Chavela Vargas

Today’s post comes to you by popular demand — which makes sense because she was very popular, and she also knew what she wanted and demanded it! Well, okay, mostly she just got it herself. She knew exactly who she was from a remarkably young age and never wavered.

Isabel Vargas Lizano was born on April 17, 1919 to Francisco Vargas and Herminia Lizano in San Joaquin de Flores, Costa Rica. As far as I can tell, it was a pretty unremarkable event. She was frequently called “Chavela” by her family. Despite that affectionate nickname, things would take a turn for the worse — her very religious parents were embarrassed by Chavela’s tomboy-ishness, going so far as to hide her when they had visitors to their home. They ultimately divorced, leaving her to be raised by her uncle, and then she contracted polio. Chavela managed to survive the illness relatively unscathed — she and her family credited this to the rituals and talismans of shamans and witches, rather than the scientific medicine of doctors.

By seventeen years old, Chavela was fully aware that she wanted a career in music and — since there weren’t many musical opportunities in Costa Rica — she moved to Mexico. Initially, she sang on the streets — dressed in traditionally masculine clothing, wearing the red poncho (or more specifically a jorongo) that would become a signature part of her performance “look” in her professional years. The look was a conscious decision — Chavela felt she looked “like a transvestite” in women’s clothing and had trouble walking in heels. To fit into the masculine music scene she was attempting to break into, she began smoking cigars, drinking heavily, and making sure to keep a gun on her at all times. During this period of her career, sometime in the mid-1940s, she had an affair with Frida Kahlo — the romance was relatively brief, but intense. Chavela even lived with Frida and her then-husband Diego Rivera for more than a year. And Frida expressed in letters to her friends that she was very attracted to Chavela. (And yet, there are — of course — scholars who are certain they were just good friends.)

In her thirties, she became a professional, becoming known for her own unique take on ranchera — singing solo, with only her guitar as accompaniment instead of a mariachi band, and slowing down the tempo for more dramatic tension or so they could come across as more humorous and, y’know, suggestive. These songs were typically sung from a man’s perspective ( a straight man’s, I should say) and Chavela Vargas refused to change the genders in the songs when she sang them. While her homosexuality certainly would not have been approved of offstage, on stage it was all part of an entertaining act that audiences embraced.

Towards the end of the 1950’s, her reputation began to expand greatly — particularly in artistic circles. She was a popular performer in Acapulco, singing in the champagne room of La Perla, frequently in front of tourists from other parts of the world. She was so well regarded that she was hired to sing at the wedding of Elizabeth Taylor and Mike Todd on February 2, 1957. Chavela would later claim that she slept with Ava Gardner at that wedding — I haven’t found an corroboration of that, nor have I found any other examples of Ava Gardner having dalliances with women, but I suppose we all have to experiment at least once in our lives and if Elizabeth Taylor’s wedding isn’t the time and place to do it, when is? She is known to have had numerous romances after this — including, apparently, with some very famous people, but she would never share their names. A few have stepped forward, including American author Betty-Carol Sellen, but Chavela was very careful to keep these things private (particularly, I assume, because very few if any of them would have been open about their sexuality at the time!)

In 1961, with the help of José Alfredo Jiménez, Chavela’s first album was released: Noche de Bohemia. This was the first of more than 80 albums that she’d release over the course of her career. Later that year she released Con el cuarteto Lara Foster. Rumor has it that although her career was just beginning to take off, Chavela began a short-lived affair with Arabella Árbenz Villanova in 1964 after their paths crossed coincidentally — the problem being that Arabella was also having a torrid romance with Televisa executive Emilio Azcárraga Milmo, also known as “El Tigre.” When El Tigre learned of this affair he was infuriated and tried to destroy her career. Despite his pretty powerful influence in Mexico, he very nearly did. although Chavela Vargas is — as far as I can tell — still banned from appearing on Televisa in any capacity.

Her next album, Hacia la vida was released in 1966. By the time her fourth album Corridos de la revolución came out in 1970, Chavela had become quite popular, though she still wasn’t invited to headline concerts — but as her popularity grew, so did her alcoholism. Despite her struggle with drinking, Chavela managed to release three albums in 1973 and one more in 1975. However, due to her constant battle with addiction and El Tigre’s continuing campaign against her — Chavela was forced to retire and completely disappeared from the public eye.

