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Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast Episode 241 – The Appeal of Anne/Jean-Baptiste Grandjean

Saturday, October 15, 2022 - 07:00

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 241 – The Appeal of Anne/Jean-Baptiste Grandjean - transcript

(Originally aired 2022/10/15 - listen here)


I’ve discussed the 18th century French case of Anne or Jean-Baptiste Grandjean previously on the podcast—most notably in episode 103, the second of a two-part show on “Policing Sexuality and Gender in Early Modern Europe.” One of the points I made in that episode is the difficulty of sorting out “innate identity from strategic performance from culturally-imposed categorization.” I regularly make reference to Grandjean’s case in discussions around this topic, not because it offers any absolute answers, but because it is such an object lesson in how difficult it can be to look for answers in any specific case.

This episode requires a few content notes for listeners. It includes explicit discussions of genital anatomy, including reference to an intrusive medical examination. It uses the word “hermaphrodite” in the context of historic usage, recognizing that the word is considered offensive today. And it discusses historic myths and motifs about non-normative gender and non-normative sexuality that do not align with modern understandings.

To give you a framework for the discussion, here are the basic facts. In 1732, in Grenoble, France, a child was born who was categorized as female and named Anne Grandjean and raised as a girl. At puberty, Grandjean began experiencing sexual desire for women and communicated this fact first to their parents and then to the priest who was their confessor. The priest instructed Grandjean to transition to living as a man. This was done with the full knowledge (and evidently, support) of their family and community. They courted several women and married one of them. As part of establishing financial independence from their parents, Grandjean legally changed their name from Anne to Jean-Baptiste. Some years later, when living in Lyon, a woman Grandjean had previously courted accused them of being “a hermaphrodite.” When this came to the attention of the authorities in Lyon, Grandjean was tried for the crime of “profaning the sacrament of marriage.” As part of the trial, a medical examination was performed, which concluded that Grandjean was a woman, resulting in a guilty verdict. The verdict was appealed and Grandjean’s lawyer based the appeal on a claim that Grandjean was intersex and had sufficiently masculine anatomy that it was reasonable that both Grandjean and their wife sincerely believed Grandjean to be a man. Therefore, the necessary requirement of intent was missing from the charge of profanation and Grandjean should be acquitted. The sentence was reversed but Grandjean was required to return to living as a woman and the marriage was dissolved.

Grandjean can be viewed through a number of different lenses, not only in terms of finding parallels with modern identities, but in terms of trying to tease out how they—and their contemporaries—viewed them. And here I want to lay out my principles in how I discuss and refer to Grandjean’s sex and gender. I have a personal opinion and interpretation of the evidence. My interpretation is that Grandjean was a woman, who was initially pressured into living as a man by authorities who found that more acceptable than the idea of a woman expressing sexual desire for another woman, and who then was punished for having obeyed those authorities and required to return to living as a woman. Grandjean’s appeal lawyer presents a very different take: that Grandjean was intersex, and that Grandjean’s desire for women was evidence that they should be understood as male—or at least forgiven for living as a man. As a third option—although not part of the 18th century discourse—it is reasonable to consider Grandjean within a transgender framework as someone who was assigned female and then later transitioned to being socially and legally categorized as male. Because of these multiple possible framings, and because the underlying “truth”—and I put that in scare-quotes—is not absolutely knowable, I have chosen to refer to Grandjean with gender-unspecified “they” except when quoting the original textual material, and to largely refer to them by surname, again except when quoting or paraphrasing the original texts. I’m doing so to avoid imposing my own interpretation on the presentation of the data, and to honor the unknowable understanding that Grandjean had of their own identity.

The Framework

How are all these different interpretations possible? And what is the evidence for each of them? We must start with the nature of the evidence and the way that evidence is filtered to us. The only record of this case that I’m aware of is a printed edition of the appeal lawyer’s arguments. It’s possible that court records of the original trial in Lyon exist—or existed at some point—but I’ve never seen any reference to their current availability. The published record is—as far as we can tell—authored by, or at least in the name of, the appeal lawyer. So it may or may not represent the arguments actually made in court, but clearly represents the arguments that the lawyer chose to present as the historic record.

The evidence presented at the original trial in Lyon is therefore available to us only as related by the appeal lawyer. It is clearly condensed and filtered, and it is reasonable to consider that the thoughts, motivations, and opinions attributed to the participants may have been shaped in a way that the appeal lawyer felt would best support his case. But in contrast, when details of the original trial appear to conflict with or undermine the case the appeal lawyer is trying to build, it’s reasonable to put confidence in them. I note all this, in part, to lay out the basis for my own personal conclusions about Grandjean’s life.

Another essential part of the framework for understanding this case is what people in 18th century France knew and believed about sex, gender, and orientation. Three concepts in particular are key. The question of how people understood the term “hermaphrodite,” the question of how people viewed sexual desire between women, and the question of how much people were aware of variations in genital anatomy and what meaning they ascribed to that variation.

