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The Other Side of Gender Passing

Monday, October 9, 2017 - 07:00

I included this article despite being only tenuously related to the Project's focus because it forms an interesting contrast and counterpoint to cases of women cross-dressing and passing as men. Of particular interest are the differences in economic opportunities and in what aspects of the case were of concern to the courts. More generally, it provides insight into the differences between modern and medieval approaches to gender and sexuality. Much like the historic examples of women passing as men, it raises the question of how culturally constructed the concept of transgender identity is, as opposed to other framings of the motivations for acting in the world with a different gender performance than the one your culture expects from someone with your body. The historic imbalances in the economic and legal opportunities for men versus women mean that the economic and legal motivations for taking up a different gender role are not identical for male and female roles. It is particularly unexpected, in the case of John/Eleanor Rykener, that the surface explanation for Eleanor's existence was economic: the dubious financial attractions of sex work and working as an embroiderer. And yet the testimony that Rykener engaged in sexual relations with women, as a man, and not for economic gain argue against interpreting their behavior as a simple case of being a proto-transgender woman. People's lives are, of course, complex and contradictory, and this one point isn't definitive proof of anything, but such points are all we have when searching for understanding. 

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Karras, Ruth Mazo & David Lorenzo Boyd. 1996. “’Ut cum Muliere’ - A Male Transvestite Prostitute in Fourteenth-Century London” in Premodern Sexualities ed. by Louise Fradenburg & Carla Freccero. Routledge, New York. ISBN 0-415-91258-X

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This is a collection of papers looking at issues in the historiography of sexuality, that is: how to study sexuality in historic contexts with consideration of the theoretical frameworks being used. In general, the approach is to dismantle the concepts of universals and essences, by which “history” has been used to define and persecute “others.” The papers are very theory-focused around how the study of the “other” points out the narrow and distorted picture of history in the mainstream tradition. One feature that these papers challenge is a clear dichotomy between a pre-modern understanding of sexuality as “acts” versus a modern understanding as “identity”. The papers cover not only queer sexuality by a broader variety of sexualized themes in history.  As usual with general collections like this, I’ve selected the papers that speak to lesbian-like themes, but in this case I’ve included on with a male focus that provides an interesting counterpoint on issues of gender identity.

Karras & Boyd 1996 “’Ut cum Muliere’ - A Male Transvestite Prostitute in Fourteenth-Century London”

This case is drawn from a legal document that is almost unique in medieval England in providing a description of male same-sex activity in a context of male cross-dressing. The legal focus emphasizes the importance of gender, and not sexual behavior or sexual “identity” in the context of medieval law.

John (alias Eleanor) Rykener was apprehended in 1394 for committing an act of prostitution with a man while wearing female clothing. Rykener testified to working as a prostitute as well as an embroidress (a female profession that he engaged in while passing as a woman). He named two women who had initiated him into the trade of prostitution and taught him how to dress. He testified that he was paid to have sex with men and that he also had sex with women (when in male clothing) but not for money. [Note: I am following the original article in using male pronouns for Rykener.]

It isn’t clear that there was ever a formal legal proceeding against him. Sexual crimes were in the purview of the church and what would have been the relevant church records for that place and time have not survived. The original investigation seems to have been under the umbrella of public disorder. Prostitution was a civil crime, but gender transgression seems to have been the main concern.

The article considers how Rykener would have been viewed or would have identified in both medieval and modern terms. Did the medieval authorities consider Rykener a sodomite? Or did they evaluate his case as that of a woman? There are differing frameworks of identity versus activity involved. Medieval law treated sodomy as a criminal act rather than recognizing a homosexual orientation. But prostitution was considered a status crime. That is, the law didn’t view a woman as engaging in prostitution but rather as "being" a prostitute.

Could Rykener have been viewed as having this identity, that of being a prostitute? Prostitute was an inherently female-gendered status. To be considered a prostitute Rykener would have needed to be considered a type of woman.

Conversely, although Rykener admitted to engaging in sexual acts with men, the words “sodomite” or “sodomy” do not appear in the record, although related language such as “detestable sin” and the like do. As noted above, sodomy was evaluated as a specific act, not as a status. And discussions of the moral concerns around sodomy indicate that those concerns were not necessarily for the act itself, but for how it affected the gender status of the participant. Men were supposed to be “active” and women “passive”. For a man to be a passive participant in sex with another man was to disrupt the stability of gender categories.

When men had sex with Rykener, the act is described as “as with a woman”, whereas when Rykener had sex with women, it was “as a man.” Rykener’s gender identity was defined by the role he played in specific acts. But that gender wasn’t solely defined in relation to the gender of his sexual partner, but also by the act of dressing as a woman (or a man) and behaving as one. That is, Rykener was not condemned as a sodomite because he was not having sex with men as a man, but as a woman.

The article includes a full transcription of the legal record (in translation from the Latin original).

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