Eunuchs – the old version of the gay question?

April 21, 2013

What do we do with the eunuchs?  This was a real question that the holy fathers of the Church wrestled with for several centuries in late antiquity. In reading about this historical topic I could not help but draw a parallel with the a question that numerous theologians, members of the clergy and lay people in Christianity in general, and in the Orthodox Church in particular, are perplexed with – what do we do with the gay people?

Eunuchs were not unknown in the world of the Old Testament. The Roman Empire viewed eunuchs as a separate social entity which necessitated specific laws governing them. Usually men became eunuchs because they were castrated as a result of being captured as foreigners and became slaves. Isaiah 56 (verses 3 and 4) brings together the concept of eunuchs as foreigners and slaves. Jesus Christ mentions eunuchs and states that some were born eunuchs and some were made so by others. (Matthew 19:12) In the Byzantine era the term eunuch appears to have been used to refer to those who were castrated as well as to describe those men who refused to marry and procreate, in other words, homosexual men. While eunuchs were able to have sexual contact it was widely assumed in Roman society, probably erroneously, that they were incapable of any affection. Perhaps for this reason emperors in the early Byzantine court widely used eunuchs to help them with daily bathing and dressing and other domestic rituals and responsibilities, yet by the time of Emperor Justinian in the 6th century a eunuch, Narses, served as a general in the army of the empire.* Narses was so highly prized, and the fact that he was a eunuch was either overlooked or accepted, that he was charged with protecting the emperor and the Byzantine empire. Therefore eunuchs went from being prisoners and slaves to serving in respected positions of authority in the imperial court.

Historically as the number of eunuchs and their responsibilities in the Byzantine court increased, societal and ecclesiastical views of those castrated also developed and softened. Writing in the fourth century St. Basil of Caesarea wrote that the eunuch was “damned by the knife”. St. John Chrysostom in the same century remarks that eunuchs are the result of the devil’s work. By the tenth century views about eunuchs in the Church changed from “damned and diabolically created” to acceptance. St. Simeon Metaphrastes commented that the prophet Daniel of the Old Testament was a eunuch. In the eleventh century the venerable bishop of Ochrid, Theophylact defended eunuchs because they were able to live chaste lives with greater ease. Bishop Theophylact even defended the intentional castration of boys, with the permission of the boys’ parents, as “fulfilling God’s plan”. What Orthodox bishop or theologian today would defend the voluntary castration of young boys in order to “fulfill God’s plan”? By the twelfth century there were examples of eunuchs holding positions of authority in the court of the Byzantine emperor. One example of a eunuch holding a high office was Symeon the Sanctified who served the emperor as the president of the imperial tribunal (droungarios).  Those who were damned and the handwork of the devil became honorable and trusted enough to serve the absolute ruler of divine origin, the Byzantine emperor. The views about eunuchs, those made so and those born so, changed.

What changed from the fourth to the twelfth century that so altered the views of many regarding eunuchs? Did the politics of the day change the view of the Church? Did the demands of the Byzantine court change the view of the Church? Did a greater understanding of eunuchs change the view of the Church?  Did people, and in particular those with moral and spiritual authority simply become more comfortable around those who couldn’t or refused to procreate? The answers to these social-historical questions are difficult to answer. Perhaps the views of the Church changed because the holy fathers finally listened to the words of Christ concerning eunuchs that “some were born this way” (Matthew 19:12). What is certain is that the Church and official society changed its views and accepted a class of people previously viewed as damned. 

What strikes me is that a similar change has taken place in society, within the last generation, surrounding the question of homosexuality. LGBT persons, in most of the Western world, are widely accepted as a normal and even integral part of modern life. Today chances are more than likely that you know someone who is gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgendered.  We are your sons and daughters, your neighbors and co-workers, your bosses and quite possibly your friend. We serve in respected positions and are an integral part of everyday modern life. In the past this was not always the case.

I hope that the modern day question of “what do we do with gay people” will someday soon become as anachronistic for the Orthodox Church as the question of “what do we do with the eunuchs”. As more theologians begin to seriously investigate modern biology and psychology and apply the sciences to Christian thought, the “official views” of the Church concerning LGBT persons will hopefully also change. The question “what do we do with the gay people?” has a very simple answer. “They were born this way” – so love them, minister to them, administer the mysteries to them, accept their choices of life partners, and accept them as created in the image of God with the ability and desire to love and be loved.

