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Is "Orlando: A Biography" Trans Fiction?

I'm slowly going through old blog posts and republishing ones that seem to be worth another look. This piece was originally published in March, 2011, in The Center for Classic Theatre Review. Sadly, that publication seems to no longer exist.

Woman reading by bookshelves

As a transgender woman, I’ve read a lot of trans fiction. Stories about magical transformations, mutations which cause gender shifts, mind-transfer rays, nanotechnology, forced feminization, sexual domination. You name a way someone could possibly transform from a man to a woman, and some author on some website has probably beaten you to it. And I’ve probably read it: the full range of stories, from enthusiastic transitions of willing participants to subjugation and rape.

When there is no one like you on TV, when pornography depicts “your kind” as a freak and a fetish item, when your story is absent from books and movies, you make do with what you can. Not all of the stories I’ve read were well-written. Not all of them cast trans people in a positive light, let alone a realistic one. But that hunger to find ourself in the world exists in all of us. Finding our own identity in stories certainly isn’t the only reason we read, tell stories, watch movies, see plays. But it’s a big one, the desire to find that resonance of ourself in someone else’s tale.

The first story I read that was definitely ‘trans fiction’ was The Saga of Tuck, a story about a teenage boy who begins what seems like crossdressing but ultimately turns into a much bigger exploration of his (her? 142 chapters in and it's still uncertain) identity. I stumbled across it as a young teen, and was amazed that characters could exist who asked questions like my own: what does it mean to be a boy? a girl? do I want to be a boy? what would it mean to want to be a girl? I fantasized about what it would be like to have someone in my life helping me dress like a girl, act like a girl, be a girl.

I’ve probably read hundreds of stories since finding Tuck – stories about forced feminization or unwilling transitions, ridiculous scenarios and poorly written dialog, ranging form the offensive to simply bad – to find the few gems of trans fiction that do exist. Whateley Academy has stories about teenage superheroes, including the stories of Jade and Ayla, two characters who – in very different ways – undergo their own transitions and have to deal with what it’s like to have a body that isn’t developing the way you want. Bridges is a rare example in the online trans fiction universe: a story about a trans woman, who is transitioning willingly, without any magical or supernatural help. Simply a good read about a character dealing with many of the same issues I face every day. From another perspective, These Lives We Seek deals with a college-aged journalist discovering her best friend is trans, and talks about the politics of being ‘out.’ These stories, and others like them, have helped me feel like I’m not alone in the world, even when friends and family might not understand what I’m going through.

Cover of Orlando A Biography

So what about Orlando: A Biography, first published in 1928? Is it trans fiction? The story of a man who – a third of the way through the book – awakes in the body of a woman? (Hopefully I’m not ruining that part for you, but no spoiler alerts for a book published 90 years ago.)

The timing for Orlando to be ‘trans fiction’ couldn’t be better. The German word ‘Transsexualismus” was coined in 1923. The first documented instance of sex reassignment surgery was performed just two years after Orlando was published, in 1930, twenty years before Christine Jorgenson became an international sensation with headlines proclaiming “Ex-GI Becomes Blonde Beauty!” Someone as interested in male and female roles as Woolf could easily have heard of such research and development coming from mainland Europe.

Alas, it has been pretty firmly established the titular Orlando is based off of Woolf’s friend and lover, Vita Sackville-West. In a 1927 diary entry, Woolf wrote “And instantly the usual exciting devices enter my mind: a biography beginning in the year 1500 and continuing to the present day, called Orlando: Vita; only with a change about from one sex to the other.” Likewise, Sackville-West’s son described Orlando as “the longest and most charming love-letter in literature.” Orlando wasn’t trans, simply a woman exploring sexuality with other women in a time when such things weren’t spoken of.

But Orlando’s foundation in reality, in an actual woman, doesn’t mean the book is without its exploration of gender, and its transgender themes. As Woolf so eloquently says, “The change of sex, though it altered [Orlando’s] future, did nothing whatsoever to alter [Orlando’s] identity.” What a lovely description of the ideal transition: I’m changed, but I’m not. I’m the same, but I’m not. Above all, I’m still me.

