Issue 51 2010
Woolf’s Orlando and the Resonances of Trans Studies
By CHRIS COFFMAN
 Scholars have recently begun to create theoretical models
that help us to register important differences within contemporary
transgendered identifications. In 1990, Judith Butler’s Gender
denaturalized norms of gender and sexuality, performing a critique of
prior feminist work on gender that not only influenced subsequent
directions in feminist studies but also initiated queer theory.
Yet as Jay Prosser argues in Second Skins, queer theory in the
1990’s often deployed gender instability or fluidity as a trope for
queer sexualities, a move he finds exemplified in Eve Kosofsky
Sedgwick’s Tendencies. This tendency to subordinate the
study of gender to the study of sexuality and to emphasize the fluidity
of both was challenged both by Prosser’s book and by Judith
Halberstam’s Female Masculinity. These books draw
attention to desires for bodily transformation and fixed cross-gender
identifications that were obscured by the “fluidity” model.
 There are important differences between Prosser’s and
Halberstam’s positions, however. Halberstam only partially
concurs with Prosser’s critique of a kind of postmodern fluidity that
would have one making rapid changes in gender presentation from day to
day: she allows for “some degree of movement” in gender,
especially over long stretches of time (147). Also, although both
Prosser and Halberstam situate their work under the banner
“transgender,” Prosser is principally concerned in Second Skins
wih transsexuality. Though he critiques Butler’s early work for
its elision of questions of transsexual embodiment, his argument—upon
which Gayle Salamon has recently placed considerable pressure—is very
hard to sustain when extended to the broader range of transgender
practices, particularly those forms that do not rely on bodily
interventions. Halberstam, by contrast, opens up the category
“transgender” to include a wider range of embodiments. She argues
for the inclusion of butch subjectivity and challenges from numerous
angles the implicit hierarchy that privileges the trans-ness of persons
that desire or obtain sex reassignment surgery.
 Halberstam’s broadly conceived idea of “transgender” can be
opened up even further within literary and cultural studies.
Sandy Stone’s pioneering work on transgender performance points to this
kind of expansive thinking. In a “posttranssexual manifesto”
labeled by the editors of The Transgender Studies Reader
as the “protean text from which transgender studies emerged,” she
argues that in order to counteract the colonization of their bodies by
the binary gender system, transsexuals should refuse to “pass” and
instead allow their bodies and life histories to be “read” so as to
disrupt its terms (Stryker and Whittle 221). Similarly,
anthropologist Jason Cromwell has observed that sex reassignment
surgery works to “queer” trans bodies and desires, including not only
binary notions of sex and gender but also conceptualizations of
“homosexuality,” “heterosexuality,” and “bisexuality,” which only make
sense with regard to non-transgendered bodies and life histories
(515). Taking this even further, psychoanalyst-in-training
Griffin Hansbury draws useful (though of course rough and contestable)
distinctions between different varieties of what he calls the
“transmasculine identities”: the men he calls the “woodworkers”
seek to blend into normatively gendered life after sex
reassignment; the “transmen” transition into masculine
embodiments but will (to some degree) publicly identify as trans;
and the “genderqueers” scramble gender signals and sometimes forego
medical intervention, seeking to disrupt others’ perceptions of their
 Hansbury’s distinctions point to the co-existence of multiple
forms of transgender. They also suggest that along with the
destabilization of gender effected within theory by Butler’s work has
come a theoretical basis for understanding the proliferation of new
ways of “doing” gender, even though Gender Trouble itself—as
Kathleen Chapman and Michael DuPlessis point out— places more emphasis
on the subversion of binary gender than on the production of new
genders (Chapman and Duplessis 237). This proliferation of
contemporary genders has only recently begun to register within the
fields of literary and cultural studies. The term “genderqueer”
has been in circulation within queer and trans communities for a number
of years now, but has yet to catch on in academic gender theory despite
its potential for refocusing attention on gender— rather than on
sexuality—as the site of queering. This queering is as much a
means of enacting and living non-dominant genders as it is of
undercutting the hegemonic modes that they challenge. I seek to
renew attention to these queer modes of transgender—not as a means of
asserting their superiority to forms of trans subjectivity that are
more invested in asserting the right to occupy one half of the gender
binary, but rather as a means of opening up the territory of
transgender literary and cultural studies to questions that have gone
unposed by both Prosser and Halberstam.
 This project of opening up territory is particularly urgent
given the turf wars that have taken place over which texts we might
call the objects of trans studies. What Halberstam and C.
Jacob Hale call the “butch/FTM border wars” have played out over the
status of Radclyffe Hall’s realist novel The Well of Loneliness, which is variably claimed as the object of lesbian, transgender, and transsexual studies. Virginia Woolf’s Orlando
is a very different case. A good deal of debate has taken place
in the work of Kirstie Blair, Lillian Faderman, Sherron Knopp,
Elizabeth Meese, Adam Parkes, George Piggford, Victoria L. Smith, Karyn
Z. Sproles, and Joanne Winning (to name only a few) about the novel’s
treatment of lesbianism. A smaller number of scholars—most
notably, Karen Kaivola and Jean Kennard—situate the novel’s
trajectories of female same-sex desire in the context of the
protagonist’s attraction to both men and women. While some of
this work presents the novel’s use of gender fluidity as a trope that
figures sexuality, Stef Craps and Jennifer A. Smith view this fluidity
as a transgender practice. Prosser, by contrast, dismisses Orlando as irrelevant to trans studies because its protagonist’s transition takes place through fantastic means (Second Skins, 168).
