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Claude Cahun’s Pronouns

From the start, I wanted Claude Cahun to be like me, or I saw myself in them, and used the pronoun that would make this misrecognition seem the most true. It would be possible to write a different sort of essay than the one I’m writing now, without any recourse to autobiography. This other, more academic essay would make a strong case for Cahun as a key figure in transgender history. But my argument for why Cahun’s pronouns matter is situated in the drama of more personal misrecognitions, mine and those of others, played out between the queer historical past and the present tense of its archival recovery. Rather than search for a historical truth, I want to situate the queer archive as a scene of disidentification and misfit desires, of subjective relations, crushes, and public kink. This involves sifting through a wider history of Cahun’s reception, to include a more popular, largely internet-based archive of nonbinary and trans cultural production that reaches into the present day.

In that other essay, the more academic one, historicity would be the key word. In this one, the emphasis falls instead on grammars of queer and trans survival. I take this language first from José Esteban Muñoz, who unforgettably defined disidentification as a process of narrative misalignment, a survival strategy for a minoritized subject who might “read oneself and one’s own life narrative in a moment, object or subject that is not culturally coded to ‘connect.’”[1] In this essay, I want to situate these misalignments as part of the queer archive, rather than something outside of or in addition to it. That is to say, I want to position popular histories of reception—of over-attaching, falling in love with, perverting, stealing, sometimes Xeroxing or misquoting—as a form of knowledge creation. Rather than anachronism or false consciousness, I want to reconsider these vagaries of identification as tactics of survival that are themselves historical, and as significant as the original archived content.

For this, I start with a revision of my own work on Cahun, who appeared on the cover of my first monograph, The Fury Archives. I had started researching Cahun in graduate school, when they were largely an unknown figure. At that time, art historians were arguing for the significance of Cahun as a lesbian artist.[2] This was not nothing; critics had to do some work to get us there, because Cahun never openly identified as a lesbian. A key biography renders Cahun as a frustrated heterosexual, forever pining after André Breton.[3]

In my book, I wrote about Cahun’s work alongside the rise of conservative familial law in France, a shift that coincided with increasingly violent forms of biological racism and the criminalization of homosexuality during the Vichy regime. I was trying to get away from a poststructuralist emphasis on gender masquerade as a kind of free play, and instead to think about the genderqueer body as a site of physical vulnerability and limited freedoms. My narration noted the indeterminacy of Cahun’s gender, but referred to the artist as “she.” This nomination came with qualifiers. Elle is the pronoun Cahun would have used, and is historically accurate for the first half of the twentieth century in France. It was the pronoun used by the entirety of the academic writing about Cahun that I could find.[4] In joining this conversation, I thought that I wasn’t taking sides. I wrote, “Rather than theorize Cahun’s self-representation as either lesbian or transgender, I want to situate the historical ambiguity of her sexual identity as a site of lived vulnerability and administrative violence.”[5]

Since I submitted the book’s final proofs, that use of “she” and “her” has started to grate. These referential terms feel wrong but there isn’t a pronoun that feels right, so my work in this essay is more about sitting in that wrongness, naming it, and allowing it space to breathe. In French there is no gender-neutral pronoun, no equivalent of “they” in English, because the plural ils and elles are both gendered. In French and Canadian nonbinary communities, there has been some effort to create new genderqueer pronouns, like iel, ul, ol, all, ille, el. This is a contemporary, ongoing conversation, but the presence of the genderqueer body that doesn’t quite fit into existing language is not a merely contemporary problem.

In “The Invention of the Neuter,” the French historian Laure Murat situates the emergence of a third sex, understood as androgynous, neither male nor female, in interwar Paris. Murat locates the emergence of a “neuter sex,” the pejorative term for “women of indeterminate sexuality . . . who did not identify with the image of the butch/femme couple.”[6] The language of neutrality, a kind of neither/nor, also appears in Cahun’s written work. In Aveux non avenus (1930), Cahun famously directs the reader, “Shuffle the cards. Masculine? Feminine? It depends on the situation. Neuter is the only gender that always suits me. If [a neuter gender] existed in our language no one would be able to see my thought’s vacillations. I’d be a worker bee for good.”[7] As Alix Beeston notes in her reading of these lines, Cahun “is for saying and not saying, for masking and unmasking, an infinite equivocation that finds its basis in what she called ‘the void bang down the middle’ of the self.”

