The Shape of Premodern Nonbinarity: A Conversation with Leah DeVun

By M. BunaAugust 28, 2021

The Shape of Premodern Nonbinarity: A Conversation with Leah DeVun
THE CONTEMPORARY NEW YORK–BASED artist and historian Leah DeVun’s artwork, scholarship, and curation focus on the history of gender and sexuality, science and technology, the history of premodern Europe, the history of science and medicine, archives and collectives, and contemporary feminist and LGBT politics and histories. DeVun is currently an associate professor at Rutgers University, where they teach in the departments of History and Women's, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. They are also the author of two co-edited volumes and books: Trans*historicities, a special issue of the journal Transgender Studies Quarterly (Duke University Press, 2018), and Prophecy, Alchemy, and the End of Time (Columbia University Press, 2009). DeVun’s reviews and essays have been featured in publications such as Radical History Review, Wired, Journal of the History of Sexuality, Women's Studies Quarterly, and Spot among others. In their latest work, The Shape of Sex: Nonbinary Gender from Genesis to the Renaissance (Columbia University Press, 2021), DeVun reconstructs the contradictory yet complex cultural landscape of premodern Europe as navigated by individuals who allegedly combined or crossed sex or gender categories.


M. BUNA: From Antiquity to the Middle Ages, the nonbinary figure, whether called an “androgyne” or a “hermaphrodite,” was used as an analytical tool to create orders and outline what stood outside them. By refusing to accept binary modes of sex and gender as natural or even unchangeable based on their assigned positive or negative value, seductive possibilities (and politics) can come into being. Could you expand on the role played by premodern nonbinarity in conceiving such alternatives?

Leah DeVun: My book argues that sex categorization in premodern Europe was a social process that determined who belonged inside of the category of humanity and, for that reason, who was entitled to ethical protections from violence and death. Much of my book centers on how, from the 12th to the 14th century, Christian Europeans used accusations of nonbinary sex (the charge that a person or community was something other than simply male or female) to stigmatize populations, justify violence against them, and facilitate their wholesale removal from a territory. And yet, ideas about nonbinary sex over this long period weren’t monolithic, and they weren’t static. Other thinkers in premodern Europe identified nonbinary sex with angels and heaven, Adam and Eve, and Jesus — some of the most idealized figures in European history. The “Jesus hermaphrodite,” a way of depicting Jesus in the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance as a perfect balance of male and female traits, suggested that transgressing binary gender categories could lead to physical and spiritual transformation for humans. A deep history of nonbinary gender helps us see that sex categories beyond male and female have been with us for a very long time, and they weren’t always just something to be corrected or rejected. Images of nonbinary gender as perfect, aspirational, and transformational go to one of the main points of my book: that the preference for sexual binarism (the idea that only male and female are legitimate and real sexes) is a historically situated phenomenon that waxes and wanes, not a natural or inevitable division of humankind.

When documenting the ascendancy of the binary model, you draw attention to the patriarchal doctrines legitimated by it. Medieval authors saw androgyny less as a gender equality issue than as a different validation of the same hegemonic masculinity. How did sexual and gender difference become primary concerns once humanity was speculated upon and rendered instrumental in privileging some bodies over others?

My approach partly comes from my desire to intervene in transphobic arguments in the very place where many of them are perceived to originate: in early Christian tradition. Conservative Christians now sometimes hold up the biblical story of Adam and Eve as evidence that God intended humans to come in just male and female sexes, but not all past authorities read the Bible this way. Some Jewish and early Christian thinkers imagined that God first created humans with an “androgynous” or undifferentiated sex, before later splitting humans into binary-sexed men and women. To these thinkers, the original and ideal state of humanity, as it was intended by God, was nonbinary-sexed. While some religious authorities tried to stamp out this theory, others continued to repeat the nonbinary creation story, and we find this story cropping up again and again for roughly a thousand years. But this theory of androgynous creation didn’t aim to elevate women or put the sexes on equal footing. The general goal was to transcend sexual difference, often by absorbing the female into the male and producing a kind of male-inflected androgyny. So even in conversations that idealized androgyny and sexual undifferentiation, we can still find gender hierarchy, and when we find it, maleness is positioned above femaleness. I argue that these stories about creation are important because they were a past way of making sense of the origins and value of doctrines like marriage and patriarchy. When premodern Europeans theorized sex, gender, and difference, they did it by talking about Adam and Eve, or heaven and hell, or what happened to bodies after death and resurrection. But these conversations were always grounds for serious theorizations of embodiment and difference, and they became the means to privilege some bodies over others.