The details are a little bit sketchy here, but according to Chavela while she was “submerged in an alcoholic haze” — as she would later describe it — she was found and taken in by a family of Native Mexicans who attempted to help nurse her back to health. It would be decades before the public learned any of this, and at the time many assumed she had died. She had very little money at this time, and sometimes only ate when friends invited her to their homes for meals.

On September 2, 1988, at the request of mutual friend Patria Jiminez, lawyer Dr. Alicia Elena Pérez Duarte arrived at Chavela Vargas’ home in order to stop her from drunkenly signing some legal documents. This began an intense romantic relationship, which both Chavela and Alicia would describe as “something greater than love.” Chavela moved in with Alicia and her four kids — but Chavela’s reliance on alcohol, and her great attachment to firearms, put a heavy strain on the relationship. Although Chavela did manage to quit drinking — which she credits to a shamanistic ritual (though Duarte has publicly disagreed with that statement) — it turned out her violent streak and penchant for guns was not dependent upon alcohol at all. Alicia ended the relationship, though she remained Chavela’s legal representation.

In 1989, a couple of Chavela’s albums were rereleased, sparking renewed interest in the singer. When the nightclub El Hábito opened in Mexico City in 1991, they invited her to perform after spotting her in their audience. Eventually, she agreed — though it was her first time performing on a stage since the 70’s and she was 72 years old at the time. It was also her first ever sober performance. This launched a full revival of her career, which involved several more albums and also international fame the likes of which she had not experienced before. She performed not just in Mexico but even performed numerous sold out shows in Spain and France. And finally, she was the headliner of these shows — an honor she had certainly earned.

She also provided music for several films during this period, primarily at the behest of Pedro Almodóvar who was a fan, a friend, and a champion for her career after meeting her in Madrid in 1992. Chavela once described him as “my husband in this world.” He traveled the world with her, pushing greater and greater opportunities towards her. Despite his best efforts, she insisted that she did not want to begin a career as an actress — although she did appear in the 2002 biographical film Frida about her former lover Frida Kahlo, singing her song “La Llorona.”

That was the same year Chavela published her autobiography Y si quieres saber de mi pasado (which translates to And if you want to know about my past). Although her sexuality had been a fairly open secret for decades — her relationships with women were fairly well known rumors, not to mention her refusal to ever change the genders or pronouns in the songs she sang — it was within the pages of her autobiography that she finally, publicly came out as a lesbian.

The following year on September 15, at age 83, Chavela Vargas had her debut performance at Carnegie Hall. The performance was recorded and released as an album creatively entitled Chavela at Carnegie Hall. The performance was considered groundbreaking given her age and sexuality in a musical genre that generally would have denied her for either of those, and in 2019 the album of the recording was named on Mitú’s list of Spanish-language albums that “Changed the Face and Feel of the Music Industry” calling it “the stuff dreams and legends are made of.”

In 2012, just months after releasing her final album Luna grande, the 93-year old Chavela Vargas was hospitalized in Cuernavaca, Mexico for respiratory problems. Several weeks later, on August 5, she passed away. It’s comforting, I think, that when she did pass away she knew it was coming and seemed to have made peace with it. She spent her final days making statements like “My name is Chavela Vargas, don’t let them forget!” Her final words, according to her Facebook page, were “I leave with Mexico in my heart.”

But truthfully, it’s hard to “leave” if your music is as significant as hers remains to this day, and there’s certainly no way to forget her. Aside from the longevity of her own music, she’s received a lot of tributes — Joaquín Sabina’s song “Por el Boulevard de los Sueños Rotos” is dedicated to her, Juan Carlos created a series of portraits of Chavela which were presented at the Centro Cultural de España en México in Mexico City in 2012. One of the characters in Sergio Ramírez Mercado’s novel La Fugitiva is based off of Chavela. And in 2017, the biographical documentary Chavela was released. She’s even had a Google Doodle in her honor! In 2019, she was commemorated on the Rainbow Honor Walk in San Francisco, which is a “walk of fame” type of thing for LGBTQ+ people who have “made significant contributions in their field.” Given that she essentially reinvented ranchero music, opening it up to women performers, I’d call “significant contributions” an understatement. She remains one of, if not the, most celebrated lesbian in Mexican history.

Hadrian and Antinous

I’ve been on an ancient history kick lately so, if I were you, I’d expect the next few posts here to be about ancient queer people. To that end, I’m starting us off by bringing us back to ancient Rome. And also ancient Egypt. And all over the place, actually. I am, of course, talking about the story of Emperor Hadrian and Antinous.

