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Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast Episode #20d - Falling in Love with Cross-Dressing Girls

Saturday, March 24, 2018 - 11:00

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 46 (previously 20d) - Falling in Love with Cross-Dressing Girls - transcript

(Originally aired 2018/03/24 - listen here)

One of the extremely popular motifs in current lesbian historical fiction is that of cross-dressing, whether it’s the passing woman in the wild west who hooks up with a lonely widow and eventually shares her secret, or a gender-bending pirate captain whose masculine clothing is only one of the many signifiers of her rejection of society’s conventions, or the traditionally dapper “mannish” socialite of the Lost Generation back from driving ambulances on the battlefields of Flanders.

Cross-dressing has had shifting relationships to sexuality across the centuries. In recent decades, the concept has been a site of contention between lesbian butch-femme culture and trans-masculine interpretations of gender identity. At various times and places in history, cross-dressing has been embraced as a path to economic opportunity, as an escape from patriarchal authority, as an erotic advertisement by heterosexual sex workers, as a means of resolving social conflicts around same-sex desire, or even simply as a transgressive fashion statement. There has never been one single purpose or motivation for those with female-assigned bodies to take on the performance of masculine appearance, or a single interpretation assigned to such persons by their contemporaries.

In real life, only a minority of cases of cross-dressing women seem to have been motivated primarily by same-sex romantic desire. There were many other contexts in which same-sex desire was expressed historically, and many ways it can be depicted in modern historical fiction. But in Western literature written in the past, there has been a continuous thread across the centuries of female cross-dressing creating the opportunity for such desire to occur because of the initial perception of gender, which opened the door to emotions that then could not be denied.

I’d like to digress for a little bit about a literary genre known as the “portal fantasy.” I’ve always been fascinated with the authorial motivations behind writing portal fantasies. Not so much the narrative structure itself, which typically involves a person from the “real” non-fantastic world who crosses over into a fantastic realm where the story takes place, usually via a mechanism that has a particular spatial location in each of the worlds and creates a path between them.

Portal fantasies include such well-known works as Narnia, Alice in Wonderland, and The Wizard of Oz. But the genre has a long history. One more obscure early example is Margaret Cavendish’s 17th century novel The Blazing World--one of a number of works that claim the honor of being “the first science fiction novel”--which engages two entirely separate portal motifs: one a sort of Jules Verne-like “journey to the center of the earth”--a geographic portal--and one a psychological portal involving what might best be described as astral projection. The latter is the mechanism by which the real-world author gains the knowledge of the story and thus is able to relate it to us.

One of the things that fascinates me about why imaginative stories are written as portal fantasies, rather than simply being set in an entirely fantastic world, is how the author uses the portal motif to connect the reader to the secondary world. The author is saying, “This isn’t the world you know, the world around you, but it’s a place that you could go to--I’ll show you how.” That’s a different type of story than one that says, “Long ago and far away -- somewhere and somewhen you can’t get to” or a story that says, “Imagine the world you’re in now, but with magic in it. Imagine that your world could be different from what you know.” Those two types of settings show you a fantasy that’s out of reach--that can be imagined but not inhabited. But the portal fantsy--it tells you that magic is just around the corner. And it shows you how you could get there.

The portal fantasy is often framed as a true relation of actual adventures. And if it is true, then the story must explain the connection between the world of the story and the world of the author, whether it involves adventures in hidden parts of the earth (as for several Jules Verne stories), or on other planets (as with many Edgar Rice Burroughs series), or in entirely imaginary worlds (as with Oz and Narnia).

When I first started thinking about the purpose of portal fantasies, I had thought this was something of an evolutionary process: that completely independent “secondary world” settings were not possible until fantastic literature had liberated itself from the tradition of travelers’ tales and a sincere belief in the fantastic. But I’ve come to realize that was just a sense of smug modernist superiority on my part. I won’t even excuse it as being naive. One clear counter-example to a purely evolutionary view of portal fantasies is the author’s note at the end of Cavendish’s Blazing World, mentioned previously, which emphasizes the point that the story is entirely a self-conscious imaginative creation, although it’s framed otherwise, and Cavendish encourages other authors to create worlds of their own to enjoy like she has.

