…Writing a Transgender Character as a Political Act, and the Linguistic Potential for Change.
The personal, according to Carol Hanisch, is political[i]. Which partner, in any relationship, makes the tea is political. Who loads the washing machine and puts it on to cycle is political. Who – literally – wears the trousers is political. To this list, which is of course by no means exhaustive, I would like to add the deceptively obvious suggestion that speech, and (more pertinent to my own case as a novelist) writing, is political, too, both in terms of what is written, and in who is writing it. Words, whether we would choose them to or not, have a political life and impact beyond that of our intentions. Words are a form of action[ii].
I consider myself, and describe myself as, a trans person. My trans status is, thanks to both my own openness and a degree of over exuberance on the part of my French publisher, a matter of public record in the UK and across Europe. I have no idea why I am transgender. If pressed I will come down on the social constructivist side of the argument, but I consider it fruitless, misleading and ultimately counterproductive to spend any significant amount of time worrying whether transgender identity has a biological basis or a social one. Such inquiry, in my opinion, derives its impetus from the cisgenderist assumption that to be transgender is to be wrong, and that this wrongness must be described, understood and contained before it can become socially acceptable. I don’t expect to be understood and I won’t be contained – but I am not afraid to demand acceptance.
The term “cisgender” comes from the Latin prefix “cis” meaning “on the same side”. It is used in opposition to the term “trans” which comes from the Latin “cross over” to mean somebody whose gender identity is congruent with that which is implied by their bodily make up. Like “transgender” it has nothing to do with sexuality, gender expression or the presence (or absence) of any intersex condition. A cisgendered gay man can wear flowery dresses and identify strongly as male. A transgender gay man can do exactly the same. “Cisgenderism”, on the other hand, along with its derivation “cisgenderist” is the usually unspoken assumption that attributes normality to cisgendered people and otherness to trans people. It differs from transphobia, which is individual, emotional, and sometimes violently reactionary, in being institutionalised, socially acceptable, and until interrogated, bearing the assumption of a reasonable basis.[iii]
I am using the term ‘transgender’ in this work to refer to anybody who identifies at any place upon the transgender and transsexual spectrum. Such a person may identify fully as male or female, or – as in my own case – may fluctuate between both genders or occupy an identity entirely without gender altogether. My sense of myself as a gendered being is complex and shifts between male and female depending on the social context I am in and on my frame of mind. I identify as – and name myself – a transgender man, using ‘man’ not to mean an individual with a certain anatomy who has been raised in a particular, gendering, manner, but a ‘man’ in the Beauvoirian sense of being ‘one’ [iv] – a free and active member of society whose gendered identity is not defined primarily by relation to any other, or considered ‘other’ or ‘lacking’ in relation to a primary standard, but stands on its own. I do not use the word ‘transsexual’ as I see no meaningful distinction between sex and gender, and therefore I do not agree with the implication of physical essentialism that the term carries. Neither do I name myself simply ‘man’ because ‘man’, used by itself, appears to oversimplify my identity and subject it to a large number of assumptions – many of which are every bit as cripplingly sexist as the notion that ‘woman’ is inherently ‘other’. If there ever comes a day when the word ‘man’ is linguistically free from (cis)sexism, I may start using it without the ‘transgender’ prefix. But I wouldn’t bet on it; the word ‘transgender’ describes for me something that is becoming a positive identity in its own right. ‘Transition’ implies movement – a positive alterity, an existence unlimited by the artificial, gendered, binary between man and woman – a state of linguistic and political potentiality. To name myself simply ‘man’, therefore, would constitute for me an attempt to pretend that the road my gender identity continues to travel upon does not matter; when, for me, the journey is more important than any possibility of a destination.
What I am, or at least how I identify in terms of gender, matters to my writing because I am a transgender human being who performs, according to the citational definition of performing gender put forward by Judith Butler, as male[v]. I read and write about other authors both as a transperson and a novelist, and my responses must be understood in this light. In the case of Rainbow I am writing in the early twenty first century about another, fictional, transgender human performing a similar masculine gender, who is living at the end of the eighteenth. This parallel between my self and my character adds a certain tension to my work which would not be there if I were a cisgender person of either sex. Since Roland Barthes proclaimed the author dead it has seemed unadvisable, at least within the field of poststructuralist literary criticism, to consider the work of any writer in any significant relation to that writer’s own life and personal circumstances, but I am all too aware that for the general reading public for whom my novel is intended, these biographical considerations will loom very large. My audience will, without doubt, ask the question of how much I, Jack Wolf, have in common with Mary Anne Ashley/Paul Smith. They will want to know to what extent I identify with herm; whether herm formative experiences are also mine, whether I ever had my heart broken by a blonde bombshell called Lily Chivers. And they will ask me, what do you mean by this? Of course, in a way, I am inviting such questioning – at this point in our culture there is still something overtly provocative in a transgender novelist’s deliberately writing a transgendered character in a historical novel. My answer is to say that I mean to show that trans people existed, and they were – to some extent at least – people like me. We trans folk have a history, as well as – hopefully – a future.
