Coming Out As a Eunuch: A Scientist's Metamorphosis After a Diagnosis of Prostate Cancer


My daughter and I were talking about outing oneself — the act of disclosing one's inner identity. The discussion was not purely academic.

I had just told my daughter that I was a eunuch.

It all started with a diagnosis of prostate cancer in 1998, when I was 52. Two years later, after failed surgery and radiation, I started hormonal therapy. This meant taking chemicals that slow the growth of prostate cancer cells by depriving them of androgen — in effect, castrating the patient.

Chemical castration is the common treatment for advanced prostate cancer, and more than 250,000 American men are taking these drugs. But few people know of any men taking them, simply because we hide. It is shameful to be castrated.

My initial response to the therapy was typical. My mood plummeted along with my testosterone level. Hair vanished from my arms and legs. Muscle disappeared, fat appeared. My memory suffered. Not only was I now more likely to lose my car keys, I occasionally couldn't remember where I left the car.

“Eunuch” simply means a castrated man. Given the pervasive stereotype of eunuchs as ineffective wimps, it is no surprise that men dread this label. I became curious about whether the stereotype was true, and how eunuchs functioned in the past.

The first thing I discovered was that eunuchs were anything but mindless, cowardly automatons. There were philosophers (Abelard, Origen of Alexandria), saints (Ignatius of Constantinople), military leaders (Cheng Ho, Narses) and even assassins. They were the chamberlains, diplomats and senior government officials in the major long-lasting, dynastic governments across Asia for 3,000 years. Furthermore, descriptions of eunuchs' physique and psychology mirrored many of the anatomical and emotional changes I experienced.

Then I discovered the classicists' hypothesis that the eunuchs of antiquity were models for our depiction of angels. God is thought to surround himself with angels as advisers and emissaries, who are identical in appearance to males castrated before puberty: tall, beardless, nonsexual beings with voices like the legendary castrati.

It appears that from the Judeo-Christian standpoint, the occupants of heaven were exalted eunuchs. In turn, earthly rulers aspired to reach this divine ideal. In “The Perfect Servant” (University of Chicago, 2003), Kathryn M. Ringrose notes that by the 10th century the Byzantine court was “perceived to be an earthly replica of the court of heaven where the emperor functioned as Christ's representative on earth and was attended by an ‘angelic' corps of eunuchs.”

This eunuch-angel connection has helped me understand and adapt to the side effects of androgen deprivation. When I was stoked up on testosterone in the old days, for example, I would obsess about exacting revenge on those who offended me. Now I see the foolishness in such macho fury. Rather than trying to undo others, I can now willfully exercise restraint. It's not that I'm never pugnacious anymore, for I'm no perfect angel, but I realize it's better to maintain a higher mission than fight petty battles.

I don't recall crying much as an adult, but since my castration I'll weep while watching Mothers Against Drunk Driving commercials. At first, I feared that my tears would be perceived as maudlin self-pity. But the truth is that I've become more sensitive to the trials and tribulations of others. I am thus no longer embarrassed by my tears. I consider them humanizing, just as they are for angels. The link to my chemical castration is obvious; testosterone fuels aggression but suppresses empathy and the ability to cry.

Understanding angel (and eunuch) psychology has even helped me overcome the cognitive side effects of hormonal therapy. Angels may be omnipotent, but they undertake just one task at a time. According to the Talmud, they are not permitted to attempt more. Biblical angels blessed, cursed, relayed messages and even killed, but they were never on two missions at once. It seems that thousands of years ago it was already recognized that androgen deprivation makes multitasking difficult — but doesn't prevent one from accomplishing a single task well. This realization has helped me maintain a busy, productive academic life.      

Angels cry. So do I. They also sing, and so do I.

©Richard Joel Wassersug.

Dr. Richard Wassersug, Ph.D. is a professor of Anatomy and Neurobiology at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia with cross appointments in the Departments of Biology and Psychology. Most of his scientific career has been spent studying anuran larvae (tadpoles); he has published over 100 peer-reviewed papers on these animals.

While still involved in research on amphibians, Richard's focus has largely turned toward prostate cancer and the psychology of androgen deprivation. "The rationale for this research is to develop strategies for helping individuals recognize, accept, and adapt to the effects of castration on their gender identity (i.e., sense of masculinity) and sexuality (e.g., potency, libido, sexual orientation)."

This article was first published in The New York Times, under a headline which Richard rejects. It is republished here with his permission.

More on this topic:

The sexuality and social performance of androgen-deprived
(castrated) men throughout history: Implications for modern
day cancer patients
By Michael William Aucoin, Richard Joel Wassersug
Dalhousie University Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada
Available online 20 September 2006


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