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LHMP #137d Faderman 1981 Surpassing the Love of Men I.A.4 Transvestism: Persecution and Impunity

Full citation: 

Faderman, Lillian. 1981. Surpassing the Love of Men. William Morrow and Company, Inc., New York. ISBN 0-688-00396-6

Publication summary: 

A detailed and extensive study of the phenomenon of “romantic friendship” in western culture (primarily England and the US).

I.A.4 Transvestism: Persecution and Impunity

I don't have a lot of commentary on this chapter. It's a solid catalog of a number of commonly known examples of crossdressing and passing women from the relevant era, in particular those cases where lesbian sexual activity was either documented, accused, or suspected. The issue that makes Faderman's presentation the most dated for the reader today is the absence of any consideration of transgender issues, but I think it's important to consider how immensely that conversation has evolved since the 1980s. The discussion in this chapter reaches for some sort of nuanced understanding of the multiplicity of purposes and contexts for passing women, and the complex intersections between gender performance and erotic desire. As in much of the book, we seem to get the conclusions in advance of the evidence: that claiming male social prerogatives was more harshly viewed than romantic or sexual relationships between women. On the other hand, the evidence of this chapter--with its many examples of genital sexual activity between women--seems to undermine the larger thesis of the book which discounts such activity as a motivating force behind women's romantic friendships.

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In this chapter, Faderman reviews the historic and literary perception of women cross-dressing as men during the 16-18th centuries. She notes that women passing as men [or transgender men, although this framing was not typically used at the time the book was published] were considered a more serious issue than lesbian sex, as long as that sex was between “feminine” women. One difference was that sexual encounters could be framed as a transient amusement whereas passing women were engaged in a long-term transgression.

Beginning in the 16th century, English moralists railed against women appropriating individual male garments or styles, as in the pamphlet Hic Mulier. But in an era when clothing was, in general, strongly distinguished by gender, it was relatively easy for a woman to pass as male. Cross-dressing was not automatically associated with lesbian sex, even when it created the opportunity. Some autobiographical accounts of passing women, such as sailor Mary Anne Talbot, indicate they had no interest in female romantic attention. But when sexual activity was involved, penalties could be severe, up to and including death.

Faderman jumps back to the medieval period to contrast the story of Yde and Olive (where the cross-dressing Yde risks death for marrying Olive) and the real-life situation of troubadour Bieiris de Romans who addressed a love song to another women but who did not take on a male persona, either in text or life. Other examples of non-crossdressing women who received lenient responses to lesbian sexual encounters include Sara Norman and Mary Hammond in Plymouth colony (1649). But legal cases where passing women married or had sex with other women often resulted in execution, as in the case reported in 1566 by Henri Estienne, one in 1580 recorded in Switzerland by Michel de Montaigne, the German trial of Catharine Margaretha Linck in 1721, and the alleged Turkish example in the 1749 polemic Satan’s Harvest Home.

Although no executions are noted in England or America, similar cases made their way into sensationalist literature, as with Henry Fielding’s The Female Husband, which was based on the true story of Mary Hamilton. And if a passing woman married and lived a quiet, upstanding life--such as Mary (James) How in the mid 18th century, even later discovery might have no serious consequences. Even in countries where severe punishments were meted out, there is a suggestion that consequences might be lesser if deception were not an issue, as in the case of Henrica Schuria (told in Robert James’s Medicinal Dictionary) who had passed as a man to serve as a soldier, but whose sexual affair with a widow after returning home only merited whipping and banishment, perhaps because she did not conceal her gender and because a dildo was not involved. Similarly, the case of Anne Grandjean in Grenoble received a relatively light sentence for marrying a woman because she was thought to be genuinely in doubt about her gender.

The complex intersection of gender, sexuality, and class is noted in the case of Queen Christina of Sweden who was known for cross-dressing (although clearly not in order to deceive about her identity) and whose romantic/sexual interest in women was documented both before and after her abdication from the throne. At the other end of the social scale, actresses and other performers, such as Mary Frith in early 17th century England, and Mademoiselle de Maupin in late 18th century France could use crossdressing as part of their public persona, even in combination with sexual relations with women, and be given a pass, perhaps for not attempting a complete disguise, perhaps because of public support for their flamboyant presentations. Actress Charlotte Charke also received benefit of a forgiving public when her autobiography detailed crossdressing adventures and romantic encounters with women.

Of the many women who crossdressed to enter the military, Faderman notes Deborah Sampson and plays up the possibility that her flirtations with women while passing may have been evidence of lesbian orientation, despite her marriages to men both before and after her military service.

Time period: 

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