Nevertheless, it would be ridiculously simplistic to assume that Mary Anne/Paul is equivalent to Jack Wolf, just as it would be naive to assume that Stephen Gordon in The Well of Loneliness is equivalent to John Radclyffe Hall, whose own life with her long term lover Una Troubridge did not, whatever internal conflicts she may have endured, reflect the misery Hall inflicts upon her hapless ‘invert’. I can vouch for the fact that I have never taken a sailing ship to the Caribbean and have never been involved in any attempt at bloody revolution – although I freely acknowledge that in my performances of gender I am hoping to help bring about a quiet one. I do not speak in Somerset dialect either, although I grew up hearing it; the acceptance of received English pronunciation was drummed into me from about the age of eleven as forcibly, and, it appears, more penetratingly, than the acceptance of the gendered norms that inhere within language itself. The fact that Mary Anne/Paul does speak in dialect is due primarily to my effort to destabilise the class, rather than the gender norms, that can be reproduced within literary language. Nevertheless, the old Somerset dialect provides a very flexible verbal tool with which to challenge linguistic gendering as it typically lacked the pronoun “it” and referred to inanimate objects as “ee” or “er” in both subject and object positions. There is no attempt to maintain any consistent grammatical gender and the same object can be represented by both pronouns within one sentence[vi]. Mary Anne/Paul’s lack of formal education and unfamiliarity with ‘proper’ grammar allows herm a degree of syntactical – and even intellectual – freedom which is critical in terms of my attempt within Rainbow to reformulate the meaning of masculinity in a trans framework. The term “herm”, which I am using in this study, is not however drawn from dialect and does not appear in the novel. It is a modern pronoun proposed by the transgender and intersex activist and author Del Grace Volcano as a combination of her and him. It is used when talking about someone whose gender identity (and/or body) combines male and female, or varies between them. Mary Anne/Paul develops a male identity but in the earlier parts of the novel identifies as female – so I feel that in discussing herm within the earlier sections of the novel and in the novel as a whole, this pronoun is appropriate. It is one of a number of pronouns that are currently being trialled to perform this function within the English speaking transgender community, and may not be the one that is ultimately accepted as definitive. However, I find its descriptiveness helpful and so have chosen to use it here.
So; I am not Mary Anne/ Paul Smith, nor is s/he, in any simplistic pseudo-autobiographical sense, my alter ego. But as I have admitted that I would like to bring about a quiet revolution, I must also admit that in a complex, discursive, disingenuous, politically motivated sense, MaryAnne/Paul is indeed my literary stand in, my mouthpiece – even, shall we say, for this is the twenty-first century after all – my sock puppet. I am a trans person, and I have chosen to raise a trans voice. And that voice is a rare one, historically rendered silent either by the cisgendering norms of the cultures of its own and later times, or – as in recent years – by a degree of appropriation by members of the gay and lesbian community, who (understandably, having themselves, historically, been silenced) have often leapt upon evidence of gender ambiguity in historical people as evidence of their possessing a lesbian, pre-lesbian or other homosexual identity. According to this theory, eighteenth and nineteenth century female bodied people who cross-dressed as men were female identified women, who had the misfortune of being born years before the advent of either gender equality or lesbian pride, but who would have proudly identified as lesbian feminists if they had been able to do so[vii]. While I sincerely doubt that anyone from earlier centuries would have experienced a trans gender identity in a way that is wholly identical to that of a modern trans person, this line of reasoning makes the equivalent mistake in claiming a cisgender lesbian identity for historic cross dressers. And though we cannot say for certain what any individual’s private sense of gender may have been, there is little clear evidence that earlier generations prioritised the genitalia in determining an adult person’s functional gender to the same extent that we do now. Gender in the eighteenth century, for good or ill, was as much a matter of the body’s clothing as it was of the body itself. Genitals were kept secret and not considered unless the situation was an overtly sexual one. This is true even of eighteenth century medicine, where the physician would typically make a diagnosis based on a verbal consultation with a clothed patient rather than on a medical examination. It is entirely conceivable that cross dressers like James How[viii] and Charles (Mary) Hamilton (made infamous by Fielding’s The Female Husband) experienced a fully masculine gender identity congruent with their period in history and behaved accordingly, with no ‘lack’ that could not be supplied, if the situation called for it, by a decent dildo. This is not to say that bodily gender for female bodied trans men could be easily subverted, or entirely escaped. As the century progressed British culture developed an increasing concern with regulating the dress of women in order to suppress any latent female masculinity, and women who openly desired masculine-appearing clothing were met with censure. Cross-dressed trans men, if discovered living in apparently sexual relationships with women, could be severely punished. Such punishments included being sent to Bridewell, whipping, and being put in the stocks. Charles Hamilton was himself apprehended for fraud in 1748 and sentenced to be whipped in Glastonbury town square[ix]. Ann Marrow, placed in the stocks in 1777 for dressing as a man and marrying a woman, was permanently blinded as a result[x]. On the other hand, a number of cross dressing women such as Charlotte Charke[xi] chose to marry biological men, opening up the possibility that in our society they could have identified as gay or bisexual transmen. It is also interesting to note that when the genitally male but physically androgynous and apparently female identified Chevalier d’Eon adopted female clothing, also in 1777, her desire to dress in clothing ‘proper’ to her sex was met with approval. It is without the scope of this study to investigate this apparent double standard, which would seem to have allowed androgynous transwomen greater latitude in gender expression than transmen (a situation completely opposite to that experienced by transwomen today). However, given that cross dressing men who frequented London’s molly houses were considered sodomites and fiercely condemned, it seems likely that the Chevalier may have owed her success to the same thing modern transpeople have to rely on – a sympathetic doctor.
