed into being through our interactions with everything that lives in and on the lands and waters we belong to. It is as such a world of relations between and through everything in existence.

We are all equal within this worlds-of-relations, and we all have subjective will. As such, when you claim ownership of something- whether land or people- you are in truth subjugating their will. We have no word for subjugation in our languages. In fact, our (Indigenous) understanding of the term comes from our experience of being subjugated and dehumanized by colonial nations. (…) The use of landback in Oslo by the Sámi activists, is not a demand to return ownership of lands. It is a demand to respect Sámi sovereignty and ways of life. It is a demand to respect the sovereignty of the land, refusing the notion that she can be owned. It is a demand to respect the necessary connection between all living things, and to never enforce your will onto others, subjugating theirs.”

Finbog 2023.

But since Western countries don’t see land this way, they have often been able to claim that Indigenous lands are unpopulated, a “Terra Nullius, or “nobody’s land” (Finbog 2021). Therefore, the land can be claimed, settled, and both people and land subjugated. As mentioned previously, the results of this are still evident with the ongoing colonisation of Sápmi.

Sámi youth and other activists protesting in solidarity outside of Norwegian government buildings in February 2023. They are protesting windfarms on Sámi land that the Norwegian Supreme Court has deemed illegal, but which have not been removed after over 500 days. Photo: OLE BERG-RUSTEN / NTB / AFP via Getty Images (retrieved from Ahtone 2023).

Another important aspect of colonialism is the “othering” of the colonised people. Dr Finbog discusses “othering” in relation to Sámi in Norway:

According to the Sámi folklorist Stein Roar Mathisen puts it, this process can be seen in the relationship between the Norwegian people and Sámi. Concretely, he argues that the Sámi culture has represented something fundamentally strange, which up until our time has served a function as a contrast to the Norwegian culture. Therefore, the Sámi has been categorised as The Other. The use of The Other as a contrasting function is not new. For instance, in her ground-breaking book “The Other Sex” from 1949, Simone de Beauvoir has shown how the woman is defined by – and works as a contrast to – the man, who is “the subject […]. The Absolute.” Edward Said on the other hand contributed with the book “Orientalism” from 1978 where he describes how the West for centuries has created a picture of the Orient that has led to it becoming Europe’s defining contrast. In their different ways, Beauvoir and Said have therefore shown how usage of The Other as a category can be used to create metanarratives, that don’t just convey knowledge about, but also exercises power over the people that are put into the category.”

Finbog 2022b. [my translation from Norweigan]

As Finbog points out, by categorising a group of people as The Other, power is exercised over them. For one, they are made into something “fundamentally strange”, which affects how people interact with them. But this categorisation also impacts their orientation in the world, impacting the paths that become available to them and which obstacles they’ll meet (Ahmed 2006, 112). In our world today, someone who has been designated as Other might encounter a myriad of “stopping devices” when navigating the world, from being “randomly selected” at the airport to struggling to get promoted at work (Ahmed 2006, 140).

When Indigenous people are made into Other, part of what colonizers see as other and strange has often been their conceptualisation of sex, gender, and sexuality. As Dr Finbog puts it:

In imperial Europe, sexuality and gender was (and still is) understood from a patriarchal hierarchy where men where superior to women; and white superior to BIPOC. These (false) differences were consequently encoded into Western Law, obligation, and behavior. When the colonial structures of the West were imposed on Indigenous communities, thus came the enforcement of heteropatriarchy, a socio-political system in which cisgender males and heterosexuals have authority over cisgender females and other sexual orientations and gender identities. But historically, sexual diversity has actually been the norm rather than the exception among Indigenous peoples. (…) Like many Indigenous communities, Sámi society historically practiced a form of equality between individuals characterized on a complementarity of domains, roles, and tasks. There is also evidence to suggest that the notion of gender was fluid, allowing for a movement between gender roles. (…) There is also evidence to suggest that Sámi sexuality was heavily targeted – especially the sexuality of women and non-binary individuals. Sources from the 17th century, for instance, shows colonial officials disapproving of Sámi sexuality – deeming it immoral and unseemly.

Finbog 2022a.

Here we see how anything that doesn’t conform to Western gender and sexuality norms is demonised, be it cis women being sexually active or queer/trans people existing. Those breaking binary gender norms have in particular been seen as some combination of sinful, uncivilised and exotic (Towle & Morgan 2006). To that point, I wanted to share an excerpt from a talk between Timimie Gassko Märak and Ivvár Ovllá Nilla Pinja, who are both non-binary Sámi.

Nilla Pinja: In the Sámi religion we have so many, so much like really feminine icons and gods like: Juoksáhkká, Máttaráhkká, Sáráhkká, Uksáhkká and they are like really strong and… And I think that the world we have has been really different back in days.


Gassko Märak: They [Sáráhkká, Uksáhkká and Juoksáhkká] are called like the three sisters. Yeah. The three sisters, and when you talk about it in English and Swedish you talk about them as like goddesses, and they have different roles like in Sápmi. And you and I were talking earlier today about, about like the Sámi non-binary experience. And one of the reasons it took so long for me to realise like my transness or my non-binaryness is because Sápmi has a totally different femininity. Like I was raised with another way of what femme is. And then you said, it’s like with Sáráhkká, Uksáhkká, Juoksáhkká, it’s like…They have like… they are more human than godlike. They have powers but like everyone in Sápmi, they have their role, like they do what they’re supposed to do. And they can be like cheeky, they can, they can have bad days.

Nilla Pinja: Yes, they are big personalities. And not like some holy figures. Maybe not always so caring and soft and kind. They can also be really dangerous, and they do really what they want.

Gassko Märak: Yes! And that is also very different from like Western religion, where it’s like something that is very holy and you can just like, if you say this and if you sacrifice this then everything will be good because this person is always good if you are. But like the Sámi gods, they don’t give a shit. No but you’re doing it, but I’m having a day today so… you’re pregnant, is it going to be a boy, is it going to be a girl, or is it going to be something different? I don’t know, depends on my mood! So, I suppose you and I were that mood, maybe.

Nilla Pinja: Yeah, and it’s also like, really… when you think, all the other Indigenous cultures and… and for example, the third gender, they have been like… in some other Indigenous cultures they have always been there. They have. And so like, it really makes me think, the Western influence, and what the colonialism has done in all this.

