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Early Modern Spanish Gender Outlaw Celebrities

Monday, August 7, 2017 - 07:00

The blog comes around again to Catalina de Erauso, who kicked off the current thematic grouping. It's an odd trio: Catalina the cross-dressing soldier of fortune in the New World, Eleno de Cespedes the transgender doctor who began life as a slave, and Queen Christina of Sweden who became the darling of the Spanish aristocracy (at long distance) when she decided to convert from Lutheranism to Catholicism--a decision that made them willing to overlook her long-rumored romantic relationships with women. And I am now imagining a buddy movie...

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Full citation: 

Velasco, Sherry. 2011. Lesbians in Early Modern Spain. Vanderbilt University Press, Nashville. ISBN 978-0-8265-1750-0

Publication summary: 

A study of the evidence and social context for women who loved women in early modern Spain, covering generally the 16-17th centuries and including some material from colonial Spanish America.

Chapter 4: Transgender Lesbian Celebrities

This chapter focuses on three specific individuals whose gender and sexuality brought them celebrity status in 16-17th century Spain: Catalina de Erauso, Queen Christina of Sweden, and Elena/Eleno de Céspedes. In comparing them, we can see the influence of race and class on how gender transgression was received.

Catalina de Erauso ran away from a convent in Spain at age 15 before taking final vows, began living as a man, and had a violent and turbulent career in the Spanish colonies of the New World before deciding to tell her history publicly. She returned to Spain where she was greeted as a celebrity and successfully petitioned the crown for a pension, went to Rome where she received dispensation from the Pope to continue wearing male clothing, wrote her memoirs, and eventually returned to the New World where she lived in relative obscurity working as a mule driver for twenty years until her death. [I’ve abbreviated her background due to its more detailed coverage in Steptoe & Steptoe 1996 and Velasco 2000.]

Elena/Eleno de Céspedes was a black enslaved person in 16th century Spain who, after a failed marriage and giving birth to a child, began living as a man and eventually embarked on a successful career as a surgeon. Eleno testified that he had undergone a spontaneous physical change of sex and, after obtaining testimony supporting this claim was given persmission to marry a woman. This assessment was later challenged and a second examination did not support the claim of male physiology. Following that, Eleno was tried for sodomy and “consorting with demons” along with “contempt for the sacrament of marriage”. The eventual conviction, somewhat confusingly, was for bigamy. That is, Eleno had failed to provide documentation of the death of Elena’s husband prior to Eleno marrying a woman. Eleno was sentence to whipping and to serving a sort of community service providing medical care in a hospital for indigents, whose administrator later complained of the crowds of curious people who came to see the celebrity. [For more details, see Burshatin 1996.]

Queen Christina of Sweden may seem an odd person to become a celebrity in Spain, particularly as she never actually traveled there. Spanish connections were a major influence on Christina’s decision to covert to Catholicism (necessitating her abdication from the Swedish throne). Christina had a lifelong habit of crossdressing and her romantic interest in women, including specific members of her household, was open knowledge. But these issues that Spanish culture, in theory, disapproved of, were overlooked due to her social rank and the high-level approval of her in Spain because of the coup her conversion was considered.

These three people had three very different receptions by the Spanish authorities. Eleno was a person of color whose life as a man included marriage to a woman and (at least the accusation of) performing sex with an artificial penis. Eleno went to significant lengths to establish an official male identity in the face of physical signs of female sex. An interesting contrast to Eleno is the situation of the nun María Muñoz, who developed male physical characteristics (possibly as a result of an intersex condition) but manufactured signs of femaleness (such as apparent evidence of menstruation) in order to conceal the issue and continue to be accepted as a woman.

Eleno’s transgression (in addition to being non-white) was laying claim to male priviledge despite anatomy. In contrast, although Catalina (white and upper class) didn’t dispute the judgment of female status once her story was told, even in the context of requesting permission to continue performing as male. Catalina never tried to marry a woman. There were several situations where the possibility of marriage was raised and Catalina deceived the potential brides for her own gain, but in all cases these women were mestizas and this may have contributed to a lack of concern over their experience.

Christina’s interest in converting from Lutherinism to Catholicism motivated positive reactions to her from Spanish authorities, despite regular comments in the Spanish diplomatic correspondence on her masculine appearance and rumors of her affairs with women. These were sometimes coded in phrases like “not being the marrying type.” After Christina’s abdication, Spain was excitedly preparing for a visit from her in 1656 when everything fell apart at the last minute due her choice to support Spain’s enemy France in certain concerns. Spanish rhetoric about her made an abrupt change from praise to satire, focusing specifically on romors of heterosexual affairs, including a fictitious illicit pregnancy, but curiously avoiding mention of her relations with women.

This omission of the lesbian rumors was not universal. There was a thinly veiled depiction of Christina as the character Cristerna de Suevia in the play Afectos de Odo y amor, which portrays her using the stock character of a mujer esquiva, a woman averse to love and marriage, and to men in general. The character in the play is defending her right to rule as a woman, in conflict with the antagonist/romantic lead Casimiro. The play toys with implications of same-sex desire in giving Cristerna a lady-in-waiting named Lesbia, and setting up a bait-and-switch marriage plot in wich Cristerna agrees to marry Casimiro’s sister (that is, within the play this is overtly a same-sex marriage plan). When Cristerna has committed to the marriage, the sister substitutes in her brother Caisimiro and Cristerna inexplicably capitulates all her feminist positions and declares that women should be men’s vassals. 

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