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Saturday, December 9, 2017 - 11:05

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 17b - Interview with T. T. Thomas - transcript

(Originally aired 2017/12/09 - listen here)

Back around a year ago, there was a discussion on a facebook group about what authors could do to raise the profile of lesbian historical fiction and to encourage more people to try the genre. That discussion was part of what inspired me to add author interviews to the podcast. And T.T. Thomas was one of the brainstormers, so naturally I asked her if she'd be interested in participating. This month she tells us about her historic passions, her interests. and her projects.


(There is no transcript available for this episode at this time.)

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Friday, December 8, 2017 - 11:30

Here I am on my usual review day without any reviews lined up (though I may do movie reivews of "Battle of the Sexes" and "Coco" at some point). So I thought I'd reprise a feature I did last year. This is not a "best of" list. This isn't even a "best of what I consumed" list. No claim is made that the items on this list have an objective value over any other items I might have placed on the list. But these are 20 items--grouped into 4 general categories of 5 items each--that I blogged about and that have stuck with me for some reason.

Five Favorite Works of Fiction

  • Jackalope Wives and Other Stories by T. Kingfisher - The more I read stories set in Ursula's loosely-or-not-connected American folkloric setting, the more impressed I am by how she is creating a mythos here. One with a flavor both distinctively unique to her own personality as a writer, and yet woven in with layers upon layers of folkloric traditions. Some day, students of literature will write dissertations on this body of work (but don't tell Ursula I said that because it will make her self-conscious).
  • Spring Flowering by Farah Mendlesohn - I have a dream that some day lesbian historic fiction will escape the very peculiar boxes that the current market forces have shoved it into. And on that day, I believe that this book may be viewed among the turning points. (But don't tell Farah I said that because it will make her self-conscious.)
  • Mizora: A Mss. Found Among the Private Papers of the Princess Vera Zarovitch by Mary E. Bradley - This is not a great work of literature. It isn't even a particularly good work of literature, in terms of structure and style. But it is a delightfully peculiar and visionary work that should be read by anyone interested in the history of utopian science fiction, of hollow-earth novels, or of single-gender societies.
  • Minotaur by J.A. Rock - In terms of setting, genre, and mood, this is not at all my sort of book as these things go. That it made the list is a testament to the masterful use of language and character voice.
  • The Imperial Radch Trilogy by Ann Leckie - I'm cheating a little and getting a three-fer here (each word links a different review). But to a large extent, what I loved about this series was not so much the individual books, but the way the series as a whole balanced the creation of an overarching narrative with a surprising and delighful variation in mode and flavor.

Five Favorite Books/Articles Blogged for the Lesbian Historic Motif Project

  • Seeing Sodomy in the Middle Ages by Robert Mills - Mills managed an unusual feat: a male author, writing about homosexuality in the middle ages in general, but including female topics in more than a dismissively cursory fashion. He is also the first historian I've seen (which is to say, I may have not yet encountered others who did this earlier) who seriously tackles the ambiguities between sexual orientation and gender identity inherent in medieval treatments of cross-dressing and same-sex desire.
  • Lesbian Desire in the Lyrics of Sappho by Jane McIntosh Snyder - I loved how this book investigated the question of same-sex desire within the body of Sappho's work within an extremely rigorous scholarly framework, and how Snyder respected her audience enough to both dive deeply into the historic philology of the material while guiding the general reader through its complexities.
  • Lesbians in Early Modern Spain by Sherry Velasco - Velasco demonstrates the wealth of historic material on gender and sexuality still to be found by those with the background and desire to pursue it.
  • "Two Women and their Monumental Brass, c. 1480" by Judith Bennett - Like Snyder's study of Sappho's poetry, this is an excellent example of an in-depth investigation that is both utterly rigorous from a historical point of view, and even-handed in discussing its relevance to lesbian history.
  • Thinking Sex with the Early Moderns by Valerie Traub - I have long been suspicious of the tendency of historiographic discussions to obfuscate their topic with jargon and subjectivity. Traub is one of the rare writers who makes me feel that these discussions are not only understandable, but are vitally important to the future of the field.

Five Favorite Podcasts Recorded for the Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast

  • Laudomia Loves Margaret (Podcast #5) - I can't help but be biased towards the inspiration for my story "Where My Heart Goes". (Yes, this is a shameless plug.)
  • Sappho, the Translations (Podcast #11) - If you look at the listener statistics for my podcast, this one is the runaway favorite, perhaps in part due to some external linking. But I also had lots of fun doing the poetry readings for it.
  • Beguines, Boston Marriage, and Bed Death: Historic Archetypes of Asexual Lesbianism (Podcast #13d) - I have very gradually been coming out as asexual--an uncomfortable identity within the lesbian fiction community. I put this show together as a gift to other women who might be having difficulty seeing themselves within a history that is so often defined by the question, "But were they, you know, doing it?" I was rather anxious about this episode and expected a certain amount of blowback from it, but it seems to have disappeared into the airwaves without a ripple. Ah well. Still one of my favorites.
  • Interview with Catherine Lundoff (Podcast #13b) - I was delighted to be able to secure the eloquent and knowledgable Catherine Lundoff as the first author guest for my expanded podcast format. She helped me get the series off on the right foot.
  • The Highwaywoman Special (Podcast #14e) - When the expanded format left me with the occasional "fifth week" slot, I cast around for something special to do with the opportunity. Although I've ended up going in a different direction, I had loads of fun putting together this braided show that combined history, music, and book reviews.

