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Portal Fantasies and Falling in Love with Cross-dressing Girls

I’ve always been fascinated with the structural motivations behind portal fantasy. Not the narrative structure itself (a person from the “real” non-fantastic world crosses over into a fantastic realm where the story takes place) but rather the reasons why the mechanism has been used historically, in contrast to out-and-out secondary world fantasy where no connection with the “real” world of the author is indicated. (On the other end of the scale are fantasies where the “real” world itself is infused with fantastic elements, whether it be urban fantasy or magical realism or some other identifiable flavor.)

Discussions of portal fantasy typically offer such works as Narnia, Alice in Wonderland, or The Wizard of Oz as prototypical, but the roots run deeper. I recently reviewed Margaret Cavendish’s 1668 novel The Blazing World--one of a number of works cited as “the first science fiction novel”--which engages two entirely separate portal motifs: one a sort of Vernean “journey to the center of the earth” 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 is therefore able to relate it to us.

This last aspect seems to me to be the essential structural purpose of the portal. The portal fantasy, despite the story’s fantastic elements, is typically framed as a true relation of actual adventures. And if it is true, then there must be some sort of connection between the world of the story and the world of the author, whether they involve adventures in hidden parts of the earth (as for several Jules Verne stories), on other planets (as with many Edgar Rice Burroughs series), or entirely imaginary (as with Oz and Narnia). At one time, I had thought this was something of an evolutionary process: that true “secondary world” settings were not possible until fantastic literature had liberated itself from the tradition of travelers’ tales and sincere belief in the fantastic, but I have come to realize that was a product of an unfortunate smug modernist superiority on my part (I won’t even excuse it as being naive). One clear counter-example to a purely evolutionary view is the afterword in Cavendish’s Blazing World which makes a great point of how the story is entirely a self-conscious imaginative creation, though framed otherwise, and that the author encourages others to create worlds of their own to enjoy.

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 does not merely suspend but breaks disbelief. “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.” Not all portals are geographic; some are formed of illusion and belief.

And that brings me to the real topic of this essay, which was sparked by a conversation on Twitter about those of us who always read adventure stories of cross-dressing girls with a secret hope that they would end in same-sex romance. Both as a historic literary device, and as a device in at least some modern fiction, one of the “portals” to the possibility of female same-sex desire is the motif of a woman disguised as a man. As Emma Donoghue notes in Inseparable: “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.”

Both parties to the disguise are offered the world behind this door. 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 that 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 the larger Lesbian Historic Motif Project, I’ve cast a rather wide net in terms of looking at cross-dressing and passing, both as a literary motif and in real life. I’ve also noted that--especially in real life--the line between understanding these relationships as same-sex or as involving a transgender individual, can be difficult to draw, given the models and concepts that were available at the time. But in this essay I’m looking specifically at fictional depictions where the two individuals are both depicted as female at the time they first meet (although magical sex-change may be invoked to create a heteronormative resolution), and where 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, in pre-modern literature, the intersection of these motifs with a “happily ever after as two women together” ending is vanishingly rare. And I suspect that modern literature has offered a fairly brief window between when that HEA ending became viable but before the inspiring gender-disguise motif became considered quaintly retro. This essay is more about illusory possibilities; about those brief transient moments in a narrative 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.

The various stories covered 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.

Inspired by My Male Disguise, You Love Me, and I Love You Back; We are Rescued by a Divine Sex-Change

Iphis and Ianthe (Latin epic poem by Ovid, ca. 8 C.E.) -- In this story from the Metamorphoses, Iphis is raised as a boy to escape infanticide and falls mutually in love with her childhood friend Ianthe to whom her parents betroth her. Iphis very definitely experiences love and desire for Ianthe and is only stymied by the belief that, as a woman herself, there is nothing she can do to express it. Ianthe believes more simply that she is in love with a boy. Iphis’s mother (who is responsible for the disguise in the first place) takes her to the temple of Io on the eve of the wedding praying for an answer. Iphis is divinely transformed into a man and the marriage goes forward.

