Embracing a Eunuch Identity

I will give them an eternal name which will not be cut off.” —Isaiah 56:5

One does not have to identify as gender variant to be challenged by the problem of when, where, and to whom one “outs” oneself. Outing oneself is something members of all nonvisible minorities face at one time or another in secular society. People who are religious, for example, yet not so orthodox as to sport a cross, turban, or yarmulke, must decide how, when, where, and if to let others know of their history and theology.

Arc of the Covenant mosaic

It is difficult and rare for castrated men in our society to publicly embrace a eunuch identity. Might a look back at the respected eunuchs of antiquity -- and the angels that resemble them – help embolden more men to “come out” as eunuchs? Here, two angels guard the Arc of the Covenant in a mural from Germigny-des-Prés, France. Credit: Creative Commons/Holly Hayes.

In addition to being Jewish, I am a member of a definable gender minority that has been conspicuous throughout history. I am a eunuch.

Although eunuchs are more common today than ever before, we are, paradoxically, also more invisible than ever before. Nowadays people like me rarely out ourselves to anyone except very close friends and family.

So who are we? We are genetic males who have been castrated—i.e., had our testicles removed or destroyed—but not out of any desire to transition to female.

We are different from male-to-female transsexuals, who often choose to undergo castration, along with estrogen therapies and other surgeries, to feminize their bodies. Unlike transsexual women, the vast majority of eunuchs never desired feminization. A tiny percentage of men in the Western world who identify wholly as male desire to be free of testosterone, the main androgen that fuels our manhood and that is made in our testicles. Most castrated men in our society, myself included, were happily functioning males though until illness overtook us and we were offered chemical or surgical castration to slow the progression of our disease. We are in some ways transgender. Although we do not desire to be feminized, we are emasculated.

In our society most individuals, transgender or otherwise, buy into the “binary”—i.e., if not male, then female—and hold to the belief that emasculation is obligatorily coupled with feminization. But this is not necessarily true for those of use who are castrated as mature adults. We pass as males in public, but reside in a gendered no man’s land. Study after study of men on androgen deprivation therapy out of medical necessity confirm that patients feel less manly, but not necessarily female. Similarly medical research shows that transwomen and prostate cancer patients do not react identically to “androgen-deprivation.” As many would expect, different desires and cultural expectations influence how castration affects cognition, mood, and other mental processing.

Judaism and Castration

As a Jew, I have felt drawn to seek out the Torah’s passages on castration during my attempts to understand my own transformation. The Torah takes a harsh stance on emasculation. Unlike other groups in the Middle East, Judaism has never condoned castration either as punishment or to produce a servant class of court functionaries. Indeed, castration was seen as a foreign practice, as a scripture speaking to the exiles warned that their sons would “be made eunuchs in the palace of the king of Babylon” (Isa. 39:7; 2 Kings 20:18). Both Deuteronomy 23 and Leviticus 21 state that a male lacking intact testicles is excluded from the Temple and from participating in sacrificial offerings. He is seen as defective since he cannot fulfill the basic commandment to breed.

Cherub Guards Gates of Eden

Both eunuchs and angels walk between the genders, giving them a unique position under kings and God, the author writes. This fresco by Giusto de' Menabuoi appears in a bapitistry in Padua, Italy. Credit: Creative Commons.

Isaiah, however, views castrated males more positively and states that those who kept the Sabbath and the covenant with God will have “a name better than that of sons and daughters” and that God “will give them an eternal name which will not be cut off” (Isa. 56:5). These two divergent views of the emasculated individual continue today, for an androgen-deprived male can either view himself as crippled or as something special. I choose to go with Isaiah, for I see myself as different and empowered, rather than disabled, by having my brain no longer awash in testosterone.

Coming Out as a Eunuch

Most of us who are androgen deprived today are prostate cancer patients who were offered castration as a treatment to slow the growth of our cancer. Androgen deprivation therapy for prostate cancer is a hundred times more common than surgical and chemical castration for all other reasons combined, including reassignment surgeries for males transitioning to females. More than 250,000 males living in North America right now, including myself, have been castrated to treat prostate cancer. Few people, however, are aware of our existence, because we hide.

