A Bibliophile’s Miscellany: Gender Pioneers
This June marks LGBT Pride Month 2013, the fifth time it has been officially declared so by a U.S. president. June was chosen for this commemorative month to remember the Stonewall riots in New York City in June 1969, which paved the way for the modern gay rights movement. The past four years President Barack Obama has declared June as LGBT Pride Month through an official presidential proclamation, calling on Americans to “observe this month by fighting prejudice and discrimination in their own lives and everywhere it exists” (from the 2010 proclamation). Reading is my primary means of examining society, as well as my own life, so it’s no wonder that I have turned to books to learn from some gender pioneers. I recommend starting with Hanne Blank’s accessible social history Straight (2012), particularly valuable for its revelation of the surprisingly short history of heterosexuality as a concept (the term has only existed since the 1860s). But don’t stop there: here are five amazing books that have helped me adjust my definitions of gender and broaden my tolerance.
1. Conundrum by Jan Morris (1974)
James Morris was born in England in 1926. Educated at Oxford University, he served in the army in 1945 and later became a reporter for The Times. He was that newspaper’s correspondent during the first successful expedition to climb Mount Everest in 1953, and produced a plethora of marvelous travel books as well as a three-volume history of the British Empire.
Yet all along, Morris knew that he was meant to be female; it was something he had sensed for the first time when he was a young child sitting under the family piano: “I was three or perhaps four years old when I realized that I had been born into the wrong body, and should really be a girl…the conviction was unfaltering from the start.” Morris married in 1949 and he and his wife Elizabeth had five children, but still he found that “each year my longing to live as a woman grew more urgent, as my male body seemed to grow harder around me. It was like being encased in some preserving substance, another layer added each birthday.”
And so, in 1954, he began to take hormones that would start his transition to womanhood, completed by a sex reassignment surgery in Morocco in 1972. “To myself I had been woman all along, and I was not going to change the truth of me, only discard the falsity.” And so James became Jan. This exceptional memoir of her sex change evokes all her changing feelings of determination and doubt, as well as the almost magical process of metamorphosing from one thing to another. Morris lived for years as a creature betwixt and between two genders, and she found in her travels that people in more ‘primitive’ (or, as she politely puts it, “guileless”) societies recognized something in her of the ancient androgynous mystics, like Tiresias, the sage of Greek mythology. For the time that she was neither-nor, she lived in a curious in-between state that has allowed her to see beyond traditional gender boundaries. You would never know, to look at her now, what a pioneer she has been; she just looks like a sweet (and whip-smart) old lady. And yet she has been instrumental in helping me see sexuality as a continuum rather than a fixed entity.
By the by, Morris’s story has a very happy ending that will make you believe in true love: although Jan and Elizabeth were forced to divorce before Jan could go through with a sex change operation, they stayed together all along and in 2008 entered into a civil partnership in Wales to became legal partners once again. Thus, for well over 60 years they have been unconditional companions; Elizabeth was willing to stay with James throughout his transformation into his true self, even though it entailed much scandal and pain. I can’t think of a more beautiful expression of love.
2. On Being Different: What It Means to Be a Homosexual by Merle Miller (2012)
Merle Miller is a largely forgotten author today, although Nancy Pearl is one of his greatest champions and chose his 1962 novel A Gay and Melancholy Sound as the first book in her “Book Lust Rediscoveries” reprint series. As well as novels, Miller wrote a famous 1974 biography of President Harry S. Truman, entitled Plain Speaking.
On Being Different, a slim but essential volume, is a reissue of “What It Means to Be a Homosexual,” Miller’s ground-breaking 1971 essay in The New York Times Magazine. It was written in response to a 1970 Harper’s Magazine article by Joseph Epstein, in which he argued that homophobia was the last acceptable prejudice remaining in liberal society. Epstein had written:
“If I had the power to do so, I would wish homosexuality off the face of the earth. I would do so because I think that it brings infinitely more pain than pleasure to those who are forced to live with it.”
Although he was claiming to be motivated by humanitarian concern, Epstein was in fact simply echoing the conventional homophobia of his time.
