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08 June 2013

Tonë Bikaj (1901 – 1971) farm worker, partisan, musician

The marriage of Lule Bikaj to Katerinë, both of the Catholic Kelmëndi tribe of northern Albania, was delayed 12 years when Bikaj was arrested for his part in the struggle for independence from the Ottoman Empire. Initially sentenced to death, he served 12 years penal servitude in Anatolia.

Their first child was Tonë. She was followed by two sons and two more daughters. However the two sons both succumbed to malaria at an early age. At the age of 9 Tonë decided to be the son his parents and sisters needed so much. He switched to male clothes and male tasks, but never did masculinize his name (to Ton). Lule introduced his 'new son' to neighbours, and like all other sons in the region Tonë received weapons from his father on becoming 15.

In 1921, when Tonë was 20, his 49-year-old mother gave birth to a son who was named Gjelosh. Tonë was pleased to be the older brother. The Kelmëndi recognized and honoured him as a man, and his posture and voice were increasingly male. When his sisters reached marriageable age, Tonë handed them to their grooms as an older brother would.

Both Tonë and Gjelosh fought with the Albanian partisans against the Italian and German invaders 1939-44. Tonë was a unit commander. However his unit was with Balli Kombëtar, which opposed the Communists because they did not demand that Kosovo be part of Albania, and lost its credibility by allying with Nazi Germany. Katerinë was shot for refusing to persuade her sons to join the cease-fire. When Tonë did surrender he was imprisoned for a year. During confinement he was deeply upset at being treated as a woman and being separated from his comrades. Lule died just after the war finished and Gjelosh was released in 1951. Tonë and Gjelosh crossed the border to Montenegro, Yugoslavia.

They settled among the Grudë. Gjelosh married in 1953 and Tonë acted as vëllam, the elder male relative who goes for the bride and leads her to the groom. Tonë lived with Gjelosh and his wife. Their children referred to him as babá, and some younger members of the family did not realize that he was female-bodied until after his death.
Tonë, in Herdt p258.

Gjelosh commuted to Titograd where he worked as a carpenter, and Tonë worked locally mowing and hay-stacking (male tasks). He did cooking but not any other female tasks. He attended gatherings of the male heads of households, and was popular as a singer and musician.

Tonë died at age 70 after three years of illness, with several nuns at his bedside. At the cemetery some men, friends and relatives, wanted to start a traditional lamentation, but objections were raised by the Grudë who would not allow such for a woman. Gjelosh felt that Tonë was therefore deprived of the last honours of a man to which he was entitled.
  • René Grémaux. "Mannish Women of the Balkan Mountains". In Jan Bremmer (ed). From Sappho to De Sade: Moments in the History of Sexuality. London & New York: Routledge,1989:150-2. Reprinted as "Woman Becomes Man in the Balkans" in Gilbert Herdt (ed). Third Sex, Third Gender: Beyond Sexual Dimorphism in Culture and History. NY: Zone Books, 1994: 253-6.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Actually Tomë. There is now a genealogy entry for the Bikaj family at My article here is partially quoted.

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.


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