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* Concerning Narses see The Cambridge Ancient History, Vol. 14: Late Antiquity

**For more about eunuchs see “Passing the test of sanctity: denial of sexuality and involuntary castration.” Desire and Denial in Byzantium. By Kathryn M. Ringrose. Excerpt from Desire and Denial in Byzantium. Ed. Liz James. Aldershot: Ashgate, 1999.

The Perfect Servant. Eunuch as the Social Construction of Gender in Byzantium by Kathryn M. Ringrose. University of Chicago Press, 2003.

  1. Noel Warren Said,

    What an amazing article! I had never thought of eunuchs as including gay men who refused to marry. Let’s face it, some gay men could not even consumate a marriage to a woman. Another example of the Church capable of changing is the Catholic Church now accepting married Anglican priests into their priesthood. What suddenly made them acceptable to God as priests? How does a priest who has struggled so hard with celibacy feel when the other priest in his parish is allowed to have a wife?
    I remember visiting the Taj Mahal and among the mostly Indian visitors that day were three Indian transvestites arrayed in beautiful saris. They were throughly enjoying themselves. I believe in ancient Hindu village society they had a special place. It was considered good luck to have them sing at your wedding. I wish the Othrodox and Catholic hierarchies would climb out of their prisons and embrace God’s creation with its infinate variety. That includes us LGBTI people! Cheers, Noel.

  2. Antoinette Herrera Said,

    Thank you for this amazing article.

    One question: were there ever female eunuchs? If yes, what was their role in the early Church?

  3. andre Said,

    Antoinette,
    Thank you for your question and support. I have taken some time to research your question. Eunuchs are by definition (at least in the Byzantine era) men who are castrated. There is no understanding of female castration. However, I do assume that you ask – by extension – if there were females who were thought of as eunuchs because the “refused to marry.” Although I am far from an expert on this topic, although it has fascinated me enough that I have read extensively – the scholars in the field – Kathryn Ringrose, Shaun Tougher, and to some extent Averil Cameron and Dion Smythe who wrote on gender issues in Byzantium – agree to some extent that the vast majority of women simply did not the position or power to make those decisions on their own. Therefore we read about women who were manipulated by stronger fathers and society in general into marriages that they may or may not have desired. History usually records only the stories of the women of the upper class. I will keep my eyes open for any further historical research into the topic and the great question that you ask.
    Andriy

  4. Jim of Olym Said,

    One item not mentioned so far here is that many women who did not wish to marry became nuns, often over the objections of their fathers!. Yet there are few ‘scandals’ of sexual license reported regarding the monasteries. And there were prohibitions of monasteries accepting ‘beardless youth’ as novices, which probably curtailed molesters from becoming monks as there were no ‘targets’ for them.

  5. andre Said,

    Jim,
    Thank you for your comment on one of the reflections. It would be wonderful if we had first hand accounts of the women who decided to become nuns rather than marry. Unfortunately these are far and few between given the historical time period as well as the socio-economic background of many of the women. But logic would tell us that such decisions were made for the reasons that you state. I would surmise that while some of the women who decided to enter a convent were lesbians, others probably made the decision because they did not want to marry the men chosen for them by the families. Either way – brave women!
    As far as the proscription of “beardless youth” being allowed in monasteries, the various monastic rules and typicons are not unanimous on this issue. Some forbid such youth outright, others assign them to respected and elderly monks for education and “protection” and others do not mention them at all. The Slavic monasteries, with later rules and regulations, seem to suggest more rigorous rules than the Greeks.
    Please stay in touch.
    I bid you peace,
    Andriy

  6. Anonymous Said,

    I don’t believe eunuchs were homosexual but were hemophrodites. Hemophrodites were born with underdeveloped sexual organs; therefore, they were unable to consummate the sexual act.

  7. andre Said,

    According to the scholarly literature not all eunuchs were hermaphrodites. If you check the literature that I quoted and cited (Ringrose) Shaun Tougher has also extensively researched this question, you will find evidence of this. There is no specific evidence that eunuchs were homosexual, as such memoirs would probably not have been recorded or preserved. In my reflection, I simply ask the question: if the Church was so concerned with eunuchs and that question has become irrelevant, perhaps the question about LGBT individuals will also become irrelevant. The Church will also recognize that gay people were created as such by God and we live our lives openly, loving and being loved, blessed by our Creator.
    Andriy

  8. Faris Malik Said,

    I think the question of eunuchs is not just analogous to the gay question, it is the gay question within the historical context of widespread bisexuality. When most people admit to desires for the same sex, not desiring the opposite sex is the distinguishing characteristic of gay people. For proof, see my website Born Eunuchs and especially the paper I presented to a conference in 1999 attended by Kathryn Ringrose organized by Shaun Tougher ( http://www.well.com/user/aquarius/cardiff.htm ). Prof. Ringrose did not accept my argument, but then her main counterargument was that gay people did not exist in the ancient world, so how could they be identified as anything in those times. My point was that since gay people are born that way today, they must have been born that way thousands of years ago — the only question is how would they stand out in a society when same-sex desire was treated as entirely normal for everyone, while only certain same-sex practices were taboo.