 At stake in these turf wars is, on the one hand, a question
concerning the way in which literature and other cultural products
register gender and sexuality. Yet, on the other hand, a question
concerning history also presses: how are we to read texts from the past
in conjunction with the concerns of the present? Contemporary
formations of transgender identities differ from their historical
antecedents because of their divergent discursive contexts. The
sexological category of “inversion” that was current in the early
twentieth century folded together what we now consider to be two
separate factors, gender identity and sexual orientation. The Well of
Loneliness and Orlando,
both from 1920’s England, engage in a rhetoric that enables them
simultaneously to play to and to exceed the official discourses on
gender and sexuality of their day (in the case of The Well), and even to sidestep them outright (in the case of Orlando).
In reading both of these texts from the perspective of the present day,
the critic’s choice of terms of identity or anti-identity implicates
the act of criticism and historical reconstruction in contemporary
“turf wars.” Even though the concept of “inversion” is no longer
current, both novels resonate with present-day identities and so remain
productive touchstones for contemporary questions about gender.
 The Well is a realist novel that tracks the life of
Stephen Gordon, a strongly masculine, female-bodied person whose
struggle to define herself in the context of upper-class English
country life ultimately leads to her exile from her family’s country
estate and to her moves to London and to Paris, where—though still
unhappy—she finds others like herself. Because The Well
explicitly connects Stephen’s subjectivity to the early
twentieth-century sexological category of “inversion” and makes it a
key element of plot, in the last few decades Hall’s novel has been a
frequent object of “turf wars.” Scholars have correlated
Stephen’s character both to contemporary butches and to contemporary
transsexuals, the latter of whom have benefited from access to
techniques for sex reassignment that existed but that were neither well
developed nor widely available during Hall’s time. (Prosser notes
that late 19th- and early 20th-century sexological texts contain
evidence of surgical interventions “as early as 1882,” though they were
not common [Second Skins 141]). For example, Esther Newton
reads Stephen Gordon as the “mythic mannish lesbian,” Halberstam reads
Stephen as a transgender butch whose gender identity cannot fully be
contained by the “lesbian” label (75-110), and Prosser reads Stephen as
a proto-transsexual (Second Skins 135-169). Acknowledged
throughout these debates is the ultimate irreducibility of Hall’s book
and of Stephen’s character to simplistic categories of identity.
 Rather than continue this struggle over classification, I prefer to use the example of The Well and its critical reception to make several observations about the implications of these debates.
 First, at stake in readings of The Well is what Alan
Sinfield has identified as a struggle over the relative priority of
sexual orientation and gender identity as axes of historical
inquiry. As historian Nan Alamilla Boyd shows, “turf wars” that
turn on the struggle between these two rubrics have animated, for
example, the debates over whether so-called “passing women” were
masquerading lesbians or transgendered men. These skirmishes are
quite similar to those that have taken place over The Well.
The question of whether to prioritize gender identity or sexual
identity in reading Hall’s text is not settled, and is rendered more
complex than in historical inquiries because of the novel’s status as
 Second, the dominance of realism in The Well has made
the novel particularly tempting for those in search of fictional
analogues to ‘real inverts,’ ‘real lesbians,’ and ‘real
transpeople.’ This move runs throughout the scholarship that
reads the novel through the rubrics of ‘inversion,’ ‘lesbianism,’
‘transgenderism,’ and ‘transsexuality.’ However, the analogical
approach is most evident in Prosser’s reading of Hall in Second Skins,
which compares Stephen Gordon’s narrative to those displayed in
transsexual and proto-transsexual autobiographies. While there
are a number of similarities between those texts, there are two
difficulties with Prosser’s argument. First, his assumption that
transsexual autobiographies are true and unmediated statements of
subjectivity is a problem because transsexuals sometimes shape their
life narratives to fit within the ‘born-in-the-wrong-body’ framework
that medical practitioners recognize as treatable within the Harry
Benjamin standards of care, as Stone—among others—observes (Stone
228). Second, Prosser’s approach leads him to privilege realism.
Though he persuasively demonstrates that both fiction and non-fiction
emphasize the importance of the desire for bodily realness in
transsexual subjectivity, his unremarked privileging of realism as a
literary genre leads him to limit the scope of transgender studies by
excluding more experimental texts that challenge narrative conventions.
 In contrast to The Well, Woolf’s 1928 Orlando
features a protagonist who lives from the Elizabethan age through to
the Modern era, and—as the result of an unanticipated and unexplained
transformation—experiences both male and female embodiments.