Still and all, the use of a portal or bridge to move the protagonist from the familiar “real” world into one where impossibilities are possible has immense power. It doesn’t merely suspend disbelief but breaks it. “Yes, I know that couldn’t happen in the world around us, but if you go travel through this tunnel, if you open the right door, if you sail over the edge of the sea, then you enter a different world entirely. And in that world the rules are different.”

That brings me back to the real topic of this essay, which was sparked by a conversation on Twitter about those of us who, when we were young, read adventure stories of cross-dressing girls with a secret hope that they would end in same-sex romance. As Emma Donoghue put it in Inseparable, her work on desire between women in literature across the ages: “Disguise plots have allowed writers to explore, as if between quotation marks or parentheses, all sorts of possibilities. By far the most popular has been the idea of accidental desire between women.”

That’s when the idea of cross-dressing plots as a portal fantasy hit me. Just like the wardrobe that led to Narnia, or the mysterious tunnel to the center of the Earth, the act of gender disguise creates an opening in the world, a doorway that conveys the character--or the reader--from a world in which desire only happens between men and women, to one where desire between women is a possible reality.

Both parties to the disguise are offered the world on the other side of the portal. The non-disguised woman has the opportunity to fix her desire on a specific (female) individual before being required to confront the transgressive nature of her desire. And the disguised woman has the opportunity to experience (and potentially return) being desired by a woman while being temporarily constrained from objecting to that desire on the grounds of gender. The use of the cross-dressing motif enables the characters to move from a world where heteronormative expectations make it impossible for them to imagine desiring each other (much less admitting to it and acting on it), to an imagined world in which the fantastic is not only possible but inevitable. 

In the context of my research into lesbian-like motifs in history, I’ve cast a rather wide net in terms of looking at cross-dressing and gender passing, both as a literary motif and in real life. I’ve also noted that--especially in real life--it can be difficult to draw a clear line between understanding these persons as taking on a disguise or as being transgender, especially given the differences in what models and concepts were available at the time. To a large extent, those aren’t even the right questions to ask about gender and sexuality in history. But in this essay I’m looking specifically at fictional depictions where the two individuals are both depicted as having a female identity at the time they first meet (although magical sex-change may later be invoked to create a heteronormative resolution), and where the romantic potential is enabled by the fact that one of them is presenting as male, unknown to the other at that time.

Now it isn’t much of a spoiler to note that it’s vanishingly rare in pre-modern literature, for the intersection of these motifs to have an ending that reads as “happily ever after as two women together.” And I suspect that modern literature has offered a fairly brief window between the era when that happily ever after ending became viable within the social context of publishing, and the era when the gender-disguise motif became considered quaintly retro. This essay is more about illusory possibilities. About unintended payoffs to those of us looking for same-sex romance. About those brief transient moments in a narrative that was never intended for us, when we were allowed to believe that the story might end differently this time. And on such scraps of hope we survived. And make no mistake, the stories I’ll be discussing here are only scraps. But scraps are better than nothing and they’re a foundation to build on in our own historical fiction.

The various stories I’m going to talk about here could be categorized in many ways. One might trace “tale types” such as the various interpretations of Ovid’s Iphis and Ianthe or the assortment of romantic quadrangle plots that include Shakespeare’sTwelfth Night, which employ a cross-dressing woman as romantic go-between from the man she loves to the woman who loves her. But I thought it would be interesting to group them according to the scope of the disguise and the direction, persistence, and resolution of the romantic attraction.

