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Stare, Flaunt: Seeing Trans Femininity in Literary Modernism

In a scene midway through Alison Bechdel’s 2006 graphic memoir Fun Home, the little tomboy Bechdel sits with her father in a small-town Pennsylvania luncheonette when, together, they look (or rather he swivels to glower and she stares moon-eyed) at a bulldyke standing at the counter. “Is that what you want to look like?” her father hisses derisively across the laminate table, compelling his child to answer, falsely, “no” (fig. 1). This glimpse of a butch truck driver “sustained” the queer child for years after, but “haunted” her closeted father, as did everything that manifested the irrepressible difference that he was trying desperately to sublimate.[1]  

Characters having a conversation in Bechdel's Fun Home
Figure 1. Alison Bechdel, Fun Home (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2007), 118. Scan by the author.

To explain her father’s rage, Bechdel references a photograph that she found of him in a woman’s bathing suit, probably worn, she guesses, as part of a fraternity prank (fig. 2). But, rather than boorish caricature, her father’s bodily habit is “lissome, elegant,” this snapshot of ease portending the torturous discomfort he’ll experience in the social role of straight man (120). As we learn throughout Fun Home, it is through reading modernists: Eliot, Lawrence, and (most notably) Proust that Bruce Bechdel can continue to indulge the force internal to him that animates this photograph because modernist dandyism provides a frame for understanding femininity as refined rather than, as postwar bourgeois culture had come to understand it, gay.  

Character describing photo of person in frame from Bechdel's Fun Home
Figure 2. Bechdel, Fun Home, 120. Scan by the author.

Like Bechdel’s bourgeois vignette of 1960s central Pennsylvania, Janet Mock presents the understanding of gender in 1990s Hawaii through her child eyes in her 2011 memoir Redefining Realness. Her hula instructor, Kumu Kaua’i, who was employed by the Honolulu public schools to provide seventh graders with afterschool dance instruction, was a mahu wahine, a Hawaiian gender position for feminine people who carry culture, particularly through hula. As Mock strives to emulate the smooth, gentle motions that her teacher calls “an offering to the gods,” she describes the image of Kumu in motion: “I marveled at the unique way she wrapped her pareos around her neck, letting the lush fabric flow over her rotund belly to her long, thick legs. Her skin was the color of coconut husks . . . her eyes were framed by thin high-arched brows that curved fiercely mirroring the sway of her hips.”[2] Kumu’s lyrical movement, the way she elegantly decorates her body through makeup and clothing, her toughness: Mock finds inspiration in all she can see of Kumu. She finds it again in the abundance of the red-light district of Merchant Street where she joins a group of trans women of color whom she characterizes as “surviving outlaws” (171).

In both cases, understanding gender non-conformity doesn’t require knowing certain terms, but rather hinges on what the child sees. In both contexts trans femininity does not inhabit the typical individuating narrative; neither Bruce Bechdel nor Kumu Kawa’i is a trans woman. Rather, trans femininity bedevils father Bechdel and the generalized non-cisness of Hawaiian indigenous culture holds Kumu. Both modalities of trans femininity—as an unarticulated affinity and as a collectively held social force—are disallowed by the standard diagnostic model that locates transness in the individual who knows themselves to be trapped and seeks a medical cure. What happens when we turn away from what trans femininity supposedly means and focus instead on what it is? Two strains of literary modernism can help us to do this. The first, here represented by Ernest Hemingway, depicts the bourgeois realignment of gender in the post-World War I period and clarifies Bechdel’s haunting luxury. Another strain, here represented by Claude McKay, reflects proletarian and racialized socialities and demonstrates that the non-cisness of Mock’s youthful world is not the minoritized purview of communities which have survived colonial steam-rolling, but was collectively held even in the very heart of capitalist empire.