Miller countered by giving an insider’s view of what it is like to be homosexual, telling of a childhood spent wishing that he could be either the girl his mother had wanted or the macho all-American sportsman whose image he longed to project. During his college years he desperately pretended to be straight – even persecuting and mocking gay people as heartily as all the rest in an attempt to deflect attention from his own confusion. Like Morris, Miller also married, but the relationship only lasted a few years before he realized he had to be honest with himself as well as with his wife. He later had a long-term relationship with a fellow male writer. A few people knew about his sexuality, but not so many that the publication of his article did not serve as a bold, nationwide coming-out. His own mother’s response was merciless: “Merle, we’re wiping you out of our will.” Hurt, Miller retorted, “But you always told me to tell the truth.” His mother replied, “I know, but I don’t like that kind of truth.”
“What It Means to Be a Homosexual” is a period piece now, and can feel like one – it doesn’t seek too hard for genetic explanations of homosexuality, only psychoanalytic ones – but it nonetheless feels like the precursor to a revolution. A foreword by Dan Savage and an afterword by Charles Kaiser help place Miller’s essay in the context of the gay rights movement. Miller believed “if you can relieve the guilt of ten people in your lifetime, you’ve made a contribution” – and surely, by writing this essay, Miller helped to lessen the shame surrounding homosexuality and paved the way for projects like Savage’s “It Gets Better” anti-bullying campaign. His contribution to gay rights – and to a more compassionate understanding of the homosexual experience – is undeniable.
Miller ends the essay with a lovely, bittersweet reflection on the difficulty of a homosexual’s life. Why would anyone choose such a life of hardship and exclusion? Indeed, he had no choice but to live his life as the person he was meant to be:
“If I had been given a choice (but who is?), I would prefer to have been straight. But then, would I rather not have been me? Oh, I think not, not this morning anyway. It is a very clear day in later December, and the sun is shining on the pine trees outside my studio. The air is extraordinary clear, and the sky is the color it gets only at this time of year, dark, almost navy-blue. On such a day I would not choose to be anyone else or any place else.”
There can’t be many novels about hermaphrodites (although a new one, Abigail Tarttelin’s Golden Boy, just released last month), but I know of at least two great ones. Middlesex, a Pulitzer Prize winner by Jeffrey Eugenides, is one of the very best novels I’ve read in the last four or five years. It’s a sprawling Greek family epic (reminiscent of the best sections of Corelli’s Mandolin, the 1994 novel by Louis de Bernières) told from the perspective of Callie/Cal Stephanides, a hermaphrodite trying to figure out her/his place in the world, beginning as a teenager in 1970s Detroit. Cal traces his family history back to 1920s Greece and Turkey, where an incident of incest may have increased the genetic likelihood of his intersex condition. You will be gripped from the exquisite first sentence onwards: “I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974.”
Inevitably, the whole time I was reading Kathleen Winter’s Annabel I was comparing it in my mind with Middlesex. It differs from Middlesex in two major respects: it uses the third-person omniscient perspective (whereas a first-person point-of-view allows Eugenides to create total sympathy for his main character); and main character Wayne is raised male but chooses to be female, whereas in Middlesex Cal has the opposite trajectory. To me it seemed that Annabel uses hermaphroditism as a rather arbitrary central dilemma around which to array more interesting elements: Wayne’s love of bridges, his father’s emotional distance, their neighbor’s travels, and so on. The Newfoundland and Labrador setting is another point of uniqueness, certainly a world away from Eugenides’ Detroit. Winter’s characters and writing are strong (though I wish she had made more of the ghostly pseudo-return of Annabel, the midwife’s dead daughter and Wayne’s chosen namesake). Both Annabel and Middlesex are remarkably sensitive portrayals of the intersex condition, successfully creating empathy for a character trapped between sexual identities. However, Middlesex is ultimately the more intimate, heartbreaking and beautiful of the two.
John Irving has always pushed the envelope when it comes to sexuality. He has a tendency to repeat plot elements in his novels (whether they be writers, bears, hotels, Vienna, or prostitutes – like Mr. Dick in Charles Dickens’s David Copperfield, into whose writing King Charles’s severed head always intrudes, Irving seems incapable of avoiding certain ideas), so you will almost inevitably find instances of alternative sexuality in his books. The Hotel New Hampshire (1981) has an incest subplot, while two other novels feature transsexuals: A Son of the Circus (1994), set in India, has a plot line set amidst the hijra eunuch community; and former quarterback Roberta is one of many excellent minor characters in The World According to Garp (1978). But in Irving’s latest novel, In One Person, sexuality is the central theme.