I apologize for using the word “hermaphrodite” in a discussion that includes consideration of intersex anatomy, because modern usage considers it offensive in that context. However no other word conveniently captures the ambiguity of how it was used in the 18th century, so it’s hard to escape using it. Setting aside the use of the term in a mythological sense for a person who had a patchwork of both male and female functioning genitals, the term “hermaphrodite” was used in two senses that we would consider distinct as relating to physiology versus gender, but which people in the early modern period considered difference faces of the same idea, that of a person who incorporated both aspects that were considered male and those considered female. These could include aspects of physiology—not only genitalia, but of size, strength, presence of body or facial hair, and perceptions of conformance to physical gender norms. But the early modern concept of the hermaphrodite also encompassed aspects of personality or behavior. There were clear stereotypes of appropriate male or female characteristics, and a person who combined characteristics attributed to both sexes might be labeled a hermaphrodite. Thus, women were called hermaphrodites for gender-related behavior such as cross-dressing or engaging in sex with women, but they were also called hermaphrodites if they were sexually assertive in general, if they were active in fields associated with men such as scholarship, literature, or politics, or if they enjoyed physical activity such as horseback riding or hunting.

While the physiological concept of hermaphroditism in the early modern period encompassed people with substantially ambiguous anatomy, it also worked awkwardly around categorizing the natural variation in female anatomy, especially the clitoris. Ever since western medical science had “rediscovered” the clitoris around the 16th century, there arose the motif that women who had an unusually large clitoris could use it for penetrative sex with other women, and that such a feature in fact predisposed women to engage in sex with women. This was a prominent enough idea that it was fairly routine that if a woman were accused of having sexual relations with women, she would be examined to see if she had a particularly large clitoris, either as an explanation of her orientation or as “proof” of such activity. This motif was still in circulation in medical literature in the mid-18th century when Grandjean lived. Interestingly, the concept is not present in the appeal record. Or perhaps not so much “interestingly” as “understandably.” It is possible that the image of the lesbian with an enlarged clitoris was part of the context for the medical examination of Grandjean in the Lyon trial, even though this framing was not specifically mentioned. But when someone presenting as male is accused of not truly being a man, then a medical examination would have been standard practice in any case. Within the context of the appeal, Grandjean’s lawyer would hardly have been likely to raise this image as a possibility as it would have undermined his case that was aimed at presenting Grandjean as a well-meaning, moral person, if perhaps ignorant and naïve.

In general, sex between women was typically viewed as involving one woman “behaving like a man” even when no cross-dressing was involved, when there was no question of non-normative anatomy, and regardless of the specific sex act involved. Beginning around or after the date of Grandjean’s trial, we do begin to see French libertine literature presenting sex between women as something that could occur within a purely feminine context, and indeed as representing a type of female separatism that rejected masculinity. But this image had not yet entered the general popular imagination. And such an image would not have benefitted Grandjean’s case, had it been invoked.

The Evidence

So what does Grandjean’s appeal document actually say about their history and situation? The quotations here are taken from my translation of the original French record. For those who want to follow along, the original, the translation, and my commentary are in the process of being published on the Lesbian Historic Motif Project blog at the time this episode airs.

“A child was born in Grenoble in the month of November 1732, to Jean-Baptiste Grandjean, & Claudine Cordier.” The child was perceived as being female, was baptized with the name Anne, and was raised as a girl among girls. The record makes no mention of Grandjean behaving in gender-transgressive ways or of expressing anything that today we would label gender dysphoria. The record also makes no mention of Grandjean being out of step with normative female biology, and this is a point I’ll come back to. What we do have, when Grandjean reaches the age of 14, as the record notes “the age when passions begin to establish their empire,” is that Grandjean began experiencing “an instinct of pleasure” in the presence of women but was left “cold and quiet” in the presence of men.

In this context, the appeal lawyer (who we must remember is the person recounting this history) leaves a trail of clues to his rejection of the possibility of female same-sex desire. When Grandjean first feels the stirrings of sexual desire, he editorializes that it was “a faculty that did not belong to the sex Grandjean was first believed to be.” He describes Grandjean’s desires as representing a “travesty of nature’s work.” The word “travesty” of course literally means “cross-dressing” but here we can understand it in both its senses. The lawyer consider that Grandjean has mistakenly been garbed in a woman’s body—a form of cross-dressing—but also that their desire is a mockery of nature’s intent.

Nowhere in the lawyer’s framing does he recognize the possibility of a woman desiring a woman. Is this a genuine gap in his imagination? Possibly. We’re still in an era where such desire was presumed to be due to some sort of inherent masculinity on the part of one of the women. But if he accepted the premise that Grandjean was an unquestioned woman who happened to desire women, then he would have a nearly impossible task in front of him in making his case for acquittal. One major leg of his case rests on convincing the judges that Grandjean is not simply emotionally masculine in desiring women, but that there is an objective physical basis for those feelings.