This story was revived multiple times across the centuries. A French drama of the early 17th century (Iphis et Iante by Isaac de Benserade, 1634) follows the same basic plot but postpones the divine sex-change until after the wedding, allowing for the implication that two women have in fact experienced what is presented as an enjoyable wedding night.

Yde et Olive (anonymous French epic poem ca. 1300 with a slightly different prose version of the 15th c.) -- The story is part of the genealogic epic Huon de Bordeaux. As a genealogic epic (aside from other considerations) the tale has a biological imperative for the central characters to create progeny. 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 other suitors but falls deeply in love with Yde. Yde at first begs off on the argument 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 (read: impotence), satisfying 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 can be carried out, Yde is miraculously transformed into a man, making everything ok.

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)

Miracle de la fille d’un roy “Miracle of a King’s Daughter” (anonymous French drama, 14th c.) -- A variant of Yde et Olive that differs (among more minor details such as naming the protagonist Ysabel) in resolving the fleeting “problem” of the same-sex marriage by having the disguised woman’s father (remember the icky guy she ran away from home to escape?) show up at the last moment, whereupon each woman is married off to the other’s father.

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

Quamar al-Zaman and the Princess Boudour (anonymous Arabic romance, medieval) -- 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 suddenly 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 and 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 all and abdicates 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.

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

Amadis de Gaule (multiple anonymous French, Spanish, and Portuguese romances of the 14-15th century, but the best known version is a Spanish reworking by Garci Rodríguez de Montalvo with the earliest surviving edition dated 1508) -- This is a long, sprawling, complex tale (like many medieval romance cycles) and the cross-dressed ladies appear in minor episodes appended to the main tale. The stories of the two disguised women 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 disarms and her admiration turns to desperate love when she sees Oronce’s “delicate rosy beauty” (mind you, still thinking Oronce to be a man!). The princess Licinie, too, is distracted from her efforts to free her imprisoned brother by Oronce’s beauty and also falls desperately in love. And when a queen, similarly smitten with Oronce is distressed to discover that the object of her affection is a woman, the duchess (who has gone through the same disappointment) consoles her that at least they both found out before making fools of themselves in public. Licinie, in fact, has been so traumatized by discovering her “error” that she scrutinizes a later object of affection for signs that his attractive beauty also signals an underlying female identity. La Belle Sauvage similarly enchants the young lady she serves as chevalier, and the narrator points out that La Belle Sauvage possesses beauty of such a nature that she will attract both men and women, depending on which gender’s clothing she wears. There is some indication that the attraction to these female knights continues even after the discovery of their sex, although only as a sincere platonic admiration.

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

Multiple legendary biographies of cross-dressing saints -- There are several early saints’ lives with similar patterns involving gender disguise in order to enter a male-only monastery. The particular tale-type covered here is attributed to several different saints, Saint Margarita/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 amorous object of a woman associated with the community. 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.

Roman de Silence (French metric romance by Heldris de Cornualle, ca. 1200) -- Silence’s parents have raised her as a boy so that she can inherit, and she goes off and achieves knightly renown in this guise. This brings her to the English court and the amorous (and adultrous) attention of Queen Eufeme. Silence does not return the desire (though it isn’t entirely clear whether she rejects same-sex desire or--as she claims--simply rejects adultery) and 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 court with her honor vindicated, but Merlin reveals her secret and so uncovers the queen’s perfidy. The queen is executed and Silence is returned 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).

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

As You Like It (Shakespeare, 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/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 happily pairs off with the shepherd Silvius. It’s a lot more complicated that that, though. It’s Shakespeare.