It appears likely therefore that although it was possible for some female bodied trans men to change their clothing and ‘pass’ as male, societal interest in keeping ‘women’ in their proper attire and their proper place was strong enough to ensure that only those individuals who already possessed some masculine characteristics and a high degree of motivation were able to do so successfully. It is relevant also that in this period there was a very high tolerance of romantic friendships between women, both married and unmarried, as long as these friends did not admit to any genital contact; and so it is unlikely that many lesbian lovers would have needed to employ the dangerous subterfuge of one of them passing as male. But there are other difficulties, separate from any historical inaccuracy, with the argument that such people were simply lesbians in disguise. This cisgenderist reading of history eclipses trans identities in the historical narrative altogether, distorts our understanding of lesbian history and utterly silences the transgender voice. When a writer of the stature of Radclyffe Hall can write, in strongly heterosexist terms: “I have never felt an impulse towards a man in all my life, this is because I am a congenital invert. For me to sleep with a man would be “wrong” because it would be an outrage against nature”[xii] and still uncomplicatedly be considered a lesbian icon, we have a problem.
Part of my project in writing Rainbow is to discover the essence of that (or at least, my) transgender voice, and to explore what might characterise it: within what sort of language can it be heard? I want to know whether, and if so how, language can be de-or re-gendered, and whether words and concepts that seem to be fixedly associated with one gender and with one way of performing gendered behaviour can be made to re-signify for modern trans people in ways that are positive, flexible and ultimately freeing. And this re-signification matters, not merely in an academic or creative sense, but at a grassroots level. Despite tremendous recent progress in the visual media, particularly in UK and US television[xiii], across the modern world trans voices are still being silenced because they are seen as failing to achieve the artificial standards of masculinity or femininity that are perpetuated within language, and thereby within culture. Sometimes, tragically, we silence ourselves.
So my readers are likely to ask if Mary Anne/Paul is me – and I can answer honestly both “yes” and “no”. But it is unlikely that this will the only question that they will ask. The trans community is both numerically small, and under-represented in fiction to the extent where any work of fiction containing possibly transgender characters and/or themes is excitedly seized upon in much the same way that the emergent lesbian community in the early twentieth century and later decades seized (both mistakenly and unfortunately) upon The Well of Loneliness. There is a great hunger to read positive role models, both trans masculine and feminine, and a deep disappointment, very keenly felt, ensues when, for instance, a trans character turns out not to be trans after all[xiv] or the character’s gender non-conformity is depicted as a negative, even comedic, thing. Jeffrey Eugenides’ 2002 novel Middlesex[xv] provides an example of this. Although he claims to have received praise from the North American intersex community for his depiction of Cal/Calliope Stephanides[xvi], the writer’s stated failure to make contact with any intersex person while writing the novel suggests to me that he did not consider the work at all in terms of an intersex or non-gender conforming audience:
“Just last week, a person came up to me at a reading and whispered in my ear that he has 5-alpha-reductase deficiency syndrome. He was the first person I’ve ever met with the condition, on account of its rarity.” [xvii]
Eugenides explains his character’s situation, which causes Cal – originally Calliope – to transition from female to male, as being the genetic legacy of close familial incest, and appears to be using the intersex condition partly as a motif to signify sexual sin. In my personal experience, reactions to this sort of representation from the trans and intersex communities are not as positive as Eugenides may think, although some people do express a sense of gratitude at having been represented at all. The infrequency of gender non-conforming characters in fiction and the hunger for representation among such audiences ensures that the book is well known, if not exactly well loved. So it is certain that among the public readers who will ask searching questions of my depiction of transgender masculinity there will be a number of people who are trans themselves – trans masculine, trans feminine, and trans anything in between – and they will want to know that I have not written a transgender character, or positioned such a character within my novel, in any way that could serve as yet another doom laden prophecy or reassertion of the notion that trans existence is essentially flawed. To put it more bluntly, a transgender readership will be keen to see that my work does not encourage, support or promote an interpretation of transgender existence that is transphobic.
It is this sort of sensitivity to the psychological impact of her writing upon a section of her readership that is lacking in Radclyffe Hall. Judith (Jack) Halberstam suggests that although The Well of Loneliness was intended for general publication, Hall’s writing is really meant for the people like her who made up her Paris Circle of acquaintances – socially transgressive, educated, upper or upper middle class women such as Gertrude Stein and Toupie Lowther who had attained a degree of economic independence and had overcome any psychological and practical barriers posed by their unconventional sexual tastes or manner of gender expression to achieve a degree of social freedom that was certainly not experienced by the typical trans man or lesbian woman of the time[xviii]. Hall’s ideal reader is one who is already sufficiently secure in herm own identity that s/he is able to read the story of Stephen Gordon as neither fable nor prophecy. S/he will not assume on the basis of Stephen’s misery that loneliness and abandonment is the inevitable fate of the invert and understand from herm own experience the difference between fiction and reflection. The real life lesbian or transgender reader of The Well of Loneliness, particularly before the 1960s when lesbian and trans-masculine people began to achieve a greater degree of visibility, has not typically been able to do this. Lacking experience of others like her(m), s/he has often given in to the temptation to believe on some level both that loneliness is the lot of the lesbian and that the inferiority inherent within Radclyffe Hall’s depiction of masculinity without a penis is an essential truth. Lesbian fiction between the publication of The Well of Loneliness and the 1960s tended to reflect this[xix]. Of course, second and third wave feminism – and lesbian feminism in particular – vehemently rejected this premise and strove hard to disprove any notion that to be without a penis is to be in a Freudian position of lack. Women, they pointed out (and I would add non or pre operative trans men) do not lack anything; what they have is a vagina.
