Some writers object to examining cross-dressing dramas from a homoerotic viewpoint, noting that the act of changing clothes does not change orientation. But Walen emphasizes that the female homoeroticism in cross-dressing plays is situated, not necessarily within the sexual orientation of the characters, but in the dramatic tropes enabled by the cross-dressing motif. It is the audience, more than the characters, who experience the female-female desire.
Images of women-loving-women were established enough in 16th century England to appear as a character type that was not so much defined as simply assumed, and therefore was available for reference both explicitly and obliquely. Within this general type, there were clear distinctions made between the motifs of desire between women and sexual acts between women. This chapter explores evidence for this character type in non-dramatic sources that were available to early modern English playwrights and their audiences.
I. Dramatic Constructions of Female Homoeroticism
The book opens with what has become a familiar lament that the scholarly consensus spent entirely too long proclaiming that female homoeroticism was not attested in early modern literature (largely because no one was actually looking for it, or considering it of importance when they found it), but that the last decade or so has been beginning to remedy that misapprehension.
The general topic of this chapter is the historic association of the clitoris with transgressive lesbian sex (as opposed to culturally-acceptable same-sex relationships). Traub begins by reviewing Freud's theory that vagina = heterosexual, clitoris = homosexual, and points out that this was not a new concept with him but merely the culmination of a long tradition.
This chapter begins with a look at allegorical images of what appear on the surface to be female same-sex erotic embraces. Images such as "Peace and Justice embracing" on the frontispiece of Saxton's 1579 atlas (in the cartouche above Elizabeth's head), or various paired embracing nudes in paintings representing Justice and Prudence or Faith and Hope raise questions of the public use of female homoeroticism for symbolic purpose.
Renaissance drama provides a case study in how lesbian themes and female homoerotic potential can be hidden in plain sight simply by the denial of their possibility. Traub notes that even today one can find vehement denials of homoerotic content in such overtly suggestive works as Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. And less overt content may only emerge into view through an awareness of the era’s understanding and encoding of female desire and forms of female intimacy.
This chapter comes from the angle of racially-targeted immigration restrictions. Gendered dress comes into the subject, but in an oblique way. One illustration: a Chinese woman who cross-dressed to stow away on a ship to San Francisco in 1910 was charged with violating immigration law, but not with cross-dressing offences. In the context of immigration law (and especially laws targeting Asian immigrants), cross-dressing came into the rationale, not as a charge against specific individuals, but as a categorical basis for exclusion involving gendered aspects of racial stereotyping.
This section summarizes the connections and intersections of legal and social attitudes toward non-normative bodies, whether involving gender, sexuality, race, or disability. These “problem bodies” provoked a combination of fascination and hostility which was resolved by instituting legal regulations to create a “safe” public space for those fitting into normative paradigms while permitting marginal existence to others as long as it served those in power.
This chapter surveys specific examples of prosecutions for cross-dressing from the archival record. The examples show that although there were a wide variety of contexts in which the law could have been enforced, from those living transgender lives to feminist dress reformers to young people of both sexes cross-dressing for a night on the town, in fact arrests tended to be used tactically, following their underlying purposes. Two different categorical distinctions emerge that the law was trying to address: men versus women, and typical versus atypical gender identity.
Transgender individuals were the group most seriously affected by both the anti-cross-dressing laws and the intense scrutiny required to enforce them. Enforcement of something as subtle as whether the clothing being worn matched an approved body wearing it required both the police and those supporting their efforts to look closely at suspects and interpret a variety of clues. The crime, after all, was “public visibility”--if a viewer couldn’t detect the transgression, in theory it didn’t exist.