A statue of Emperor Hadrian

So Hadrian was born on January 24, 76 CE in present-day Spain, where his family had moved from present-day Italy. His father was first-cousin to soon-to-be-emperor Trajan. Hadrian entered a career in politics and public service. At the encouragement of Trajan’s wife, and a few other politically influential people in Rome, Hadrian married Trajan’s grand-niece (and therefore, his own second cousin once removed) Vibia Sabina early in his career (around 100 or 101 CE). The marriage was purely political and is almost universally described as being an unhappy one. Around the time of the wedding, he was serving as essentially the liaison between the emperor and the Senate. Afterwards, he had posts in numerous places around the Empire — he was archon of Athens for many years, and even held Athenian citizenship, and also served as governor of Syria.

Meanwhile, in Turkey sometime around 111 CE, Antinous was born. Virtually no solid facts are known about his childhood, but its guessed he was born in November — possibly November 27. Some time in the Renaissance it began to be claimed by historians that Antinous was born into slavery, but modern historians are pretty agreed that that’s unlikely because contemporary Roman historians would almost certainly have mentioned that, given how the rest of his life turned out and how much more of a controversial figure Antinous would have become.

In the year 117 CE, Trajan died from a stroke, leaving no heirs. Adoption papers “proving” Hadrian was his adopted son, and therefore heir, appeared shortly thereafter — signed by Trajan’s wife, and dated the day after Trajan’s death. Making this even more hard to swallow was the fact that she was in Rome and Hadrian was still in Syria. This was a huge irregularity, as a Roman adoption required all three parties to be present — both parents and the adoptee. Nevertheless, the Roman legion quickly claimed him the legitimate emperor, so as to avoid a power vacuum. Hadrian thanked them with a monetary bonus, which may sound like a bribe but was apparently the custom of the time. (I guess that doesn’t really mean it wasn’t a bribe…) With the legion on board, the Senate didn’t take too long to confirm that Hadrian was emperor.

At the start of his reign, Hadrian remained in Syria — as there was a Jewish revolt in Judea and other parts of the Middle East that he needed to attend to. And by attend to I mean, historians now refer to it as the Kitos War and that sort of undersells the violence. In his defense, Hadrian was trying to find a more peaceful solution to the problem — but the war had begun under Trajan’s rule and the combatants were not willing to let go of the fight. Hadrian gave up a lot of the area Trajan had conquered to the east in order to stabilize the region. Then he quietly stripped Lusius Quietus — the commander of the Roman forces in Judea — of his rank. Lusius Quietus died the following year under suspicious circumstances. It’s likely that Hadrian quietly stripped him of his life too.

A surviving section of Hadrian’s Wall

With that behind him, Hadrian embarked on a tour of the empire. Perhaps the most significant stop, and one of the earliest, on this tour was the province of Britannia — Great Britain. Major conflicts were common in the region, and the Roman military was not doing well. In 122 CE, Hadrian ordered the construction of a wall to separate the Roman territory from the unclaimed parts of the island. An enormous 73 mile long wall, as it turns out, was cheaper than an enormous border army. It wasn’t the Great Wall of China or anything, but Hadrian’s Wall was still kind of a big deal. Part of the wall still stands.

A statue of Antinous

In June of 123 CE, he reached the city of Claudiopolis (now Bolu) in present day Turkey — where Antinous lived. It is believed by many historians that they met at this point and, while they did not become lovers now, it certainly had an impact on Antinous. It was probably a big part of why Antinous decided to go to pursue his education in Rome.

Hadrian returned to Rome in September 125 CE. Over the next three years, a relationship formed between Antinous and Hadrian. Antinous became the emperor’s “personal favorite” and was seen in Hadrian’s company more than his wife. Historians actually note that there is no evidence whatsoever that Hadrian ever expressed romantic or sexual interest in any women — which is kind of remarkable since usually historians are quick to “straightwash” gay people in history. Hadrian was too gay even for that. Contemporary records indicate that Hadrian and Antinous’ relationship was clearly sexual, and Hadrian wrote erotic poetry about him, though none of it survives today. There was significantly more to the relationship though. Hadrian had several “favorites” but he particularly described Antinous as being incredibly wise, and they enjoyed hunting together and — as you’ll see shortly — traveling together. Antinous, for his part, also seems to have truly loved Hadrian despite their significant age difference. There is no evidence he ever tried to use the relationship for any kind of personal gain.

