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gender disguise m>f

In contrast to the f>m version of gender disguise, literary or historic examples of a male-assigned person presenting as female to engage in a relation with a woman generally focus on themes of deceit. That is, the disguise is intended to circumvent social barriers to male access to women who are not their wives. If the female partner is unaware of the disguise, there may be a homoerotic subtext if she experiences desire for someone she believes to be female.

LHMP entry

This case is drawn from a legal document that is almost unique in medieval England in providing a description of male same-sex activity in a context of male cross-dressing. The legal focus emphasizes the importance of gender, and not sexual behavior or sexual “identity” in the context of medieval law.

Female same-sex flirtation is a regular feature in popular Spanish drama of the early modern era. Erotic attraction to cross-dressed actrresses was cited in moral warnings. Velasco discusses the “meaning” of same-sex flirtation in cross-dressing scenarios, based on the several layers of “real” versus “apparent” gender, and considering different audiences. If female attraction to cross-dressed actresses isn’t quite all-out lesbian desire, it at least acknowledges its possibility.

Mills asks (rhetorically) why medievalists rarely discuss transgender frameworks of interpretation, given that medieval people had much clearer ideas about that topic than anything that might be called “sexuality.” Moral polemics focused less on sex acts themselves, than on disruptions of gender, in particular those that violated the strict binary contrast of “male = active, female = passive.” Androgynous (or intersex) persons were recognized as existing, but were required to choose a consistent binary gender identity (or celibacy).

Friedli provides an extensive examination of “passing women” -- defined as women (using current terminology, it might be better to say “persons assigned female at birth”, but Friedli uses “women” and I will follow that here) who live, work, and/or marry as men for some period during their lives. This is specifically distinguished from theatrical cross-dressing or overt cross-dressing as a sexual signal. While the phenomenon is far from confined to the 18th century, there seems to have been a fascination with it in England, beginning in the late 17th century.

In this set of works, women seem to have discovered the usefulness of fantastic and unusual imagery to disguise some rather intense eroticism in poetry. Subtle misdirection is also used in a novel to enable homoerotic scenarios. We also have a conventional work of romantic partnership. The male authors are largely sticking to sensational and decadent eroticism and misogynistic satire, with one set of poems lapsing to a more neutral, if voyeuristic, depiction.

Unsurprisingly, the material here is (with one possible exception?) filtered through male authors. We have literary tales of same-sex desire under the cover of gender disguise. There are medicalized case studies that--to a modern reader--sound more like intersex and transgender individuals, but those concepts were inextricably tangled with understandings of lesbianism at that time. And we have two poems, placed in the voice of a female narrator who is trying to come to terms with desiring another woman (though one is known to have been written by a man).

Female same-sex desire is generally presented in early modern drama in fictitious constructions: the desire is either mistaken or misdirected. Only in this last chapter do we see examples where knowing desire from one woman to another is presented positively, and may even be celebrated as an ideal over heterosexual desire. Things aren’t always straightforward, even so. Although the desiring woman may believe the object of her desire is a woman, not uncommonly the scenario is defused by involving a gender-disguised man.

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.

In this chapter Traub looks specifically at the pastoral genre, and particularly that inspired by Ovid, as a context for portraying love between women as a temporary adolescent amusement that will eventually and inevitably give way to a marital (and therefore heterosexual) norm. The normalcy of bodily transformation in Ovid provided a context for exploring “accidental” female homoerotic desire. Motifs that were particularly fertile ground include Diana and her nymphs and the story of Iphis and Ianthe.


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