But Radclyffe Hall, whose understanding of gender had been strongly influenced by the work both of Freud and the sexologist Havelock Ellis, is not a feminist writer. She positions the invert as possessing a failed masculinity that has, to borrow and twist a metaphor from the pheasant shooting enjoyed by Stephen Gordon’s aristocratic father, gone off at half cock. This is most startlingly clear in one often critiqued scene in The Well of Loneliness. In it, Stephen Gordon, standing in front of the mirror, finally faces up to the real physical condition of herm body and admits to hermself the likely implications of the truth that is staring herm in the face: that body is not a male one. I have deliberately drawn upon this scene in Rainbow, in an attempt both to pay something of an homage to the idea of the invert and to subvert the notion that Hall apparently accepts: that gender is fixed in and by the body.
In writing Mary Anne/Paul, therefore, I am re-claiming trans history in the hope of doing some small good for trans people now, and in the future. I am deliberately seeking to create a transgender character who is clever, attractive, heroic and convincingly masculine (I will come back shortly to what ‘masculine’ might mean in the context of trans-masculinities); a character whose transgendered origin does not lie in any dubious notion of supernatural possession, psychological damage, dodgy genes or divine punishment, but is both ‘normal’ and ‘natural’. Most importantly, it does not require any modern medical diagnosis. I shall come out here and say that although I absolutely believe the individual’s right to determine herm own body should extend to accessing hormonal and surgical interventions if s/he desires them, such interventions should never be considered mandatory. Moreover, the ability to access them (financial considerations aside) should never rely upon a spurious diagnosis of mental illness. By consciously placing Mary Anne/Paul in the eighteenth century, before the advent of hormone therapy, sex reconstruction surgery, Freud, Havelock Ellis, and Harry Benjamin I am putting herm into a situation where herm gender identity is herm own business and it is up to herm to assert it. Paul does not wait to be told that he – from this point in the novel I think it is correct to say ‘he’ and him as his gender identity is no longer in doubt – meets the criteria for gender dysphoria[xx] before feeling confident enough to assert himself as male, because the concept of gender dysphoria does not exist in his culture. Standing in front of his reflection in the window, Paul instinctively knows, just as Viola knows in Twelfth Night, what he is. Moreover, he expects, even demands, that once he has successfully exchanged the clothing that marks his gender as female for male attire and named himself ‘Paul Smith’, society will accept his knowledge of his own gender without demanding that he undergo some form of gender surgery. Not for Paul the stress of ‘achieving’ a psychiatric diagnosis that will mark him as mentally ill for the remainder of his life, (but will permit him to be prescribed testosterone and to approach a surgeon); not for him years of saving for invasive and medically unnecessary surgery, which he may only want because society refuses to accept him as properly male without it. Not for him months of uncertainty before the powers that be will agree to award him the precious paperwork that proves him to be exactly what he knows he is. Neither must he suffer the fear of being thought improperly trans, or of being considered ‘not real’ because he is non-operative. No, for Paul, trans in the eighteenth century, where the clothes quite literally make the man, the situation is simple. As long as he successfully maintains a male social identity and does not get caught, he will be accepted as a man.
This is of course a different definition of gender truth than we, as modern people, are used to; for us, at least outside of queer circles, conceptions of gender are almost wholly centred upon and defined by the physical body that lies underneath the clothes. But although contemporary eighteenth century constructions of gender were assumed to have their natural origin in the body, that body, male or female, was not a public document in the way a modern body is. People rarely fully undressed, even – as can be seen both in the pornography and medical journals of the period – for sexual intercourse or to undergo examination by a physician[xxi].This rejection of the naked body, in combination with the constraints placed upon the bodies of both sexes by the restrictive design of the era’s clothing, meant that clothed actions and postures were more significantly gendered than they are today. The out-thrust male chest, characteristic of portraiture of the period, and often interpreted as a sign of manliness, resulted from the shoulders-back design of the typical frock coat (intended to ensure that the wearer could not slouch)[xxii]. For women, the restriction of arm, spine and pelvic movement that comes from wearing tightly laced stayes (which can also reduce breathing efficiency) was read as an indication of femininity[xxiii]. I can attest from experience of wearing both costumes to the fact that this simple change in clothing effects a powerful alteration in bodily movement over and above that encoded by personal habit, which is likely to have eased the transition from one gender performance to another and made passing easier. And most significantly, from the point of view of a passing transman such as Paul, young men entered the workforce and the adult male world at or before the point of puberty. Beardless men were common, as were men with high voices and low muscle mass.