So what happens next? Grandjean’s father noticed their attraction to women and asked questions. Here, the lawyer does something maddening which is repeated throughout the text every time we get close to talking about sexual matters: he goes all coy and vague. (Sometimes he waxes poetic.) Grandjean answered their father’s questions “in an embarrassing manner.” Which tells us nothing at all about what was said. Presumably the specific details were presented in the Lyon court, and presumably the appeal lawyer knew what was said, but we—alas—are excluded from that knowledge.

Grandjean’s father evidently was uncertain how to respond to his child’s reaction and said, “Go talk to your confessor and do what he says.” That this was initially considered a moral matter rather than a legal one is not particularly surprising. As far as we know, Grandjean hadn’t acted on their feelings at this point and no one had made any complaint. But Grandjean’s father felt something was out of line sufficiently that he needed appeal to a higher authority.

The priest’s response is where we get into interesting territory. This passage involves an alternation of pronoun gender, so it’s worth quoting in full, though we must ascribe the assignment of pronoun gender to our appeal lawyer, not necessarily to the priest. “The child was docile; the confessor was instructed. He told the young person that she could not remain any longer without crime in woman’s clothing, that this clothing gave her too easy access to girls of her age, and that it was necessary for him to take the clothing suitable for his dominant sex.”

This passage is as meaningful for what it doesn’t say as for what it does. Read literally, the priest was concerned that if Grandjean continued wearing women’s clothing and living as a woman, it would allow them too easy access to women that would result in “crime.” There are two possible crimes under consideration here: the crime of pre-marital heterosexual sex, and the crime of sex between two women. Either of those could be addressed by creating the social barrier of male gender presentation, but each involves violating other gender norms. If the priest genuinely believed that Grandjean was, in fact, actually a woman, then he is instructing a woman to cross-dress and take on male prerogatives—something that women were punished for if they chose to do it on their own authority. But if the priest genuinely believed that Grandjean was, in fact, actually a man, then why is there no mention of verifying this by some other means, such as a medical examination? Further, as we hear in later testimony, Grandjean had female-appearing breasts, so even without an examination one wonders how likely such a belief would be.

As far as the evidence indicates, the concern here was solely about desire and potential behavior. There’s no suggestion that Grandjean went to their confessor and said, “I think maybe I’m really a man.” Certainly no suggestion that Grandjean said, “I think maybe I’ve developed a male body.” Only that Grandjean appears to have said, “I think I desire girls.” And as far as we can tell, that’s the basis on which the priest said, “Well, guess you must be a man then.” Was the priest naïve and being guided solely by a firm adherence to heteronormativity? Was he being pragmatic and concerned primarily with the appearance of heterosexuality? Was he uncertain about what advice to give and picked a path randomly? Certainly one option would have been to tell Grandjean, “What you desire is a sin. Do a penance for that and do not sin further.” Regardless of what interpretation we put on his advice, there are a lot of unanswered questions. Unfortunately, the text suggests answers only in its silences.

What happened next is most intriguing for what it suggests about transgender possibilities, regardless of Grandjean’s individual identity. “The confessor’s advice was carried out, and it was a singular novelty in the city of Grenoble to see an individual who, until then, had been known only as a girl suddenly appear with the attributes of masculinity. Grandjean, in the clothing of a man, appeared what he was—or what he thought he was—and the young girls in his neighborhood saw him with a new interest.”

This was an overt, public transition of social gender. The priest said, “Hey folks, Anne Grandjean is a man now,” and apparently everyone else in the town said, “OK, got it.” Grenoble was not exactly a bustling metropolis in the mid 18th century, but neither was it a tiny village. Using a population statistic for Grenoble from the end of the 18th century and applying a relative proportion based on overall population statistics for France across that century, we can estimate that in the year of Grandjean’s birth, the town had maybe 13-14,000 inhabitants. Not so small that everyone would automatically know everyone else, but certainly small enough that a novelty such as Grandjean’s transition can be expected to be common knowledge.

So when Grandjean started courting women it's reasonable to expect that they were familiar with Grandjean’s history. This will be relevant in a little while. The record notes two of Grandjean’s girlfriends by name, Mademoiselle Legrand who is noted as their first girlfriend, and then Françoise Lambert whom they married. The author again becomes coy and elusive when discussing this courtship. “Their passion introduced familiarities. Françoise Lambert knew all that Grandjean could be, and Grandjean seemed to her to be all that was necessary. These familiarities only served to make their union more intimate; they wished to seal it with the seal of religion.” Vague language, but it seems fairly straightforward to interpret this as saying that Lambert and Grandjean became physically intimate to the point where they felt they needed to get married. And within the vague language, it suggests that Lambert had no doubts or questions that were raised during those “familiarities.” The bans were published, no one raised any impediments, and they were married.