Always produced by particular circumstances, the monster transgresses the strictures of binaries. But once the monster got equated with the hermaphrodite in medieval European culture, a new geography informed by colonial and racist thinking drew its maps. What were the ambiguous spaces occupied by the nonbinary figure in such exclusionary cartography?

Premodern European Christians tended to imagine Asia and Africa as populated with exotic, monstrous populations whose bodies and cultural practices transgressed European social and sexual rules. We can see an example of this on the Hereford Map, a 14th-century English map of the world, which pictured Ethiopia as a barren, uncivilized place inhabited by monsters, including monsters with nonbinary-sexed anatomies and gender nonconforming practices. These projections of monstrosity and gender nonconformity onto Africa certainly anticipate later colonial and racist imaginaries in Europe. But an absolute distinction between Europe/non-Europe and binary/nonbinary was never so simple. To give just one example, after describing mythic societies of gender-switching “androgynes” living in Africa or Asia, some medieval European writers immediately reflected on intersex people who lived in their own communities, writing about how they should be integrated into binary social categories. Far from relegating nonbinary sex to a safely distant margin outside Europe, these texts emphasized that Europe could also include such variations. The texts reveal complex and open-ended ways of thinking about nonbinary sex, allowing Europeans to see parallels between themselves and their Asian and African counterparts, as well as to identify the so-called “other” of nonbinary sex within themselves. But it’s also important to note that, in these writings, intersex individuals in Europe were expected to fit within binary gender roles, and to avoid violating legal and ritual rules surrounding gender inversion and same-sex sexuality, while imaginary African and Asian “androgynes” flouted such rules. Stories about foreign gender inversion and sexual rule-breaking were no doubt escapist and semi-pornographic entertainment for European audiences, but these writings were serious too, making clear which gender and sexual practices were considered proper to civilized humans. Because Europeans expressed uncertainty about the human status of monstrous peoples abroad, those regions identified with monsters, especially Africa and Asia, became associated with inhumanity in the eyes of Europeans.

Departing from the monster narrative and softening boundaries between human and nonhuman species, medieval bestiaries used the allegedly negative qualities of nonbinary anatomies and practices as cautionary tale about threats to the former. For what reasons did “hermaphroditizing” become a sharp instrument in dehumanizing non-Christianity within the pages of these moralizing compendiums? 

In response to increased social and political contacts with Muslims and Jews (and in the wake of Christian military expansion in the eastern Mediterranean, now often called “the crusades”), medieval Christians tried to distinguish themselves much more clearly from non-Christians. They pointed to alleged physical and gendered differences between themselves and Jews and Muslims, whom they painted as both lesser and external to their own community. Especially during the 12th to 14th centuries, some very widespread Christian texts depicted Jews or Muslims as “hermaphrodites” who could transition back and forth between male and female sex. English bestiaries (animal catalogs), for instance, pictured sex-changing and demonic-looking “Jewish” hyenas with both male and female genitals. These figures were shown eating the flesh of vulnerable (presumably Christian) human bodies. Despite the massacres of Jews in nearby towns and the expulsions of Jewish communities that had recently occurred or were soon to occur in England, these texts argued that it was Christians who were under attack by nonbinary-sexed Jewish aggressors.

Legal and naturalist discourses of the 13th and 14th centuries weren’t based on a clear-cut distinction between sexing the human body and gendering it. In what ways did the medieval approach diverge from the one advanced by modern gender scholarship?

Today, we tend to talk about sex and gender as different modes of classification, one focused on “biology” and the other focused on social practice or an internal sense of self, and these may or may not line up within an individual. This sex/gender distinction is helpful for explaining transgender, i.e., one’s social gender diverges from one’s biological sex assigned at birth. But the premodern thinkers I write about didn’t have a firm distinction between sexing and gendering the body. They collapsed sex and gender (and to some extent sexuality) into a single form of difference that they called sexus (Latin for “sex”). For them, what made men and women different from each other was a combination of physiological and anatomical features that also revealed and determined men and women’s different social roles. When authorities tried to sort intersex individuals into a male or female category, they used gendered social characteristics to determine a person’s biological category (did this person like “male” pursuits like riding horses and wielding swords, or “female” ones like sewing? did this person prefer to have sex “as a man” or “as a woman”?). “Biological” sex was in these cases determined by a person’s social role, and there was no real ontological distinction between the two. Of course, queer and feminist scholars have argued much the same about our own modern world, showing us that what we think of as scientific, biological signs of sex reflect cultural gendered biases rather than any objective truth about the body. So what we see in the premodern period doesn’t diverge completely from how the sex/gender distinction operates in our own time.