One of the oldest and most classic motifs is:

Inspired by My Male Disguise, You Love Me, and I Love You Back; This is resolved by a Divine Sex-Change

The oldest version of this--the one that the others derive from-- is the story of Iphis and Ianthe, a Latin epic poem by Ovid, written early in the 1st century. This story is part of his Metamorphoses. Iphis is raised as a boy to escape infanticide by her father and falls mutually in love with her childhood friend Ianthe to whom her parents betroth her. Iphis very clearly experiences love and desire for Ianthe and expresses at some length the frustration that, as a woman herself, there is nothing she can do to fulfil that desire. Ianthe believes, more straightforwardly, that she is in love with a boy. Things progress apace toward a wedding with Iphis worried about what will happen when Ianthe finds out the truth. Then Iphis’s mother (who was responsible for the disguise in the first place) takes Iphis to the temple of Io on the eve of the wedding and prays for an answer. A miracle occurs. Iphis is transformed by divine interventoin into a man and the marriage goes forward.

This, of course, is more easily understood as a transgender myth, rather than a lesbian one. In many ways, the classical and medieval understandings of gender and sexuality were more friendly to transgender resolutions of such stories than to homosexual ones. There’s room enough for the story to be embraced from both angles. Iphis clearly identifies as a woman in disguise up to the point of the miracle. But she also embraces the change as a means of being with the woman she loves.

This story was revived multiple times across the centuries. A French drama of the early 17th century by Isaac de Benserade follows the same basic plot but postpones the divine sex-change until after the wedding, allowing for the implication that the two women have, in fact, experienced what is presented as an enjoyable wedding night together.

Iphis and Ianthe was also the inspiration for the medieval French tale Yde et Olive that appears in a number of different versions. The first is an anonymous French epic poem from around 1300 and there’s a slightly different prose version in the 15th century. The story is part of the genealogical epic Huon de Bordeaux. As a genealogical epic (aside from other considerations) the tale has a biological imperative for the central characters to have offspring.

Yde runs away from home to escape her father’s incestuous advances and disguises herself as a knight to make her way in the world. She gains the gratitude of the Emperor of Rome who offers her his daughter Olive’s hand in marriage. Olive has rejected her other suitors but falls deeply in love with Yde. Yde at first begs off on the engagement, arguing that she isn’t of noble enough birth for an emperor’s daughter, but this is overcome in part because of Olive’s eagerness for the match. The wedding takes place but Yde avoids consummating it with a plea of illness (for which we may understand she’s claiming impotence). Instead she satisfies Olive with kisses and embraces. But eventually Olive can’t be put off any longer and Yde reveals her true sex. Olive, surprisingly enough, vows to continue with the marriage and treat Yde as she would a male husband. Unfortunately, an eavesdropper hears this conversation and betrays them to the emperor who feels the need to condemn them both. In one version there is a complicated diversionary tactic involving Yde being required to take a bath before witnesses and a magical stag that interrupts the proceedings before she can be betrayed. But before the sentence of death can be carried out, Yde is miraculously transformed into a man, making everything ok.

There’s a slightly different ending in the next group, which is:

Inspired by My Male Disguise, You Love Me, and I Love You Back; We are Rescued by a Convenient Twin Brother (or Other Close Relative)

Keep track of the “convenient twin brother” motif because we’ll be seeing it again, although this one isn’t really a good example of that escape hatch.

Another version of the story of Yde and Olive is titled Miracle de la fille d’un roy “Miracle of a King’s Daughter”, an anonymous French drama of the 14th century. Among other minor details, such as naming the protagonist Ysabel, this version differs in resolving the transient “problem” of the same-sex marriage by having Yde’s father--remember the guy she ran away from home to escape?--well, he shows up at the last moment, whereupon each woman is married off to the other’s father. This definitely falls in the category of “medieval people had a weird idea of happily ever after.”