Gassko Märak & Nilla Pinja 2021.

That is all to say, Sámi understanding of gender has been quite different from Western understandings, and Sámi religion also incorporates this view of gender. Furthermore, as Nilla Pinja mentions here, many Indigenous cultures have had conceptualisations of gender that go beyond the Western binary views. On Turtle Island (the lands colonised by the USA and Canada), the term Two-Spirit is often used by various native nations as an umbrella term to describe gender and sexual identities beyond the binary (Neptune 2018). What exactly Two-Spirit means can vary between native nations (and individuals) but the term is often used as an umbrella term specifically to create common ground and help educate about traditional teachings. In many Indigenous societies, Two-Spirit people have traditionally held a proper and accepted place. This was based on spiritual teachings that all life is sacred. Geo Neptune, who is Passamaquoddy and Two-Spirit, notes the following about the meaning and history of Two-Spirit identity:

To illustrate the diversity of what Two-Spirit contain, consider the following:

In Lakota, the word winkte means “to be as a woman” and refer to Two-Soul Lakota people who transgress boundaries of gender from what may be considered male to female.

In Diné, nádleehi means “those who transform” and refers to one of four genders: masculine-feminine, masculine-masculine, feminine-masculine, and feminine-feminine. Each gender has its own word in the Diné language.

And those are just two nation specific examples, there are so many more! Each nation’s understanding of gender and sexual diversity is different and grounded in specific spiritual beliefs. Although all nations don’t have a concept of Two-Spirit people, across those indigenous nations that do, Two-Spirit people were historically held in high regard and often considered sacred or divine, holding important positions like matchmakers, medicine people, or warriors on the front lines of battle. Many Two-Spirit people perform roles traditionally assigned to both men and women.

Neptune 2018.

Many more examples could be given (and I go into some more in my essay about trans history), but the point I wanted to make is that many Indigenous people have broader understandings of gender and sexuality than Western cultures have. While some Indigenous people (for instance Two-Spirit people) also use terms like trans, non-binary, queer or gay to describe themselves, not all do and Westerners should be careful when escribing these labels to them (for more discussion, see for instance Roen 2006; Boellstorff, Cabral, Cádenas, Cotten, Stanley, Young, and Aizura 2014). Westerners already have a history of telling Indigenous people how to identify in regard to gender and sexuality, we should not do it again.

A caution should also be made regarding the term “third gender” which has often been used both in academia and outside it to describe gender identities and expression outside the gender binary that has traditionally existed in non-Western contexts (Towle & Morgan 2006). While not all use of that term is problematic, Towle and Morgan raises several reasons to why it’s often used in a problematic way, especially by Western academics:

The “third gender” is a uniquely Western concept produced by a society just beginning to grapple with the theoretical, social, political, and personal consequences of nondichotomous gender variability.

It is thus an apt rhetorical and analytic device for the current historical moment, because it can accommodate contradictory social impulses; it signals both tolerance for cultural diversity and adherence to Western categories. Rather than accept uncritically the need for a “third” gender category, though, we should ask how “our” narratives about “them” (cultural others) reflect our own society’s contradictory agendas concerning sexuality, gender, and power. In spite of the obvious imaginative and political potential created by the awareness of gender diversity across cultures, several flaws emerge in the utilization of “third gender” concepts. In the remainder of this essay we enumerate and illustrate these flaws, which we organize as follows:

  1. The primordial location. “Third gender” societies are accorded a primordial, foundational location in our thinking, as though they underlay or predated Western gender formulations.
  2. Reductionism and exclusionism. The “third gender” concept lumps all nonnormative gender variations into one category, limiting our understandings of the range and diversity of gender ideologies and practices.
  3. Typological errors. By identifying “third gender” types, the concept ignores the diversity of experience within categories and glosses over the often contentious processes through which social formations, relations, and hierarchies are created, lived, negotiated, and changed.
  4. Inconsistent use of the culture concept. Does culture facilitate or delimit social change?
  5. The West versus the rest. “Third gender” concepts may isolate the West, for analytic purposes, from other societies, thereby reinforcing our ethnocentric assumptions; inhibiting us from forging alliances across national or cultural borders; and inducing us to focus on diversity between cultures while ignoring diversity, or the complexities of social change, within them.
Towle & Morgan 2006, 671.

As I hope has been made clear here, in general, while many Indigenous people have shared struggles and there are similarities in their understandings of gender, this should not be generalised. Especially by white people. What can be said, however, is that many share experiences of oppression from colonialists who have had a very binary, cisnormative, heteronormative, and sexist understanding of gender and sexuality.

Free Folk cultures and southern prejudice

When we first hear about the Free Folk in the prologue of A Game of Thrones, it’s in the context of the Night’s Watch looking for them and assessing them as a threat. Given that the chapter is told from the point of view of a Night’s Watchman, the Free Folk are immediately positioned as the enemy. In the next chapter, Bran I, we hear more tales about the Free Folk as Bran remembers Old Nan telling stories about them. In these stories, the Free Folk are described as cruel and scary, allying with literal monsters and drinking blood. Of course, the Free Folk is also referred to as Wildlings here, giving the general impression of them being a wild uncivilised folk and a threat. This is expanded upon when we learn more about Mance, and how he might be trying to invade the North. With that, the Free Folk are positioned as a wild hoard that will threat civilised society. But as I mentioned in the introduction, this first view of the Free Folk slowly gets more nuanced. In ACOK, Jon meets Craster who is undeniably a monster, but he also meets Craster’s daughters and later Ygritte. The reader eventually learns that other Free Folk also think Craster is horrible. Generally speaking, Free Folk aren’t monsters, and what Craster is doing has more in common with someone like Walder Frey than Free Folk in general (as for instance, NotACast has pointed out).