Beginning in the 1990s, artists and activists began to seize on such claims, positioning Cahun as an icon of transgender history. Cahun’s rediscovered portraits and biographical personhood appear in these tributes transformed: as a coping mechanism in a world hostile to trans survival, a point of visceral overattachment, a twink crush, a tumbler collaboration—or, more sincerely, as a mirror image of the nonbinary author, uncannily prefiguring 1970s goth/punk grunge. An incongruent, little-noted tradition, this body of life writing, zines, and graphic novels features Cahun as a trans elder and nonbinary ancestor. In the 2009 book Absence Where As (Claude Cahun and the Unopened Book), the poet Nathanaël includes a portrait of Cahun alongside a selfie of the author, as one way to describe a broken lineage: “In her, I resemble myself. Not: I recognize myself. But resemble myself.[8] In a footnote, Nathanaël notes, “She, when referring to Cahun or to myself, might just as easily be he, splitting (apart) the binary with annulling reversal. For when the two correspond, here, disappear, when their I’s touch, I like to think that one and the same turn into some other, nameless, name. I keep to her for the sake of unconstancy” (Absence, 27). In this book, Nathanaël’s writing works through two languages, English and French, as a way to reconfigure this pronominal inconsistency through the paradoxical qualities of Cahun’s portrait: “It invites and repels. It evokes and crosses out. There is not only encounter, but collapse. There is casting and recasting” (29).

At one point, Nathanaël situates Cahun’s portrait as a kind of proliferating echo, a figuration that likely draws upon the way these images have become, almost overnight, somehow ever present in queer and trans merchandising. Cahun’s self-portraits can now be found reprinted on T-shirts, mugs, stickers, and tote bags, in what has become a small industry of Etsy-style craftwork and anarcho-punk DIY art (figs. 1–4). Across these more popular, multimedia forms of queer and trans cultural production, Cahun appears as a site of luminous meaning and trans/nonbinary attachment.

Claude Cahun mug.
Fig. 2. Claude Cahun mug.

In an interview on trans media cultures, Quinn Miller and Marty Fink point out the divide between what Fink names as a “cisnormative process of scholarly canonization” and these more popular reclamations of a trans archive. In Miller’s formulation, a “normative framing overwrites more complex trans sensibilities and queer dynamics. Artists like Cahun should inspire new ways of representing the possibility of trans experience in past eras. So far, we see this work happening in marginalized queer trans and genderqueer cultural production—especially on Tumblr—but not in the academy.”[9]

I want to address this lapse by reconsidering Cahun through their reception by more contemporary, vernacular forms of trans cultural production, beginning with Micah Bazant’s Timtum: A Trans Jew Zine. First published as a pamphlet in 1999, the zine is part transition autobiography, part how-to manual, part alien dream journal. It’s an assemblage of handwritten notes, type, and Xeroxed pages, DIY and improvisational, the reproductions low-fi. Across some sixty pages, Bazant’s zine recovers a Yiddish grammar for nonbinary subjects, androgynous women, effeminate men, and little bird fairies (figs. 5–6).

 A Trans Jew Zine (1999)
Fig. 5. Micah Bazant, Cover of Timtum: A Trans Jew Zine (1999). Digital Transgender Archive. Courtesy of the artist.
Bazant, Timtum, 11
Fig. 6. Bazant, Timtum, 11. Courtesy of the artist.

The title, Timtum, describes an androgynous person, difficult to identify as male or female. On the first page of the zine, a Xerox from The Joys of Yiddish lays out the alternative meanings of the word with more finesse, including “2. An effeminate man. 3. A beardless youth with a high-pitched voice.”[10] But much of the zine is about writing over and through a received tradition. Over sixty odd pages, Bazant chronicles the legacy of the Holocaust alongside a more personal genderqueer compendium: a collage of letters, sketches, an excursus on pronouns, anecdotal accounts of what it’s like to be misgendered, etiquette for cisgender allies, notes on the politics of passing and not-passing, narratives of top surgery, and fragments of a prescription label for testosterone cyplonate injections. In this mix are also excerpts from the nineteenth-century history of the Tzaddik of Ludomir, a transgender Chassidic leader, contextualized in relation to contemporary questions of Jewish exile, displacement, and assimilation. Written at an early moment of trans self-definition, the project creates a genealogy for the genderqueer subject as an act of collective survival.