Hadrian, unlike previous emperors, did not choose to stay in Rome and rely heavily on reports from abroad. Hadrian spent more than half of his reign traveling the empire. When he left Rome again in 127 CE, he took Antinous with him as a part of his personal retinue. This may have been partially because Hadrian fell ill during this year, with a mysterious chronic illness that baffled the doctors of the time. They traveled through parts of Italy, North Africa, and even made their way to Athens for a time. At a certain point they were initiated, together, into the Eleusinian Mysteries. Afterwards, they traveled to the Middle East, visiting Antioch, Judea, Syria, and Arabia. Hadrian grew concerned that the Jewish population was failing to “Romanize” so he built a Temple of Jupiter on the site of former Jewish temple and made circumcision illegal.

The tondo depicting the lion hunt

From there they headed to Egypt. In Alexandria, Hadrian made some unpopular decisions about appointing people to certain positions. Rumors began to spread about his sex life, particularly when it came to Antinous. Unperturbed by the pettiness, Hadrian and Antinous went to hunt a lion that was causing trouble in Libya. During the hunt, Hadrian saved Antinous’ life — he was so proud of this event that he made certain it was recorded in multiple histories, had it depicted on bronze medallions, had a poem commissioned, and even had a tondo (or circular artwork) made of it. Various tondos depicting Antinous and Hadrian together, including the one of the lion hunt, eventually ended up on the Arch of Constantine, where they still remain to this day. This tondo is considered particularly significant as it is the first place that Antinous is no longer shown as a thin youth but a muscular, hairy truly full grown man — leading historians to suspect that his relationship with Hadrian was probably changing.

A month or so later, Hadrian and his retinue sailed up the Nile as part of a flotilla. Antinous was with him, as was Lucius Ceionius Commodus who some historians say Antinous viewed as competition for Hadrian’s affections (but who never seems to have actually had a romantic relationship with the emperor). During this sort of Nile parade, Antinous fell into the river and died. The death is viewed as highly suspicious particularly because in all of the surviving documents there is not one place where the death is described as an accident. And there’s quite a bit of documentation that has survived. It is, of course, still possible the death was an accident, but here’s some of the other theories that are out there.

  • Some theorize that Antinous killed himself, possibly over losing Hadrian’s affections. The trouble with this theory is that Hadrian’s reaction to the death doesn’t seem like his affection was waning.
  • Some have suggested he was murdered as part of a conspiracy. There’s actually no evidence for this, and Antinous’ lack of political influence over Hadrian also kinds of makes this one a “meh” theory. But it’s very dramatic, so that’s fun at least.
  • It’s also been suggested that it was a human sacrifice, that Antinous might have volunteered to sacrifice his own life as a means of helping finally cure Hadrian of the illness he’d been suffering for three years. However, Hadrian was opposed to human sacrifice and had strengthened laws against it throughout the empire. This theory also was never even presented until 80 years later, despite the fact that rumors spread like wildfire when the death occurred.
  • Another theory is that Antinous died in a botched castration, that he may have volunteered for to keep his youth. However, again, Hadrian was very much opposed to castration and Antinous was too old (since he’s only somewhere around 19 years old at this point) to get much effect from it anyways.

As you can see, all of the theories leave something to be desired and whatever the case may be, Hadrian was absolutely beside himself with grief (and possibly also with guilt, depending on what actually happened). Egyptian priests immediately identified Antinous with the Egyptian god Osiris — dying in the Nile helped with that — and set about embalming and mummifying his corpse in the Egyptian tradition. Hadrian remained in Egypt until the following year, probably not willing to leave until his lover had been finally laid to rest.

Royston Lambert wrote a biography of Hadrian in 1984, where he described Hadrian’s feelings for Antinous as a “a mystical-religious need for his companionship.” And that’s, perhaps, underselling it. Hadrian formally declared Antinous a deity, and ordered a city be constructed at the site of his death. The city, called Antinoöpolis, was built over the city of Hir-we and all of the buildings from that city except the Temple of Ramses II were destroyed so the new city could be built. Aside from being an over-the-top memorial, the city was also a move to help integrate Greek and Egyptian cultures — Hadrian permitted Greek and Egyptian inhabitants of the city to marry, and gave incentives for Greeks to move there. Games were held there annually for several hundred years in an event called the Antinoeia. Hadrian allowed the primary god of Hir-we to continue to be worshipped — the Egyptian god Bes — alongside worship of the Osiris-Antinous deity.

