Skip to content Skip to navigation

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast Episode 24a - On the Shelf for July 2018

Saturday, July 7, 2018 - 07:00

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 24a - On the Shelf for July 2018 - Transcript

(Originally aired 2018/07/07 - listen here)

Welcome to On the Shelf for July 2018.

I’d like to give a shout-out to all the listeners currently at the Golden Crown Literary Society conference, even though I doubt any of them will be listening to this podcast until later. It’s a pretty jam-packed event.

July is actually a quiet month for me this summer, after the scramble that was May and then catching up from that scramble in June. And then August gets busy again, with the World Science Fiction Convention, although at least this time it’s in driving distance for me rather than involving international travel. I hope to pick up some author interviews at Worldcon, though I haven’t sorted through the details yet.

Author Guest

And speaking of author interviews, this month’s guest will be Justine Saracen, who is a prolific writer of historical and historically inspired fiction. These days she’s best known for her World War II novels, but we also talk about some of her other books that explore earlier eras and the connections they make in history across time.

Publications on the Blog

During June, the Lesbian Historic Motif Project blog presented some primary source material about lesbians and love between women, with a few other topics brought along for the ride. I started out with excerpts from the 16th century German Zimmern chronicle, which includes an account of a peasant girl who was known for courting other girls. Her life presented a puzzle for the chronicler, but she doesn’t seem to have been condemned or subject to legal prosecution. The chronicle also includes an account of a trans woman serving as a cook which is equally fascinating in the apparent lack of significant consequences.

This article was followed by extensive excerpts from Brantôme’s Lives of Fair and Gallant Ladies. Brantôme was a bit more interested in titillating gossip and sensation than in sober sociological observations, but he provides what is likely to be reasonably reliable information about how lesbian activity among the 16th century French aristocracy was viewed, and even more interestingly, what sort of vocabulary was used to talk about sexual activity. Sorting through the various translations of his work also gives a useful picture of how historical material about women’s same-sex relationships has been quietly suppressed and erased from the historic record.

I took a break from the series of primary texts to celebrate entry number 200 with an article on queer material in Welsh literature over the centuries, and then continued with two excerpts from a sourcebook on 17th century English women’s lives that illustrate same-sex experiences and gender transgression.

July’s accidental theme will be a focus on the 17th and 18th centuries, and in many cases an examination of how same-sex sexuality was used as a social and political tool for managing women’s public lives.

Emma Donoghue looks at how 17th and 18th century texts re-envisioned of lesbians as hermaphrodites and how the association of same-sex activity with physiological otherness was used to manage public understanding.

Clorinda Donato looks at how John Cleland’s translation and revision of the account of Italian lesbian and passing woman Catherine Vizzani can be seen as a veiled attack on his contemporary, celebrity traveler and writer Mary Wortley Montagu.

The next article, by Jacqueline Holler, connects with the previous in terms of how society pathologizes women whose actions they want to condemn for unrelated reasons. It looks at the trial and confessions of a 16th century holy woman, heretic, and sexual outlaw being investigated by the Inquisition in Mexico, and examines the ways that sexual transgression has been linked to heresy and witchcraft across the ages in order to increase the condemnation of each of them.

Susan Lanser’s work has focused on the early modern period, and in the article I cover here she looks at the political implications and uses of women’s same-sex relationships--both platonic and sexual--in 17th century England. How women used networks of same-sex friendships to build political agency and how those networks could also be a context for expressing and normalizing, or concealing, sexual relationships.

Tim Hitchcock’s study of sexualities in 18th century England includes the chapter I cover on the development of homosexual subcultures, with an examination of how men’s and women’s experiences differed during this era.

I’m almost at an end of the collection of short articles that I scheduled for this summer so I’m starting to look ahead to tackling some longer books in preparation for the fall.

Recent Lesbian Historical Fiction

And speaking of books, what do we have coming out this month in the way of new historical fiction?

J B Marsden tackles the fuzzy and difficult intersection of passing women and trans men in the American West in The Travels of Charlie from Sapphire Books. I describe it that way because the blurb identifies the character as becoming “the man she always thought she should have been” and then shifts to masculine pronouns. I haven’t read the book, so I can’t provide a personal evaluation of how this is handled, but if you’re looking for a historical novel that acknowledges the gender issues as well as the sexuality issues, you might want to check this one out. Here’s the blurb: “In 1884, Charlene Dieter needs a new life, away from unwanted male suitors and from Jo, her best friend who has rebuffed her romantic overtures. Charlene finds her new self in “Charlie,” the man she always thought she should have been. Charlie decides to start a new life in Illinois, motivated by letters from a cousin of Charlie’s deceased dad. Kitty McIntire, a young woman managing her prairie farm after her father’s death, also fends off a suitor, John Cameron. John, however, presses on, despite a rival for Kitty’s attentions in cousin Charlie, newly arrived in their small town. Charlie does his best to be a farmer, but sustains injuries that lay him up. Kitty attends him while he recuperates, and they begin to fall in love, when circumstances force Charlie to let Kitty in on his secret. Charlie and Kitty together face the escalating verbal and physical attacks from John, as he tries to get Kitty and her farm for his own purposes. Will John come between the love that Charlie has found with Kitty? How can they, two women in a time that men rule, bring John to justice?”