Now we must note that the bans and the marriage took place in Chamberry, not in Grenoble, perhaps because that was where Lambert’s family lived? Chamberry was perhaps half the size of Grenoble at the time and located about 30 miles away. It’s within the realm of possibility that Lambert and her family were not familiar in detail with Grandjean’s history, and further that their neighbors in Chamberry who heard the reading of the bans simply didn’t have the information that might have led them to question the validity of the marriage. But it’s also possible that Grandjean, having been instructed by the church to live as a man, was therefore taken as such.

The narrative continues, “The inclination of the two spouses was as lively as that of the two lovers had been. They lived in good faith, happy and tranquil, without Françoise Lambert having any distrust of her husband’s sex, and without this husband having any suspicion of his insufficiency.” Or maybe they didn’t consider that there was any “insufficiency?” Let’s pause a moment to think about the possibilities for how the couple understood their identities and the nature of their relationship. If Grandjean had never previously questioned their gender identity, then we must conclude that either they considered that the priest had the authority to make them into a man, or they simply went along with it as a masquerade because it aligned with their own desires and inclinations. Is it plausible that Grandjean was sufficiently ignorant of the differences between male and female anatomy that they thought they were, physically, a man? That’s not an easy question to answer. Is it plausible that Lambert was similarly ignorant, or that their intimate relations were conducted in such a way that she had no idea what sort of anatomy Grandjean had? Again, not an easy question to answer.

It’s a common motif in court narratives of the wives of “female husbands” that they had no idea that their husband did not have normative male anatomy, despite having a sexual relationship. But court records of this type create a massive incentive for the wives to claim such ignorance regardless of the facts. Just as Grandjean’s appeal lawyer had a massive incentive to impute such ignorance to the couple. If we look for comparative material, there are multiple possibilities. It’s possible that they both understood Grandjean to be physiologically female, but did not consider this a problem. It’s possible that Grandjean considered themself to be physiologically female but that Lambert had insufficient data to conclude this. It’s possible that Grandjean believed themself to be physiologically male, due to ignorance and the persuasion of authority, and Lambert either was similarly ignorant or didn’t care. And, taking into consideration the appeal lawyer’s arguments, it’s possible that Grandjean had ambiguous physiology sufficient that the couple didn’t question their masculinity. The issue of transgender identity is subsumed, to some extent, under the option that Grandjean believed the priest had the authority and power to reassign their gender by fiat and accepted the result as true.

As I’ll discuss in more detail in a bit, I find the lawyer’s claims of intersex physiology to be weak and suspect. But I also consider the hypothesis that both spouses were unquestioningly naïve about Grandjean’s sex to be on shaky ground. And the next bit shakes it further.

Lambert and Grandjean wanted to set up in business together, but Grandjean was still subject to parental authority over finances, despite being married. (The lawyer feels the need to point out that this might seem unusual to the reader.) So Grandjean asked their father to grant them legal emancipation, which was done in front of a judge at Grenoble, and in the same context Grandjean officially took on the male name of Jean-Baptiste (their father’s given name). That this took place after the marriage suggests (though it doesn’t absolutely prove) that Grandjean was using the name Anne at the time of marriage and that the shift to a male name was something that Lambert would be quite aware of. This isn’t quite so much of a “well, duh” moment as you might think. Given names that we consider feminine were sometimes used for men in the past, and Wikipedia provides a list of at least 9 prominent Frenchmen who were alive during the 18th century who had Anne as their sole given name or as part of a compound given name. But the act of changing the name from Anne to Jean-Baptiste certainly suggests that Grandjean considered it a gender marker, and it’s reasonable to believe that if Lambert had questions or concerns about her husband’s gender, that this would have been a context for raising them.

After living in Chamberry for a year, the couple moved to Lyon as a more promising location for their business. (The specific business is never mentioned.) They took lodgings with a silk merchant and lived upright and blameless lives for three years. Lyon was a much larger place, with ten times the population of Chamberry. But there’s no suggestion that they went there to “lose themselves in the big city,” simply that it was more promising economically.

At this place in the narrative, we can imagine Grandjean’s lawyer standing before the judge, pausing dramatically, and then intoning portentiously, “Mais voici le moment de l'infortune. Here is the moment of misfortune!” Every once in a while in the text, one does get the sense of the dramatic presentation he must have made in the courtroom.

The Disaster in Lyon

So…you remember Grandjean’s first girlfriend, Mademoiselle Legrand? She shows up in Lyon. The narrative says, “There she learned that he had married Françoise Lambert.” Had she genuinely not known about the marriage? Or was it simply that she hadn’t encountered the couple since that time? But evidently Legrand carried some sort of grudge. According to the narrative, she sought out Lambert and said that she was astonished to hear of the marriage because Grandjean was a hermaphrodite!”