Prominent in these pages is Claude Cahun, “Jewish genderfreak artfag Anti-Nazi resistance fighter” (Bazant, Timtum, 15). About midway through the zine, Bazant narrates key details of Cahun’s biography, along with some of the more famous self-portraits, with quotations cut out and pasted onto the image. Bazant Xeroxes sections of various biographical materials and annotates the pronouns, whiting out the “her” to read “his” or, in one place, replacing “lesbianism” with the words “or one’s trans gender” (15; fig. 7). One full page, featuring Cahun with a shaved head standing in front of a hung square, appears above the handwritten annotation, “Claude as a young boy at the age of 27” (38; fig. 8). This citation is incorrect, and knows itself to be so—no boy is 27, but also Cahun never used male pronouns or declared themselves male.

Bazant, Timtum, 15
Fig. 7. Bazant, Timtum, 15. Courtesy of the artist.
Bazant, Timtum, 38
Fig. 8. Bazant, Timtum, 38. Courtesy of the artist.

This misreading, a projective disidentification, writes Cahun in line with Bazant’s own history of misgendering, through strangers who mistake the fully medically transitioned adult Bazant for an adolescent boy. Bazant describes the category of boyhood as a mixed bag, at once condescending and wrong, but sometimes experimentally right, at least close to something that feels true. But Bazant does not offer a gender configuration that fits. Instead, Bazant writes, “In an ideal world, I would want to be recognized as my own queer gender—which is definitely not a woman and not a man. I’m realizing that part of why I like being called ‘he’ is to have that dissonance acknowledged. I know that it confuses people and feels wrong. That’s the point—” (48).

In this way, Timtum situates gender in a social drama of recognition, of being seen and addressed as a public act. The pamphlet includes an etiquette section on interacting with trans-identified people that ends with a reproduction of what might be the most iconic image of Cahun: a photograph from the late 1920s in which they are dressed as a weightlifter, wearing a T-shirt which bears the words, “I am in training don’t kiss me” (33; fig. 9). On that page, the reproduction is pretty lo-fi; it looks like Bazant penciled over the message on Cahun’s T-shirt so that we can better read the letters.

Bazant, Timtum, 33
Fig. 9. Bazant, Timtum, 33. Courtesy of the artist.

I like this writing over for its lack of preciousness: Cahun appears almost as a proof of life, of the existence of genderqueer subjects, rather than an art object to be cherished. Timtum, too, is a printed object meant to be reproduced and distributed, so that this sharing itself serves as a form of collective survival and care.

It is perhaps then not such a coincidence that this same image of Cahun reappears, some twenty years later, in a book dedicated to the practices and ethics of care work in trans communities, Hil Malatino’s Trans Care (2020). Near the end of the book, Malatino turns to the weightlifter portrait as a site of tactical attachment in their own transition narrative. Rather than take up the language of anachronism or recuperation, Malatino recalls a search for origins: “I was desperate for some sense that other subjects had encountered and survived some of the transphobic, cissexist bullshit with which I was being repeatedly confronted. I needed resources for resilience.”[11] Positioning Cahun’s image as a resource, rather than an object of historical truth, Malatino then offers what might be my favorite reading of the portrait:

Their pose is serving deep trans twink. The flattened chest, the coquettish cock of the head, the handlebar mustache displaced and inverted into smoothly pomaded spit curls, the training motif—it is all very “daddy, teach me.” This is, of course, absurdly heightened by the textual declaration on the leotard, warning off all potential suitors, highlighting the fragility of nascent sexuality, and calling attention to the way that countenancing another’s desire runs the risk of despoiling whatever form of gendered sexuality is emerging here. The famed ambiguity of the photo renders Cahun a kind of universally fungible object of desire—maybe a boy, maybe a girl, maybe a man, maybe a woman, but precisely none of these things. Whatever it is that you’re into, maybe they can become it—maybe they’re in training to be the whatever of your dreams. (52)

This is not the language of identification, of seeing oneself in or as Cahun. It is a scenario of desire, even a scene of seduction, here cast in a contemporary vernacular of queer kink. Malatino gives the photograph a sense of duration, so that it is not so much the capture of something, or someone, that was, end stop. The photograph reveals an ongoing courtship between subject and object, a mutual scene of countenancing and reappraisal.

To buttress this sense of Cahun as the moving target of our most fungible desires, it’s useful to consider the ways these photographs were a collaborative project. Though the portraits most often feature Cahun in the frame, it was Cahun’s life-long partner Marcel Moore (born Suzanne Malherbe) who took the pictures, and Moore remains the unseen presence behind the camera, finger on the shutter.[12] The hundreds of photographs that make up this archive are also a lovers’ dialogue, an ongoing seduction between the persons behind and before the camera. These images create an accretive historical vocabulary, taking place over four decades. They offer a visual language for bodies and desires then lacking proper referents, as a collaboration between two intimates over the course of a life.