James the Fourth (English drama by Robert Greene, 1598) -- Since I had to read through the whole play to figure out the context for this one, I’ll give a detailed summary. Dorothea, daughter of the King of England has been married to the King of Scotland for political reasons, but he is in love with Ida, daughter of the Countess of Arran and determined to seduce her. Ida, much against her better judgment, is named as one of Dorothea’s attendants to enable the king’s assault on Ida’s virtue. Some of the Scottish nobles warn Dorothea of the king’s inclinations but she proclaims it a test of her own virtue to remain loyal to him. (For some unaccountable reason, Dorothea has decided to be in love with her husband, despite it all.) The nobles, on the other hand, decide it’s time to make themselves scarce from court. The King of Scotland finally concludes that the only way to win Ida’s heart is to get Dorothea out of the way permanently, but his instructions to the assassin are intercepted and shown to Dorothea who is counseled to flee the court in male disguise accompanied by her comic servant. She receives a brief lesson in swordplay for her protection. The assassin pursues Dorothea, aware of her disguise. They fight and Dorothea is wounded but the servant returns with the help of Sir Cuthbert Anderson in time to chase off the assassin. The assassin returns to the king claiming success and the king goes off to woo Ida (who is at this point surrounded with a surfeit of suitors). In the mean time, Lady Anderson has fallen in love with her wounded guest (Dorothea), which leaves her husband fuming. But Sir Cuthbert is called away to serve the king of Scotland in war against England, for it seems the English king has learned of his daughter’s murder. Ida, in the mean time, has married one of her non-royal suitors and those who helped conspire with the king of Scotland now make themselves scarce in expectation of his wrath. The king then sends out word of a reward for the return of Dorothea to the court. (Since he still believes her dead, he seems to be using this offer to buy time.) When Dorothea and Lady Anderson hear of it, there ensues 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. In the midst of this Dorothea assures her she loves her as a friend, but once her true sex has been revealed, Lady Anderson’s previous proclamations that she will, “blush, grieve, and die in ... insatiate lust” are quietly forgotten. Dorothea and Lady Anderson hurry to the battlefield where the two kings are just about to join in battle. Sir Cuthbert (now in on the story) comes between the kings and explains what really happened. Dorothea blames the whole plot on her husband’s wayward youth and bad advisors. The king of Scotland repents; the king of England pardons; the Scottish nobles return to the fold.

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

Tristan de Nanteuil (anonymous, French, ca. 1375) -- Blanchandine is Tristan’s wife and disguises herself as a man in order to accompany him and hide from her father. She comes to the amorous attention of the Saracen princess Clarinde, and when Tristan is believed dead, Blanchandine is pressured into marrying Clarinde. She weasels out of performing marital duties (and thus being revealed), 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. 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 it’s a good way out of her dilemma (and still believing Tristan to be dead), Blanchandine takes the offer, after which he becomes romantically interested in Clarinde and--when Tristan unexpectedly turns up alive--is no longer romantically interested in him. 

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)

Orlando Furioso (Italian, by Ludovico Ariosto, 1516-32) -- The Princess Fiordispina falls in love with the Amazon warrior Bradamante, believing her to be a man. But Fiordispina’s desire continues after discovering her error, even in the face of Bradamante’s attempts to dissuade her. The convenient twin brother motif is invoked, although 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 will claim that he’s a divinely transformed version of his sister.

Gl’Ingannati (anonymous Sienese comedy, 1537) -- The twin-like siblings Fabritio and Lelia are separated during the sack of Rome. Lelia ends up in Modena where her former lover Flamineo lives and disguises herself as a male page to serve him. 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 transfer of affections. All is revealed, and heteronormativity rules the day.

Twelfth Night (Shakespeare, 1601) -- Viola, cross-dressing as Cesario is sent as love-emissary of Duke Orsino (with whom Viola is in love) to the heiress Olivia (who falls in love with Cesario). Despite some hypothetical admiration of Viola for Olivia, there is no actual return of love. Fortunately for the resolution, Viola has a convenient twin brother, Sebastian, who shows up in time for everyone to be heterosexually paired off.

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

Matrimonial Trouble (English drama by Margaret Cavendish, 1653-62) -- 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.

La Femme, Juge, et partie “The Wife, Judge, and Accuser” (French drama by Antoine Jacob Montfleury, ca. 1669) -- A wronged wife disguises herself as a man to seduce her husband’s new fiancée. (I haven’t been able to find a more detailed description yet.)

