homosexual n. (1892) 1: of, relating to, or characterized by a tendency to direct sexual desire toward another of the same sex 2: of, relating to, or involving sexual intercourse between persons of the same sex; n (1902): a homosexual person and esp. a male.
—Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary
I: Inversion and the Invention of Homosexuality
Before homosexuality was "invented" with the term's introduction into the English Dictionary in 1892, one reigning theory of homosexual identity was "inversion." Simply put, same-sex desire was driven by the particular malady of having the soul of the opposite gender trapped within one's body. As David M. Halperin adeptly argues in his essay "One Hundred Years of Homosexuality," the discrete category of "homo-sexual" is a relatively recent term and concept, while inversion was earlier understood to be a broader description for a host of non-normative sexual acts and identities.
Halperin cites Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, a 19th century advocate for the rights of sexual minorities, who described his own condition as that of an "anima muliebris virili corpore incluse—a woman's soul confined to a man's body." This phrase may feel dated as a catch-all explanation for same-sex desire, but may indeed feel very contemporary in the way that it de-stabilizes notions of singular, static gender identities. While any identity that subverted the 19th century polarized concepts of "man" and "woman," such as homosexuality, was often argued to "invert" the laws of nature, 21st century gender identities have become much more fluid, often divorcing physical sexual identity from the gender of the personality held within.
Increased awareness of intersexed and transgender communities have brought traditional notions of binary, permanent genders into question. Members of these, and other communities, have been able to liberate themselves from the dominant hegemony's strict concept of gender identity and embrace the potential liberation in realizing that, in Ulrichs's words, another gender's soul is trapped within their body. In some ways, we might say, this old concept of inversion has staying power. More than just a platform for some people to identify themselves, it acts as a starting place for some recent fictional narratives that ponder the nature of gender itself.
II: Strange Pairings: A 19th Century Concept and Speculative Literature
One of the strengths of the science fiction and fantasy genres is their ability to take a figurative concept and explore what it might mean for that concept to have a literal representation in the world. Three novels in particular explore the idea of the soul of one gender trapped within the body of another: Richard K. Morgan's Altered Carbon, Justin Leiber's Beyond Rejection, and Lynn Flewelling's The Bone Doll's Twin. In turn, depictions of "inversion" have allowed these authors to make new observations about gender roles, personal identity, and even larger problems of philosophy.
Altered Carbon: Momentary Lapses of Gender
Body-switching is commonplace in the world of Richard K. Morgan's Altered Carbon. Criminals are often incarcerated by placing their downloaded memories and personality into virtual holding cells, only to place their minds in new bodies upon release. In other cases, specially trained individuals, like main character Takeshi Kovacs, are transported across interstellar distances by transferring their personality to a new body on a distant planet. In two instances, Kovacs finds himself "sleeved" in the body of a woman. While most individuals placed in new "sleeves" find the transition traumatic, Kovacs is trained to quickly assess the limits and capabilities of his new body. During one instance in which he is placed in a woman's body, he reflects upon what he has learned from the experience of traversing genders:
To be a woman was a sensory experience beyond the male. Touch and texture ran deeper, an interface with environment that male flesh seemed to seal out instinctively. To man, skin was a barrier, a protection. To woman, it was an organ of contact.
For Kovacs, there is something deeply physical—intrinsic—to each gender's experience of the world. That is, a woman's experience of the world is tied so closely to her body that even a male personality housed in a female body will experience the world as a woman would. Yet, the above statement suggests that women allow themselves to be more vulnerable, more open to connection to the world, while men actively use skin as a "barrier." This implies that the experience of the body is directly linked to a gendered mind and its feelings about the world.
