Monday, October 27, 2008

Great Butches in History

Missy (Mathilde de Morny, 1862-1944) - in English, it sounds like a femme name, but Missy was about as butch as they come. Colette had a fling with her, between husbands, and they scandalized Paris by performing a sketch in which an Egyptian mummy (Colette) comes to life and seduces an archeologist (Missy).

(Image source: I got these pictures some years ago, probably in 2001, from a French-language site which I can't find again now.)

Bryher (1894-1983) - novelist, film critic, and "patron" (translation: her family had a whole bunch of money, and she spent her share on art and artists.) During the 1930s she lived in Switzerland and helped many people (mostly Jews) to escape from Nazi Germany. Finally she had to flee herself. Most of her novels are historical; one is a work of "Science Fantasy" called Visa for Avalon.

(Image source: Fembio. This photo appears to have been taken about the same time as the film Borderline (1930), which was directed by her second husband and features Bryher in a small part.)

Valentine Ackland (1906-1969), poet and lover. I discovered her because she was the life partner of one of my absolute favorite writers, Sylvia Townsend Warner (and shows up as a character in several of her short stories). Their collected letters, published under the title I'll Stand By You, tell an amazing story. Noteworthy is the bit where Sylvia asks her to explain how this lesbian stuff works, and part of Valentine's answer is "I'm the bisexual one." She was not referring to sexual practice, but to gender identity - for her, bisexual was synonymous with androgynous. (Image source: The Sylvia Townsend Warner Archive)

Leslie Feinberg (1949 - still around) Feinberg's book Transgender Warriors made transgender a reality for me. I thought I bought it to learn about a friend's transgender. Surprise!

Obviously, these are just a few of my personal favorites. There are many more. I used to think that I didn't believe in role models . . . and it's easy to pick out a person's flaws and say, "I don't want to be like that." But if I had role models, these would be them. Thank you all.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Clueless, Part 2

Actually, it would be incorrect to say I had no clue about being transgendered. If a clue is something you try not to think about, something that occasionally wanders into the front of your mind, where you look at it for a moment in fascination before shoving it back in the closet, then I had a clue.

I cultivated androgyny (but without thinking of it as my gender.) Before that I cultivated feminism. And since feminism so strongly influenced my notions of gender, I'd like to talk about that. It's well known that feminism questions gender roles. And once you start questioning them, they vanish, like smoke. Are there any qualities which are unique to one sex or the other? Aside from a few biological facts, no, not really. Is it rational to suppose that the state of one's intellect, or one's heart, is completely determined by the state of one's genitals? Of course not.

Feminism taught me to believe that gender does not exist. At least, that was the lesson I took from it, perhaps because I was unsure to start with about the notion of gender. And when I began to think that I actually did have a gender, that the concept of masculinity was real to me in a way that could not in fact be explained by the state of my genitals . . . well. I tried not to believe it. It was my last attempt to fight back. Soon I gave up. Gender is real to me, somehow. It's irrational (I still believe that) but it's true.

Feminism is extremely valuable to anyone who inhabits, or wants to inhabit, a female body. But although it questions gender, it has no notion of transgender. In a sense, it remains binary. It assumes that male and female are the only two options, and although I've read a lot of feminist books, I haven't come across any serious discussion of the idea that one can cross over from one gender to the other. (I'm sure someone has written about it. But it hasn't made its way into the core of feminist thought.) In practical terms, I think I understand why feminism ignores transgender: because it's not a solution to gender problems for the majority of people. Most people don't want to transition . . . and if a few do, what does that say about gender?

So. I can't explain to you why I am. I only know that it has become real for me. (I also know that it has been real for others. But that's a subject for another time.)