The term ‘passing’ has its origin in early 20th century USA, where it was possible for a black person with a sufficiently light skin to ‘pass’ as white, thereby avoiding racial prejudice but setting him or herself up for trouble should the fact that they were ‘passing’ be discovered. The term’s first significant appearance in literature was by the American author Nella Larsen, in her 1929 novel of that title. In the modern transgender context it has come to mean a transperson’s early efforts to ‘pass’ as a member of the gender with which they identify. Because of the term’s historic associations with subterfuge and the falsification rather than revelation of identity, I find this usage problematic.
To say that this emphasis upon clothing made passing easier is not, of course, to suggest that the eighteenth century was a tolerant era for gender transgressors – as previously stated, if caught and exposed as ‘women’, passing transmen could suffer punishments ranging from incarceration to violent humiliation in the public stocks. Nevertheless, it remains to be said that despite the brutal and quixotic nature of what passed for justice in the eighteenth century, if the worst happened and Paul Smith’s subterfuge had been uncovered, he certainly would not have faced a worse fate than that which met the 238 trans people murdered worldwide in 2013 alone.[xxiv]
In addition to my desire to write a positive transgender narrative, I have decided that the majority of Paul’s story – which is one of three making up the whole novel – will be about issues other than his own gender. Paul Smith is not to be yet another gender non-conforming character whose raison d’etre is to explore the discomfort and awkwardness that can go along with changing one’s gender status. His transformation empowers him, but once he is able to live in the psychologically correct gender, his focus quickly shifts to matters in the world beyond himself, and from the point at which he arrives upon the island of Grenada to the point at which his gender is questioned by Arabella Pitfour (a discovery which has no catastrophic consequences for Paul, though they are unfortunate for Arabella) his gender does not constitute the most important part of his internal narrative or role within the larger plot. At no point do I use Paul’s gender, per se, as a pivotal narrative device or metaphor upon which the action, purpose or meaning of the novel is to hang. The reason Paul is a trans man is simply that he is a trans man – there is no need for the overall novel to proclaim any cause of his non conformity. But because it would be naive to suppose that the characters themselves will not ask questions of what is, after all, a rare event, Paul himself does come to wonder whether it is something he was born with (nature) or something he learned from his father (nurture) while Cordelia constructs his situation in spiritual terms as that of a male soul inhabiting the body of a female. Edmund rejects out of hand the possibility of Paul’s being anything but a biological male, while Arabella, who has considerable wit but no empathy or emotional maturity, insists that Paul is simply a woman, and perceives his transgender status as a threat to her own power. None of these positions, I hope, will ever be taken by my reader as solely representing the authorial truth – though it is fair to say that I have set up Arabella’s as a foil to it. Paul’s success or failure within the action of the novel is dependent, as it is for my other point of view characters, on his choices rather than his gender identity. Being a trans man neither dooms nor saves him; it is intended as a simple fact of his nature, and is no more prophetic in narrative terms than his ginger hair. The lives of trans people both in reality and in the novel must be about more than their gender.
If gender is understood as a social construct, and discomfort with one’s allotted gender identity interpreted primarily as a social, rather than a medical, problem, then part of the remedy for that discomfort can presumably be found within an appropriation or colonisation of the linguistic structures that create and maintain gender in the first place. Although it may initially seem that the meanings of words and the gender associations within language are resistant to any deliberate attempt to influence their evolution, the ease and swiftness with which words like “queer” and ‘gay’ have been adopted and reclaimed by the homosexual community to signify something very different from their original meanings proves that this is not so[xxv]. Nevertheless, there are some words: ‘man’, ‘woman’, ‘boy’, ‘girl’, which would seem resistant to any attempt to make them re-signify within a trans context. There has been an effort to adapt the word ‘boy’ in certain sections of the lesbian community to signify a certain type of lesbian, but here it is often spelled ‘boi’ – engendering a new word rather than extending the gendered meaning of a pre-existing one. It is here, in this attempt to rework the meanings of words themselves, that I have found the flexibility of Paul’s Somerset dialect to come into its own. Dialect, by definition, deviates from the rules of standard grammar, and in its refusal to accept that which is prescribed (a very trans virtue, if there is yet such a thing) it is capable of reconfiguring the concepts conveyed within ordinary sentences into new, surprising, and illuminating forms. Dialect nouns can fluidly become verbs, and by so doing reveal previously hidden processes within language. So when Mary Anne/Paul says that “perhaps all that working in the forge had boyed I somehow”[xxvi] I intend there to be more at work within the statement than simple ignorance on herm part or playfulness on mine. I am trying to change what the language does.
