Leah DeVun in Conversation with Olivia Treynor on The Shape of Sex

Does gender exist in the Garden of Eden? To a modern reader familiar with Christian belief, Adam and Eve may represent the very origin of binary bodies. Leah DeVun’s The Shape of Sex: Nonbinary Gender from Genesis to the Renaissance challenges this familiar narrative, tracing the ways in which perceptions of gender and sex have evolved over time. In today’s Q&A, our Marketing and Publicity intern Olivia Treynor speaks to DeVun about gender in the apocalypse, a fourteenth-century ruling regarding an intersex individual, and what revisiting medieval concepts of gender offers contemporary discourse. In the process, DeVun startles us all out of assumptions we might unconsciously hold, illuminating a complicated history of gender and sex classification towards, perhaps, a more expansive future.

Olivia Treynor: Something I found fascinating was the medieval concept of an “alchemical Jesus hermaphrodite . . .[that] was crucial because the apocalyptic end of time was near.” Could you explain how this perception came to be and what gender—or the blurring of gender—has to do with end times?

Leah DeVun: When I was studying alchemical manuscripts for my first book on the alchemist John of Rupescissa, I was struck by curious illustrations of the so-called “alchemical hermaphrodite” (the word “hermaphrodite” is a derogatory one now, but in the premodern period people used it not just to describe intersex people but also to think about categories that confounded divisions of male and female). Certain alchemical manuscripts represented alchemy’s key transformative substance, which supposedly transmuted base metals into gold and sick people into healthy ones, as a nonbinary figure. For them, a figure that united maleness and femaleness could transcend the sexes, self-propagate, and even transform other materials. Beyond this, some authors equated the alchemical hermaphrodite with Jesus, who was also visualized in the manuscripts as a physical fusion of male and female qualities.

This startling way of imagining Jesus turned out to have profound implications for thinking about sex and gender and the nature of physical change. Some writers and readers of these texts also believed that the end of time was near, and they imagined alchemical remedies, which they described as hermaphroditic or nonbinary, as part of a toolkit for fending off the disasters of the last days. In one text, the Antichrist appears as a “hermaphroditic,” dual-sexed figure too! So major characters of the Christian apocalyptic imagination (both Christ and Antichrist) came to be envisioned as beyond binary reckoning. It’s interesting to point out that when medieval people theorized the beginning of time or the end of time, questions about gender transgression and nonbinary gender tend to come up. Imagined utopias like the Garden of Eden or the afterlife became occasions to play around with ideas about sex and gender and to imagine what life might be like without sexual divisions.

OT: You write that part of your aim in writing The Shape of Sex was to “show how traditional ideas about binary sex came into being, rather than accepting them as natural, timeless, and ahistorical.” Can you talk more about what inspired you to write this book, and why you were drawn to historical Christian thought as the location of this inquiry?

LDV: Around the time I was trying to understand the nonbinary alchemical images I just mentioned, my partner, who is transgender, decided to have gender-affirming “top” surgery. Questions about gender, bodies, and classification really came to the fore of my thinking. I’ve also long been involved in activism for racial justice and for queer and trans liberation, and recent challenges and possibilities in our national politics have made me think even more about how history can support these efforts in the present.

A large part of my impetus for the book came from my hope to intervene in transphobic and homophobic arguments where they are often thought to originate—in Christian tradition. Some Christians currently point to the story of Adam and Eve as proof that God intended humans to come in just male and female sexes, but it turns out that people haven’t always read Genesis that way. Some Jewish and early Christian thinkers interpreted Genesis as evidence that God first created humans with an “androgynous” or undifferentiated sex, and then only later split humans into binary-sexed men and women. 

To these authors, the original and prelapsarian state of humanity—as it was intended by God—was nonbinary, while the “fallen” state of humans was binary. This obviously didn’t become the orthodox understanding of creation in Christianity, and some of the heavyweights of Christian theology (including Augustine of Hippo and Thomas Aquinas) refuted the nonbinary interpretation of Genesis over and over again. But individual Christians continued to repeat the “androgynous” creation story for roughly a millennium, and some who supported this view were charged with heresy. The fact that these ideas were refuted so many times and treated with such seriousness gives us evidence that these ideas mattered, and that they were considered potentially threatening.

I would also add that there are other images and texts, too, that show Jesus as very androgynous or as a fusion of male and female qualities. Christian authors talked about Jesus as having a womb or breasts, and Jesus appears in certain texts as a seamstress or washerwoman, or doing things associated with femininity. This history is good reminder that sex and gender categories beyond the binary aren’t new: they’ve been with us for a very long time. It also shows us that nonbinary sex and gender weren’t always viewed negatively. Nonbinarity could be associated with Adam, Jesus, angels, and paradise, and described as ideal, pure, or transformative.

Judging from the responses I’ve gotten from readers, these are the ideas in the book that people find the most shocking and inspiring. The notion that premodern people could think of Adam or Jesus as something beyond simply male is a surprise, and at least some people now are attracted to a nonbinary sense of divinity. I think this also goes to the point of what we’re missing in our history classes and textbooks. We have a sense that gender-variant people and practices and the ideas that circle around them are, at best, a part of a minor history that doesn’t have much to do to with our big and important topics. But, as we can see, we can find conversations about nonbinarity that touch on the most significant figures of Christianity. I think this speaks to how much a history of sex and gender beyond the binary has been left out of our dominant narratives.

