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Monday, May 25, 2020 - 08:00

Cross-dressing is a common theme in f/f historical fiction, but the fictional genre has tended to develop its own tropes and assumptions about the relationship between cross-dressing and sexuality that don't always match the historical reality. Furthermore, cross-dressing had different motivations, contexts, and meanings in different eras and cultures. If you're planning to write a story with a cross-dressing heroine, it can be a good idea to dig deeply into the specific context she would be operating in. Lois Schwich provides an example of one such model.

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Full citation: 

Hindmarch-Watson, Katie. 2008. "Lois Schwich, the Female Errand Boy: Narratives of Female Cross-Dressing in Late-Victorian London" in GLQ 14:1, 69-98.

Contrary to the suggestion in Dekker & Van de Pol, “passing women” did not fade out of sight after the 18th century, but perhaps their contexts shifted. This article examines a case in late 19th century London that was well-documented in the papers, due to the criminal aspects. In fact, the nature and variation of that newspaper coverage is itself of interest in exploring Victorian understandings of the phenomenon.

In 1886 Lois Schwich was tried and sentenced in London for stealing expensive clothing from her employer. But the bare facts of the crime were not what attracted extensive media attention. Schwich had done this while passing herself off as a fifteen-year-old boy, and had done so for several years. Her case illustrates the various narratives around crossdressing in Victorian England as well as the intersections of gender, criminality, sex work, and competing images of masculinity.

We have almost nothing of Schwich’s own voice regarding her story, but Hindmarch-Watson has attempted to reconstruct as much as she can. Schwich started crossdressing at 17 and took odd jobs doing errands and deliveries, eventually specializing in working for clothiers. Across several jobs she began stealing and re-selling clothing from her employers, usually deflecting the crimes (when detected) by accusing others before she could be accused. There is clear evidence that Schwich’s mother not only knew about her crossdressing but supported her by providing references for her “son”. And part of Schwich’s explanation for her actions in general was that her work was needed to help support her family. But access to employment was not the only male prerogative Schwich claimed, and during the trial her habits of smoking, drinking and participating in other male-coded leisure activities were woven into the charges against her.

The author considers whether Schwich could reasonably be identified as transgender and is hesitant to do so, at least as the concept of transgender is defined today, and in the same sense that it is ahistorical to use the concepts of “gay” or “lesbian” to identify historic figures. [Note: which is to say that the whole discussion is problematic on many levels, including the assertion that one must use modern identity concepts as the benchmark for evaluating historic identities.]

Historic “passing women” are traditionally divided between those who had erotic relations with women who are then appropriated by lesbian history, and those who have erotic relations with men who are assumed to be cross-dressing purely for pragmatic reasons. Historically, passing women typically had working-class backgrounds. Alhough the male-coded professions they entered were spread across the social ranks, the majority tended to remain working-class. That history of cross-dressing women was invoked in Schwich’s trial.

Like many other cross-dressing women, Schwich had a disdain for the law, but this stereotype is skewed by the problem that our evidence for (known) passing women tends to come from criminal records. Those legal conflicts were not always due to a criminal profession, but might arise out of acts of passion, anger, or desperation. Perhaps a few cross-dressing women did adopt disguise specifically to pursue a criminal career, but that doesn’t appear to be the case for Schwich. There are hints--including the age at which she began--that for her cross-dressing may have been a way of claiming sexual agency (or perhaps more precisely, agency in avoiding becoming sexualized). The article examines the context of Victorian sex work and how it offered it’s own sort of sexual agency, as well as noting some social parallels in the image and opportunities of sex workers and passing women.

One notable aspect of Schwich’s career is the obvious support from her family, especially her mother, but from other community members as well. Her mother clearly accepted her cross-dressing and provided references for Schwich’s male persona. There are other examples from the same era of cross-dressing women either asserting family support, or reporting that the presentation had originally been a mother’s idea. This may shed a different light on theories (by e.g., Dekker and van de Pol) that female cross-dressing more or less disappeared in the early 19th century. What if, instead, it simply became less visible due to community acceptance and support? [Note: Another possibility is that cross-dressing shifted into modes and contexts that were different enough from previous modes that they were not recognized as the same phenomenon.] Since the majority of the hard evidence for passing women comes from criminal records, perhaps a larger proportion avoided activities viewed as criminal. Regardless of speculations concerning causes, there are plentiful anecdotal examples of passing women in the Victorian era.

Another factor that became relevant in Schwich’s trial was the particular style of masculinity that she adopted: not a “respectable” upwardly-mobile presentation but that of the more flamboyant “swell” characterized by working-class hypermasculinity. She may have been negatively influenced by the stylings of theatrical “male impersonators” who adopted specific styles and mannerisms that advertised their underlying gender as feminine. Due to the nature of the evidence, it’s difficult to assess whether Schwich’s male presentation reflected some degree of male self-identity.

But heart of this article is an evaluation of how Schwich was treated in three different categories of the press that illustrate the complexity of how women were both admired and condemned for passing as male. Press treatments of her are regularly contradictory but cluster according to the audience and purposes of the publication.

Proto-feminist presses initially championed Schwich as a hero for women’s rights, emphasizing that cross-dressing had provided entry to a livable wage (shared with her family). She was used as a poster child for providing wider employment opportunities for women. They also viewed her cross-dressing as a means of resisting sex work, and therefore a symbol of chaste feminine virtue. This set of narratives faded away as Schwich’s self-confessed stealing and false accusations came out, as well as being undermined by her habits of drinking and smoking.

The latter were emphasized by politically conservative papers, which played up her criminality and anti-social behavior. These, too, dropped interest in the story once the basic facts had been established.

The sensational police tabloids, which presented Schwich as a spectacle, form the majority of the coverage. Her attempts to claim male privileges and status were treated as a matter of amusement and mockery, sometimes colored with respect. That mockery extended to other aspects of the trial, in which regular jokes were made about witnesses or jurors being unable to distinguish male and female, as all identities were called into question. Interestingly, these sensational papers never raised a comparison with theatrical male impersonators, possibly because it would tarnish people's ability to enjoy the latter.

The sensational tabloids were the ones who connected Schwich with a historic tradition of cross-dressing--not of everyday working-class passing women, but of prominent fictional or high-culture “heroines” such as Shakespeare’s Rosalind, Mademoiselle de Maupin (the fictional one created by Gautier, not the historic one), the Chevalier d’Eon, and James Barry.

But the tabloids also made a different connection, suggesting that Shwich’s male disguise was not as sexually innocent as it might seem. That, rather than having the purpose of avoiding male sexual attention as a woman, it might have been intended to solicit male homosexual attention. This is insinuated in various articles, though not stated outright. This framing follows a long tradition in England of associating female gender-crossing with sexual licentiousness in general. Upper-class Victorian attitudes toward working-class sexuality saw it as dangerously uncontrolled and degenerate, in contrast to the myths about upper-class sexuality.

One element that is nearly entirely absent from the coverage of Schwich’s trial is a medicalized sexological take on her identity and presentation. Although sexological theories were prevalent on the continent already, they had not yet taken root in the popular understanding of sexuality in England.  Only a few decades later, a woman’s predilection for wearing male attire and smoking would be taken as solid evidence of deviant psychology and lesbian tendencies.

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Saturday, May 23, 2020 - 13:00

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast: Episode 46d - Aphra Behn (reprise) - transcript

(Originally aired 2020/05/22 - listen here)

(This is a reprise of episode 7, aired 2017/02/25)

This is a reprise of an earlier episode from the Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast. I hope you enjoy revisiting the topic, or perhaps this is your first chance to listen to it.

* * *

I confess that, although there’s a lot of validation in finding historic evidence of ordinary everyday women who loved women, I’m a bit of a sucker for real-life stories that might be considered unbelievable as fiction.

One such person is the 17th century novelist, playwright, and spy Aphra Behn. Behn had an interesting and colorful career, the early parts of which are clouded by deliberate mythologizing.

What is clearly fact is that during the mid 1660s, when she was in her 20s, she worked as a spy for King Charles II in the period shortly after his restoration to the throne. Her espionage career may have begun in the Dutch East Indies, and is more solidly known from her time later in the Netherlands,  where she operated under the code name "Astrea" which she also used as a pen name.

She was a staunch royalist, though one must assume her loyalty to King Charles was strained a bit by the efforts she had to go through to get paid for her work. Her career as a playwright was somewhat more lucrative, though not without occasional reverses. Her works were in the libertine style of the restoration era when the playhouses that had been closed under Cromwell turned to rather free-spirited works, in a sort of artistic whiplash. Her personal life was also free-spirited and she was linked romantically with a number of artistic figures. The late Mr. Behn had left the stage before her writing became popular.

During her heyday, she was a prolific playwright, second in productivity only to John Dryden the Poet Laureate and her poetic output was enormous, both published and private.

So what is Aphra Behn doing on this podcast? Behn was also openly bisexual--or at least as open as one could be about it at the time. Indeed, her pen name Astrea, is taken from the play L’Astrée whose plot involves several erotic scenes between female characters (or characters passing as female). And certainly her poetry and correspondence with a number of women had no hesitation in expressing sentiments that would be clearly understood as romantic and erotic if directed at a man. Or rather, that are accepted as romantic and erotic on those occasions when she directs them at men, for she was promiscuous with her attentions and her most well-known lovers are male.

Behn addressed several poems to a woman named Emily Price, possibly an actress, when the two were briefly separated, including a love song that begs for her affection to be reciprocated, and with acts, not words. The following poem of the group expresses a somewhat different emotion: the vain hope that absence from her beloved might diminish her desire.

It is entitled: VERSES design'd by Mrs. A. Behn, to be sent to a fair Lady, that desir'd she would absent her∣self, to cure her Love. Left unfinish'd.

IN vain to Woods and Deserts I retire,
To shun the lovely Charmer I admire,
Where the soft Breezes do but fann my Fire!
In vain in Grotto's dark unseen I lie,
Love pierces where the Sun could never spy.
No place, no Art his Godhead can exclude,
The Dear Distemper reigns in Solitude:
Distance, alas, contributes to my Grief;
No more, of what fond Lovers call, Relief
Than to the wounded Hind does sudden Flight
From the chast Goddesses pursuing Sight:

When in the Heart the fatal Shaft remains,
And darts the Venom through our bleeding Veins.
If I resolve no longer to submit
My self a wretched Conquest to your Wit,
More swift than fleeting Shades, ten thousand Charms
From your bright Eyes that Rebel Thought disarms:
The more I strugl'd, to my Grief I found
My self in Cupid's Chains more surely bound:
Like Birds in Nets, the more I strive, I find
My self the faster in the Snare confin'd.

The poetic circles Aphra moved in often used pastoral nicknames, which can conceal the identity of the people they are written to. She addressed several poems to “Aminta”, which may have been an alias or may have been a generic name. In some Aminta has experienced the pangs of heterosexual love, but in the poem entitled “The Dream” she is the subject of the poet’s desire:

All trembling in my arms Aminta lay,
Defending of the bliss I strove to take;
Raising my rapture by her kind delay,
Her force so charming was and weak.

The soft resistance did betray the grant,
While I pressed on the heaven of my desires;
Her rising breasts with nimbler motions pant;
Her dying eyes assume new fires.

Now to the height of languishment she grows,
And still her looks new charms put on;
Now the last mystery of Love she knows,
We sigh, and kiss: I waked, and all was done.

‘Twas but a dream, yet by my heart I knew,
Which still was panting, part of it was true:
Oh how I strove the rest to have believed;
Ashamed and angry to be undeceived!

