Historic Cross-dressing: Passing/Transgender Themes
The general topic of this article is the ways in which women who had sex with women in 17-18th century Britain were marginalized from the category of “women” via the imagined figure of the hermaphrodite, combining in the image of the tribade who was endowed with a penis-equivalent, either in the form of an enlarged clitoris or sometimes a prolapsed vagina capable of performing penetration. This article traces that image through various genres of literature, both popular and professional.
This chapter looks at the role of imagination, spectacle, and accusation in shaping understandings of female same-sex relations. These understandings, in turn, could create or enable same-sex erotic possibilities for their consumers. There is a contrast between writers who denied the possibility of desire between women and the regular use of female homoerotic imagery in popular culture. Spectacles involving female homoeroticism were meant to warn and punish, but could also inform and educate.
This chapter focuses on three specific individuals whose gender and sexuality brought them celebrity status in 16-17th century Spain: Catalina de Erauso, Queen Christina of Sweden, and Elena/Eleno de Céspedes. In comparing them, we can see the influence of race and class on how gender transgression was received.
The identification of forbidden female homoerotic activity in early modern Spain is hampered by the deliberately vague language with which it is identified. When a “miraculous” crucifix supposedly tattled on two trysting nuns in the early 17th century, the phrase put into its voice was simply that the two were “offending me.” Similarly, in 1603 when Inés de Santa Cruz and Catalina Ledesma were arrested for female sodomy in Salamanca, the accusations came in descriptions of the sounds of passion heard through a wall and not a declaration of specific acts.
This book looks at how Catalina de Erauso’s story has been “constructed, interpreted, marketed and consumed” in the 17-20th centuries. Velasco identifies Catalina as a “transgenderist” (that is, someone who engages in transgender performance without necessarily having transgender identity) and uses she/her pronouns as the book is examining how Catalina’s image was used (the image of a woman performing masculinity) rather than interpreting what Catalina’s own understanding might have been.
[Note: within the context of current frameworks of gender and sexuality, there are equally strong cases for viewing de Erauso as a transgender man, or as a “passing woman” who used male disguise for the purpose of gaining economic and social independence, and who may have enjoyed erotic desires for women apart from performing heterosexuality as part of that disguise. There is an equally strong case to be made for considering both framings to be anachronistically meaningless in the context of early 17th century Spain.
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.
Somewhat similarly to Dugaw’s book on gender disguise in military contexts in the early modern period (both in life and literature), this book examines the phenomenon of persons born as women who took up military careers as men, whether out of patriotism, as one facet of a transgender identity, from some other desperate need, or a combination thereof. The book is copiously illustrated, including many photographs of the more modern subjects who are included.
Friedli provides an extensive examination of “passing women” -- defined as women (using current terminology, it might be better to say “persons assigned female at birth”, but Friedli uses “women” and I will follow that here) who live, work, and/or marry as men for some period during their lives. This is specifically distinguished from theatrical cross-dressing or overt cross-dressing as a sexual signal. While the phenomenon is far from confined to the 18th century, there seems to have been a fascination with it in England, beginning in the late 17th century.
A specialized version of the encyclopedia was the catalog of unnatural or monstrous individuals, encompassing deformities, birth defects, and a great many mythical beings. Of particular relevance to sexuality was the fascination for hermaphrodites. Visual representations often portrayed a bilateral dimorphism, with the right half of the individual portrayed as one sex and the left half as the other.