Likewise, Woolf spends no small amount of time describing Orlando’s shifting responses to being a woman, compared to those of being a man. Shortly after Orlando’s transformation, she is offered food by the Captain of the ship on which she’s traveling:

“A little of the fat, Ma’am?” he asked. “Let me cut you just the tiniest little slice the size of your finger nail.” At those words a delicious tremor ran through her frame. Birds sang; the torrents rushed. It recalled the feeling of indescribable pleasure with which she had first seen Sasha, hundreds of years ago. Then she had pursued, now she fled. Which is the greater ecstasy? The man’s or the woman’s? And are they not perhaps the same? No, she thought, this is the most delicious (thanking the Captain but refusing), to refuse, and to see him frown. Well, she would, if he wished, have the thinnest, smallest, sliver in the world. This was the most delicious of all, to yield and see him smile.

I’m not saying transitioning requires buying into a strict gender distinction between ‘man’ and ‘woman,’ with binarily defined roles. I disagree with Orlando that men have to be the pursuers, women the pursued. But Woolf asks interesting questions about how our personality plays into our gender roles, and the opposite. Do you take the initiative in relationships because that’s what men are “supposed to do?” Or are you a man because you take initiative in relationships? (Hopefully neither are true!)

I also got a kick out of that passage because it did ring true with my own experience. I discovered, over the course of my transition, that I like being the object of desire. I like having someone ask me to dance much more than I like asking someone else to dance. (Again, I am not saying all women feel this way, or all trans women, or that those feelings are why I transitioned. I don’t want to be taken as The Trans Woman Who Explains How All Trans Women Feel. But I, personally, have discovered to my delight that getting flowers makes me feel pretty and feminine and loved in a way giving flowers never made me feel strong and masculine.)

Back to my original question: Is Orlando trans fiction? And, as I’ve already started to answer, did it resonate with my own experience of transitioning? The answer to both of those questions contains both ‘yes’ and ‘no.’

Yes, Orlando explores both gender and trans-gender themes, questioning what it means to be a man, a woman, or somewhere in between. In that way, Orlando is trans fiction. But no, Orlando – the character herself, or himself – doesn’t seem to identify as trans. He wasn’t unsatisfied with being a man, and she wasn’t unsatisfied with being a woman.

Yes, Orlando resonated with my own experiences of transitioning. To use a simple example, going out in a skirt feels different than going out in pants, a power play Woolf comments on:

Vain trifles as they seem, clothes have, they say, more important offices than merely to keep us warm. They change our view of the world and the world’s view of us. For example, when Captain Bartolus saw Orlando’s skirt, he had an awning stretched for her immediately, pressed her to take another slice of beef, and invited her to go ashore with him in the long-boat. These compliments would certainly not have been paid her had her skirts, instead of flowing, been cut tight to her legs in the fashion of breeches. And when we are paid compliments, it behoves us to make some return. Orlando curtseyed; she complied; she flattered the good man’s humours as she would not have done had his neat breeches been a woman’s skirts, and his braided coat a woman’s satin bodice. Thus, there is much to support the view that it is clothes that wear us and not we them; we may make them take to mould of arm or breast, but they mould our hearts, our brains, our tongues to their liking.

I can remember the first time I tried on a skirt, as a teenager, and felt awkward and uncomfortable. I felt like a boy in a dress, with hairy legs and a five o’clock shadow. But I can also remember the first time I felt feminine and pretty in a dress, years later. The experience of looking down at myself in wonder, at smooth legs and arms, at breasts (glorious breasts! MY breasts!) and at heeled feet and painted toes, way down at the floor. The feeling has faded somewhat since then, the sheer wonder of my body as a woman, but I still get shivers delightful when I get dolled up to go out.

I wouldn’t say gender is only a function of society – something Woolf implies when Orlando seems little different as a woman with the Gypsies and hugely changed when back in England – but I also reject that gender is purely biological, and I think Woolf and I would be in agreement there, as Orlando explores. The clothes don’t make the man (or the woman) but I do think the clothing we wear, the clothing we’re allowed to wear, impacts how we think of ourselves as gendered beings.

At the same time, no, Orlando didn’t resonate with my experiences as a trans woman. A transition was something that simply happened to Orlando, not something sought after and prized, as it is with many transgender people. I wished every evening growing up that I might wake up the next morning a “real” girl, and Orlando barely seems to react at all. This did kind of bum me out, since I always love reading new stories about trans characters, about people like me, about people who don’t feel right in the gender imposed upon them by society. I admit, I wanted Orlando to be a novel about a trans character, rather than a (nevertheless very good!) novel which explores gender and trans-gender themes.

But Orlando resonated with me on a human level, as a book about a character trying to continually discover who she “really” is. And I suppose that’s all any of us can really hope for, to connect with a character on some level, both because and in spite of our differences.

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