The Antinous Obelisk, on Pincio Hill in Rome

It was not unheard for a person to be declared a god but it was super rare for it to be someone who wasn’t, y’know, an emperor or someone otherwise incredibly important to the world at large. It’s not clear what became of Antinous’ body, but it is hinted by an obelisk was buried at Hadrian’s country estate in Italy. Hadrian continued to surround himself with sculptures and depictions of Antinous for years to come. Over the following years, an innumerable number of sculptures of Antinous were found through the empire (in no small part because of his status as a god). 115 of those sculptures still exist — 22 of those were found in Hadrian’s country estate. Although there are various styles of these sculptures, they all clearly depict the same person so it is believed that Hadrian released an official version of what Antinous was supposed to look like, that sculptors could replicate.

Antinous as Bacchus (or Dionysus) — a statue in the Vatican

Because of the identification with Osiris, the cult of Antinous had little trouble spreading in Egypt. But Hadrian wanted Antinous to be worshipped through the entire empire. To that end, he turned to Greece. In 131 CE, he traveled there and integrated Antinous with the god Hermes — in much the same way that the Egyptians had joined him to Osiris. He founded a temple in Trapezus to Hermes-Antinous. Despite Hadrian’s best efforts, however, the Greeks associated Antinous with the god Dionysus instead and worship of Dionysus-Antinous could be found throughout much of the empire within just a few years. Although in some cases people worshipped Antinous just to make their emperor happy, archaeologists have found a significant amount of evidence suggesting Antinous was also worshipped in the privacy of people’s homes. That means people actually, genuinely liked worshipping Antinous. The cult appears to have been most prolific in Egypt, the Middle East, and Greece but evidence of the cult has been found in 70 cities and some of that is even as far away as Britain where Antinous appears to have been conflated with the Celtic sun god Belenos.

Six years later, 136 CE, Hadrian adopted Lucius Ceionius Commodus and made him his heir (as Hadrian and his wife never had kids.) However, Lucius died two years later while Hadrian was still alive so he never actually got the crown. Later that year, on July 10 138 CE, Hadrian passed away in his villa — finally losing the battle with his own health but managing to name an heir in Antinous shortly before his death. Hadrian had ruled the Roman Empire for 21 years.

Antinous’ cult would continue even longer, but would receive harsh criticisms from other pagan cults. The philosopher Celsus, for instance, criticized it — saying that its worshipers were debaucherous and immoral. That’s also how he viewed Christians, as it turns out. Christians, meanwhile, viewed the cult of Antinous as a rival religion and they vocally condemned it — insisting that it was immoral to worship a mortal human, and pointing out that he was only in that position because of his sexual activities with Hadrian. (That part at least is kind of valid.) In the 4th century, as conflicts between Christians and pagans deepened, pagans in general began to champion Antinous. Not in the sense that they worshiped him necessarily, though his cult was clearly still active, but in that he became something of a symbol against Christianity. New images and depictions of him began to be made, including a set of seven bronze medallions. Statues were broken, rebuilt, moved, damaged, repaired…..and the struggle continued until 391 CE when Emperor Theodosius officially banned paganism, and all images of Antinous were removed from public places.

Antinous, understandably, became something of an icon for the homosexual subculture of later centuries. During the Renaissance, queer art was generally focused on the mythological figure of Ganymede but — especially by the 18th century — that fascination had been turned onto Antinous. Who was, y’know, at least real. That fascination grew into the 19th century. In 1865, Karl Heinrich Ulrichs wrote about Antinous in one of his pamphlets, and Oscar Wilde spoke of Antinous in The Young King, The Sphinx, and in The Picture of Dorian Gray. The homophile newspaper The Artist began selling cast statues of Antinous about this time as well. Even straight authors were catching on — in the novel of Les Miserables, author Victor Hugo describes the character of Enjolras as “an untamed Antinous” who seemed “not to be aware of the existence of a creature called woman.”

And while Antinous may not still have quite that level of ubiquitous popularity in queer culture, he has not exactly been forgotten either. Sarah Waters included a costume ball in her novel Tipping the Velvet where the lesbian protagonist dressed as Antinous. Rufus Wainwright‘s 2018 opera Hadrian is about the emperor’s response to Antinous’ death. Even in sports they’re still remembered — the Hadrian Cup, an LGBTQ+ inclusive rugby tournament, introduced the Antinous Plate just this year in March 2020 and awarded it to the Aberdeen Taexali Rugby Club. (But, to be honest, I don’t know anything about rugby so I can’t tell you exactly what the Antinous Plate is awarded for.)