The question of the extent to which the mind and body are separate becomes even more complex as the novel delves deeper into Kovacs' experience. While Kovacs clearly feels that the mind and body are connected, there is always a clear distance between his mind and the female bodies he inhabits. In more than one occurrence, this distance takes on a voyeuristic quality. For example, after being subjected to a session of particularly sexualized torture, he examines his female "sleeve," particularly the breasts, and notes: "The coppery upper slopes were smooth and unscarred, the nipples intact." Here, "coppery" and "upper slopes" seem to more closely mirror the language and tone of erotica, rather than what one might expect from someone recovering from torture. In these cases of Kovacs inhabiting women's bodies, there is often a sense of him eroticizing that body and clearly maintaining his male self's sexual desire for women. Kovacs' distinct identity (regardless of the body that houses it) suggests that the personality, the "soul" one might say, is clearly separate from the body it may come to inhabit. Like 19th century inversion, the soul seems to retain its gender identity in the world of Altered Carbon, regardless of how discordant that may be from the body it inhabits.
Gender Transition in Beyond Rejection
In contrast to Altered Carbon, Justin Leiber's Beyond Rejection introduces a world where body-switching involves a much closer integration of the mind into the new body it inhabits. Leiber, a professor of philosophy, focuses his novel's plot more closely on the issues of integrating a male personality into a woman's body than Altered Carbon, and more directly addresses the larger philosophical question of whether the mind can ever be thought to be separate from the body. In doing so, Leiber looks directly at the issue of individuals transitioning between genders and offers a very open-ended position on its potential implications.
The novel follows the experiences of Ismael Forth, a man whose male body has died and whose psyche is being transferred into the body of a woman. While becoming accustomed to his new body, Ismael investigates the mystery of his own murder. The narrative pays close attention to Ismael's learning to understand his new body and the way the world now relates to him as a woman. This naturally gives way to an exploration as to whether gender, and similarly erotic object-choice, is impacted by the gendered body in which the mind dwells. Leiber makes clear at the start that a common belief in the world of his novel—one in which high-schoolers read "the pioneering twentieth century work of Alan Turing and Noam Chomsky"—is that "the human mind could be described quite apart from the physical brain."
Despite this world's commonly held belief that the mind and body are distinct, Ismael is advised during psychological counseling sessions that "[a] mind has no sexual identity [. . .] Think of how lucky you are to experience both sexes' sexuality." That is, his mind will change and adapt now that it is housed in a differently gendered body. Unlike Kovacs, Ismael Forth finds his sexual identity more fluid as he adapts to his new female physical identity. There is something profoundly liberating in the transformation for Forth, as he discovers the limits of the new body, experiences the joys of sex with men for the first time, and still maintains his previous attraction to women. According to the transplant technicians' textbooks, this blurring of the lines of soul and body is at the heart of a successful transferring of a mind into a new body:
A successful implant displays acceptance at the deepest and most primitive levels of being. Where self and the other become one.
Interestingly, Leiber's passage here closely mirrors Freud's description of romantic love, which he characterized as the one instance where ego boundaries dissolve, and the "I" and "You" become one. Indeed, Ismael renames himself "Patty Forth" to reflect his new identity, which includes his personality and memories as a man, but now experiences the world as a woman. Forth, then, could easily be seen as having transitioned, similar to today's MTF transgender person, from male to female and naturally found a home within his/her differently gendered body. Thus, for Leiber, "inversion" seems to only exist as an impetus for integration, as Ismael Forth's male soul cannot exist distinctly apart from its new female body. Ismael can only be said to be a man's soul trapped in a woman's body for a short time—as if this duality can only exist in a transitional state—until he once again becomes a fully integrated, literally "self-accepting" person.
The Bone Doll's Twin: Between Genders
Similar to the novels above, Lynn Flewelling's The Bone Doll's Twin imagines a woman's soul trapped inside a man's body, but uses this concept to directly address various assumptions about gender identity. In the novel, a young girl destined to be queen is given male form at birth through the use of dark magic, in order to disguise her from assassins. The boy infant is given the name Tobin and grows up unaware of his true gender identity. Throughout his boyhood, Tobin struggles with how his own "feminine" behaviors and attraction toward other boys are at conflict with others' expectations of how a young boy should act.
