Gay History 101: September 23, 2015

The castrato Carlo Scalzi, by Joseph Flipart, c. 1737

In the last few years transgender issues have been very much on the forefront of our culture and transgender people are, correctly so, demanding the right to have their bodies, lives, identities, recognized and accepted, by society at large. Conservatives and religious institutions are struggling to come to terms with the transgender movement since they are barely reconciled with the strides made by gays, lesbians and bisexuals.

The Catholic Church has a gift for putting its foot straight into its mouth. We have seen it with the rampant sexual-abuse scandals perpetrated by its priests while at the same time going out of its way to discriminate against LGB people. Now theologians in the Catholic Church claim that God’s intentions have always been to place each person in a specific body for a reason. One is either male or female, nothing in between and any attempt to alter gender roles is seen as the denial of God’s will and design.

If that is the case what should we make of the castrati?

Castrati first appeared in Italy in the mid-16th century. The Catholic Church believed that the New Testament prohibition of women speaking in churches (Corinthians 14:34) extended to singing and therefore the soprano parts in sacred music had to be sung by young boys. Boy sopranos had short careers because puberty changed the timbre of their voices hence the castration of boys became common practice. Snatched from their families at the tender ages between

six and nine they quickly became staple of church choirs in Italy and in the Papal States.

At the time women were also not allowed to appear on stage and castrati played male and female roles in opera productions.

They had a hybrid status in European society, they were biologically male but weren’t considered men, some had more feminine features and were often accused of leading honest men into homosexuality with their ambiguity. The association with homosexuality and effeminacy meant the castrati were viewed as freakish and degenerate. A few castrati achieved what today would be called rock stardom fame, with devoted fans across Europe.

The most famous were Farinelli (1705-1782) and Caffarelli (1710-1783), stage names for Carlo Broschi and Gaetano Majorano.

When the Papal States were absorbed into Italy in 1870 the new Republic imposed its law against castration bringing the practice to a merciful end. The last castrato to leave the Sistine Chapel Choir was Alessandro Mareschi in 1902.

Once again hypocrisy raises its ugly head inside the Church. If for centuries, Popes, Cardinals and Bishops, didn’t have a problem in fostering castration, which is a modification and alteration of the genitals, why are they now so adamant against those who want or need to alter their genitals because they are transgender?

At least a transgender person decides of his/her own volition and free will whether to change gender, something that the castrati were never allowed to do. Slowly but surely the transgender community is beginning to get the respect and recognition those unfortunate boys never received from their own societies.


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