Doña Catalina de Erauso does not have much of a place in history. He is a footnote to the Spanish Baroque period, a soldier like any other in all respects but one. In short, his story goes as follows: He was born in Basque country in the late 17th century, where he was raised as a girl. As a young teenager, he escaped a convent, cut and sewed a man’s outfit from his clothes, and started a new life as a boy. His autobiography, La monja alférez (often translated as Lieutenant Nun), details his travels in Latin America as part of Spain’s colonizing army and his subsequent return to Europe. Today, he is remembered as Doña Catalina—a feminine title and a feminine name—and memorialized primarily by a 1944 film wherein he spends his entire military career in pin curls.
In classic Picaresque style, La monja alférez reads like it's located halfway between a hastily jotted-down travel log and an increasingly drunken leger of misspent youth. On average, Catalina kills someone in a bar several times per chapter; he narrowly avoids being killed for an entanglement with a married woman nearly as often. His military rank and status take a decidedly secondary role to his personal exploits. Most of the dialogue included is between Catalina and men he is about to stab, usually because they have criticized Basque country specifically or Spain generally. He has the unsettling habit of following each kill he records with the phrase, “And down he went.” It’s rare that he spends more than a few paragraphs in one place, and he almost never spends more than a few paragraphs with one person.
This blasé style is not unusual for a Spanish man of Catalina’s era, but it sticks out among modern narratives of “passing” as a man. Many narratives of trans experience focus on the ‘failure’ to pass and its consequences. A cultural obsession with passing as a woman, for one, appears everywhere from Some Like it Hot to The Crying Game. In these works, lapses in passing are portrayed as either a source of humor or a show of deceit—unsurprising, considering how often women are framed in media as either ridiculous or dishonest. The female-passing characters here are made side characters, first and foremost objects of laughter, contempt, or both. Male-passing characters, on the other hand, are often cast as protagonists, even in mainstream media. Their stories tend to be more sympathetically told, but their narratives, too, hinge on the failure to pass. In stories of characters passing as men, being clocked (a term meaning revealed as trans) is very often a death sentence; even in the instances where protagonists survive, they often return to their lives as women as though their time being perceived as a man was nothing but an unsettling dream. Such stories render passing either fatal or temporary; in either case, they cast living as a man in a body that doesn’t fit that role as a doomed enterprise.
Mulan, the 1998 Disney movie, is one of the most widely-distributed narratives of trans-adjacent experience today. It dramatizes the story of Hua Mulan, a medieval Chinese woman who passed as a man in order to join the military. Like Catalina, Mulan dons men’s clothes and fights in a men’s army. Unlike Catalina, however, Mulan is expelled when a battle injury reveals her chest. After a period of penance, she manages to reenter the scene in time to win the war, this time in women’s clothes. She reunites with her former commanding officer (who fell in love with her during their time fighting side-by-side—whether or not this is perhaps a bit gay is never addressed), and Mulan II sees her back in skirts and engaged.
It’s hard to call Mulan a transmasculine story, really. The movie frames Mulan’s gender presentation as totally, exclusively instrumental, a tool to fight in a war she’s barred from and escape the expectation of marriage. Being clocked is painful for Mulan, but that’s because of the treatment she receives in the event’s wake, not because being perceived as a woman is a fundamental violation of her sense of self. When she resumes life as a woman, she seems to do so without reluctance. Contemporary stories that follow people who did vocally identify as men, especially those based in some historical truth, tend to be much darker in their depictions of transmasculine passing and its failure.
Boys Don’t Cry, released just a year after Mulan, exemplifies this darker approach to transmasculine passing. It is based on the life of Brandon Teena, a trans man who was raped and murdered after acquaintances found his feminine birth name in a newspaper article. In Boys Don’t Cry, the people who kill Brandon first force him to remove his clothes, to shed the layers that masculinize him in the public eye. He is rendered helpless to both them and the viewer. Teena’s assailants try to force his girlfriend, Lana, to look at his naked body, but she refuses to see him in the way he refuses to be seen, averting her eyes. One might assume that the film asks viewers to do the same—essentially, to refuse to be a spectator to the revelation of transness. But the entire narrative of Boys Don’t Cry hinges on a spectator experience of transness defined by that moment of revelation. Viewers are presented with a chronology of life as a trans man that includes, in order, passing, clocking, violation, and death, each stage presented in technicolor.
In most respects, Boys Don’t Cry and Mulan couldn’t be more different in their treatments of transmasculine passing. Mulan is a children’s movie with a happy ending; Boys Don’t Cry is a notoriously distressing adaptation of a real person’s life and brutal death. But the nadir of each story is the revelation of transness. The moment of not-passing makes the protagonist vulnerable, laid bare against their will. It renders them a victim of others’ perceptions. Like a trick of the light, those heretofore understood as men see that understanding revoked, no matter their efforts to the contrary. Fundamentally, clocking acts in these narratives as a tool of taking power from protagonists. These stories can’t seem to conceive of a world of transness defined by anything other than concealment and forced disclosure.
Maybe it shouldn’t have surprised me that Catalina de Erauso’s autobiography includes practically no clocking episodes. There is a long documented history of female-bodied people passing as men, especially in militaries; I would guess that the undocumented history of those who were never once revealed matches it. But when I finished La monja alférez, I was still shocked. After years of absorbing stories of transmasculine people whose lives were defined or cut short by their ‘failure’ to pass, I wasn’t sure quite how to interpret the stakes of a text in which passing is a relative non-issue.