Our narrator is Billy Abbott, a bisexual author who takes us through his 1950s upbringing and sexual awakening in the small (fictional) town of First Sister, Vermont. From the start Billy realizes that he gets crushes on ‘the wrong people’ – the public librarian, Miss Frost; his speech therapist, Miss Hadley, who also happens to be his best friend Elaine’s mother; his stepfather, Richard Abbott; and the school’s star wrestler, with whom both he and Elaine are enamored. As we soon learn – as his memoir skips around in time – his sexual partners have varied but he seems to favor pre-op trannies. He’s had gay relationships, starting with a school chum; he’s had heterosexual partnerships – even a failed attempt at cohabitation with Elaine; and he’s been with several transsexuals. In the book’s most shocking revelation, Miss Frost the librarian is actually Albert(a) Frost, wrestling captain at Favorite River in 1935 (and an echo of the athletic Roberta in Garp). Billy – and his readers – had no inkling that she was a man until she gave Billy his first sexual initiation.
Early on, others notice that Billy is on his way to having an unusual sexual identity. Richard Abbott casts Billy as Ariel in The Tempest, a character whose gender is as “mutable” as Billy’s will become. Meanwhile Billy’s grandfather Harry plays Caliban as a woman – in fact, he plays female roles in every local production. His passion for cross-dressing, we later learn, equals that of Billy’s father, who is now a homosexual cabaret performer living with his partner in Madrid. Irving portrays this as a kind of genetic “double whammy” that determined Billy’s own sexuality. A super-concentration of alternative sexual lifestyles is Irving’s way of creating a societal microcosm through which he can make a case for tolerance. You could never accuse Irving of being understated when it comes to morality – he even acknowledges this fact through a former lover’s summation of Billy’s polemical novels: “Just look at what you write, Bill – overkill is your middle name!” And yet Billy’s liberal New England society barely needs the lesson.
Although I admire Irving’s aim of promoting LGBTQ rights, I felt this book was somehow 20 years too late, and neither subtle nor sweet enough to draw people to its cause. And, unfortunately, much of its sexual content feels raunchy and superfluous. To me the more compelling theme of the novel is not the sexual coming-of-age but the writer’s education, as Billy is accompanied on his journey by many of the great works of literature. In the end, although it is warm and compulsively readable, I feel that In One Person is essentially Garp Revisited. Jonathan Franzen might despise didactic novels, but Irving does them well: he is unabashedly biased, but his characters are so whole and true that you cannot deny their moral power. He has a powerful message to communicate here – “please don’t put a label on me –don’t make me a category before you get to know me!” (as Miss Frost says to Billy); I only wish he could have conveyed it using fresher plot elements.
Neil McKenna, also author of a 2006 biography of Oscar Wilde, has now turned his attention to two all-but-forgotten figures from Victorian history. Londoners Ernest Boulton and Frederick Park lived and dressed as women for their various pseudo-careers in musical theatricals and male prostitution. Ernest passed himself off as quite a lovely woman, “Miss Stella Boulton,” and later as Lady Clinton, ‘wife’ of Lord Arthur Pelham-Clinton. Alas, his enthusiastic sexual practices would later cause an anal fistula (this book is not for the squeamish; McKenna seems to relish unpleasant medical details). Frederick was not such a convincing female; he had rather mannish, homely features, but still masqueraded as Mrs. Fanny Winifred Graham (née Park).
In 1871 Fanny and Stella were rounded up by police and charged with female impersonation, sodomy, and prostitution. Their trial was a six-day succès de scandale, at the end of which they were found not guilty. Five of the six doctors who examined Boulton and Park in custody swore they bore no physical traces of sodomy, although Frederick had been treated for a syphilitic chancre of the anus not long before the trial – and would indeed die of syphilis ten years later.
The Boulton and Park trial made for a curious (and surprisingly frank) footnote to British social history. Lord Pelham-Clinton ‘died’ of scarlet fever in 1870 but may have committed suicide – or even faked his death and hidden out in Australia for eight years waiting for the scandal to die down. Both Fanny and Stella traveled out to New York City, where they continued to perform, in drag, in music hall entertainments. It is incredible to think that there were all these examples of homosexuality – even homosexual marriage – and cross-dressing in the 1860s-70s. It’s not so much that these situations didn’t exist in that day; it is just that they were meticulously hidden from view. But thanks to a host of gender pioneers, both in this list and beyond, the truth needn’t be hidden any longer.