We hide because it is shameful to be castrated. There are many reasons for the shame, and one is surely castration’s historical application as corporal punishment for inappropriate sexual behavior. Indeed, chemical castration with the same or similar drugs used to treat many prostate cancer patients is currently offered to recidivist sexual predators in several states in the United States. Although this treatment in North America is voluntary and not court-imposed, castration for reasons other than as part of sexual reassignment has become linked in the minds of many to punishment for heinous crimes.

I elected to come out of hiding when I learned that denial was not an effective psychological strategy for dealing with the changes one experiences in response to androgen deprivation. I was also inspired by information on the social roles of castrated men in history and in the Hebrew Bible.

Shortly after I outed myself, my teenage daughter said, “Dad, when most people out themselves, they open the closet door and just come out. You, Dad, you went through the wall.” My daughter was reacting to my public announcement in an interview on national radio here in Canada and in essays in various publications beginning with Out magazine (2003) and later in the New York Times (2007), that I was a eunuch. Her reference to going through walls was more apt though than she realized. The transgressing of walls and barriers is not only central to my own story, but has been uniquely significant for eunuchs throughout history.

The Stigmatization of Eunuchs

“Eunuch” simply means a castrated man. However, terms such as “castrated,” “neutered,” “emasculated,” and “eunuch” tend to be applied metaphorically and pejoratively to politically impotent individuals regardless of their sex, gender, and gonadal status. Germaine Greer’s 1970 feminist polemic, The Female Eunuch, famously affirms this. When not considered criminal deviants or victims of gender politics, eunuchs in contemporary discourse are perceived as pusillanimous individuals, entrapped or complicit in the evil activities of others. Given such stereotypes, it is not surprising that few castrated males today openly acknowledge or accept a eunuch identity.

When I became castrated, I was surprised by the magnitude of the physical and mental impact of androgen deprivation. The physical changes included a 10 percent gain in weight as fat, loss of muscle mass, softening of my skin, and loss of most of my body hair. Most surprising, though, was how my mind worked when androgen deprived.

The medical literature focuses on two psychological features: diminished libido and hot flashes, which androgen-deprived males share with menopausal women. But researchers are increasingly aware that androgen deprivation is also associated with heightened emotionality often displayed as empathetic lacrymosity; i.e., tears shed in witnessing the sorrow or joy of others. Sadly, many prostate cancer patients find such displays unmanly and try to hide them. I instead have elected to embrace this, for I have found that accepting this change enriches my life and my connection with others.

On Eunuchs, Angels, and Exodus

In trying to adapt to androgen deprivation, I became curious about how androgen-deprived males functioned in the past. One of the first things I discovered was that, unlike the contemporary stereotypes, historically eunuchs were rarely social outcasts or politically powerless. On the contrary, they were the chamberlains, diplomats, and senior government officials in all major, long-lasting, dynastic governments across Asia for the last 3,000 years. Cowardly? Hardly. Many eunuchs were military leaders (e.g., Cheng Ho, Narses) and some were brutal assassins (e.g., Mohammad Khan Qajar). At the same time, some eunuchs in the early Christian world were philosophers (e.g., Abelard, Origen of Alexandria), and several achieved sainthood (e.g., St. Ignatius of Constantinople).

Angel guarding Eden in stained glass

An angel stands guard between humans and Eden in this stained glass window created by Gerente for Ely Cathedral. Creative Commons/Fr Lawrence Lew, O.P.

Then I discovered the hypothesis of such classicists as Kathryn Ringrose that the eunuchs of antiquity were the models for angels in the Bible. The similarities are striking. Both eunuchs and angels have beardless faces. Both are nonreproductive. Both are depicted as taller than normal mortals. And when we say that someone has an “angelic” voice, we mean the higher-pitched voice of the castrati. All the physical traits of angels characterize males castrated before puberty. God is perceived as surrounding himself with angels as advisers and emissaries. Kings and emperors in antiquity were similarly surrounded by eunuch advisers and emissaries. This analogy, more than anything else, has helped me recognize and adapt to the side effects of androgen deprivation, and overcome the stigma of castration.