At virtually no point in his autobiography does Catalina report being clocked or outed against his will. Catalina ‘comes out’—to whatever degree that phrase can really be applied—three times, and only once with any lasting consequences for his life. The first time, he finds himself with a deep wound in his left side after a fight. Before Catalina goes into surgery, a friar visits Catalina to take his confession. “Seeing as how I was about to die, I told him the truth about myself,” Catalina summarized in his autobiography. The Brother is “astonished” and absolves Catalina, who takes the last sacrament and enters surgery. After surviving surgery, Catalina mentions no repercussions—it appears that no one thinks to question his claim to life as a man, even the friar to whom he told the truth.
The second time Catalina tells someone about his past, he’s running for his life. Cornered by the law in Perú, he seeks refuge with a local bishop. This bishop asks about Catalina’s history, and at first, he responds with anecdotes about his time in Latin America. It isn’t a wholly inaccurate portrait: after all, he has been a man running from death for his entire adult life. But midway through, Catalina stops himself, feeling suddenly “humbled before God.” He tells the bishop, “Señor, all of this that I have told you… in truth, it is not so. The truth is this: that I am a woman.” Several women “inspect” Catalina and determine that he is an “intact virgin,” which draws the admiration of all religious authorities in the vicinity. The bishop is particularly impressed: “Daughter,” he says, “I esteem you as one of the more remarkable people in this world… and [promise] to aid you in your new life in service to God.”
Catalina goes through another stint in a convent—the first time since childhood, it seems, that he has lived as a woman. After this, it’s unclear when he begins dressing in men’s clothes again, but by the time he has embarked on a ship set for Spain, he finds himself “forced to cut another man’s face with a little knife.” The transition from men’s sphere to women’s and back is written more or less seamlessly.
Once back in Europe, Catalina ‘comes out’ to the Pope himself, who officially pardons him, giving him “leave to pursue [his] life in men's clothing.” The Pope’s only criticism of Catalina is regarding his frequent violations of the commandment “Thou shalt not kill.” From the greatest moral authority in his social structure, Catalina receives censure only for doing exactly what was expected of Spanish armies sent to Latin America.
There is a certain tragedy to Catalina’s story. He is completely unable, at any point in his life, to stop fighting, or even to stop moving. He refuses to open up to almost anyone, in almost any circumstance. More than anything else, he never reconnects with his family, never knits his childhood as a girl and adulthood as a man together. When Catalina finally ‘comes out’ to the bishop, it is because he feels he has lived dishonestly, immorally.
The tragedy of Catalina’s life is not that he is helpless—not against his own body, and not against the world. In both Boys Don’t Cry and Mulan, people in situations similar to Catalina’s are vulnerable at every moment to the puncture of their ‘disguises.’ But Catalina’s disguise is bulletproof, even when it has been, by any normal logic, completely shredded. Catalina can always return to manhood, and it will always have a place for him.
Passing is, in many ways, the nexus of La monja alférez, but it is taken as a set of conditions over which Catalina has nearly total agency. It is the state of having passed, not the state of nearly failing to, that La monja alférez dramatizes.
Mulan is an easy character for elementary-age girls with nebulously incorrect gendered behaviors to relate to; Boys Don’t Cry tends to be written about most by transmasculine critics with the polemical fervor of those who feel they have been made against their will to, well, cry. There is a reason the arc of passing-then-clocking is a popular one, and it has plenty to do with the fact that it is, in fact, resonant. For many people, being misgendered is both acutely and chronically painful, sometimes unbearably so. It can feel like being turned inside out and seen wrong; it can feel like a kind of death of the self, even when it happens over and over again. To live in a limbo of being read and misread, seemingly at random, is hard to take. So it makes sense that many narrativize the moment of having not-passed as terminal—or, at least, as a terminus. In real life, trans people are forced to develop ungodly reserves of resilience, to rebuild themselves after being torn down in a world that won’t do it for them. Stories where such resilience is unnecessary or fruitless are appealing precisely because they offer clean lines and cutoffs where actual trans experience is full of ragged edges.
I write from a particularly ragged-edged place. It is utterly mysterious to me what I, personally, pass as; the answer seems to change every day. More than one stranger has called me “he” and “ma’am” in the same sentence, and friends often double back to correct themselves on my pronouns, then correct themselves again. If every time someone misunderstood me and left me feeling raw and exposed constituted the nadir of my life, I don’t think I would ever surface from despair. The question, for me, is how to feel something other than helpless about it. To learn to swim in the deluge of other people’s misperceptions—or, at least, to float.
That is why I find what I am about to relay perversely uplifting. It isn’t actually accurate to say that, over the course of La monja alférez, Catalina is never, ever clocked. He is, exactly once, in an episode recorded in the very last short chapter of his autobiography. At some point after his papal pardon, two women on the street call out to Catalina, “Señora Catalina, where are you going, all by your lonesome?” Catalina addresses them, “my dear harlots,” then calmly threatens to slit both their throats. They fall silent and leave immediately, while Catalina continues on his way, unperturbed. The women’s comment reads harmless, because Catalina comes away from it unharmed.
Catalina de Erauso seems to have figured out the trick to fielding the world’s images of him and bending each to his will. He is never a victim, not even a victim of perception. The womens' misreading doesn’t scare him, because, as the continued life of La monja alférez proves, he writes himself. It isn’t a nadir—it isn’t even a blip.
CATE TURNER B’21 was really into Joan of Arc as a kid.