As for the threat from the Free Folk, throughout ACOK the Night’s Watch worry about the fact that the Free Folk has abandoned their villages to gather with Mance. But what might at first look seem like a mustering of an army later turns out to be the gathering of a whole people (or rather several peoples) to escape an apocalyptic threat. They’re fleeing the cold, the lethal change to their land. I sometimes hear people describe the land above the Wall as uninhabitable, a sort of cold barren wasteland, but clearly people have managed to live there for thousands of years. They have tried to move south before, but this mass migration is new. Now that their lands are changing, they truly cannot stay. I think a parallel can be noted here to how Indigenous people in our world are impacted by climate change. Of course, the Others aren’t just a metaphor for climate change. But there are parts of them that work that way. They do change the climate and pose a deadly threat. And as such it’s darkly fitting that the Free Folk are the ones to be affected first and (so far) in the harshest way. As I mentioned previously, many Indigenous people in the Arctic and sub-Arctic are being affected by climate change as it’s wrecking their traditional lands and therefore also their way of life (Saami Council & German Arctic Office 2021). One such example is how the warmer winters (in addition to the cutting down of forests) are making it more difficult for reindeer to find food, which has huge impacts on for instance the Sámi. It’s difficult not to think about that when reading passages like this, from when Jon oversees the Free Folk going through the Wall:

After the riders came the men of the Frozen Shore. Jon watched a dozen of their big bone chariots roll past him one by one, clattering like Rattleshirt. Half still rolled as before; other had replaced their wheels with runners. They slid across the snowdrifts smoothly, where the wheeled chariots were foundering and sinking.

The dogs that drew the chariots were fearsome beasts, as big as direwolves. Their women were clad in sealskins, some with infants at their breasts. Older children shuffled along behind their mothers and looked up at Jon with eyes as dark and hard as the stones they clutched. Some of the men wore antlers on their hats, and some wore walrus tusks. The two sorts did not love each other, he soon gathered. A few thin reindeer brought up the rear, with the great dogs snapping at the heels of straggles.

A Dance with Dragons, Jon XII.

What will happen to that reindeer now that they have to live in a completely new territory below the Wall? What will happen with the people of the Frozen Shore, how will this impact their culture and way of life? It seems like reindeer are an important part of their culture, given that it’s mentioned that they both keep reindeer and that some of them have reindeer antlers on their hats. That indicates that reindeer holds some sort of cultural significance for them. There is not enough textual evidence to say much more than that – but I do want to note the potential parallel to reindeer herding Indigenous people in our world and how changing climates impact them and their reindeer. Such change can impact entire cultures, especially if reindeer hold strong cultural significance. When reindeer herding is more than just one’s livelihood, when it’s part of one’s culture and one’s relationship to the earth and land, being forced to relocate like this can have huge consequences.

A man from the Frozen Shore and his reindeer. Art by Noah aka @samanthatarly, commissioned by me.

Something else that I wanted to touch on here is how many different Free Folk cultures there are. In the eyes of most of Westeros, the Free Folk are just a hoard of wild folk, but as we learn when Jon grows closer to them, there’s much more to them than that. They’re not just uncivilised brutes, they have a culture. Or rather, several different cultures. They create things just like in the land south of the Wall: clothing, jewellery, music, etc. They have traditions and customs, and these all vary between different tribes.

There were cookfires all along the river, amongst wayns and carts and sleds. Many of the wildlings had thrown up tents, of hide and skin and felted wool. Others sheltered behind rocks in crude lean-tos, or slept beneath their wagons. At one fire Jon saw a man hardening the points of long wooden spears and tossing them in a pile. Elsewhere two bearded youths in boiled leather were sparring with staffs, leaping at each other over the flames, grunting each time one landed a blow. A dozen women sat nearby in a circle, fletching arrows. (…) There was no doubting which tent was the king’s. It was thrice the size of the next largest he’d seen, and he could hear music drifting from within. Like many of the lesser tents it was made of sewn hides with the fur still on, but Mance Rayder’s hides were the shaggy white pelts of snow bears. The peaked roof was crowned with a huge set of antlers from one of the giant elks that had once roamed freely throughout the Seven Kingdoms, in the times of the First Men

A Storm of Swords, Jon I.

Along with the Tormunds and the Longspears rode other sorts of wildlings, though; men like Rattleshirt and the Weeper who would as soon slit you as spit on you. There was Harma Dogshead, a squat keg of a woman with cheeks like slabs of white meat, who hated dogs and killed one every fortnight to make a fresh head for her banner; earless Styr, Magnar of Thenn, whose own people thought him more god than lord; Varamyr Sixskins, a small mouse of a man whose steed was a savage white snow bear that stood thirteen feet tall on its hind legs.


And there were folks fiercer even than Varamyr, from the northernmost reaches of the haunted forest, the hidden valleys of the Frostfangs, and even queerer places: the men of the Frozen Shore who rode in chariots made of walrus bones pulled along by packs of savage dogs, the terrible ice-river clans who were said to feast on human flesh, the cave dwellers with their faces dyed blue and purple and green. With his own eyes Jon had beheld the Hornfoot men trotting along in column on bare soles as hard as boiled leather. He had not seen any snarks or grumpkins, but for all he knew Tormund would be having some to supper.

Half the wildling host had lived all their lives without so much as a glimpse of the Wall, Jon judged, and most of those spoke no word of the Common Tongue. It did not matter. Mance Rayder spoke the Old Tongue, even sang in it, fingering his lute and filling the night with strange wild music.

A Storm of Swords, Jon II

“As they passed, each warrior stripped off his treasures and tossed them into one of the carts that the stewards had placed before the gate. Amber pendants, golden torques, jewelled daggers, silver brooches set with gemstones, bracelets, rings, niello cups and golden goblets, warhorns and drinking horns, a green jade comb, a necklace of freshwater pearls… all yielded up and noted down by Bowen Marsh. One man surrendered a shirt of silver scales that had surely been made for some great lord. Another produced a broken sword with three sapphires in the hilt.

And there were queerer things: a toy mammoth made of actual mammoth hair, an ivory phallus, a helm made from a unicorn’s head, complete with horn.”

A Dance with Dragons, Jon XII

As we can see, there’s a lot more to the Free Folk than the people below the Wall might think. Sure, some of the treasures mentioned above have probably been acquired south of the Wall, but definitely not all of them. A lot is Free Folk made. Besides the quotes above, there are also several more mentions in the books about adorned clothing, armour (bronze and otherwise), masks, etc. The more you look for it, the clearer it becomes that just because the land beyond the Wall is cold and in some ways has fewer resources than below the Wall, that doesn’t mean that the Free Folk can’t create things (this is something I have tried to make clear with the artwork used in this essay). They can make things that aren’t just shabby fur haphazardly sewn together.

