A recent story in the New York Times reveals that what we currently define as transgender identity has existed in different cultures around the globe for centuries.
Pashe Keqi recalled the day nearly 60 years ago when she decided to become a man. She chopped off her long black curls, traded in her dress for her father's baggy trousers, armed herself with a hunting rifle and vowed to forsake marriage, children and sex.
For centuries, in the closed-off and conservative society of rural northern Albania, swapping genders was considered a practical solution for a family with a shortage of men. Her father was killed in a blood feud, and there was no male heir. By custom, Ms. Keqi, now 78, took a vow of lifetime virginity. She lived as a man, the new patriarch, with all the swagger and trappings of male authority -- including the obligation to avenge her father's death.
She says she would not do it today, now that sexual equality and modernity have come even to Albania . . . "Back then, it was better to be a man because before a woman and an animal were considered the same thing," said Ms. Keqi, who has a bellowing baritone voice, sits with her legs open wide like a man and relishes downing shots of raki. "Now, Albanian women have equal rights with men, and are even more powerful. I think today it would be fun to be a woman."
The tradition of the sworn virgin can be traced to the Kanun of Leke Dukagjini, a code of conduct passed on orally among the clans of northern Albania for more than 500 years. Under the Kanun, the role of a woman is severely circumscribed: take care of children and maintain the home. While a woman's life is worth half that of a man, a virgin's value is the same: 12 oxen.
The sworn virgin was born of social necessity in an agrarian region plagued by war and death. If the family patriarch died with no male heirs, unmarried women in the family could find themselves alone and powerless. By taking an oath of virginity, women could take on the role of men as head of the family, carry a weapon, own property and move freely.
They dressed like men and spent their lives in the company of other men, even though most kept their female given names. They were not ridiculed, but accepted in public life, even adulated. For some the choice was a way for a woman to assert her autonomy or to avoid an arranged marriage.
"Stripping off their sexuality by pledging to remain virgins was a way for these women in a male-dominated, segregated society to engage in public life," said Linda Gusia, a professor of gender studies at the University of Pristina, in Kosovo. "It was about surviving in a world where men rule."
Taking an oath to become a sworn virgin should not, sociologists say, be equated with homosexuality, long taboo in rural Albania. Nor do the women have sex-change operations.
In Leslie Feinberg's book Transgender Warriors, zie documents the various examples of transgender expression that can be found throughout history in different cultures. Although most of these examples wouldn't be considered transgender in their time (the term wasn't even coined until 1987), they certainly prove that the current movement for transgender inclusion is no passing fad.
I really don't think it matters that so-called "expert" sociologists say that the Albanian tradition of women living as men is mutually exclusive with lesbian or trans identity. I think the major point of this story is that gender expression is much more fluid than most people want to admit. To quote Feinberg:
"I hope you realize that we have always been in your life. You may have recognized an old lover, a coworker, or an aunt or uncle that family members whisper about at weddings and funerals. Or you may have seen yourself mirrored in these pages. And whether or not you identify as transgender or transsexual or intersexual, you have a stake in our struggle. My right to define and express myself is connected with a thousand threads to your own right to define and express yourself."