Five Favorite Unexpected Discoveries

Last year's "20 favorite things" was primarily drawn from reviews of various mediums, but this year I didn't review that many things outside fiction. So when I looked over my "what have I blogged about" list, I was tempted to make the fourth category "essays on writing and about Alpennia." But that felt like it made this set of lists a bit too me-centered. So instead, here are five things that share my experience of discovering something new or unexpected.

  • The Uncanny Valley of Fictional Representation - Nalo Hopkinson's novel The Salt Roads got me thinking about why it is that I sometimes feel more included in books that fall outside the lesbian fiction genre than I ever do by the main body of lesfic.
  • A reconsideration of family folklore about my great-great-grandfather Abiel T. LaForge's actions whle overseeing a court martial - One of the most striking pieces of family folklore I always heard about Abiel's time in charge of a court martial was the suspicion that the missing diary pages covering him presiding over the trial of Rowland H. Macy Junior (son of the founder of Macy's department store) would have documented a basis for a quid-pro-quo when Abiel was later hired by Macy Sr. But my read-through of the diaries to produce this edited and annotated edition has convinced me that such an interpretation would be both implausible on timeline grounds, and completely out of character for Abiel.
  • A Certain Persuasion: Modern LGBTQ+ Fiction Inspired by Jane Austen’s Novels - In May, I did a monthlong series promoting novels that, like Mother of Souls, had been released in November 2016 and may have had their releases drowned in the awfulness that was the stolen presidential election. (Yes, I said "stolen".) But even without that distraction, I might have missed this amusing collection if I hadn't been putting together the book list for the series.
  • Frankentastic: a re-gendered reading of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, by Tansy Reynor Roberts - It is often revealing to look at a well-known work from a different angle. This podcast had a simple premise: make all the male characters in Frankenstein female instead. But what struck me in listening to it was not the obviousness of the erasure of women in the original work, but instead the pervasive homoeroticism that I had somehow never noticed when the characters were men.
  • Deventer, NL - After Worldcon, I went to Deventer to visit a long-time online friend. I didn't realize I was also going to get the treat of living in the midst of a well-preserved pre-modern city that has managed to retain its historic character while moving forward into the 21st century.

What favorite things did you experience this year?

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Thursday, December 7, 2017 - 07:00

While reviewing and proof-reading the write-up for this article just prior to posting, the following phrase--though not the main point--struck me. "...premodern lesbians were part of the audience for culture and responded to that culture on an individual as well as a collective basis." When I brainstorm lesbian historic fiction, this is one of the concepts I keep constantly in mind. Whether or not my characters had access to an in-person familiarity with other women in same-sex relationships, what did they experience in the culture around them that could help them understand their feelings and desires? If they saw an allegorical painting of Jupiter-as-Diana making love to Callisto, if they watched a play where a character they knew to be female received the romantic advances of another woman while in male disguise, if they listened to a poem about Sappho enjoying the love of "Lesbian lasses", could those things shape their construction of their own sexuality every bit as much as real-life examples could?

The concept of queer identity as socially constructed (or at least the concept that the specific forms it takes is socially constructed) is something of a contentious point for those who feel their own desires to be innate and inherent (to say nothing of the potential political implications). But when looking at historic cultures where we find it difficult to find evidence for in-person lesbian subcultures, we shouldn't neglect the importance of how cultural expressions can create a meta-subculture every bit as important in grounding a person's understanding of sexuality as in-person interactions can be. (After all, consider how many women in recent decades first twigged to their interest in other women from watching Xena: Warrior Princess!)

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Full citation: 

Laskaya, Anne. 2011. “A ‘Wrangling Parliament’: Terminology and Audience in Medieval European Literary Studies and Lesbian Studies” in The Lesbian Premodern ed. by Noreen Giffney, Michelle M. Sauer & Diane Watt. Palgrave, New York. ISBN 978-0-230-61676-9

Publication summary: 


A collection of papers addressing the question of what the place of premodern historical studies have in relation to the creation and critique of historical theories, and especially to the field of queer studies.

Laskaya, Anne. 2011. “A ‘Wrangling Parliament’: Terminology and Audience in Medieval European Literary Studies and Lesbian Studies”

This article addresses the question of terminology for women who love women from three angles: literary-historical recovery of evidence of sexuality, queer disruptions of expected categories and readings of human desire across time, and scholarly talk-arounds such as “lesbian-like”. It points out the difficulty of retrieving historic language, given the biases and gaps in the historic record.

Laskaya considers the useful broad ambiguity of “queer”  to be undermined by its tendency to be used more often in reference to men.  This broadness of application can erase the specificity of “lesbian” and so to erase lesbian-specific concerns and readings. [Note: compare, for example, how "gay" is allegedly inclusive of women but defaults to being male-specific.] She looks for concrete evidence in the past and--specific to the current topic--the language used to identify and frame female same-sex desire. She examines the historicity of “lesbian” specifically.

Queer theory’s institutional prominence can undermine its disruptive potential in the academy. It becomes distanced from the specifics of identity politics and can be in conflict with the concerns of lesbian-feminism. Some approach “queer” as a reading/critical strategy rather than an identity, decoupling it from concepts such as “gay” or “lesbian”. [Note: This is why queer academics and queer identities are often incomprehensible to each other. Who owns the concepts of “queerness”?] Under this approach, “queer readings” disrupt homosexuality just as much as they disrupt heterosexuality.