The Free Folk in Game of Thrones, picture retrieved from Watchers on the Wall.

The Free Folk cultures are rich and complex, even if it’s not in ways the people south of the Wall would appreciate. A large reason why the people south of the Wall don’t appreciate their culture is plain old prejudice and xenophobia. But a contributing factor is probably also the lack of written records about the Free Folk, apart from ones from the perspective of maesters or lords. Free Folk history is oral history, and just as in our world, such history is generally not seen as reliable or proper. Something else to note is the mention of how a lot of Free Folk only speak the old tongue, not the common tongue. The first men spoke this language too, but those south of the Wall has forgotten it after getting more assimilated with Andal culture. This reminded me of what Pohjanen (2022) writes about how the “fancy” Tornedalians would abandon their language to speak the language of the richer majority population, and at the same time take up positions where they helped police and control other Tornedalians. This is but one example from real life about how the usage of language plays a part in ethnic and class-based oppression.

Before moving on, I wanted to comment on one more thing about Free Folk culture, namely their relationship to the land. In general, it seems like those who are believers of the Old Gods have a close relationship to nature, more so than for instance those who believe in the Faith of the Seven. But what sets the Free Folk especially apart is their philosophy regarding land rights. When Ygritte and Jon discuss the land of the Gift, and how it’s been abandoned, their different view on land comes up.

“Maybe they were tired of fighting. Tired of barring their doors every night and wondering if Rattleshirt or someone like him would break them down to carry off their wives. Tired of having their harvests stolen, and any valuables taken.” But if the Wall should fall, all the north will lie within the reach of raiders.

“You know nothing, Jon Snow. Daughters are taken, not wives. You’re the ones who steal. You took the whole world, and built the Wall t’ keep the free folk out.”

“Did we?” Sometimes Jon forgot how wild she was. “How did that happen?”

“The gods made the earth for all men t’ share. Only when the kings come with their crowns and steel swords, they claimed it was all theirs. My trees, they said, you can’t eat them apples. My stream, you can’t fish here. My wood, you’re not t’ hunt. My earth, my water, my castle, my daughter, keep your hands away or I’ll chop them off, but maybe if you kneel t’ me I’ll let you have a sniff. You call us thieves, but at least a thief has t’ be brave and cleaver and quick. A kneeler only has t’ kneel.”

A Storm of Swords, Jon V

In this passage, it becomes clear how people south of the Wall and north of the Wall have very different understandings of land and land ownership. In Ygritte’s view, land isn’t something you own, it is something for everyone to share. Ygritte also relates this to the Free Folk ideology of not kneeling. In a sense, this is similar to what Dr Finbog writes about the Sámi not believing in subjugating either land, non-human beings, or human beings (2022a). As she notes, the forced erasure of this way of thinking and understanding amounts to epistimicide. Perhaps we’ll see a similar process with the Free Folk as they are forced to migrate to the south and assimilate into another culture. Now, Jon and many other characters might object to the notion of freedom and non-subjugation given the Free Folk tradition of stealing daughters. And that brings us to our next topic, Free Folk understandings of sex, gender, and sexuality.

Sex, sexuality, and gender

One reoccurring thing that people south of the Wall bring up as a danger with the Free Folk is their tradition of stealing women. This is something Jon and Ygritte discuss, and she offers these counterpoints to his criticism of the practice:

”And what if they do? I’d sooner be stolen by a strong man than be given t’ some weakling by my father.”

”You say that, but how can you know? What if you were stolen by someone you hated?”

”He’d have t’ be quick and cunning and brave t’ steal me. So his sons would be strong and smart as well. Why would I hate such a man as that?”

”Maybe he never washes, so he smells as rank as a bear.”

”Then I’d push him in a stream or throw a bucket o’ water on him. Anyhow, men shouldn’t smell sweet like flowers.”

”What’s wrong with flowers?”

”Nothing, for a bee. For bed I want one o’ these.” Ygritte made to grab the front of his breeches.

Jon caught her wrist. ”What if the man who stole you drank too much?” he insisted. ”What if he was brutal or cruel?” He tightened his grip to make a point. ”What if he was stronger than you, and liked to beat you bloody?”

”I’d cut his throat while he slept. You know nothing, Jon Snow.” Ygritte twisted like an eel and wrenched away from him.

”A man can own a woman or a man can own a knife,” Ygritte told him, ”but no man can own both. Every little girl learns that from her mother.” She raised her chin defiantly and gave her thick red hair a shake. ”And men can’t own the land no more’n they can own the sea or the sky. You kneelers think you do, but Mance is going t’ show you different.”

A Storm of Swords, Jon V

Now, I’m not saying this tradition is unproblematic. But it’s not necessarily worse than being married off by your father, which is very common in the Seven Kingdoms. What’s more, as Ygritte points out, it is much more culturally acceptable for Free Folk women to take action if they’re displeased with their man. Be it throwing a bucket of water at him or killing him. A Free Folk woman isn’t owned by her husband. Nonetheless, this tradition makes the Free Folk seem wild and uncivilised to the people south of the Wall. To them, it’s unacceptable for a man to take a woman to wife without the consent of the woman’s previous owner, her father. As Learned Hands have pointed out – in medieval times, the crime of rape was mainly seen as a problem since it damaged the property of a man (be it his daughter or wife). A woman’s father or husband is the one to decide over her sexuality and reproduction. Clearly, the Free Folk don’t view it like that.

That the Free Folk don’t think of sexuality and reproduction in the same way as the people south of the Wall becomes clear in Jon’s story. In Jon’s second chapter in ASOS, Jon and Tormund discuss sexuality with Tormund joking that he’s heard that the Night’s Watch cuts off watchmen’s members so they will stay chaste. Tormund argues that this is the only reason he can see for Jon not sleeping with Ygritte.

Jon could feel himself turning red again. “She spoke for me when Rattleshirt would have me killed. I would not dishonor her.”

“You are a free man now and Ygritte is a free woman. What dishonor if you lay together?”

“I might get her with child.”

“Aye, I’d hope so. A strong son or a lively laughing girl kissed by fire, and where’s the harm in that?”

