Acceptance Wasn’t Built in a Day

  • Post last modified:November 27, 2023
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marble bust of roman emperor Elagabalu (she/her)

What Elagabalus can tell us about Transgender Archaeology

I was at my desk the other day working on a written piece about the role our discipline can play in supporting transgender individuals by making visible transgender heritages, when I noticed I had accrued a large number of texts from multiple individuals all linking me to various news articles about the North Hertfordshire Museum changing the pronouns it uses on their display for the Roman Emperor, Elagabalus, to she/her [1]. Why I received such a large volume of texts about this, from numerous people, makes sense – after all I am ‘the trans archaeologist’ in their lives, both because I am transgender and an archaeologist, as well as doing transgender archaeological theory for my PhD [2], but moreover because they happen to have my number and they like to distract me from writing.

However, this kind of transgender archaeology is not the kind of transgender archaeology I do. Firstly, I have never been into the Romans, minus *that* Horrible Histories song (you know the one); it’s nothing personal, it’s just not my cup of tea. It’s a nettle tea, let’s say, when I prefer the comfort of an Earl Grey or a Decaffeinated Yorkshire – which in this metaphor are the Neolithic and the Iron Age respectively. Moreover, I don’t know much about Elagabalus herself. I remember vaguely coming across her when researching historic gender non-conforming figures, but that is it really. Though fundamentally, why this is not the kind of transgender archaeology I do is because I am less concerned with individuals than I am systems. 

That is not to say I’m not glad that Elagabalus’ gender is no longer being read in a cisnormative way, but I place my theoretical position in transgender archaeology firmly in the queer archaeological tradition as put forward by its creator Thomas Dowson; “Queering archaeology does not involve digging for homosexuals, or any other supposed sexual deviant for that matter, in the past. Nor is it concerned with the origins of homosexuality” [3], that is to say ‘transgender archaeology does not involve digging for transgender individuals’. 

Now, before this gets misconstrued as me condemning what the North Herefordshire Museum has done; I think this change is perfectly acceptable. For what it’s worth, my own personal opinion from researching her more closely for this blog is in line with Elagabalus expert Zachary Herz, who has stated that he thinks “Elagabalus doesn’t show us ‘trans people in antiquity’ but does show us other ways of doing sex, gender, and sexuality” [4]. Yet with that, I still think, like Zachary, that “if a trans person today reads about Elagabalus and feels less alone” then that is a brilliant net benefit [5]. I feel that the changing of her pronouns by the museum encapsulates all of that. It respects her identity, which was clearly not cisgender however you slice it, challenges a naturalisation of a binary gender dichotomy, and also potentially helps transgender people see some historic visibility.

It is then the way this change has been presented and reacted to by news outlets and social media that I do take a critical eye to. To me the way this news story has been circulated demonstrates exactly why transgender archaeology must be about more than simply correcting centuries old misgendering (though that is obviously still important, and I will fight anyone who questions Dr James Barry’s manhood – don’t try me). To demonstrate this, let’s unpack more about what Zachary said in relation to Elagabalus not showing us an example of a trans person in antiquity, instead showing us other ways of doing sex, gender and sexuality.

I’m an exciting gay, so let’s skip the theoretical foreplay and get to what we were all hoping for – taxonomies. As Barbara Voss has pointed out “a truly queer archaeology will actively question the received categories of present-day sexual politics and seek to develop archaeological methodologies that do not depend on these problematic taxonomies” [6]. This is exactly what Zachary is doing with his statement.

The question of ‘is Elagabalus trans?’ is to me a question that can only be answered with another question: “Would Elagabalus describe themselves as trans if she was around today?” If you think the answer to that is yes (and I think it’s likely), then using her as an example of transgender heritage visibility is understandable. However, we must recognise that the ‘around today’ in the question is important because what we understand as being trans today is intertwined with present day socio-sexual politics and cultural specificities. This categorically does not suggest that being trans is only as recent as these socio-sexual politics – but that the feelings and experiences we taxonomically classify as being ‘trans’ today may have been classified completely differently in the past, in fact they almost certainly were. This is why questioning the entirety of what constituted Roman (and other) gender categories, their flexibility and/or rigidity, acceptance and/or disapproval – as Zachary is suggesting Elagabalus allows us to do – is a better focus of transgender archaeology than naming her as trans and then watching angry reactions from people who just hate trans anything. 