Even as the concept "queer" undermines binaries, it stands in binary opposition to “not queer”. To the extent that “queer” gains power and status from its abstraction, it thus becomes congruent with conservative intellectual traditions that value abstraction over particularity. Is some of the current prominence of “queer” due to the permission it gives to larger numbers of people to lay claim to that abstraction-based status without engaging with particular embodied identities? [Note: This question comes perilously close to a suggestion that some people "aren't queer enough" to be queer. That is, as a critique of the term "queer" it feels awefully gatekeeperish.]

The concept of identities as socially constructed is widely accepted regardless of theoretical stance. Given this, to what extent are choices of language a way of creating and sustaining those social constructions? To what extent is the repetitious acknowledgement of social constructionism a way of creating and maintaining that concept? To what extent are the concepts of social constructs in conflict with individual agency? Without using that specific term, Laskaya points out that the “great man” theory of history requires an acceptance of the power of individual agency. And just as society is not monolithic, agency may affect specific social axes without changing all of them. This has relevance for lesbian studies because premodern lesbians were part of the audience for culture and responded to that culture on an individual as well as a collective basis. The potential homoerotic readings picked out by queer studies were available for experience and interpretation, as well as the ever-present potential for cross-gender identifications that “queer” the experience.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017 - 07:00

It's that time of year again when authors remind the reading world what they've published in that year. In the SFF world, it started as part of the annual awards season--reminding potential nominators of works they may have forgotten they enjoyed. But it's also a self-affirmation. A way of saying, "Yes, I've been productive this year. Look what I've accomplished."

Well, ok. Look what I've accomplished.

"Hyddwen" by Heather Rose Jones, published by in September 2017

I'm not going to lie; that feels a bit pathetic for a year's output. When Mother of Souls came out in November 2016, it was clear I wouldn't be getting a novel out in 2017. Even without the depressive effect of the 2016 election results, I'd been wrung out by the deadlines I'd set for delivering Mother of Souls and hadn't started immediately in on Floodtide. And Floodtide is a different enough book in the context of the series that I knew it would need more care in the writing. What's more, it's different enough that I feel the need to set myself up with a clear Plan B, and that takes more thought.

So when 2017 started, there was no guarantee that I'd have anything to show for this year. I was only able to submit "Hyddwen" to Podcastle because I gave up on waiting for it to be rejected by the market where it had languished for over a year. So the self-affirmation purpose of "look what I've published this year" is a bit weak. And the nomination-reminder purpose is non-existent. "Hyddwen" got a few lovely comments and then disappeared into the mists of the otherworld.  It isn't that sweet, positive fairy-tale stories never get award nominations, but they generally only get them if the author has enough juice that a substantial number of people read/listen to the story in the first place.

At least I already know that I'll have at least one publication in 2018. There's that.

It's been a year of being reminded that I live in that liminal space between worlds--between genres and readerships. It's a place I chose, but not one I find comfortable. Like Serafina in Mother of Souls, sometimes I want desperately to belong somewhere, to be comfortable. But--just like Serafina--even more than that, I want to be true to my talent, to my creative vision. And that will never be a comfortable thing. My stories will always cross genres and dodge in unexpected directions. They will always be too complex to fall neatly into favorite tropes. They will never be a "best example of X" that anyone pulls out and recommends reflexively. And I suppose I'm ok with that. But I'm allowed to dream. And I'm allowed to be uncomfortable.

I'll be doing a separate year-end post on my non-fiction and projects closer to the actual end of the year. Last year it was a refreshing reminder of how productive I've actually been. I'm not sure it will be quite so comforting this year, but I won't know until I put it together.

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Monday, December 4, 2017 - 07:00

This article is an example of why I find historiographic analysis worth the trouble to slog through the terminology and mental gymnastics (and the occasional need to chase down questions like "what exactly does 'alterity' mean in this context?").  Writers of historical fiction are always asking the question, "What is our relationship to the past?" whether they realize it or not. And fiction constantly weaves between the idea that the past has a concrete, objective existence, and the understanding that all events and all people exist within a subjective context that gives them meaning to the perceiver. Traub does a great job of sorting out various approaches that historians have taken to the question of what relationship exists between women who love women at different times and places across history and proposes some new ways of thinking about that question.

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Full citation: 

Traub, Valerie. 2011. “The Present Future of Lesbian Historiography” in The Lesbian Premodern ed. by Noreen Giffney, Michelle M. Sauer & Diane Watt. Palgrave, New York. ISBN 978-0-230-61676-9

Publication summary: 


A collection of papers addressing the question of what the place of premodern historical studies have in relation to the creation and critique of historical theories, and especially to the field of queer studies.

Traub, Valerie. 2011. “The Present Future of Lesbian Historiography”

Traub looks at methodological issues currently facing lesbian history as a field. It faces the contrasting problems of a continuist approach versus considering alterity (with its regular charges of anachronism against the other approach). Traub feels both models have outlived their usefulness. She notes Faderman as an example of the continuist approach, i.e., that there is a single connected “history of lesbianism”. Others on this team include Castle and Brooten, who challenge Foucault’s focus on periodization (i.e., that there are distinct and unrelated “periods” of how same-sex relations were understood) and the emergence of the alterist position--one that has been more developed in studies of men than women. [Note: I’m not sure I have a complete grasp on what the “alterity” approach constitutes. It appears to be something along the lines of viewing same-sex relations as existing at various times in opposition to normative structures, rather than having a continuous connected historical tradition. That is, that same-sex relations at any point in history are structurally connected to heterosexual relations at that same point, rather than being connected to same-sex relations at other points in history.]