Going beyond Woolf’s strategy in stream-of-consciousness novels such as
Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse of shuttling between male characters’ and female characters’ different perspectives,
uses the genre of the fantastic to explore the perspective of a person
who has lived both as a man and as a woman. Even more, while a
woman, Orlando frequently circulates in public in men’s clothes, often
while pursuing women. At first blush it would seem that these
crossings of sex and gender would closely affiliate Orlando
with transgender studies. However, unlike Hall’s novel, Woolf’s
has been claimed both by feminist theory and by a queer theory that
privileges sexuality, but has largely been policed away as an
inappropriate object for trans studies.
 Starting in the 1990’s, feminist and queer scholars frequently cited Orlando
as an example of the potential of modernist experimentation to open up
a space for the elliptical articulation of fluid genders and
desires. This reading finds its best evidence in Orlando’s
cross-dressed erotic pursuits. However, the text’s popularity has
been on the wane at the turn of the century as the paradigms of queer
studies that were introduced in the early 1990’s have been challenged
by those of transgender studies. In the introduction to Palatable Poison, their collection of essays on
Prosser and Laura Doan argue that a critical emphasis both on
linguistic experimentation and on gender fluidity in the 1990’s placed
a premium on experimental texts such as Orlando and Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood yet devalued Hall’s realism (18-20). In his own Second Skins,
Prosser goes on to argue that unlike Hall’s protagonist Stephen Gordon,
who suffers the constraints of the body and of realistic narrative
time, Woolf’s defiance of realism in Orlando leaves her
protagonist “free to move beyond h/er body” and to “break through the
limits of the flesh” as “h/er narrative propels h/er through four
centuries of history” (168). Implicit in this assessment is the
assumption that Hall’s realism gives her novel the ability to represent
the dilemmas of proto-transgendered subjects in a way that Woolf’s
fantastic defiance of realism cannot.
 Prosser is right that Orlando is not the exact equivalent of a
male-to-female transsexual; Woolf’s use of the fantastic takes the
novel in a different direction. Though Orlando fantasmatically
changes from male to female partway through the narrative, h/er body
always fits within the morphological confines of binary sex.
After being unambiguously male, Orlando becomes unambiguously female,
without any of the physical features that would characterize a
male-to-female transsexual. Orlando does not share Hall’s
emphasis on its protagonist’s persistent sense of being ill at ease
with one’s gender assignment or embodiment. Nor is Woolf’s
narrative driven by a plot in which the protagonist’s process of
self-recognition prompts either the desire to take up a fixed gender
presentation that is dissonant with bodily sex, or the desire for and
pursuit of transsexual transition.
 However, Prosser’s strong preference for realism over other
forms of fiction limits the scope of transgender studies to only those
texts that present a teleological narrative that tracks the
protagonist’s identification of and process of acting upon a long-held,
internal sense of gender identity. As important as it is to
acknowledge the specificity of narratives of these kinds of transsexual
longings and of persistent (rather than fluid) cross-gender
identifications, not all forms of transsexual subjectivity follow
Prosser’s model. Nor is realism the only suitable literary
strategy. Stone, for example, challenges the “wrong body”
narrative and argues for a postmodern stance that defies genre.
Placing texts such as Orlando altogether outside of the
territory of transgender studies thus limits our understanding of the
diversity of twentieth- and twenty-first-century genders and
desires. As Craps observes, Orlando’s life history falls outside
of the “dominant conception of gender in Western societies” that
“presupposes a causal relation between sex, gender, and desire”
(175). Woolf’s novel deviates even further from this model by
sidestepping teleological narratives of gender and sexual
identity-formation altogether. Refusing a plot focused on
realized or thwarted transgender longings, the novel presents multiple
explanations for Orlando’s change of embodiment and leaves the
truth-value of each undecidable. This defiance of the logic of
causality that drives realist narrative is a postmodern textual
strategy that distinguishes Woolf’s approach to the relationship
between desire, gender, and embodiment from that of realist works such
as The Well of Loneliness.
 Thus, while acknowledging the difference in emphasis between
teleological narratives and the postmodern fantasia of Woolf’s
I argue that Woolf’s experimentalism involves not so much an escapist
evasion of the question of embodiment as it does a critical
interrogation of it. Woolf’s novel uses its protagonist’s
involuntary and fantasmatically produced transformation to interrogate
neither the events leading up to it nor the experience of the process
of transition, but rather some of its consequences for the experience
of subjectivity and desire. By tracking Orlando’s divergent
experiences as a man and a woman across several periods in English
history, Orlando considers both the implications of the
persistence of memories of one’s past sex after transition and some of
the psychological changes involved in coming to inhabit a body or a
gender identity that is subject to different social expectations than
those of the sex of one’s birth. There remain some temporal and
psychological differences between Orlando’s experience and those of
transsexuals, however. Orlando’s physical transformation is a
singular event rather than an extended process, and s/he does not
consciously wish for changes in embodiment before they happen.
Nonetheless, Orlando poses questions about subjectivity that are similar to those explored in much writing on contemporary transgendered persons.
 Woolf’s novel, however, examines these issues by inverting the
narrative of being at odds with one’s embodiment. Orlando does
not begin the novel ill at ease with his status as male; rather, she
begins to question her gender after she has become female.