Shall we hope that the Aminta--whoever she may have been--that Aphra dreamed of bringing to “the last mystery of love” entertained the same dreams?

The poem that is most often discussed in the context of Aphra’s playful takes on gender and desire is “To the Fair Clarinda Who made love to me, Imagin'd more than woman.” One should understand that the phrase “make love” was not used as a euphemism for sex in this era and might be read as meaning something more like “to court, or to flirt.” We see here some of the troubling contradictions of the 18th century, where love between women was considered inherently “innocent” and yet the object of a woman’s desire might be imagined as masculine to some degree in order to justify the intensity of the emotion. And so the poet compartmentalizes her desire as friendship for the feminine part (Aphrodite) and love for the masculine part (Hermes), playing off the image of the gender-queer hermaphrodite.

Fair lovely Maid, or if that Title be
Too weak, too Feminine for Nobler thee,
Permit a Name that more Approaches Truth:
And let me call thee, Lovely Charming Youth.
This last will justifie my soft complaint,
While that may serve to lessen my constraint;
And without Blushes I the Youth persue,
When so much beauteous Woman is in view.
Against thy Charms we struggle but in vain
With thy deluding Form thou giv'st us pain,
While the bright Nymph betrays us to the Swain.
In pity to our Sex sure thou wer't sent,
That we might Love, and yet be Innocent:
For sure no Crime with thee we can commit;
Or if we shou'd - thy Form excuses it.
For who, that gathers fairest Flowers believes
A Snake lies hid beneath the Fragrant Leaves.
Though beauteous Wonder of a different kind,
Soft Cloris with the dear Alexis join'd;
When e'er the Manly part of thee, wou'd plead
Though tempts us with the Image of the Maid,
While we the noblest Passions do extend
The Love to Hermes, Aphrodite the Friend.

Although Aphra’s poetry often couched love between women in sentimental terms, her plays were most famous for their bawdy humor and that could include a recognition of the erotic potential between women, as when a character in “The False Count” asserts, "I have known as much danger hid under a petticoat as a pair of breeches. I have heard of two women that married each other," which may, in fact, be a reference to the marriage between Amy Poulter and Arabella Hunt, discussed in a previous podcast.

The most intriguing romantic possibility in Aphra’s life is suggested by the dedication she wrote in 1689 to Hortense Mancini, Duchesse Mazarine, the niece of the great Cardinal Mazarin who, with her sisters and cousins, were known as the Mazarinettes, the glitterati of their day, lovers to a parade of great men and not a few women. Hortense Mancini enjoyed a number of unambiguously sexual relationships with women, both as an unhappy newlywed in France, and later in England, where she counted the young Countess of Sussex among her lovers, though the primary reason she had some to England was to elbow out a rival as the official mistress of King Charles.

In any event, Hortense Mancini had a reputation even more flagrant than Aphra’s own, and it is with that in mind that the following dedication has led some historians to conclude that the two women had most likely been lovers at some point. The dedication reads in part:

…to the Most Illustrious Princess, The Dutchess of infinitely one of Your own Sex adored You, and that, among all the numerous Conquests, Your Grace has made over the Hearts of Men, Your Grace had not subdued a more entire Slave. I assure you, Madam, there is neither Compliment, nor Poetry, in this humble Declaration, but a Truth, which has cost me a great deal of Inquietude, for that Fortune has not set me in such a Station, as might justify my Pretence to the honour and satisfaction of being ever near Your Grace, to view eternally that lovely Person, and hear that surprising Wit. What can be more grateful to a Heart, than so great, and so agreeable, an Entertainment? And how few Objects are there, that can render it so entire a Pleasure, as at once to hear you speak, and to look upon your Beauty?

To be sure, much of this may be the simple flattery that was common in such dedications. But Aphra Behn’s life, taken as a whole, suggests that the inquietude in her heart was genuine.

If you’re interested in further information about Aphra Behn and discussions about the queer and feminist elements of her life, see the show notes for links and references. And if you’d like to read a fictional imagining of an encounter between Aphra Behn and Hortense Mancini, there’s a link to a novelette that features them.


  • This topic is discussed in one or more entries of the Lesbian Historic Motif Project here: Aphra Behn
  • There is an extensive and detailed biography of Aphra Behn that I haven’t yet included in the LHMP: Todd, Janet. 1996. Secret Life of Aphra Behn. Rutgers Univ Press, New Brunswick. ISBN 0-8135-2455-5
  • If you’d like to read some historical fiction that includes an entirely imagined meeting between Aphra and Hortense Mancini, you can find it here.
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Monday, May 18, 2020 - 07:00

This article is getting a bit “meta” for the blog, since it’s an analysis of themes in modern lesbian historical fiction. But I thought it might be fun to summarize. And besides which, hey, evidence that lesbian historical fiction is considered a topic of serious study! I've run across a couple other articles studying queer historical fiction (and even sent a query email to one of the authors about potentially appearing on the podcast -- alas, unanswered). There are a lot of topics I'd love to see studied around this subject, if only there were interest enough (or time to do it myself).

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Full citation: 

Herrmann, Anne. 1992. "Imitations of Marriage: Crossdressed Couples in Contemporary Lesbian Fiction" in Feminist Studies vol. 18 no. 3 609-624.

Herrmann tackles the question of self-knowledge and performance of homosexual identity within the context of cross-dressing tropes in lesbian historical fiction. The performative theory of gender suggests that all gender presentation is artificial, that the state of being “man” or “woman” is an effect, not a cause of gender presentation. But a gender-neutral approach to performative gender overlooks the observation that masquerade itself is perceived as “feminine”. Thus the performance of masculinity has contextual differences depending on whether the body performing it is understood as male or female.

This analysis also touches on the question of “closetedness”, in which knowledge is not the same thing as acknowledgement. Sexual orientation may be an “open secret” without ever being voiced either by the subject or the perceiver.

Gender as performance is most obvious in the context of cross-dressing, when clothing calls into question the ability of the body to signal “true” gender But much of the theorizing on the concept of the closet has focused almost exclusively on male homosexuality, and theories of gender performance destabilize the entire concept of gender identity. So neither approach is well equipped for explaining the popularity of crossdressing plots in lesbian historical fiction. How can an “essentially” lesbian sexuality be presented when one of the women presents a masculine performance? IThe “open secret” of the relationship is a marriage that creates the understanding of erotic possibilities. In this fictional context, lesbian identity is constructed by the existence of the couple: a “butch” (to introduce sexual possibilities) and a “femme” (to reframe the butch’s masculine presentation from “male” to “lesbian”).

At the same time, crossdressing performance introduces the risk, not that the same-sex nature of the relationship will be discovered, but that the role-playing will turn into the realities of heterosexual hierarchies within the context of a ideally egalitarian same-sex couple.

The three books Herrmann chose for this study are Isabel Miller’s Patience and Sarah (1969), Jeannine Allard’s Légende: The Story of Philippa and Aurélie (1984), and Shelley Smith’s The Pearls (1987). [Note: I’ve read the first two but not the third.] All three deal with the performative aspect of gender roles and the ability of cross-dressing performance to enable two women to live openly as a couple while concealing the lesbian nature of their relationship. All three invoke the theme of a “pastoral retreat” but unlike the mythic image of the Ladies of Llangollen, break the potential illusion of passionlessness by the introduction of a “masculine” participant.

The “reason” for crossdressing in the books varies: as physical protection (Patience and Sarah), as legal protection (Légende), and for the purpose of professional advancement (The Pearls). This is paralleled by a chronological function from the ability to create a lesbian domestic arrangement “under the radar” to the ability to engage in same-sex desire separate from a politicized lesbian feminism. [Note: it isn’t clear whether Herrmann’s “chronology” refers to the settings of the stories or to the dates of composition, as the two attributes are parallel in these three works.]

Although all three books use crossdressing in order to appropriate the appearance of a heterosexual husband-wife pair, they produce different understandings of lesbian identity. All of them center in some way around the question of what “natural” means in terms of gender and sexuality. For the “natural” love between two women to be enabled in these stories, one woman must perform masculinity. But in all three stories, the “butch” is introduced to masculine performance as a “natural” consequence of life circumstances: raised as a substitute “son” in the context of gendered agricultural labor, adopting gendered performance for a preferred career, or accepting role-playing for the purposes of espionage where gender is only one facet of the roles required. All three stories culminate in the discarding of the “masculine” role and a rejection of pseudo-heterosexual coupling in favor of same-sex egalitarianism.

At the same time, the “butch” role is centered not only because she introduces an awareness of sexual potential, but because she symbolizes the deception necessary for the success of the union. The crossdressing character is not a “butch” in the sense of an eroticized public butch-femme subculture, but rather a symbol of that deception. Curiously, in two of the three stories, a gay male figure appears as a “mentor” to initiate the crossdressing character into successful masculine performance.

The article goes into a detailed analysis of each of the three books and how the crossdressing motif is used. In Patience and Sarah, Sarah initially crossdresses only when separated from Patience. An excess of honesty has led to the need to learn to dissemble, which occurs during a “wander year” when she meets the aforementioned gay male character. (Sexuality confidences are exchanged after he interprets Sarah as a sexually desirable adolescent boy.) But the resolution to Patience and Sarah’s relationship negotiations is more about class difference than sexuality, reconstructing the socially questionable butch-femme presentation into an acceptable ideal of desexualized middle-class femininity with complementary but non-hierarchical roles.

Philippa/Philip in Légende crossdresses from an early age for protection against male violence but later for access to a profession as sailor. She is initiated into the life by her late mother’s lover who covers for her change of presentation and helps her enter the male professional world. After a shipwreck, she is rescued by Aurélie. They fall in love and construct a marriage to enable their public relationship. There is a twist in which Philip(pa) muses on how, living as a man, she is now locked out of the social world of women that she longs to inhabit. There is also a subplot about an adopted daughter of the two and her own same-sex romance which provides a counterpoint of an openly same-sex couple with no need for disguise.

The Pearls takes up the genre of detective story, in which two female agents agree to a “cover” as a heterosexual married couple in order to be assigned a prestigious case -- roles that lead to recognizing their mutual attraction. Unlike the couples in the earlier settings, they are quite aware of the possibility of same-sex attraction, but only recognized their own lesbian potential within the framework of the fictitious male-female roles--roles that originally had been intended solely as a road to career advancement. Their experience raises the possibility that any woman can discover same-sex attraction given the right context.

Saturday, May 16, 2020 - 07:00

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 46c - History and Historic Fiction with Janet Todd - transcript pending

(Originally aired 2020/05/16 - listen here)


Show Notes

A chat with historian and historical novelist Janet Todd.

In this episode we talk about:

Links to Janet Todd Online

If you enjoy this podcast and others at The Lesbian Talk Show, please consider supporting the show through Patreon:

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Thursday, May 14, 2020 - 07:00

The last three chapters of Female Masculinity are all of limited interest to the Project, so I've combined them with chapter 4 into a single entry. Now I have three weeks to do the reading an annotating for the 6 entries after that, which are all full books, and two of which I don't currently own. (I'd been assuming I could get library copies.) Past!Me what were you thinking? Most likely I'll rearrange things a little and substitute in some shorter articles. I still have about three months of content lined up in my to-do list, based on my last orgy of downloading from JSTOR at UC Berkeley. It may be a while before I have that sort of access again, unless I can wangle a home JSTOR account based on quarantine conditions. I do have friends who could pull individual articles for me, but it's a different matter to pull up the entire contents of a journal and comb through it for articles I didn't know I wanted. But in the mean time, I do have lots and lots of books on the shelves, waiting for me.