One of the things you discover when you start looking at non-Christian literary traditions, is that a lot of the expectations you might have taken for grated get thrown out the window. Although I’ve oversimplified some of the interpersonal dynamics in this one, we can still call it:

Inspired by My Male Disguise, You Love Me, and I Love You Back; We Live Happily Ever After But It’s Complicated

One of the stories in the Arabic literary tradition that eventually became codified as the Thousand and One Nights, is that of Qamar al-Zaman and the Princess Boudour. The episode we’re interseted in here is only one small part of the complex saga in the original. This story has some family resemblances to Yde and Olive but is strikingly different in how it treats the relationship between its female protagonists after the marriage. Being free from some of the constraints of Christian literature, it achieves a resolution in which the two women continue to share a household, albeit as co-wives of the same man. Boudour is traveling with her husband Qamar. When he mysteriously disappears, she puts on his clothes and takes his name to protect herself. She arrives at the Isle of Ebony, whose king wishes to retire from the throne. He forces Boudour to marry his daughter Hayat al-Nefous and became his heir. Boudoir puts off revealing her secret to Hayat for several days after the wedding, but in the mean time satisfies her erotically with caresses and kisses. After finally revealing her true sex, the two live happily as a married couple until the real Qamar al-Zaman shows up. At that point, Boudour explains everything and abdicates the throne in her husbands' favor, after which Qamar takes Hayat as his second wife with Boudour stipulating that they (the wives) will share a house together.

Although a resolution ending in marriage usually required some sort of transformation or substitution, sometimes you get:

Inspired by My Male Disguise, You Love Me, and I Love You Back; But Once You Know the Truth We Can Only be Friends

The romance of Amadis de Gaule was the medieval equivalent of a best-seller, having multiple anonymous versions in French, Spanish, and Portuguese in the 14th and15th century. But the best known version is a Spanish reworking by Garci Rodríguez de Montalvo written around 1500. This is a long, sprawling, complex tale (like many of the medieval romance cycles) and the cross-dressed ladies appear in minor episodes appended to the main story. Although there are two different stories involving disguised women, they may, in fact, be variants of the same underlying tale.

Both Oronce and La Belle Sauvage engage in martial deeds (with armor playing some part in their gender disguise). Oronce has been fighting for the cause of a duchess (who believes her to be a man). The duchess first catches sight of Oronce’s face as she takes off her armor and the duchess’s admiration turns to desperate love when she sees Oronce’s “delicate rosy beauty.” Mind you, she still thinks Oronce is a man while having this reaction. One of the interesting aspects of medieval literature is that the standards for male and female beauty are often quite similar.

But Oronce has a second admirer as well. The princess Licinie is distracted from her efforts to free her imprisoned brother by Oronce’s beauty and also falls desperately in love. And then a third woman, a queen, is similarly smitten with Oronce. She is distressed to discover that the object of her affection is a woman, but the duchess (who has gone through the same discovery and disappointment earlier) consoles her that at least they both found out before making fools of themselves in public.

The princess Licinie, though, has been so traumatized by discovering her “error” in falling in love with a disguised woman that she scrutinizes a later object of affection for signs that his attractive beauty also signals an underlying female identity. Think of it as the same sort of gender panic we see today with transgender bathroom legislation, where suddenly almost anyone can find themself accused of not meeting the requirements for acceptable gender presentation.

In the same story cycle, La Belle Sauvage similarly enchants the young lady she serves as a chevalier, and the narrator points out that La Belle Sauvage possesses a type of beauty such that that she will attract both men and women, depending on which gender’s clothing she wears. There is some indication in the stories that these female knights kept the admiration of their female admirers even after the discovery of their sex, although only as a sincere platonic affection.

Not all cases of attraction to women in disguise are treated as harmless mistakes. In the sex-negative world of early saints’ lives, sexual desire of any type is frowned on, leading to stories of the form:

Due to My Male Disguise You Love Me, But I’m Not Interested; Then Things Get Ugly

This motif shows up in multiple variations in the genre of early saints’ biographies involving gender disguise in order for a woman to enter a male-only monastery. The particular tale-type covered here is attributed to several different saints, including Saint Margarita or Pelagius and Saint Eugenia, among others. The general plot involves a holy woman who disguises herself as a man in order to enter a male-only monastic institution for religious purposes. In this disguise, she becomes the unwilling object of desire from a woman she interacts with.