Again, I’m not criticising the decision of the museum – heck I actively support it. However, allowing the narrative to run wild in the (social) media landscape that she was transgender, in our modern sense of the word, does, I think, a disservice to her and the transgender population today. The argument suddenly turns to ‘can we prove/disprove the transness of this one historic person’ as allegory for having trans rights today, rather than pulling apart the entirety of what the heck we even mean by gender in the past in ways that demonstrate how ridiculous it is to claim strictly adherent binary genders as temporally universal.

As Giffney so eloquently put it; “queer theory seeks to allow for complexity and the holding of uncertainties by encouraging the experiencing of states without necessarily trying to understand, dissect, or categorise them” [7], and yeah… that. Gender is messy, personal, ephemeral, temporal, multiple, complex and above all, so heterogeneous as to make any categorisation of them woefully unwieldy at best, and simply broken at worst – and that’s before we even get into ones usually seen as queer! Above my office desk I have stapled a single sheet of A4 on which, in bold capital letters, is printed my guiding ethos; “gender is a nice idea on paper but horrible in practice”, and that is exactly how I feel not just about my own (Gender Crumpet, full of holes, but structurally sound and delicious with butter if you must know), but also gender archaeology’s desperate attempts to provide a typology to gender. 

And look, archaeologists have traditionally loved typology more than us queers love Mothman (and trust me, that’s a lot). This tendency has been rightly criticized [8],  and that criticism is certainly valid in relation to gender typologies and specifically pertinent to discussions of Elagabalus’ gender. To demonstrate this further let’s turn to my favourite paper, not because it’s good per se, but because it is – in my opinion – a perfect example of how not to handle queer identities in archaeology.

Keith Matthews’ ‘The Material Culture of the Homosexual Male: A Case for Archaeological Exploration’ [9] is the queer research equivalent of a telescope in a windmill; on occasion it can make astute observations about the very fundamental nature of what it is searching for, but more often than not, it is blocked from doing so by how unfit for purpose its context is. His paper will end with a scathing and accurate indictment of how heritage and archaeology have historically contributed to homophobia – but you had to get there via reading such ignominious postulation as “[most gay men] do not have a family to support and thus have more disposable income available to buy expensive fashion clothes than heterosexuals”… [10]

What Matthews is arguing for here, and did prior in 1994, is that archaeology can and should look for specific examples of homosexual individuals using a material culture that can be identified as gay. It is in direct opposition to Dowson’s ideals of a more systematic queering of archaeology that doesn’t specifically look for homosexuality but acknowledges that what we might call homosexuality today existed in the past under potentially different taxonomies by disrupting the very fabric of the assumed sexual dynamics and compulsive heterosexuality of the past and present. This is exactly the kind of transgender archaeology we should be practising today in relation to cisnormativity.

Acceptance wasn’t built in a day, so the title of this blog tells us, and my own experiences as a non-binary griddle bread, transgender activist and semi-public figure confirm. My gender is not legally recognised in the UK [12], waiting times for a first appointment at a Gender Identity Clinic on the NHS are up to five years in places [13], for a third consecutive year recorded hate crimes against transgender people have risen to a record high [14], public support for trans rights has fallen on almost every major metric since 2018 [15], and this year a 16 year old trans girl was murdered in a UK public park in broad fucking daylight [16] with half the press seeing fit use this opportunity to detransition her in death all whilst continuing to print article after article about how we are the real predators [17]. It’s exhausting to be trans right now. And maybe you weren’t expecting this tonal whiplash from an article on a research centre’s blog that started with a tea metaphor but I’m sorry – trans people are literally dying from structural transphobia so what the hell are you going to do about it?

