Burnesha – Not your usual transperson

Photo: Jill Peters

I admit I’m arriving quite late to the celebrations for the wonderful work of photographer Jill Peters, who in 2011 published an important reportage about the fading heritage of the burnesha. You can see one in the photo on the left: that’s one of the last few “sworn virgins” living in the rural villages of northern Albania – and no, technically that’s not a man.
Sworn virgins are a disappearing feature of several Balkanic countries, but mostly Albania and Kosovo, whose cultural life was strongly influenced since the fifteenth century by the Kanun. That would be a book of precepts dictating – among many other things – that the properties of a family can only be inherited by a son, as all females are considered properties themselves. In other words, those families without a male scion had only one course of action available if they wanted to keep their land and valuables: change the sex of one of their daughters.

This was not a covert, Rose of Versailles-like intrigue. The girl simply took a lifetime oath of abstinence before twelve village elders, and from that moment on “he” became a burnesh or, as the Serbian name goes, an ostajnica (literally: ‘she who stays’). And here is where the story gets interesting from our perspective.
A sworn virgin dresses, talks and behaves exactly like a man. He is accepted without questions among men, in example eating at their table instead than the women’s, and he attains a male legal and social status, gaining an authority unconceivable for females.

As you can see in Peters’ photos, the most astounding effect is also the physical change – no doubt helped by the grueling manual work required to a man. Equally shocking is however the social acceptance of the burnesh in that strongly homophobic culture, which to this date is rated among the most dangerous for gay people due to the frequent harassments and attacks reported even in big, “cosmopolitan” cities.
Burnesha and their harsh lifestyles are disappearing thanks to progress and education: most estimates say that this phenomenon will probably be completely extinct by 2050. Midcentury is also, according to other estimates, the time when transgenderism could become culturally accepted in most “advanced” countries worldwide. Sorta makes you think, doesn’t it?