Words failed him for a moment. “The boy… the child would be a bastard.”

“You’re bastard-born yourself. And if Ygritte does not want a child, she will go to some woods witch and drink a cup o’ moon tea. You do not come into it, once the seed is planted.”

“I will not father a bastard.”

Tormund shook his shaggy head. “What fools you kneelers be. Why did you steal the girl if you don’t want her?”

“Steal? I never…”

“You did,” said Tormund. “You slew the two she was with and carried her off, what do you call it?”

“Yes, but… Tormund, I swear, I never touched her.”

”Are you certain they never cut your member off?” Tormund gave a shrug, as if to say he would never understand such madness. ”Well, you are a free man now, but if you will not have the girl, best find yourself a she-bear. If a man does not use his member it grows smaller and smaller, until one day he wants to piss and cannot find it.”

Jon had no answer for that. Small wonder that the Seven Kingdoms thought the free folk scarcely human. They have no laws, no honor, not even simple decency. They steal endlessly from each other, breed like beasts, prefer rape to marriage, and fill the world with baseborn children. Yet he was growing fond of Tormund Giantsbane, great bag of wind and lies though he was. Longspear as well. And Ygritte . . . no, I will not think about Ygritte.

A Storm of Swords, Jon II

There’s so much going on in this one quote. Firstly, it becomes very clear that the Free Folk have a very different view on bastardy than the people south of the Wall. They don’t see it as a problem if someone has a child out of wedlock, whereas in the Seven Kingdoms that would be dishonourable. Specifically, it would dishonour the woman who is no longer a “pure” maiden. As I’ve discussed previously in an essay about virginity norms in ASOIAF, the focus the Seven Kingdoms put on women’s virginity is part of patriarchal control. Controlling women’s sexuality is part of the greater control of women. That the Free Folk don’t have this preoccupation with women’s sexuality speaks to their general greater gender equality. However, it also becomes part of what makes them seem “scarcely human” as Jon puts it. This reflects the experiences of for instance Indigenous people in our world, where the sexuality of their women specifically has often been seen as problematic by Westerners (Finbog 2022a). This has contributed to these groups being “Othered” – seen as other/strange/wild, as compared to the upstanding “civilised” people of the West. The same thing can be seen with the relationship between Free Folk and the people of the Seven Kingdoms, the Free Folk are the dark mirror that the people of the Seven Kingdoms use to see themselves as proper and good.

Something else to note in the above quote is that Tormund mentions that Ygritte could go to a woods witch to get moon tea if she doesn’t want a child. Learned Hands have previously discussed exactly what moon tea is (is it a contraceptive? Plan B? Abortion?) and how accessible it is to people in Westeros. It is a bit unclear based on the books, but it is definitely some sort of medicinal treatment to either completely avoid pregnancy or terminate a pregnancy. What is clear is that it provides greater reproductive freedom for those who have access to it which also leads to greater gender equality, similar to the role of both contraceptives and abortion in our world (United Nations Population Fund 2023, 100). I would, however, be remiss if I do not point out how the same medical procedures have been and are being used to control the reproduction of marginalised groups. The United Nations Population Fund referenced above does a great job of discussing this. Nevertheless, in general, greater access to contraceptives and abortion leads to greater reproductive freedom and gender equality. That Free Folk has more control over their reproduction is in line with the general greater gender equality we see in the Free Folk, where women are not restricted by the same gender norms as they are south of the Wall. There are plenty of examples of spearwives, i.e. warrior women, throughout the story and we see several women in leader positions as well. That can be seen with for instance leaders like Harma Dog’s Head, Mother Mole, Val, and Morna White Mask. However, there aren’t really any examples in the text of Free Folk men taking up more “feminine” roles. My tentative conclusion based on this is that Free Folk typically don’t have as strict of a divide between what roles men and women can hold compared to the lands south of the Wall, but that they still value “traditional” above “traditional” femininity (regardless of gender). At least if we consider what we (Westerners) might typically/traditionally see as masculine or feminine. The Free Folk seem to consider gender and gender norms differently than the rest of Westeros, so it might not make much sense to talk about traditional masculinity/femininity at all. Essentially, in the eyes of someone from the Seven Kingdoms, Free Folk women might act masculine, but in the eyes of the Free Folk, they’re behaving the way a woman might be expected to act. This is an example of how gender norms are in the end socially constructed, and different cultures can understand them differently.

But speaking of Free Folk whose gender might seem strange to people south of the Wall, I have to take a moment to discuss Morna White Mask. When we are introduced to her in ADWD, she’s described like this:

The warrior witch Morna removed her weirwood mask just long enough to kiss his gloved hand and swear to be his man or his woman, whichever he preferred.

A Dance with Dragons, Jon XII

In this small passage, we learn several things about Morna. She’s described as a warrior witch, which indicates both a fighting ability and some sort of magical and/or medicinal ability. She also wears a weirwood mask, which hints at some sort of (magical) connection with the Old Gods. And, of course, she hints at some sort of gender fluidity when saying she could be Jon’s man or woman. This magically connected character being associated with genderfluidity is interesting and also dovetails with other magical genderfluidity in the books. For instance, some argue that the dragons in the story can change their sex, which I have discussed in my essay about dragons and sex. We also get a brief mention in Cersei’s story about an alchemist who can transform women into men for a night, something Rohanne and I discussed in our Cersei essay. And of course, Arya whose story is so tied up in gender and gender nonconformity, ends up with a death cult that teaches her to change her face (I’ve discussed that in my essay about Arya, Alleras, and Brave Danny Flint). In that light, a warrior witch having a fluid gender makes total sense. But I also can’t help but wonder if GRRM was inspired by various indigenous cultures where for instance Two-Spirit people traditionally have held positions such as warriors or medicine people (Neptune 2018). It’s also worth noting how Morna seems to hold a position of respect among the Free Folk, as can for instance be seen when she’s chosen as one of the people to command a Night’s Watch castle after Jon lets the Free Folk through the Wall. This is a huge contrast to how gender-nonconforming people below the Wall are treated. As I have discussed elsewhere, for instance in relation to Brienne and Brave Danny Flint, gender nonconforming people are rarely respected in Westeros, and are in fact much more likely to be subjected to violence because of their gender nonconformity. So, Morna being seen as a respected leader is quite the contrast, and again something that tracks with how a lot of Indigenous cultures have treated gender-diverse people. But again, this understanding of gender diversity is something that the Seven Kingdoms would see as proof of the Free Folk’s wildness and use to legitimise their control of them.