Because of this “inverted” plotting, Orlando has heretofore
largely been rejected as irrelevant to transgender studies.
Woolf’s strategy of sidestepping the medical discourses on sexuality
and gender of her day—a maneuver that is evident as well in other parts
of Orlando—places her narrative in an inverted rather than a
direct position with respect to the very discourse of “inversion” that
Hall’s novel hinges upon and that has allowed it to be claimed for
 Pamela Caughie observes that Orlando is a “text about
writing, about constructing lives, histories, identities, and fictions”
(41-2). Its narrator’s discourse performs an indeterminacy that
highlights the arbitrary nature of a linguistic system in which “[o]ne
must assume a” position within the binary logic of sexual difference
“in order to take one’s place in language” (41-2). Along with
Makiko Minow-Pinkney and Toril Moi, Caughie draws on poststructuralist
theory to reframe an extended debate about androgyny initiated by
Woolf’s 1929 A Room of One’s Own and further developed by
Elaine Showalter, Hermione Lee, Herbert Marder, Maria DiBattista, and
Nancy Topping Bazin. Though the concept of “androgyny” itself
does not advance an understanding of the relevance of Orlando
to transgender studies, Caughie’s article is nonetheless helpful for
its focus on the interweaving of the narrator’s and Orlando’s desires
in the text’s treatment of sex. She argues that the novel’s
“desire is for expression itself,” and that its fulfillment of desire
“encourages us to read” its protagonist’s gender “in terms of the
situation of desire, the subject’s situation in a signifying chain” in
a system in which “[o]ne must assume a sexual identity in order to take
one’s place in language” (42). However, Caughie’s article does
not go far enough in pointing to Woolf’s critique of what Lacanian
psychoanalysts would call ‘sexual difference.’ Instead, Caughie
retains the Lacanian model, albeit in a displaced form, as she
fetishizes the “indeterminacy” of Orlando’s “oscillation” between the
two poles of binary ‘sexual difference’ (44). This leads her to
describe “androgyny, transvestism, and transsexualism” alike as
“metaphors for sexual identity” in a formulation that conflates sex
[transsexualism] with gender [androgyny, transvestism] (47). Far
from unfixing ‘sexual difference,’ her argument upholds it as the two
poles between which Orlando vacillates even in h/er “refusal to choose”
between them (44).
 Drawing on Caughie’s emphasis on the text’s undecidability but
pushing beyond the poles of Lacanian ‘sexual difference,’ I contend
that not only the novel’s language but also its narrative style are
strategically indeterminate in accounting for Orlando’s shifts in sex
and gender. After Orlando’s spontaneous change in sex, the
narrator explicitly refuses to speculate on the reasons for the
transformation. Self-consciously taking “advantage of” a “pause
in the narrative,” he comments on the way in which Orlando retains the
same face and identity after becoming a woman, and remains possessed of
all of her memories of her life as a man. However, she refuses to
join in the speculations of those who wish to posit a logical
explanation (138). Such accounts offer narrative antecedents that
would plausibly explain Orlando’s transformation, but the narrator
resists this causal reasoning, leaving it to “biologists and
psychologists” to “treat of sex and sexuality.” Describing them
as “odious” matters that ostensibly lie outside of the responsibility
of the biographer, the narrator slyly circumscribes the questions of
how and why one comes to occupy given positions within structures of
sex, gender, and desire (139). By avoiding these topics, the
narrator declares an intention to sidestep the early twentieth-century
sexological discourse of “inversion” that would read Orlando’s
transformation as the manifestation of an inner femaleness. This
effectively steers clear of the more contemporary debate between
essentialist and social constructionist accounts of sex, gender, and
sexuality as well. On one level, this rhetorical parrying works
to present the question of essentialism as undecided. Yet on
another level, the narrator’s insistence on avoiding questions of
origins and essences is an anti-essentialist move that figures them as
 This parrying continues in a later passage in which the
narrator claims to stage a debate between essentialism and social
constructionism, breaking from recounting the details of Orlando’s life
to engage in an extended meditation on the cause of her gradual
assumption of the purportedly “feminine” qualities of modesty and
vanity (187). The narrator introduces three different accounts of
the relationship between what we now call “sex” and “gender”: at
one moment, “it is clothes that wear us and not we them” (in other
words, gender constructs sex); at another, “clothes are but a
symbol of something hid deep beneath” (that is, gender expresses an
essential sex); at a third, “In every human being a vacillation
from one sex to the other takes place, and often it is only the clothes
that keep the male or female likeness, while underneath the sex is the
very opposite of what is above” (in other words, people are essentially
androgynous) (188-189). The narrator appears to endorse the idea
that there is an essential sex that is androgynous, claiming that “it
was this mixture in [Orlando] of man and woman…that often gave her
conduct an unexpected turn.” However, he can stake that claim
only by setting aside the “general question” of the actual relationship
between Orlando’s female body and her behavior, and by focusing instead
on what he calls the “odd effect” of that behavioral evidence of her
androgynous “vacillation” (189, emphasis added). This
argumentative hedge performs a circular logic that rhetorically
installs “sex” as the ground of the long list of “effects” that
follows. However one might become distracted by the exercise of
contrasting Orlando’s ostensibly “male” disinterest in clothing,
knowledge about farming, and enthusiasm for drinking with her
supposedly “female” disinterest in power, fear of danger, propensity to
crying, and ignorance of mathematics and geography, one is left in
suspended uncertainty. Is Orlando “most man or woman,” as the
narrator asks (189-190)? Is “sex” even a plausible ground for
understanding human behavior at all (189-190)? As the narrator
finally admits, “It is difficult to say and cannot now be decided,” nor
will it be later in the narrative (190). What seems to be an
earnest debate over the origins of human behavior turns out yet again
to be an elaborate tease, and right after declaring the matter
undecided, the narrator returns to recounting Orlando’s adventures.
