The body as Rorschach: Trans Interventions and the Trouble with History
Yesterday, writer E.J. Levy announced on Twitter that her novel about 19th-century Irish physician and transgender man James Barry was purchased by Little Brown and Co.
Troublingly, Levy referred to Barry throughout the thread as “she” and “her,” a “heroine” who shirked gender policing and lived life as a gender non-conforming woman. The reality, of course, is that Barry lived life as a man, desired to be addressed by he/him pronouns, and resisted attempts to discover his assigned sex posthumously — a resistance ultimately thwarted by a charwoman seeking payment for her services.
Trans folks and those interested in the history of someone many see as trans masculine were quick to point out to Levy the enormity of her mistake in gendering Barry as female, but Levy was not having it, gesturing to her own status as queer woman, and alluding to an idea that “the body is Rorschach.”
I don’t wish to dwell too long on the specific and manifold issues involved in Levy misgendering Barry so — others have done so at length, and with much more personal experience than I could hope to bring as a trans woman (and therefore not a trans masc person). However, I do want to discuss Levy’s curious invocation of the historical body as an open site for reading sex, gender, and sexuality. I wish to do so, because it’s a technique I’ve engaged in.
Queering the Text
You see, academic fields that make use of queer lenses — philosophy, history, gender and women studies, literature, etc. — often find themselves frustrated by the apparent lack of queer figures in the historical record. And while a debate exists about the historical existence of queerness in general (a vast topic that touches on the history of medicine, race and colonialism, capitalism, and so on), many scholars argue that same-sex desire and gender non-conformity have existed in some form since time immemorial, but have been erased or suppressed by allocisheteronormative (whew!) forces. So much of queer studies, then, involves recovering these identities.
Let me turn to a favorite example of mine: Romantic poet Lord Byron. See, for some hundred years following Byron’s death in 1824, critics of his work and life largely assumed the poet to be a cisgender, heterosexual man — albeit a dandy. This isn’t so surprising. The Buggery Act 1533 saw the act of anal penetration criminalized with penalties ranging from fines all the way up to various modes of execution. According to Louis Crompton in his seminal examination of Romantic-era homophobia Byron and Greek Love, Lord Byron probably saw an average of two men a year put to death for queer sex over the course of his lifetime. In short, the impetus to conceal one’s own queerness (or the queerness of your client, were you a major publisher of England’s most popular poet) was strong.
This is where the various fields involved in recovering queerness come in, making use of a technique that has many names, but is perhaps most commonly referred to as queering, or making a queer intervention. In this case, queering a text (or a historical figure) involves making strong claims about an underlying queerness that doesn’t necessarily exist on the surface. This involves looking for commonly-used queer code words, or uncovering the aesthetics and general feelings and beliefs typically associated with queer people as evidence for the text or figure’s underlying queerness. If you were to follow this technique to its logical conclusion, you might see how this essay will eventually get to the concept of transing — or untransing — a historical figure.
So in Byron’s case, it was in the 1950’s or so that historians, biographers, and literary critics started to uncover Byron’s own personal history of queerness — his sexual appetite for women dressed as men, and the more subtle but very present indications of his relationships with men throughout his life. Byron was, by many accounts, actually a bisexual man. In particular, I point to Byron’s history with a young man named John Edleston whom Byron met at Trinity College and fell deeply in love with.
We have some direct evidence of Byron’s love for Edleston, but the more intriguing work for the purposes of this essay has to do with how queer scholars have intervened in Byron’s poetry to find references to Edleston where they don’t explicitly lie. Byron’s elegy “to Thyrza,” for instance, never explicitly genders the addressee, aside from the feminine name “Thryza” sometimes attached to the poem. Indeed it can be a fun lesson in heteronormative assumptions to ask a classroom what’s happening in this poem: “a man is greiving for his wife/girlfriend” is not an uncommon answer. Still, we can reasonably assume that Byron — having recently learned of Edleston’s death from tuberculosis — produced the poem (alongside a flurry of other tender elegies) in honor of his young lover.