Early in The Sun Also Rises (1926), Jake Barnes, Hemingway’s war-castrated protagonist, nervously hovers in a bar waiting for the sleekly shorn (and self-identified chap) Brett Ashley. She arrives with a caravan of two taxis that stop in front of the bar; a chatty, joyous group spills out. As Jake surveys the rowdy bunch, “some in jerseys and some in their shirt-sleeves,” his fascination and phobia are braided together on a formal level:

I could see their hands and newly washed, wavy hair in the light from the door. The policeman standing by the door looked at me and smiled. They came in. As they went in, under the light I saw white hands, wavy hair, white faces, grimacing, gesturing, talking. With them was Brett. She looked very lovely and she was very much with them.[3]

Note the prominence of the third person plural ungendered pronouns to establish a clear line between a normative us and a degraded them: Jake and the cop see one another seeing them, and the cop’s smile asserts their commonly held status as real men against the image of them. Jake and the cop don’t need to be able to say “We are straight and cis,” or “They are fairies,” because their fraternity works on the level of seeing each other disparage the queers’ gesture, vocal register, joie de vivre. Their comradery is established via their own contrasting joylessness.

And more than joylessness. Jake goes on:

I was very angry. Somehow they always made me angry. I know they are supposed to be amusing, and you should be tolerant, but I wanted to swing on one, any one, anything to shatter that superior, simpering composure. . . . Georgette was dancing with the tall blond youth, who danced big-hippily, carrying his head on one side, his eyes lifted as he danced. As soon as the music stopped another one of them asked her to dance. She had been taken up by them. I knew then that they would all dance with her. They are like that. (16–17)

Wavy, blond, them: Jake’s repetition indicates obsession or drunkenness or both. This prose starts off staccato, fleshless, meager, boney, the qualities Hemingway was prized for. But then gives way to the round, gorgeous description of the dance, moving “big-hippily,” the carriage of the head, the unseeing ecstasy of a person lost in dance.

Anticipating Pedro Romero’s dance in the bull ring, the more critically celebrated instance of Hemingway’s love of lyrical motion, this is the kind of scene that, in my opinion, is the novel’s formal interest. The reader is taken up in these moments. The primacy of the image over the noun is representative of the place of gender-nonconformity in Hemingway’s work. He can never quite say it, can he? But the reader knows what Hemingway is showing them. And he’s obsessed by it. Not homosexuality or fairydom but the incommensurability between this overflow of joy and the gendered rules of the world that the tried so hard to follow: the fairies are supposed to be sad and alone, bourgeois sexual science tells us this. So why are they so “superior,” composed, and together?

Hemingway scholarship pays a lot of attention to the prosaic fact that his mother followed a custom among the Victorian families of wealthy Chicago suburbs and dressed her small children in frilly dresses (fig. 3). The tone always indicates that there is some discrepancy between the little boy in a frock and the macho man who hunts big game and gets into fights.

Portrait of Ernest Hemingway at 18 months, c. 1900–1901
Figure 3. Portrait of Ernest Hemingway at 18 months, c. 1900–1901. Courtesy of the Ernest Hemingway Collection, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston MA.

On the other hand, there is a complete critical elision of the fact that Hemingway’s youngest child was a trans woman, was known by him to be a trans woman, and that this fact was a central obsession of the author’s life. I think the hyper focus on the former is connected to the erasure of the latter. Elsewhere I’ve written that Gloria Hemingway’s trans femininity haunts the Hemingway tourist industry. Ken Burns’s recent documentary film is only the most mainstream venue to sell itself as a destabilizing exposé of the real Hemingway beyond the myth of machismo. But, in fact, that myth is obviously false. Hemingway’s life and art is not gender normative: he dated and married butch women and his novels are rife with worry about his protagonists’ masculinity. The only surprising moment from the Burns documentary is the citation of an exchange of contentious letters in which Papa Hemingway expresses his dissatisfaction with his child. To which Gloria responds, “I bet you’re wondering what happened to filial respect. Well, it’s gone, Ernestine, dear, it’s gone!” (fig. 4).

 A Film by Ken Burns and Lynn Novak
Figure 4. Still from Hemingway: A Film by Ken Burns and Lynn Novak (Florentine Films and WETA, 2021).

This response conveys the composed superiority of Hemingway’s fairy child who was bewildering to him because of their slant commonality: Gloria’s trans femininity struck a chord that set her father’s gender trouble to reverberate. And they both knew it, as Gloria’s address to Ernestine makes clear. This made him so mad at her, like Bechdel’s dad snapping at his daughter across the table. This was the modernist world of bourgeois worry over trans femininity.

