Transforming Language

As I send bits and pieces of my burgeoning dissertation out into the world, it is becoming clear to me that the central topic of my thesis – the way writers use language to mediate fluid or non-binary gender – is likely to be a source of concern for readers of my own writing. This is as it should be, since I aim to argue that searching for the right words to express the intricacies, evolutions, and surprises of gender is fundamental to the process of understanding and enabling it. This being said, I am also aware that words have just as much power to shut down the possibilities of gender and have a destructive effect on those whose experience of gender exceeds the normative categories of “male” and “female.” Ordinarily, I do my best to defer to writers and theorists whose lived experience informs their discussion of gendered language, such as Susan Stryker and Jack Halberstam. In order to build upon their work and consider the ways in which people tried to answer these same questions in a different cultural and historical moment, however, it is necessary to adapt some of their terminology for use in a different semantic environment. This puts me at risk of anachronism or reductivism, and my readers will highly sensitive to the potential pitfalls of this fraught topic.

Though some of the most contentious words in the literature I discuss will be the monosyllables “he” and “she,” other words that will require careful attention in my prose will be the more recently coined and etymologically complex terms of “transgender,” “transvestite,” and “cross-dresser.” Each of these terms can be plausibly included under the umbrella term “trans*,” but more specificity is sometimes necessary. These terms also come up in the work of other scholars, and it is crucial for me to understand the stakes of choosing one term over another when engaging with other criticism.

The first decision I have to make relates to the distinction between “cross-dresser” and “transvestite” when it comes to figures who wear clothing that conflicts with the gender norms of their communities. Though “transvestite” is simply a Latinate version of “cross-dresser,” long usage has forged a semantic difference between the two terms. Each term has been used in a wide range of contexts and can hold a variety of meanings, but in the cultural imagination the word “transvestite” tends to conjure an image of Tim Curry as Dr. Frank-N-Furter in Rocky Horror Picture Show, and “cross-dresser” invokes a suffragette in bloomers. Both of these images offer rich and wonderful possibilities for the subversion of normative gender identities, but neither are quite right as comparisons to a range of medieval English texts that narrate the exploits of women (and a man) who alter their gender performance in service of God.

Though one still sees “transvestite” and “cross-dresser” being used interchangeably to discuss saints who don gender atypical clothing, I have opted to use “cross-dressing” as a broader term. In his review of Paul Szarmach’s “Aelfric’s Women Saints: Eugenia,” Theodore Leinbaugh takes objection to Szarmach’s use of the word “transvestite” because “[his] dictionary defines transvestism primarily as the abnormal desire to dress in the clothing of the opposite sex” (56), whereas Eugenia’s cross-dressing seems purely pragmatic to him. I differ from Leinbach’s 1992 suggestion that Eugenia’s behaviour has nothing to do with gender variation, and would offer instead that we in 2015 should move away from thinking of cross-dressing as abnormal, but his objection is a prime example of the difficulties that a word like “transvestite” might raise before I have had a chance to discuss the nuances of each gender-fluid circumstance on a case-by-case basis.

I have taken a cue here from Susan Stryker in Transgender History. She defines “cross-dresser” as “a term intended as a non-judgmental replacement for “transvestite,” [as] it is usually considered to be neutrally descriptive of the practice of wearing gender-atypical clothing rather than associating that practice with an erotic impulse” (17). Though some have reclaimed the term “transvestite” as a way to indicate that there may in fact be an erotic impulse or broader implications for the gender identity of the cross-dresser, the term “cross-dresser” is useful for its neutrality prior to deeper examination or the possibility of self-identification. As Stryker points out, there can be a rich variety of personal, social, and cultural reasons for cross-dressing, and “cross-dresser” allows me to preserve some of this complexity.

Similarly, I will not use the term “transgender” to refer to any of the figures in my study. Though I have no doubt that the distant past was inhabited and enriched by people with diverse gender identities, I have no wish to designate medieval figures by using a modern term for a particular way that people may differ from the gender position they were assigned at birth. Furthermore, most of the figures in my study can be more accurately described as gender-fluid or non-binary – while the term “transgender” has come to refer primarily to “those who identify with a gender other than the one they were assigned to at birth” (Stryker 19), the cross-dressers in my study move through different gender identities in different circumstances.

I hope that my use of gendered terminology will evolve and become more refined as I work through some of these issues, and I look forward to benefiting from the perspective of anyone who I can persuade to read my work. For now, however, I hope I can express myself in a way that will be deferential to gender-variant people of the past and present and allow me to further explore the opportunities and challenges that language poses for gender identity.

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