In my book, I argued that we should consider the series of photographs as one long form, a sequence that records a life as it is lived, without knowing what the ending would be. But we can expand our sense of this iterative sequence by tracking its extension beyond the singular iconic life, or even the double life of Cahun and Moore, into its popular reception in the present day. This extension begins with the ways that the trans archive has been figured as an imperfect community of queer ancestors, caught between past and present. On this score, I turn to Jules Gill-Peterson, who writes beautifully about crying in the archive and then crying at the airport Transport Security Administration check line. Drawing these experiences together, Gill-Peterson situates the trans archive as what allows for a kind of proximity between past and present. Instead of a perfect line-up with the past, Gill-Peterson describes a diffuse relation between the erasures of the historical archive and our own contemporary moment of trans visibility: “The proximities of the archive disperse the feelings of otherwise being consumed by the present and its many emergencies—of living overexposed, on the other side of that so-called ‘trans-tipping’ point.”

This sense of the archive’s proximity, of its reach into the emergencies of the present, suggests a grammar of the ongoing, of living and continuing to live. I see this kind of grammar in the last image I want to consider in depth, a late portrait of Cahun from Jersey Island (fig. 10). The photograph Bazant calls Boy and the weightlifter image were both taken some twenty years earlier, in the late 1920s, in Paris. At that time, Cahun and Moore were involved in numerous avant-garde circles and a thriving lesbian salon culture, alongside Adrienne Monnier, Gertrude Stein, Alice B. Toklas, Djuna Barnes, Natalie Barney, Sylvia Beach, Romaine Brooks, Janet Flanner, and Jane Heap. But in 1937, Cahun and Moore moved from Paris to Jersey, one of the tiny and remote Channel Islands, located between England and France. The couple stayed there through the German occupation, were arrested for resistance activities, and sentenced to death. They were liberated after the war’s end but remained on the island for the rest of their lives.[13]

Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore, Self Portrait (on sea wall), 1947
Fig. 10. Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore, Self Portrait (on sea wall), 1947. Courtesy of Jersey Heritage Collections.

The seawall portrait is from 1947, not long after liberation. The barricade was practically in Cahun and Moore’s backyard, a part of the fortifications built by the Germans during the occupation. Before they were arrested, Moore took dozens of photographs out the living room window of the bulldozers outside, moving the dirt. At first glance, the visual metaphor seems very on the nose: Cahun victorious on top of a crumbling German fortification, after they were released from the German prison. But then there is that costume. It’s as though Cahun were a biblical prophet or fairy sprite, gay Moses on the Mountain, a weak-wristed dancing queen—leading us all to genderqueer salvation. The Jersey Heritage Museum, in its perpetual effort to decamp Cahun, refers to the transparent robe as a dress, but to me it looks like cellophane gauze, crinkly and sparkly. On the seawall, the cellophane gown is something put on for show, hastily belted, and then accessorized with a cane that might also be a shoehorn.

I see the costume as another revision, part of the portraits’ accretive sequence, that reworks the image of Cahun as a tinfoil angel from the 1929 Paris production of Le Mystère d’Adam [The Mystery of Adam] (fig. 11). The angel is more overtly sexual than the weightlifter portrait, though done in the same vein, with its nipple-forward aesthetic. Here the look is still fey, but it’s a harder version of the weightlifter’s “daddy, teach me” pose, a different kind of question. The angel has real fuck me or fight energy.

Untitled [Claude Cahun in Le Mystère d'Adam (The Mystery of Adam)
Fig. 11. Claude Cahun, Marcel Moore, Untitled [Claude Cahun in Le Mystère d'Adam (The Mystery of Adam)], 1929 gelatin silver print; 4 x 3 in. (10.16 x 7.62 cm). San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Fractional and promised gift of Carla Emil and Rich Silverstein. © Estate of Claude Cahun. Photo: Don Ross 

It isn’t obvious these three images go together until you line them up, as variations on a costume theme, the swaddled body framed by its outturned arms. The seawall portrait looks different set alongside the weightlifter and angel, as a third term and irresolution of the series later in life, this time with less camp, more messianism.

To feel the humor behind this revision, it’s important to know that the angel costume was made for a medieval religious drama based on the temptation of Adam and Eve, the primal scene of the gender binary. Cahun resurrects the angel after the war, as an aged saint rising out of the ocean: the birth of an androgynous Venus, minus the shell.

