Did cross-dressers exist in antiquity?

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Chad G. Peters (Image: source inconnue)

Cross-dressing, the act of wearing clothing typically associated with the opposite gender, is a complex and multifaceted phenomenon that has manifested throughout history, including in antiquity. While the term « cross-dresser » may not have been in use during ancient times, various historical and cultural contexts suggest the presence of individuals who defied traditional gender norms through their choice of attire.

The concept of cross-dressing in antiquity is often intertwined with the broader understanding of gender roles and expressions within different societies. It is essential to recognize that the ancient world was incredibly diverse, encompassing civilizations such as those in Greece, Rome, Mesopotamia, and Egypt, each with its unique set of cultural norms and practices.

In ancient Greece, where ideas of masculinity and femininity were deeply ingrained, theatrical performances provide a notable context for cross-dressing. During the classical period, male actors exclusively portrayed both male and female roles on stage. The use of masks and elaborate costumes allowed these actors to assume different gender identities, blurring the lines between the performer and the character. However, it is crucial to distinguish between theatrical cross-dressing for artistic purposes and personal cross-dressing as an expression of individual identity.

The mythological realm of ancient Greece also offers glimpses of gender-bending figures. For example, the god Hermes, associated with communication and boundaries, was often depicted in both male and female attire. The androgynous nature of certain deities challenged conventional gender expectations, providing a cultural space where fluidity and ambiguity were embraced.

In ancient Rome, the wearing of specific garments was closely tied to one’s social status and gender. The toga, a distinctive garment worn by Roman men, symbolized citizenship and was a marker of Roman identity. However, historical accounts suggest that some women, particularly those from the lower classes, might have adopted elements of male clothing for practical reasons, such as engaging in certain types of labor. This raises questions about the intersection of class and gender in the context of cross-dressing.

Outside the Greco-Roman world, ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt present additional perspectives on gender expression. In Mesopotamia, the Code of Ur-Nammu, one of the earliest known legal codes, includes provisions related to dress codes, but the specific implications for cross-dressing remain ambiguous. Similarly, in ancient Egypt, where attire often conveyed social and religious roles, depictions of deities with combined gender characteristics further complicate our understanding of rigid gender boundaries.

Religious practices in antiquity also played a role in shaping perceptions of gender and clothing. In some mystery cults, initiates engaged in rituals that involved adopting specific attire, challenging conventional gender norms within the sacred context. The worship of certain deities, such as the Anatolian mother goddess Cybele, included priests known as Galli who castrated themselves and assumed feminine clothing as part of their religious duties.

Despite these instances, it is essential to approach the study of cross-dressing in antiquity with caution, as the available evidence is often fragmentary and subject to interpretation. Additionally, the language used to describe gender and identity in ancient texts may not align with contemporary concepts, making it challenging to apply modern labels retroactively.