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Full citation: 

Halberstam, Judith (Jack). 1997. Female Masculinity. Duke University Press, Durham. ISBN 978-1-4780-0162-1

Chapter 4-8

Due to the social and cognitive complexities of discussing a book written by a self-identified (at the time) butch lesbian who now identifies as a trans man, I have chosen to use “H” as a shorthand for the author’s name, rather than using gendered pronouns or trying to avoid pronouns altogether. This is not meant to disrespect Halberstam’s current identity, but rather to respect the identity from which this book was written at the time.

Chapter 4: Lesbian Masculinity: Even Stone Butches Get the Blues

This chapter opens by comparing expressions by Anne Lister and (the fictional) Stephen Gordon about needing always to be the “active” partner in sex, to the archetype of the “stone butch” in the 1950s. But Halberstam is wary of connecting these dots to construct a trans-historical “stone butch” role, while tracing this motif through various historical understandings of embodiment. The theme of this chapter is the equation of masculine untouchability with dysfunction and melancholy. H disputes this framing (i.e., the dysfunctional one) as well and sees the “stone butch” as demanding differential emotional accountability from different roles. It shows how some sexual roles are dismissed as “inauthentic” while others are privileged as “real” to the point where they are not seen as “roles” at all.

While modern academia has produced insights about queer identities and communities, it has avoided addressing the way specific sexual practices and meanings fit into that picture, including apparent logical contradictions between political theory and sexual practice. There are popular assumptions about characteristic sexual practices of political or sexual identities, but these images have little to do with practice. The failure to address the specifics of sex--like the failure to address race within queer communities--passively allows for the projection of a “universal experience” that follows socially dominant paradigms. The sexuality of marginalized queers is both made invisible and made hypervisible in its Otherness. The default has shifted in different eras providing a temporal “other” as well to the contemporary “invisible” default.

Discussions of sex in queer communities have tended to focus on individual acts rather than identities. [Note: where have we heard the framing of “acts versus identities before? *cough* Foucault.] There is a bit of discussion of gender theory and what “gender as a social construction” does and does not mean.

Although Halberstam sees a distinction between lesbianism and female masculinity, masculinity has often been used as the defining feature of lesbian stereotypes. This is embraced in the modern lesbian community in the form of category “butch”. But within this category, butches have many different relationships to masculinity, from performative style to dysphoric to passing. Some parts of the lesbian community view butches as embarrassingly gender-normative, but H rejects the option of excluding butch from the category “lesbian” in order to save that category for “woman-identified woman.” [Note: and yet in other parts of the book H appears to do just that, claiming for example that Anne Lister shouldn’t be classified as “lesbian”.]

[Note: I’m getting a sense that Halberstam may be using the catchphrase “woman-identified woman” in a different way that I’ve always understood it. H seems to be using it to contrast with masculinity, i.e., that the “woman-identified” part means “identifying as a feminine woman”? But the point of the “woman-identified woman” manifesto, presented in 1970 by the Radicalesbians as part of the Lavender Menace protest, had to do with women whose primary emotional connections and relationships were with women, regardless of sexuality or gender identity. So I don’t quite get the contrast suggested between “butch” and “woman-identified woman” unless one is taking the position that butch isn’t part of the category “woman”.]

An exploration of all the varieties of personal expression and experience make category boundaries impossible, while allowing thematic connections. The rejection of butch-femme by some in the 1970s resulted in limiting acceptable gender expression for lesbians in both directions, in favor of an androgynous ideal. That had the result of rendering lesbian identity less visible. When cultural expressions of lesbian sexuality are brought into the picture, the “lesbian-feminist ideal” becomes a form of cultural imperialism. [Cf. “white feminism]

There is a detailed discussion of the definition and performance of “stone butch” as an identity and practice. Leslie Feinberg’s Stone Butch Blues doesn’t necessarily depict “stone” as a positive option, rather as a closing off, a hardening, in response to abuse or vulnerability, where the “right woman” can allow the stone butch to open up. This feeds into the cultural model of stone as dysfunction. (Feinberg’s novel isn’t any more sympathetic to lesbian-feminist than to the stone butch, so this shouldn’t be taken as authorial judgment.) This culture clash is explored further in the chapter through both fiction and sociological studies of the 1970s and 1980s.

Chapter 5: Transgender Butch: Butch/FTM Border Wards and the Masculine Continuum

[Note: This chapter is more about modern social politics so while it’s fascinating history, it isn’t LHMP history except in relevance to handling the butch/trans intersection for contemporary readers.]

Halberstam emphasizes the continuities and overlaps in various experiences of cross-gender identity. [Note: H uses terminology and makes distinctions that were “best practice” in the 1990s but may be deprecated today. In my summary here I’ll tend to follow H’s vocabulary even when usages has shifted, as when H uses  “female-to-male” or uses “transsexual” in contexts where “transgender” is preferred today. H does use “transgender” but equates it with “gender-queer”. So for example when H discusses the concept “transgender butch”, a better translation into current terms might be “gender-queer butch” or perhaps “non-binary butch”. The shifting nature of the terminology landscape makes it impossible for me to both clearly present the discussion in the book and follow current norms of reference, because modifying H’s terminology might distort the intended meaning.]  In particular, H looks at the potential impact of a visible/accepted transsexual (the book’s terminology) population on how younger people develop an understanding of their own identity. The medicalization of transsexuality has moved gender variance from the context of homosexuality to the context of gender identity.

[Note: this is something clearly relevant to creating historical fiction, because just as homosexual/heterosexual didn’t exist in many past eras as conceptual categories, the idea of trans identity is a cultural construct and has not always been available. And yet as writers of historical fiction, we are writing for an audience that takes those concepts for granted. As authors, we will necessarily be finding the balance between historic accuracy and modern reception.]

Medicalization also shifted the possible choices for expressing gender identity. The growing visibility and awareness of trans men has other sociopolitical consequences than an awareness of personal possibilities. It creates fault lines around access to male privilege as well as around how the performative gender of butchness is viewed. This has created a “strange struggle between FTM and lesbian butches who accuse each other of gender normativity.” [Note: I’ve quoted the book directly to emphasize that this is Halberstam’s characterization and not my interpretation. This is where H’s dual status as a formerly self-identifying butch lesbian and currently self-identifying trans man may provide a unique platform for considering this topic.]

Halberstam uses the term “transgender butch” to identify a key experience/identity within this context. H discuses various conceptual conflicts in how trans men and butch women characterize each other. These “border wars,” as H call it, treat masculinity as a limited resource to be fought over, or as a set of fixed and agreed-on protocols. If, instead, masculinity is divorced from maleness (though related to it at the same time) these conflicts become unnecessary.

What H does in this chapter is to explore the model of masculinity that is contested within this conflict. Within queer studies, transsexuality is a popular lens for examining gender theory, but this theorizing is too often done from the outside. H discusses their own 1994 article on trans topics, focusing on representations in media of gender-ambiguous butch-like characters. The article provoked some negative reactions from trans men’s groups and inspired H to reflect on assumptions about the continuity and overlap between the categories of butch women and trans men. The ways in which the article failed in its intent, and the ways in which it was critiqued by transsexuals pointed out the different value framings brought to the topic of masculinity that prioritized different experiences.

Is gender constructed or essential? Is it performed or experienced? Halberstam’s answer is “all of the above” and to embrace the spaces between. Is the stone butch a “pre-operative transsexual” in an arrested stage of a transformation narrative? Or is the stone butch a locus on the gender map that represents an independent stable identity?

The broader discussion, bringing in a wide variety of personal experiences and identities, argues against trying to build monolithic modes of “doing butch/transgender right.”

There is a survey though history of conflict between some feminist, lesbian, and transgender positions that revolve around themes of gender-loyalty, gender privilege, and “ownership” of historic narratives and persons.

Identifying as a butch lesbian can be a transitional stage for a trans man, even though most butches don’t have transgender leanings and not all trans men go though that experience. But the examples feed into narratives from both sides that destabilize the understanding of butch identity as independent and valid.

The rest of this chapter is full of interesting material but we’ve gone well past the relevance to pre-20th century history. It’s definitely worth reading, though.

Chapter 6: Looking Butch: A Rough Guide to Butches on Film

This chapter looks at the history of butch women in film. While of tangential relevance to the Project, there are a few interesting intersections. In particular, the presence of butch images in film can work to create homoerotic possibilities in ways that femme images do not. Any (femme) woman interacting with a butch woman on the screen can be read as potentially lesbian, while that same femme woman, on her own, carries no such associations, and whereas a lone butch woman is easily read as lesbian. [Note: this recapitulates a motif found throughout history, in which only the active/masculine partner is considered a lesbian/tribade, while her female partner is viewed as a “normal woman” who is simply willing to accept her in place of a man.] The butch makes lesbian identity legible at the cost of reinforcing the myth that lesbians can’t be feminine.

There is an extensive discussion of the effect of the Hayes Code, the more recent emphasis on looking for “positive representation”, and the use of butch imagery separate from lesbian implications. The chapter continues with an extensive taxonomy of butch representation in film.

Chapter 7: Drag Kings: Masculinity and Performance

This chapter discusses the social and historic context of drag king performances. In a modern context, there is a contrast between male impersonation versus the more parodic and humorous drag king style. Male impersonation has a long history on stage (going back to the 17th century and “trouser roles”) but those earlier traditions have much in common with drag kings in that the intent was often to highlight the female body doing the performance. Male impersonators were popular around the turn of the 20th century but faded from view around the same time as the Hayes Code. There was some continuing tradition in lesbian bars, but drag king performance didn’t really make a comeback until later in the century.

There is an extensive discussion of cultural differences between drag king and drag queen traditions, particularly revolving around the equation of femaleness with performance and maleness with “naturalness”. This changes the dynamic of how to “perform maleness.” There’s a typology of drag king performance genres.

Chapter 8: Raging Bull (Dyke): New Masculinities

This chapter summarizes the general themes and includes some personal anecdotes from the author, especially revolving around gender in sports.

Time period: 
Wednesday, May 13, 2020 - 17:00

One of the most annoying "historical firewalls" in researching queer history is getting past the notion that the rise of the sexologists in the late 19th century was the most defining event in queer history. If you start by looking backward from the present day, it's all too easy to run into Ellis and Kraft-Ebbing and swallow the idea that they invented homosexuality and that everything before that is a "dark age". It's even more annoying when you look at the ways they shoehorned disparate concepts of gender and sexuality into an oversimplified mold and then mangled the self-image of generations to come on the basis of those theories.

But this chapter isn't so much about the sexologists as how the diversity of human experience managed to find a way out despite them.

Major category: 
Full citation: 

Halberstam, Judith (Jack). 1997. Female Masculinity. Duke University Press, Durham. ISBN 978-1-4780-0162-1

Chapter 3: “A Writer of Misfits”: John Radclyffe Hall and the Discourse of Inversion

Due to the social and cognitive complexities of discussing a book written by a self-identified (at the time) butch lesbian who now identifies as a trans man, I have chosen to use “H” as a shorthand for the author’s name, rather than using gendered pronouns or trying to avoid pronouns altogether. This is not meant to disrespect Halberstam’s current identity, but rather to respect the identity from which this book was written at the time.

This chapter tackles John Radclyffe Hall and the sexologists’ “invert” as the next archetype. Hall was part of a subculture of “inverts” and their “wives” at a time when sexological theories were becoming familiar to the public. Despite the sexologists’ attempts to identify a unified theory of inversion, there were different models of female masculinity prevalent in same-sex circles.  Female inversion (usually accompanied by homosexuality) was the model applied to women similar to Anne Lister: ones with a masculine identification and performance, who desired non-masculine women.