Next to the series of bulldozer photographs, as an addendum to the angel and weightlifter portraits from the 1920s, the 1947 portrait of Cahun on the seawall seems less like the celebration of a victory, on top of the world, and more like fence-sitting, caught neither here nor there, this nor that. As a late work, the seawall photograph revises the other portraits, but it doesn’t provide an endpoint to their sense of becoming something else. Being in training is a process that just keeps on going, weightlifter to angel to androgynous Venus.

Across four decades and hundreds of photographs, these revisions turn Cahun’s body into a serial media form, a collaboration that started with Moore but has since become more populated and more eclectic, continuing across digital platforms into the present-day. Cahun is various in this recounting, a mass-mediated reproduction: shopping bag screen-print, T-shirt, Halloween costume, book cover, zine Xerox, poetic counterpart, queer Daddy, messianic queen, artfag, butch-dyke, nonbinary saint—none of which is precisely the right thing, what Cahun the person really was, then. These descriptions do not capture the past, as it was. They revise an imperfect language, allowing the dissonance to settle in and take up space. As a genre, revision acknowledges past imperfections and weaknesses, but it also suggests a more diffuse form of knowledge production. This is a different grammar of the trans archive, not as a place to collect the dead, but as a resource for the ongoing project of continuing, of living through and living on, into the emergencies of our present.


[1] José Esteban Muñoz, Disidentifications: Queers of Color and the Performance of Politics (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999), 12.

[2] See Carolyn Dean, “Claude Cahun’s Double,” Yale French Studies 90 (1996): 71–92; Abigail Solomon-Godeau, “The Equivocal ‘I’: Claude Cahun as Lesbian Subject” in Inverted Odysseys, ed. Shelley Rice (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1999): 111–26; and Tirza True Latimer, “Looking Like a Lesbian: Portraiture and Sexual Identity in 1920s Paris,” in Modern Woman Revisited: Paris Between the Wards, ed. Whitney Charwick and Tirza True Latimer (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2005); and Latimer, Women Together, Women Apart: Portraits of Lesbian Paris (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2005).

[3] François Leperlier, Claude Cahun: L’Exotisme intérieur (Paris: Fayard, 2006).

[4] As this article was in copyedits and I was collecting image permissions, I learned that Jordan Reznick has an important article currently under review that should fill this void in the theoretical literature. Keep an eye out for Reznick’s forthcoming work, “Through the Guillotine Mirror: Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore’s Photographic Theory of Trans Against the Void.” Beyond this, the art historical scholarship that considers Cahun as potentially transgender or nonbinary still refers to the artist using she/her pronouns. See Dickran Tashjian, “Vous pour moi? Marcel Duchamp and Transgender Coupling,” in Mirror Images: Women, Surrealism, and Self-Representation, ed. Whitney Chadwick (Cambridge: MA: MIT Press, 1998): 36–65; Danielle Knafo, “Claude Cahun: The Third Sex,” Studies in Gender and Sexuality 2.1 (2001): 29–61; and Christy Wampole, “The Impudence of Claude Cahun,” L’Espirit Créateur 53.1 (2013): 101–13.

[5] J. Richards, The Fury Archives: Female Citizenship, Human Rights, and the International Avant-Gardes (New York: Columbia University Press, 2020), 189–90.

[6] Laure Murat, “The Invention of the Neuter,” trans. Colin Anderson, Diogenes 52.4 (2005): 61–72, 64.

[7] Claude Cahun, Disavowals, or, Cancelled Confessions, trans. Susan de Muth, ed. Jennifer Mundy (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2007), 151; see also Claude Cahun, Écrits, ed. François Leperlier (Paris: Jean Michel Place, 2002), 366.

[8] Nathanaël (Nathalie Stephens), Absence Where As (Claude Cahun and the Unopened Book), (New York: Nightboat, 2009), 27.

[9] Marty Fink and Quinn Miller, “Trans Media Moments: Tumblr, 2011–2013,” Television and New Media 15.7 (2014): 611–26, 620.

[10] Micah Bazant, Timtum: A Trans Jew Zine (1999), 2; digitized at QZAP: The Queer Zine Archive Project.

[11] Hil Malatino, Trans Care (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2021), 51.

[12] For more on this collaboration, see Tirza True Latimer, “Entre Nous: Between Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore,” GLQ 12.2 (2006): 197–216. For more on serial form and surrealist photomontage, particularly in the collaborative work between Cahun and Moore, Aveux non avenus, see Alix Beeston, In and Out of Sight: Modernist Writing and the Photographic Unseen (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018), 51–54.

[13] For an English-language biography, see Jennifer L. Shaw’s Exist Otherwise: The Life and Works of Claude Cahun (London: Reaktion Books, 2017).