Morna Whitemask, art by DREADLady, commissioned by me.

Colonial control

Having discussed the way the Free Folk are “Othered” by the Seven Kingdoms, I would like to discuss the colonial control of the Free Folk that this “Othering” helps legitimise. Because the relationship the Seven Kingdoms (and the Night’s Watch) have with the Free Folk isn’t just what a country might normally have with a neighbouring country, with them defending their borders for example. In other places in the world of ice and fire, we see those kinds of relationships between countries, for instance with the Free Cities. They might sometimes war against each other, but they also trade with each other, and people can migrate between the cities. After the latest war between Braavos and Pentos, Braavos might have forced Pentos to certain concessions (such as having no slavery and a limited amount of war ships), but it’s still not as extreme as the control the Night’s Watch enforce. In the context of Westeros, we might look at the land before the Targaryens conquered the realm – we know the different kingdoms warred amongst each other, but there is no evidence that someone from the Riverlands couldn’t jump on a ship to White Harbour to sell some grain. But when it comes to the Free Folk, this isn’t allowed. The Free Folk can’t travel to the south of the Wall to trade goods, and there seem to be limitations on who can trade with the Free Folk too. As Davos recalls:

The first time he had seen the Wall he had been younger than Devan, serving aboard the Cobblecat under Roro Uhoris, a Tyroshi known up and down the narrow sea as the Blind Bastard, though he was neither blind nor baseborn. Roro had sailed past Skagos into the Shivering Sea, visiting a hundred little coves that had never seen a trading ship before. He brought steel; swords, axes, helms, good chainmail hauberks, to trade for furs, ivory, amber, and obsidian. When the Cobblecat turned back south her holds were stuffed, but in the Bay of Seals three black galleys came out to herd her into Eastwatch. They lost their cargo and the Bastard lost his head, for the crime of trading weapons to the wildlings.

A Dance with Dragons, Davos I

Here we have Night’s Watch stopping a Tyroshi captain (so not even Westerosi) from trading with the Free Folk. Now, he was specifically trading weapons, but it is unclear if it is allowed to trade other goods either. We know that some Free Folk are allowed to trade with the Watch, for instance, Craster but also Varamyr’s mentor Haggon. Varamyr remembers a visit to Eastwatch when Varamyr himself was 10 years old:

Haggon traded a dozen strings of amber and a sled piled high with pelts for six skins of wine, a block of salt, and a copper kettle. Eastwatch was a better place to trade than Castle Black; that was where the ships came, laden with goods from the fabled lands beyond the sea. The crows knew Haggon as a hunter and a friend to the Night’s Watch, and welcomed the news he brought of life beyond their Wall. Some knew him for a skinchanger too, but no one spoke of that.

A Dance with Dragons, Prologue

Can you only trade with the Night’s Watch and land south of the Wall if you are “a friend to the Watch” and willing to provide information on your fellow Free Folk? If you’re a “good wildling” who doesn’t challenge the Night’s Watch right to control the land and border, then you can get some benefits. I’m sure that’s a familiar story for many people who have lived under colonialisation…  

The situation with the enforced border also reminds me of what Pohjanen (2022) writes about how Tornedalians have experienced the Finnish/Swedish border, with a preacher arguing that there’s not a “whiff of sin in smuggling.”(ibid, 20) If you don’t believe in the legitimacy of a colonial border, you won’t believe there is anything wrong in defying the rules set up by the officers that guard it either. Now, having said all that, I want to make one thing clear: just because I think the Free Folk should be allowed to move across the border and trade with people south of the Wall doesn’t mean I think the land above the Wall is some sort of desolate wasteland where no one could want to live. It’s clear in the story that Free Folk have lived north of the Wall for millennia, including very far north of the Wall. I also mentioned above how the Free Folk have a different relationship and understanding of land than people south of the Wall, and perhaps also a closer connection to the land. I compared this to how many Indigenous people have a different understanding of what relationships to land mean and entail compared to people of the West. I therefore also want to mention that Indigenous people in our world who live in Northern lands hardly see these lands as uninhabitable and desolate, even if people from the south might. Earlier in this essay, I quoted Válkko Elle Susá (who is quoted in Elin Anna Labba’s book) who talked about Sámi people missing the mountain Bealčán (Pälstan in Swedish) after they had been forcibly relocated to the south. To put that in perspective, this is where that mountain is located:

Google Maps map of northern Europe, indicating the position of Bealčán/Pälstan.

That’s pretty far north. In a land that a lot of people from the south would assume to not be somewhere you’d want to live. Yet people live there and have a deep connection to the land. Assuming that no one would want to live there contributes to the perception that the land is either useless or not worth preserving for people. This idea has done a lot of damage in our own world, with colonial states like Sweden and Norway both historically and currently legitimising their exploitation of Sápmi in this way. The value that the land has to the people living there is dismissed, and focus is only put on how the land can bring value to the colonial state, be it through wind power or mines. The situation isn’t quite the same in ASOIAF, but I still think it is dangerous to dismiss the land beyond the Wall as uninhabitable. For one, it diminishes the suffering of the Free Folk who, due to the onslaught of the Others, have had to give up their homes. But it also reinforces the discourse that is present in our world that northern lands such as these are desolate, which as mentioned above is dangerous. In my opinion, the problem in ASOIAF isn’t that you can’t live off the land above the Wall. The problem is that the Free Folk are prohibited from trading with other cultures and communities. Their enforced isolation is what is problematic. In this way, the Night’s Watch operates as colonial officers, enforcing the subjugation of the Free Folk, similar to for instance customs officers by the Swedish/Finnish border.

