The Hidden Histories of Trans Literature

Five Items, Five Stories

An exploration of trans-masculine possibilities in historical literature.

Scenes from book IV of Ovid's Metamorphoses, including hermaphrodiditus (center)

By Finley Simons, Smathers Libraries Undergraduate Fellow

The concept of transgender literature and where it can be found is a complex subject to approach, especially in historical book collections. To start, transgender, the term currently used to describe individuals whose gender identity differs from their assigned birth sex, was only introduced in 1965, well past the age of most of the materials set aside for special handling in the library. This alone raises the question: how do we define literature that predates modern terminology and conceptions of gender and sex? As researchers, we often prefer to be able to work within parameters that can be clearly defined. There is also the concern of introducing ideas that would be anachronistic to the time periods we’re studying. If we interpose modern expectations upon historical figures or works of literature, we risk labeling people who might not have identified with those terms even if they would have been available to them. We also risk putting blinders on for modern readers, resulting in other potential textual or subtextual meanings becoming lost. How, then, should we approach older works of literature when searching for a transgender literary history?

To begin, we do not generally have the option of searching for characters who are explicitly transgender men, transgender women, or nonbinary in works of literature that predate the terminology we use now to describe sets of personal identities and experiences. What we can look for are characters or stories grappling with complex gendered experiences that are recognizable to modern transgender people, as well as other queer and gender non-conforming individuals. We can also investigate stories that explore the boundaries of social gender roles or invite questions about the significance of an individual’s gendered presentation through narrative.

The following five items from UF’s Special Collections are not explicitly stories about transgender, or even queer, characters. They certainly may not have been intended by their original authors as works to invite discussion of queer identities or sexualities. However, they all share a common thread. Each of these works contain an actor or character who is female at birth—according to a contemporary understanding of the text—and who takes on a masculine role or form either temporarily or permanently. While these characters may not share a motivation or method for their subversions of gender norms, they all can be re-examined under the lens of queer theory. These works are not the only examples of historical literature with room to explore trans-masculine narratives and themes. They merely offer a starting point for researchers interested in interrogating the significance of gendered transgression in literary history and what it might mean for our modern understandings of transmasculine identities.

edmund spenser

The Faerie Queene

Long a staple of English literature, Spenser’s epic poem and its context provide opportunities to de-stabilize traditionally masculine roles, particularly through the character of Britomart.

Britomart is dressed in armor by her handmaiden.

louisa May alcott

Moods (1864)

Alcott’s first novel expressed the frustration of women in their traditional roles. Later editions were heavily modified due to its depictions of divorce and marriage.

The Howe Library copy of Moods

Le Comte Ory (1816)

The text and performance history of this nineteenth-century play call attention to the theater as a space where gender fluidity could be accepted as a plot element and made visible in performance.

Title line of the 1816 libretto "Le comte Ory"

Publius Ovidius Naso (Ovid)

The Metamorphoses

One of the most enduring works from classical Rome, Ovid’s poetry found new interpretation through the ages, here in the early English translation (1640) by George Sandys.

Scenes from book IV of Ovid's Metamorphoses, including hermaphrodiditus (center)