Then, there is another world. Claude McKay’s Home to Harlem (1928) depicts a milieu that recognizes gender types that confound the categories of bourgeois gender and sexuality. In McKay’s cabarets and buffet flats wealthy boss ladies keep freewheeling skirt men in sexual indenture, the women kicking the men out of the houses the women own when the men stray too far. The women provide philosophical treatises on their view of love as a game organized by who has the money. Bulldikers and faggoty men populate the songs whose lyrics McKay includes in the text. These lyrics say that the singer “can’t understand” these Harlem types and yet their existence within the songs speaks to their legibility.[4]

In one scene, we see a wolf, a masculine man whose social profile is defined by the fact that he dates younger feminine people but has nothing to do with cis women. With Billy the wolf is a trans feminine doll baby whose proper name is never given:

Billy Biasse was there at a neighboring table with a longshoreman and a straw-colored boy who was a striking advertisement of the Ambrozine Palace of Beauty. The boy was made up with high-brown powder, his eyebrows were elongated and blackened up, his lips streaked with the dark rouge so popular in Harlem, and his carefully straightened hair lay plastered and glossy under Madame Walker’s  absinthe-colored salve for “milady of fashion and color.” (91)

How McKay enjoys the look of this person, the palette of their makeup, the line of their hair. A few pages later the novel’s eye follows the doll baby and a cis woman onto the dance floor where all this beauty is put into motion:

[T]here was no motion she made that he did not imitate. They reared and pranced together, smacking palm against palm, working knee between knee, grinning with real joy. They shimmied, breast to breast, bent themselves far back and shimmied again. Lifting high her short skirt and showing her green bloomers, Rose kicked. And in his tight n*****-brown suit, the boy kicked even with her. They were right there together, neither going beyond the other. (93)

Here McKay attends to the easy solidarity of the feminized, cis and trans. This reflection between Rose and the doll baby is best expressed in motion, not cheek to cheek but “breast to breast,” tracking, following, mirroring, “working” together to undo the cis and heterosexual logic of coupled dancing, operating in the grand tradition of queer dance cultures from the same-sex pairings of the nineteenth century to the sweaty capacity of disco to set the entire multitudinous territory of the dance floor against the logic of the pair.

Do you see that this joy is peeking out in Hemingway too? The cops and the limp Jake can’t kill it. This is the persistence of the same kind of social force that is unconquered by cisness in Mock’s memoir. Scholars take a great deal of necessary care to point out that Indigenous gender positionalities are not the same as transness. Yes, and once we see the world more accurately through the gift of knowing about, for instance, Kumu Kaua’i, we might start to see cisness as just an ideological force that keeps the eyes of cops and men who are nervous about their self-worth nervously trained on a group of hot friends who are over there having a good time together. Jake knows it, too, even if he couldn’t explain it; that’s why he’s so sad and angry.

I’ll end with two images that bookend the modernist period. The first is one of the photographs that the trans woman Jenny June included in her 1918 Autobiography of an Androgyne—a portrait that emphasizes hippiness, flesh (fig. 5).

Portrait of Jennie June from Autobiography of an Androgyne
Figure 5. Portrait of Jennie June from Autobiography of an Androgyne, written by Jennie June under the name Ralph Werther (Piscataway, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2008), 176. Scan by the author.

If the stare fixes the stared at, then the language of these modernist novels animates the image, giving us the verbs of motion and gesture. This work presents sex not a matter of the fixed substance of the body, but what you do with it. How you shimmy and shake them determines what hips mean, how they’re seen and experienced. How you paint it makes of the face what you will, arches up an eyebrow, demands attention for a mouth. Likewise, the portrait of Jenny June accentuates the positive: presenting the fold of bosom and tummy. She composes her body, the legs gathered to the side and beneath, like a girl riding sidesaddle or a fawn folded in on herself. Jennie June allows her own ampleness to say what she has to say about her own body, her own sex. By holding her body, she’s made a sculpture of herself. This recalls for me the lushness of Hemingway’s writing at its best and his personal fleshiness in later life. If you’ve read his work, really read it, then his femininity comes as no surprise.