In the case of Eugenia, she heals the woman, who then develops a romantic fixation on her. Eugenia rebuffs the woman who then accuses her of rape. In the case of Margarita, she is appointed as prior of a women’s convent and the portress there becomes pregnant and names Margarita as the father. Margarita silently accepts the accusation and is expelled from the convent in disgrace. Saint Marina has a similar story to Margarita’s, but when she silently accepts being named as the father of the child, she then takes responsibility for raising it. Being saints, none of these women ever are shown returning the romantic desires of their accusers.

This same general shape of story appears in the French romance of Silence written by Heldris de Cornualle, around 1200. Silence’s parents have raised her as a boy so that she can inherit due to a prohibition on female heirs. She goes off to have adventures and achieves knightly renown in this guise. This brings her to the English court and the amorous (and adultrous) attention of Queen Eufeme. Silence doesn’t return the queen’s desire (though it isn’t entirely clear whether she rejects same-sex desire in general or--as she claims in the text--simply rejects adultery). In revenge, Queen Eupheme accuses her of sexual assault and has her sent off on an impossible quest, intending it to be fatal. Various adventures ensue and Silence returns to the court with her honor vindicated, but Merlin reveals her secret and so uncovers the queen’s lies. The queen is executed and Silence returns to life as a woman, the inheritance laws are reversed to allow women to inherit, and the king marries her (with the late queen barely cold in her grave).

These tales where the romantic desire is one-sided don’t always result in tragedy. Sometimes we get:

Due to My Male Disguise You Love Me, But I’m Not Interested; Once You Know the Truth We Can be Friends

The most familiar story of this group is probably Shakespeare’s As You Like It written around 1600. In one of Shakespeare’s typically convoluted tales of multiple romances and mistaken identities, Rosalind (in male disguise as Ganymede) and her cousin Celia are wandering in the Forest of Arden after Rosalind has been exiled by Celia’s father, the Duke. In the forest they fall in with some shepherds, including Silvius who has just had his love scorned by the shepherdess Phoebe. Phoebe falls in love with Rosalind as Ganymede, but Rosalind has always been in love with Orlando, who is also wandering the forest for his own reasons. Phoebe’s attraction, however, does not outlast the revelation of Rosalind’s true sex and she then happily pairs off with the shepherd Silvius. It’s a lot more complicated that that, though. It is Shakespeare after all.

A more obscure version of the motif, also from English drama around 1600, is in the play James the Fourth  by Robert Greene. Skipping some really complicated background to the plot, Dorothea, the rejected wife of the King of Scotland has fled the court in male disguise to escape an assassain. She has conveniently received a brief lesson in swordplay for her protection and to assist the masquerade. The assassin pursues Dorothea, aware of her disguise. They fight and Dorothea is wounded and is rescued and nursed by Lady Anderson, who then falls in love with her wounded guest, claiming that she will “blush, grieve, and die in ... insatiate lust” if not loved in return. This is not exactly welcome news to Lord Anderson, but he’s called away to war, giving Dorothea and Lady Anderson opportunity for a confusing conversation in which Dorothea gently refuses the lady’s love without revealing her secret, and then explains that she’s really the missing Queen of Scotland that everyone is out hunting for. In the midst of this, Dorothea assures Lady Anderson she loves her as a friend, and Lady Anderson’s previous protestations of love are quietly forgotten.

In many gender disguise plots, we are teased with the idea that the object of desire is not determined by anatomy. But this isn’t always the case, as in the somewhat changeable affections found in:

Due to My Male Disguise You Love Me, But I’m Not Interested; Then we are Rescued by a Divine Sex-Change and Now I Do Love You

The story of Tristan de Nanteuil an anonymous, French romance written in the late 14th century, is part of the extended Arthurian story cycle. Think of it as a sort of medieval Arthurian fan-fiction craze. The lady Blanchandine is Tristan’s wife and disguises herself as a man in order to accompany him on campaign and hide from her father who disapproved of the match. While in disguise, she comes to the amorous attention of the Saracen princess Clarinde. When Tristan is briefly believed dead, Blanchandine is pressured into marrying Clarinde. She weasels out of performing her marital duties, which would reveal her true sex, with her predicament culminating in a “public bath test” similar to that in Yde and Olive. As in the tale of Yde, the test is interrupted by the appearance of a supernatural stag. You wonder how many supernatural stags were running around in the woods, looking for people having their gender tested by a public bath!

