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For Whose Gaze? Cultural Differences in Cross-Dressing

Monday, May 7, 2018 - 07:00

There is an unexamined thread in the inclusion of cross-dressing as one of the continuing motifs in the material I cover for the Project. As I've discussed on several occasions, I've included studies on cross-dressing in history and literature both because it provided a context in western literature for the experience or recognition of same-sex attraction, and because it is a popular theme in modern lesbian historical fiction (so it's useful to understand the phenomenon in the historical context). But at its heart, the homoerotic aspects of cross-dressing focus on a specific subset of erotic attraction and experience. Within the context of female homoeroticism, cross-dressing highlights a "difference" model of attraction. The "opposites attract" idea, if you will. It suggests that when a femme woman is attracted to another woman, it will be through the medium of masculine performance and appearance.

While this is one clear recurring theme across the ages--especially in contexts when a "similarity" model of attraction is less available--it is far from universal and is always understood within its specific cultural context. This means that we need to be hesitant about concluding that the female performance of masculinity will automatically result in female homoerotic possibilities. The current article is a good reminder of the complexities of social performance.

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Rowson, Everett K. 2003. “Gender Irregularity as Entertainment: Institutionalized Transvestism at the Caliphal Court in Medieval Baghdad” in Farmer, Sharon & Carol Braun Pasternack (eds). Gender and Difference in the Middle Ages. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis. ISBN 0-8166-3893-4

One of the features of medieval Islamic societies, at least among the urban elite, was a strict segregation of the sexes. This might imply a clear distinction in gender roles however the approach to sexuality in these cultures--in particular regarding male homoeroticism--resulted in some approaches to gender roles that contrast sharply to those of Christian cultures. These approaches included significant allowance for specific classes of persons to transgress the accepted forms of gender expression within certain limits. In fact, institutionalized forms of both male and female cross-dressing can be traced in certain times and places. A closer examination of these two phenomena, however, reveals significant asymmetries in their motivation and treatment that revolve around the primacy of the sexual desires of elite men.

The article surveys some more recent ethnographic studies of cross/trans-gender roles in the Islamicate world, including the khanīths of contemporary Oman (men presenting as feminine who work as homosexual prostitutes) and male dancers in 19th century Cairo with feminine presentation. Similar medieval roles are less studied and the focus of this article is something of a catalog of specific identifiable roles.

The male cross-gender role of mukhannath, which can be traced at least as far back as the time of the Prophet (7th century) in Medina, functioned primarily as musicians. After a brief period of government suppression in the early 8th century ending with the fall of the Umayyad caliphate, they re-emerged as court entertainers in Baghdad in the late 8th century.

Moving into the 9th century, there are also references to a female cross-gender role of ghulāmīyāt. Although female cross-dressers can be found in passing mentions earlier, this is the earliest known reference to an established and named role that emerged under the `Abbāsid caliphate. The motivation for the ghulāmīyāt role is given as a strategy of the mother of one caliph, known for his sexual preference for male eunuchs, who presented him with women in male dress and hair styles to entice him to produce heirs. The word ghulāmīyāt means “boy-like” but the aesthetic that developed for the ghulāmīyāt aimed for the transition from boyhood to adulthood, including painting on false moustaches among other cosmetic idiosyncrasies like writing poetic verses on their cheeks.

In general, institutionalized cross-gender roles for both men and women did not aim for “passing” but for a blending of gender signifiers. For a ghulāmīyā, this included license to behave in masculine-coded ways, in addition to the visual presentation, as indicated in praise poetry addressed to them which mentions intellectual, musical, and sporting pursuits more usually associated with men.

Ghulāmīyāt were almost always slaves attached to the court or the aristocracy, though there are rare mentions of free ghulāmīyāt. This means that the role was normally an imposed one, rather than a personal gender expression, and it should not be confused with accounts of “masculine” free women who adopted male attire and pursued martial exploits (a category not associated with same-sex interests), or with accounts of female same-sex behavior (most typically mentioned in connection with enslaved women). There are no references to the ghulāmīyāt being associated with lesbian behavior.

The author now moves on to the male role of lūṭī, a man whose sexual preference is for penetrative sex with adolescent boys, discussing how the existence of this orientation created the impetus for the ghulāmīyāt phenomenon. That is, ghulāmīyāt were associated with same-sex desire but with male same-sex desire, not female same-sex desire. There follows a discussion of the sexuality of eunuchs and how it fit into medieval Islamicate sexual categories.

This leads into a consideration of the male feminine-performing mukhannath, which seems to have represented both a professional and personal expression in some cases. Mukhannathūn seem to have worn a mixture of female and male clothing styles, with feminine jewelry, and were treated as falling outside the category of “male” with regard to gender-segregated spaces. In addition to their traditional profession of musician, where they were associated with specific musical styles and instruments, they commonly functioned as marriage go-betweens.

Although mukhannathūn were assumed to have no sexual interest in women, they were not assumed to take a passive homosexual role. And their relationship to women was sometimes looked askance. Some were married to women, and some authority figures challenged their access to women-only spaces. One caliph during the period of their suppression ordered all mukhannathūn in Medina to be castrated. The class eventually rebounded from this persecution and re-emerged under a new dynasty in their traditional roles as musicians and entertainers. The period of suppression seems to have coincided with the emergence of a public culture of male homosexuality, and the shift back to acceptance under the Umayyads was noted as being surprisingly abrupt even at the time.

The article goes into a great deal of detail about mukhannathūn, their status, and attitudes toward them, which is not relevant to the purposes of this Project. The conclusion of the article reiterates the parallels and contrasts between mukhannathūn and ghulāmīyāt in being entertainers and being defined in reference to fashions in elite male sexual interests, but with differences in the consequence to personal reputation relating to differential gender expectations and voluntary versus non-voluntary membership in the respective categories.

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