The use of gender nouns as verbs has a precedent – many male raised and socialised people will be unhappily familiar with the colloquial demand to “man up!” and all the stereotypically masculine associations that the phrase conveys. The noun employed as verb is a command as well as a description of what is expected, and the hearer can be in no doubt that failure to comply is no less than a failure of masculinity, and therefore, to an extent, of self. Judith Butler, describing this mechanism in the context of how gender is created in children and perpetuated in later adult life, suggests that even when a gender noun is simply used syntactically as such, it has an interpellative power[xxvii] that creates the thing it names. So, regardless of the resistance encountered within Mary Anne’s own peculiar psyche, when ‘the Parents’ say to Mary Anne, “you’m a girl” or use the expression “my girl” then the word ‘girl’ expressed thus is instructing herm not merely in how to behave, but in how to identify. ‘Girl’ is what the word should cause herm psychologically to become. So if I, as Paul’s creator, which places me largely in the role of arbiter of truth in relation to my literary creation, assert: “Paul is a boy”, then my intention is to “boy” Paul, within the mind of my reader, and create Paul, within the novel, as a boy, according to a particular idea of masculinity. A similar effect ensues when Paul himself makes the statement: “I be a boy.” Because Paul is a trans boy, then the atemporal equivalence inherent in the infinitive form of the verb to ‘be’ subtly alters the word ‘boy’ to signify a masculinity that does not depend, at any given moment, upon having a penis or upon the performance of stereotypical male behaviours. “Boy” comes to be a term that is reliant for its justification and meaning upon Paul, as he, in his position of first person narrator, comes to represent the standard against which ‘boy’ should be judged. Trans masculinity becomes an acceptable standard of masculinity itself and the framework and terms by which gender is called into existence within Rainbow shift significantly. For this gambit to be in any way successful relies upon the reader’s acceptance of Paul as a reliable narrator, which places the daunting constraint upon myself as novelist that I must take great care to construct him as such.
The journey towards developing a specifically trans voice does not reside purely in the attempt to shift the meanings of specific words within, and potentially without a transgender context. The tone and register of what may become identifiable as a trans voice is important too. As I write there is no clearly identifiably transgender style of writing, although it may be that as it evolves and trans voices become more confident, the writing will appear across all genres of fiction and will be characterised by features it is currently developing. Among these features are an iconoclastic, queer, postmodern willingness to experiment with form and structure, to ignore any unnecessarily limiting constraints imposed by genre and to explore the possibilities of outlaw narratives. Another feature is a playful, taboo busting desire to talk frankly about challenging topics such as the physicality of the body; gender transition; prejudice; racial and class perspectives upon gender; queer sexualities and (despite the risk, especially acute for trans women, that discussing the subject will lead to a refusal of treatment by the medical establishment) BDSM sexual experiences.[xxviii] Certainly, all these features have been identified in my own work. Whatever the future holds, however, the majority of transgender writers – or at least, writers who choose to discuss transgender experience – are currently memoirists, writers of short, often erotic, trans-fiction or gender theorists rather than long-form narrative fiction writers.
And this brings me back to my opening point; that as an openly transgender man creating through the medium of words the character of another transgender man, I am placed in a peculiar, problematic, situation. As a trans man, I have a first-hand experience of my subject that a cisgender man or a woman does not, but I feel that I am, perversely, also handicapped by the fact that I am writing within, and for, a cisgenderist culture that has historically tended to silence trans voices and to prefer cisgender medical, theoretical or fictional understandings of trans people’s lives over the testimonies of trans people themselves[xxix]. Many more people, both cisgender and trans, will have read Jeffrey Eugenides’ Pulitzer Prize winning depiction of an intersex person or Rose Tremain’s Sacred Country than, for instance, the work of Del Grace Volcano or Leslie Feinburg. Simply by the virtue of my own transgender identity, the reliability of my narrative testimony can become suspect. For me to state, for instance, that cisgenderist prejudice exists may be taken as an indication of oversensitivity and bias upon my part – a bizarre situation which has a parallel in the denial often faced by black or feminist activists when they try to talk about their experiences in popular, particularly online, culture. Additionally, in my case, I am particularly vulnerable to the charge that because I also experience occasions of identification with a female sense of gender, I am not ‘really’ transgender at all, but merely confused. (To which I must reply that though I may be confused about any number of things, my gender is never one of them.) All this leaves me, as a novelist, in the strange position of having not only to construct Paul Smith as a reliable narrator, but also Jack Wolf. For me, every bit as much as for Carol Hanisch, the personal is inherently political. Whether I, as a publicly out, gender-fluid trans man, load the washing machine or make the tea, whether I am financially self-supporting, whether I am in a romantic relationship or not (and if I am, with whom), whether I wear trousers or pink fluffy slippers is political. The fact that I write, and choose to write, upon trans-masculinities within the established genre of historical fiction, thereby calling attention to my own transgender status and the historical existence of trans people, is my most political act of all.
[i] The phrase is drawn from the title of Hanisch’s essay, “The Personal is Political” in Notes from the Second Year: Women’s Liberation (ed. Firestone and Koedt,1970.) It became an important feminist rallying cry in the 60s and 70s.
[ii] “Words are a form of action, capable of influencing change.”Ingrid Bengis, “Man Hating” in Combat in the Erogenous Zone, (Harper Perennial, 1972) p54.
