Author Interview: Allison Surtees
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Exploring Gender Diversity in the Ancient World (Edinburgh University Press, 2020) is a new volume of academic essays exploring the ways in which people in ancient Greece and Rome expressed genders beyond what we in the modern, Western world view as the “traditional” gender binary. Born out of a discussion panel on “Gender B(l)ending in Ancient Greek and Roman Culture and Society” held at the annual conference of the Classical Association of Canada in Toronto in 2015, this volume is the work of Classicist Allison Surtees and Jennifer Dyer, a professor of Gender Studies. In conjunction with a review of the book, the following interview with Allison Surtees took place.
Why did you choose to look at gender diversity in the ancient world?
It came out of a panel on gender bending and blending at the annual conference of the Classical Association of Canada, which I helped organise. We got several great papers, but a lot of the submissions seemed to misunderstand the topic. People were submitting papers on subjects like men playing women on stage, which might play with gender but is very different from someone who identifies as, and lives their life as, a woman. There wasn’t much understanding of gender theory. Classicists are often concerned that Classics is not relevant today, but we become relevant by reflecting the society we live in, and that society is one in which gender has become an issue. I feel that the dearth of understanding of gender issues plays out in interpersonal relations and what happens in the classroom. Even cis women have difficulty with the old boys’ club that is Classics. It must be far worse for trans people.
Your colleague, Jennifer Dyer, is a professor of gender studies. How did you come to partner with her, and how did that work out?
Jennifer and I have been friends for many years and had long wanted to work together. I knew that she was just the person I needed on board to make this book work. We had a division of labour over what types of content we addressed in editing. She looked at the gender content, and I did the Classics. It seemed to work well.
A common complaint levelled at trans history is that trans people did not exist prior to the 20th century and the invention of medical gender reassignment techniques. How did you and Jennifer tackle that issue?
People of a variety genders have always existed. Gender is a construct. All that changes is how we make space for different genders in different societies. Western people want to claim the history of the Greeks and Romans, but often they only want to claim the good parts — the arts, the philosophy and so on. To be descendants of the Classical world we have to take on the whole of that society. That includes the slavery and the rape culture, it includes the very different attitudes to sexuality, and it includes the existence of people of a variety of genders.
Trans people often invoke the maxim, “Nothing about us without us”, when dealing with academics. Were any trans people involved in writing the book?
I haven’t met many of the authors so I don’t know a lot about them. I didn’t ask whether anyone was trans. I did ask for pronouns, and everyone gave either “he” or “she”, but that doesn’t mean that none of the contributors was trans.
Almost all of the written history we have from the Classical period was produced by elite men. How does that affect our ability to understand their world?
We took some techniques from theory. In the introduction Jennifer talks about abductive reasoning, which is used a lot in Queer Theory. This allows us to ask what is the most likely explanation for the facts, which is not always that reported. We also need to be aware that much that is taken as fact in Classics has actually been interpreted from the data by old white men. There is a very famous sculpture of the god Hermaphroditus, which adorns our cover. From most angles it looks like a beautiful woman, but the person depicted also has a penis. The traditional interpretation was that the Romans would have found this shocking or laughable, but that’s just us imposing a modern, transphobic reading on the statue. There is no clear Roman source saying that’s how it was seen.
The most obvious example of trans people in Rome is the cult of the goddess, Cybele, whose followers were castrated and lived as women. The cult seems to have been hugely important, with a temple on the Palatine Hill next to the Imperial Palace. Yet their activities were distinctly un-Roman and many ancient writers seem to have despised them. Do we know how ordinary Romans viewed these people?
This question hasn’t fully been addressed, but we need to remember that the Greek and Roman cultures were not the monoliths we have generally portrayed them as. Just like today, there were many different segments of their society, and each segment will have had different attitudes. We only have the view of the elite, but that can’t have been the only view as it doesn’t explain the obvious facts.
The book also covers intersex people, who would have been much more visible in the ancient world because everyone gave birth at home. Roman society seems to have changed a lot over the years in its attitude to such people, from originally wanting them killed at birth to the point where the philosopher, Favorinus, could be a close friend of the Emperor Hadrian.
It does yes. We didn’t have space to address that much. But we don’t see this book as the final word. We hope it will push conversations forward. There are more trans people in Classics now than ever before. I look forward to seeing what work they do.
Are there any other ambitions you have for the book?
We want the book to be read by undergraduates and non-Classicists as well as academic professionals. We have tried to make it as accessible as possible. In particular, we want to push back against the way that Classics is used by white supremacists and the alt-right to justify their politics. Classics should be for everyone.