I’m not saying Hadrian set the bar too high for the rest of us, but would your lover declare you a god after you died in a river under suspicious circumstances — making you a relevant historical figure for thousands of years to come?

Fernanda Fernandez

Lately I’ve been doing a lot of fairly recent events and people in LGBTQIA+ history — heck, I just wrote about two people who are still alive. In a row! So, to veer away from people with Instagram accounts, I’ve decided to go much further back. After all, one of the reasons I’m doing this is to detail queer history back to the beginning of human history. I’m not going quite that far back today though.

Fernandez is not by any means the first intersex person in the world — intersex people appear in Sumerian mythology that predates written language and is consistently mentioned as being a thing that exists in virtually all societies thereafter. But Fernandez is one of the earliest intersex people who’s name has survived in records to today.

There are no pictures of Fernanda Fernandez so here’s a picture of Capuchin nuns that I borrowed from Wikipedia.

Now, Fernanda Fernandez was born in 1755 in either Baza or Zújar — but definitely in Granada in Spain. There is nothing written or discussed about her childhood up until she took her vows to become a nun of the Capuchin Poor Clares in April of 1774 — at which time she was either seventeen or eighteen, depending on who you ask. It really depends on what month she was born in, but there doesn’t seem to be any decisive record of that.

In 1787, Fernandez began noticing that she appeared to be becoming more masculine in some ways and was starting to get sinful lustful feelings for her fellow nuns. Fernandez was a devout believer, was not trying to rock the boat, and just wanted to do right by society and God. So she reported it and asked to be separated from the other nuns. At first, everyone assumed she was going crazy. Nobody did anything.

Worried she wouldn’t be able to resist the temptations she was feeling, she started actively avoiding the other nuns. She also started a routine of strict penitence, flagellating herself spiked chains. (I guess there is kind of a case to be made that she was going crazy, but it’s probably only because people thought she was going crazy.) Doctors, to help her deal with the craziness, prescribed regular bloodletting. Let’s just take a moment to be thankful that nowadays, doctors who incorrectly think someone is going crazy usually just prescribe pills.

Within the next several years, Fernandez started becoming visibly more masculine. So an investigation was begun. She was isolated from the rest of the nuns. Doctors were called in, theologians, even the archbishop. She explained again what was happening, but this time they actually listened (kind of). A midwife examined her and discovered what she’d been telling everyone all along — that she was developing male characteristics. Including a functional, albeit small, penis. They declared her a man and took steps to make that declaration formal and legally binding.

On January 21, 1792 Fernandez was expelled from the nunnery — technically, this is what she’d asked for back in 1787, but she certainly wasn’t happy about it. She actually liked being a nun. On February 11, she was formally released from her vows and sent back to her parents, who were definitely living in Zújar at that time. (What’s kind of amazing is, this is all pretty well documented except for like who are the parents?) She was forced to change her name to “Fernando” and required to begin wearing exclusively male clothes. Despite this, she continued to occupy her time with the duties and skills of women of the time, and missed her life in the nunnery. Nothing else is recorded about her after 1792, so it’s a little tough to say, but it seems like she identified as a woman, and was likely pretty freaked out about growing a penis in her twenties. I’m sure none of what she went through helped with that.

What’s interesting is the follow-up. There are other cases in Europe and even Spain where medical examinations revealed similar findings, and it was argued that the person in question was committing fraud, pretending to be something they weren’t, and had always been the sex that was uncovered. But no such arguments were made in Fernanda’s case — it was widely acknowledged and accepted that she had been a woman and changed into a man. This is something doctors of the time widely stated was impossible. But they never denied that it happened to Fernanda Fernandez and given where medical science was at the time, that was pretty open minded of them.

Catalina de Erauso

Let’s delve into the story of one of my favorite historical women-loving women: Catalina de Erauso. She hasn’t, as far as I know, had any sort of far-reaching impact on today’s LGBTQ+ community…. but her story’s really fun…

19029193_10100197163315309_7678398842583670678_nMost of what we know about Catalina comes from her autobiography “The Lieutenant Nun” (so take a lot of this with a grain of salt), which claims she was born in 1585 — however, her baptismal certificate states she was born in 1592. I’m more inclined to believe her on this one because otherwise — well, I don’t want to spoil the rest of the story, nevermind. She was born into a large noble family — her brothers were all sent to the New World to participate in its conquest, her sisters were all sent to convents until a suitable husband could be found. (Only one of her sisters ever married. Ouch.)

