Non-Binary Christians in History: Eunuchs and a Bearded Woman

Eunuchs

The concept of non-binary genders is relatively new, with the term only being coined a few decades ago. Nonetheless, there is ample evidence to suggest humanity has never neatly fitted into two categories of male and female. While some modern Christians oppose non-binary concepts and transgenderism, there is an extensive history of Christians embracing diversity. For instance, Matthew’s biblical reference to eunuchs implies men without penises were socially accepted, moreover, could be glorified:

For there are some eunuchs, which were so born from their mother’s womb: and there are some eunuchs, which were made eunuchs of men: and there be eunuchs, which have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven’s sake. He that is able to receive it, let him receive it.

Matthew 19:12 (KJV)
If you have troubles locating Matthew's comments on eunuchs, its probably because some contemporary Bibles have altered the wording:

Some people are unable to marry because of birth defects or because of what someone has done to their bodies. Others stay single in order to serve God better. Anyone who can accept this teaching should do so.

Matthew 19:12 (CEV)

The above verse was used by some Early Christians to justify self-castration (e.g., Origen), which could be viewed as a crude form of primitive gender re-assignment. While today’s transgender procedures can be conducted without an individual having a religious rationale, it’s good to keep in mind that pretty much everything in bygone eras was done due to spiritual beliefs. Conversely, in the absence of contemporary attitudes in which individuals can have personal reasons for identifying as non-binary and desiring gender reassignment procedures, antiquity’s social acceptance of eunuchs within religion would have been a valid pathway for non-binary individuals.

Bearded Woman

In contrast to castrated men, women could be glorified or demonised for growing a beard, as was the case in the fourteenth century legend of Wilgefortis.

Wilgefortis’ father tried to marry her off to a non-Christian, however, she prayed to God to prevent this from occurring and, subsequently, grew a beard and was considered too repulsive to wed. Wilgefortis was accused of witchcraft and sentenced to death by cruxifixction. While demonised by some, others likened her to Christ and prayed to her as a saint.

German image of St Wilgefortis, Source: Public Domain

Christian cults dedicated to venerating Wilgefortis spread throughout Europe. She was particularly popular with women in difficult or abusive marriages. There are several variations of Wilgefortis’ story, however, all focus around the inference of the Latin version of her name, virgo fortis, which means courageous virgin.

The disbanding of Wilgefortis cults coincided with church reformations in the sixteenth century.

From a modern perspective, Wilgefortis was likely to have been non-binary, like the artist mentioned in Dear Australians #2.3: Let’s Talk About Sex. Hirsutism; the term applied to women who grow beards, can be caused by genetics, hormones, or other causes. In the absence of such understandings being known or understood, Wilgefortis was considered a freak of nature and/or a woman blessed by God.

I can just imagine Wilgefortis trying to tell her honest truth – that she was not interested in the man her father wanted her to wed and wanted to remain a virgin. However, given that women had few rights and daughters were considered to be a father’s possession, she had little recourse. Therefore, Wilgefortis did the only thing she could to try to alter the situation by praying to God. Her subsequent “miraculous” growing of a beard is likely to have been because she was a hirsute. From a contemporary perspective, Wilgefortis, being a young girl when her father tried to marry her off, had not yet reached an age for the beard to manifest. Additionally she was probably too young to be interested in sex and/or was asexual.

Our ancestors were superstitious, really superstitious. In the absence of knowledge about chromosomes, hormones, and other biological factors, spiritual theories provided explanations for phenomena that was not otherwise understood. The fact that Wilgefortis was considered a witch by some and a saint by others indicates it all really came down to a matter of belief. Coinciding with lack of scientific knowledge was the enduring perception that there is perfect a “nature” of males and females and failing to meet one of these binaries is sin.

In 1906 a Jesuit priest proposed Wilgefortis never lived and that her legend emerged from a creative interpretation of an artwork of an androgynous looking Jesus. In 1969, when the Catholic Church updated their list of saints, Wilgefortis was stripped of her saintly status.

The “official” rejection of Wilgefortis leads to more questions than it does resolutions. If Christians of the past could be so easily confused and make up stories about a bearded woman, what else has been fabricated? What other miracles and/or answered prayers are nothing but superstitious legends? What other saintly legends are fake? Or, as others have suggested, did the Pope just want to remove evidence of the Church supporting non-binary individuals?

References

King, J. (13 C.E., August). Saint Wilgefortis: a bearded woman with a queer history | Art UK. Artuk.org. https://artuk.org/discover/stories/saint-wilgefortis-a-bearded-woman-with-a-queer-history#

Ott, M. (1912). Wilgefortis. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Retrieved March 4, 2022 from New Advent: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/15622a.htm

Sheldon, N. (2018, July 26). Saint Wilgefortis: The “Brave Virgin” with a Beard from God. HistoryCollection.com. https://historycollection.com/saint-wilgefortis-the-brave-virgin-with-a-beard/