Here we should pause to consider what Legrand knew, what she believed, and how she felt about it. The narrative suggests that Legrand was Grandjean’s first courtship, and indicates that Grandjean was the one who broke it off. There’s even a suggestion that Grandjean broke it off directly in favor of Lambert. In any event, all the considerations of to what extent Lambert was familiar with Grandjean’s personal history apply equally to Legrand. So when Legrand states that there was an irregularity in Grandjean’s gender, we need to ask what she meant by it and how she came to that conclusion.

The second is the easier question. If Legrand was familiar with Grandjean’s history, and knew they had changed from living as a woman to living as a man, that alone could be a basis for challenging Grandjean’s gender, regardless of whether Legrand had more intimate knowledge. While the appeal lawyer generally uses the term “hermaphrodite” in contexts that are talking about ambiguous physiology, there’s no reason to assume that Legrand was using it in a technical medical sense, rather than simply to mean “this is a person whose life has combined male and female attributes.” Regardless of exactly what Legrand intended when using the word (and we don’t know for certain that she used that specific word, only that the lawyer uses it to characterize her accusation), the implication is clear that she is accusing Grandjean of being unsuitable for marriage to a woman in some fashion.

Why would she do such a thing? And why at that point in time? Recall that the reading of the bans and the marriage took place in Chamberry, not in Grenoble. Perhaps Legrand was genuinely unaware of the marriage. Perhaps she, like Lambert, came from somewhere other than Grenoble (where she had met Grandjean) and their paths had not previously crossed since the original courtship. But why make a fuss now rather than having raised an outcry in the context of the courtship? The presentation of the episode hints that it may have been personal spite and jealousy. A desire to make trouble for someone she perceived as having been her romantic rival. This is speculation but it would fit the facts.

The author depicts Lambert’s reaction to this accusation as one of surprise and confusion—plus a suggestion that it explained the reason they had no children. But here I return to the standard script for the wives of “female husbands.” Legrand has come to her, accused her of being married to a hermaphrodite, and as we learn a little bit later, continued on to announce this to the general public in Lyon, who seized on it like the latest issue of National Enquirer. There are two plausible explanations for what the couple did next: either they were naïve enough to think that explaining their story to the authorities could solve everything, or they realized there was no way to escape trouble so their best bet was to get in front of the narrative and try to shape it for the best outcome. Either makes sense.

 Lambert raised the matter with her confessor who instructed her not to have “any more familiarity with her husband.” Then Grandjean and Lambert went to the Grand Vicar of Lyon to explain the situation and ask for advice. The lawyer’s narrative frames this act as stemming from a genuine concern that they might have inadvertently done something wrong, and thus that it is evidence on its own of Grandjean’s innocence. Perhaps this is accurate. But perhaps it was Grandjean’s attempt to make the best of a bad situation. Going to the authorities directly would certainly look better than being dragged in front of them unwillingly.

The Vicar General was a religious authority and we have no information about how he might have dealt with the case if it had been left to him, but the public furor had come to the attention of the secular authorities, first to the deputy of the Attorney General in Lyon, and then to the King’s Prosecutor. The charge, as given in this part of the text, was that “a hermaphrodite woman had married a woman…and had been living with her for several years.” At that, a formal complaint was filed and Grandjean was arrested.

There are a number of possible charges that could have been made at this point, when you consider the historic context and other similar trials. In previous centuries in France, in cases of female husbands, the most common concern was the exact nature of the sexual relations involved. If the husband had used an artificial penis to perform penetrative sex, this invoked the harshest penalties, up to and including death. But in Crompton’s survey of trials for lesbian activity up through the French revolution, he found no 18th century trials of this nature in France. It’s noteworthy that nowhere in Grandjean’s record is there mention of charges that specifically mention sex acts. In contrast, severe penalties for male homosexuality were common in 18th century France.

Another possible charge that isn’t raised is the act of cross-dressing. Cross-dressing—outside of licensed contexts such as the theater—was technically illegal in France well past this date, but application of the law was highly dependent on context and purpose. If Grandjean were categorized as a woman, then cross-dressing was an undeniable charge, and yet there’s no mention of it anywhere in the text.

The charge that was settled on, and of which Grandjean was initially convicted, was profanation of the sacrament of marriage. That is, engaging in the forms of a marriage that was not legitimate. The trial involved questioning of the accused, which is presumably where the majority of the details of Grandjean’s life come from. But it also involved a medical examination to establish the supposed “facts” of Grandjean’s physiology. This is the sort of examination one might have expected to be done when Grandjean’s gender was first reassigned. And the absence of any reference to an examination at that time strongly implies that there was none. At this point in the narrative, the author relates simply, “the surgeons in their report, after having given an account of what they had found him to have belonging to the male sex, had to attest that his predominant sex was that of a woman.”

