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Trans as a Verb

Monday, July 12, 2021 - 07:00

One of the interesting things Manion does in this book -- though I believe she attributes the practice to someone previous -- is using "trans" as in "to trans gender" as a verb. (I don't think trans has quite made it through all the grammatical parts of speech yet, but it's worked its way through preposition to adjective to noun, so verb was a reasonable next step.) Sometimes a particular bit of imagery or re-framing can click an idea into place, and trans-as-verb did that for me.

I've been working on how to express and explain a unifying historical concept between female same-sex desire and trans-masculine identities and performance. The current view of sexuality and gender as being completely independent axes becomes a hindrance to understanding how people in history understood their own and other lives. It also encourages the treatment of historical persons as the "property" of specific modern identities--and those identities as a scarce and valuable resource. It's part of what encourages people to see a sharp divide in history between "femme-femme" love and desires/relationships that evoke a masculine-feminine dynamic.

If "trans" is an adjective or a noun, it tends to be treated as an either/or category. One is either trans or cis. A binary. But if "trans" is a verb, then it's an action that can be done to different degrees, either intermittently or continuously. One can trans gender a little or a lot, and it was still transing gender if one stops doing it. It's no longer a defined border to be crossed; a different territory to be inhabited. (My imagery is flashing on the classical Roman regional definitions of trans-alpine and cis-alpine Gaul: territories defined by their relationships both to Rome and to the mountain barrier.) Viewed in this context, one can understand any type of behavior, presentation, or inherent characteristic that does not align with a culture's established gender archetypes as performing the action of "transing" without the need to make a judgment about whether that action has effected a change in the person's category status.

This is a way of framing the idea that I need to think about some more and explore further, but I think it could be very useful for discussing historic lives without hitting some of the trip-lines that move the discussion into arguing over who "owns" those lives.

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Manion, Jen. 2020. Female Husbands: A Trans History. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. ISBN 978-1-108-48380-3

Chapter 2: The Pillar of the Community

James Howe née Mary East had a biography unusual in tracing financial and social success, a happily married life with a wife who not only knew about her female husband’s background but had partaken in establishing their identity, and in passing through the revelation of their assigned gender relatively unscathed, despite a fair amount of drama.

[Note: I included Howe’s story in a podcast on real life queer historical stories that would make a great non-tragic movies.]

Manion has dug through archives and legal records to turn up more details of Howe’s life and marriage then I’ve seen previously. As a very brief sketch -- and with the understanding that there are parts where Howe and other involved parties may have had reason to tell the version of the story that would present themselves in the best light –- here is the gist.

Around 1732, two young women of age 16 or so, Mary East and Mary Snapes, having determined not to marry men and being intimate friends, decided to “live together thereever after”. Recognizing that this would be easier if they were taken for a married couple, they flipped a coin for who would be the man, and thus Mary East became James Howe.

Manion questions whether this division of roles was truly as arbitrary as Howe’s story implies, and points out that the story seems tailored to avoid threatening existing gender structures. In any event, after they married, they moved away from their home – a necessary prerequisite for success – and set up as tavern-keepers. A combination of good business sense and at least one lucky accident enabled them to repeatedly upgrade their business, and they ended up fairly wealthy and as pillars of their community. Their one peculiarity was that they hired no servants and did all the work of their business themselves. Presumably for reasons of privacy.

We might know nothing about this fascinating couple except for two events. A woman named Bentley, who had known them as children, recognized Howe and begin extorting small sums of money for her silence. Then, just before Bentley’s demands went from manageable to outrageous, Mary Snapes died from an illness.

After a calculation of risks we can only guess at, Howe responded to the violent demands of the extortion by appealing to a neighbor for help and revealing their assigned gender. The neighbor colluded in trapping the extortionists who were sent to prison. Howe returned to living as Mary East and retired with a considerable fortune, though bereft of the company of their wife of 32 years.

Manion analyzes the role that a successful marriage played in establishing Howe’s credentials as a man. Indeed, except for Mrs. Bentley, whose knowledge was based on personal recognition, no one seems to have questioned Howe’s maleness. But Manion traces how contemporary accounts and later histories manipulated perception of Howe’s gender via whether and in what circumstances they were granted male pronouns.

Manion tackles the intersection between lives like Howe’s and 18th century feminism. One might expect feminists to embrace proof that those born female could demonstrate the ability to succeed in life in a life reserved for men, but there was an uneasiness among feminist thought around behavioral gender-crossing. The question of whether women’s equality could be based on the fundamental equivalence of men and women, or whether it needed to work around an understanding of men and women as fundamentally different, was hotly debated. Several examples are given of feminist opinions on either the general concept, or specific examples, of persons-assigned-female “transing” gender, either via male-coded pursuits or via gender-crossing lives.

The chapter concludes by tracing shifts and reframings of how the Howes’ story was understood through the 19th century, and the challenge such lives present us to embrace a multiplicity of forms of gender and sexuality, coexisting throughout history, rather than requiring all lives to fit neatly into a set of mutually exclusive categories.

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