Wednesday, September 6, 2017

The light is in us: Writings of Susan Griffin

One of the unpleasant things about coming out as transgender is that you have to wonder if your old friends will still like you. I've never met Susan Griffin but I enjoyed her books Woman and Nature and A Chorus of Stones. So it was with some trepidation that I looked her up on Facebook last year.

One reads one's old friend's posts . . . that one's not transphobic . . . that one's not transphobic . . . maybe that one was relatively trans-friendly. I don't remember the specifics now but I breathed a sigh of relief and went back to look at her books again.

Woman and Nature has a narrative force which is still powerful, but now I find the painful content to be too painful. Although there is joy there as well.

Last month I came across one of her newer books: The Book of the Courtesans. I remember looking at that book when it came out, in 2001, and deciding not to buy it. At that time it was too feminine for me. But now that I've stopped pretending to be female, things are different.

Courtesans are noteworthy for their beauty, charm, courage, and cleverness. The whole time I was reading this book I kept thinking about transgender women. Not all of them are glamorous, or want to be glamorous. Many of them hate the stereotype of trans women as sex workers. But they are transgressive - another essential attribute of the courtesan, according to Griffin - and they do value femininity, however they define it. They create their own femininity, which is also what courtesans do. It's not the body itself, however that body may be shaped, but the energy inside it which makes a person what they are.

Griffin describes how courtesans went out of fashion, and why they stopped being transgressive: those two things are the same. Women acquired more options: legal access to education, employment, contraception, and sexuality. They no longer had to cajole men for money. Most people now believe that women have the right to express their sexuality however they see fit. A sexual woman is no longer inherently transgressive (at least not officially) and therefore we do not need courtesans anymore. Where is the intersection of femaleness and transgression now located? I would argue that it is located in the transgender woman. She is now as daring as the courtesan used to be.

Of course, I wonder if any of these courtesans of history were trans. It could happen - just look at Fanny and Stella. Sadly, Griffin does not explore this possibility. She does give one example of a "courtesan type" who was not a cisgender woman: Nijinsky.

I may add that femininity is not an essential attribute of the courtesan. In a culture where women are defined as sexless, an interest in sex is itself unfeminine. Griffin also tells us about Ninon de Lenclos, who at the age of eleven wrote to her father: "I have decided to be a girl no longer, but to become a boy." Her father humored her, giving her male clothes and letting her learn to ride and fence.

Later on she was imprisoned in a convent for the crimes of "ridiculing marriage and suggesting that women should have the same rights as men." Queen Christina of Sweden (another famous cross-dresser) visited her there and obtained her release.

The story is also told that Ninon was still seducing men when she was seventy and eighty years old. Of course, she was exceptional: by that I mean, it's almost certain that these men who admired her wit and audacity would not like to encounter the same wit and audacity in all women. Once in a rare while it's stimulating.

I don't wish to idolize the courtesan. Even the most successful sex worker has to do things they don't want to do - plus their careers are as short-lived as that of any other professional athlete and don't offer much of a retirement plan. But if one has to choose between beauty and courage, however ephemeral, on the one hand; and on the other hand . . . well, for example, the triumph of toxic masculinity which currently exists in this country and represents a complete absence of beauty and courage . . . there is no doubt which I would choose. We are ephemeral, all of us. But some of us are brave.
Greta Garbo as Queen Christina. Source: flickr