This phenotype for angels is more closely linked to Christianity than to Torah. Angels are common in the Torah, but their physical features are not defined there. Nevertheless, angels show up early and often in the Torah. In Genesis we find them guarding the gates of Eden after Adam and Eve’s departure (Gen. 3), informing Sarah that she will bear a child (Gen. 18) and stopping Abraham from sacrificing that same offspring (Gen. 22). By the time we are half way through Genesis, their major social roles in relation to humans are clear. The angels of the Bible are guards and messengers.

But the strangest, and to me most intriguing, reference to angelic entities in the Torah comes in Exodus where  directions are given for the construction of the Ark that will house the commandments and reside in the Holy of Holies on the Temple Mount. The Israelites are told to fabricate a cherub at each end of the Ark (Exod. 25:19). The cherubim are to face inward toward each other with their wings “spread out above the Ark, shielding the Ark” (Exod. 25:20).

What is so problematic here is that these cherubim are permanent, tangible objects, neither animate beings nor supernatural spirits. In Judaism, there are not supposed to be any figures, figurines, or forms that might be deified. Why were the Israelites asked to carve figurines for their most sacred site, but slammed for toying with idolatry vis-à-vis a golden calf (Exod. 32)?

No sacred individuals other than the Lord! Yet there—on the Ark itself, which contains the words “no idols, no other Gods,” are winged figurines. What are these icons doing in, of all places, the Holy of Holies?

I believe that a reasonable interpretation of these figurines is rooted in the social roles of eunuchs in Near and Middle Eastern antiquity. Knowing how the eunuchs of Asia served emperors on Earth helps us understand how angels and cherubim served the Lord in Heaven (or at least were perceived to do so by the authors of Exodus).

The first thing to recognize is how common eunuchs were in antiquity. Archeologists have found much evidence of eunuchs in ancient courts, such as that of Hammurabi, which preceded the Exodus by about five hundred years. Art work and descriptions of emperors from well before the time of the Exodus present kings and rulers of those times flanked by beardless adult men, who, simply by being beardless, are identified by historians as eunuchs. Eunuchs themselves are found in Jewish history, most famously in the Egyptian court at the time of Joseph and in the Persian court at the time of Ahasuerus and Esther.

Angels in the Torah are the Lord’s trusted messengers; the word angel comes from the Greek word angelos (messenger). In a similar way, eunuchs of biblical times were the emperors’ messengers and guardians. If a successful kingdom on Earth was maintained with the help of eunuchs, it is logical to suppose that a kingdom in Heaven would have a similar class of citizens.

Some problems in the Torah text beyond Exodus 25 can be resolved relatively easily by accepting the idea that angels are, in fact, modeled after eunuchs. Consider the puzzle of who actually spoke to Moses and Abraham—an angel or God. In several places in Genesis we have passages like “An angel appeared before Abraham,” which is then immediately followed by words like “the Lord said to Abraham.” So was it the Lord or an angel who appeared before and spoke to Abraham? Talmudic scholars have taken up this problem, but have not resolved it (see “angels” in Encyclopedia Judaica, Macmillan Publishers, 1971).

In the context of the role that eunuchs played in Asian cultures at that time, when the emperor’s eunuchs spoke, the emperor spoke. So by analogy, when the angels spoke, it was understood to be the word of the Lord … without question. To say “the Lord said,” when the words actually came out of the mouth of an angel, was not ambiguous, given the total authority of angels to speak the words of the Lord.

Ark of The Covenant Mural

The depiction of cherubim on the Ark of the Covenant reflects the traditional view of angels as trusted guardians and messengers capable of interceding between humans and God. Credit: Creative Commons/Fr. Lawrence Lew, O.P.