  9. andre Said,

    Faris,
    Thank you for your comment and support of the website – it means a lot to me. The site receives numerous emails from around the world and so it takes some time to respond to everyone – please forgive me that it has taken some time to get back to you. You comment on my reflection are also appreciated. I do think that you are correct in your analogy. I do think, and would agree with you, that Prof. Ringrose has a bit of a blind spot when it comes to the issue of gay people and the history of gay people. I also agree with your simple but concrete argument that gay people are born gay, have been born gay and so have been born that way for centuries plus. We can witness this today. There are gay people all over the world. The only question is how they are treated by various governments and societies – which then frequently determines the parameters of how they express their sexuality and desires. Being gay in San Francisco would mean feeling free and being allowed to express your love for your husband or wife – holding hands in public for example. However, being gay in Iran or even Russia today – entirely different issue.
    I am looking forward to checking out your website and staying in touch.
    Please feel free to do the same.
    All the best,
    Andriy

  10. Keith Said,

    I have written this to show the flaw in the theory about “Born Eunuchs” being homosexual men. I have an enlightened mind in this matter, one that males can not have, because they are men, they are the makers of sperm(seed), that which gives them the right to be called man or men by the laws of the Almighty All Knowing God, and which is written down in all of his Holy Scriptures for the enlightened to truly understand.

    Men have sperm that is used during intercourse with a woman, too create offspring (Sons,Daughters and Eunuchs). The man’s sperm joins with the woman’s ovum (egg), thus causing procreation. This is known as man laying with woman. It is the act of depositing ones sperm (seed) into the woman’s vagina to try to produce a child or children.

    So as Jesus Stated in Matthew 19: 12 – For their are eunuchs that were born such from their mother’s womb, and there are eunuchs that were made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs that have made themselves eunuchs on account of the kingdom of heavens. They that are able to receive this, let them receive it.

    Now let me explain this, well you know what males and females are, but apparently you need to be schooled as to what an eunuch is. A born eunuch can not be a homosexual man, because a born eunuch has no sperm (seed) only men have that gift from Almighty God. And only man can spill their sperm (seed) inside another man, and receive the wrath of God Almighty for the sin of man laying with man, or homosexuality as it is known today.
    Eunuchs born from their Mother’s womb are different genders than male and female, they are eunuch genders, let me explain further, thanks to science and medical technology today, we can now see what the Almighty God knows since before we are born. Male gender has the sex chromosomes of XY, and the female gender has the sex chromosomes of XX, eunuch gender has the sex chromosomes that can contain both of the sets of chromosomes of both the male gender and the female gender chromosomes or more or less of either X OR Y chromosomes. Science today gives male looking born eunuch’s many titles, some of which is Klinefelters syndrome or a variation of it call Klinefelters mosaic syndrome or intersexed or intergendered or bigendered,the list goes on, for example the gender chromosomes for Klinefelters mosaic persons or born eunuchs of the past that are born of their mother’s womb are XYXXY, what all of the eunuch’s have in common, is that they can not procreate, meaning the born eunuchs that may look like males but have no sperm (seed) to deposit into a woman to procreate with her, to cause the creation of Sons, Daughters and Eunuchs. Thus eunuchs cannot procreate, yet in most cases they can have sexual relationships with each other or any of the other genders such as males and females. But born Eunuchs are, infertile the void of sperm. Now you may say to me how could someone from a thousand years ago or further back or even a hundred years ago before the time of science know if someone was a born eunuch or not, well that is easy, even though they may look like males, there are some differences, such as the size of the skull which falls between the size of a males and a females, the unusually long arms longer than males and females, the male looking born eunuchs for instance, the area of the scrotum is smaller, because of the non functioning and deformed testicles, and usually have more feminine looking bodies, breast tissue and more rounded features, the body and facial hair of the male looking born eunuch may be spare to non-existent. As to the sexuality of the born eunuchs they are heterosexual because they are the opposite gender of both males and females. But unlike males and females they don’t have the same drive or urge for sex as much as the procreating males and females. This is the first part of what Jesus says about “eunuchs born of their mother’s womb”.