Kraft-Ebbing identified four types of lesbian: 1) non-masculine women who were receptive to the attention of masculine inverts; 2) cross-dressers; 3) “fully-developed” inverts who dressed in a masculine style and took a masculine role; and 4) “degenerate” homosexuals who lived fully male lives. [Note: notice that this typology has no place for the non-masculine woman involved in a relationship with another non-masculine woman.] Kraft-Ebbing did not view these types as a continuum but as fixed and distinct identities.

Havelock Ellis built on this taxonomy and emphasized the distinction between masculine and feminine inverts. [Note: Just to be clear when we talk about “inverts” here, we’re always talking about women.] Feminine inverts were rejected or “leftover” women who turned to homosexuality due to not having access to healthy heterosexual relationships. They were social rather than sexual deviants. Whereas masculine inverts had a congenital masculinity.

Underlying all this is the drive to enforce binary systems of gender difference. [Note: as well as reducing all desire to heterosexual or pseudo-heterosexual relationships.] Female masculinity was viewed as derivative or imitative of male masculinity, rather than a separate identity. This approach continued under Freud.

One problem is that an outside observer will never notice the complexities of identity due to not being familiar with the vernacular, the hierarchies, the codes, or the less visible aspects of sexual practice. Ellis attempted a liberal and tolerant approach to female inversion, but tripped on inherent contradictions. He both considered it congenital and thought it flourished in homosocial environments, such as schools and convents. He sees an attraction to masculinity as natural, due to societal misogyny and gender hierarchies, thus he views successful and powerful women in history as “having masculine traits” without understanding this is because success and power are coded as masculine. Intellect is also coded as masculine. But if a woman with these traits has no social access to positive expression, Ellis asserts, she may turn her abilities to criminality. Despite being unable to consistently correlate female inversion with physical traits, Ellis reaches to find physical signs interpretable as characteristic. This theory was sustainable only because he glossed over counter-examples (such as the entire category of feminine inverts).

When physical signs fail, Ellis relies on early “boyish” behavior: tomboyism. His prototype is strikingly similar to John Radclyffe Hall’s biography.

Various case studies are discussed in their complexity and contradictoriness, especially expressions of being neither feminine woman nor man but something else. The concept of inversion combined gender variants and sexual preference into a single package, based on heteronormative and binary imperatives. But when later lesbian feminists rejected the model of inversion, they also rejected female masculinity as the central model of the lesbian, replacing it with the androgynous “woman-identified woman”. [Note: Halberstam’s underlying theme here is that none of these prototypes are wrong, but that we should reject the idea of a single central prototype for lesbianism. Some day it would be fun to feed these ideas through some of the category structures studied in cognitive linguistics.]

Radclyffe Hall’s fiction recapitulated her own experience of being a masculine woman, desiring women, and trying to find a modus vivendi. Her stories and social circles were filled with mostly upper and middle class women, often with inherited wealth, many of whom were artists. Sexologists tried to collapse their lives into a single model, but a detailed examination of their lives restores complexity.  (Lower-class women’s lives are harder to study in this era, but many stories of “passing women” in the military and male professions suggest some approaches.)

The rise of the idea of the female invert came in the same era as the rise of a women’s movement and challenges to the system of gendered labor, driven in part by large numbers of unmarried women. [Note: but demographics like this have always been cyclic. It is hazardous to treat this as a unique social context.] Some date the shift from “invert” to “transsexual” to the point when gender reassignment surgery became practical, but the existence of individuals who desired transition predates that. The transgender model of inversion may, in part, have been a social way to contain women’s desire for equality, but it was also an individual identity. And not all masculine inverts had the same desires regarding “being a man” versus “being masculine”. This era also entailed a separation of the concepts of inversion versus homosexuality: what one was versus what one desired. [Note: but see previous comments regarding cyclicity -- these two concepts had sometimes been recognized as separate in earlier eras.]

Sexual and gender identities do not suddenly appear, they emerge from gradual social shifts. WWI offered scope for women who desired to engage in masculine professions, behavior, and roles. In the 1920s there were many masculine women who functionally “changed sex” and lived as men, marrying women, but it isn’t accurate to categorize them either as lesbians or as “pre-transsexual”. Wealth eased the way for such women as Una Troubridge, Radclyffe Hall, and others in her circle. Such women were often content to live masculine lives without rejecting female identity. Hal’s letters explore her own take on the question. She saw inversion as defined by whom one desires, not by a “mannish” life. She thought most people were bisexual but some, like herself, desired only the same sex. But this contradicts other opinions of hers on record, where she considers her same-sex desire to be channeled through an essential masculinity.

One must beware of how biographers read their own theories of gender into Hall’s life. Hall’s masculine performance contrasted with an expressed disdain for “passing women” as deceptive and masquerading for gain, in contrast to Hall’s “innate” masculinity. [Note: yet another argument against some sort of “natural category” of masculine women, when masculine women themselves see multiple mutually exclusive subcategories.] Hall wanted the possibility of same-sex marriage for inverts, but thought that marrying in male disguise was a type of fraud.

There is a discussion of social/racial prejudice among various prominent masculine women, noting that marginal identity is no guarantee of social solidarity. Hall was both anti-Semitic and a fascist, deriving largely from her class alignment.

There is a discussion of Hall’s novel The Well of Loneliness as an exploration of the female invert from within. Hall’s character Steven Gordon represents an archetype, one that can’t easily be classified as either lesbian or transgender.

Time period: 
Tuesday, May 12, 2020 - 07:00

Sometimes the volume of my interspersed commentary in an LHMP entry is an index to how much I disagree with it. But sometimes--as in the present case--it's because I find the content so challenging and engaging that I was to become part of the conversation. I want to discuss the subject, to dig deeper, to bring in additional angles, to talk my way through the process of integrating the ideas into my own global understanding. I'm not in the position of having those conversations with the authors. And I don't know if there would be enough interest for a book discussion group (even if I had the time and energy to lead one). So I hold that conversation in square brackets within my summaries.

Major category: 
Full citation: 

Halberstam, Judith (Jack). 1997. Female Masculinity. Duke University Press, Durham. ISBN 978-1-4780-0162-1

Chapter 2: Perverse Presentism: the Androgyne, the Tribade, the Female Husband, and Other Pre-Twentieth-Century Genders

Due to the social and cognitive complexities of discussing a book written by a self-identified (at the time) butch lesbian who now identifies as a trans man, I have chosen to use “H” as a shorthand for the author’s name, rather than using gendered pronouns or trying to avoid pronouns altogether. This is not meant to disrespect Halberstam’s current identity, but rather to respect the identity from which this book was written at the time.

While Halberstam reaches into the 19th century to explore the historic background of female masculinity, I think the topic is done a disservice by not including a much deeper timeframe. As studies of classical and medieval theories of sex and gender--such as Laqueur and Cadden--demonstrate, the idea that certain characteristics are inherently masculine or inherently feminine, despite appearing in persons of any bodily sex, is long-standing. Latin had a word specifically for their understanding of female masculinity: virago. And medieval and early modern concepts of hermaphroditisim (when not being a framework for addressing intersex bodies) speak directly to the idea that gender identity and gendered performance will not always align.

Although Halberstam’s book focuses primarily on visible signifiers of masculinity and sexual behavior, there is a more general problem with the question of female masculinity, both in the historic context and today. When socially-valued characteristics are arbitrarily assigned to the category of masculinity, it means that women who embody those characteristics will tend to be read as masculine, regardless of all other gender performance. What are some of the valued characteristics that have historically been treated as masculine? Intelligence. Bravery. Leadership. Rationality. Morality. Robust health. Desire for women. This is the flip side of the problem.

Halberstam touches briefly on how women with intellectual interests, women in positions of social or political power, and so forth either have been subsumed into the category of “masculine persons” or have been derided as “unfeminine”, but I the topic presents a more complex problem in the earlier centuries that H doesn’t investigate in as much detail. And that problem is particularly relevant when trying to interpret what the label of “masculine woman” meant in the past, either to society or to the woman in question. If one is told that one’s interests and activities are signs of masculinity, how does one reconcile that  with identifying as a woman? How does it affect one’s relationship to womanhood or to femininity? Do you accept the label or challenge it? Do you decide you aren’t actually a woman after all (because society tells you that you aren’t behaving like one)? Do you begin to despise “femininity” because you consider it incompatible with your life? Or do you push back and argue for the right of women to do and be things that have been labeled masculine without losing their gender identity? Women have done all these things, varying both individually and based on shifting social attitudes.

The existence of masculine women throughout the ages challenges assumptions about the nature of masculinity and why the connection between men and masculinity has remained so secure. While some hold that the phenomenon of the “virile woman” is recent, and tied to feminism, or as a sign of the loosening of gender conformity, these positions overlook the history of masculine women. [Note: H says, “a character who has challenged gender systems for at least two centuries”, but of course it’s been happening much longer than that.]

Queer historians have tended either to pursue untheoretical historic surveys, or to theorize ahistorical models. [Note: let me unpack that -- there’s a tendency either to collect up “catalogs” of some particular queer identity without understanding those instances within the larger historic framework, or to focus on creating a theoretical historic framework that carefully sidesteps the messy historic realities that would contradict it.] This results in seeing either ahistoric universals or discrete identities bound to a specific historical moment.

To counter this, H looks at two examples of female masculinity from the 19th century to show how masculine women played a large part in constructing modern masculinity. Further, one can’t simply assume these earlier examples of female masculinity represent early forms of lesbianism. That erases their specific existence as well as erasing other early forms of same-sex desire. It turns them into sexual deviance rather than gender variance.

Halberstam puts forth two propositions:

1. Women have made their own unique contributions to what we call modern masculinity which go unnoticed in gender scholarship.

2. Female masculinity is actually multiple masculinities that proliferate as we examine them.

Having a small number of categories forces diverse behaviors and identities into a single concept, erasing the variety and distinctions that are most interesting. Related to this, in the next chapter Halberstam will re-visit the rigidly binary categories of Havelock Ellis and other sexologists. [Note: H describes the data discussed here as “the few examples of same-sex desire between women in the 19th century that are readily available to us.” But either “same-sex desire” or “readily available to us” is doing a lot of heavy lifting in this claim. Even at the original publication date of this book, there should have been a lot more examples easily available for consideration.] Rather than seeing all 19th century examples of same-sex desire as “lesbians”, what do we gain by looking individually at tommies, tribades, female husbands, fricatrices, and inverts?

H associates the same forces that gave rise to modern masculinity with other upheavals such as the transition from affiliation marriages to romantic marriages, the development of the women’s rights movement, the social upheavals of WWI, and the rise of sexological models. [Note: but many of these have clear roots much earlier than the 19th century. So again I think the picture will be distorted by viewing that date as some sort of firewall.]

Many historians focus on the parallel development of concepts of masculinity with nations, class, or male patterns of sociality, and see female masculinity as a counter-irritant to that, rather than a contributor.

Examples are given of how “manliness” was constructed as a white middle-class ideal, responding to challenges from its opposites. H frames lesbian historians as classifying 19th and early 20th century desire as either an asexual romantic friendship or a sexual butch-femme dynamic. But there is an acknowledgement that it probably worked via many other models of same-sex desire. Contemporary lesbians, H asserts, have a hard time shedding present forms and identities to understand other modes in earlier times.

There is a focus on labels that a late 18th/early 19th century “mannish woman” who desired other women might have been called/identified as: a hermaphrodite, tribade, or female husband. A Foucaultian framing (which H points out is more relevant to men than women) asserts that “lesbian” applies only to a form of desire produced in the mid to late 20th century, within the context of feminism and homosexual identity. If so, then “lesbian” cannot be used to cover all same-sex desire through the ages. Some historians have abstracted “lesbian” as a more general label, but H argues this erases the more specific connotations of many other terms. Further, those more specific terms might encompass gender expressions that do not include desire for women.