Bennett, looking at social history, recognizes a distinction between looking at change in women’s experiences and looking at change in women’s social status, where a “patriarchal equilibrium” works to maintain the latter, but is more flexible on the former. In the context of lesbian history, this suggests that the social acceptabiity of lesbian identity and behavior may be affected by how it either ameliorates or challenges women's relationship to patriarchy. Other critiques of alterity recognize similarities and continuity in the experience of sexuality while rejecting universals. Researchers like Vicinus note repetitive or continuous patterns and structures of intimacy whose meanings may change over time.

As more archival material is identified, examined, and re-examined, more nuanced understandings are possible. Traub sets out a shift in her own thinking:

1. Recurrent explanatory meta-logics give a sense of familiarity and consistency to lesbian history over time.

2. These meta-logics get their specifics from the specific contexts and social definition.

3. These recurrences can be seen as “cycles of salience” as concepts recur with differences across time.

That is, continuity is not continuous, but recurrent, due to persistent concerns filtered through dynamic social contexts. Similarities are not due to inheritance but due to being driven by similar forces. The structures and definitions within a particular time and place may reflect narrow types of experience (e.g., the dominance of middle class white women’s concerns in modern lesbian models) but comparison across intersections can tease out the common dynamics.

Traub considers repeating “types” (tropes) in which lesbian desire manifests and what the underlying meta-logic is that (re)generates them. E.g., Katherine Phillips’ 17th century “Society of Friendship” compared to Boston Marriage in the 19th century, or the concept of Romantic Friendship compared to convent intimacies. When comparing gender-bending types (virago, tribade, female husband, passing women, butch) the similarities are disrupted by contextual dynamics. Another repeating trope is the motif of the enlarged clitoris (in the 16-17th century) and the early 20th century sexologists’ search for an essentialized morphology of deviance from a meta-logic of physiological essentialism. (See similarly the more recent search for a “gay gene”.) This motif is related to larger social fixations that include “scientific racism”.

Manifestations of models of sexuality emerge out of more general social discourse unrelated to sexuality. Traub argues against simply shifting to seeing these tropes as a continuity or universal, but neither should the homologies be dismissed. Current historians (in lesbian history) avoid trying to construct an overarching historical narrative, but have also moved away from the “famous gay people in history” approach. Traub offers a long bullet-point list of themes that are worth tracing across cycles of history that affect the expression and understanding of same-sex desire, with a special list relating specifically to women’s experiences as women in society that affect their experience of sexuality.

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Saturday, December 2, 2017 - 07:00

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 17a - On the Shelf for December 2017 - Transcript

(Originally aired 2017/12/02 - listen here)

Welcome to On the Shelf for December 2017.

Usually this podcast comes to you from my living room in California, but this time I’ve been out visiting my girlfriend Lauri in New York City, and we’re recording together from a hotel room where we’ve just finished attending Chessiecon, a Baltimore area science fiction convention. Say hi to the listeners, Lauri!

Lauri: Greetings all!

I’ve invited Lauri to choose this month’s Ask Sappho question and she picked a fun topic that we can discuss together.

Call for Submissions

First I’d like to talk about the call for submissions for the fiction segment of the podcast. I’d like to remind listeners that in January this podcast will be open for fiction submissions for short stories with a pre-1900 historic setting. Look for the call for submissions on the website for full details. You still have lots of time to find inspiration and start writing. We’ll be buying at least two stories for audio production on this podcast. I’m both nervous and excited about my first foray into being a fiction publisher! And it was interesting that Lauri had a similar experience recently soliciting papers for an academic conference.

Lauri: Yes, indeed. The conference is called “Inside Out.” It is about dress and fashion in the middle ages, at Fordham University this coming March. And after we sent out the call for papers, I agonized for weeks. We ultimately got an absolutely wonderful response, but it was kind of heart-stopping for a while there, before the first few came in, and then the deluge followed. So I hope that will happen with your call for submissions, Heather.

Yeah. I won’t know until January when we open the floodgates and see if it’s an actual flood or a trickle.

Publications on the Blog

Now for the blog we’ve been getting into some deep subjects. In November, the Lesbian Historic Motif Project blog presented an excerpt from a medieval English chronicle about a group of women showing up at a tournament in men’s clothing and creating quite a stir. That was to tie in with October’s essay on female knights in shining armor. I also slipped in an article on two women in 15th century England who were memorialized together in an unusual burial that portrayed them in the same way a married couple would have been portrayed. This ties in with the topic of this month’s essay coming up in a few weeks, where I’ll be discussing grave memorials through the ages that jointly commemorated two unrelated women. While never a common practice, there are examples dating from classical Roman times onward.

After that, the blog started wading into some very dense publications that involve a lot of analysis of historical theory. I find this sort of thing almost as fascinating as the history itself, though I’ll quite understand if not all my readers do! The adventure started with Valerie Traub’s book Thinking Sex with the Early Moderns that explores the question of how we do research into sexual topics in history, and what it means to know that a piece of historic evidence is sexual in nature.

Following that, I’ve just started a collection of papers titled The Lesbian Premodern that examines the problems not only of researching lesbian-like topics in history, but also of how those topics and questions are treated by various historical theories. What does it mean to study “lesbian history”? And how does approaching the topic through that lens affect what questions are asked and what sort of evidence is brought to light? This collection has 18 articles, which ordinarily would last for over four months at my usual rate of blogging. But I’ve decided to double up and finish in two months. So first I’ve covered the introductory articles that lay out the problems and define some of the terms, as well as briefly introducing the rest of the contents of the book. The December entries look at how lesbian history has been approached in the past and discusses questions of terminology and the problem of looking for identification with the past. Is it a benefit or a hazard for a historian to be passionately engaged with their topic of study? Just who is it that we’re studying when we study lesbian history, and how does that differ from studying queer history? What categories of women have resonances with the concept of the lesbian and how wide a net does it make sense to cast when developing a concept of lesbian history?

