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Sexualities and Cultures: Historical Perspectives Essay (Critical Writing)

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Updated: Jul 12th, 2020


The subject of sex has been on debate since time immemorial. People have set out to improvise clear cuts that determine whether one is a male or a female. Ramet’s work is an excellent illustration of this claim. The main themes emerging from Ramet’s book are sexual reversal and transgender. Being transgender means a person does not necessarily consider himself or herself as either man or woman. Instead, a transgender person can chose neither of the gender.

This is easy when there is freedom of free expression and self-identification as far as gender is concerned (Ramet 107). As revealed in the second section, ‘Attempts to Subvert Discourses’, the paper point out some factors or rather forces that repress sexual manifestation. These include gender, race, and imperialism amongst others. It also reveals the concept of ‘compostura’. However, despite the many attempts in place to determine one’s sex, the last section declares sex an issue too complex to determine, even after applying the sophisticated scientific expertise.

History of the Case

Inquisitions in diverse appearances, national, papal, and Episcopal emerged from the medieval inquisition. Inquisitions were clerical courts created to handle heresy cases in Spain in 1478. The main objective of the inquisition was to investigate and punish sodomy crimes and apostasy. The case of Eleno de Céspedes is tremendously influential in helping us today to understand what happened in those inquisitions. The year 1588 dawned with the formation of an inquisition in Toledo against Eleno, A publicized case where Eleno de Céspedes was accused of sodomy. The Spanish Mulatto was born female.

Transgender does not designate a person a specific gender. Because of imperialism in communities, people opposed self-identification. It would even end in jail term just like Eleno. He is, however, a subject of physical examination to determine his sex. Eleno de Céspedes was a transgendered former slave (Kagan, and Dyer 68), married to a woman accused of violating to societal cultural norms by disguising him/herself as a man (Simons 25).

The Concept of ‘compostura’ is evident as the inquisitors in this case were extremely obsessed with documenting that the accused used a phallic instrument (or a dildo) for penetrating other women. This case saw lesbianism sexuality ruled as an act of sodomy. Naturally, sodomy was a confused faculty of crimes according to philosophy of Foucault (Foucault 101). The reason was that it included all the sexual crimes of non-procreative intent even bestiality. Besides, sexing of the body was mainly determined by having either female or male organs (Hubbard 129). This made Eleno’s gender case a substantial argument in deciding his case (Simons 25). Considering that there was some cases when individuals would have both male and female organs, categorizing them as either male or female became a cardinal dilemma (Ramet 23).

Attempt to Subvert Discourses

Eleno had worked very hard to rise above the social discourses to become what he was, a married surgeon by the time he was summoned to an inquisition. He prepared his defense skillfully hoping to win the case because previously, inquisitions exonerated people of the sodomy accusations if they defended themselves properly. Lisa Magdalena’s case is one such example that gave Eleno hope. Magdalena had been a nun for 12 but claimed to have felt a penis emerge. Physical examination by two priests saw him declared a man and sent home to his father (Vollendor 12). Eleno was not as lucky.

An analysis of this case clearly exposes race, gender and imperialism as factors that served to repress sexual expression. The performance of gender versus the customary expectations of anatomy was a factor in describing gender and sexuality. Eleno’s case is expressive of transformation. Going by the judges’ verdict, his gender changed, as well as his sexual orientation. He was never a man but a woman disguising herself as a man. Nevertheless, her audacity to claim he had a desire for women remains incredible. He not only changed from being a woman to a man he also rose above his earlier social status as a child – being a slave to a surgeon. This happened despite the social disadvantages as a slave and his skin color.

Sexing the body by Fausto-Sterling offers intelligent insights and an account of the sexual, gender, and racial experiences in 20th century as related to Eleno’s case. The theme is clear – ‘feminism’. Fausto-Sterling concentrated on the intersexuality and research in hormones, as she was a biologist by profession by (Fausto-Sterling 25). She also addressed gender development and self-identification, factors that feminism actively advocates. An important precept, probably which would be controversial was to argue that manliness and femininity was not natural. Rather identifying oneself as a man or a woman was a social decision, it had nothing to do with science (Fausto-Sterling 25). Eleno was denied freedom to self identify despite his well thought defense.

