20 November marks Transgender Day of Remembrance.
TDoR was established in 1998 to memorialize those murdered because of transphobia, and to spotlight the extraordinarily high levels of violence faced by transsexuals, transvestites, and gender variant people. According to statistics gathered by The Trans Murder Monitoring Project, a transgender person is killed approximately every three days. Often they are raped or tortured and their bodies are mutilated or dismembered. Most attacks on transgender people go unreported because of fears that they will not be taken seriously by the police.
Literature offers one means of tackling this violence. Writers have always expressed interest in sex-change and gender role-reversal. Often this functions as a useful narrative device: it creates an interesting story and a surprising twist when a character’s ‘real’ identity is revealed. Shakespeare’s cross-dressing heroines in Twelfth Night and As You Like It illustrate this tradition. Presenting difference as threatening and grotesque also offers a means of allaying cultural anxieties about non-normative subjects and affirming the supposed ‘naturalness’ of the established order. D. H. Lawrence’s ‘Cocksure Women and Hen-sure Men’ (1929) is typical in this regard, and ideas expressed in this essay are echoed in his fiction.
Since the beginning of the twentieth century, gender and sexual ambiguity have appeared with increasing persistence in fiction. Virginia Woolf’s Orlando (1928), Brigid Brophy’s In Transit (1969), and Will Self’s Cock and Bull (1992) are just three examples of texts that playfully subvert the binary categories of gender and sexual identity to comic effect. Such books epitomize ‘the novel of ideas’ by asking: Are we only ever man or woman, male or female, heterosexual or homosexual? Are there only two options? Are they always mutually exclusive? And what determines these categories and the ways in which we inhabit or embody them? Nature or culture? Neither? Both?
Novels that employ transgender as a trope to explore questions about identity are not really about transgender characters and do not seek to represent the reality of transgender life. This is signalled through the use of fantasy or magic realism. But since the 1990s other novels have emerged that seek to portray the pain and prejudice endured by transgender people: Leslie Feinberg’s Stone Butch Blues (1993), Jackie Kay’s Trumpet (1994), Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex (2002), and Kathleen Winter’s Annabelle (2010), for example. Such novels highlight the horror of violence fuelled by hatred and fear, and seek to end it by engendering insight and empathy. Rather than sensationalising or demonising ‘deviance’, these writers seek to normalise gender and sexual diversity.
I teach several of these texts on my module ‘Literature and Gender: Deviant Bodies and Dissident Desires’ on the MA in Modern Literature. One novel that I don’t teach anymore, but which remains a favourite, is Rose Tremain’s Sacred Country (1992). For some strange reason, this prize-winning book by one of Britain’s most esteemed writers is less well-known than the others, and it deserves wider recognition. Sacred Country centres on Mary Ward, a girl who believes she is a boy, Martin, and follows Mary’s quest to acquire a body that reflects her true sense of self. Whilst never overlooking the material and psychological specificity of transsexual experience, the novel parallels Mary’s struggle for selfhood with that of non-trans characters, suggesting that everyone experiences dissonance between their ideal and material self, everyone has physical oddities, everyone has multiple selves and undergoes change. In this sense, Mary-Martin is typical rather than exceptional, ordinary not aberrant.
Sacred Country is a thought-provoking, delightful, and deeply moving novel. I can’t think of a better day on which to recommend it.
Useful Links and Sources
Emma Parker, ‘The Real Thing: Transsexuality and Manhood in Rose Tremain’s Sacred Country’, Women: A Cultural Review 18.3 (Winter 2007): 303-326.