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; Tragedy Ensues

Brennoralt (English drama by Sir John Suckling, 1646) -- 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 from Almerin. Francelia becomes enamored of Iphigene and they spend the night together. When Almerin catches them as they part in the morning, in a fit of jealousy he stabs them both (thinking Iphigene to be a man and Francelia to be unfaithful). As the two women lie dying in each others’ arms, with Iphigene’s sex revealed, Francelia rejects Almerin in favor of Iphigene, preferring her love to his.

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

The Doubtful Heir (English drama by James Shirley, 1638) -- The beautiful Queen Olivia decides to rake revenge on her philandering husband King Ferdinand by seducing his page Tiberio, who is really Ferdinand’s mistress Rosania in male disguise. Ferdinand encourages the encounter to distract Olivia and the two get rather hot and heavy, though it doesn’t go far enough for the disguise to be revealed.

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

An Historical and Physical Dissertation on the Case of Catherine Vizzani (English fictionalized biography by John Cleland, 1751) -- This example is somewhat marginal, given the framework of this article, both in that it purports to be biography (though in an era when many an invention was marketed as a “true history”) and in that at least some of Catherine’s lovers were well aware that she was a woman despite the male clothing. 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 through female pursuits such as sewing lessons, but when she wanted to serenade underneath the woman’s window at night, she disguised herself as a man (a disguise known to the object of her affections). When that relationship didn’t pan out, Catherine continued living as a man, through various odd jobs, and several more girlfriends. (It is likely, though not explicitly stated, that some of these women were quite aware of her underlying sex.) She meets her downfall when she persuades one woman to elope with her and she is shot during the pursuit and subsequently dies, after revealing her true sex and begging to be buried in a dress as a woman.

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

Gallathea (English drama by John Lyly, 1583) -- Want a plot with serious gender-bending potential? In this classical romp, not one but two women (Gallathea and Phillida) show up 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 what they were really about) but both fall in love with the other, each believing she is safely in love with a man. The story progresses through their dawning awareness that the other is employing the same disguise while still continuing the romantic pursuit. When it all comes out, their romance is brought to judgment before two goddesses. Diana lectures them sternly about abandoning their passion, but Venus approves of their passion and offers to turn one of them into a man. Gallathea and Phillida are ok with that, as long as they can stay together, and leave it up to Venus to pick which one gets changed, but the play leaves off before the actual transformation.

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

The Travels and Adventures of Mademoiselle de Richelieu (English novel, 1744) -- Well, that pretty much sums up the entire plot. Alithea de Richelieu, having achieved economic independence, decides to go traveling, disguising herself as a man 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 late marriage was such a disaster that she now rebuffs all men. Alithea pursues her but 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.


I haven’t cited specific sources for the stories, but material of this type can be found in the following publications, previously covered by the Project.

  • Anson, John. 1974. “The Female Transvestite in Early Monasticism: The Origin and Development of a Motif” in Viator, 5: 1-32.
  • Bullough, Vern. 1996. “Cross Dressing and Gender Role Change in the Middle Ages” in Handbook of Medieval Sexuality, ed. Vern L. Bullough and James A. Brundage Garland Publishing, New York. ISBN 0-8153-3662-4
  • Dekker, Rudolf M. and van de Pol, Lotte C. 1989. The Tradition of Female Transvestism in Early Modern Europe. Macmillan, London. ISBN 0-333-41253-2
  • Donoghue, Emma. 1995. Passions Between Women. Harper Perennial, New York. ISBN 0-06-017261-4 
  • Donoghue, Emma. 2010. Inseparable: Desire Between Women in Literature. Alfred A. Knopf, New York. ISBN 978-0-307-27094-8 
  • Hotchkiss, Valerie R. 1996. Clothes Make the Man: Female Cross Dressing in Medieval Europe. Garland Publishing, Inc., New York. ISBN 0-8153-3771-x 
  • Sautman, Francesca Canadé. 2001. “What Can They Possibly Do Together? Queer Epic Performances in Tristan de Nanteuil” in Same Sex Love and Desire Among Women in the Middle Ages (ed. By Francesca Canadé Sautman & Pamela Sheingorn), Palgrave, New York.