Caitlín R. Kiernan

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Atheist transsexual lesbian genre writer Caitlín R. Kiernan started off as a directionless geology student. After graduating she went into paleontology and helped with the discovery of a new type of mosasaur by pinning down its location based on the nanoplankton remnants found in its skeleton. When she grew tired of dusting off dinosaur bones, Kiernan quit and started writing genre fiction full-time. Her novels, comic books, and short stories, which have an impressive list of awards to their name, include: Silk, her first novel, which features copious numbers of spidersThe Drowning Girl, a semi-autobiographical magical realist fictional memoir; and contributions to The Dreaming, a spinoff of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman comics. She is also a musician who has played in several grunge bands.

Kiernan’s website is available here; here Livejournal can be found here.

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Historiography Saturday: Albert Cashier

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Soldier Albert Cashier, born Jennie Hodgers, was a minor hero of the Union army during the United States Civil War. The Irish immigrant enlisted in the 95th Illinois infantry and served for three years, participating in approximately forty altercations. (One war story tells of his capture and subsequent escape through the woods.) After his regiment was phased out of service he moved to a small town in Illinois and survived off a series of odd jobs and a military pension. Toward the end of his life he was diagnosed with dementia and taken to an insane asylum where his assigned gender finally became public knowledge.

Unlike most so-called “passing women,” Cashier did not return to employing a female gender identity after the war was over. Some sources attribute the consistency of Cashier’s male persona to the necessity of maintaining his pension or finding work to support himself. A column published in the New York Times postulates that “acting as a man was now an ingrained habit,” and links his eternal bachelorhood to his “masquerade”; Cashier himself is reported to have given conflicting explanations.

Although the question of Cashier’s gender identity and sexual orientation are unlikely to ever be settled, the assumptions that historians have made are worth examining. Given Cashier’s reaction of misery when he was forced to wear women’s clothing after he was outed at the asylum, it is probable that he may have been a trans man. (This blog employs male pronouns because that is how Cashier referred to himself.) His refusal to marry may have been caused by a fear of discovery strong enough to overcome the drive of a heterosexual or bisexual orientation, or he may have been homosexual or asexual.

The Ladies of Llangollen

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In the 18th century, aristocratic Irish women were expected to either marry (to the tune of immense dowries in order to secure the family’s fortunes), or, should that prove impossible, retreat to a convent. Eleanor Charlotte “this is a woman that no man would conquer” Butler and Sarah Ponsonby flipped everyone the bird and chose a third option: run away to Wales and become hyper-intellectual lesbian tourist attractions.

Butler’s castle, which belonged to her dynastic Irish family, was only two short miles from where Ponsonby lived. The two met when Butler was in her late 20s and became close “friends,” exchanging letters filled with flirtatious pet names. While this wasn’t unusual for the time period, eloping with another woman and stowing away in a barn dressed in men’s clothing after missing a planned boat was, and their respective families were dreadfully cross when they tracked down the errant women. Undaunted, the two skipped town again, this time settling down in a remote – and very lovely – part of Wales, where they holed up in a mansion. There they stayed for fifty years, composing poetry, gardening, and playing host to such illustrious guests as Percy Shelley, Lord Byron, and the Duke of Wellington, who all made pilgrimages to see visit the quirky couple.

As alluded to above, close platonic relationships between women were commonplace in Western cultures before the mid-19th century. The Ladies are listed here as lesbians because of the single-minded intensity of their lifelong relationship, including their unusual refusal to marry, and accounts from local gossips that attest to their obsession with each other; however, other interpretations are possible.

For more complete accounts of the Ladies’ exploits, see here and here.

Oscar Wilde

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Oscar Wilde, having written that “life is far too important a thing ever to talk seriously about,” might have appreciated his mythologized status on Uncyclopedia, “The Content-Free Encyclopedia,” where his wit is memorialized as a series of fake quotations and humorous biographical falsehoods, but the real story of the Irish poet and playwright is nearly as impressive in its outrageousness.

Wilde is best known for his comedies of error (The Importance of Being Earnest being the most acclaimed example) and for the sodomy trial that sent him to prison and contributed to his death at age 46. He began his writing career with a book of poetry, branching out into editorship of a women’s magazine; his novel The Picture of Dorian Gray; essays on the aesthetic movement (a philosophy that sought to divorce artistic merit from political and social criticism); a book of children’s stories called The Happy Prince; and his beloved plays. His lecture circuits took him across the UK and into the US, where he famously met Walt Whitman and bragged about kissing him.

Though never famous for his sense of decorum, Wilde’s homosexual exploits did not land him in any serious trouble until he developed a relationship with Lord Alfred Douglas, aka “Bosie”, the son of the Marquis of Queensberry. Queensberry, best known for inventing the modern rules of boxing, took issue with Bosie’s decadent lifestyle, and left a letter for Wilde accusing him of “posing as a Somdomite [sic].” The allegation – and possibly its lamentable spelling – drove Wilde into a fury, and he initiated a private prosecution against Queensberry for criminal libel. Since the initial allegation was true, Wilde found himself in an awkward place when he was called to the stand, and was forced to retract the accusation under threat of male prostitutes he had visited being called to testify against him. A warrant for his arrest for sodomy and gross indencency was issued, and he lost his trial, receiving the maximum sentence of two years’ hard labor; the 50,000 word letter he composed to Bosie during his incarceration titled De Profundis (Latin for ‘Out of the Depths’) was later published.

After he was released, Wilde traveled to Paris, where he reunited with Bosie until their families threatened to cut off funds. He developed cerebral meningitis and died alone in a hotel. Though he was initially buried in the Cimetière de Bagneux outside Paris, his remains were later transferred to Père Lachaise Cemetery, inside the city proper, and outfitted with a large tomb featuring a modernist angel, whose oversized genitalia were later stolen. A tradition sprang up near the end of the 20th Century of visitors planting lipstick-enhanced kisses on Wilde’s tomb, though a wall of glass, erected in 2011, has put a stop to the practice.

Because he married and expressed affection for his wife, Constance, there remains some controversy as to whether Wilde was gay or bisexual; however, he preferred the term Socratic to describe his sexuality, linking him to the Classical Greek tradition of pederasty, the erotic and – in his view – pedagogical relationship between an older and younger man.