Trans in Faith: Early Cross – Dressing Saints and Martyrs

For Trans in Faith Awareness Week,  I want to look again at the memory of the trans saints and martyrs in the Catholic and Orthodox traditions. By definition, those who die for their faith are known as “martyrs”, from the Greek for “to bear witness”.  In this extended sense, one can give witness, and thus be a “martyr” without undergoing actual death – but given the courage it must take to live publicly a trans identity, I suggest that all openly trans people, of whatever form, are constantly giving witness, and are in a sense living martyrs, so we should also recognise and honour the living, courageous trans people around us, and in the wider world.

The most famous of all cross-dressing saints is Joan of Arc, visionary, cross-dressing military hero, burned as a heretic, and now a recognized martyr and canonized saint, but her story belongs later. From the early years of the church, we should consider the Cross-dressing Monks, cross-dressing women saints, who passed as men  to be admitted to male monasteries. Their stories are eclectic not always agreed. Some are accepted by the Eastern Orthodox church, but no the Western Romans, some are frankly fanciful, with little relation to the historical record. I have no desire here to encourage any kind of cult of the saints, with invocations to saints as some kind of pseudo-magical ritual to guarantee the granting of wishes. Some of them too, have become cross-dressers not out of some deep-seated gender conflict that needed to be resolved, but simply to gain access to institutions that would otherwise have rejected them. Why then, do I suggest we pay them any attention at all? Simply because, in the very presence in church records, they show that in times past the church was willing to recognise and pay honour to a group of people who set aside standard gender expectations to live a life of their own choosing. There is also a lesson here for the rest of us: when these people recognised that as women they were seen as second class-citizens in the eyes of the church, they indulged in a little trickery to claim a place that they saw as rightfully theirs. For us today, as queer Catholics or other Christians, we too are often seen as second class, not to be properly accepted in the main body of the Church. Perhaps, as Virginia Mollenkott recommends, we also need to becomes God’s Tricksters.

Here are some of the monastic transvestites:


St Marina the Monk (There are several St Marinas who became monks. I am not sure which this one is)

St Euphrosyne / Smaragdus Sep 25th

“She was the daughter of a wealthy Christian, Paphnutius, who with his wife brought up Euphrosyne in piety. Not wishing to marry, she secretly fled her home and its wealth, dressed herself in men’s clothing and entered a monastery using the name of Smaragdus. There she lived in asceticism for thirty-eight years. She only revealed her identity on her death-bed. Her father Paphnutius became a monk in the same monastery, and entered into repose ten years after his daughter. “

(“God is wonderful in his saints”)

St Theodora / Theodorus of Alexandria Sep 11th

“While a young married woman, she committed adultery with another man. Seized by remorse, she fled her husband’s house, dressed herself as a man, renamed herself Theodore, and entered a men’s monastery, pretending to be a eunuch. “Theodore”‘s fasts, prayers, vigils and tears amazed “his” brethren. Her secret was only discovered after her death. She had spent nine full years devoting her life to repentance for one sin. During her life she showed herself to be a wonder-worker, taming wild beasts and healing sicknesses. Her husband came to her funeral, then lived until his death in the cell of his former wife.”

(“God is wonderful in his saints”)

St Eugenia / Eugenios of Alexandria Dec 24th, and Protas & Hyacinthus, her eunuch slaves.

“This Martyr was the daughter of most distinguished and noble parents named Philip and Claudia. Philip, a Prefect of Rome, moved to Alexandria with his family. In Alexandria, Eugenia opportunity to learn the Christian Faith, in particular when she encountered the Epistles of Saint Paul, the reading of which filled her with compunction and showed her clearly the vanity of the world. Secretly taking two of her servants, Protas and Hyacinth, she departed from Alexandria by night. Disguised as a man, she called herself Eugene [Eugenios-ed.] while pretending to be a eunuch, and departed with her servants and took up the monastic life in a monastery of men. Her parents mourned for her, but could not find her. After Saint Eugenia had laboured for some time in the monastic life, a certain woman named Melanthia, thinking Eugene to be a monk, conceived lust and constrained Eugenia to comply with her desire; when Eugenia refused, Melanthia slandered Eugenia to the Prefect as having done insult to her honour. Eugenia was brought before the Prefect, her own father Philip, and revealed to him both that she was innocent of the accusations, and that she was his own daughter. Through this, Philip became a Christian; he was afterwards beheaded at Alexandria. Eugenia was taken back to Rome with Protas and Hyacinth. All three of them ended their life in martyrdom in the years of Commodus, who reigned from 180 to 192.”

(“God is wonderful in his saints”)

St Matrona /Babylas of Perge Nov 9

“She was from Perga in Pamphylia, and married very young, to a youth named Domitian, to whom she bore a daughter. The couple settled in Constantinople. Matrona became so constant in attending all-night vigils in the city’s many churches that her husband suspected her of infidelity and forbade her to go out. This was unbearable to Matrona, who fled the house with her daughter. Determined to embrace monastic life, she gave her daughter into the care of a nun named Susanna, disguised herself as a eunuch, and entered the monastery of St Bassian (October 10) under the name of Babylas.”

(Later, she was found to be female, and was forced to leave the monastery – but instead was helped to form a women’s counterpart, and founded a strong community of monastic women

St. Uncumber [or Wilgefortis] July 20th

A bearded woman saint, also known as St. Liverade (France), Liberata (Italy), Liberada (Spain), Debarras (Beauvais), Ohnkummer (Germany), and Ontcommere (Flanders), she was represented as a bearded women on a cross.

This one, to be fair, has limited historical validity, but is fun to remember all the same. The legend ahs it that she was a woman, sworn to holy virginity, who grew a beard to avoid being forced into the marriage her father had arranged for her. Furious, he had her killed, so that she is remembered as the crucified bearded lady. History suggests, however, that the legend is based on some very simple errors of interpretation.

And Some Others:

  • St Hildegonde of Neuss near Cologne April 20th, A nun who lived under the name “Brother Joseph” in the Cistercian monastery of Schoenau near Heidelberg
  • St. Anastasia the Patrician (or “of Constantinople”) , May 10th
  • St Pelagia / Pelagios June 9
  • St Marina /Marinos of Antioch, July 17th
  • St Marina of Sicily July 20th
  • St Thekla of Iconium Sept 23rd
  • St Athanasia of Antioch Oct 9th
  • St. Anna/Euphemianos of Constantinople, Oct 29t

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