The intervention, then, comes in making the Thyrza elegy explicitly queer. What happens, queer scholars ask themselves, when you insert male pronouns, when you directly ask the poem who it’s addressing? The answer in this case is fairly simple: the poem becomes a gay elegy. This technique can be used with a great deal more sophistication, however, and is often found reclaiming reams of works and scores of figures as queer, sometimes in the face of centuries of scholarly work to the contrary (here’s where I’m required to note that I’m not even touching Shakespeare in this essay).
Transing and Untransing
Okay, with me so far? Let’s get back to the idea of historical figures as transgender. See, in the case of Lord Byron, we can also make an attempt to trans his writing, and potentially even him as a person. For instance, I might examine Byron’s excellent piece of drama Manfred for all the instances that the titular character expresses a simultaneous desire and dismay over the image of his dead lover Astarte — a woman who resembles him physically and temperamentally, but improved in every way for her femininity. I might say that these moments seem awfully familiar to me as a transgender woman, that ol’ Manfred seems to be experiencing a spot of gender dysphoria here, and that therefore the text is itself a trans narrative. And yes, this reading flies in the face of critical consensus about the text but hey, that’s why it’s called an intervention.
And I might take this a step farther and I might say that Byron has a history of this sort of thing in his writing. Or I might say that Byron’s letters seems to sometimes display some anxiety about gender. Indeed, there are many angles I could take with this, but let’s say that I’m going to move beyond the text and say that Lord Byron himself, the historical person, was a trans woman. And putting aside for the moment all the arguments about the historicity of transgender as a term and potentially as an identity, let’s say that I’m now examining Byron’s whole life through the lens that she was a woman according to her internal, lived reality. I am transing Byron. What’s the result?
Well, in this case I have a whole new set of interesting conclusions, and a whole new set of problems. What does Byron’s work and life look like when set in the context of women Romantics? How do we deal with her profound misogyny and abusive behavior towards other women? How do we conceive of the intersections between Byron’s gender, her disability, and her disordered eating? The questions are endless, but they are productive, insofar as they allow us to examine new angles to a well-trodden historical figure, and examine how understudied aspects of queerness either did work or could have worked in the early 19th century. Perhaps most importantly, transing Byron provides trans women like me with a new part of our own history, however problematic it might be.
Let’s compare what I’ve just done with what Levy has done, then. In both cases, we’ve taken a historical figure that clearly used he/him pronouns in daily life and flipped them, so that we are now using she/her pronouns and generally referring to the figure as a woman. In Byron’s case, as I argued above, I’ve created new avenues for research, opened new paths to historicizing an already well-studied and powerful (both in the literary landscape and in society at large) individual, and provided a marginalized community with additional history. Levy…has not done these things.
In Levy’s case, she’s taken a figure that we could argue already lived on the margins and erased those things that he fought so hard to claim for himself. In Levy’s framework, Barry’s hard-won gender is destroyed in favor of something Barry explicitly distanced himself from. Even worse, the communities that latched onto Barry as an important part of their own history (I’m referring largely to trans masc people here) lose a figure from an already tragically small list. What is gained instead is relatively small. Levy makes a case for Barry as gender non-conforming woman, but frankly the history of gender non-conforming women is already much larger than that of trans masculine people. There are a great deal of women who have dressed like men for various professional and social purposes that Levy could have tackled instead. She is not wanting for sources.
My point is that Levy and I are effectively both performing queer interventions, but the end result and contexts are radically different. Queering or transing (or in Levy’s case, untransing) are techniques that I would go to bat for, but we have to ask ourselves why we use them. We should queer history when it uplifts, when it opens possibilities, when it’s well-supported by historical record, and when it doesn’t harm people who are already marginalized. To say that Dr. James Barry was a man doesn’t erase queer women — go look up Hannah Snell, go read Belinda, write about Elizabeth I — but to say the opposite does erase a trans man, one who fought hard to be seen as such.
The takeaway then is that we have to be careful when we engage in queer history or analysis. The tools are powerful and, used correctly, reclaim a history that all of us in the LGBT community are desperately looking for. Used incorrectly, however, the tools destroy. It’s a fine line in some cases, admittedly, but there’s a way forward: stop, think about it, and listen when people tell you how you’re harming them.