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.
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.