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1 - Gender Diversity in Classical Greek Thought

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  24 September 2020

Allison Surtees
Affiliation:
University of Winnipeg, Canada
Jennifer Dyer
Affiliation:
Memorial University of Newfoundland
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Summary

In hir groundbreaking work Transgender Warriors, Leslie Feinberg advises that the terms ‘transvestite’ and ‘cross-dresser’ can be offensive to transgender folks because they reduce a person's entire being to clothing choice (1996: xi). In the 1990s, Feinberg's work served as activism not only by rethinking the vocabulary of gender diversity, but also by writing a history of transgender individuals. In this essay, I would like to expand upon Feinberg's analysis by underscoring that gender diversity among the ancient Greeks of the Classical Period (490–323 BC) was understood to be about more than outward appearance. While clothing choice was one factor by which the Greeks measured gender queerness, and physiognomy another, classical-era Greek authors also factored an individual‘s intelligence and courageousness (or lack thereof ) into their gender makeup. Any one of these characteristics, or some combination thereof, may have been used to denote gender diversity. The Greeks’ intentions were not always as noble or inclusive as those of Feinberg, however, as such markers were generally used to gauge transgression from perceived norms. Among the Greeks, such perceptions of gender variance were tied to misogynist, normative constructions of gender, within which men were, more often than not, expected to be courageous and intelligent, but women were often not. Within such a paradigm, women who were courageous, intelligent and also loyal could be called masculine, whereas men who lacked the characteristics of courage and strength, among other qualities, could be perceived as feminine. While Greek authors often describe the crossing of gender boundaries in a negative or pejorative fashion, occasionally we do find positive assessments, more so with respect to women who were perceived to be ‘masculine’ than with respect to men who were perceived to be ‘feminine’ (Penrose 2016: 34–61; Carlà-Uhink 2017: 9). From Greek texts we also gain insight into the attitudes of others, such as the Scythians, who, although they did not record their own histories, refreshingly seem to have revered gender-diverse individuals as shaman-type religious figures.

I will begin this essay with an analysis of prescribed gender norms in classical-era Greece. Next, I will discuss how female masculinity and male femininity were constructed in relation to those norms.

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Publisher: Edinburgh University Press
Print publication year: 2020

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