Blanchandine pursues the stag and, when lost in the forest, has a mystical encounter where she is offered the choice of a divine sex-change. Figuring that it’s a good way out of her dilemma (and still believing Tristan to be dead), Blanchandine takes the offer. Instantly, the now-male Blanchandine becomes romantically interested in Clarinde and--when Tristan unexpectedly turns up alive--is no longer romantically interested in him. This sort of biologically determined desire is actually rare in gender disguise stories. People may conclude that their love is impossible due to the sex of their loved one, but generally the desire itself is acknowledged.

Gender-confusion romances that resolve into friendships are nice, but in general literature likes to finish a story with a romance. If the audience wasn’t yet ready for a same-sex romance, then the resolution could either deploy a gender-change or deflect the romantic feelings onto another character. One way to have your cake and eat it too was to come up with a romantic object who was essentially identical except for being an approved gender. Hence the surprising frequency of identical fraternal twin brothers. I call this next group:

Due to My Male Disguise You Love Me, But I’m Not Interested; We are Rescued by a Convenient Twin Brother (or Other Close Relative)

One of the classics of Italian Renaissance literature was Ludovico Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso, published in the early 16th century. The gender bending is part of what inspired Virginia Woolf’s Orlando at a later date, but here we’re concerned with the original. The Princess Fiordispina falls in love with the Amazon warrior Bradamante, believing her to be a man. In this case, Bradamante isn’t deliberately disguising herself as a man, it’s just that people assume that someone charging around the landscape in armor must be male. Fiordispina’s desire continues after discovering her error, even in the face of Bradamante’s attempts to dissuade her. I have some excerpts from this in my podcast on female knights in shining armor. Finally Fiordispina is deflected onto an acceptable romantic object, via the convenient twin brother motif, though in a somewhat creepy guise. Bradamante’s brother Ricciardetto pretends to be his sister in order to get Fiordispina in bed at which point he claims that he’s a divinely gender-transformed version of his sister. One might think that Fiordispina could tell the difference.

The original gender-disguise story that Shakespeare used in Twelfth Night becan as the Italian comedy Gl’Ingannati, first performed in 1537. The twin siblings Fabritio and Lelia are separated from each other during the sack of Rome. Lelia ends up in Modena where her former lover Flamineo lives. Lelia disguises herself as a male page to serve her ex. Flaminio, of course, doesn’t recognize her and sends her as a messenger to court his new beloved, Isabella. Isabella falls in love with Lelia instead. The brother, Fabritio, arrives in the nick of time to much confusion and several transfers of affections to sort out the characters into heterosexual couples when all is revealed.

The essential story is similar in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, written around 1600. This time the twin siblings are Viola and Sebastian, separated during a shipwreck. Viola, cross-dressing as Cesario falls in love with Duke Orsinio but is sent by him as a love-emissary to the heiress Olivia. Olivia, of course, falls in love with Cesario. Viola (as Cesario) does express admiration for Olivia, although it’s be intended purely as part of her disguise. Fortunately for the resolution, the convenient twin brother Sebastian shows up in time to distract Olivia so that Duke Orsinio is free to realize he’s really in love with his former page-boy. Another aspect of all of these gender-confusion plots is that there’s fair amount of male same-sex romance being portrayed here as well.

Not all gender disguises on stage were done with innocent intent, especially as we move into the more cynical 17th century. Seduction for the sake of revenge features in a number of motifs. We’ll start with:

I’m Going to Disguise Myself as a Man and Seduce You to Get Revenge on the Man We Both Love

In the mid 17th century Margaret Cavendish--the same woman who wrote the portal fantasy The Blazing World that I mentioned at the beginning of the show--wrote a tangled farce entitled Matrimonial Trouble. This is evidently a complex, multi-threaded plot but I have been unable to dig up the details beyond an incident where Mistress Forsaken disguises herself as a man to attend her (male) ex-lover’s wedding in order to seduce his new wife.

