This is a guest post by frequent 4thwavenow commenter Carrie-Anne Brownian, a thirtysomething historical novelist, historian, and lover of many things from bygone eras (except for the sexism, racism, and homophobia). She can be found at Welcome to My Magick Theatre, where she primarily blogs about writing, historical topics, names, silent and early sound cinema, and classic rock and pop; and at Onomastics Outside the Box, where she blogs about names and naming-related issues. Her only “child,” a 16-year-old spider plant named Kalanit, has thankfully never had any issues with her gender identity!
by Carrie-Anne Brownian
A most disturbing development in the current climate of transactivist zealotry has been the posthumous transing of famous gender-defiant women. Women such as Joan of Arc, Mulan, Carson McCullers, Radclyffe Hall, Mountain Charley (Elsa Jane Forest Guerin), George Sand, and Queen Hatshepsut of Egypt, to name but a few, are now being claimed as transmen. Like so many other things about the modern trans movement, this is inherently sexist and harmful to women, particularly young women just starting to figure out who they really are; young women who sorely need strong female role models..
As discussed in a previous 4thWaveNow post “Hippocrates rolls in his grave: In search of the dysphoric trans tweens of yore,” there is absolutely no historical evidence whatsoever for the existence of desperate, suicidally dysphoric trans kids. There is, however, a long history of “third” genders in many cultures, but those people somehow managed to live happy, healthy lives without suicidal thoughts, drugs, and surgeries. Many transactivists claim trans-identified people have always existed, but just weren’t openly spoken about, or were deep in the closet. However, we only have to take a cursory look at the ample historical evidence regarding gays, lesbians, and left-handers to know this claim is a bunch of horsefeathers. Those groups of people have always existed, and the historical record shows it. In a retroactive attempt to rewrite history, the transactivists have seized upon gender-defiant historical and cultural figures of both sexes, primarily women (as well as claiming the intersexed as trans). While true historians should always be open to new evidence and willing to exchange old beliefs for new if there’s a compelling enough reason, there’s a big difference between legitimate historical revisionism (e.g., shifting attitudes about Christopher Columbus, the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, or the Crusades) and outright denial or rewriting history to fit an agenda. And once trans activists have posthumously labeled a dead person as one of their own, they get very upset when such dead “trans” people, such as Billy Tipton, are referred to by their biological sex.
For much of recorded human history, even into the twentieth century, women who wanted to serve in combat, travel or live alone, work in most professions, get published, compete in sports, or conduct research felt compelled to disguise themselves as men. That didn’t make them transmen; it made them girls and women with no other options in a patriarchal, androcentric world. No one would have, for example, published George Eliot, or taken her seriously as a writer, had she used her birth name of Mary Ann Evans, just as Kathrine Switzer had to sign up for the Boston Marathon as K.V. Switzer as recently as 1967 because women weren’t allowed to compete.
This may be hard for liberal Westerners under the age of twenty-five to comprehend, but women have historically been denied access to positions of power, most careers, education, legal protections, politics, combat roles, club memberships, athletic competitions, and so forth, solely on the basis of being female. Women even had to fight for the right to use their own names on legal documents, instead of being forced to sign as Mrs. Husband’s Full Name, or to do anything of importance without a husband or father’s co-signature or permission. By anachronistically pretending all these brave, trailblazing women were truly men, the historical realities of institutionalized sexism and male privilege are written out of existence, and impressionable young people will be led to believe women haven’t played any kind of important role in history.
For various reasons, women across the ages have wanted to serve in the military, in spite of it being all-male for much of human history. Many people are familiar with stories of soldiers and sailors who were eventually found out as women. Yet the modern spin is that all these women were really transmen, not women who had no choice but to disguise their true sex in order to join an all-male military. By taking away this important part of women’s history (regardless of what one’s own personal feelings regarding war and the military might be), and reclassifying them as men, women’s historic achievements in this field are erased. A young person who genuinely doesn’t know any better may someday believe only men served in the military prior to the modern era. It’s easy to extrapolate that a young modern woman might feel she needed to “transition” if denied role models of brave women soldiers from bygone eras.