[Note: This is a valid objection, except that the point about “gender expressions that do not include desire for women” can be applied to the term “lesbian” just as much as any other term under consideration if you go back far enough. If we exclude any word that has ever had a contradictory or more specific meaning from being used as an umbrella term, then we’re forced into inventing an umbrella term that has no pre-existing denotative meaning at all. One thing that keeps poking at me in discussions of historic terminology for gender and sexuality categories is that, given the inevitable need to use words to talk about people and practices, why do some words get scrutinized so heavily while others get a free pass? In this book, as in many similar studies, there is a great deal of scrutiny given to when, where, how, and why it is appropriate or inappropriate to use the word “lesbian”, especially on the basis that it is anachronistic when used as an umbrella term, while similarly anachronistic umbrella terms like “homosexual” or “same-sex desire” are treated as neutral? The special scrutiny on “lesbian” is even more curious when you realize it is objected to both for being too narrow in meaning and for being too general.]

“Tommy” is one such term that could include uses that did not imply same-sex desire. Tracing “tommy” from implying loose sexual behavior--women outside of the marriage economy--to becoming synonymous with inversion or lesbian shows how not all identity strands fall within a “lesbian history.”

Within these various gender identities, Halberstam focuses on two specific close readings of female masculinity rather than a general history of pre-20th century same-sex desire. These examples represent two categories of embodied female masculinity: tribade and female husband.

H discuses the dynamic of how some view historical models as being replaced/superceded with little overlap or contradiction, whereas others (referencing Sedgwick) argue for destabilizing what we think we understand homosexuality to be today. If we acknowledge multiple models of contemporary female masculinity, not all of which align with lesbianism, shouldn’t we also acknowledge that potential in the past?

Halberstam reviews the context of scholarship and theory around queer/lesbian/gender history. There are debates over the definition and usefulness of the label “lesbian”. Some historians H asserts, like Terry Castle, “seek only to find what they think they already know.” Trumbach’s “2 genders, 3 bodies” theory, downplays the sexual component of cross-gender identities. The macro-clitoral hermaphrodite was never more than a theoretical construct. And there are debates on the relevance of sexual desire within same-sex relationships. Vicinus critiques the energy spent on pitting romantic friendship against butch-femme models based on relative availability of evidence for sex. But at the same time, “proof” of sexual activity should not be dismissed as relevant when it does occur.

The masculine woman is inevitably visible while the “apparitional” lesbian (using Terry Castle’s term) is so because she can be denied. Yet the desires and sexual acts enjoyed by different categories of same-sex couples may be different, so are even sex acts really a unifying feature for a common category (that may or may not be usefully labeled “lesbian”)? One could reasonably view “lesbian” as a sexual identity and masculine woman as a gender identity, with all possible combinations thereof. Yet another gender category, the androgyne, is distinct from the masculine woman.

There is an entire history to be told of solidly heterosexual masculine women, though it’s outside the scope of this book. [Note: this is an interesting point--and interesting that H considers it outside the scope of the book. The existence of heterosexual female masculinity is, to some extent, what provides cover for the establishment of cultures of homosexual female masculinity.] As an example of heterosexual female masculinity, the “cowgirl” whose physical activities argue against conventional femininity and embrace the image of a “natural” active presentation that partakes of masculinity by contrast. There’s also the contradiction of the female athlete who draws homophobic suspicion and therefore feels pressure to perform conventional femininity to “prove” her non-deviance.

The Tribade

This section of the chapter looks specifically at the conceptual category of the “hermaphrodite tribade”--the woman who was supposed to be drawn to same-sex sexual activity and to be able to please a female partner by virtue of having a larger-than-typical clitoris. [Note: this is far from a standard definition of “tribade”. The word was used in a variety of both general and specific ways across the centuries. And the preoccupation with macro-clitoral sex emerged only in specific eras.] The act of giving sexual pleasure through rubbing vulvas was seen as masculine due to its similarity to m/f sexual positions and actions, regardless of actual anatomy.

Around the 17-18th centuries, the idea of a physiological third sex emerged to “explain” same-sex behavior. See Laqueur for the historic development of this concept. In the earlier one-sex model, a hermaphrodite is a transitional state between two ends of a single sexual continuum, whereas in the two-sex model, she is a “monstrous” woman. But in either model, the hermaphrodite’s relations with women doesn’t fit neatly into a concept of “same-sex” desire, given that the hermaphrodite stands outside the sexual category of “woman.” This model identifies the body as the site of desire for women. The “discovery” of the clitoris helped drive the two-sex model because it shifted the identification of a penis-analogue from an inverted womb to an entirely separate organ. The clitoris became identified with non-reproductive sex and raised anxieties about the ability to penetrate without an artificial instrument. As such, it became inextricably linked to same-sex desire. In linguistic origin, the tribade was a female penetrator (of either women or men) not specifically a participant in f/f sex. [Note: I’d argue against calling this “linguistic” origin, because the etymology of the word simply indicates rubbing, not penetration. I think H is referring to the context of use within the Roman sexual system, where the functional roles of penetrator/penetrated were more salient than the sex partner’s gender.]

But if the tribade is not a (modern definition) lesbian, she is part of the history of masculinizing certain female seuxal practices. It is curious that, despite its popularity among (modern) lesbians, tribadism as a sexual act has not become part of the pop culture iconography of lesbianism.

As the 19th century example of tribadism, Halberstam explores the court case of Marianne Woods and Jane Pirie versus Dame Cumming-Gordon, in which two Scottish schoolteachers were accused of having a sexual relationship (involving tribadism) by a student, and sued the student’s grandmother/guardian for slander. One significant feature of the teachers’ defense boiled down to “we understand that these activities are done in less civilized cultures (the student was biracial with an Indian mother) but it is unacceptable to propose that they would be practiced by proper British women.” That is, not that it was impossible, but that it was unthinkable.

The Female Husband

The second archetype Halberstam explores via a specific biography is the “female husband” in the person of Anne Lister. [Note: I don’t see Lister as being at all typical of the category of female husband, which normally refers to someone who is consistently read as male. So I’m a bit confused by this conjunction of example and label.] Lister’s diaries show some of the diversity of sexual activity between women and how certain activities were linked to female masculinity -- that Lister did not view all forms of f/f sex as part of the same experience and identity.

Halberstam begins by challenging historians’ easy acceptance of Lister as representing lesbian identity and desire. Lister’s experience is one of unequal desire, distinct sexual and gender roles, and a rejection of sexual sameness -- in contrast to the usual image of romantic friendship. Lister’s diaries -- with the key passages written in code -- become a metaphor for the obscuring of alternative sexual identities. [Note: in several places, Halberstam seems fixated on enforcing a narrowly specific understanding of the category “lesbian” in order to set it up as not overlapping  the masculine identities under discussion.]

Lister explicitly contrasts her “natural” desire with “sapphic artifices that create distance,” by which circumlocution we are to understand the use of a dildo, as opposed to Lister’s preferred tribadism. Lister consistently framed her desire in terms of seeking a wife, understanding herself as a husband. H argues for the use of the term “female husband” despite the absence of cross-dressing, because she (Lister) thinks of herself using that word. Lister’s place as a  masculine woman gives her a woman’s access to other women without the social consequences of being a seducing man. Lister revels in performing a male sexual role better than men, as when she digitally penetrates her married lover Marianne and appears to have been the first to break her hymen, demonstrating the sexual insignificance of Marianne’s marriage. Lister sees herself, not as a substitute man, but as surpassing men in her masculine sexual prowess. Lister is regularly commented on as appearing masculine in dress and even (apparently) being mistaken for a man, despite always wearing skirts. This creates a conflict for Marianne who is embarrassed by Lister’s presentation while also being aroused by it.

Lister’s wealth and social status protected her from most of the social consequences of her obvious masculinity, but she ran into limitations on that protection and experienced snubs and insults directly related to her masculinity. Lister’s differing relationships with various women explore the variety of sexual possibilities, along with her observations on other women’s relationships. Her relationship with Isabelle Norcliffe and her interactions with another masculine woman named Miss Pickford illustrate gender roles between women. Lister rebuffs Pickford, and ultimately rejects Isabelle, due to their own masculinity. She is overtly drawn to feminine women and pursues them at length, as with Mrs. Barlow in Paris. Lister sometimes fantasizes about the convenience (or inconvenience) of a penis, but sticks to tribadism and manual stimulation in bed. She refuses to let her lovers stimulate her in turn, saying it would “womanize” her. This isn’t “same” sex activity, but two distinct sexual roles. [Note: or should we make a distinction between “same-sex” and “same-gender” activity?]

All this may shed light on how Lister understands the “sapphic regard” that she rejects. [Note: this sheds an interesting light on the perception that the term “sapphic” was viewed as an upper class marker in the 19th century (I’m failing to remember who discussed that). Was Lister’s perception of “sapphic” as meaning dildo-based  sex a general understanding? And if so, was it class based? Or is this Lister’s idiosyncratic labels? Or did the shift to a class marker happen later?]

Mrs. Barlow seems to expect f/f sex to be mutual, given her attempts to initiate reciprocal stimulation of Lister. [Note: Halberstam rejects this interpretation, suggesting that Barlow is simply naive about the understood rules and roles for f/f sex. But this strikes me as H being a bit fixated on her theory of roles. The simpler explanation--supported by other examples from the era--is that one popular experience of f/f  sex was mutual and not role-based, and that Barlow was familiar with that version and enjoyed it.]

Halberstam engages with Castle’s claim that Lister is “proof” of lesbian sexuality existing before the sexologists labeled it, but H suggests that Castle ignores the gendered aspect of Lister’s sexuality. Lister did not simply adopt masculine habits as a “make do” but from an inherent identity. In this context, H argues against the concept of an abstract “lesbian desire” apart from specific modes and roles in which it manifests.

[Note: Halberstam, in turn, discusses gender-similar relationships (romantic friendships) as assumed to be “asexual”. While I agree with H that Lister’s sexuality is clearly based on the performance of a form of masculinity, the book often seems to reject the possibility of a pre-modern non-gender-contrasting f/f sexuality existing alongside the gender-contrasting form. H proclaims, “Although turn-of-the-century sexologists would later try to classify all lesbian activity as inversion, in the early nineteenth century, it is obvious, sexual activity between women flourished in spaces where the masculine woman trespassed on male sexual privilege and created not ‘a female world of love and ritual’ [quoting Smith-Rosenberg] but an exciting sexual landscape dominated by the female husband and the tribade.” It’s hard not to read this as rejecting the possibility that there was also an exciting sexual landscape within that “female world of love and ritual” known as romantic friendship. There’s a sense of territoriality going on in this book where exploration of the specific history of f/f desire in the context of female masculinity seems to require the negation of parallel experiences of f/f desire between two feminine women.]

Time period: 
Monday, May 11, 2020 - 21:00

Lots of thinky thoughts on this book, but they're all in the commentary below. Due to length, I've split this entry up into several parts, though my coverage of the chapters is uneven so I've clustered the shorter ones together.

Major category: 
Full citation: 

Halberstam, Judith (Jack). 1997. Female Masculinity. Duke University Press, Durham. ISBN 978-1-4780-0162-1

Prefaces and Chapter 1

I put some thought into how to refer to the author of this book in my write-up and my choice may not please everyone. But the subject of the author’s gender is not one that can be side-stepped or easily handled following standard practices. Back in the 1990s, when writing this book, Halberstam declared “I was a masculine girl, and I am a masculine woman.” Halerstam explicitly claims the identity of butch lesbian and descries writing out trans issues as an outsider. These identities are intrinsic to the subject matter of the book, to Halberstam’s personal authority in having tackled it, and to the reason the book was written at all.

