"Being What You Are": Exploring Compulsory Cisgenderness in Early Twentieth-Century Modernism



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Compulsory cisgenderness, like compulsory heterosexuality, opens up new readings of literature. Using a combination of literary theory and contemporary queer theory, I aim to expose the ways in which compulsory cisgender assumptions have driven previous interpretations of Modernist texts. The most obvious of these readings that are based upon compulsory cisgender assumptions is probably the reading of Stephen Gordon as the “mannish” lesbian, and The Well of Loneliness’ reputation as one of the fundamental lesbian texts. By exploring Stephen Gordon’s gender expressions and desires throughout the novel, it becomes possible to read Stephen Gordon, not as a butch lesbian, but as a transgender man. Readings that assert that Stephen is a self-loathing lesbian are largely participating in the notion that gender non-conformity is always secondary to a sex-queer identity. It is my intention to highlight the ways in which gender non-conformity might not refer to one’s sexual orientation, but function as its own form of queerness. I will explore the ways in which compulsory cisgenderness and compulsory heterosexuality depend on each other throughout Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, and that Dr. O’Connor’s transgender identity in Djuna Barnes’ Nightwood challenges common readings of the novel that suggest that sexuality is a psychological drive at work in Robin’s character. Finally, I will explore the deconstruction of gender signifiers in James Joyce’s Ulysses. The gender signifiers attached to both Leopold and Molly Bloom are mixed, and Joyce’s continued oscillation of masculine and feminine signifiers, particularly for Leopold Bloom, function to denaturalize compulsory cisgender notions of appropriate gender expression and performance. By looking at these queer texts through a compulsory cisgendernes lens, it is my goal to complicate popular readings of queerness as always already relating to one’s sexuality, and expanding interpretations of queerness to include gender queer presentations.



Modernism, Queer Theory