The Ancient Art of Gender-Bending

Blurring the boundaries of gender is nothing new. Meet history's greatest gender-bender heroes.

  • Hatshepsut
    Statue of Hatshepsut at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art.
    Photo by Postdlf. Licensed under Creative Commons

  • Hatshepsut

I know there are conservative cultural curmudgeons out there who believe that gender-bending is something new—some kind of plot by leather boys on an NEA grant. The truth, as conservative cultural curmudgeons are somehow always the last to know, is more interesting. Brave people, as a matter of desire, necessity, or high spirits, have been blurring the boundary of gender (which is not sex—remember?—but the cultural expression of sex roles in a society) at least since the days of Hatshepsut's beard.

Hatshepsut was a royal princess of Egypt who, at first, did all the things royal princesses were supposed to do 35 centuries ago: She married her half-brother, Thutmose II, and when this none-too-vibrant pharaoh died in 1512 B.C. after just eight years on the throne, she served as regent for the heir apparent, little Thutmose III. But the heir was a harem child—son of some pretty nonentity from the back benches of her late husband's lady collection—and she, Hatshepsut, came from a long line of queens. Easy decision: Thutmose III was bundled off to learn how to be a priest of Amon, and Hatshepsut ascended the throne. I mean really ascended it, adopting full pharaonic powers, honors, and regalia—including the ceremonial false beard that the guy pharaohs wore, thus becoming the first drag king. You go, girl!

Wait, I think I hear a curmudgeonly complaint: This is just a savvy woman coming to power by seizing and holding male symbols.

But exactly! The gender-bender heroines and heroes of history were after power, or at least autonomy. For women, masculinization has meant taking part in what patriarchy still considers the "real" world of power and achievement—plus you get to wear comfortable clothes. And for many men, femming has been a welcome escape from the bone-crushing demands of stereotypical guyhood.

Beyond this, though, both sexes, and all sexual persuasions, have discovered a subtler empowerment that comes when you realize that no set of social scripts can contain your humanity. When a gender-bender becomes famous, an entire society may be challenged to decide what it means by maleness, femaleness, toughness, tenderness—even "realness." Nobody in their right mind would minimize the pain and difficulty of living on the gender edge, but what's remarkable about the great gender-benders is how untragic they usually are.

To prove that, we need look no further than Amantine Aurore Lucile Dupin Dudevant, whom the world knows as George Sand. An outspoken foe of sexism and an eloquent enthusiast who put the power of her pen behind most European social reforms, Sand "never let a day pass without covering more pages than most writers do in a month," as one biographer put it.

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