Wednesday, December 5, 2012

How You Gonna Keep Them in Petticoats ... ?

Some more about Stewart Van Cleve's Land of 10,000 Loves: A History of Queer Minnesota.  I'm still in his first chapter, you'll notice, which is about the period before 1900 or so.  His next case is a mid-19th century passing woman named Lucy Lobdell, who grew up in New York state, married a man and bore a daughter, moved (alone) to Minnesota in 1856, and a few years later was sent back to New York, where she was eventually committed to an institution in 1878.

I think the term "passing woman" is still the best one available for women like Lobdill, whom we know to be biological females (often because their sex was discovered after their death) who passed as male.  Sometimes they married women.  Some scholars and popularizers nowadays try to shoehorn them into categories like "transgendered," but this won't do because we usually know nothing about how they saw themselves or why they adopted masculine personae.  We nearly always see them through the eyes of others, not their own.  Ironically, those who favor "transgender" are often those who decry imposing modern categories on people who lived long ago and far away.  Van Cleve fits this pattern, as you'll see.

It happens that in 1855, while she was still in New York, Lobdell wrote and published a little book about her life and opinions, an apologia and a manifesto.
And now, I ask, if a man can do a woman's work any quicker or better than a woman herself; or could he collect his thoughts sufficiently to say his prayer with a clear idea?  No; if he was confused and housed up with the children all day, he would not hesitate to take the burn off his children's shoulders, and allow women's wages to be on an equality with those of the man.  Is there one, indeed, who can look upon that little daughter, and feel that she soon will grow up to toil for the unequal sum allotted to compensate her toil.  I feel that I cannot submit to see all the bondage with which woman is oppressed, and listen to the voice of fashion, and repose upon the bosom of death [quoted in Van Cleve, 19].
Van Cleve, who condescendingly refers to Lobdell as "Lucy," says that in this passage she was "rationalizing her ruse."  Was she?  The quoted passage is a familiar feminist diatribe against the limitations imposed on women, routine even in the 1800s, but that doesn't mean Lobdell didn't mean every word of it.  This one paragraph is all he quotes from her book, but from reading it I don't see any reason to suppose that she didn't see herself as a woman who took on a male identity for practical reasons.  Of course, once a woman has gotten a taste of relative freedom, she's not likely to want to return to slavery.  She's also likely to find that she sees the world, herself, and other people differently.  (By way of analogy, after I'd lived an openly gay life for a few months, I found it almost unthinkable to recloset myself.  I no longer thought of homosexuality as something it was proper to hide.)

A lot of people today, even those who I'd think would know better because of their vaunted politics, still seem to think that a woman would only have put on trousers as a sort of fetish, because she wanted not only to be a social Man but a Male.  Trousers, for them, are male and if a woman wears them she catches their male germs by contagion.  I understand this kind of magical thinking, having grown up with it, but I don't believe in it.  The whole point of feminism, I thought, was to reject it.  But evidently it's harder to get rid of than I thought.

Babies learn early that if Mommy covers her face, she hasn't disappeared, she's just hidden.  But many adults continue to think that if a woman covers her body with "men's" clothing, she becomes a man, and vice versa.  That's the appeal of drag, I think; deep down inside, many people believe the illusion.

Van Cleve says that around 1857 Lobdell adopted the name La-Roi, "in hopes of further obscuring what others later perceived to be a biological incongruity" (20).  He doesn't say how he knows what her hopes were.  Me, I wonder.  I don't want to read too much into an idiosyncratic spelling, but Leroi is a French name, "The King," and using "La" (the feminine article) instead of "Le" (the masculine article) strikes me as a coy, even campy wink.  (American gay men have often used the article "La" for other, not always gay men: "La Reagan" for Ronald Reagan for example.  "Miss" has also been popular: "May Miss God strike you dead!")  Did Lobdell know enough French for this to be intentional?  I have no idea. It's just as likely to be good old-fashioned American semi-literacy.  But again, passing women often adopted masculine names, and contrary to the magical thinking I mentioned above, this did not turn them into males or say anything about their subjectivity, any more than wearing a Richard Nixon mask turns me into Richard Nixon.
It is difficult [Van Cleve continues], and probably inappropriate, to use gendered language when describing Lobdell's experiences after that name change.  This is because it is unclear to what extent s/he believed in a supposed mental illness that psychologists later diagnosed.  In 1880 [23 years after she changed her name, mind you], the vagabond was admitted to a mental asylum and became the subject of an 1883 case study by P. M. Wise, who noted that Lobdell and another woman had lived in "the quiet monotony of ... lesbian love."  That study, published in Alienist and Neurologist, was among the first published articles that explicitly identified "lesbian" behavior in medical terms.

If Lobdell supported that diagnosis, then it would be wisest to use feminine words because, in that hypothetical instance, Lobdell believed that she was a sick woman.  If Lobdell rejected the diagnosis and staunchly defended adopting a man's identity, then using male words would be the best option.  Today, it is difficult to decide which term, or absence thereof, is appropriate.  Instead of a linguistic stalemate, this situation provides an opportunity for considering alternative ways of discussing identity [21] ...
At which point Van Cleve dilates upon gender neutral pronouns for a bit.  But he's set up a false dilemma.  The evidence he's given indicates that Lobdell saw herself as an oppressed woman who passed as a man to improve her lot in life.  In the absence of any evidence that she saw herself as male, using masculine pronouns is like calling me "Dick" because I put on a Nixon mask for an evening.  There are other issues raised by neuter pronouns, which I'll put off for another time.  For now, the "diagnosis" is unimportant.  If Van Cleve wants to follow Foucault, he should bear in mind what the philosopher wrote about diagnostic classifications as functions of power.  Even if Lobdell came to accept the diagnosis in the end (and Van Cleve admits he doesn't know), was she persuaded to accept her doctor's scientific delusions, or were they imposed on her?  Did she decide to love Big Brother, or was she made to?

In 1858, after Lobdell had been in Minnesota for a little more than a year, her sex was "discovered and exposed," says a writer Van Cleve quotes (21).  She was tried for impersonating a man, but the jury refused to convict her, on the grounds that "'the right of females to "wear the pants" had been recognized since the time of Justinian.'"  For reasons Van Cleve leaves vague (no doubt because he doesn't know either) Lobdell was deported to New York anyway, where he says "the asylum waited" -- in 1880, twenty-two years later.  That's a long wait.  I'd say that Van Cleve is distorting or confusing chronology here.  It's as if he can't wait to get her into the doctor's clutches.  It sounds to me like Lucy "LaRoi" Lobdell's story is more complex and interesting than Van Cleve can get his mind around.  It's not only laypeople who try to put human lives into simpler boxes than reality demands.