Returning specifically to Exodus 25, we have in the next line the Lord telling the Israelites, “There I will meet with you.” This is a profound moment in Judaism. For here God declares that on that very site, he will be in among the people!

But if the Lord were really to dwell among the people, and he is of human image/form, how would the people know that it really was God and not false (lesser) deities, or an insane man just claiming to be God? How would they, how could they, tell that the entity was the Lord?

One answer is the presence of the Lord’s eunuch-like minions. An emperor in those biblical times would never be out in public without eunuchs surrounding him. People could tell that the emperor was near just because his eunuch corps was there. The existence of an equivalent angelic class interceding between man and God right there on the Ark affirmed both the Lord’s divine status and the immediate presence of the Lord within the Holy of Holies. The cherubim on the Ark affirmed the validity of God’s genuine presence and authority.

With cherubim shielding the Ark, the people had visual evidence that there must be an important ruler of truly divine status nearby. The mere presence of the cherubim thus helped “announce” the presence of God, just as eunuchs of that day would “announce” the presence of any major mortal ruler. In having the eunuch guards—in the form of permanent, concrete, tangible cherubim—the Lord’s presence could never be doubted. A material, iconographic, angelic presence right on the Ark precluded doubt that the Lord’s angels, and thus the Lord himself, were only spirits, apparitions.

Angelic Empathy

Knowledge of eunuch history and its links to biblical angelology helped me recognize, accept, and openly acknowledge the changes androgen deprivation caused in my personality and interactions with others. I have felt privileged knowing that it was people like me who gave the world its predominantly positive perception of angels.

Somewhat puzzling, given their roles as esteemed advisors, guards, and emissaries, is that historical and contemporary eunuchs are described as moodier and more emotional than men with normal levels of testosterone.

Cancer patients on androgen deprivation therapy find themselves crying about little things that they would never have reacted to before. But what exactly sets them off? It may be a TV commercial or a news story in which a person triumphs … or fails. There may be substantial therapeutic value for those on androgen deprivation therapy in exploring the idea that their crying is stimulated by genuine compassion—angelic compassion—toward others. The emasculated male’s tears are not necessarily a shameful sign of self-pity and uncontrolled despair. Angels cry, yet no one diagnoses them as depressed. When we say, “the angels wept,” that surely does not convey an image of self-pity. Angels in liturgical texts often cry; they cry even though they suffer no physical pain. Nor would we suppose that they are distressed by their fate. They cry in response to both the sufferings and successes of humankind.

Passing through Walls

The core story of the Torah is one of a passage and a change of identity, namely from that of entrapped slaves in Egypt to free Israelites in Canaan. For our ancestors to escape Egypt, receive the Torah, and accept the change in their identity, they had to cross barriers—the Red Sea, a wall of water, being the prime example. Forty years in the desert affirms that this transformation was neither fast nor easy.

The liminal status of court eunuchs, who were neither males nor females, neither commoners nor kings, gave them a unique privilege, the privilege of passage through palace walls. This meant that they could on one hand mingle with the masses, while on the other, be free to enter the inner court (e.g., the Forbidden City in Beijing) and the most important sites of government. They both guarded the portals and were free to pass through them. My daughter called it like it really was: I came out “through the wall,” just as eunuchs of antiquity were uniquely empowered to do.

Eunuchs inhabit a gender space that is partially male, partially female, but not completely either. In gender-segregated cultures, our in-betweenness allows us to be able to transgress both worlds.

The eunuchs of antiquity could pass through literal and social walls and live in the world of both commoner and king. Being neither fully male nor fully female, they could also emotionally function in both gender terrains. In the same way, angels could transgress the borders of Heaven and Earth. They, too, were liminal beings, neither deities nor mortals, but something in between. Like the eunuchs on Earth, they left no descendants, but were granted access to both the natural and supernatural worlds. Recognizing that angels are modeled after eunuchs helped me understand not just Torah passages, but also what boundaries I traversed when I elected to accept rather than hide or deny my medically prompted emasculation.

