Digital Transgender Archive

“Trans-ing” Gender Throughout History

Dance to the Berdache – Saukie (1861/1869)

There is a common misconception that gender variance is a relatively recent phenomenon owing to the growing contemporary transgender rights movement. Two recent additions of artwork to the Digital Transgender Archive challenge that misconception: II Femminiello by Giuseppe Bonito and Dance to the Berdache - Saukie by George Catlin, which were created around the 18th and 19th centuries respectively. Both pieces feature gender variant identities of a particular time and culture: the Neopolitan femminiello of 18th century Italy and the Native American Two-Spirit of the Sauk tribe circa 1861. The femminielli were birth-assigned males of Naples who dressed femininely and assumed female gender roles and two-spirits people are possess both masculine and feminine spirits. For more information on these gender-related terms (and many more!) you should visit our Global Terms List.

Ultimately, these artworks demonstrate the historical diversity of gender, that “trans-ing” gender is not simply a byproduct of a more progressive and open society in our present day. Moreover, they allow us to reflect on how the world has encountered gender variance throughout time; both the femminielli and two-spirits are believed to have been respected, valued, and accepted members of their communities prior to the importation of more binarist and normative gender ideologies.


--Keith Plummer