The articles shift to examining specific people and texts, such as the 17th century English fictionalized family history Upon Appleton House that combines anti-Catholic and anti-lesbian sentiments, or a set of letters of the 7th century between two nuns in France and how we are to interpret the personal and professional bonds they suggest. Who was the audience for a set of illuminated manuscripts that present the biographies of early ascetic saints, but include images of elegant and fashionable women depicted positively, not just as temptresses? And what is the context for an Indian legend about the river goddess Ganga that depicts the two widows of a dead king as giving him an heir when their same-sex passion results in pregnancy?

So despite the book’s interest in historiographic theory, there are a lot of interesting stories it turns up.

Author Guest

This month’s author guest will be T. T. Thomas, who was one of the participants in the discussion that led me to set up the interview series. She talks about her inspirations and her research and how the historic figure of Ann Lister gave her ideas for what sorts of historic stories could be told. I really appreciate all the authors who have agreed to be guests on the show, enabling my expanded weekly schedule.

Ask Sappho

For this month’s Ask Sappho segment, I invited Lauri to provide the question and join me in discussing it. Lauri did her PhD research on medieval fashion history, involving concepts like the relationship between dress and social identity. She was curious about the topic of cross-dressing and passing women, and the question of whether there were changes over time in how cross-dressing was perceived and how successful it was. And how that affected the trope of women falling in love with a woman who was cross-dressing as a man.

Lauri, maybe you can elaborate on that question a little.

Lauri: Well, as you know one of my great interests as a historian is in sumptuary laws, which are laws which purport to control what people can and can’t wear. They are ineffective for the most part, but they were very popular in the middle ages. They got passed over and over. And one of the reasons is that it was more common in the middle ages for people to believe that your outward appearance generally reflected--and should reflect--your true inner self. Whereas more today we tend to believe the exact opposite: that truth is inner, and you can vary your outer appearance as you like. We don’t put much trust in your outward appearance as a real signifier of your inner truth.

So in a time when your outward appearance is supposed to reflect your inner truth, I was curious as to--in both life and in literature--how successful cross-dressing women were in passing as men. It seems to me that in most of the medieval literature with which I am familiar, the cross-dressing women are pretty successful.

Yes, it’s interesting, and hard to tell sometimes whether it’s a literary motif, or whether it reflected reality, because I can’t think of any specific examples before the 15th century of real life women cross-dressing--i.e., passing as men--that is, if you treat, for example, the early saints’ lives about transvestite saints as being literary or mythic rather than being real life, which I think is a safe thing to do. But it’s true that the actual effectiveness of the disguise seems to be taken for granted. For the early saints’ lives there’s sometimes a nod given to the idea that, because society still included a fairly regular appearance of eunuchs, that it was easier for a woman to present herself as a eunuch--a male eunuch--and not have people question her appearance as long as the clothing was right. But even that doesn’t seem to be the whole story.

In the romances, for example in the story of Yde and Olive, or the story of Tristan de Nanteuil, the act of putting on male clothing is the disguise. It is fully successful and never questioned, and the revelation of the person’s physical gender is done verbally. It is done through communication rather than perception.

Lauri: It makes me think of a subject that came up on one of the panels at the convention that we’re at, which is Joan of Arc, who is one of the few actual cross-dressers that we know of in the middle ages. Now I don’t believe that she was, in fact, trying to pass herself off as a man.

No, I don’t think so, because there was never a break in her story where the woman disappeared and the man appeared.

Lauri: Yeah.

She was always known to be a woman wearing male clothing.

Lauri: Which she wore for a specific purpose, but which is one of the things that was held so much against her ultimately, was that she wore men’s clothing and she would not give it up. She did give it up temporarily, but ultimately she went back to it because she felt she had to. And I’ve never stopped to think about why that was, except that she was leading men in battle. She was not, indeed, pretending to be a man, but perhaps putting on the clothing of a man gave her some sort of inner warrior strength. I don’t know.

And although it’s not examples of actual passing, there are regulations--not so much regulations but commentary--on the idea of cross-dressing in some monastic literature. I believe Hildegard of Bingen is one of the people who discussed situations in which it was ok for women to pass as men: to preserve their chastity, for safety during travel. But that there were other circumstances where it would be sinful, because it was done for frivolous reasons. I don’t know if she specifically addresses the issue of dressing as a man in order to gain male privilege. Not that she would have put it that way!

But in the romances, there’s very definitely that transition of state that is the core of the sumptuary law question. Where putting on the clothing not only gives the character a male place in society, but also gives her the abilities of a knight. When Yde puts on male clothing, she is now a competent male fighter in society, with all of the attributes and experiences that she needs for that. And that’s not a universal feature of cross-dressing romances. In the romance of Silence, there’s an episode where it explains, “And she was trained in all of the skills she needed to know to be a knight.” But there is a sense very often that to put on the clothes is to become a functional male in society.

Lauri: Do you see this changing over time, as reflected in literature? Or as in individual cases that you know of in life where it becomes less clear that passing is automatically successful?

