‘Gender? I hardly know her!’: Gender nonconformity in France

By Wyn Turner

Note from author
I’ll be using neutral they/them pronouns for Charles, since every piece of academic writing on them is in disagreement about how they identified, and although the general consensus is that Charles was intersex, I am reluctant to medicalise their identity, reduce it to genitalia and assume that being intersex automatically makes one trans. For Joan, I will be using she/her, not because I think she was strictly female, but because the transcript of her trial gives some indication that she did consider herself a woman, she just preferred wearing men’s clothes. Thank you for reading.

Gender nonconformity in French history and culture. Big subject for just under 1,000 words, but thankfully I can discuss an expansive subject and be concise, so suck on that, Victor Hugo.

Joan of Arc, or La Pucelle and the Chevalier d’Éon, are both fairly famous figures of French history. Not only for their actions, but also what they wore while they performed said actions. The Chevalier is not as well-known as Joan, but they are both brilliant individuals to discuss gender nonconformity and trans* identities.

The Chevalier d’Éon, a nonconforming icon

Born Charles, with a lot of other very fancy names, the Chevalier d’Éon was a spy for the French government, manipulating diplomats and duelling any man who dared question their ability or intellect.

A swashbuckling, swish and scandalous spy! What an icon of trans and gender nonconforming history. It wasn’t all espionage and sword fighting however; while Charles was in London for a brief period of their life, a betting pool began on the subject of their true gender. Was this French member of the royal spy network, the Secret du Roi, a man or a woman? The sum eventually reached £700 (£48,832 in today’s money, can you imagine?), before public interest drifted away and the whole thing was abandoned.

Although a horrifying ordeal to imagine nowadays, some modern scholars suggest that Charles wasn’t treated as badly as they could have been, mostly due to the theatre’s influence on society. Men played women, as any Shakespearean knows, and that was a given for any play performed at the time. Cleopatra, Lady Macbeth, Miranda, Juliet were all played by young boys, which, as a phenomenon, creeps into the realm of LGBT+ analysis once again given its distinctly homoerotic. But that’s another article.

This theory doesn’t mean that Charles was treated well, however. They died in relative poverty for someone once favoured by the king, and a surgeon after their death performed an autopsy to determine their ‘true sex’. Charles wasn’t ever afforded the dignity of not being surgically analysed posthumously.

It isn’t all sad however, as Charles did inadvertently spark the ‘querelle des femmes’, the broad public debate and women-centred discourse which contributed to the conversation about women’s rights and abilities, independent of men. If Mademoiselle d’Éon could do it, why couldn’t they? Their legacy is that of the evolution of women’s emancipation in France. Maybe not a happy ending for our Charles, but an optimistic one.

Joan of Arc’s identity

In truth, Joan of Arc’s story isn’t much happier, but at least Charles made it to the ripe old age of 81. Joan was only 19 when she was burned at the stake for any number of accusations levelled at her by the Church.

When most people our age think Joan of Arc, we think of Zendaya’s armoured-and-chain mailed look for the Met Gala a couple of years ago, blunt red bob and waterfall-silver train included. In fairness, modern understanding of la Pucelle isn’t too far off of this image – a young French woman, wearing men’s clothes and listening to the voices of what she called her guardians, fighting for France’s freedom from English rule.

She was born in obscurity in Domrémy, north-eastern France in the 15th century when she heard the voices of her guardians and took up arms to secure her king’s rightful place on the throne. Once the pro-English Church got a hold of her she was put on trial for, among other things, heresy, witchcraft and cross-dressing.

We could go Marianas trench-deep into the miscarriages of justice of Joan’s trial which led to her execution, but the writings on her life, particularly the work of Leslie Feinberg, butch lesbian activist and author of Stone Butch Blues, offers some insight into modern conceptions and theories surrounding Joan’s gender nonconformity.

Gender conformity, transgender and Joan of Arc

Feinberg posited in hir book Trans Liberation that Joan of Arc would be trans if she were alive today, referencing Joan’s refusal to wear women’s clothing even on pain of death. As a butch lesbian myself, I can’t say I’d do any different.

I even went so far as to read part of the Summa Theologica, Thomas Aquinas’ treaty on what was or wasn’t acceptable according to his understanding of the Scriptures. He apparently considered cross-dressing a sin unless there was good reason for it, and while plenty of good reasons existed for Joan to wear men’s clothing (safety from male attention, keeping her identity hidden, anonymity), she continued to cross dress when her circumstances changed. There was no reason other than her own will to wear men’s clothing. She wanted to, and so she did.

I would love to proclaim that Joan of Arc and Charles were both trans*, and their sad ends were due to transphobia, but academia doesn’t much like those kinds of sweeping statements unless you have a PhD and peer-reviewed journals to back them up. So, I end with the ambiguous nature of analysing the identities of historical figures and the sad truth that we will never truly know. It is still my personal belief that both Charles and Joan were trans*. I don’t have a PhD to back that up (yet), but for now, game recognises game.

Leslie Feinberg on gender nonconformity

While I do take inspiration from Joan and Charles, I use slightly more recent figures of LGBT+ history as my point of reference when considering my own gender and gender nonconformity.

Leslie Feinberg is potentially one of the more famous gender nonconforming butch lesbians. As the author of Stone Butch Blues, Trans Liberation and Drag King Dreams (all of which are available for free online on hir website) Leslie’s role in community organisation, workers’ unions, trans support groups and lesbian communities can’t be understated. Any woman who loves women should read hir work and spread hir legacy.

Ze died fairly young, but hir work was formative for myself as a gender nonconforming butch lesbian. I’d not felt kinship like it before; feeling so disconnected to womanhood because of my love for only women when womanhood so often means attraction to men and dressing to please men. Wearing a structured shirt, a belt and good trousers makes me feel more myself than any dress or skirt, and any masculine gay women, be they studs (a Black lesbian term) or butches, feel similarly.

Leslie Feinberg’s butch identity was about protection, love and hardness that melts into softness for hir loved ones. I do my best to emulate those ideals and uphold a community of care and protection for my own friends and family.

A personal note

These ideals don’t always make it easy to move through the world as a butch though; I was almost never stared at in Bristol, but back home I experience a lot of misgendering and confusion. My personal favourite was an elderly white woman who passed me and I heard her say “what?” to her companion.

My experiences aren’t great, but I am afforded a lot of privilege thanks to my race and social class, where others in my community are not, and face worse treatment due to their intersecting identities. While these identities can divide us, I consider my community somewhere my fellow masculine lesbians can share our experiences and commonalities, whilst feeling protected by that very kinship. Now more than ever.

*my use of trans here does not claim that Joan of Arc and the Chevalier were a trans man and a trans woman respectively, since we just don’t have the evidence. There is however enough writing on the subject of their genders to realise that they both felt stifled by their assigned roles and sex, and attempted to transcend those roles.

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