When I read current accounts of amazing women throughout history who took on the guise of men to be free of the shackles of societal rules, I’m often disappointed at the assumptions made. Scholars are quick to assume that many of these characters are transgender and attempt to speak of them through what they perceive as the correct pronouns. The problem with this is that we’re observing these stories with a contemporary perspective. While I don’t doubt that there have been several trans people in history, we need to have some sort of historical backing before making the jump.
One of those stories is that of Catalina de Erauso, also known as the Lieutenant Nun. Born at the end of the sixteenth century, there is a slight confusion regarding her year of birth. It’s assumed that she claimed to have been born in 1585 to come off as older than she was, but other information, including her baptism record, say she was born in 1592. Like other women from wealthy families of the time, she was enrolled at a convent in the Basque district of Spain from the age of four. Despite her aunt being the prioress, Catalina often found herself in trouble due to her forceful nature.
It was actually her constant rebellion that lead her parents to choose for her to take her vows at the convent rather than arrange a marriage for her. After too many beatings and scolding from the sisters, Catalina escaped the convent at the age of 14. She then changed into male attire and started calling herself Francisco de Loyola, though this would be only one of the many aliases she would take on during her lifetime.
In her autobiography, Catalina wrote about herself with both masculine and feminine pronouns. Yet more than believing this is her proving herself as trans, I think this speaks of how she perceived herself: constantly changing aliases and identities in order to avoid persecution. Another thing to keep in mind is that to be a woman on the run back then was not a very safe situation. Before sailing off for the American continent, Catalina found herself being sexually harassed by men who would take her in. Cross-dressing was not only frowned upon but also punishable by law during the Golden Age of Spain. However, it was probably a risk worth taking to ensure her safety.
Set of Weapons (Rapier and Dagger) for the Elector Augustus of Saxony c. 1570-80
After encountering her parents twice and not being recognized either of those times, Catalina decided to head for the New World and try her luck there. It was while she navigated through Panama, Peru, and the Andes that Catalina began making a name for herself as a womanizer and brawler. Again, just because everything points to her being attracted to women does not confirm her as trans. In fact, I find it interesting that some historians are quick to point this out as proof, rather than just considering her to be a lesbian.
Among her many affairs, she found herself having to skip town after she killed the nephew of her boss’s mistress. She would’ve had to marry the mistress, but she ran away before that had to happen. At another point she was also caught seducing another employer’s sister in law. After too many issues, Catalina joined the military and found herself working under her older brother’s command. Of course, he never knew it was her.
Some accounts claim that Catalina also had an affair with her brother’s mistress. However, one thing that has been documented is that at some point she served as a second during a duel, which resulted in her brother’s death. This caused her to find sanctuary in a church, not just to escape the law, but also to nurse her grief and guilt. Yet after this instance, whenever Catalina was in trouble she’d make it to the nearest church and ask for refuge before skipping town.
At one point, after deserting the army, she was engaged to two women at the same time. However, this story is quite problematic since in her autobiography, Catalina told the story this way: She was taken in by an indigenous woman, who asked her to marry her daughter. However, Catalina was not attracted to the young woman, so she also proposed to another woman in town. To me this speaks of how Catalina’s privilege and prejudice were still prevalent despite her position. Eventually she did not marry any of them and left with the dowries.
Three-Quarter Armor (Trabharnisch) of Elector Augustus of Saxony Peter von Speyer the Elder (1546)
Catalina loved to drink, fight, and gamble, which resulted in her getting into plenty of trouble and becoming a wanted outlaw. When the law was about to catch up with her, she found sanctuary in a church and confessed her whole story to the bishop. After upon further investigation, done by local midwives, her story was confirmed by her hymen being intact.
Eventually, Catalina returned to Spain. She requested the King to provide her with a pension for her military service. This was settled when the Pope made an exception for her to continue wearing male clothing while still identifying as a woman. This is why I believe it’s incorrect to assume Catalina is trans. In her autobiography and several accounts, she identifies as female. The fact that she chose to wear menswear should not be confused with her gender identity.
The story that Catalina tells us is about searching for adventure. While she was able to fulfill a life a woman in her position wouldn't be given at the time, this also came at a price. Perhaps it was not until she retired in Mexico later in her life and started her own cargo business that she was able to find peace and acceptance.