Where it starts to show up is especially in the 16th century. Possibly earlier, but there’s not a lot of data to work with. The 16th century is when we start getting more examples of cross-dressing in literature where it is treated more transgressively. The medieval romances...for a woman to put on the clothing of a man and become a man socially, is to ennoble herself, to become a higher being, which--misogyny! Hello! But that’s how it is, whereas especially in drama of the 16th century and 17th century, now you have that motif alongside the motif of a woman cross-dressing to pass as a man for deceptive purposes. To trick somebody. There are examples where the woman is passing as a man to seduce a woman who is a rival of hers for some other person’s affections. Or to trick somebody.

And this comes along with a general 16th century anxiety, an increasing anxiety about gender boundaries, and about people blurring gender boundaries, especially in dress. There are polemic tracts that talk about how horrible it is that women are wearing male fashions like doublets and tall hats. And that men are wearing feminine fashions. I don’t remember specific examples, but I think you know like laces and ribbons and things. And that this becomes part of the public conversation about dress, that: Oh my gosh! The gender boundaries are becoming blurred! This is awful! We can’t tell the girls from the boys!

So I suspect that in that climate, you had the possibility of people being given more scrutiny. That a passing woman might be more likely to be discovered because somebody was looking more closely, as opposed to assuming that the clothes make the man, as it were.

Lauri: Of course this is also a time when women were forbidden to appear on stage, at least in England. So in the dramas that you’re talking about--and Twelfth Night is a wonderful example--


Lauri: --you have a male actor playing a woman disguising herself as a man. Which just adds yet another layer of trickiness to the entire thing.

That sort of dramatic trope did continue on into Restoration theater when we did have women on the stage, yes, I’m sure that in its origins, the incredible gender-bending aspect of the male actors was a big part of, say, the titillation going on. But there also seems to have been just a general fashion for playing with gender on the stage, even once you had actresses portraying the parts.

Lauri: It interests me that--and I don’t have an answer to this question, but this is all kind of tied up together--that there is a very specific point in the middle ages, roughly around the 1330s, where clothing which has been relatively unisex for centuries--two hundred years at least--where you have both men and women wearing very similar long, flowing ensembles, with various layers which completely conceal the legs and are differentiated primarily by length more than anything else, the women’s clothes being longer than the men’s--are superseded very suddenly by very sharply gender-differentiated clothing. Where the women are still wearing long, flowing clothes, and the men are suddenly wearing very short, very tight doublets that expose their legs, which are in tights so you can see them. And the gender difference is very sharply underlined by this. And you have to wonder what exactly is going on. And as I said, I don’t have an answer to this, but’re making me think about it when you talk about a time when there’s a lot of anxiety about gender boundaries and how they are displayed in dress.

Yes, and the simple fact is: we don’t have enough concrete examples of passing women in that era to know how it might have made a difference. One of the fascinating types of evidence we do have from especially around the 16th-17th century--and a lot of this data comes from the Low Countries, because people have combed through all the legal records there to turn it up--is that especially when mobility became much easier, and especially with the rise of the professional army, where you could reinvent yourself by joining the army, and moving...going with the army somewhere else, and never seeing anybody that knew you. And that this was a context where a number of women would change their clothes--you know, take on male clothing--join the army, follow the army somewhere, and became men for all practical purposes. And very often it’s clearly an economic decision. Sometimes there are also romantic relationships with women involved.

It is essentially impossible to distinguish whether these people would have considered themselves to be women using this as a mechanism for economic and romantic purposes, or whether these are people who would have...would today consider themselves trans men. That’s always a very tricky question and maybe one that doesn’t have an answer at all.

But that the economic circumstances of being able to make that break with the old life--it may be that we see more examples then, not simply because suddenly we’re keeping different types of records, but because this was a new opportunity to succeed at passing. And one of the fascinating things tracing these case histories is that generally clothing was not how they were discovered. That, although acquiring the clothing was often the hardest part of beginning the disguise, because very often we’re dealing with the poorer classes. These are people who only owned one set of clothing. And to acquire a set of men’s clothing is a major economic investment. And therefore sometimes involved theft rather than purchase. But that the defects in the clothing presentation were almost never the reason that they were uncovered, if they were uncovered.

But rather it was encountering somebody who had known them before they started passing. So, running into somebody from back home, who said, “Wait a minute! I recognize you! You’re--you’re Marie, not Jans!” And in some cases this happened to a woman, you know, several times. She would be discovered, she would say, “Oh, mea culpa, I will never do it again.” She’d be exiled from her city as a punishment. And then she’d get in financial difficulty and put on men’s clothing again, join the army again, and start it all over again.

But there still seemed to be a practical application of “clothes make the man.” That to wear men’s clothing was sufficient disguise, and that there was not sufficient physical distinction in the abilities--the physical abilities--of different genders that that would be a giveaway.

Lauri: That’s an interesting thought. Because I would say that that is not the case any longer, wouldn’t you? Whether it’s because women have been trained to not use all their strength or not show all their abilities. But it’s hard to imagine men and women having--in a broad spectrum--having equal physical abilities.

Well, one thing that is pointed out in some of the literature on this is that, because of the visual presentation, that women would often pass themselves off as an adolescent boy, even well into, say, their twenties. And that therefore the physical abilities of a woman in her twenties were comparable enough to what was expected of, say, a fifteen year old boy that this would not be a giveaway. But also, these are working-class women, they’ve been farm wives, they’ve been laundresses, they’ve been whatever. And they’ve been doing hard physical labor, and so in terms of strength and stamina that that was not a clear distinction between the genders.

Lauri: That’s very interesting. Do you see a difference across time in literature in terms of how cross-dressing women are presented or received or discovered?