Female Masculinity was written by Judith Halberstam. The author is now Jack Halberstam. Halberstam’s Wikipedia article doesn’t specifically address the chronology of transition, but footnotes to the article that include the author’s name suggest the name and pronoun change came between 2012 and 2013.

This puts me in something of a quandary, because I am reviewing and summarizing a book whose content is inextricably connected with the author’s gender identity as expressed by that author at the time of writing. To the best of my ability I’ve been following the principle of using an author’s preferred name and pronouns. But I can’t help feeling that it would be a betrayal of Halberstam’s intent in this book to write “...he proudly claims the identity of butch lesbian.” I don’t think this is me holding tight to gender essentialist notions. What I want to do is to honor the identity that Halberstam was writing from. The identity that Halberstam inhabited so solidly that it inspired the very existence of this book. And yet it feels inescapably rude to refer to “Judith” and “she” in this write-up. My best approximation is to side-step the issue by using Halberstam’s surname whe I want to reference the author, making liberal use of the abbreviation H to reduce the awkwardness, and writing around the need for pronouns. This is not intended as a political statement or a judgment on Halberstam’s identity. It’s simply the approach that feels like it least betrays the author’s identities, past and present.

As I read Female Masculinity, it occurred to me that in our present moment of socio-political time, Halberstam’s personal history may provide a unique authority to address this topic. In the 1990s, a butch lesbian could write a serious study that tackled the “Butch/FTM Border Wars” as chapter 5 labels them. But in the 2020s, a study on that topic from a self-identified butch lesbian would face skepticism and criticism. Conversely, I don’t think anyone except a butch lesbian could have done justice to the book’s topic with such loving detail.

I could wish that in the new preface to this “Twentieth Anniversary Edition” Halberstam had spoken personally to that change in point of view. H does discuss some more recent popular culture images of butch identity, such as in Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home (both the graphic novel and the musical). That discussion embraces the continuing relevance of butch identity, even within the expanded scope of options for those with female bodies and masculine identities. But I was disappointed that H didn’t directly take advantage of experiencing masculine identity from a different angle, and discuss that aspect in the new preface. If anyone is aware of Halberstam having addressed that topic, I’d be interested in following up on it.

Every once in a while I read a book for the Project that adds a particularly sharp-edged tool to my toolbox for thinking about historic genders and sexualities. The tool that Halberstam adds is a demand to think about gender and sexuality in a much broader spectrum than gay/bi/straight or LGBTQIA+. Halberstam doesn’t believe in a single unified theory of sexual identities. And coming out of reading this book I realize that it isn’t quite enough to reject the notion of a coherent lesbian identity across time, but to also reject the notion of a coherent lesbian identity at any one point in time.

When trying to reconstruct the range of lesbian-like identities in the past, we’re already hampered by having to rely on atomized examples. Working from the position that the very identities we’re trying to reconstruct are multiple and even discontinuous makes the job even harder. Some identities are more visible than others, and some aspects of identities are more visible than others. Femme invisibility is a thing in the past as well as in the present. And while this book has an overt focus on butch identities, there are some places in the text where that focus does stray into erasure, as if butch identities in history are the only genuinely queer ones (while at the same time, but author hints at a position that “butch” is a separate and non-overlapping category from “lesbian”, but I think that may be imprecision in the writing rather than a theoretical position).

Halberstam’s choice to focus only on the 19th century and later distorts an understanding of the changes and cyclical and overlapping understandings of gender and desire across a larger time-span. Any small enough scope will give the illusion of teleological development in some direction. Two points define a line. I’ve pointed out several places where the text might come to different conclusions if a deeper set of historic data had been considered.

But overall, I found this book much more fascinating and more valuable to my thinking than I had expected. The ways in which f/f historical fiction handles gender-crossing identities can be problematic, especially when it projects backwards from a narrowly specific model of modern lesbian identity. Female Masculinity suggests that the first step in addressing that issue may be to revise our understanding of the wealth of models for modern identities, so that even when we project them back in time, we have a more realistic variety to choose from.

New Preface

Halberstam takes as a subject the concept of a “masculinity” that is distinct and separate from people born male, comparing it to the long tradition of studying “male femininity” from the Greek kinaidos through early modern molly houses and up to the present. When first written in 1998, similar histories had not been written for women. [Note: I think this is overstating the lack a little bit.] Yet there have been many modes of lesbianism that involved the evocation or claiming of “masculinity.”

Halberstam takes a quick survey through the many different modes and images belonging to the category “woman”. There is a long tradition of associating lesbianism with female masculinity, and female masculinity with ugliness. This linkage is used as a specter to keep women in line. What happens when this association is turned on its head, and female masculinity becomes a site of desire?

In the 20th century, the demand for female emancipation was repeatedly tied to female masculinity, either in positive or negative ways. “Great women” have repeatedly been claimed to be masculine in essence. This association is inherently misogynistic. It created the image that a successful or powerful woman was always inherently masculine, and a masculine woman was -- at least latently -- homosexual. Where did this leave feminine women? Still at the bottom and considered not worthy of higher things.

Forces hostile to both feminists and to masculine women set them up as being in conflict -- a conflict that is unnecessary but continues to this day. In popular media, the image of the masculine woman -- the tomboy, the butch -- has swung wildly in visibility and interpretation. Butch identity crosses between the genders: both and neither. [Note: this book was written at a time when non-binary gender had not become a significant part of the conversation yet.]

Original Preface

Halberstam points out the popular preoccupation with male femininity, but the near absence of discussion about female masculinity. As context for writing this book, H states “I was a masculine girl, and I am a masculine woman.” That identity was the inspiring force in writing this study. (The remaining preface covers similar territory to the updated one.)

Chapter 1: An Introduction to Female Masculinity: Masculinity without Men

What is “masculinity”? This isn’t an easy question if the answer is not simply “the expression of maleness.” Female masculinity provides a lens on how masculinity is defined. Female masculinity must be framed as second class in order for male masculinity to be defined as “the real thing.” This chapter is a catalog of myths and fantasies about masculinity, as well as alternate forms of both male and female masculinity.

H points out how female masculinity has been ignored, both by culture and academia. Masculinity is defined by power and privilege, but also in terms of class, race, sexuality, and gender. You can’t understand masculinity until it is separated from the white male middle-class body.

The tomboy is viewed as an “extended childhood performance of female masculinity.” She is considered both common and unproblematic, compared to gender cross-identification in boys, which provokes strong reactions. But can you actually measure relative tolerance this way?

The tomboy is considered to be expressing a “natural” desire for male freedom and independence. She is only punished if female identification is actively rejected, or if the “phase” doesn’t end as expected at pubescence. Can the identity of tomboy be considered “tolerated” if one is required to leave it behind and embrace femininity? With no adult models of female masculinity, tomboyism can be framed as a rejection of adulthood, rather than a rejection of femininity. The increasing visibility of lesbian communities made it more possible for girls to envision maintaining masculinity past puberty.

Halberstam looks at the genre of “tomboy movies” in chapter 6 and the inadequacy of available gender categories for discussing them. The traditional tomboy narrative offers no way to retain masculinity and yet become a fully realized adult. It offers no approved forms of desire and so suppresses desire entirely. H’s goal is to identify existing taxonomies that recognize and offer that approval to female masculinity.

[Note: This book can only be properly understood if the reader fully internalizes the distinction between male/female and masculine/feminine. That the latter are artificial social constructs arbitrarily attached to the former.]

Female masculinity is a productive topic for study because it is scorned by both heterosexist positions and by feminist ones. [Note: Feminism is, of course, not a monolith, and one must consider that H was responding to the dominant feminist discourse of the time the book was written.] In contrast to the somewhat ritual function of male femininity, female masculinity is viewed as maladjusted and a longing to be something impossible. But there is not only a single version of female masculinity, nor does it exist to subvert or oppose masculine power, but to create new categories that are indifferent to male masculinity.

This chapter spends some time discussing the book’s methodology. It explores the relatively new (at the time) field of masculinity studies, which has largely ignored masculine women. H considers other studies of masculinity flawed if they assume that masculinity equals men.

In the section titled “the bathroom problem”, the text’s date of writing is most apparent in asking why the available gender categories have not been expanded beyond the binary. H considers how even given the flexible standards for gender presentation, few people are not easily readable as male or female, so “unreadable” people are viewed as deviant or forced into the binary. The “policing” of binary bathrooms (sometimes literally) shows how this institution forces category analysis. Masculine or androgynous women are particular targets of bathroom policing. Whereas gender-ambiguous people using a men’s bathroom are rarely challenged.

For those whose identity crosses sex/gender categories, the idea of “passing” as one or the other is not an acceptable strategy. [Note: given the focus of the book, the “bathroom problem” discussion revolves around the masculine cis woman rather than the trans woman.] The bathroom problem contradicts the assertion that masculine women are tolerated and even praised, while feminine men are despised. Rather, it suggests that femaleness is harder to achieve and more narrowly defined than maleness.

In media, female masculinity is protected from suspicion so long as heterosexuality is unambiguous. When combined with lesbian desire, it becomes less acceptable. Because of this enhanced effect, Halberstam focuses primarily on queer female masculinity rather than heterosexual female masculinity. Another destabilizing context is the varieties of gender specifically associated with minority cultures.

There is a long discussion of artistic (semi) nude photography that challenges gender expectations. The chapter ends with a summary of what the book will cover: 19th century examples, the early 20th century “invert”, the “stone butch” archetype, the border between “lesbian butchness and transsexual maleness”, cinematic representations, and drag kings. [Note: my summary will focus primarily on the historic sections.]

Time period: 
Saturday, May 9, 2020 - 07:00

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 46b - Interview with Janet Todd - transcript pending

(Originally aired 2020/05/09 - listen here)

A transcript for this show is pending.

Show Notes

In this episode we talk about:

Links to Janet Todd Online

If you enjoy this podcast and others at The Lesbian Talk Show, please consider supporting the show through Patreon:

Major category: 
Monday, May 4, 2020 - 09:00

While this book does provide some useful analysis of pre-20th century practices and attitudes around cross-dressing, it is even more enlightening on how much has changed around the topic in the last two decades. Readers today may find some of Garber's discussions as alien as a 100-year-old book would be.

Major category: 
Full citation: 

Garber, Marjorie. 1992. Vested Interests: Cross-Dressing and Cultural Anxiety. Routledge, New York. ISBN 0-415-91951-7

This book was originally written in 1992, though regularly reprinted since then. This is relevant, as the use of terms like “transvestite” or “transvestism” in the sense they are used in this book are likely to strike the contemporary ear as odd. Even more, the handling of transgender identity, and language around it, is extremely dated and does not follow current practice. Consider this a content notification--perhaps even a content warning.

I found this book simultaneously detailed and fascinating...and hopelessly outdated to the point of being more of a museum piece for late 20th century attitudes than a resource for social analysis. The ways that clothing and gender are understood, categorized, performed, and discussed today have changed so drastically that Garber’s content may have as little relevance as works published in the first half of the 20th century.

One of the reasons I chose Vested Interests to blog is because I’m working on expanding a paper I presented on medieval cross-dressing narratives for publication, which means being familiar with the literature in the field. But as a resource for the writing of historical fiction, I see this work as being very limited in value (unless the historic era being written about is the last quarter of the 20th century).