The two World Wars are always a popular setting for lesbian fiction due to the social disruption and opportunities that wartime afforded. Kelly Wacker’s Holding Their Place from Bold Strokes Books takes advantage of that setting. The blurb says, “It’s 1916 and the end of World War I seems nowhere in sight. Dr. Helen Connery, a reserved British doctor at a field hospital in northern France, knows that a woman surgeon is as good as any man. Working tirelessly to save the lives and limbs of soldiers brought to her from brutal battlefields, she finds herself unexpectedly attracted to a vivacious and enigmatic volunteer ambulance driver. Julia March awakens feelings Helen thought she’d buried long ago. When they are offered a four-day stay by the ocean, a private reprieve from the war provides an opportunity for sexual awakening. Together Helen and Julia discover that goodness, love, and passion can be found in the most unlikely and even dangerous places.”

When dealing with fantasy novels that have a setting inspired by history, but are clearly not set in our own world, I always have the question of where I should draw the line of whether to include them. The next two books fall within that questionable zone and, as usual, I’ve leaned in the inclusive direction for the selfish reason of having more content for this episode.

The third installment of Rebecca Harwell’s “Storm’s Quarry” series, Shadow of the Phoenix from Bold Strokes Books, looks like it falls solidly on the fantasy side, though using imagery inspired by the middle ages. Here’s the blurb: “Nadya and Shay have built a quiet life together away from the island city-state of Storm’s Quarry and their outlaw vigilante identities, the Iron Phoenix and the Shadow Dragon. When that idyllic life is shattered by the arrival of desperate news from home, Nadya and Shay make the difficult choice to return to Storm’s Quarry. They find Storm’s Quarry razed, the blood of the Duke drenching its stone, and the fragile peace with the powerful Kingdom of Wintercress destroyed. With their home in need of its masked protectors once more, Nadya and Shay join the resistance, infiltrate enemy lines, and seek the aid of an old foe in a mad plan to save the city that endangers both their lives and their future together. But in the final battle for the fate of Storm’s Quarry, even their powers may not be enough.”

Natalie Debrabandere’s self-published Thyra's Promise is also a fantasy, but one claiming a specific time and place for the setting, as noted in the blurb. “897 A.D - in the Highlands of Scotland. Thyra of Asger, wild, tough, and beautiful, has just turned twenty-one. Raised like one of the boys by her older brother Bjarke, she has become a strong and proud Viking warrior. Now, all she wants to do is live a life of adventure and travel. When the moody and violent Bjarke fails to take her seriously, Thyra finds someone else who does. Kari Sturlusson, of the Volsung clan, is older, wiser, and commander-in-chief of her people. Over the course of a magical summer, she becomes Thyra’s mentor, her teacher, and her lover. But the Asger and the Volsung share a bitter and cruel history. Winter will bring with it blood, destruction, and devastating heartache. The end of a cycle, and the beginning of a journey; transformation, and a startling choice to make. In the end, will Thyra’s promise hold true?”

And I’m going to claim podcaster’s privilege to mention a book that is not at all historic, being a dystopian near-future thriller. But the author is a good friend of mine whose work I’ve loved in the past, and because it’s coming out from a mainstream press, readers who only follow lesbian publishers may not be aware of it. The book is A Study in Honor by Claire O’Dell, coming out from Harper Collins. The basic premise is a gender-bent Sherlock Holmes re-visioning, with both Holmes and Watson being queer black women. Here’s the blurb: “Dr. Janet Watson knows firsthand the horrifying cost of a divided nation. While treating broken soldiers on the battlefields of the New Civil War, a sniper’s bullet shattered her arm and ended her career. Honorably discharged and struggling with the semi-functional mechanical arm that replaced the limb she lost, she returns to the nation’s capital, a bleak, edgy city in the throes of a fraught presidential election. Homeless and jobless, Watson is uncertain of the future when she meets another black and queer woman, Sara Holmes, a mysterious yet playfully challenging covert agent who offers the doctor a place to stay. Watson’s readjustment to civilian life is complicated by the infuriating antics of her strange new roommate. But the tensions between them dissolve when Watson discovers that soldiers from the New Civil War have begun dying one by one—and that the deaths may be the tip of something far more dangerous, involving the pharmaceutical industry and even the looming election. Joining forces, Watson and Holmes embark on a thrilling investigation to solve the mystery—and secure justice for these fallen soldiers.”