Definitely, as time goes on, beginning as I say in the 16th century, and increasingly so as time goes on, the literary cross-dressing woman is no longer a positive figure. That it’s no longer that she’s becoming this more noble person by becoming male. But that she is a deceptive figure. She is often a predatory figure. And that the positive implications start falling away, and that more and more that the cross-dressing woman in literature is seen negatively.

Lauri: I’m thinking about--and I would have to look up the name--there was a 20th century jazz musician who, if I remember correctly--

Is it Billy Tipton maybe?

Lauri: I think you are correct. Who was not revealed until after he died to have actually been a cross-dressing woman--

--or at least physiologically female--

Lauri: --physiologically female, yes, living as a man. Dressing and living as a man. I think he was married to a woman.


Lauri: --and pulled this off quite successfully.

And that is a regular recurring theme throughout the modern period, where there are examples of persons who--having been identified as women earlier in life, have lived as men, and only been discovered after death. And very often have been married, and have just lived ordinary lives. That seems to have always been an option as long as you were able to leave behind anyone who knew you. And that was always the tricky part.

Today, in modern society, you know we don’t think anything of  “Oh, I’ll just move across the country and shed all of my former acquaintances and reinvent myself.” But I think a lot of modern people forget, or simply aren’t away of how difficult that was. What an enormous break it was, to move somewhere where you didn’t know anyone and no one could vouch for you. You were a stranger; strangers were suspect. You had to re-create your life entirely from scratch. And therefore, to some extent, it was successful because it was not a trivial thing to do.

Lauri: You had to take it seriously. You had to do it seriously and devotedly.

And in a lot of the case histories of passing women where they were discovered, it was essentially an intimate betrayal. It was a personal relationship that went badly. Or it was initiating a relationship with someone who was not as cool with the whole idea as you thought they were going to be. And that then this would come to the attention of the authorities and would get into the legal records. There might be some sort of civic punishment.

Lauri: Was it, in fact, against the law? And was that always true? Or did that change over time?

That is a very complex question and, in fact, I covered it in a previous Ask Sappho segment. The one on “When was it illegal to be a lesbian?” The short version is that the act of cross-dressing was, in some times and places, illegal because it was viewed as a deception. It was viewed as fraud. And if there were another factor involved--for instance, if you married a woman who then claimed that she was not aware of the disguise--that this would be prosecuted as fraud, especially if there were money involved. And then there’s the question of if you were having sex involving “instruments” as they say--

Lauri: Yes, penetrative sex--

--that certain countries that was...came under the aegis of the Inquisition, for example. But generally it was the middle ages, church law addressed cross-dressing because there were Biblical prohibitions against it. But when the church stopped being quite as interested in that, and it fell under civic law, the simple fact of cross-dressing was not generally illegal. On the other hand, they could probably find something else to cite you for. And so it was a question of: were you a person that the law felt able to persecute? Or were you somebody who could laugh it off and say it was a joke, and go back to dressing in women’s clothing, and not experience any penalty.

And sometimes there was a great deal of sympathy for women who cross-dressed for economic purposes, or to escape an abusive husband, or various other reasons. So it was incredibly variable and hard to predict. There were executions, and there were people who were lionized and made much of as celebrities. And it didn’t necessarily correlate with particular regions. Sometimes it was individual circumstance.

Lauri: I have the impression--and this may just be from reading too many young adult adventure novels--but I have the impression that women who had joined the army as men were sometimes discovered for medical reasons. They got wounded or whatever. And is that actually true?

That is one way that cross-dressing women in the military were discovered. And there are cases of individuals who were wounded and then died of their wounds because they refused treatment. But yeah, that is definitely not merely a literary trope but something that we find in the actual records, yes.

So this has been a fascinating discussion! I’m really glad to get the input from clothing history side. That really adds to the analysis here. Thank you, Lauri.


Lauri: You’ve given me a lot to think about, so thank you.

Major category: 
Friday, December 1, 2017 - 06:45

If Ancillary Justice was a fascinating tour in non-linear exposition, and Ancillary Sword felt like a cozy mystery set in the midst of a space opera, Ancillary Mercy struck me as an interstellar version of the folktale motif “six go through the world”. That is, a protagonist accumulates a set of unlikely and improbable allies simply due to treating those she encounters with honesty, empathy, and (if you will forgive the word) humanity, to find that those allies come through with a vengeance when the chips are down. And the essence of Breq’s success in gaining allies is the question "what counts as 'humanity?" Who deserves to be treated as having equal significance and whose consent is worth respecting? Issues of colonialism and class consciousness play out at multiple levels and there are additional mythic resonances to reward the observant reader. (For example, the motif of redemption through willing self-sacrifice.) If the resolution relies overmuch on the triumph of good will and virtue, I’m happy to see those things triumph on occasion at the moment. This was a very satisfying conclusion to the trilogy.

Major category: 
Thursday, November 30, 2017 - 07:00

There is a standard shape to collections of academic papers like this. One required feature is the introduction that lays out the outline of All That Has Come Before followed by a brief summary of each paper that is included. In the book itself, this is a valuable preface, but in my blogging project it means there will be entries that appear to have no useful content. Like this one. Sorry.

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Full citation: 

Giffney, Noreen, Michelle M. Sauer & Diane Watt. 2011. “Introduction: The Lesbian Premodern” in The Lesbian Premodern ed. by Noreen Giffney, Michelle M. Sauer & Diane Watt. Palgrave, New York. ISBN 978-0-230-61676-9

Publication summary: 


A collection of papers addressing the question of what the place of premodern historical studies have in relation to the creation and critique of historical theories, and especially to the field of queer studies.