 This series of self-conscious refusals to posit a cause for
the most significant transformations in Orlando’s life constitutes a
postmodern approach to the body and to storytelling that makes Woolf’s
novel a different kind of narrative than those that Prosser analyzes in
Second Skins. Orlando avoids the plot in which the
desire for transition or for a gender presentation that goes against
dominant cultural expectations is clearly identified as the antecedent
of a process of change. Instead, the novel sets multiple
explanations of Orlando’s transformation in motion without deciding
upon a singular account. Orlando refuses to require
narrative coherence or the positing of an essential gender identity to
make sense of its protagonist’s subjectivity, and instead embraces
plurality and contradiction. Indeed, as Nancy Cervetti argues, Orlando
uses fantasy to “invert…all the techniques of formal realism” and to
question one of its core characterological principles: “the whole
notion of…core identity” (175). Though portions of her argument
are problematic for their reliance on claims about transsexual
essentialism drawn from Marjorie Garber’s heavily criticized chapter on
transsexuality in Vested Interests, Cervetti’s view of the
novel as challenging the formulation of identity as an “inside” is
helpful. She draws on Butler’s account in Gender Trouble
of gender as both established and subverted through the force of
repetition—an argument that takes aim at Robert Stoller’s identitarian
notion of a “gender core” and suggests that Orlando is most closely aligned with non-identitarian forms of transgender (Butler 24).
 Yet the novel’s anti-essentialist, anti-identitarian embrace
of multiplicity does not entail a continual oscillation between
binaries that refuses all fixity, as Caughie implies. As Cervetti
argues, the text certainly “mocks its own pursuit of Orlando, its own
attempt to pin him down, to know the biographical facts of her life and
define her essential person,” rendering “any attempt to define
Orlando’s identity…useless” (175). Though Orlando does
present its protagonist’s “subjectivity as multiple and shifting,” as
Cervetti observes, many of Orlando’s shifts in behavior take place over
a long period of time—a fact generally ignored in readings that
valorize h/er as an icon of postmodern unfixity (175). Even
Craps’s transgender reading of Orlando finally founders in its
embrace of an “androgyny” in which gender “is fluid and multiple”
(184). The novel does embrace plurality and contradiction, but it
does not do so through what Caughie calls an utopian “refusal to
choose” between male and female, masculine and feminine (44).
Rather, the novel uses the fantastic to foreground the slow pacing of
Orlando’s shifts in gender presentation and comportment.
Excepting her physical transformation and her moments of
cross-dressing, Orlando changes over the course of several centuries in
response to historically specific, material shifts. These are not
rapid reversals in day-to-day performances, but rather refusals to use
narrative to create a coherent sense of the development of a singular
identity over realistic time.
 As Hansbury’s and Stone’s
work suggests, the “inversion” or “wrong body” narrative is no longer
the only model invoked to account for contemporary transgender
identities. The strategy of indeterminacy at work in Woolf’s
novel resonates with what Hansbury calls the “genderqueer” stance of
unsettling expectations about gender. Whereas genderqueers
disrupt the binary gender system in the visual realm by challenging
spectators’ expectations about their appearance, Orlando
disrupts the system in the textual realm by thwarting readers’
assumptions about the coherence of life narratives. In this,
Woolf positions her protagonist much as Stone positions present-day
transsexuals: “not as a class or problematic ‘third gender,’ but
rather as a genre—a set of embodied texts whose potential for
productive disruption of structured sexualities and spectra of desires
has yet to be explored” (231). There are, of course, significant
differences between the fantastically transformed Orlando and
contemporary transgendered and transsexual persons. Orlando’s
body and self-presentation are readily accepted as female and feminine,
so they do not visibly unsettle the gender binary targeted by
Hansbury’s“genderqueers.” It is not so much Orlando’s body as
h/er life history that disrupts past and present discourses of
sexuality and gender.