    Now the second part of what Jesus said which pertains to,” eunuchs that were made eunuchs by men”, these eunuchs are not born eunuchs, not true eunuchs, they were born male, they had the gift of procreation removed from them by other men, their sex organs were either removed entirely or only had their testicles removed. This usually happened to male slaves taken in battle, so they could better serve there masters, by being submissive and less likely to cause violence again his master or his master property, their master’s also required them castrated so that could not procreate, so there was no worry of their master’s women becoming pregnant by them depositing their sperm (seed) into their master’s women. Depending on the damage done to their sex organs when castrated, controlled whether or not if they could have intercourse. Even though their testicles were removed they would still have sexual urges to some degree, but their masters had no worry of finding his women pregnant by his male slaves.

    Now as the the third part of what Jesus said about eunuchs, “there are eunuchs that have made themselves eunuchs on account of the kingdom of heavens”. Some people think that he is talking about people who remain celibate, such as some priests and monks, but this is flawed, seeing they are not eunuchs, they have sperm (seed) but prefer not to use the gift of procreation, so celebrate men are not eunuchs. But back in the time before, during and after the time Jesus came, there were men who castrated themselves, some where pagans would did it for their pagan Goddess they worshiped, but some followed the teaching of God Almighty and still castrated themselves, so as to not have the same sexual urges as a fully functional male to better serve their Almighty God and spread his Holy Scriptures.

    So, “they that are able to receive this, let them receive it.

    Now that I have explained why eunuchs, whether they be born eunuchs, made by men eunuchs or made by their own hand eunuchs, they all have one thing in common, NO SPERM (SEED), can not deposit sperm into a woman, can not procreate with women, but provided they still have a working penis and it can get hard they can penetrate the woman or women but no offspring shall they receive from the sexual act of intercourse. Now you may say that what I said about born eunuchs is false, and you may use what science says about Klinefelters persons, that they are male because they have a Y chromosome or two, but Almighty God knows more than any scientist will ever know about human kind because he created us. Almighty God by his design males or men have sperm (seed) in which to procreate with women. So Klinefelters persons even thought they may look like males or men, they are born eunuchs in the eyes of Almighty God.

    Now I will address your theory that homosexual men are eunuchs because they don’t find women sexually attractive, eunuchs do find men and women sexually attractive, but either by being born eunuch or by the hand of man or their own hand, they may or may not be able to penetrate a woman sexually, but can pleasure her in other sexual ways that don’t involve penis insertion into the woman vagina. they can also pleasure men as well. Born Eunuchs are heterosexual by nature, they can prefer either or both of their opposite gender of male or female. Homosexual men find the female body repulsive, not attractive, they prefer to penetrate men for the pleasure of sexual intercourse, they deposit their sperm inside each other, rather than inside a woman for procreation. You see a homosexual man or men, still have the ability to produce sperm (seed) for procreation, even though they don’t use it for procreation, they still have it, the sin of homosexuality or men laying with men, has nothing to do with men loving one another it has to do with wasting your sperm (seed) inside of a man, rather than depositing it inside a woman where it was designed by God Almighty to go for the purpose of creating offspring. So it is okay to love your fellow man, but not to unload your sperm(seed) inside of him, sperm(seed) is for the creation of offspring.

    So, as I see it, there is one way and only one way for two men or males to have sexual intercourse with one another without incurring, the wrath of Almighty God, for the sin of man laying with man as man lays with woman. They must do as it says in the third verse about eunuchs, that Jesus said, they must make themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven, or to clarify it, they must remove what will cause the offense against Almighty God, they must have no sperm (seed) to waste inside another man, only by castrating themselves, by removing their testicles or thanks to modern medicine getting surgically castrated might not be as painful and as dangerous as doing it yourself, will they be able to have intercourse with each other, but have no sperm (seed) to unload inside their made eunuch lover and offend Almighty God. So the only way for a homosexual or gay man or men too be called eunuchs and not offend Almighty God is to be castrated, to have NO SPERM(SEED). Thus making them no longer male in the eyes of the Almighty God.

    Now if you are wondering how I know this is what Jesus meant in Matthew 19:12 of the Holy Scriptures, well the reason I am so enlightened about this subject is that I am a born eunuch, born from my mother’s womb. So I have a better perspective then does a man or a woman on what exactly a born eunuch is and how we see the world around us, and how we see the glories of God Almighty, our minds are not always clouded with the urge for sexual conquest as we so observe in the other genders of male and female that we share this earth with, by the glory of God Almighty

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