A similar motivation appears in a French drama titled La Femme, Juge, et partie “The Wife, Judge, and Accuser” by Antoine Jacob Montfleury, again from the mid 17th century. A wronged wife disguises herself as a man to seduce her husband’s new fiancée. I’ve included these seduction-while-disguised plots because part of the drama is that the target of the seduction is shown as being attracted to her disguised rival. So they continue to show cross-dressing as a window on the possibility of same-sex attraction.

An unexpected twist shows up in the variant I call:

I’m Going to Disguise Myself as a Man and Seduce You to Get Revenge on the Man We Both Love; But We Fall in Love Instead; and Tragedy Ensues

This is another English play from the mid 17th century, titled Brennoralt  by Sir John Suckling. Bear with me because the plot is compicated. Iphigene is jealous of the attention her (male) object of affection Almerin is paying to Francelia, so Iphigene disguises herself as a man to court Francelia in order to distract her away from Almerin. That would leave Alermin lonely so he’d turn back to Iphigene. But Francelia becomes enamored of Iphigene and they spend the night together. When Almerin catches them together in the morning, he believes Francelia has been unfaithful to him with a strange man, that is, Iphegene. In a fit of jealousy he stabs them both. As the two women lie dying in each others’ arms, now that Iphigene’s true sex is revealed, Francelia rejects Almerin in favor of Iphigene, preferring her love to his. Alas, they die.

Here’s another peculiar variant of disguise and revenge that I call:

I’m Going to Disguise Myself as a Man and You’re Going to Seduce Me to Get Revenge on the Man We Both Love

 In the early 17th century play The Doubtful Heir  by James Shirley, we have the usual farcical tangle of relationships. King Ferdinand is a notorious philanderer and is neglecting his beautiful queen Olivia in favor of his mistress Rosania. But for logistical reasons, Rosania is disguised as a boy, Tiberio, and playing the part of the page boy to the king. Queen Olivia decides to take revenge on her husband by seducing his page--who is actually the disguised mistress Rosania. King Ferdinand encourages this encounter  in order to distract Olivia and let her think she’s pulling one over on him. The two women have a rather hot and heavy make-out session, though it doesn’t go far enough for the disguise to be revealed at the time.

Leaving behind these stories of seduction and revenge, let’s finish the stories of love and gender disguise with three that are very individual in their structure. The first, although presented in fictionalized form, was inspired by true events. Let’s describe it as:

I Disguise Myself as a Man to Court You, and You Love Me Back, Possibly Well Aware That I’m a Woman; Drama and Tragedy Ensue

This is taken from the text An Historical and Physical Dissertation on the Case of Catherine Vizzani an adapted translation from the Italian original by John Cleland, written in 1751. This example is somewhat marginal to the theme of this podcast, given that it purports to be biography (though in an era when many an invention was marketed as a “true history”) and that at least some of Catherine’s lovers were well aware that she was a woman despite the male clothing. But there are definitely episodes that fit the literary motif of the idea of same-sex love being made possible by the gender disguise. Catherine Vizzani knew she was romantically attracted to women from an early age and, somewhat surprisingly, her parents seem to have shrugged and done what they could to help her pursue happiness. She courted one woman at first in the context of female pursuits such as sewing lessons, but also disguised herself as a man to serenade her at her window at night. When that relationship didn’t pan out, Catherine continued living as a man, though the course of various odd jobs, and several more girlfriends. She meets her downfall when she persuades one woman to elope with her and is shot during the pursuit and subsequently dies. I did an entire episode on Catherine Vizzani which you can listen to for more details.