A museum changing the pronouns of Elagabalus should not be a news story, it should not be a trending item on social media. It should be a simple piece of visibility that trans people can see. But it’s not. That’s not the world we live in. Instead, it has been weaponised by those that seek to perpetuate a system that actively harms trans people, and we have to be aware of that fact. I imagine most of the people reading this have some interest in heritage and may even be practitioners of it – so what can you do? What one piece of acceptance building advice can I leave you at the end of this article? Practise transgender archaeology to its fullest. Build a visibility that is not tokenistic or surface level, but meaningful and impactful. Disrupt a priori assumptions about cisnormativity, break the binary and present all that as publicly as you can and in details that show the complexity of gender in ways that can’t just be reduced to ‘was this person trans as we know it today?’ Activism has taught me we probably can’t change the minds of most of the already transphobic, but we can interrupt those same transphobes from recruiting others to their hate-filled cult. It is not an easy task, but our discipline can be a useful tool, we just have to understand the nature of the problem. Acceptance wasn’t built in a day, but a day can’t go by where we don’t at least build some.

By Owen J Hurcum [They/Them]

Owen (They/Them) is an AHRC (WRoCAH) funded PhD researcher at the Centre whose PhD project, ‘Transgender Archaeology’, will look at the impact of archaeological research on the transgender community, how archaeology is being (ab)used in discussions around rights and equalities for transgender individuals as well as investigating identities in the past that do not fall within the modern West’s notion of cisgender men and women.


Picture Reference – ‘Marble bust of Roman emperor Elagabalus, ca. 221 AD, Capitoline Museums (20814003112).jpg’, Wikimedia, Creative Commons Attribution,,_ca._221_AD,_Capitoline_Museums_%2820814003112%29.jpg 

[1] Y. Rufo. 2023. ‘Museum Reclassifies Roman Emperor as a trans woman’, BBC News, 22 November 2023, accessed 27/11/23,

[2] O. Hurcum. 2023. ‘“A Non-Subject about a nonexistent thing” [sic] – Public Hostility towards a Transgender Archaeology’, Histories at Risk, accessed 27/11/23,

[3] T. Dowson. 2000. ‘Why Queer Archaeology?: An Introduction’, World Archaeology, 32(2), 161-165

[4] E. Velie. 2023. ‘UK Musuem reclassifies Roman Emperor as Trans woman’, Hyperallergic, accessed 27/11/23,

[5] Ibid.

[6] B. Voss. 2009. ‘Looking For Gender, Finding Sexuality: A Queer Politic of Archaeology, Fifteen Years Later’, in S Trendy, N Lyons & M Janse-Smekal (eds.) Que(e)rying Archaeology: Proceedings of the 37th Annual Chacmool Conference, 29-39

[7] N. Giffney. 2009. ‘Introduction: The ‘q’ Word’, in N Giffney & M O’Rourke (eds.) The Ashgate Research Companion to Queer Theory, 1-16

[8] E. Henry., B. Angelbeck. & U. Rizvi. 2017. ‘Against Typology’, The SAA Archaeological Record, 17(1), 28-32

[9] K. Matthews. 2000. ‘The Material Culture of the homosexual male: a case for archaeological exploration’, in M Donald & L Hurcombe (eds.) Gender and Material Culture in Archaeological Perspective, 3-19

[10] Ibid. 10

[11] K. Matthews. 1994. ‘An Archaeology of Homosexuality? Perspectives from the Classical world’, in S. Cottam, D Dungworth, S Scott & J Taylor (eds.) TRAC 94: Proceedings of the Fourth Annual Theoretical Roman Archaeology Conference Durham 1994, 118-132

[12] C. Barton., C Fairbairn., D. Pyper. & S Lipscombe. 2022. ‘Non-Binary Gender Recognition: Law and Policy’, accessed 27/11/23,

[13] Waiting Times, GIC, accessed 27/11/23,

[14] M. Goodier. 2023. ‘Hate Crimes Against Transgender People hit Record High in England & Wales’ , The Guardian, 5 O october 2023, accessed 27/11/23,

[15] M. Smith. 2022. ‘Where does the British Public stand on Transgender rights in 2022?, YouGov, accessed 27/11/23,

[16] G. Stone. 2023. ‘Brianna Ghey; tributes pour in for murdered transgender girl’, TransWrites, 13 February 2023, accessed 27/11/23,

[17] C. N. Lester. 2017. Trans Like Me, Virago Press

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