Monday, 20 June 2016

Reality check

Gigi Hadid: secure in her reality

A climacteric approaches. Next month brings a significant birthday – the sort where everyone slaps you on the back and says things like ‘Don’t worry! Life begins at…’ or ’60 is the new 40’ or ’40 is the new 30’. I shall celebrate by keeping a long-postponed appointment with a gender identity specialist. (There may also be cake, but probably not at the same time.) I look to this guru to tell me, once and for all, am I transgender or am I just a transvestite who has allowed his hobby to become an obsession?

I have a compulsion to crossdress, but I feel no compulsion to crossdress in public; I don’t crave public validation in crossdress. I like the idea of an emergency escape hatch back into ‘normality’; I could not take an irreversible step (although I may have changed my body beyond reverse now). I want the specialist to tell me I’m normal; I want him to tell me I’m exceptional. I want answers to Big Questions.  

Although I’ve made friends and vented in cyberspace, so far all my efforts to take my trans concerns into the real world have met with little success. I had a couple of sessions with a local therapist, at great expense, who didn’t tell me anything I hadn’t worked out for myself. I had an appointment at a laser clinic to see if I could get permanent beard removal. The employee did a ‘test patch’ on the cheek, causing a brown mark which she assured me would disappear in 24 hours. It didn’t and hasn’t – which seems to rule out the laser option for feminisation. I emailed a couple of academics whose interests appear close to my own; neither bothered to reply.

Any thought of bringing her into contact with the real world – whether it’s going out ‘dressed’ or just talking about her face-to-face with someone – seems to diminish her presence, as if she’s a creature of the shadows, always hiding from sunlight. It’s not just contact with reality but the mere prospect of such contact seems to drive her away. Since I made the appointment for next month, she has grown very shy, perhaps fearing her own extinction. Yet if she is so insubstantial that she could dissolve at the approach of reality, does she deserve to have any claims on me at all? I wrote earlier about my reluctance to reveal her ‘true’ name to anyone else, for fear either that the other person will gain power over her or that she will lose her power over me.

I’m a control freak. That’s why taking my gender concerns to the next level is problematic. By going public in however small a way and placing myself in the hands of professionals, I am letting go, unleashing something I may not be able to control – and it scares me.

At root, I’m acting out the controlled fantasy of being a young cis-woman. In the private theatre of my own home, if I wear the right clothes and do all I can to feminise the body underneath, this can be a convincing virtual-reality simulation. What it is not is a drag act. My assumption is that if I took her outside the house she wouldn’t survive contact with reality. But if she can’t be sustained in the world by an act of theatrical improvisation, what then is her power source? Where does she come from? And where does she go to when she disappears?

Two views of the sculptor’s art: 1. The sculptor looks at a block of stone and thinks, what can I make out of this? 2. The sculptor sees a form within the block which is struggling to break free. Which is she?  

I used to read a lot of philosophy (but you probably guessed that already). I was especially drawn to the ‘dualist’ position, as set out by Descartes, which says there are two separate systems within a human being: a mental thing, the res cogitans, and a physical thing, the res extensa. His concern was how these two systems talk to one another. I doubt this theory finds much favour nowadays. Talk now is of a feedback loop of reciprocal influence, mind on body, body on mind, of intelligence ‘distributed’ throughout our entire body, so that having different bodies means thinking different thoughts. In their 2007 book How the Body Shapes the Way We Think, Rolf Pfeifer and Josh Bongard quote brain experiments showing that the initiation of a voluntary act is caused by unconscious neural activity. Counter to what you’d expect, the experience of conscious will kicks in only after the brain has started preparing for the action. As Rodney Brooks writes in his Foreword, ‘this book considers the physical manifestation of the body as primary. The stuff of intelligence has evolved in conjunction with the body and is more a modulator of its behaviour rather than a primary control system.’

So one of the major formative influences on mind is the body it is housed in. The mind doesn’t float free of the body. It was precisely the ambition to achieve flotation that has made me such a physically unhoused intellectual. But can I be successfully rehoused in a body that is only a rough approximation to the one I yearn for and where there has been no opportunity for the body to form the mind?

Still, once a Cartesian always a Cartesian. I persist in the belief that I’ve split into two people. All physical sensitivity is concentrated in her body; every inch of her skin is an erotic pressure-point. Meanwhile, my male self has consolidated into a disembodied intellectual. It looks like a case of classic mind-body dualism, except that the two elements have separated out into discrete organisms. This explains why she and he can’t coexist in the same space: when she is dominant and he recessive, he can’t do any of the things that he would normally do, because she doesn’t share those interests. This is a challenge, for it doesn’t fit either of the scenarios that are usually held up: either that she is the expression of a ‘truegender’ that is belatedly breaking through and should be given whatever space she needs to unfold, or that she can be integrated into my outwardly male form to make an integrated yet ‘polymorphously perverse’ individual.

