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).
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.
Contemporary genealogies of transgender are now returning to the scene of the modern, for the modernist era witnessed tremendous change in concepts of sexual and gender identity. In turn, contemporary modernist scholarship is returning to fin de siècle sexology. Michael Levenson in Modernism (2011) makes the case for the sexologist’s case study as an experimental modernist narrative form. In 2016 Benjamin Kahan published Heinrich Kaan’s “Psychopathia Sexualis” (1844): A Classic Text in the History of Sexuality and edited a cluster for Modernism/modernity’s Print Plus platform on “sexual modernity.” And currently we, with Nikolaus Wasmoen, are co-editing the first comparative scholarly edition of Man into Woman (1933), the life narrative of “Lili Elbe,” who, as Einar Wegener, was one of the first people to undergo gender confirmation surgery in 1930. Thinking about the display of this text in both print and digital versions raises an interesting set of connections between transgender theory and a theory of the literary work as an historical artifact.