OT: You talk about how nonbinary bodies were, according to some medieval Christian theologists, not allowed to enter Heaven. What were other ways that gender-“deviant” bodies were regulated or punished, either spiritually or corporeally?

LDV: Yes, this is the Christian belief that people with morphological differences (including people we would now call intersex) needed to be “corrected” by God when they were resurrected because their bodies were judged to be imperfect and not suited for the perfection of the afterlife and immortality.

There were also material efforts to regulate or correct nonbinary bodies. In the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, a group of European surgeons advocated for procedures on intersex individuals and other people whose anatomies challenged male–female binaries. I write about how Christian medical authorities during that period began to argue that humans could only be born as male or female, rather than as one of several nonbinary sexes on a spectrum of sexual difference, which some authorities had previously argued was possible. Those with nonbinary bodies (including intersex people) were considered mistakes of nature and were to be surgically “corrected” into simple men or women—the binary bodies that nature had supposedly intended to produce. 

Beyond this, we can find proposed punishments for those individuals who practiced gender inversions in their sexual activities: that is, for men who had sex with men in a passive (considered at the time a feminine) manner, or women who sexually penetrated other women (at that time considered masculine). We can find denunciations of these gender-transgressive sexual behaviors, as well as legal regulations calling for the offenders’ genitals or noses to be amputated. We might identify these as punishments as targeted toward deviant sexuality, but it’s important to point out that the gender inversion or gender crossing is often a serious part of the crime. Accusations of nonbinary sex and gender were also used to stigmatize and dehumanize Jewish and Muslim communities, who were accused by Christians of switching back and forth between male and female gender roles, and these accusations were part of a climate of anti-Judaism and Islamophobia that rationalized the targeting of these groups for violence and expulsion.

OT: What do you think revisiting centuries-old conceptions about gender offers contemporary readers?

LDV: I think what’s important for people to know now is that sexual binarism—the idea that only male and female exist as natural or real or legitimate sexes—isn’t an inevitable or fixed division of humankind. People have organized the sexes in different ways across time, and there’s no one way of thinking about how many sexes there are or how people belong to them, or what it means to be male or female.

We can find even in that distant past nonbinary gendered ideas and practices that anticipate ones that exist now in the present. Those points of similarity show us that nonbinary bodies and practices have existed for many centuries, and although we don’t need history to legitimate transgender, intersex, queer, or nonbinary lives now, history is often cited to support the idea that communities who have a past should have a place in the present and in the future.

And finally, I want to emphasize that this history shouldn’t only be of interest to LGBTQ+ people. Understanding how the categories of “man” and “woman” have developed over time challenges static notions of what it means to be male or female, and hence it expands our general grasp of sex/gender and all its attendant concerns. But beyond this, ideas about nonbinarity were a part of how people defined themselves as European, or Christian, or human. We can’t understand how these categories developed if we leave the history of nonbinary sex and gender out of our narratives.

OT: What did you find in your research about the relationship between medicine and maintenance of the sex binary? Is forced “corrective” surgery on intersex individuals a contemporary phenomenon or something with a historical legacy?

LDV: The medieval surgeries I discuss closely resemble the “normalizing” surgeries performed now on intersex infants in the United States, despite decades of advocacy against them by intersex activists and allies. These surgeries, premodern and modern, try to reshape a diverse group of bodies to fit into the constraints of binary forms. Given the parallels between premodern and modern rationales for these surgeries, we certainly can’t confine the medical management of intersex bodies to the modern period.

There are some real differences, however. I recently gave a talk that mentioned the case of Giovanni Malaspina, someone whom we might today call intersex, who petitioned a judge in fourteenth-century Italy to rule on his legal sex so he could inherit his father’s land and title. The judge handling his case took Giovanni’s petition very seriously, considering medical and legal theories about sex as well as the common-sense thinking of his day about what made someone socially acceptable as a male or female. Even though Giovanni’s body wasn’t typically male (he didn’t have a penis), the judge ruled Giovanni to be a man because of his personality and his ability to navigate the world as a man: Giovanni was good at using a weapon and riding a horse, and he felt himself to be male. 

This gives us some evidence that premodern societies had a sense of what we now call “gender identity”; that they distinguished this identity from the body; and that, at least in this case, they found the former more important to one’s self and place in society than the latter. When I gave this talk, a student in the audience who identifies as intersex was struck by the story and noted that the Giovanni experienced more ethical treatment than many modern intersex individuals do, and that Giovanni’s ability to find legal and social acceptance as male confounds our sense that we in the twenty-first century always have the correct and most humane approaches toward our fellow community members.

Even now, we can see how ideas about sex and gender variance play a large role in legitimizing personhood. We often grant only the full range of human privileges (including the ability to do what you want with your body, or being able to avoid having things you don’t want done to your body) to individuals who fit into binary categories, while withholding it from those whose bodies or gendered practices are considered binary-challenging and hence unnatural or unacceptable. Looking at a long history is especially crucial now because we tend to assume that nonbinary gender and gender nonconformity are new, and their newness is often precisely what’s imagined to be threatening to “traditional gender.” I hope that when readers learn that these people and practices aren’t so new after all, and that tradition—even Christian tradition—can include them, they might gain a new perspective on how we organize sex and gender in our own world today.

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