At four years old (so, 1589 or 1596 depending who you want to believe) she was placed in a convent to be raised by nuns, just like her sisters. This was not exactly the lifestyle for someone with Catalina’s adventurous nature, so on March 18, 1600 she cut her hair, put together some men’s clothing made out of her own undergarments, gave herself the name “Francisco de Loyola“, and fled — well, fled is a strong word — casually strolled out of the convent. This made Catalina a fugitive — a status she would maintain (with great effort and enthusiasm) for many many years. (If her baptismal certificate is right, she was eight years old at this point. If she’s right, she was fifteen. That’s kind of why I believe her on this.)

She traveled for twenty miles on foot, eating what she could find as she passed through villages, until she reached the town of Vitoria, where she encountered a doctor who happened to be married to her mother’s cousin. (Her travels through Spain involved frequent near-run-ins with her family.) He took her in, without recognizing her, and gave her clothes. She stayed with him for three months, but he sexually abused her during that time so ultimately, she fled again — this time stealing money before she left. (He kinda had it coming.) She met up with a mule driver, who took her with him to the court of King Juan de Iqiaquez. Dressed as Francisco once again, Catalina serve the king as a court page for seven months until her father — who was an important military leader for the king — showed up, so she fled once again and ended up in Bilbao. This time, she was unable to find work or a patron — but she did find a bar fight (this will become a common theme for her) and she was arrested. She spent a month in jail, and decided that being arrested was awful and if she was going to continue her life as a fugitive she was going to need to avoid it in the future. (The idea of not committing crimes apparently did not occur to her.)

She spent the next two years disguised as a man, working throughout Spain, although mostly staying close to her hometown and the convent that she had been raised in. She did not have a feminine build, and — apparently — had used an ointment to “dry her breasts”. On Holy Monday in the year 1603, she embarked on a ship for the New World. The first place she landed was Punta de Araya (which is now Venezuela) where, apparently, she was attacked by Dutch pirates who she defeated. From there, she and the crew she traveled with (which included one of her uncles, who did not recognize her) sailed to Nombre de Dios, where they stayed for nine days. Several members of the crew died due to the weather, so the crew determined to return to Spain.

Instead of going back to Spain, Catalina murdered her uncle, stole 500 pesos, told the rest of the sailors her uncle was on an errand and then she — you guessed it — fled. Still in men’s clothing, she found work as a sailor for a wealthy merchant. The large shipment she was transporting got caught in a terrible windstorm, the ship sank. Catalina managed to save herself and her master. Her master, grateful to be alive, rewarded Catalina with a house, money, and three slaves.

But Catalina’s penchant for violence would catch up to her soon. While attending the theater in Sana, a young man threatened her. She was not having any of that, so she took a whetstone, made herself a saw-tooth blade, and cut open his face. She was taken to jail, but through the efforts of her master and the bishop of the area she was soon released. One condition of her release was that she marry the aunt of the man who’s face she’d cut open. Fearful of her secret being discovered or of being tied down in a serious relationship, she refused to marry and left for Trujillo instead, where her master was opening a store.

The man who’s faced she’d sliced up tracked her there with two friends and challenged her. She killed him, she killed his friend, and then she took refuge in a church — declaring sanctuary until things died down. Around this time, Catalina began courting her master’s mistress — to the point where the mistress demanded they sleep together. Catalina wasn’t having that either — but this was also her master’s last straw, no matter how grateful he was for being saved from drowning. He gave her some money, a letter of recommendation for work in Lima, and kicked her to the curb.

Catalina presented her letter of recommendation to Diego de Solarte, a rich merchant who gave Catalina a store in just a matter of days. This new career was not destined to last long, however, as just nine months later she was caught fondling her new master’s sister-in-law and was fired. With few other career options available, Catalina joined the army and was placed under the command of Captain Gonzalo Rodriguez. They marched to Chile, where she was greeted by the governor — her brother Don Miguel de Erauso, although he did not recognize her. She served in the military there for three years, earning the rank of Lieutenant. However, she was too violent and cruel towards the Native people and complaints from her fellow military officers about this prevented her from achieving any higher ranks. (And, like, I’m sorry, but having read what was the norm for the way the native people were treated at the time, I can’t *imagine* what sick, bloody things Catalina was doing to those poor people. Holy crap.)

