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Lesbian Historic Motif Project: #106 Welch 1996 “Cross-Dressing and Cross-Purposes: Gender Possibilities in the Acts of Thecla”

Full citation: 

Welch, J.L. “Cross-Dressing and Cross-Purposes: Gender Possibilities in the Acts of Thecla” in Ramet, Sabrina Petra (ed). 1996. Gender Reversals and Gender Cultures: Anthropological and Historical Perspectives. Routledge, London. ISBN 0-415-11483-7

Publication summary: 

A collection of papers with an anthropological angle on how gender is viewed within the context of specific cultures. I have only covered the articles that are relevant to my project.

Welch, J.L. “Cross-Dressing and Cross-Purposes: Gender Possibilities in the Acts of Thecla”

The literary motif of transvestite/transgender saints (and perhaps also the historical fact--it's hard to know the relationship between the two, given how many of the legends are known to be fictional) holds a fascination for those interested in the gender dynamics of early Christianity. In terms of the overt rationale for what these women are said to have done, it is nearly impossible to interpret their lives as representing issues of internal gender identity. (In pretty much every case I've seen, the rationale boils down to either, "women aren't allowed to be monks and I'm called to be a monk so I have to pretend to be a man to obey God" or "my culture has convinced me that women are too inferior to be True Christians, so I'm going to erase my femaleness in order to achieve salvation."

Nor do these stories support any sort of homoerotic leanings of the cross-dressing saints themselves. There is a regular motif of the saints attracting the erotic/romantic desires of other women, but the purpose of the motif is a both an attack on the chastity of "ordinary" women and an opportunity for some extra martyrdom when the saints must choose between defending their own reputations or accepting a false accusation.

And yet, as an inspiration, these stories suggest the context and social motivations for women who wanted to step out of their prescribed gender role, as well as some of the practicalities and hazards of doing so.

* * *

This is a study of one of the “transvestite saint” legends (for which generally see Anson 1974 et al.). The general context of these stories is the misogynistic and gender-segregated context of early Christianity, in which women who wanted to pursue a religious life might choose to pass as men both for logistical reasons (in order to be able to join a male-only monastic community) and for spiritual reasons (following Biblical language that suggests that women need to become “male” in order to achieve heaven.

Thecla, on hearing a sermon by the Apostle Paul, devoted herself to following him, overcoming various obstacles such as an anti-Christian fiance. Paul allows her to follow him but does not encourage her, while she endures various hazards and near-martyrdoms. Finally Thecla dresses herself in mens’ clothing (there is also a previous mention of a plan to cut her hair short) and presents herself and a retinue to Paul telling him that she’s baptized herself, at which Paul instructs her to go preach. Thecla’s example was later used as support for the right of women to preach and perform baptisms.

The article examines how Thecla’s story serves as a focus for gender-related power struggles in the early church around the textual claim that “there is neither...male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” And yet in Thecla’s story, it is only after she puts on male clothing that she receives permission/instructions to preach.

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