Ask Sappho

Back in May, my sister podcast Les Talk About It had an episode about drag kings, that prompted a historic question about whether there were earlier examples of anything similar to drag king performances before the 20th century, or at least before the burlesque and music hall era that featured cross-gender performers of all types. So this month’s Ask Sappho question is credited to Sheena, our fearless leader here at the Lesbian Talk Show.

Any time you ask the question, “Did X exist in history?” it’s essential to start out by defining, “What do you mean by X?” If the question here is, “Did performers using the term ‘drag king’ exist before the 20th century, the obvious answer is no. The term “drag” to refer to male actors wearing female clothing hasn’t been dated earlier than 1870. The named occupation of drag queen came later, and the use of the parallel term drag king even later than that. So we can set aside the question of terminology and come up with a functional definition.

Here’s the definition that it seems most useful to use in searching for earlier examples: a type of performer who identifies as female and has a physiologically female body who creates an explicit performance portraying a male character, usually in a theatrical context, where the audience is aware of the performer’s gender and where part of the attraction of the performance is the contrast between performer and role.

There are some other aspects to the current drag king phenomenon that are better treated as optional if we’re looking for historic roots. Currently, the target audience for drag kings is typically assumed to be female, but we’re going to exclude a lot of interesting historic examples if require that. Another aspect is the question of whether one purpose of the performance is erotic attraction. I think we can make this optional, because it would be hard to argue that erotic attraction has been an essential historic aspect of drag queen performances. So it seems unfair to require it of the female equivalent. But it does seem to be the case that drag king-like performers in past ages inevitably bring an aspect of erotic attraction, due to gendered differences in how cross-gender play is interpreted.

Given these parameters, we can exclude examples where a physiologically female person moves through the world in a male role, either for reasons of gender identity or to enable economic or romantic goals, where the people they’re interacting with are not meant to be aware of the performance. Another category that we may want to examine more closely would be women playing male theatrical roles in an all-female context, such as schools or convents, where it is less of a specific professional choice to play a cross-gender role. But that line gets tricky to draw.

This survey isn’t going to be exhaustive by any means. It’s just a set of examples I can call up easily from my existing research.

One of the recent articles I covered in the blog looks at a social role that developed in the Caliphal court of Baghdad beginning in the 9th century. The story goes that the Caliph had such a definite sexual preference for young men and eunuchs that the hereditary succession was in danger. So his mother took action and had some of his concubines dress up in male clothing to see if they could better entice him. The word ghulāmīyāt means “boy-like” but the aesthetic that developed for the ghulāmīyāt aimed for the transition from boyhood to adulthood, including painting on false moustaches among other cosmetic idiosyncrasies like writing poetic verses on their cheeks. In general, these institutionalized cross-gender roles--both the ghulāmīyāt and a parallel role of men performing female roles--did not aim for “passing” as such, but for a blending of gender signifiers. For a ghulāmīyā, this included license to behave in masculine-coded ways, in addition to the visual presentation, as indicated in praise poetry addressed to them which mentions intellectual, musical, and sporting pursuits more usually associated with men.

Ghulāmīyāt were almost always slaves attached to the court or to the aristocracy, though there are rare mentions of free ghulāmīyāt. This means that the role was normally an imposed one, rather than a personal gender expression, and it was separate from accounts of “masculine” free women who adopted male attire and pursued martial exploits (a category not associated with same-sex interests), or with accounts of female same-sex behavior which are most typically mentioned in connection with enslaved women. There are no references to the ghulāmīyāt being associated with lesbian behavior.

So with the exception that the target audience of the ghulāmīyāt being men and not women, I think we can count them as playing a similar role to drag kings.

A recent article I covered discussed gender play in the context of medieval tournaments, and how men would perform cross-gender roles as part of pageantry along with roles that crossed the class boundary and the secular-religious boundary. Examples of women participating in gender play at tournaments are rarer, but here are two that fit our guidelines of an overt cross-gender performance.

The first is literary rather than historical, being part of a 13th century German chivalric romance. In this story, the men of a town are away negotiating a peace treaty and the women decide to hold a tournament in their absence, each taking on the name and appearance of a male relative and participating in the tournament as a man. I’m not so certain that I’d count this as a proto drag king performance because the intent doesn’t seem to have been to perform as a man, so much as to perform as a knight. And to be a knight, at least in the usual sense, one needed first to be a man. But it does fit the requirement that the performance was overt rather than for the purpose of disguise, and that they women involved were deliberately playing a role rather than expressing an identity.

