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Beginning a Month of Gender-Crossing Books

Monday, April 5, 2021 - 07:00

I have several quite recent publications (the current book is from 2021) that address the intersection/overlap of female same-sex encounters and trans-masculine experiences in history. I thought it would make an interesting thematic group to cluster them as a series. (It may take more than one month, though I'm going to try to do multiple posts each week to get through more quickly.) A great many of the pulications the LHMP has previously covered in the range of cross-dressing, gender disguise, gender change, and transgender identity are rather dated. My perception is that academic work on the history of gender identity has shifted more significantly in the last 20 years even than work on lesbian history (and the field of lesbian history has shifted a lot!).

On the LHMP twitter account, I posted a thread on Transgender Day of Visibility about how I consider it impossible to study lesbian history without also studying transgender history. I hold this position not only because the subjects and themes of that study can often be difficult or impossible to distinguish, but also because the understandings that people in the past held regarding gender and sexuality made connections between the two that are vastly different from our modern framings of gender identity and sexuality.

If you go looking in European history for an understanding of female same-sex desire that excludes all suggestion of "desire for a woman is an inherently masculine attribute," then you have excluded a vast amount of the data. (This is the same trap as looking for an understanding of female same-sex desire that requires the position, "lesbian identity can only exist where there is solid evidence of genital sexual activity." But that's a rant for a different day.) Regardless of their subjective internal understanding of their gender identity, it is a regular (though not universal) theme in European historic contexts that sapphic desire implied some degree of innate masculinity. It was part of the landscape they lived in, and therefore it must be included in the scope of our study.

That said, the set of books I'm embarking on currently focus on some very different angles of the trans-masculine/lesbian interface and operate with different default framings. This is part of the reason for studying them together as a set.

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Full citation: 

Klein, Ula Lukszo. 2021. Sapphic Crossings: Cross-Dressing Women in Eighteenth-Century British Literature. University of Virginia Press, Charlottesville. ISBN 978-0-8139-4551-4

Introduction: Imagining Sapphic Possibility

[Note: I’m experimenting again with Apple’s voice-transcription function. Dictating from notes results in different phrasing than typing from notes. So the “feel” of this write-up may be different than my usual.]

This book looks at 18th century English depictions of female cross-dressing (i.e., assigned-female persons who are being read as male) and the relationship that has to ideas about female same-sex intimacy.

[Note: I have used the book's wording "cross-dressing women" to reflect how the author is framing the topic. The author emphasizes that she considers setting the framings "cross-dressing sapphic women vs. trans men" to be a false binary, and that her position is that all cross-dressing, regardless of context or motivation is inherently trans, as well as inherently queer. Furthermore, she is primarily examining the material as a literary genre, with consideration of its reception by contemporaries. And in the 18th century context, that contemporary audience would overwhelmingly understand the subject as "women disguised as men". However I will note for my readers that, because of these considerations and purposes, the wording and framing of the book may come across as erasive of trans possibiities, even though it does overtly recognize them on a regular basis. Read this work as a book about how trans narratives create an awareness of sapphic possibilities, rather than as claiming that the people being discussed--historic and fictional--were cis women in disguise as opposed to trans men living their authentic lives.]

18th century narratives of cross-dressing women were common. In many contexts, the focus is on how to manage the female body, and why that body appeals to female observers. Cross-dressing narratives became central to defining and negotiating gender and sexual categories in the long 18th century.

These texts “teach” readers how to recognize embodied sapphic possibilities. Klein’s analysis shows how the various genres and classes of texts bring together queer desire and trans categories, as well as disrupting the concept of heterosexuality by blurring sex and gender categories. The book is not concerned with questions of whether women who were attracted to cross-dressing women recognized them as such, whether sexual activity was involved, or whether cross-dressing women genuinely desired their female partners. Rather it examines how bodies are represented and perceived.

This analysis detaches masculinity from male bodies and considers the representation of specific body parts as they participate in cross-dressing gender performance. The illustrative body parts that Klein focuses on are: the beard, the breast, the penis, and the legs. The symbolic function of these with regard to gender relate to other categories such as race, nation, and disability.

This analysis is not a chronology of examples, rather it represents the blurring and confusion of the binary representation of gender difference. [Note: This book has lots of theory jargon, which I’m trying to present a bit more directly.]

The introduction continues with a literature review and a consideration of why the author focuses on the word sapphic for this topic. The author points out that regardless of individual gender identity, cross-dressing is always by definition a trans act that inherently challenges gender categories and boundaries. Klein considers that putting “trans” and” lesbian” in binary opposition in discussions of this sort is a trap. It is not her intent to create such an opposition even though her focus is on how cross-dressing speaks to sapphic concepts.

There is a conflict created between how cross-dressing bodies work to be sufficiently masculine versus being perceived as too feminine. And in some ways cis female desire for cross-dressing women is more queer than the cross-dressing performance itself. The introduction concludes with an overview that summarizes the structure of the book.

Time period: 
Place: 
historical