Another aspect of colonial control that I want to discuss is what Stannis does when he arrives at the Wall. After defeating the Free Folk in battle, Stannis allows them to pass through the Wall, but only with certain conditions. They have to swear themselves to him as their king and they have to give up their religion. They have to burn symbols of their religion. So, while Stannis might give the Free Folk a chance to not die against the Others, he also forces them to give up their culture and religion. And he makes it very clear that he expects them to pay him (and the realm) back with their labour, fighting for him. As Eliana of Girls Gone Canon has pointed out (when discussing Jon III in ADWD), what Stannis does here with the forced religious conversion amounts to ethnic cleansing and is very similar to what many colonial states have subjected colonised subjects to. Stannis might in theory give the Free Folk a choice, they can choose to not submit and instead try their luck against the Others, but that’s not a real choice. If they want to live, they have to submit and agree to give up their culture and religion. According to the UN, ethnic cleansing is defined as “rendering an area ethnically homogeneous by using force or intimidation to remove persons of given groups from the area.” (United Nations: Office on Genocide Prevention and the Responsibility to Protect n.d.) Stannis isn’t removing people from an area per se, but he’s trying to render an area culturally and religiously homogeneous by using force and intimidation.Much like different colonial powers have tried to do. Yet, as Eliana and Chloe point out in a later episode, the Free Folk persist and continue to keep their own gods. Similarly, many colonised people in our world have managed to resist the extermination of their own culture and religion to a certain degree. But much has still been lost. In the context of northern colonialism in our world, Stannis’ attempt at this reminds me of how the Swedish crown burned Sámi religious symbols and sites ( c). All the while they forced Sámi to work in the mines that the crown set up to exploit their land. While the Sámi have been resilient and tried to hold on to their culture throughout all of this, there have still been significant losses. In the context of ASOIAF, we can see that another approach is absolutely possible since Jon later allows Free Folk through the Wall without forcing them to convert. That is not to say that Jon’s approach is unproblematic, but he doesn’t engage in the same type of ethnic cleansing. While Jon hasn’t fully shed the ideas he’s grown up with, his time with the Free Folk has helped him see them and their culture as something more than uncivilised wildness. Much of the Night’s Watch, and arguably Stannis, still see the Free Folk as something that needs to be controlled. Some might acknowledge that their labour can be utilised, but still think they must be ruled by their betters.


Throughout the ASOIAF books, it’s clear that in the mind of the Seven Kingdoms, the Free Folk are understood as uncivilised wildlings – a dark mirror to their own civilisation. The Free Folk are a threat to defend against. This becomes evident in many ways, especially in how the Seven Kingdoms view Free Folk sexuality and gender. In comparison to the people of the Seven Kingdoms, the Free Folk have greater gender equality and sexual freedom, and maybe also greater acceptance of gender fluidity. This makes the people of the Seven Kingdom see them as uncivilised and wild, very similar to prejudice against for instance Indigenous people of our world. However, this is not the only reason the Free Folk are seen as wild. Another is their view on land and their belief that land cannot be owned by people. Both their views regarding gender and land pose existential threats to the status quo of the Seven Kingdoms, which is another reason why it becomes essential to dismiss the Free Folk as wild and uncivilised.

But all of this can also be used to legitimise the colonial control of the Free Folk. In this way, the Free Folk have much in common with many colonised people in our world, including those in Arctic and sub-Arctic climates. That they are being seen as uncivilised is seen as a reason why it’s acceptable to rule over them and take control over their lands, it’s not like those lands can hold any value, right? In ASOIAF, we have not yet seen the same exploitation of land as can be seen in for instance Sápmi, but we are beginning to see the exploitation of Free Folk labour. What’s more, I would argue that it’s a mistake to dismiss the importance that the land above the Wall might hold to Free Folk culture. In doing that, we risk making the same mistakes as someone like Tywin Lannister when he dismisses the Free Folk army thusly:

Pycelle cleared his throat, which involved a deal of coughing and hawking. ”The letter is from the same Bowen Marsh who sent the last. The castellan. He writes that Lord Mormont has sent word of wildlings moving south in vast numbers.”

”The lands beyond the Wall cannot support vast numbers,” said Lord Tywin firmly. ”This warning is not new.”

A Storm of Swords, Tyrion IV

And truly, who wants to make the same mistake as Tywin Lannister? Clearly, the land beyond the Wall can support vast numbers, and clearly, the people there have managed to not only survive there but uphold many different vibrant cultures. Cultures that survive even the bitterest circumstances and attempts at cultural and religious extermination from southern kings.

I hope this essay has been able to give some insight into the power dynamics between the Free Folk and the people of the Seven Kingdoms and also taught you something about colonialism in our world. When discussing these topics in a fictional context, it is always important to remember that these aren’t just theoretical issues, they are issues that have very real consequences in real life. I hope that I have managed that.

Special thanks to Noah and DREADLady for the art used in this essay!

Before listing all the references below, I want to note that the book by Elin Anna Labba about the forced displacement of Sámi that I have quoted will be available in English by December 2023. Keep an eye on Labba’s Instagram account for more information!


Ahtone, Tristan. 2023. “Indigenous youth occupy Norwegian energy office to protest illegal wind farm.” Grist, February 27, 2023.

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

Finbog, Liisa-Rávná. 2021. ”Why it matters – Terra Nullius: The Idea of Western ‘Law’ in Strategies of Colonialism.” Instagram photo, September 19, 2021.

Finbog, Liisa-Rávná. 2022a. ”Why it matters – Colonialism, Gender and Sexuality: What You Should Know About It.” Instagram photo, March 28, 2022.

Finbog, Liisa-Rávná. 2022b. ”Samer som de andre.” Liisa-Rávná Finbog, October 5, 2022.

Finbog, Liisa-Rávná. 2023. ”A Quick Guide – Landback: A few things you should know about it.” Instagram photo, March 1, 2023.

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

Hagerman, Maja. 2016. ”Svenska kyrkan och rasbiologin.” In De historiska relationerna mellan Svenska Kyrkan och samerna: en vetenskaplig antologi eds. Lindmark, Daniel & Olle Sundström. Skellefteå: Artos och Norma bokförlag [accessible online here: ]

Hübinette, Tobias & Lundström, Catrin. 2014. ”Three phases of hegemonic whiteness: understanding racial temporalities in Sweden”. Social Identities: Journal for the Study of Race, Nation and Culture, 20(6): 423-37

Hübinette, Tobias & Catrin Lundström. 2020. Vit Melankoli: En analys av en nation i kris. Göteborg: Makadam förlag.