Probably unsurprisingly, though still infuriatingly, many lesbians have been coming in for the posthumous transing treatment lately. One prominent example is Radclyffe Hall (née Marguerite Radclyffe Hall), author of the groundbreaking lesbian classic The Well of Loneliness, and an earlier, somewhat lesser-known novel with lesbian overtures, The Unlit Lamp. Ms. Hall was what would today be called a butch lesbian, just like the protagonist of The Well of Loneliness, Stephen Gordon. Her first longterm partner nicknamed her John, which she went by for the rest of her life. However, in spite of her stereotypically masculine appearance and male nickname, she never actually claimed to be a man. It’s not exactly uncommon for lesbians to go by male monikers, and butch lesbians are just as much real women as women bathed in pink, glitter, and makeup. So another female role model bites the dust, leaving butch or more “masculine” appearing/behaving lesbians bereft of an important historical ancestor.
As per the late nineteenth and early twentieth century theory of sexual inversion, it was believed gays and lesbians were born with the stereotypical traits of the opposite sex; e.g., girls wanted short hair and hated dresses, while boys preferred crocheting to hunting and displayed emotions openly. When they were attracted to members of the opposite sex who adhered more closely to gendered stereotypes, it was considered to be “latent heterosexuality.” But again, Ms. Hall had relationships with other women, as a woman.
Joan of Arc (Jeanne d’Arc) has long been a hero to many, particularly the people of France, for her decisive role in the Lancastrian phase of the Hundred Years’ War. During the military campaigns in which she participated, she donned traditional male attire. When she was captured by the enemy and put through kangaroo court, her so-called offenses were heresy and witchcraft, though the technical reason was cross-dressing. Joan promised to return to wearing women’s clothes after her abjuration, though she continued wearing men’s clothes in prison to guard against rape. A dress or skirt offered no such practical protection. Indeed, several days after her abjuration, an English lord tried to rape her, and she resumed wearing men’s clothes.
In 1803, Napoléon Bonaparte declared Joan a national symbol of France, and in 1920, she was canonized in the Roman Catholic Church. Throughout the ages, many women have looked up to her as a great hero and inspiration, starting in Joan’s own lifetime with famous writer Christine de Pizan. She’s also been the subject of countless poems, plays, books, operas, paintings, sculptures, and films. Joan’s presence in movies goes back almost as far as film itself, to 1898. Her trial and execution are depicted in one of the greatest films of the silent era, The Passion of Joan of Arc, directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer and starring Maria Falconetti in her only major film role. This powerful film never fails to move me to tears.
Joan never claimed to be a man, though she’s been taken up as a trans hero by countless modern-day historical revisionists and transactivists. Some of them claim she had to be trans simply on the basis of not having adhered to feminine stereotypes and moving beyond the societal roles dictated for women, even in the absence of a sexual reason behind her cross-dressing. Leslie Feinberg, in Transgender Warriors: Making History from Joan of Arc to Dennis Rodman, claims Joan’s donning of armor was an example of cross-gendered expression in a society which dictated only men could be warriors. Yet another source claims Joan’s cross-dressing automatically made her trans or “queer.”
All these people are applying their own biases and contemporary views to a historical era they clearly know nothing about. By making the trans umbrella so wide, these activists are making it a lot harder for the tiny minority of people who have legitimate, overwhelming, lifelong bodily dysphoria and bodily dysphoria alone to get treatment and be taken seriously.
A very recent addition to the posthumous transing of the dead phenomenon is the lesbian writer Carson McCullers (née Lula Carson Smith). In an article published in The New Yorker on 21 October 2016, author Sarah Schulman claims “McCullers had issues with her gender.” She gives such “proof” as having “tomboyish” protagonists named Frankie and Mick; going by her middle name, Carson, instead of her birth forename Lula; supposedly never having slept with any of the women she romantically pursued; and once having declared, “I think I was born a boy.” This kind of postmodernist, historical revisionism threatens to eventually declare every single lesbian, feminist, and gender-defiant woman ever really had to be a transman.
One more example of a gender-defiant woman getting posthumously transed is Mountain Charley, whose true name was Elsa Jane Forest Guerin. She was a legendary hero of the American frontier, and has been written about in such books as Pioneer Women: The Lives of Women on the Frontier, by Linda Peavy and Ursula Smith. She also wrote her own memoirs, in which she never claimed to be a man. The true account of her life makes it clear she donned male attire to earn money to support herself and her two children, and to get revenge on her husband’s murderer. Young girls who love dressing up as cowgirls and hearing stories about the Old West could’ve once gravitated towards her a hero, but instead, she’s now being passed off as unambiguously male in a Tumblr comic.