One of the most intriguing variations on the Iphis and Ianthe story can be summed up as:

We are Both in Disguise and Both Think We Love a Man; But We’re OK with Being Women in Love Too When We Find Out; But We are Rescued by a Divine Sex-Change

This late 16th century neo-classical romp by John Lyly is titled Gallathea after one of the female protagonists. Here is a plot with serious gender-bending potential. Both women--Gallathea and Phillida--are going about in male disguise and not only find themselves objects of desire for Diana’s nymphs (who, of course, were notoriously disdainful of men, so one has to suspect they knew exactly who it was they were flirting with) but both women fall in love with each other, each initially believing she is safely in love with a man. The story progresses through their dawning awareness as each woman begins to suspect the other woman is employing the same disguise she is. Yet they continue their romantic pursuit. When the truth comes out, their romance is brought to judgment before two goddesses. The Goddess Diana lectures them sternly about chastity and tells the to abandon their passion, but the Goddess Venus approves of their passion and is willing to do what it takes to enable it. The two women declare that they will love each other--and only each other--forever no matter what. So Venus offers to turn one of them into a man. Gallathea and Phillida are ok with that, as long as they can stay together as a couple. They leave it up to Venus to pick which one of them gets changed, but the play leaves off before the actual transformation occurs. So technically the play ends with two women publicly announcing their mutual love for each other and their intention to marry. Hey, I’ll take what I can get.

Gender disguise plots are less commonly an opportunity for same-sex desire as we leave the Renaissance behind, but I’d hate to leave without a mention of one of my favorite gender-queer romps of all time, which we can sum up as:

Due to My Male Disguise You are Uninterested in Me, But Once You Know the My True Sex We Can be Romantic Friends and Romp Across Europe Together, Both in Male Disguise, and Then Live Happily Ever After As Women

This is, of course, the mid 18th century picaresque novel, The Travels and Adventures of Mademoiselle de Richelieu. The category description pretty much sums up the entire plot. Alithea de Richelieu, having achieved economic independence, decides to go traveling, disguising herself as a man, the Chevalier de Radpont, for convenience and safety. She regularly flirts with women she encounters, though always crying off it if gets too serious, until she encounters the lovely widow Arabella de Montferan. Arabella’s previous marriage was such a disaster that she now rebuffs all men. Alithea pursues her in vain and can only win her friendship by revealing her own true sex, at which point they pledge eternal friendship and embrace passionately. Arabella decides the only way she can join Alithea on her adventures and yet maintain her reputation is to join her in cross-dressing. They indulge in regular teasing along the lines of “if only one of us were what we pretend to be, we could marry.” And, in the end, after returning home from their adventures and returning to women’s clothing, they vow to spend the rest of their lives together and never marry. And that’s what they do. I’ve also done a separate podcast entirely on this novel, with excerpts of all of the juicy parts.

Alithea and Arabella make a perfect conclusion to this exploration of the romantic portal-worlds made possible by gender disguise. Without the initial cross-dressing, Alithea would never have gone on her adventures. But it isn’t the disguised Chevalier de Radpont who wins the heart of the widow Arabella, only Alithea in her true self as a woman can do that. And it is through their parallel flirtations with other women, while both of them are disguised as men, that they begin to realize how much they each want to be each other’s romantic object. Their desire is displaced, not onto acceptable male objects, but onto safely unobtainable female ones, until they are ready to settle down together. Their journey through Europe takes them through that portal and out the other side. If they are not yet able--in the 18th century--to put a name to what they have together, certainly we can recognize it for happily ever after.

Show Notes

An exploration of the concept of the “portal fantasy” and how it applies to historic literature involving cross-dressing as a context for same-sex desire.

In this episode we talk about

  • The context of women cross-dressing in history and literature
  • The literary genre of “portal fantasies” and the devices they use to connect author, reader, and story into a unified whole
  • Cross-dressing plots as a type of romantic portal fantasy
  • A catalog of story structures in which cross-dressing provides a context for same-sex desire

Further information about the texts and topics can be found at the following links:

For general discussions of female cross-dressing in literature and real life see the following:

Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online

Links to Heather Online

Major category: