4 Historical Queer Figures

History is an interesting thing. One can learn a lot from our ancestors, or in this case, our “transcestors”. Queer people have always existed, even if some people want to deny their existence.

However, it must be said that dubbing a historical figure as queer or trans, can be tricky. Labels and views on gender and sexuality have shifted significantly and continue to do so. A 17th Century person may not have had the same language or views surrounding contemporary queer identities, but this does not detract from the fact these people might have had experiences similar to ones of the 21rst century. Although there have been many historical reports of women who disguised themselves as men, in order to gain social status and privileges otherwise limited to men (for example infamous female pirates Mary Read and Anne Bonny temporarily lived their childhood as boys), there are also stories about men who were originally registered as women, but took on a male identity until their death. Their insistence and affirmation of their male gender identity, cements the fact that they were not “disguising” themselves merely for social benefits. In modern times, one would say these people were living stealth..

1 Saint Marinos the Monk (assumingly 5th Century)

This old story tells the tale of the Christian figure Marinos the Monk. This monk was assigned female at birth, but chose to live his life as a monk in a monastery. It is thanks to his wear, a habit, he was able to cover any body parts that might’ve revealed his assigned gender. His lifestyle as a monk, who is required to steer clear from any sexual life, greatly helped Marinos. At one point, the monk got expelled from the monastery because he supposedly had impregnated a local girl. After childbirth, Marinos was given the baby in order to raise it as his own. Of course, Marinos could have revealed his genitals to reject the accusation and prove his innocence. Yet he did not and became a father to the baby. This fact, showcases that his male identity and role as monk was more important and perhaps more true than being a woman or nun.

It was only after his death that people found out Marinos was assigned female at birth.

2 Doctor James Barry (ca. 1789 - 1865)

Doctor James Barry is a remarkable historical figure of the 18-19th Century. He was the first British doctor to perform a cesarean section where both mother and child lived after the surgery. Although he was known for his short temper, Barry was also known for his sense of social justice and prioritizing his patients, regardless of class status over his own comfort and wealth. He tended to lower class citizens and slaves, even fighting for and protecting the latter group where many other British doctors did not care for the life of slaves.

Barry possessed great medical knowledge and skill, impressing many people of high status, but his rebellious side caused him to have quite some enemies as well. Nearing his death after becoming sick, Barry specifically required his body to remain clothed for burial. However, these wishes were not followed for Sophia Bishop, a charwoman, did not get that message and unclothed him to prepare his body for the burial. Similar to the tale of Monk Marinos, Doctor James Barry lived his whole life as a man. In Barry’s case, there are reports that he did so from as early as eleven years old. 

3 Amelio Robles Ávila (1889-1984)

Born in Xochipala, Guerrero, Robles Ávila became a figure in the Mexican Revolution, establishing himself as a colonel. In 1913 Robles began dressing as a man and demanded to be treated as such. He fought with the Zapatistas in the Mexican Revolution and eventually rose up in the ranks. It’s said Robles threatened anybody who dared to call him “ Doña”, with a gun. His family and even society and the government respected his male identity. Later on in life, he married a woman and adopted a daughter together. Unlike Marinos and Barry, Robles asked on his deathbed to be dressed as a woman in order to commend his soul to God.

4 Lou Sullivan (1951-1991)

Lou Sullivan was an American author and transgender activist. He is an important key figure in the history of transgender men. In 1975 he identified himself as a female-to-male transsexual and was accepted by his family. He eventually managed to not only go on testosterone treatment, but also get top surgery in 1979 and later underwent genital reconstruction surgery. Sullivan was a pioneer in the FTM scene, writing one of the first guide books for fellow trans men and advocating for trans men who were attracted to men. He also founded FTM International, one of the first organizations for trans men.