 Therefore, I prefer to read Orlando for its resonances
with contemporary transgender narratives instead of taking its embrace
of the fantastic and reversal of teleological narrative trajectories as
reasons to circumscribe the text as completely irrelevant to
transgender studies. Pioneers in transgender studies such as
Prosser have, out of necessity, emphasized the role of narrative in
fleshing out transgender subjectivity. As the editors of The Transgender Studies Reader’s
marking of Stone’s “The Empire Strikes Back” as the initiating text of
transgender studies suggests, one of the most important political moves
within the field to date has been to assert that transgendered people
should speak back to institutions and official discourses. Because
transsexual people usually need the approval of the medical
establishment in order to obtain sex reassignment, psychologists’ and
physicians’ criteria have exerted a strong influence on clinical and
academic understandings of transgender subjectivity (230-2).
Stone and Prosser underscore transgendered persons’ ability to
challenge and to revise official narratives for their own
purposes. Their work—along with Halberstam’s books and Viviane K.
scholarship that either pathologized transgendered people or presented
them as constructed entirely by the medical establishment and so as
lacking in agency. Woolf’s
Orlando does not offer
this kind of revision. Instead, it provides strategic evasions of
institutional attempts to stabilize gender identity. In
positioning Orlando as relevant to transgender studies, then, I
contend that Orlando’s situation and the text’s rhetorical strategy
reverberate with those of contemporary transgendered people without
being equivalent to them.
 Here I draw on Wai Chee Dimock’s “A Theory of Resonance,”
which argues that the reverberations of literary texts extend and
transmute their significance across widely diverse historical and
geographical quarters. Dimock argues that when texts move “across
space and…across time,” they “run into new semantic networks, new ways
of imputing meaning” that make a text “continually interpretable”
within new contexts (1061). Dimock’s theory challenges the common
critical practice of fixing meaning within texts’ original historical
and semantic contexts, and opens them up for a democratic contestation
of meaning that “authoriz[es] contrary readings across the ages”
(1067). Dimock’s emphasis is on the varied semantic resonances
that literary language takes on across time, but her theory can be
reworked to address more broadly discursive reverberations as
well. Queer theorists such as Carolyn Dinshaw, Jonathan Goldberg,
and Kate Thomas have drawn on this notion to analyze what Thomas calls
“the resonances that both produce and emanate from queer alliances
between cross-temporal texts” (333). Goldberg, writing against
mainstream gay politics, observes that such a methodology “allows
connections to ‘our’ past that are not tied to identitarian narratives”
(xii). While these three scholars’ focus is on discourses of
sexuality, their methodology can be extended to discourses of
gender. The fantastic premise of Orlando itself works to
mobilize cross-historical reverberations by landing its protagonist in
different historical settings, bodies, and genders. It thus makes
sense to investigate its resonances with contemporary formations of
gender as well.
 This process of seeking cross-historical reverberations
involves setting Woolf’s novel beside contemporary discourses of
transgender, rather than presuming it fully to be assimilable to
them. In this, my approach owes a debt to Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s
argument in Touching Feeling for the benefits of thinking about
what it means to set texts “beside” each other. “Beside,” for
Sedgwick, “comprises a wide range of desiring, identifying,
representing, repelling, paralleling, differentiating, rivaling,
leaning, twisting, mimicking, withdrawing, attracting, aggressing,
warping, and other relations” (8). Thinking about what it means
to “beside” thus opens up productive questions about the meaning of
proximity without assuming equivalence. By allowing one to
consider similarities among members of disparate groups or among
different discourses without conflating or appropriating them, thinking
the “beside” is a particularly productive way of thinking about the
resonances between contemporary identity-based formations and earlier
configurations of desire, gender, and embodiment. The scholarship
on the “butch/FTM border wars” implicitly takes this kind of approach,
as the metaphor of the “border” presupposes a relation of
“beside.” In Female Masculinity, for example, Halberstam
examines overlaps between female, transgendered, and transsexual
masculinities even as she observes important differences between
them. However, her penchant for categorization— evident as well
in Prosser’s introductory essay entitled “Transgender”—focuses on
proliferating different boxes for identity, a move that engenders
struggles over classification and focuses scholarly attention on the
policing of boundaries. The “border wars” over Hall’s The Well
are particularly instructive on the limits of such an approach:
they demonstrate the circularity involved in beginning with a
contemporary identity—whether “lesbian,” “transgender butch,” or
“transsexual”—and then seeking evidence for precursors of that identity
in a text whose embrace of the discourse of “inversion” overlaps with
them all. I note this circularity not to invalidate the project
of identifying historical precursors of contemporary formations of
identity—which has the beneficial effect of enabling historical work on
marginalized sexualities and genders—but rather to observe that it is
more productive to take a “both/and” rather than an “either/or”
approach to these readings, all of which Hall’s novel sustains.