In one way, it makes sense to consider all the varieties of cross-gender presentation as a whole, as Garber does. But the book does not always draw clear lines between gender presentation as an expression of gender identity, shifts in popular fashions that trade elements among genders, the use of gender-coded clothing to signal group membership, cross-gender dress in serious theatrical contexts, “drag” as satire or mockery, “drag” as performance art, cross-dressing as a sexual fetish for those with no transgender identity, or any of the other possible contexts. Further, medical/surgical issues around transgender identity are both conflated with clothing and reflect the era when medical transition and strict adherence to gender stereotypes was an expectation rather than one of various options.

In content, I found the book to read like a loosely-connected series of topical essays (especially in the later chapters), as if it were a patchwork of publications with a thematic connection but without necessarily having an overarching thesis.

All of this is to say that I would advise only reading this book if you have an existing historic context for language and attitudes that would be considered offensive today, and if you are in a solid emotional place to translate and filter the content for your own use.

In my summary, I have “translated” a lot of the terminology Garber uses to current idioms in order to try to filter out some of the problematic verbiage, so be aware that my summary is not a good guide to how the text may strike the reader. In other cases, I’ve retained Garber’s terms because “translating” them would change the scope of her intended meaning. This particularly applies to her use of "transvestism" for a variety of contexts that would be unlikely to be conflated today.

* * *

Introduction - Clothes Make the Man

 Garber opens with a brief history of gender coding or lack thereof in children’s dress, shifts in the pop-culture color-coding associated with homosexuality, and their relationship to both the practice of cross-dressing and popular fascination with the topic. She reviews medical discourse, both in the context of transgender issues and of viewing cross-dressing itself as representing mental illness. She notes that regardless of motivation, these distinctions are unimportant to those who want the ability to find clothes in their desired styles and sizes without being stigmatized.

The history and culture of cross-dressing is inseparable from the history of homosexuality, even when clear distinctions between the two topics are desired. Cultural anxieties around cross-dressing almost always invoke the specter of homosexuality. There is a detailed discussion of the movie Tootsie as an illustration of these issues and concerns.

Academic study of the history of cross-dressing often looks “through” the phenomenon to explore the arbitrary construction of gender, rather than looking “at” the people involved. [Note: another distinction--which seems to be overlooked in this work--is between analyzing cross-dressing and cross-dressers from the outside and presenting a participant’s understanding of the phenomenon.] Cross-dressing is of interest in how it represents a “third sex” outside the gender binary (even when intended to be read as one of the binary genders). The iconographic use of specific garments to represent bodily sex (or gender identity) can be seen in bathroom signs that use pants/skirts to separate bodies by (presumed) anatomy, not by clothing preference or appearance, even as they assume a correlation between appearance and gender.

This book is organized in two sections, roughly distinguishing how transvestism creates culture and how culture creates transvestites. [Note: I would describe the division more as “the performance of transvestism” and “the representation of transvestism”.] Overall, the book revolves around how cross-dressing creates a “category crisis”--the cultural inability to draw clear dividing lines between distinct social groups. Garber notes how often in cultural productions transvestism parallels other category contrasts and crossings (race, ethnicity, class).

Part I - Transvestite Logics

Chapter 1 - Dress Codes

Cross-dressing is analyzed in the context of sumptuary codes (both historic codes and modern laws with similar effect). Sumptuary codes assume that clothing both reflects and shapes social behavior. “Correct dress” is both a shibboleth and a regimen. Medieval and Renaissance sumptuary codes attempted to make category distinctions legible. They largely focus on class, but also on religious categories (e.g., identifying non-Christians). In Elizabethan England, clothing statutes also addressed gender confusion, but the concept of “effeminacy” when applied to dress was more about the concepts of excess and luxury than gender identity. Men are accused of “effeminacy” for excess in clothing, while women are similarly chastised for excess but not using the language of effeminacy.

The prohibition in Deuteronomy on cross-dressing was invoked against cross-gender clothing, especially by women, but also to denounce theater in general (as a site of cross-dressing). Stubbes’ Anatomy of Abuses is cited, which singles out women. Male cross-dressing was also condemned as leading to or enabling homosexuality, either by creating attractive objects (cross-dressed boys) or because putting on “feminine” clothing creates fetishistic desire in a man.

Cross-dressing was also associated with criminal status in both men and women. Cross-gender clothing motifs were also tied, in curious fashion, to Protestan-Catholic conflicts.

Under King James I, popular unisex fashions drew on styles taken from both genders, even though James himself argued against “masculine” women (see the tracts of this era Hic Mulier and Haec Vir).

Cross-dressing on stage was a focus for those opposed to theater in general. The text digresses for a while into eulogizing the career of Laurence Olivier and discussing his cross-gender roles. This leads into a discussion of cross-dressing in Shakespeare’s comedies and the general use of clothing as category markers. In modern theater, the use of women in male roles in Shakespeare is seen variously as a gimmick or as portraying some underlying gendered nature of the characters. Garber emphasizes the long embedded history of cross-gender performance on stage and how it relates to the concept that “all gender is performance.” [Note:  this book comes back regularly to cross-dressing in the context of performing arts in general. It appears to be a central research interest of hers.]

Chapter 2 - Cross-dress for success

This chapter starts with the conflict between women wearing “masculine” clothing to blend in / dress for the job in male-dominated fields, versus pushback that sees this as carrying unwanted messages. Women in male-coded clothing may be interpreted as inherently “sexy” (according to male business “experts”).

But this prescriptive approach to women’s presentation in the workforce is eroded by the continuing deployment of male-coded clothing by women and new associations with assertiveness and authority. Local norms in professional clothing can send mixed gender/sexuality signals when used in other contexts, regardless of the specific gender coding.

But prescriptive dress advice--enshrining inherent prejudices--can be useful for transgender people trying on new styles to be read in particular ways. Existing prejudices can be worked to advantage.

There is a discussion of distinctions between “fetish” cross-dressers who are aroused by wearing clothing of a gender they don’t identify with, and “transsexuals” (Garber’s term) wearing clothing to be read as the gender they do identify with. There is a confusing discussion of opinions prevalent at the time that female “fetish cross-dressers” were rare, but the text then seems to challenge this. Garber cites advice manuals on breast-binding and crotch-stuffing, but it’s unclear which functional category these fall in. [Note: although “butch” fashion and identity is discussed later in the book, there are many places in these early chapters that appear to be unaware that such a thing exists, or at least how to categorize it.]

There is a general discussion of “passing advice” literature, primarily aimed at trans women. [Note: “trans women” in the current definition of the term. The quoted literature of Garber’s era regularly uses “transgender/transsexual X” to mean “assigned X at birth but now identifying otherwise.” The terminology “assigned X at birth” was not in currency at the time this book was written, so any use of it in this summary is my translation.] Garber points out how relentlessly normative this literary genre is and the literal “construction” of gender it recommends. “Passing advice” literature overwhelmingly was written for those wanting to be read as female, rather than those wanting to be read as male. There is a suggestion that the behavioral gender stereotypes of women and men reinforce this skewing, with feminine-presenting people looking for community support and sisterhood, while masculine-presenting people expecting (or expected to express) individualism and a solitary experience.

The chapter moves on to the carnivalesque use of obvious male-to-female cross-dressing for entertainment purposes, where the performer is meant to be read as “crossing” not as passing. There is a long history of privileged men openly cross-dressing, either as humorous entertainment or as personal idiosyncrasy (more rarely). At the same time, powerful men may be caricatured as cross-dressers to “un-man” them. Powerful women, on the other hand, are more likely to be accused of “really being men” (i.e., of also being “men dressed as women,” but this theme isn’t followed up on in the text in the same way that the male topic is).

Drag shows in military or nautical contexts could be a way of defusing the homoerotic potential of all-male cultures. Cross-dressing theatricals in such contexts could re-affirm male privilege and solidarity, creating misogynistic caricatures of the feminine roles being portrayed, as well as mocking the underlayer of m/m eroticism. Such theatricals were also popular in all-male privileged institutions such as colleges and men’s clubs. The theatricals negotiated the boundaries of gender even as they blurred them. Institutions might go through phases of suppressing humorous non-normative dress, as Harvard did in the 18th century, later returning to the “norm” of embracing such gender play. In the early 20th century, male collegiate institutions dismissed the idea that cross-dressed theatricals either reflected or caused “unmanliness.”

Chapter 3 - The Transvestite’s Progress

This chapter begins with a reference to long-term gender crossing, especially AFAB read as male, most of whom would be understood as transgender rather than transvestite today. Billy Tipton is noted as being far from a rare example, even for the 20th century. Examples of AMAB read long-term as female are also noted.

Given the relative frequency of such individuals, why was Billy Tipton’s story singled out for fame? In part, because the story dodged topics of anxiety. Tipton allegedly crossed for economic reasons (musical performance in a male-dominated field) and his marriage was reported as non-sexual, using the excuse of a “medical condition” that allowed Tipton’s wife plausible deniability. Tipton was thus a “safe” example that didn’t invoke the specter of homosexuality.

The “progress narrative” where cross-dressing is for professional or social advantage is popular in film and stage. And these fictional narratives often reinforce heteronormativity by bringing in a m/f romance that is hindered by the cross-dressing (see, e.g., Victor/Victoria). But in real life, this “progress narrative” is problematic. It erases the complex, interacting motivations and reinforces the idea of a clear gender binary.

There is an extensive exploration of fictional cross-dressing narratives, especially in the Early Modern period. More recent fictional examples are Gautier’s Mademoiselle de Maupin, Barbara Streisand’s film Yentl. Garber discusses the relationship of the motif to the “changeling boy” motif.

The gender-crosing nature of Elizabethan actors and its homoerotic potential is compared to Vecellio’s description of Venetian prostitutes and courtesans wearing masculine-styled upper garments (and even breeches under their skirts).  Aretino describes a courtesan willing to interact with clients either as a woman or as a man. This context could add to the fictional trope of “respectable” women being embarrassed by the need to cross-dress in a “progress narrative.” [Note: this chapter is one of the ones that feels structured like an independent research paper that has been stitched into a larger narrative.]

Chapter 4 - Spare Parts

This chapter addresses the cultural context of how gender is “made”, especially focusing on the asymmetry in which only masculinity needs to be actively constructed, whereas femininity is either passively acquired or is imposed on one. One may “become” a woman but one must be “made” a man. Even in a sexual sense, “making a woman of her” is something that is imposed on the woman by her partner, rather than being an active achievement.

Within this context, cross-dressing and transgender lives test the limits of gender construction. The ways in which masculinity and femininity are treated differently in this context test the conflict of gender theory and practice. Garber discusses the phallocentrism inherent in the boundaries of male and female. Male-bodied “fetish” cross-dressers, may be reassured of their masculinity by the possession of a functional penis, while AMAB trans women find the possession of a penis traumatizing. The experiences and perceptions of early post-surgical trans women re: psychological implications of surgery go beyond hormonal changes. But for both groups, the penis is essentialized as the marker of maleness.

For assigned-female people, the question of essential symbols of gender is reversed. But even the context is asymmetric: the desire for “masculine” authority and power is seen as “natural” with no need for justification. Some authors, in fact, denied the existence of assigned-female “fetish” cross-dressers at all, as this desire for masculinity was considered an expected condition rather than a psychosis. The dividing line between trans men and the “natural” desire for male subjectivity is the question of whether one desires to possess a penis. [Note: This analysis seems to entirely exclude butch identity, or to set it aside as having nothing to do with cross-dressing.]

There is a discussion of psychological issues around surgery and its place in gender identity treatments.  It is claimed that sex reassignment (or in more current terminology, gender-affirming) surgery is less popular among trans men than trans women due to the greater difficulty in achieving a “satisfactory” result, i.e., a functional penis.