[iii] See Kennedy, Natacha: “Cultural Cisgenderism: Consequences of the Imperceptible” – Keynote address, POWS annual conference, 2012. Available on Academia. Edu
[iv] de Beauvoir, Simone: The Works of Simone de Beauvoir: The Second Sex and The Ethics of Ambiguity (Z EL Bey, 2011. Original printing 1949) : ” ‘The female is a female by virtue of a certain lack of qualities,’ said Aristotle; ‘we should regard the female nature as afflicted with a natural defectiveness.’ And St Thomas for his part pronounced woman to be an ‘imperfect man’, an ‘incidental’ being. This is symbolised in Genesis where Eve is depicted as made from what Bossuet called ‘a supernumerary bone’ of Adam…… Thus humanity is male and man defines woman not in herself but as relative to him; she is not regarded as an autonomous being. Michelet writes: ‘Woman, the relative being …’ And Benda is most positive in his Rapport d’Uriel: ‘The body of man makes sense in itself quite apart from that of woman, whereas the latter seems wanting in significance by itself … Man can think of himself without woman. She cannot think of herself without man.’ And she is simply what man decrees; thus she is called ‘the sex’, by which is meant that she appears essentially to the male as a sexual being. For him she is sex – absolute sex, no less. She is defined and differentiated with reference to man and not he with reference to her; she is the incidental, the inessential as opposed to the essential. He is the Subject, he is the Absolute – she is the Other.’ p6
[v] See: Butler, Judith, Gender Trouble (Routledge, 1992) and Bodies that Matter, on the Discursive limits of Sex (Routledge, 1993)
[vi] See: Elworthy, Frederick Thomas: An Outline of the Grammar of the Dialect of West Somerset (English Dialect Society, 1877, reprinted Bibliobazaar, 2012) p33
[vii] Halberstam, Judith, “The Androgyne, The Tribade, the Female Husband” in Female Masculinity (Duke U.P. 1998) p72. See aso for example Wheelwright, Julie, Amazons and Military Maids, (Pandora Press, 1989) who in her discussion of the likely transsexual James Barry refers to him throughout as female. p166.
[viii] http://www.riabrodell.com/_/Current_Work/Entries 2011/9/9_James_How_aka_Mary_East_%26_Mrs._How.html http://rictornorton.co.uk/eighteen/1766east.htm
See also: Donoghue, Emma, Passions Between Women (HarperCollins, 1993) pp70-73
[ix] Fielding’s Female Husband, (1748) https://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/f/fielding/henry/female-husband/ is the sensationalist retelling of a real life court case which was first reported in Bodley’s Bath Journal on 22 Sept 1746. See also: Donoghue, op cit pp73-80
See: Boe and Corkyndale (eds) Heteronormativity in Eighteenth Century Literature and Culture (Ashgate, 2014) p182
[xi] Charke, Charlotte A Narrative of the Life of Mrs Charlotte Charke, youngest daughter of Colley Cibber, Esq, written by herself (1755) https://archive.org/stream/ANarrativeOfTheLifeOfMrs.CharlotteCharkeYoungestDaughterOfColley/A_narrative_of_the_life_of_Mrs_Charlotte_Charke_djvu.txt
[xii] John Radclyffe Hall to Evgenia Souline, August 17th 1934, in Your John: The Love Letters of Radclyffe Hall, ed. Joanne Glasgow, 49-52. Hall’s description of herself as a ‘congenital invert’ reveals the influence of the sexological theories of Havelock Ellis.
[xiii] ‘Tremendous’ progress in the context of there having previously been no progress at all. Paris Lees (UK journalist and transwoman) has appeared several times on Question Time, BBC TV, between October 31, 2013 and the present day. Sophia Burset (fictional character in Orange is the New Black,) was named in December as one of the top 5 most important fictional characters of 2013. On Oct 9, 2015, it was announced that a transmale actor, Riley Carter Millington, would be joining the cast of Eastenders to play a young transgender man. Also in 2015 Rebecca Root and Bethany Black (both transwomen) have had regular roles in the sitcom Boy Meets Girl and the LGBT dramas Cucumber and Banana. Both roles were of transwomen. Root has also previously played cisgender female roles.
[xiv] As one reader puts it: “At the moment I’m seriously pissed off at the young adult fantasy writer Maria V. Snyder, who came so close to creating a truly awesome FTM trans character in her “Study” series, only to mess it all up in the sequels. She says she originally conceived the character simply as a man who fulfils a certain role; the idea that he has a female body came to her later. Unfortunately, ordinary trans people aren’t allowed in her universe, so she had to tack on a stupid and contrived “possessed by someone else’s soul” retcon. I have never literally thrown a book across the room, but this time I came VERY close.” http://skepchick.org/2012/01/13-myths-and-misconceptions-about-trans-women-part-one/ Comments:ParanoidAndroid.
[xv] Jeffrey Eugenides, Middlesex, (Fourth Estate, 2002)
[xvi] Eugenides, Readers Book Club, The Guardian, Friday 2 December 2011. http://www.theguardian.com/books/2011/dec/02/jeffrey-eugenides-middlesex-book-club
James Gibbons, Interview with Jeffrey Eugenides, The Paris Review 2013 “The Art of Fiction” No. 215 http://bombmagazine.org/article/2519/jeffrey-eugenides
[xvii] Gibbons, ibid.