She was extremely frustrated by this, and so took out her frustration on literally anyone she met on the road. She killed people, she burned crops, she was generally a menace. She murdered the chief auditor of the city of Conception — and declared sanctuary in a church where she stayed for six months. She left the church after six months to serve as the second in a friend’s duel. (She did have friends! Which is kind of amazing all things considered.) In the course of the night time duel, she killed the other man’s second — only to discover that he was her brother Don Miguel.

This is the only event in the entire autobiography that makes Catalina even come close to being introspective. It left her depressed (and in prison) for almost a year. Then, I guess, she just got over it and left for Argentina. The journey across the Andes almost killed her, but she was saved by a villager, who nursed her back to health but somehow never noticed that Catalina was a woman. While she was recovering, she ended up engaged to two women at the same time. Hey, y’know, it happens. Still unwilling to settle down with either of them, she skipped town right before the first of the two weddings.

She made her way to Potosi, where she took a job as an assistant to a sergeant and joined in with his mass murders of the natives. Some time after that she was accused of a crime that she did not commit (for a change) and imprisoned, where she was tortured (and yet, they still never noticed that she was a woman). After she was released from prison, she devoted herself to smuggling — but soon a lawsuit forced her to seek sanctuary in a church once again. After leaving the church, she got into a fight with a man and killed him, and was sentenced to death. Through fortunate events for her, her execution was postponed, she escaped and — spoiler alert, this is not going to surprise you — sought sanctuary in a church.

After escaping from that, she got into an argument with a sheriff’s servant and, of course, murdered him. (In broad daylight. In front of the sheriff. Not her finest moment.) She was sentenced to death again — and this time, she was unable to evade capture. She was clever though — more clever than she’d been when she murdered the sheriff’s servant right in front of him — and demanded that she be allowed to confess her sins to a priest. She was brought to a church — where she declared sanctuary. (Raise your hand if you saw that coming. Anyone?)

She fled from the church and returned to Peru, where it did not take long for her to get into another violent dispute and get arrested. With the death sentence hanging over her head and not going away in the foreseeable future, Catalina confessed to the bishop that she was actually a woman and a nun. The bishop had her examined by nuns, who determined that she was still a virgin. This, apparently, made her some sort of miracle and she became an overnight celebrity. She was basically given the choice of facing execution for her crimes, or writing down a confession and returning to Spain. That confession ultimately became her autobiography, the number one source for all things Catalina de Erauso. (Pretty much the only source for most of this.)

Once back in Europe, she petitioned the king to give her a pension due to her military service (and her celebrity status). Later, she traveled to the Vatican and met with Pope Urban VIII who gave her special leave to continue to wear men’s clothing if she so desired — but reminded her that “Thou Shalt Not Kill” is one of the Ten Commandments. Returning to Spain, Catalina petitioned the crown for compensation for money she lost traveling to Spain and for a reward for her military service.

One of the last events recounted in her autobiography, which ends in the year 1626 (four years before her estimated date of death), she encountered a cardinal who told her that her “only fault is that [she was] a Spaniard.” She replied, “With all due respect, that is my only virtue.” At least she had one virtue.

Eventually, Catalina returned to the New World and then pretty much disappeared from history until her death in 1630.

Now, there’s a lot of discussion with Catalina about her sexuality and gender identity. And that’s a worthwhile discussion given that basically none of the terms we used to describe these things existed back then. Of course, as with pretty much any LGBTQ+ historical figure, there are those who are try to claim that she was straight and cisgender, and she only pursued women to keep her disguise intact. Some of these historians — and I use that term loosely — have invented romantic relationships with men that do not appear anywhere in her autobiography. In fact, she does not discuss any romantic anything towards men in her autobiography (or any other writings), despite there being several romantic and sexual encounters with other women. The autobiography, in my opinion, is not at all unclear about her exclusive attraction to women. She never expresses any interest in men, and virtually every woman who isn’t related to her is a potential love interest.

The only case that can really, justifiably be made for Catalina being straight, is if she’s transgender rather than cisgender. And that is totally a possibility. The only reason I’ve discussed her in the context of being a lesbian rather than being a transgender man is because — in my opinion (she’s not still around to ask) — it seems like she’s always aware she’s a woman disguised as a man. It doesn’t seem — to me — like she identifies as a man at all. I could be totally wrong on that, especially given that she continued to dress like a man even after her secret became public knowledge.

(Adapted from this Facebook post.)