Anatomical Notes

This is a curious sort of phrasing. And it harks back to phrasing used earlier in the text, when describing Grandjean’s birth. The author phrases it as, “the most apparent sex” of the baby was female. And later when the author is discussing the classification of hermaphrodites under classical Roman law, he notes that they are evaluated “as the sex which prevails.” So beginning from when Grandjean was born—a time when no one raised any questions about gender assignment—the author is regularly framing Grandjean’s anatomy as existing within a spectrum in which one identity may “prevail” or “be apparent” using wording that suggests ambiguity even when none was called out.

But was there ambiguity in this examination? That’s an excellent question. I’m going to jump ahead in the narrative a bit to dig into it. When the lawyer is presenting his major arguments, he provides a rather detailed anatomical description. (Prefacing it with a note that he’s putting it in Latin to avoid it “falling into the hands of people whose modesty we would fear to alarm,” i.e., women, who could largely be assumed not to have studied Latin.) Since no mention has been made of a second medical examination, we are left to assume that these details come from the one performed in Lyon which concluded that Grandjean was “predominantly…a woman.” And yet this detailed version works very hard to lead the reader to a different conclusion. I’m going to give it in full and hope that my listeners—being familiar with the content of this podcast—will not have their modesty alarmed.

“Between the labia, above the urinary meatus, a certain fleshy mass is seen before it, bearing the appearance of a male member, erecting itself with delight in the presence of a woman and standing firm in coitus; it is the thickness of a finger when it is raised and extended, the length of five transverse fingers. On the top of the penis or male member appear a glans with a foreskin, but the glans is not perforated therefore no semen can be sent through it. Under the penis and on either side of the opening of the vulva appear like the balls of the testicles; and the opening of the vulva is small, barely admitting a finger. The menses does not flow through it, nor is it moved by any pleasant sensation, nor is it irrigated with female seed.”

This description raises several questions. Other than the rather substantial dimensions, the member in question corresponds to the features of a clitoris, not a penis. It’s separate from the urethra and produces no emissions. And with some allowance for approximation it falls within the range categorized as a macro-clitoris—though that raises the question of why the feature wasn’t noted when Grandjean was an infant, since a childhood observation of ambiguous anatomy would have greatly strengthened the lawyer’s argument. The size of the vaginal opening, though characterized as small, is within the normal range for someone who has not experienced childbirth and who has not participated in penetrative intercourse.

But this description makes three claims that seem to go beyond what’s likely to have been apparent in an examination. The first is the claim that the member “erects with delight in the presence of a woman and stands firm in coitus.” My question is, how do they know? Did they observe erection and coitus in the course of the medical examination? And if they did, how does that fit with their conclusions that Grandjean was predominantly female?

Secondly, the claim that the vagina is “not moved by any pleasant sensation” strikes me as not being meaningful in the context of a medical examination. The suggestion that Grandjean’s sexual arousal is focused on an erect macro-clitoris and not on the vagina seems designed to support the author’s arguments about Grandjean’s sex categorization, but for that very reason, it’s valid to question their believability. Several aspects of this description align strongly with medical manuals of the 17th and 18th century that promoted the association of an enlarged clitoris with excess female libido. Given that the author is clearly well read in medical literature, it’s plausible that he enhanced the description with material from these sources.

The third question regards the claim that Grandjean did not menstruate. In and of itself, this isn’t an implausible claim—there are any number of possible reasons for an absence of menses. But as with several other details, it seems like the sort of thing a mother might note and discuss with her child, and there is no mention of this issue in the narrative about Grandjean’s experiences at puberty.

In summary, when you compare the lack of any discussion of atypical sexual characteristics in Grandjean’s youth, and the conclusion of the initial medical examiners that Grandjean’s anatomy was female, I think there’s a basis for significant scrutiny of the lawyer’s arguments that the case is far more ambiguous and suggestive of masculinity.

Let’s go ahead and look at some of those other arguments, though we need to circle back and review how the lawyer structures his case overall.

As further evidence, the lawyer notes that Grandjean is “constituted in such a way as to be indifferent to men…that all his desires as well as his faculties lead him to the side of the woman.” This is a return to the argument that the object of one’s desire is evidence of one’s gender. The author may have firmly believed it to be the case, but that doesn’t mean we should accept it as a medical conclusion. With regard to secondary sexual characteristics, Grandjean is noted as having no beard, but does have hairy legs, that their throat is more like a woman’s except for not being “delicate and sensitive,” that Grandjean has breasts of an expected size for a woman but the author faults aspects of their color as not matching a feminine ideal, and that Grandjean’s voice is “that of a male child who is reaching adolescence…sometimes low, sometimes high.” All of these speak to a divergence from gender ideals but do not offer strong evidence for physiological sex.

The arguments that Grandjean has masculine-leaning physiology are not the only ones the lawyer brings but they are clearly the keystone of his case. This is made clear in the way he structures the narrative, and here we must circle back to the judgement at Lyon.