I wish more men, androgen-deprived for whatever reason, and who suffer in silent shame, could learn what I learned from studying the angels and eunuchs of antiquity. Sadly, too many of those men closet themselves solely to avoid being seen as less of a man than they used to be. A richer life would be available to them, if they were only willing to see the empowerment in accepting change and coming out of that closet.

Richard Joel Wassersug, Ph.D., is a researcher who published a longer, related essay on this topic in the Journal of Religion and Health (2009) under the title “Passing through the Wall: On Outings, Exodus, Angels, and the Ark.”
 
tags: Gender & Sexuality, Judaism   
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5 Responses to Embracing a Eunuch Identity

  1. Aminah Yaquin Carroll February 29, 2012 at 2:00 pm

    Dear Richard Joel Wassersug,

    Your piece here on “Embracing a Eunuch Identity” is bold, and generous spirited.

    First, in our faith tradition we have a saying of the Prophet Muhammad, as reported by Nayeem bin Massud, Al Hadis 1:347 “G-d exalted two kinds of people above others: those who spend in the cause of the Truth, and those who impart their wisdom to others.”

    IMO, you have just hit a double whammy in regards to both endeavors, with your fine, brave, revelatory piece.

    You are spending your courage and candor in the cause of an important and often hidden truth; you are sharing with us who read, the wisdom you have found on a path offering a great challenge to your very identity.

    This sharing is so needed, in a world where sexual performance (increasingly stimulated, even among young adults, by sordid, cruel, objectifying expressions of self-annihilation and other-objectification ) supplant love making and “pleasuring” in a holistic and sexually healing sense.

    In this kind of a mindset, the sexual acts often suffice for a sexual identity, ie, instead of simply being “flavors” of the expression of humankind’s privilege and joy of expressive and receptive, ardent intimacy, individuals may define and own selfhood by relentlessly focusing on one facet of their multifarious life: their sexual identity.

    In your case, you are exploring, it seems to me, a way of embracing personhood that is like so many soaring passages of the Bible, transcendent of our society’s imposed strictures, or of cultural constraints. It reminds me that you may be living proof that, as is stated in Galations 3:28, and similarly in Colossians 3:11 : “There is not Jew nor Greek: bond, nor free; male nor female, but all are one in *Christ Jesus.”

    To me this means that our souls are not bound by the bonds of earthly labels, but are sublime, and exist in a sphere in which their value and beauty is flavored by all that is learned and experienced on earth, but not confined to accidents of birth or happenstance.

    I hope that your contribution gives heart and inspiration to many who have been shattered by what has made you stronger and even more beautiful and good.

    You certainly have inspired and moved me,
    Aminah

  2. Richard Wassersug February 13, 2013 at 6:04 pm

    Dear Aminah,

    I only discovered today your posting above from almost a year ago. I am deeply flattered by your very kind words. I was going to send you an e-mail directly but was not able to pull up an e-mail address for you. However in searching for I found many other postings from you to various blogs and social activists websites.

    I respect your commitment to so many causes, good causes. I hope you’ll maintain your interests and, when you find something written by others that you particularly like, so send them a nice posting like the one you sent me. as far as I know very few other people actually read my essay. Yours is the most extensive response of the guff from anyone. So once again a big THANK YOU!

  3. kofi March 31, 2013 at 6:16 pm

    I think the things you say are very wise

    You help me accept being one

    I am muslim and I think its gods fate for me

    I was done wen I was 14 and the things you write they happen also with me

    Kofi

  4. Don November 10, 2013 at 8:48 pm

    Hello, Personally, I’m not very happy bout my fate. I am frustrated hoping to keep the love of a beautiful wife, she says it’s okay, but I am no longer able to deliver the passion that once I could. If she stays is it out of pity? That thought is even more depressing than her “pulln up stakes”. I’m very angry at those who caused my loss. Sometimes life sucks.

  5. Don November 10, 2013 at 8:52 pm

    Thanks also to Aminah Yaquin Carrol and kofl, for your enlightened thoughts, but I’m gonna fight on…

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