Eleno could go past all these social obstacles to be a surgeon. Thus, it was clear that he was a potential threat to authorities and the oppressive social norms the judges extremely valued (Vollendor 84). Thus despite his well-organized, eloquent self-defense and new claim to hermaphrodite who had chosen to be male (Burshatin 14) and regardless of his masculine physique and jobs like working as a soldier (Kagan, and Dyer 68), loving women, practicing surgery (Kagan, and Dyer 70) and being a married man, he did not survive the inquisition.

The inquisition’s verdict was that he was guilty of a mocked marriage, disguise as a man, and use phallic objects to make love to women (Vollendor 91). The imposition of these charges occurred because Toledo’s inquisition had no jurisdiction over sodomy cases, which was a prerequisite in Eleno’s case. Eleno then failed the test of being a man. Thus, he suffered a public flogging sentence (200 lashes) and a 10-year sentence of free labor as female worker in a hospital. He was denounced a burladora woman, a cheat who used devilish tricks on other women to submit to her trickery (Vollendor 91; Burshatin 14).

Sexuality Repressed

Sex seems to fall on a continuum where one’s sex cannot be as straightforward as either male or female as in the inquisition of Eleno. Science has also come a long way with sophisticated methods of determining whether an individual was genetically male or female (Fausto-Sterling 18). However, this fact aside, there is the social construct aspect where a person self-identifies him/ herself as a man or a woman (Lorde 3) – this was the reason Elano deserved justice declaring he was hermaphrodite but chose to be a man.

Labeling one as a man of a woman was is a social decision, too complex for one to determine by science or physical examinations (Hubbard 130). In the western society, people have suffered sexual oppression because of such tests. Fausto-sterling uses Maria Partino, an athlete, as a typical example (Fausto-Sterling 13). The international Olympic Committee required participants to have femininity certificate to show they were women to participate in the games.

In 1988, Mario Partino thought the consequence would be as uncluttered as going to the head office to take a test and that would be it (Fausto-Sterling 13). To her shock, it was not the case, she had to take a second test, and despite exceedingly looking female morphologically, she was male in some aspect she had the Y chromosome. Because of this, she had no permission to participate. Stripped of her titles, and ditched by her boyfriend, she was back to poverty lane. She had socially identified herself as a woman and she had womanly feature. However, the rigidity of western society to rule a person as either sex cost her career, well-deserved titles and a relationship (Fausto-Sterling 13). Therefore, it suffices to declare scientific knowledge not sufficient to determine sex.


In conclusion, during the medieval times, communities only recognized two sexes – male or female, something that continue to persist even today. People who self-identify as transgender often face societal prejudice and scorn from other members of the society who consider themselves straight. As revealed in the paper, any heresy concerning a person’s doubtful sexual orientation would easily end in an inquisition where the person would be physically examined to determine his or her sex. Self –identification of gender by socialization was not permissible. Therefore, we can argue that Elano’s caste and racial orientation made him loose the case. The judges’ verdict from the inquisition denying he was a man was not fair because they could also not prove he was a woman. The interrelation of social order, politics (imperialism) and religion profoundly affected the mulattoes and hence this case.

Works Cited

Fausto-Sterling, Anne. Sexing the Body: Gender Politics and the Construction of Sexuality. New York: Basic Books, 2000. Print.

Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality, Vol. 1: An Introduction. New York: Pantheon, 1978. Print.

Hubbard, Ruth. Constructing Sex Difference. New Literary History. 1987.19(1):129-34.

Kagan, Richard, and Abigail Dyer. Sexuality and the Marriage Sacrament – Elena/Eleno De Céspedes’ in Inquisitorial Inquiries: Brief Lives of Secret Jews and Other Heretics. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2011.

Lorde, Audre. Zami: A New Spelling of My Name. Freedom, Ca: Crossing Press, 2001. Print.

Ramet, Sabrina. Gender Reversals and Gender Cultures: Anthropological and Historical Perspectives. London & New York: Routledge, 1996. Print.

Simons, Patricia. The Sex of Men in Premodern Europe: A Cultural History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011. Print.

Vollendor, Lisa. The Lives of Women: A New History of Inquisitional Spain. Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 2005. Print.

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IvyPanda. 2020. "Sexualities and Cultures: Historical Perspectives." July 12, 2020. https://ivypanda.com/essays/sexualities-and-cultures-historical-perspectives/.


IvyPanda. (2020) 'Sexualities and Cultures: Historical Perspectives'. 12 July.

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