Giffney, Noreen, Michelle M. Sauer & Diane Watt. 2011. “Introduction: The Lesbian Premodern”

The title and concept of the collection is deliberately provocative of the concept that “lesbian” is a limiting and essentialist concept. The editors point out that the challenges to identifying “lesbian” concepts in premodernity (i.e., that it’s anachronistic) apply equally well to heterosexuality, and that the concept “lesbian” almost always has been considered anachronistic throughout time.

The collection challenges the notion that theory-to-premodernity is a one-way street, and considers primary pre-modern scholarship as a theoretical structure in itself. The book is organized in three sections: theories and historiographies, histories and texts, and encounters with the lesbian pre-modern. It begins by re-examining the work of influential pre-modern scholars in lesbian and queer studies, as well as collecting and examining recent research and analysis, with the last section bringing scholars of later periods into the conversation to respond to its content and premise.

Part one addresses the erasure of lesbian experience from the body of received history. But erasure also comes from the presumed heterosexuality of historic societies, as well as from a framing that requires exclusivity to same-sex relations to bring someone under the rubric of “lesbian”. (In contrast, scholars of “gay history” include men under the category of “homosexual” if their lives include any same-sex relations, rather than requiring exclusively same-sex relations.)

The rest of the introduction is a summary of the papers to come.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017 - 11:29

I set a goal to finish the first round of revisions to “The Language of Roses” during November—my variant on NaNoWriMo, as it were. And although I’ve made significant progress, I’m not going to meet that goal. Oh, there are various reasons. Several projects cropped up at work that used up a lot of creative energy. I’m finding more and more that I can’t do creative-type writing while traveling, so Thanksgiving week was spent on relatively mindless computer housekeeping projects rather than on editing. And various other projects that I wanted to front-load into my priority schedule. (I’m a firm believer in front-loading things that can be done in advance—like setting up blog and podcast content—so that I don’t find myself suddenly scrambling for things with deadlines.)

But you know? An arbitrary goal is just an arbitrary goal. It’s an incentive, a target to aim at, but nothing to beat oneself up about if not met. Meeting an arbitrary goal is like winning a game of solitaire: sure, that’s part of the challenge of playing, but nobody dies if you lose the game.

At any rate, I’m about halfway done with the first round of revisions for “The Language of Roses” and I’m really happy with what it’s turning into. The characters are coming alive and I’m smoothing out bits of the backstory that were originally just mechanics to guide the action into the right channels.

I’m realizing that I have a fondness for unlikable female characters. Ones that have opinions and take actions that you aren’t supposed to agree with, but that are real. That are fully-formed and three dimensional. It’s realistic for an aristocrat of the fairy world to feel a certain disdain for a human merchant’s daughter, even when they are in the process of forging an alliance. It’s natural for someone whose sanity and safety has depended on concealing her deepest secrets to fail to reach out the powerful stranger who might have saved her. Why seek help from a stranger when your own parents have failed you? It’s natural to read guilt and uncaring arrogance into cold silence, rather than seeing through to the terror underneath. It’s understandable that loss upon loss might be more than the heart can take, and that sometimes you cannot save anyone else from the Beast, you can only save yourself. I love them all--Grace, Alys, Peronelle, Eglantine—for all their flaws and failings and courage and despair. I even love them when they cannot find it in themselves to forgive each other. I hope you will love them too.

Major category: 
Writing Process
Monday, November 27, 2017 - 07:00

This collection centers around the general problem that it is anachronistic and unhistoric to pursue “pre-modern lesbians” from a desire for identity and connection, but that without this desire, the forces and filters of heteronormativity, sexism, and anti-identitarianism work to erase or dismiss the historic data that an identitarian approach is ideally suited to uncover. Historiography challenges the modern lesbian to ask “who or what would I be if I were born in a different era?” And to recognize that individual personal identity is not as fixed as current fashion holds it to be. The foundation of late 20th/early 21st centuery queer identity is the concept of “born that way”--that our identities are intrinsic, immutable, and essential. But the consequence of this position is to say that, if we cannot find “us” in the past, exactly as we are, then we didn’t exist in the past and have no history at all.

If I were to follow my usual schedule of one LHMP post per week, this book would hold me for the next four months! And while that’s tempting because of both the end-of-year holidays and the unknown added workload in January and beyond to deal with the podcast story submissions, I think that would be entirely too long to give my readers a steady diet of historical theory. So I’m doubling up and posting entries on both Mondays and Thursdays through the end of January 2018. Many of these entries will be fairly brief, as the theoretical discussions are difficult to summarize for  my intended audience. But the structure of the blog drives me to cover them all, one at a time, so this seems the best compromise.

Major category: 
Full citation: 

Lochrie, Karma. 2011. “Preface” in The Lesbian Premodern ed. by Noreen Giffney, Michelle M. Sauer & Diane Watt. Palgrave, New York. ISBN 978-0-230-61676-9

Publication summary: 


A collection of papers addressing the question of what the place of premodern historical studies have in relation to the creation and critique of historical theories, and especially to the field of queer studies.

Lochrie, Karma. 2011. “Preface”

Lochrie expresses uneasiness with the premise of the collection--that there is such a thing as “lesbian” in the pre-modern era. She suggests that heteronormativity does not exist across time but is a modern/post-modern phenomenon. This collection operates within a general critique of historicism, chronology, and periodization. It questions the idea that pre-modern scholarship constitutes a type of historical theory in itself.


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