[xviii] Halberstam, Judith, “A Writer of Misfits: John Radclyffe Hall and the Discourse of Inversion” in Female Masculinity, (Duke University Press, 1998) p87
[xix] See: Faderman, Lilian Surpassing the Love of Men pp322-333. See also Skinner, Shelly, “The House in Order” Lesbian Identity and The Well of Loneliness ( Womens’ Studies 23, 1994) pp19-33.
[xx] Transgender people, according the the DSMV in the USA and NHS guidelines in the UK, are currently to be diagnosed with ‘gender dysphoria’. This diagnosis, which replaces the older ‘transsexuality’, still stigmatises gender identity as an illness and consequently places the keys to gender transition in the hands of – typically cisgender – medical professionals rather than those of the individual concerned. Many modern countries will not allow a transgender individual to live legally in their identified gender unless they have undergone some form of medical gender reassignment. In the most extreme cases (where transition is possible at all) sterilisation and surgery is demanded. In 2013 the UN condemned this requirement as an abuse of human rights and, thankfully, some countries are now abandoning it.
A list of the criteria according to which gender dysphoria may currently be diagnosed can be found here: http://www.news-medical.net/health/Diagnosis-of-Gender-Dysphoria.aspx
[xxi] A representative series of plates of 18th Century pornography showing bodies at least partially clothed can be found in: Gatrell, Vic: City of Laughter, Sex and Satire in 18th Century London (Walker, 2007)
See also: Peakman, Julie, Mighty Lewd Books (Palgrave MacMillan, 2003) Lascivious Bodies (Atlantic, 2005) for further discussion of 18th Century pornography. For discussion of 18th Century diagnostic practises see: Porter, Roy, “The Enlightenment” in The Greatest Benefit to Mankind: A Medical History of Humanity from Antiquity to the Present (HarperCollins, 1997) pp256-58
[xxii] See for example: http://frenchculture.org/visual-and-performing-arts/interviews/interview-denis-bruna-curator-fashion-and-fabrics-french
and also: http://www.history.org/foundation/journal/winter12/deportment.cfm
[xxiii] Examples of both men and womens’ fashions can be found in the V&A museum http://www.vam.ac.uk/page/0-9/18th-century-fashion/
[xxiv] Statistic from: Transgender murder project, part of Transgender Europe, www.tgeu.org
[xxv] ‘Gay’, which had the primary historic meaning of ‘carefree’ has been resignified almost by accident. The word ‘gay’ meaning homosexual, came to us via its previous additional meanings of “addicted to social pleasures’ and ‘rakish man’ via both twentieth century homosexual slang and the the 1960s back formed acronym ‘G.A.Y.’ which stood for “good as you”. This ‘backronym’ is now often assumed to be the origin of the modern term. www.oed.com/view/Entry/77207
[xxvi] Wolf, Jack, Rainbow, unpublished PhD novel. 2014 p39
[xxvii] Butler, Judith, Bodies that Matter, (Routledge, 1993) p82, p171
[xxviii] See for example: Bornstein, Kate Gender Outlaw (Routledge, 1994); Taste This Collective, Boys Like Her (Raincoast Books, 2002); Valerio, Max Wolf The Testosterone Files (Seal Press, 2006); Krieger, Nick Nina Here nor There: My Journey Beyond Gender (Beacon Press, 2011)
[xxix] For instance, after Caitlin Jenner’s transition, the New York Times carried five op-ed pieces by cisgender women, and not one by a transwoman. This was not for want of submissions: see https://medium.com/gender-2-0/i-m-a-trans-woman-here-s-my-rejected-new-york-times-op-ed-on-caitlyn-jenner-305fef19cbc4
Jack Wolf is a writer and academic. His previous works include “The Tale of Raw Head and Bloody Bones” (Chatto and Windus, 2013), which won the Author’s Club Best First Novel Award 2104, and his Phd thesis “Rainbow / Literary Transgressions: Re-constructing a Transgender Character in a Historical Novel” (BSU, 2016). His work focuses on sites of identity and transformation, and he is fascinated by the intersections between performance and identity, and between word, meaning and sound. He is currently working on a multi-modal, multi-platform project aimed at exploring what it means to be human in the anthropocene, and how the knowledge of potential anthropogenic environmental collapse may alter how modern, western humans may need to change in order to survive into the next century.
Prior to becoming a writer, Jack trained as an actor and performed as a folk singer. He lives in Bath where he currently lectures in Creative Writing at Bath Spa University. He blogs at jackwolfauthor.wordpress.com.
Origins The Poetry Map has its origins in a feature on Facebook’s homepage by which users could list countries they had visited and see these appear as pins on a map. While this...
Someone suggests a theme – perhaps the way a person’s tone shifts when talking about a loved one – and Daljit Nagra instantly writes a poem, keystroke by keystroke. the warmth o- ...
This is an abridged version of a keynote speech delivered at the MIX Conference 2019 With the increasing convergence between creative industries and artificial intelligence, the...
As a researcher, my focus is on critically examining digital literature—texts and writing practices where digital media is rendered integral to the experience of literary or poetic...
Can we shape a digital literary form using the world around us? What happens to literature when a reader is mobile and engaged in a narrative both spatially and temporally? H...
It’s been an exciting year for digital fiction: we saw a major work emerge in the mainstream, for the mainstream, and turn into a viral hit – Jon Bois’s 17776: What Football Will L...