The Appeal

The court at Lyon convicted Grandjean of profaning the sacrament of marriage and sentenced them to be tied in the stocks with a notice of the conviction, then to be whipped, and then to be banished for life. Based on other sentences of banishment that I’ve encountered, typically this was a banishment from the specific city, not from the nation.

Grandjean appealed the judgment—I’ve found some indication that any sentence involving corporal punishment was allowed an automatic appeal to the court in Paris. The court indicated that it considered the question of Grandjean’s gender unresolved to the extent that they were placed in solitary confinement rather than being put with either the men or the women.

We may assume that this is the point in the story where the author of the appeal text enters the stage. And he does treat it as a stage. We get quite a sense of the lawyer’s personality and background from the details of the text. He is highly educated and widely read. He’s familiar with the classics and either previously, or in the context of this case, has made a special study of literature on hermaphroditism. He is a strong and eager advocate for Grandjean’s moral innocence. The case he builds rests on several related points: that Grandjean’s physiological sex is ambiguous, that Grandjean honestly and sincerely believed themself to be a man, and that Grandjean entered into marriage in the context of this sincere belief. While the lawyer sometimes uses female language for Grandjean when relating their early history, or when representing other people’s speech or beliefs about Grandjean, he is otherwise consistent in referring to Grandjean with masculine language, even at the point when the appeals court sentences Grandjean to return to living as a woman. Oops, sorry, spoiler?

In one way, the lawyer faced the easiest of the possible charges that could have been brought against Grandjean. As I noted earlier, cross-dressing would have been an undeniable charge. An accusation of using an instrument for penetrative sex was difficult to counter, even if no instrument was in evidence. And if the charge had focused on the image of Grandjean using their alleged macro-clitoris for penetrative sex, that too would have been very hard to counter. The simple possession of such anatomy was often taken as proof of its illicit use.

But the charge was the profanation of marriage, and an essential component of that charge is intent. And, as we’ll see, the one aspect of the defense that the court seems to have accepted is that Grandjean had no intent to engage in an illicit union.

But first we get an extensive, detailed demonstration of the lawyer’s learning and erudition as he relates the entire history of the concept of hermaphroditism, of its legal consequences, and of the various types of evidence used to support the conclusion that Grandjean was a hermaphrodite. Given that Legrand’s alleged accusation was exactly that—that Grandjean was a hermaphrodite—it’s interesting that the lawyer’s defense boils down to, “Yes, and here’s why that mean’s he’s not guilty.”

I’m not going to go into detail about this historical discussion; if you’re interested, check out the blog. But in summary, he establishes that hermaphrodites are a known thing—by which he means specifically the sense of the word that we would call intersex conditions—and that France of his day is, of course, far more enlightened about hermaphrodites and how to treat them under the law than previous cultures were. Here, we sense he is slyly suggesting to the court that history will judge it by its verdict. This theoretical framework is then followed by the detailed medical discussion that we went through earlier by which the lawyer situates Grandjean within the various categories of hermaphrodites according to his conclusions.

In the lawyer’s second point, he sets out the argument that in order to profane marriage, one must have married in bad faith. That if the participant genuinely believes they are free and able to contract the marriage in question, then even if the marriage turns out to be illegitimate, it is not profanation. He offers the example of someone who reasonably believes a former spouse to be dead and then remarries. Or someone who marries with no reason to believe that they are not capable of procreation, but where it becomes apparent afterward that they are unable to do so. Thus, he argues, if a hermaphrodite sincerely believes they are capable of all the necessary functions of their role in the marriage with regard to procreation, then the fact that they are incapable does not constitute profanation.

This argument would appear to require that Grandjean did genuinely have this belief. As I’ve suggested, the evidence for this position strikes me as weak in terms of physical suitability. But in his third point, the lawyer covers this potential gap in the logic. The third point summarizes the reasons why Grandjean can be considered to have entered the marriage in good faith. Firstly the physical evidence—and here the lawyer seems to back off a little on the nature of that evidence. He asserts that “of the attributes of masculinity, the accused lacks only one” that is, the ability to impregnate a woman. But further that Grandjean was ignorant and unsophisticated, that “he knew his state only by the impulse of nature” i.e., the nature of his sexual desire, and that “the experience of debauchery had not enlightened him.” This is the closest the lawyer seems to come to admitting that another possible framing of Grandjean’s desires was as a form of debauchery. There’s an interesting phrase embedded in this section. He states that Grandjean was “not a philosopher.” And while one could read this literally as meaning that Grandjean wasn’t a deep and sophisticated thinker about sexual issues, at this time “philosophical literature” had become a slang term for pornography and “philosopher” a dog-whistle for libertine. So it’s possible to read this statement as reinforcing the implicit denial that Grandjean’s desires indicated the moral depravity of homosexuality.