 I also note the constructive circularity of Halberstam’s and
Prosser’s identity-based approaches in order to observe that Orlando
presents a somewhat different but equally productive opportunity to
think the “beside.” Much scholarship on Orlando has foundered by
assimilating the novel to a logic of identity—by asserting that all of
its rhetorical multivalence is a disguise for a coherent identity that
the critic then proceeds to unearth. This is most evident in
efforts to demonstrate, often on biographical grounds, that the novel’s
polyvocal narrative is nothing but an elaborate screen for lesbian
desire. Orlando is particularly compelling as both the
provocation to and the limit of such readings: it teases its
readers by coming close to categories of identity while refusing fully
to inhabit them. It points to ways of thinking of the history of
gender identification—and, perhaps, disidentification—that resonate
with past and present gender identities without being restricted by
 However, being “beside” is not necessarily conducive to
peaceful relations—as Sedgwick emphasizes by referencing the aggression
that often exists between siblings compelled to share a bed (Touching Feeling
8). Indeed, the tensions between “queer studies” and “transgender
studies”—at least as they have thus far been practiced—stand as
evidence of the difficulty of negotiating a terrain that involves both
proximity and difference. Similarly, the very ability of Orlando
to exceed identity categories and to sustain multiple interpretations
creates dissonance not only between critics with divergent views of the
novel, but also between individual critics and the text.
Precisely because it slyly eschews realistic temporality in order to
evoke and then to exceed historically specific identities, Orlando
continues to be a useful touchstone for contemporary questions about
sex and gender. By shifting from the use of “sexuality” as a
framework for understanding Orlando to the use of “gender” as
the primary rubric, one can see that the novel’s traversals of sex and
gender do not merely serve as figures for homosexuality. Rather,
they reverberate with contemporary formations of transgender as well.
 Shifting to a lens focused on “gender” also recontextualizes Orlando
in a manner that suggests the possibilities of what recently have been
called “trans-feminisms”: strategic alliances between feminist
and transgender politics. Like “genderqueer,” the term
“trans-feminism” thus far has gained more traction in the popular press
than in academia. Along with an article by Gayle Salamon, the
recent publication of Krista Scott-Dixon’s anthology Trans/forming Feminisms
marks the most extensive intervention to date. (Articles by C. L.
Cole and Shannon L. C. Cate; C. Jacob Hale; Cressida Heyes;
Naomi Scheman; and Susan Stryker, Paisley Currah, and Lisa
Jean Moore—as well as books by Butler and Halberstam and a 2004 “GLQ Forum”—also explore the intersection of transgender and feminist issues without using the label “trans-feminism.”) Orlando
engages similar concerns. Though Jane de Gay, Marder, and Nicola
J. Watson assign priority to the novel’s feminist themes and present
its treatment of transgender phenomena as subordinate, it can
alternatively be read as highlighting the interlocking oppression of
women, transgendered people, and sexual minorities. As Butler
observes in Undoing Gender, contemporary efforts to proliferate
new genders take place in the context of a field of legibility
constituted by existent, though malleable, norms. Orlando
explores the effects that sexist cultural norms have on its
protagonist’s gender and desire as s/he lives in both male and female
bodies and in several periods of English history.
 Citing Naomi Schor, Robyn Wiegman traces the advent of feminist gender studies to Sedgwick’s Between Men,
which draws on the conceptual tools of feminist theory developed under
the rubric of women’s studies to analyze circuits of male homosocial
and homosexual desire in English literature. Noteworthy here is
that Sedgwick’s book is both an important development within gay and
lesbian studies and an initiating text of gender studies. For
Wiegman, transgender studies emerges from this same intellectual
trajectory when Stone’s “The Empire Strikes Back” stakes a claim for
transgendered people within feminist theory and culture in response to
lesbian-feminist censure of her hire at Olivia Records. Stryker’s
introduction to The Transgender Studies Reader, which also
identifies Stone’s essay as engaging feminist theory, offers an
extended survey of ruptures and continuities between transgender and
feminist work. Transgender studies stands with feminist and queer
studies in deploying and challenging conceptual distinctions between
“sex,” “gender,” and “sexuality.” As Wiegman argues, “feminism is
not the scene of a seamless identification between so-called women and
women but is crisscrossed and overwritten by a whole range of
disidentifications, incongruities, and remappings of the material
(bodies and identities) that it has taken as its primary
knowledge-objects” (379). Because of this, feminism “finally is
not bound to any prescribed domain of gender’s complex universe”
(379). Wiegman’s statements about feminism aptly describe the
polyvocal engagement of sex, gender, and desire at work in Orlando
as well. It thus makes sense to view Woolf’s novel as a terrain
on which the overlapping concerns of feminist and transgender studies
can be negotiated simultaneously.
 One way to do so is by considering the novel’s treatment of
Orlando’s sexuality in light of h/er history as both a man and a
woman. As Cromwell and Stone observe, transgendered bodies and
life histories complicate identitarian accounts of sexuality. Orlando
calls attention to similar matters by tracking the trajectories of
desire that its protagonist experiences as a man and a woman:
first, for Sasha, a Russian woman who initially appears to the male
Orlando as masculine; second, for Shelbourne, a seafaring
Englishman who appears to the female Orlando as feminine. These
people initially appeal because they are deliciously transgendered, in
the broadest sense of the term. In both of these cases, Orlando’s
desires seem heterosexual because of their parties’ sexed
embodiment. However, h/er desires are queer because they are
initiated by the lure of gender ambiguity and defy the assumption that
desire must always flow between masculine and feminine. Orlando’s
desires as a woman are also queered by her past history as a man.