Johannisson, Karin. 1991. ”Folkhälsa: Det svenska projektet från 1900 till 2:a världskriget.” In Lychnos: Årsbok för idéhistoria och vetenskapshistoria, eds. Karin Johannisson,139-189.Uppsala: Lärdomshistoriska samfundet.

Johansson, Madeleine. 2022. ”Växande protester mot gruvplaner i Gállok.” Tidningen Syre, February 2022.

Jatko, Roland. 2011. ”Inte svensk”., December 2, 2011.

Jatko, Roland. 2019. ”Explicit mindrevärdighetskänsla”., November 23, 2019.

Jatko, Roland. 2021. ”Vems sanning?” Mars 16, 2021.

Karvonen, Levi. 2022. ” Något jag har tänkt mycket kring på senaste tiden har varit skammen kring att vara från Tornedalen.” Instagram post. July 15, 2022.

Kväner, Lantalaiset, Tornedalingar: Sannings- och Försoningskommissionen nd.a. ”Historical dates.” Kväner, Lantalaiset, Tornedalingar: Sannings- och Försoningskommissionen. Retrieved May 21, 2023.

Kväner, Lantalaiset, Tornedalingar: Sannings- och Försoningskommissionen nd.b. ”Truth and Reconciliation Comission for Tornedalians, Kvens and Lantalaiset.” Kväner, Lantalaiset, Tornedalingar: Sannings- och Försoningskommissionen. Retrieved May 21, 2023.

Labba, Elin Anna. 2020. Herrarna satte oss hit: Om tvångsförflyttningarna i Sverige. Stockholm: Norstedts.

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

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

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

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

Minde, Henry. 2005. ”Fornorskinga av samene – hvorfor, hvordan og hvilke følger?” Gáldu čála – tidsskrift for urfolks rettigheter, 3/2005.

Moreno, Federico. 2020. ”Våld och splittring efter samedomen: ”Laglöst””. Expressen, March 2, 2020.

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

Nordiska Museet. 2007. Karta Över Sápmi. Retrieved 2023-05-21.

Pohjanen, Bengt. 2022. Meänkieli – Grammatik, lärobok, historik, texter. Överkalix: Barents Publisher.

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

Saami Council & German Arctic Office. 2021. Arctic Indigenous People. Available online here: n.d.a “Den äldsta boplatsen.” Samer. Retrieved March 4, 2023. n.d. b. “Kolonaliseringen av Sápmi.” Samer. Retrieved March 4, 2023. n.d. c.I Guds tjänst.”  Samer. Retrieved March 4, 2023. n.d. d “Samepolitik i rasismens tidevarv.” Samer. Retrieved March 4, 2023.

SCB, 1977. Folk- och bostadsräkningen 1975: Del 3:3 Folkmängd i hela riket och länen mm samt utländska medborgare och utrikes födda i hela riket. Stockholm: SCB/LiberFörlag. (aviable online here

Towle, Evan B. & Lynn M. Morgan. 2006. ”Romancing the Transgender Native: Rethinking the Use of the ‘Third Gender’ Concept.” In The Transgender Studies Reader, eds. Susan Stryker & Stephen Whittle, 666-684. New York: Routledge. 

United Nations Population Fund. 2023. UNFPA State of Population 2023: 8 Billion Lives, Infinite Possibilities- The Case for Rights and Choices.

United Nations: Office on Genocide Prevention and the Responsibility to Protect. n.d. “Ethnic Cleansing.” Retrieved 2023-05-21.

UR. 2018. ”Johannes tornedalska historia.”

Wikipedia. N.d.a ”Tornedalingar.” Wikipedia. Retrieved 2023-03-04.

Wikipedia. N.d.b. “Meänmaa.” Wikipedia. Retrieved 2023-05-21.

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.

The Queer Song of Achilles

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

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

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

”Achilles lamenting the death of Patroclus” by Gavin Hamilton

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

Sexuality in Ancient Greece

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

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

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

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

(Mottier 2008, 9)

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

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

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

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

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

(Warwick 2019, 128)

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

Queer sexuality in The Song of Achilles

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Miller 2017, 165)

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

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

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

‘Perhaps he is right,’ I said

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

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

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

‘Your honour could be darkened by it.’

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

‘But Odysseus—’

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

(Miller 2017, 166)

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

By Venessa Kelley

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

‘Does she wish to have a child?’

‘Maybe,’ I said.

‘With me?’ he said.

‘No,’ I said.

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

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

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

‘No,’ I said.

His eyes dug into mine, sifting them for answers.

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

‘No,’ I said. ‘I don’t think so. No.’

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

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

‘It is all right now,’ I said.

The relief on his face filled me with sweetness.

(Miller 2017, 256)

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

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

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

(Miller 2017, 154)

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

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

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

‘On the hill,’ Odysseus says.

Menelaus nods. ‘A fitting place for them.’


There is a slight pause.

‘Your father and his companion. Patroclus.’

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

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

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

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

(Miller 2017, 341)

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

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

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

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

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

(Miller 2017, 348)

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

By Venessa Kelly

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

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

(Girls Gone Canon 2022, 1 h 31 min)

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

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

(Butler 2002, 25-26)

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

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


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

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

Art by Venessa Kelley

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Guest podcast appearances- Davos’ Fingers & TroyeTalk

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

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

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

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

A Brief Trans History

CW: transphobia, racism, sexism, sexual violence

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

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

Concepts and conceptualisations

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

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

(Stryker 2008, 1)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trans history

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

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

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

Transgender Archaeology

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

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

(Colwill 2021, 179)

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

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

(Colwill 2021, 181)

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

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

The Trans Middle Ages

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

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

Saint Marinos (Bychowski 2018)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(quoted in Feinberg 1996, 34)

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

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

The 19th century and beyond

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

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

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

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

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

(Stryker 2008, 36)

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

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

Picture of Dora Richter.

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

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

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

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

(Stryker 2008, 45)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Stryker 2008, 64-65)

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

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

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

(Raymond 1979, 134)

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


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

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


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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.

The queer stories of Fire and Blood

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

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

The queer canon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The queer history of our world

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The queer analysis

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

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

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

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

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

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

The queer conclusions

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.