A NEW LOOK AT HISTORIC REBELLIONS
A NEW LOOK AT HISTORIC REBELLIONS
By Leslie Feinberg
Transgender played a vanguard role in many of the class battles
that raged in Europe during the feudal age, and into the epoch of
Transvestism was an emblem of class militancy, and many grass-roots
leaders of these rebellions were people who today might be
described as transvestite or transsexual.
The most famous is Joan of Arc, an illiterate peasant teenager who
led a peasant army to victories that midwifed the nation-state of
France. The Inquisition of the Catholic Church burned her at the
stake at age 19 because she refused to stop dressing as a man.
When the Burgundians captured her they called her homasse, a slur
meaning masculine woman. King Charles refused to ransom her. Joan
was turned over to the Grand Inquisitors.
On May 14, 1431, Church theologians of the University of Paris
urged that she be torched as a heretic. They condemned her
transvestism because, they said, she was "following the custom of
the Gentiles and the Heathen."
TRANSGENDER IN THE VANGUARD
Historian Natalie Davis notes in her book "The Reversible World"
that during the Middle Ages "the donning of female clothes by men
and the adopting of female titles for riots were surprisingly
In his book "Dressing Up," Peter Ackroyd writes of the following
examples. In 1630 "the Mere Folle and 'her' troupe attacked royal
tax officers in Dijon; in Beaujolais in the 1770s, male peasants
put on women's clothes and attacked their landlord's surveyors; in
Wiltshire in 1631, bands of peasants, led by men dressed as women
who called themselves 'Lady Skimmington' rioted against the King's
enclosure of their forest lands."
Davis also reports on a 1645 tax revolt in Montepellier, France. It
"was started by women and led down the streets by a virago
[masculine woman] named La Branlaire, who shouted for death for the
tax collectors that were taking the bread from their children's
DOWN WITH COLONIALISM!
Transgender leadership played an important role in anti-colonial
insurrections against British domination.
In Scotland, men dressed as women--led by the heroic male "Madge
Wildfire"--fought the 1736 Porteous uprisings in Edinburgh. The
battles were sparked by a despised English officer, oppressive
customs laws and resistance to the union with England.
From 1760 to 1770 in Ireland, the Whiteboys--named for their long
white frocks--created peasant troops "to restore the ancient
commons and redress other grievances."
In the mid-1840s in Ireland landlords feared the Molly Maguires,
male peasants who dressed in women's clothes.
From 1839 to 1843 Wales was rocked by waves of insurrections by
peasant guerrillas who dubbed themselves "Rebecca and her
daughters." They led constables and British troops on a merry chase
as they destroyed toll barriers and other symbols of exploitation.
Rebellions of the oppressed classes in England itself reveal
According to Davis, in 1629 "'Captain' Alice Clark, a real female,
headed a crowd of women and male weavers dressed as women in a
grain riot near Maldon in Essex."
And men dressed as women "formed part of a very large female
demonstration in August 1643, beating on the doors of Parliament to
present petitions asking for peace with Scotland and the settlement
of the Reformed Protestant religion."
Pat Molloy's book "Rebecca and Her Daughters" offers yet another
account: "Toll gates were demolished by bands of armed men dressed
in women's clothing and wigs in Somerset in 1731 and 1749, in
Gloucester in 1728 and in Herefordshire in 1735."
TRANSGENDER AND LABOR
Even after the peasantry was driven from the countryside into urban
factories, this form of protest persisted.
Davis reports that striking miners in southern Wales in 1830-32
terrified scabs "by their ghostly midnight visits dressed in cattle
skins or women's clothes."
Angry weavers smashed the bosses' looms in the Luddite Rebellions.
"General Ludd's wives" led one in Stockton, England in 1812. These
two male workers, dressed as women, led a crowd of hundreds to burn
down a factory.
In this century, there has also been transgender leadership of
peasant, anti-colonial and labor battles from China to Puerto Rico.
Street battles by gay and lesbian transgendered people were a
forerunner to the modern lesbian and gay liberation movement.
Transgendered people were in the forefront of the Stonewall
Rebellion in 1969, which blew millions of closet doors off their
And the transgender movement is still an integral part of the class
(Copyright Workers World Service: Permission to reprint granted
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