Garber considers the blending of anatomical and stylistic markers of gender in the context of transition, and the emphasis on behavioral performative gender to achieve the desired status. The transgender discourse of the book’s era essentialized anatomy as the key attribute defining gender, but there was a shift to medical markers like hormones and genetics as more “test cases” emerged. [Note: this is not specifically in the context of transition, but rather in determining what someone’s “true” gender was. That is, as gender-affirming surgery became more available, anatomy could no longer be used by those who wanted to define “true” gender.]

Garber points out the contrast that the public imagination is fascinated with trans women while they are alive, and with trans men after they are dead. She connects this to the tradition of literary/artistic fascination with womanhood as either dead or culturally constructed.

As transgender stories began to be depicted in cinema, there was a focus on pathology that revolved around the desire for and the trauma of surgery.

Chapter 5 - Fetish Envy

This chapter looks at “the phallus” as a concept in contrast to the penis as a biological organ. It discusses the historic position that women did not engage in fetishism -- that “penis envy” was not a fetish but a displacement of a natural desire for male power. Garber discusses the relationship of lesbians to straight women with respect to phallus-envy. She uses Nancy Friday’s survey of women’s sexual fantasies in My Secret Garden as evidence against the position that women don’t have fetishes.

There is a discussion of the use in Renaissance theater of the codpiece as a site of humor as a clearly constructed extreme signifier of masculinity that can be appropriated by women.

Chapter 6 - Breaking the code, transvestism and gay identity

This chapter discusses the evolution of an understood distinction between cross-dressing as a practice and homosexuality as an identity. There is conflict in gay (male) culture over “drag” representing effeminacy, and “drag” cross-dressers as distinguished from transgender identity. Advice columns and talk-shows of the time (Phil Donoghue, Girealdo Rivera, etc) had a fascination with this nexus. Mainstream culture tends to inextricably conflate gay men and cross-dressers, seeing each as implying the other. There is an emphasis on “legibility” -- difference should be visible, and visible otherness should be meaningful.

Compare Alan Bray’s look at (male) cross-dressing in various pre-modern eras in Homosexuality in Renaissance England. Did the cross-dresser want to be “read” as the visual gender, or to use cross-gender appearance to signal sexual identity?

Garber discusses the vast array of motivations for cross-dressing and the history regarding which were recognized by sexological scholarship in the field, starting with Magnus Hirschfeld. [Note: One key feature that is almost unremarked here is the driving need to classify and categorize -- to draw clear distinctions and boundaries between types of people and behaviors. This ties in with some of Foucault's observations about the drive to distinguish and categorize sexual deviancies.]

Attention shifts to the development of pathologizing “masculine” dress on women as representing gender identity. Hall’s The Well of Loneliness is contrasted with Woolf’s Orlando. This pathologizing creates the female “invert.” There is a discussion of how one era’s “pathological” appearance/presentation becomes another era’s fashionable ideal.

Garber looks at the inherent misogyny in differential attitudes toward cross-dressing, even among those who participate in it. And finally we get a discussion of butch-femme culture in the context of cross-dressing.

There is a discussion of the long history of using marriage ceremonies as a context for cross-dressing (either for one participant or both, as a temporary or permanent practice). Wedding dresses are the ultimate female object. This interacts with internal conflicts in the gay (male and female) community over the extent to which marriage as an institution is inherently heteronormative. [Note: keep in mind that when this book was written, marriage equality was barely imaginable.]

There is a long history of associating “mannish” clothing worn by female couples with suspect sexuality, as with the habitual fashions of Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby as commented on by their contemporaries. But here, styles such as Gertrude Stein’s distinctive non-normative dress can be contrasted with truly “mannish” outfits like that sported by Radclyffe Hall. The Parisian lesbian set played with gendered clothing but did not adopt uniformly male styles.

Finally, the text takes on butch-femme as a topic: the conflict over whether it counts as “cross-dressing” and how class affects its reception. (E.g., compare the upper class “stylish” butch look of Natalie Barney with the working class butch look of the mid-20th century bar scene.) The changeability of the precise features of fashion signals the distinction between butch-femme as identities and the gender-coding of clothing. There is a comparison with “drag” as performance and in other contexts.

Garber takes a close look at two lesbian-coded accessories in the post-WWI era: the monocle and the cigarette holder. Parisian lesbian culture revolved around the images of tuxedo, cigarette, cropped hair, and monocle. These all derived from the male “Dandy.” They were class markers, whose use by upper class lesbians marked their privilege to transgress social and legal prohibitions against cross-dressing. (Legal prohibitions were relevant in France, more subtly in England and America.)

Havelock Ellis asserted that female “inverts” had a tendency to wear male dress, engage in athletics, and to smoke. But are these symptoms? Or are they deliberately adopted as signs? (And did Ellis simply ignore women who didn’t fit his stereotype?) There is a discussion of the social politics of smoking and images of how cigarettes were marketed to women.

Gender-crossing styles “flow” between genders and communities. Visible “lesbian fashion” undergoes shifts in how specific styles are interpreted. The use of lesbian-associated fashions by celebrities dance around making their (queer) identity public. There is a consideration of the “sex appeal” of cross-gender fashion.

Part II - Transvestite Effects

This half of the book looks at how cross-gender performance and appearance are integrated into various pop culture themes and motifs. The chapters read like independent papers revolving around the general topic. The popular culture aspects are, in general, quite modern (20th century) and I have skimmed this part of the book much more lightly.

Chapter 7 - Fear of Flying, or why is Peter Pan a girl?

This chapter revolves around the traditional casting of a female actor in the character of Peter Pan. In part, this is a practical trick to enable the use of adult actors for all the child roles. The traditional cross-gender roles in English pantomime are discussed.

Chapter 8 - Cherchez La Femme - Cross-dressing in detective fiction

Disguise in general, and cross-gender disguise in particular are used in detective fiction (starting with Sherlock Holmes) to enable the detective to identify the “subtle wrongness” that gives away the suspect. Disguise is always “legible” to the skilled observer.

Other tropes that reveal disguise are “only one bed” which is popular in fiction in comparison to the more prevalent real-world revealing context of doctor/undertaker. Cross-dressing narratives also indulge in “mirror scenes” to reveal identity, both in fiction and biography.

Chapter 9 - Religious Habits

Christian (male) ceremonial garments have long been coded as “feminine” due to their inherent conservatism combined with shifts in gender coding of garments. But the ceremonial “performance” aspect carries over into “drag” performers characterizing their stage clothing as “robes, vestments.” This is not the only context where “othered” religions’ ritual clothing is feminized. Christian society has regularly feminized styles associated with Jewish culture, and more recently the image of the hippie “Jesus freak” is strongly feminized.

The shift over time of gender signifiers and the tendency of ritual clothing to be static can create a mismatch of readings. Another interesting case is the gendering of fashions in wigs (see, e.g., the retention of wigs for men in British legal culture, harking back to the 17/18th centuries).

The legends of transvestite (female) saints are more a site of male fantasy than female reality, including the repeating motif of accusations that the (disguised) woman had fathered a child. Joan of Arc falls somewhat in this tradition but cross-dressed openly. Joan is commonly used as a lens for theorizing about gender and presentation.

More than clothing was involved in the feminization of Catholic priests, whose status set them apart from secular men, in ways that could superficially align in responsibilities and image with secular women. With the Reformation, anti-Catholic fantasies, combined with attitudes toward the gender segregation of Catholic religious institutions, not only created the image of the feminized priest but focused on the nun as the subject of transvestite mockery. In cinema, men cross-dressed as nuns are popular comic figures.

Anti-semitic stereotypes conflated Jewish (men) with both women and homosexuals.

Chapter 10 - Phantoms of the Opera

This chapter is a loose survey of “famous” transvestites who were actors, diplomats, and spies. Garber discusses the real life story behind M. Butterfly, which combines Orientalism and cross-dressing theater. The gender presentation/interpretation of operatic castratos is discussed. Among famous spies who changed gender presentation are the Abbé de Choisy and the Chevalier d’Eon.

Chapter 11 - Black and White TV

This chapter looks at the intersection of cross-dressing and “blackface” performance, including the feminization of black men. But it also considers black women whose cross-dressing performance was an expression of their queer sexuality. Other racial gender disguise motifs are considered, such as the real life slave narrative of Ellen Craft in which she posed as a white man to escape to freedom with her darker-skinned husband presented as “his” slave.

Chapter 12 - The Chic of Araby

This chapter reviews several contexts in which the traditional dress of Arab men is reinterpreted as a type of cross-dressing (both gender and cultural). Examples include Lawrence of Arabia (both the movie and the historic figure), who embraced the ability of his use of Arabic dress to unsettle British compatriots, also various interpretations of that clothing as reflecting his “sexual ambivalences.”

Another cinematic example is Valentino’s role in The Sheik, which retains the cross-cultural as well as cross-gender themes, not only in the use of a non-Arabic actor for the role, but in that the character is revealed to be a “lost aristocratic heir,” thus preserving his “exotic” allure without the threat of miscegenation. At the same time, the female lead of the movie is masculinized, wearing pants and wielding a pistol, expressing feminist positions but “converted” to conventional femininity by her desire for Valentino’s character.

The female associations of trousers in Middle Eastern culture are played on in Woolf’s Orlando, but also historically, as for Lady Mary Montagu who adopted Turkish trousers in the 18th century after spending time at the Ottoman court. In the 19th century, western women used Turkish trousers as a jumping-off point for “reform” clothing that bridged the gap between skirts and pants. This resulted in some complex interactions. When Flora Tristan--enraged that women were not allowed in the House of Commons--approached various male acquaintances to borrow men’s clothes to get in, she was refused except by a Turkish diplomat who enthusiastically supported her and provided her with an outfit. Despite wearing (Turkish) male clothing, she was easily read as female during this escapade.

There is a discussion of how Byron and his friends, when guests of Ali Pasha, were entertained by transvestite male dancers, and the linking of cross-dressing and homosexuality in that context. There were multiple threads in Byron’s life linking him with women dressed as young men who were serving as a man’s companion or lover. On one occasion, Caroline Lamb disguised herself as a male servant to visit him.

Richard Burton’s translation of the Thousand and One Nights reinforced themes of cross-dressing in “Oriental” contexts. He adopted Arabic clothing during his travels and continued wearing it by preference afterward. Compare this with his countrywoman Gertrude Bell who wore English style clothing in her travels in order to retain foreign privilege, as she wouldn’t have the same freedom and access as a man would if she “went native.” In a sense, by not passing as an Arab, Bell was able to claim “male” privilege as someone outside the rules of local society.

The chapter concludes with an assortment of other examples of combining cross-gender and cross-culture performance, such as the use of veiling (by both men and women) as a means of gender-crossing. Marlene Dietrich’s cross-dressed performance in the film Morocco adapted the existing association of cross-dressing with Arabic culture. The motif of wearing/removing veils in the Biblical story of Salome became an icon of Oriental femininity but was regularly chosen to be interpreted by male performers, especially in the context of an “unveiling” dance with a gender reveal.

Chapter 13 - The Transvestite Continuum

Garber argues the position that transvestism is essential for the creation of culture as it defines the distinction between the symbolic and the “real”. Her focus here is on open, performative transvestism and how it relates to definitions and boundaries of “masculine” and “feminine.” There is an extensive exploration of the “flamboyant” though not strictly “transvestite” stylings of Liberace, Valentino, and Elvis to explore this question.


The book sums up with some fairy tale analogies, anecdotes from Freud, and a brief summary of the work’s themes.


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