The internal conflict between Tobin's feelings and the natural assumptions about his behaviors as a young boy provide ample opportunities for Flewelling to explore the extent to which gender identities are constructed. One could say that Tobin is born intersexed, truly positioned midway between two genders, and is assigned a male gender, despite his strong feelings otherwise. Despite Tobin's feelings that he does not fit into the world's expectations of a young boy, he feels himself policed to avoid girl-associated behaviors. For example, upon discovery of Tobin's hidden doll, his father exclaims, "What a silly thing that is!" He tosses the doll away and gives Tobin a sack of marbles in exchange, which fall through Tobin's shirt and weigh heavy at his waist. His father goes on to explain:
Dolls. . . They're silly, filthy things. Boys don't play with them, especially boys who want to grow up to be brave warriors.
Here, his father expresses the shame and fear of having a boy act in a way not expected of their gender. His father (who is aware that the child was meant to be born a girl) fears discovery and the safety of his child. These real concerns seamlessly mirror the fear parents in our world feel when their child does not conform to gender norms. After his father's outburst, Tobin tries to hide his hurt feelings until he reaches the privacy of his room:
Even after he cried again, it was hard to sleep. His bed felt very empty now. At last he fetched the wooden sword [his mentor] Tharin had given him and cuddled up with that.
Craving his father's acceptance, yet longing for his doll, Tobin turns to a much more accepted and "natural" object to reassure a young boy: a sword.
These moments are both poignant and also clear depictions of what Judith Butler has called compulsory heterosexuality, described in her essay "Imitation and Gender Subordination." Butler argues that "compulsory heterosexual identities, those ontologically consolidated phantasms of 'man' and 'woman,' are theatrically produced effects."
In his vehement dismissal of his son's attachment to his doll, Tobin's father makes clear that there is only one way that boys, especially the kind of boy that is valorized, are expected to act. By proscribing "unnatural" these behaviors, his father reinforces what Butler describes as "the reality-effects of gender practices, performances, repetitions, and mimes." Tobin learns that to fulfill others' expectations of what it means to be a "boy," he must imitate a set of behaviors and actions that represent that rigidly defined gender identity.
At first, Flewelling's novel seems to reinforce the thinking behind the 19th century concept of inversion. Tobin's "abnormal" behaviors can be explained by the woman's soul trapped within his male body. However, as the novel progresses, Tobin discovers that many of the feelings for which he is derided are normal for men. His squire urges him to let down his resistance to crying. His mentor reassures him that, though it is rarely discussed, many young warriors have same-sex relationships. Indeed, Tobin's father and his mentor had been lovers once. As readers, we can almost forget for a moment that Tobin is a magically "inverted" soul, and rather see him as a child struggling to find his identity along a broad spectrum of identities: he may be a boy, a girl, or another identity between the two. Regardless, Tobin is confronted with feelings that exclude him from a rigid, compulsorily heterosexual environment.
III: Toward New Definitions and Meanings
In each of the above novels, the "inversion" of the soul of one gender into another's body generates discord by forcing the characters (and their respective creators) to address the extent to which the mind and body will impact each other. While Morgan utilizes gender discord between the mind and body to underscore the distinct separation of the two, Leiber suggests that this discord must necessarily be resolved for the well-being of the Self. One might argue that Flewelling's novel offers balance of the two, by placing the emphasis not on the reconciliation between the mind and body, but rather between one's personal emotions and the context of the society in which one lives. Indeed, if Ulrichs were alive today, in a world less openly repressive and guided by new definitions, would he conceive of his same-sex desire as driven by an internalized woman's soul?
Ulrichs, however, did not live in our era, our world. And, in fact, neither do Takeshi Kovacs, Ismael Forth, or young Prince Tobin. In many ways, though, their worlds—and others past or imagined—pose the right place to begin to understand our own.
Butler, Judith. "Imitation and Gender Subordination." Inside/Out: Lesbian Theories, Gay Theories, ed. Diana Fuss. New York: Routledge, 1991.
Flewelling, Lynn. The Bone Doll's Twin. New York: Bantam Spectra, 2001.
Freud, Sigmund. Civilization and Its Discontents. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1989.
Halperin, David M. One Hundred Years of Homosexuality and Other Essays on Greek Love. New York: Routledge, 1989
Leiber, Justin. Beyond Rejection. New York: Ballantine, 1980.
Morgan, Richard K. Altered Carbon. New York: Ballantine, 2002.
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