The second tournament example comes from real life (at least as presented), and was discussed recently on the blog where I included the original primary source. In the mid 14th century, in Britain, a group of women showed up at a tournament “as though they were a company of players, dressed in men's clothes of striking richness and variety.” If we take the account at face value, this was not a serious attempt to be taken for men, but rather to be clearly women dressed as men--just as the male cross-dressing at tournaments was never meant to be taken literally. And here we seem to have the element of erotic attraction as part of the performance. Or at least the chronicler felt this was a consequence, for he notes they “wantonly and disgracefully displayed their bodies.” We should keep in mind the stark differences in male and female fashion in this era, with women’s dresses being long and loose, concealing the legs entirely, while men’s clothing had recently become short and very revealing of the legs, which were encased in skin-tight hose. So a female body in male clothing was far more revealed in shape than expected.

In pre-modern times, it was unusual for a woman to openly wear male garments in her everyday life. At least, unusual for her to do so with no consequence. But sartorial gender transgression might mean adopting specific garments that were coded as male. There is a long history of women adopting male upper garments while continuing to wear skirts and this was often treated as if it were as daring as wearing an entire male outfit. In late 16th and 17th century England, there was something of a “gender panic” around people of both genders wearing specific styles and garments that were considered to belong to the other.

Few went as far in this regard as Mary Frith, more commonly known as Moll Cutpurse. Given how she was portrayed on stage in her own lifetime, this does seem to have gone as far as wearing trousers rather than skirts. But if we’re considering Moll Cutpurse as a proto drag king, I think we have to question whether this counts as a theatrical performance, as opposed to being a full-time expression of personal identity. On the other hand, she often treated her life as a theatrical performance, so perhaps we should credit her after all.

In my initial definition, I’ve more or less excluded women who passed as men in the context of military service, since by definition it was not an overt performance but a covert one. But there’s one context where I think such women might be considered to cross over into proto drag king territory. Reactions to such women, if they were discovered, where mixed. Sometimes being strongly negative, but sometimes viewing their actions as praiseworthy and patriotic, although still unacceptable. Some women, such as Hannah Snell, who served in the British military in the mid 18th century, turned her forced retirement into a theatrical profession. She appeared on stage in her male uniform, performing military drills and singing songs. She also sold her story to a publisher and found other ways to parlay her history into something of a living. So although she may have entered military service for economic reasons--and there are no clear indications that there was a question of gender identity--I think we can consider that her conversion of that notoriety into theatrical celebrity puts her squarely into the drag king camp.

When people think of cross-gender performance in the context of medieval and Renaissance theater, they most often think of the prohibition on women on stage in 16th century England that laid the groundwork for some of the convoluted gender play in Shakespeare’s works. But it didn’t take long after women entered the profession for them to turn the tables and begin playing male roles on stage. Beginning at least in the 18th century, actresses began claiming male parts openly. In many cases one of their goals was to use the erotic attraction of the ability to display the shape of their bodies more fully in order to advance their careers. But there are also notable examples where the female audience were eager consumers of that display.

18th century English performer Charlotte Charke was famous for playing male roles on stage. And if she doesn’t perfectly fit the guidelines set out for our proto drag kings, it’s only in that masculine performance shaded over into her everyday life as well. In fact, there are valid arguments to consider whether she may be reasonably classified as trans-masculine rather than viewing her masculinity purely as theatrical performance. She spent several periods living as a man full time in various non-theatrical professions, and at other times went about in male clothing semi-openly, or at least with the awareness of the women she associated with. She definitely used her masculine presentation to flirt with women, even apart from as possible long-term romantic relationship. I think she’s in a gray zone for several reasons, but somewhere in the drag king ancestry.

I did a previous podcast about 19th century American actress Charlotte Cushman, who was also celebrated for her male roles on stage. I think she fits the guidelines much more clearly, as there is little question that she identified as a woman, and her sartorial gender play off-stage tended to be limited to accessories rather than full outfits. Her male roles, and especially her Romeo, can definitely be viewed as drag king-like performances. A great deal of the appeal--especially for her female fans--was the dual knowledge that she was a woman performing a male role.

For a more direct precursor to the drag king profession, Clare Sears, in her study of cross-dressing in 19th century San Francisco, looks at the whole range of professional cross-gender performance, from tourist-oriented burlesque and “freak” shows that focused on shock and titillation, to “gender illusionists” who held a tenuous position as respected artists. This included performers such as male impersonator Ella Wesner appearing in 1871--about whom the newspapers lamented that perhaps it was better that she was performing in male-only venues or all the women would certainly fall in love with her.

I hope this gives a few snapshots of theatrical gender impersonation across the centuries that gives a rich and deep background to the profession of drag king.

* * *

Forthcoming Books

Ask Sappho Source Material

Major category: 
historical