Gender-defiant men have also been coming in for the posthumous transing treatment, such as Prince, David Bowie, Kurt Cobain, even Jesus. I honestly wouldn’t be surprised if they eventually try to get their claws into my favorite actor, Rudolph Valentino, who was well-known for being gender-defiant. The powers that be were very upset at how a man who wore jewelry, showed emotions and sensitivity, engaged in “feminine” pursuits like gardening, and spent more than five minutes grooming himself could “corrupt American manhood” and lead women away from macho he-men dripping with machismo and the stereotypical “all-American” boy next door. While racism and xenophobia were also factors, there’s no denying a large part of the status quo’s uneasiness was because of Rudy’s gender-defiance. He’s long been painted as a closeted gay man (without a shred of evidence), so posthumously transing him would only be the next logical step for these people who can’t think outside of sexist stereotypes.
Gendered stereotypes aren’t biologically and genetically encoded into our brains. When a man like Prince wore makeup and cross-dressed, he was doing it as a man, not a transwoman. Similarly, when Kurt Cobain expressed discomfort with the macho role and male stereotypes, he wasn’t motivated by feelings of being trapped in the wrong body, in spite of modern-day claims to the contrary. It’s called having a personality, and using one’s own mind and feelings instead of letting society dictate exactly how to think, speak, dress, and behave. Real people aren’t collections of sexist stereotypes.
When young women of today are told these inspirational, trailblazing, heroic, talented, gender-defiant women were really men, they’re losing a very important source of pride regarding what women are capable of. In its place, they’re getting the message that women who don’t perform femininity, who want to be more than sex objects, wives, mothers, and Barbie dolls, can’t possibly be real women. It’s as if we’ve collectively stepped into a time machine taking us back to the 1950s, when women who wanted to be doctors, lawyers, engineers, mechanics, architects, professors, scientists, businesswomen, basically anything other than wives and mothers by the age of twenty, were looked upon with hostility, fear, and suspicion, even believed to be mentally ill.
To date, I’ve twice read Brett Harvey’s The Fifties: A Women’s Oral History, and both times felt alternately glad I never had to live in a world like that, and shocked and heartbroken for these women who had to deal with so much institutionalized sexism, lesbophobia, and misogyny. Now we’re devolving into that same kind of cultural milieu, only with different trappings. It’s like the 1950s 2.0.
Young men also suffer, in different ways, when they’re told real men are macho he-men who can’t possibly enjoy looking pretty, feel comfortable displaying emotions, or engage in pursuits like ballet or fashion design. Under that kind of logic, all the great danseurs like Nijinsky, any man who ever entered a career devoid of machismo, and just about all the gender-bending men who proudly and unashamedly took on the New Romantic style of the early Eighties were all transwomen in the closet. Seeing positive, high-profile examples of gender-defiant men can only help young men, by showing them real men come in many different forms.
As a name nerd, I also can’t help but notice a parallel to the massive rise in popularity of traditionally male names for girls, and the subsequent, permanent loss of most of these names to the girls’ side. Parents frequently say they want to give their daughter a name like Riley, Aidan, Dylan, Tyler, William, Jordan, or Kyle because it sounds “strong,” as though a name like Elizabeth, Katherine, Margaret, Octavia, Ophelia, or Zenobia is horribly weak and passive. Likewise, many parents declare a name like Julian, Micah, Nikita, or Adrian is too “girly” for a boy, and fear he’ll get beaten up for not having a name drenched in machismo.
In the brave new world of the transactivists, everyone is a collection of rigid sexist stereotypes, and any deviation from this 1950s-style binary must really be the opposite sex. All girls and women love pink, only go to university for a Mrs. degree and drop out once they’ve gotten it, exclusively wear dresses and skirts, don’t leave the house without makeup and perfume, have long hair, wear high heels all the time, never do anything active, and derive their greatest pleasures from being full-time wives and mothers. All boys and men, meanwhile, have short hair, never wear makeup or any article of clothing even remotely associated with women, love sports, are emotionally distant, excel at STEM fields, and hate shopping. Minus positive gender-defiant role models, impressionable young people will be, and are being, led to believe they must really be the opposite sex.
In 1976, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich famously said, “Well-behaved women seldom make history.” Now, under the aegis of historical revisionists, women don’t make history at all, unless they were really men.