The second image is a photo of Gloria Hemingway in old age. I won’t reproduce the image here; you can look it up online if you want to. It’s not exactly a mug shot; it’s a Polaroid taken by the police in the precinct following the arrest of Gloria Hemingway in October 2001 for drunkenly taking of her clothes and walking down a street in the Florida Keys. Her pixie cut forelock is plastered across her forehead and then fastened with a clip, like a girl in a Delia’s catalogue. She has unbuttoned her blouse exposing her breasts. She’s smiling in a broad, drunken way. She is a wealthy white woman, stripped of the protections of race and class by manifesting her transness in public. Gloria Hemingway died in a cell at Miami-Dade women’s detention center the week after the photograph was taken. I won’t give credence to the cause of death attributed to an incarcerated person, but it’s likely that the withholding of medication while incarcerated contributed to her death.

I was once photographed in a similar way. The arresting cop swung me around by my favorite mini-backpack with enough force to break one of the leather straps and fling me onto the ground. He then lay his body over mine, rolling over me and in the process doing something to my lower leg that bothered me for a year following. I tried to figure out how to sue the city, but I was advised to rack up medical bills first and I didn’t know how to do that, especially while finishing my book.

I was arrested with two comrades. After we were fingerprinted and our mug shots were taken, each arresting officer led us to a desk and posed with us as their mirthful colleague took a Polaroid for them to keep as a memento. Tommy sang softly to us while we were waiting; the two of us were put in the same holding cell. Margie was taken away from us, held in a single cell for trans women on a block with men. Those eighteen hours were much worse for her because she was alone. Most of the people in our holding cell were queer and trans: a trans masc who’d fallen asleep at a McDonald’s, a butch who sat head in hands moaning “I’ve got to stop drinking; I keep ending up here” a femme sex worker, a lesbian attempting to crawl the walls as she began to experience heroin withdrawal. I know all of this because as we sat in that tiny space for hours, people talked. We were arrested for participating in a Black Lives Matter demonstration, of course. This is one of the few ways an able-bodied, middle-class, cis white women can find herself flung to the ground by police. Our sign that night read: “Rest in Power Mya Hall/ Killed by Baltimore Pigs.” I think that’s why they chose us for arrest and then for the humiliation of the Polaroid.

I guess the point here is that queerness (in my experience) and transness (in my observation) are often lived as a series of little secret affinities, a smile on the subway, a projection onto an old photo, the many little parties within a party on the dancefloor. In Hemingway’s modernism, the effort to destroy the joy of the fairies comes from the text, from the smarmy protagonist’s and cop’s joint effort to stop the flaunt by fixing it with the stare. But, we realize both in the novel and in the life, Hemingway is so mad because he feels left out. He could not accept his daughter’s ultimate filial generosity: calling him Ernestine. Maybe modernism actually taught Bruce Bechdel just how much and what kinds of gender you could get away with; after reaching that threshold your “lissome, [elegance]” falls out of the Proustian class alibi. You’re left shaking it just a little bit, in a photograph that your dyke child will then find and love and offer her readers. Gloria, unlike Bruce, refused to learn these lesson of her father’s novels. McKay, in contrast, is in it, the Blackness and non-cisness that are general, transversal.[5] Everyone is looking at everyone else, hips and shoulders rolling like Kumu Kaua’i. McKay gives us nights in the club where the danger of cops and bashers that must have been lurking outside those doors remain off-screen. Under the harshest surveillance or in hard-won spaces of freedom, in disjointed moments of recognition or consistently over a lifetime, people will keep moving together, big-hippily. They can’t not. Sometimes they die; is it from it or for it?  Either way, it’s really something.


[1] Alison Bechdel, Fun Home (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2007), 118–19.

[2] Janet Mock, Redefining Realness: My Path to Womanhood, Identity, Love & So Much More (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2014), 104.

[3] Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises: The Authorized Edition (New York: Pocket Books, 2021), 16.

[4] Claude McKay, Home to Harlem (Lebanon, New Hampshire: Northeastern University Press, 1987), 129.

[5] For an account of the transversal relation between Blackness and transness see “Introduction,” C. Riley Snorton, Black on Both Sides: A Racial History of Trans Identity (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2017).