The lawyer follows this with the argument that Grandjean believed themself to be male because of their desire for women and indifference to men. And that Lambert’s acceptance and enjoyment of the marriage supported that conclusion. This is a different argument than asserting that Grandjean must have been masculine-leaning intersex because of their desire for women. It is plausible that Grandjean accepted this argument—one initially presented to them by a religious authority figure—and had a sincere belief that the nature of their desire was an indication of male gender. The lawyer follows this up by noting that their male gender identity was accepted and supported by their community, which made it even more reasonable for Grandjean to accept and believe the reassignment. The passage with this argument is worth quoting in full.

“At the age of fourteen, Anne Grandjean took on the clothes of a man, and left those of a girl that he had worn until then. This metamorphosis took place under the eyes of his father, in his house, and according to the advice of his Confessor. Anne Grandjean's father therefore believed that the true sex of his child was male: the whole city of Grenoble believed it too. Such was the opinion of the Magistrates of Police of this City, who would not have suffered this change of clothes, if they had thought that there had been transvestism. Anne Grandjean, regarded as a boy by everyone, was no longer employed in anything but the works that belong to the male sex, and the strength of his temperament made them easy for him. … In the act made before the Magistrate, [Grandjean’s father] named him his son; he gave him the name of Jean-Baptiste, as if to rectify the error which had crept into the baptismal act. Anne Grandjean received the full rights of a citizen, as a man and as a husband; the Judge ratified all these powers with the seal of his authority. Thus, Grandjean's error was a mistake common to everyone; if it is criminal, it should therefore be blamed on everyone: for it is this public error that has strengthened the defendant's confidence. Better said, it is this error which today justifies him; nature alone is at fault in this matter, and how can the accused be made guarantor of the wrongs of nature?”

Up until that last sentence, this is an argument that does not rely on any conclusions about Grandjean’s physiology. It’s an appeal that, if Grandjean’s entire community treated them as male, then they cannot be blamed for believing and acting on that understanding. “Grandjean’s error” he calls it, meaning the belief that he was entitled to enter into marriage in the role of a husband.

And with that, the lawyer winds up his argument with an emotional appeal that returns to the image of Grandjean as a hermaphrodite, condemned to be neither one thing nor the other, doomed to be a stranger to love and companionship as they can function neither in a male nor female role, how can the court burden Grandjean further by labeling them infamous, immoral, and worthy of banishment? The Romans treated hermaphrodites barbarically, he declaims, but we are governed by laws founded on humanity and justice!

The Judgment

The judgment of the court ended up being a split decision, and we can try to work out which arguments they accepted and which they rejected based on the details.

They overturned the verdict of profanation of the sacrament and Grandjean was released with no corporal punishment and without being banished. From this, we may conclude that they accepted the argument that Grandjean sincerely believed they had entered into a valid marriage, though the marriage was declared invalid.

But they did not uphold the classification of Grandjean as male. They ruled that Grandjean was required to return to wearing feminine clothing. And the court went one step further: it required that Grandjean was prohibited from associating with François Lambert. This suggests that the appellate court did not have confidence that the correction of Grandjean’s “error of understanding” would be sufficient to prevent them continuing to have a now-illicit relationship with Lambert. The court—apparently alone among the authorities in this case—evidently did acknowledge that a person assigned female could experience sexual desire for a woman and wanted to make it clear that such a thing was unacceptable. It was so unacceptable that Grandjean was additionally prohibited from associating with “other persons of the same sex.”

This last requirement really throws a wrench into the works. Requiring a separation from Lambert might simply be enforcing the dissolution of the marriage. But what does it mean that Grandjean may not associate with others of the “same sex?” For a person living socially as a woman to be forbidden to associate with women is drastic. Even if Grandjean were then to marry a man, the vast majority of their everyday life would normally involve socializing with women. And Grandjean can’t live as a man-among-men if required to present socially as female. To the best of my knowledge, we don’t know what Grandjean’s fate was, but the court is setting them up for a very unhappy and unsuccessful life, despite the conviction being overturned.

Even so, Grandjean’s case is inspiring, not for the specific outcome of their case personally, but for what it tells us about the possibilities for queer lives in 18th century France, about the range of beliefs and opinions on those possibilities, and about the willingness of individuals and communities to support lives outside normative expectations, even if they had to contort their understanding of reality to do so.

Show Notes

In this episode we talk about:

  • The trial record of Anne/Jean-Baptiste Grandjean
  • The context in which a woman was instructed to transition to a man in 18th century France
  • Social and legal models of gender in the past
  • The ambiguity of the historic record and the problem of “true identities”
  • Sources mentioned
    • Brief for Anne Grandjean, known by the name of Jean-Baptiste Grandjean, Accused & Appellant by M. Vermeil
  • The full text of the source, in original, translation, and commentary, can be found on the Lesbian Historic Motif Project blog.
  • This topic is discussed in one or more entries of the Lesbian Historic Motif Project here: Anne Grandjean

Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online

Links to Heather Online

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