In Mobile Subjects: Transnational Imaginaries of Gender Reassignment, Aren Z. Aizura writes about contemporary gender reassignment surgeries as “transnational entrepreneurialisms of the self.” When you write about medieval Western European surgeons “correcting” nonbinary bodies without paying any attention to the individual’s own personal sense of self, you argue that such examples should also be read “through the modern analytic of transgender.” Why do you think the transgender category would be useful in the examination of medieval sex/gender/sexual crossings?

One of the big surprises of my research was that premodern Europeans advocated performing surgeries on intersex individuals and other people whose anatomies challenged male-female binaries. I write about how Christian medical authorities, beginning in the 13th century, argued 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 a number of thinkers had previously argued was possible. Those with nonbinary bodies (including intersex people) were to be surgically “corrected” to reshape them into standard men or women, which nature had supposedly intended to produce. These surgeries are not really comparable to modern-day gender-affirming surgeries chosen by trans people. They more closely resemble the normalizing surgeries that are still performed on intersex infants in the United States (despite decades of advocacy against them by intersex activists and allies), which try to fit diverse bodies into the constraints of binary forms. So why think of these medieval phenomena as part of transgender history? I argue that placing these ideas and practices within not only intersex but also transgender history helps to direct our attention toward the centrality of transition to premodern thinking about nonbinary sex.

Authors consistently focused on what they imagined to be the threatening possibility of gender-crossing by nonbinary bodies. Lawyers, clerics, and medical authorities were often less concerned about the specific shapes of bodies, but rather that their possessors might transition back and forth between male and female gender roles, or take both an active (penetrator) and passive (penetrated) role in sexual intercourse. Nearly all of the polemics against nonbinary sex emphasize that it’s gender-crossing and deviant sexuality (and deviant because of its gender inversion, i.e., men acting like women, or women acting like men) that are their main concerns. Much of the rhetoric we see is focused on trying to prevent gender transition by fixing people into stable gendered and sexual roles by whatever legal or medical means were available. But Aizura’s book is really helpful for thinking about other aspects of the medieval sexual worldview, even if not its trans entrepreneurial agency. As Aizura writes, modern transgender biographies often use tropes of travel, and geographic metaphors (including Orientalist fantasies) appear regularly in contemporary narratives of gender transition. These ideas about spatiality and mobility have strong parallels in how medieval European thinkers thought about gender through geography, for instance, in their projections of nonbinary-gendered fantasies onto Africa and Asia (both of which they considered “the East”). Medieval sources were already making creative use of the intersection of gender and spatial mobility, and travel and mapping were important ways for thinking about gender transition during this much earlier period.

In studying how historical contexts shaped sex and gender binaries together with efforts to manipulate bodies accordingly, your critical chronology of sexual difference is also underscored by who qualifies to be a proper human even to this day. Why should your work be engaged with and by whom? 

Even now, we can see how gender plays a central role in legitimizing personhood, granting 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 accepted categories, while withholding it from those whose bodies or gendered practices are considered unnatural or unacceptable. Looking at a long history is especially crucial now because we (and I include members of the trans and queer community) tend to view debates about gender nonconformity as relatively new, and their newness is precisely what’s threatening to “traditional gender,” as argued by transphobes. My work challenges this assumption of newness by showing that nonbinary people and practices have existed for millennia: they weren’t rare and they weren’t always viewed negatively. Beyond this, societies in the distant past thought deeply about systems of sex and gender, and they debated them, just as we do now. We can’t locate an earlier period of “traditional” gender before nonbinary people and categories complicated things. This can help us to put our current moment in some historical perspective. Beyond this, past ideas about nonbinary sex shouldn’t only be relevant to LGBTQ people now.

Ideas about nonbinary sex and gender were a part of how premodern people defined themselves as Christian, European, male, female, or human. These are not marginal or trivial concerns, and we need to understand nonbinary history to appreciate how these foundational categories developed. By understanding history, we can see how some earlier ideas and practices anticipate our own, which can give us a better understanding of why we think and do some of the things we do now. But sometimes the past introduces us to radically different cultures, and I think that helps us to imagine radically different futures for ourselves too. In our own time, when we’re facing transphobic “bathroom bills,” unwanted medical procedures forced on intersex people, and bans on offering medical care to trans children, transformative politics are urgent and necessary. While ancient and medieval categories and concerns aren’t the same as the ones we have now, I hope my book and the relationship it suggests between past and present can help support liberatory politics. I hope it can be accessible both inside and outside of the classroom, and I hope it can expand our archive and timeline for the history of gender marginalized people, while also fueling efforts to reduce harm against them now.


M. Buna is a freelance writer.

LARB Contributor

M. Buna is a freelance writer.


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