A mind housed in an unwanted male body, and a body that perceives itself as a female work-in-progress but with no thoughts other than those inspired by the body. A simple but troubling dichotomy: F body without mind; M mind without body.

These two personae struggle for dominance. One difference between them is that, although she has certain biographical fixed points (her age, for example), she doesn’t have a consistent back-story (unlike my male self). Indeed, I’ve argued that her capacity for self-invention is a source of her strength. It might be suggested that this is the point where I could stage a land-grab, take her into myself, allowing her her body while gifting her my mind. Thus would integration be achieved. There’s no reason why she, a graduate in English Literature (another fixed point), shouldn’t be seriously interested in, let’s say, reading Shakespeare in the light of modern preoccupations with gender. My previous post was a nod in that direction. She could be a ‘hot’ postgraduette; she doesn’t have to be a bluestocking – unless I persist in maintaining a sexist dichotomy between male intellect and female body-centrism.

To sum up, I am a mind or intellect housed in an unwelcome male body, and I am an aspiring female body which seems divorced from mind (although it may possess something of the ‘embodied intelligence’ referred to above). If she is to go out into the world, I’ll have to engage mind and body: for both to be in lock-step, I must find her mind. Otherwise, contact with reality may turn out to be the nuclear option.

Sigh. I wish I had the self-possession and courage of trans activist Sarah McBride:


Tuesday, 7 June 2016

Was Shakespeare transgender?

The Earl of Southampton, Shakespeare's patron

Shakespeare died 400 years ago. In the centuries since then, surely every wise thought that could be entertained about this writer has been tested to destruction?  Well, perhaps not. There is one idea that has never been taken seriously enough, although it bubbles under in the literature of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Inspired by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who said in his Table Talk of 1832 that a great mind has to be ‘androgynous’, Virginia Woolf declared that Shakespeare’s mind was ‘the type of the androgynous, of the man-womanly mind’.

Nowadays we are rightly suspicious of efforts to ‘gender’ the brain – even if the concept has regained scientific respectability in the work of Simon Baron-Cohen and others. But Woolf’s argument, however time-bound its terminology, suggests something. It suggests a thought-experiment…

What if Shakespeare were what we would now call ‘transgender’?

The thought is not unthinkable. Indeed, it’s far less outlandish than some of the wilder biographical speculation that denies that a glover’s son from Stratford could have written the plays attributed to him. We are still far from understanding the causes of gender variance, but the safest assumption is that, in its manifestations, we’re looking at a combination of biological and environmental factors, of ‘nature’ and ‘nurture’. If we further assume that its natural occurrence is roughly similar from generation to generation, even from century to century, then we would expect to encounter trans people 400 years ago. But long before the concept existed, at a time when understanding of sex and gender was quite unlike our own, public perception would have been different; self-perception would have been different. Upbringing, education, legal sanctions: many environmental constraints would have acted differently upon gender identities which we are – belatedly – learning to recognise and accept.

Prove it! Well, of course, I can’t. Any more than I can prove the Bard was a closet Catholic or a wife-deserter or a tax-dodger. As one editor of the Sonnets, Stephen Booth, has wryly observed: ‘William Shakespeare was almost certainly homosexual, bisexual or heterosexual. The sonnets provide no evidence on the matter’. But that doesn’t invalidate the thought-experiment, for I acknowledge from the outset that I’m not running my experiment on scientific principles. The assertion that ‘Shakespeare was transgender’ isn’t ‘falsifiable’. (Falsifiability is the belief that for any hypothesis to have credibility, it must be inherently disprovable before it can become accepted as a scientific hypothesis or theory.) But, if it were true, what consequences would follow?

If our Elizabethan were of artistic leanings, we might expect him to be drawn to a medium where a transgender sensibility could find expression. Centuries later, Virginia Woolf toured that realm in Orlando. But the novel, as a form, was barely in its infancy in the late sixteenth century. What had matured in leaps and bounds was the theatre. And the English theatre had a unique characteristic not shared by its Continental equivalents: the female parts were played by boys. It was a place where everyone was someone else – a stage, in every sense of the word, for the exploration of sex/gender difference.

