Historiography Saturday: Roberta Cowell

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Roberta Cowell, the first British woman to be outed in the press as transgender (and the first to undergo gender-reassignment surgery) was a race car-driving, fighter-plane flying, veteran of World War II. After years of struggling business ventures (including the production of a racing engine) she sold her story to the newspapers for enough money to erase her debts, then went right back to quenching her need for speed; she still owned flashy cars up to the point of her death.

Gaining approval for vaginoplasty – and credibility in the public eye – required Cowell to declare herself intersex. According to her narrative she was only late in developing feminine physical characteristics. However, as one medical review of her autobiography pointed out, her scientific claims were highly dubious, doubly so because she had every incentive to mimic the respected intersex narrative of Lili Elbe. To complicate things further, Cowell held an attitude toward transition that excluded most other trans women, indicating that she may have believed at least some of her hype.

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Tove Jansson

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Since the age of 15 when she began working as an illustrator for satirical magazine Garm, Tove Jansson (later the creator of a popular children’s book series about large-snouted creatures called Moomins) made her living off of art. During World War II her cartoons remained lighthearted as a protest against the grimness of her wartime context; the Moomins even made their debut there, though in a darker, less polished form. Jansson went on to write dozens of books, including several for adults, and remained oppressively busy between writing a Moomin comic strip and answering every piece of fan mail she received. Her adorable critters remain popular in Finland (museum and all) even following her death.

Jansson’s life partner Tuulikki Pietilä was a woman and a fellow artist who inspired Too-Ticky, a crafter and professor character in Jansson’s books.

Robyn Ochs

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There is a certain irony in bisexual activist Robyn Ochs having received national media attention for her “lesbian marriage,” one of the first to be performed in Massachusetts. A contributor to several anthologies on bisexuality and spoken at queer conferences (including keynoting at the Midwest’s largest queer youth gathering), Ochs has been out and visible since college, “because nobody was talking about it!” While her most commonly cited topic of expertise is – naturally – bisexuality, she also focuses on trans people and other groups who are marginalized by both ends of supposedly binary systems. On the steady job front she worked for several decades as an administrator with student advisory duties at Harvard University. She has been honored with a suite of awards evenly dispersed throughout her career.

Her website is available here and her Twitter feed is available here.

 

 

Vivien Pentreath

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Vivien Pentreath, artist and attempted murderer, held the honor of being the first obviously queer character in a video game. In the early text-based detective game Moonmist she is the villain in one of four possible plot arcs. Furious at what she believes is the suicide of her former lover due to cruelty from the lover’s husband (said lover actually fell down a well by accident), Pentreath seeks revenge on the husband and his new wife by dressing up as a legendary ghost. The player’s character discovers that she is the culprit responsible for terrorizing the house by reading a “tear-stained page” of her diary in which she describes her anguish at the death of her late lover and desire for revenge. She is then arrested after pulling a blow dart gun on the player’s character.

Moonmist‘s 1986 release date landed around the time its publisher’s competitor Nintendo released quality control guidelines that effectively barred the inclusion of homosexual content, which was standard behavior given the homophobia of the time. While it is not explicitly stated that the two characters were in a same-sex relationship, the implication is strong enough for Pentreath to be included here.

 

Bruce Goff

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Avant-garde architect Bruce Goff left his mark on Oklahoma in the form of vivid houses and Art Deco churches scattered over an otherwise corn-filled landscape. Despite never having gone through formal training outside an apprenticeship, he was made a professor at the University of Oklahoma, and later the chair of the architecture department, where he emphasized creativity in design; however, he was later pressured to resign after he was caught touching a male student in a sting operation. Although many of his works have disintegrated since his death, the Art Institute of Chicago maintains an archival collection of his drawings and correspondence as a means of preserving his legacy. A film catalogue of his works was compiled in 2002.

John Amaechi

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Former English basketball player John Amaechi led a sports career that had him playing for teams in both the United Kingdom and the United States. His employers included Orlando Magic and the New York Knicks (his statistics on US teams are offered in depth here); at one point he famously declined a contract with the Los Angeles Lakers out of loyalty to the Magic. When he came out as gay following his retirement from basketball he became one of the highest level athletes to have done so. At the time of this posting Amaechi is applying his psychology degree to his life coaching and charity work; however, he does still contribute to the world of professional basketball by way of the occasional op-ed.

Amaechi’s personal website is here and his Twitter feed is here.

Merce Cunningham

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From childhood tap dancing lessons to pioneering the integration of computers and dance (such as his webcast series Mondays with Merce), choreographer Merce Cunningham spent his whole life on the move. His work was defined by innovations, the most famous of which was his partnership with composer John Cage. The two men met when Cunningham was first beginning to create his own independent works and remained romantically and artistically involved for nearly fifty years until Cage passed away. As part of their collaboration the two pioneered a new relationship between music and dance that suited Cunningham’s abstract, narrative-less style: separating the two entirely to the point where Cunningham’s dancers would rehearse in silence. Their shared love of chance and Cunningham’s original steps were controversial, but the end result was a lifetime of accolades for Cunningham and posthumous recognition of his invaluable contributions to the modern dance scene.