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Unqueering the Masculine Lesbian

Cross posted with the LGBT Courage Coalition Substack

My previous work in the fine arts focused on the cultural lineage of female masculinity and lesbian embodiments in private versus public spaces.

Artists have always been a strange group of people. They would dine with the royal family, then stand shoulder to shoulder with physicians to study human anatomy, then wander through slums with prostitutes who were often models for life drawings. Artists, in other words, transgressed social class boundaries, often seen as deviant as a result.

It shouldn’t surprise us to find gender bending homosexuals among the aesthetes.

I’ll give you two examples of female gender benders from art history:

In 1852, a lesbian, Rosa Bonheur requested and was granted a permit by the French government to appear in public as a man. As a painter of animals, she needed to access public spaces, such as horse fairs, during a time when those spaces were reserved for men, and when it was illegal for any woman to appear in public wearing anything other than a dress. Her large and lively paintings now have a home in some of the world’s most prestigious collections.

Almost a century later, another French lesbian, Lucy Swab, publicly adopted the male name Claude Cahun and produced a large collection of photographs of herself in various male personas.

As a part of the surrealist movement, she challenged the notion that the photograph was an objective document of truth. Her own body was subject and object – a site where fact and fiction could dance to a new tune, on her terms. She (and her life-long partner) only reverted back to her birth name and a more feminine appearance during the Nazi occupation of France, in order to fly under their radar. The couple left Paris and settled in Jersey, an island off the coast of northern France. From there, they used the arts to disrupt Nazi occupation, for which they were arrested and sentenced to death. They were placed into solitary confinement – separated from one another for the first time in their lives, since they grew up together as children.  Despite poor health and multiple suicide attempts in prison, they did evade the death sentence.

In both cases, the little that was written about these women was entirely focused on feminist utility - reading their masculinity as a maneuvering of social systems which excluded them. Which has merit but, as I argued back then, that reading completely neglects the known correlation of gender bending and homosexuality. What documentation we have of the private lives of these women, demonstrates a consistency of their masculinity across both private and public domains.

My proposed reading is that their masculinity was an authentic, primary embodiment of their sexual orientation, and in the case of Rosa Bonheur, requesting access to the horse fairs was a way of leveraging the legal system for the purpose of extending out into public that which was otherwise confined to private spaces.

During my time in art school from 1995-2000, I and a few of my friends were invited to take a graduate level seminar course at a nearby university, called “Queer Theory”. We were intrigued and accepted the invitation.

Initially, the concepts were alluring and seemed well suited to my own gender bending interests. We were guided through historical gay and lesbian literature, especially Oscar Wilde and Gertrude Stein, searching for signs of “queerness”. I considered this lens when engaging with the work of Cahun and Bonheur.

By the end of the class, I rejected it. My final paper was a takedown, in defense of Cahun and Bonheur. I argued that to “queer” these women was to posthumously strip them of the agency they had within their own cultural and intellectual contexts, using them for a new political movement. I didn’t want to appreciate them from afar and distort their significance. I wanted to mine their significance. I wanted, and still want, to live by their example. They fully showed up – dedicating their bodies, minds, sexuality and talents to the social context at hand. They’re my masculine lesbian ancestors, to respect and follow, not to manipulate with the new meanings and agendas of our time.

I’ve made choices with my life and body that I think they’d understand and respect.  It was never about self-hatred. I’ve shown up – body, mind, sexuality, and talents – in response to my time.

I’m now making new decisions, according to changing times. Our society is being rearranged, and so am I. I left my career in nursing last week. I’ve changed the words I use in public – shifting from “trans man” (which once had utility) back to butch lesbian. A bearded woman now has new utility. I’ll be keeping my beard. I’ve bought a small bit of land, where I have deep family roots. I want to create a homestead here to withdraw myself from my government’s new economic and societal vision. I will make use of the tools and talents I have, to resist what is evil. These are not sacrifices. I’ve never felt more alive – standing on the shoulders of the giants within a deep masculine female lineage. I hope they’re proud of me.

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