Of all the theories advanced for what Shakespeare was up to in his ‘lost years’ this is the one I most like: that the stage-struck provincial joined Queen Elizabeth’s Men in 1587, after the sudden death of actor William Knell in a fight while on a tour which passed through Stratford. The other actors shuffled up to cover the dead man’s parts and young Will filled the vacancy – which brought him to London and theatreland. Once in the more tolerant ambience of the city, he consolidated his position as an actor, did a little play-doctoring and started writing, making himself by 1592 into what Robert Greene enviously called ‘an absolute Johannes factotum… in his owne conceit the onely Shake-scene in a countrey’.

Over a twenty-year career, his plays would resort at intervals to ‘travesty’, often using a well-worn convention to hint at more subversive purposes. There are girls dressed as boys in Two Gentlemen of Verona, The Merchant of Venice, As You Like It, Twelfth Night and Cymbeline. There are expressions of ‘anxious masculinity’ (to use Mark Breitenberg’s phrase) in the Merry Wives of Windsor, Antony and Cleopatra and the Taming of the Shrew as male crossdressing is either depicted or alluded to. Late in his career Shakespeare created a true hermaphrodite in Ariel (The Tempest). And in between he was writing those pesky sonnets, so apparently pregnant with meaning, so resistant to interpretation:

A woman's face with Nature’s own hand painted
Hast thou, the master-mistress of my passion;
A woman’s gentle heart, but not acquainted
With shifting change, as is false women’s fashion;
An eye more bright than theirs, less false in rolling,
Gilding the object whereupon it gazeth;
A man in hue, all hues in his controlling,
Much steals men’s eyes and women’s souls amazeth.
And for a woman wert thou first created;
Till Nature, as she wrought thee, fell a-doting,
And by addition me of thee defeated,
By adding one thing to my purpose nothing.
But since she prick’d thee out for women’s pleasure,
Mine be thy love and thy love’s use their treasure. (20)

For anyone tempted down this speculative path, there would be much ground to cover. One must define terms. One must grapple with the peculiarities of Elizabethan and Jacobean attitudes to the ‘sex-gender system’. There are the notorious pamphlets of the day excoriating the depravity of the theatre and the confused boundaries between male and female (Hic mulier, Haec vir). Then there are the plays themselves, not to mention those suggestive longer poems, Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece, which alone sufficed for Ted Hughes to derive an entire mythology in his frustrating study Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being. Hughes eschewed Shakespeare criticism entirely; his book contains no bibliography and almost no references. The scholar cannot be so cavalier. But oh dear, how much reading one would have to do to become a Shakespeare ‘expert’! And still, beyond all the specificities, lies the bigger question posed by Coleridge and Woolf: what is the relationship between androgyny and creativity?

In the absence of ‘facts’, it’s always tempting to make them up. I was surprised to see, in a recent newspaper article by James Shapiro, an undoubted Shakespeare expert, how sympathetic he was to Shakespeare in Love, the movie. Enjoyable tosh, I thought. Still, fiction is next to ‘faction’ and faction is next to fact, so let’s make it up, in this our non-scientific experiment. Let’s suppose that we can reconstruct Love’s Labour’s Won, the notorious ‘lost’ play, and let’s imagine this is the key to unlock the transgender Shakespeare. Perhaps the Bard went a little too far; that’s why the play was suppressed and never printed…

But perhaps I’m stumbling where I have no business – into the realm of wild biographical surmise. Perhaps all one can say with confidence is that in the richness and variegation of Shakespeare’s writing, among so much else, there are figurations of what trans individuals feel. This is the line taken by Canadian professor Mary Ann Saunders, herself a trans woman, who finds resonance for her own experience in The Tempest. She likens the character of Ariel, an ‘ayrie spirit’ at the whim of Prospero’s command, to transgender individuals who depend on medical practitioners to allow them to present in the embodiment they choose.*

At Yale, a petition has recently been launched to ‘decolonize’ the English Department’s course on ‘Major English Poets’. The course requires the study of Chaucer, Spenser, Donne, Milton, Pope, Wordsworth, TS Eliot… and Shakespeare. One student, Adriana Miele, wrote a column in the Yale Daily News in which she criticised the course because while students ‘are taught how to analyse canonical literature works’, they ‘are not taught to question why it is canonical, or the implications of canonical works that actively oppress and marginalise non-white, non-male, trans and queer people’.  

We are such stuff as (cross)dreams are made on.
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*Karen Wang, ‘Exploring The Tempest’s Ariel as a lens to transgender individuals’, The Ubyssey, 6 April 2016