Yet at these moments, Orlando cannot—as Prosser would have it—transcend
the consequences of h/er sexed embodiment, despite h/er fantastical
transformation at other points in the narrative. Nor does an
utopian fluidity allow Orlando to transcend social constructions of
gender and sexuality. Rather, s/he is left to grapple both with
the queerness of h/er desires and with socially imposed prohibitions
and inequities concerning gender and sexuality.
 One curb on the free play of gender and desire comes from the
novel’s emphasis on the effects of the patriarchal aspects of English
culture. These include what Sedgwick, in Between Men, argues to be a form of masculinity that depends upon homophobic disavowal. We can see such a denial at work in Orlando,
whose protagonist “enjoy[s] the love of both sexes equally” only while
a woman who remembers her life as a man (221). While attending a
carnival upon the frozen River Thames, the male Orlando is drawn to a
“figure, which, whether boy’s or woman’s,” he finds to be of
“extraordinary seductiveness” and that will prove to be that of his
first love (37). Turning from “boy-boy” to “boy-girl” and back
again much as the mysterious figure skates by and then returns to come
closer, Orlando’s passion defies the presupposition that desire can
only flow between masculine and feminine. Moreover, his desire in
this scene is both sexual and epistemological. From a distance,
the “speed and vigor” of the skating leave no doubt in Orlando’s mind
that the seductive figure is male (38). However, from a closer vantage
point, the figure’s masculine “legs, hands, [and] carriage” are put
into relief by her feminine mouth, breasts, and eyes (38). After
“sweeping a curtsey with the utmost grace to the King”—that is, ending
her masculine “speed and vigor” with a feminine flourish—the skater
stops directly in front of Orlando, revealing herself to be a woman
(38). Though the initial queerness of Sasha’s gender is her lure
throughout this scene, ascertaining her sex is decisive in fixing
Orlando’s affection. Despite the narrator’s subsequent claim that
“In every human being a vacillation from one sex to the other takes
place,” the male Orlando never shifts into an identification with the
feminine position as he desires Sasha; his self-positioning as a
masculine male remains fixed throughout the scene (189). As
enamored as Orlando is of the boyish Sasha, he considers the
possibility of her being male to be reason that “all embraces [would
be] out of the question,” so he is quite relieved to discover her a
woman (38). That the prospect of homosexual acts is unthinkable
for the male Orlando is further suggested when he departs for Turkey in
order to flee an individual that identifies herself as a
Roumanian: the “Archduchess Harriet Griselda of Finster-Aarhorn
and Scandop-Boom” (114). As Orlando discovers upon her return to
England, the “Archduchess” is male (178). Though the male Orlando
experiences desire for ambiguously gendered persons, the queerness of
his passion nonetheless remains latent.
 If as a man, Orlando’s willingness to act on queer desire is
limited by homophobic prohibitions, as a woman her body renders her
subject to constraints on female mobility, and even to laws that
question her status as a subject. It is thus not true that
Orlando is “free to move beyond h/er body,” as Prosser claims (Second Skins
168). Woolf’s use of the fantastic enables her protagonist to
change sex, and therefore to transcend the technological limitations of
the early twentieth century. However, the novel’s feminist
polemic is directed at exposing the constraints placed upon Orlando
when she comes to inhabit a female body, just as the sections on the
male Orlando highlight the constraints placed by homophobia on his
 Both Orlando’s encounters with English law and her everyday
experiences show that her transformation into a woman under a
patriarchal ideological regime brings a new set of inequities.
Newly female, Woolf’s protagonist quickly learns that the feminine
“graces” he had so admired as a man take hours of “tedious discipline”
to produce, constrain the body’s ability to move freely, and attract
not always wanted attention from men (157). However, she turns
her memories of her former masculinity—and her slightly outdated male
wardrobe—to her advantage in a series of acts that have led scholars to
embrace her queering of gender. Though the male Orlando never
dons women’s garb, the female Orlando frequently disguises herself as a
man, cross-dressing in order to move about freely in society and to
take female lovers. Changing from masculine to feminine attire as
it suits her needs and desires, Orlando “enjoy[s] the love of both
sexes equally”; as a result, “the pleasures of life were increased and
its experiences multiplied” (221). As amusing and varied as are
the results, Orlando’s flexibility in gender and desire is motivated
not by the search for an utopian space of gender and sexual fluidity
but by the desire for a means of circumventing restrictions on the
circulation of women’s bodies. Her experience of Alexander Pope’s
misogyny initially spurs her to don men’s clothes, and her defiance of
a visiting “gentleman[’s]” view that “Women have no desires” prompts
the narrator to insist on Orlando’s enjoyment of other women’s company
 Orlando’s queerly gendered life history is most legible to
other characters not on her body but within social institutions.
Because of her departure from England as a man and resurfacing as a
woman, Orlando becomes the subject of a series of lawsuits, arising
from England’s patriarchal laws, that allege:
that she was dead, and therefore could not hold any property
whatsoever; (2) that she was a woman, which amounts to much the same
thing; (3) that she was an English Duke who had married one Rosina
Pepita, a dancer; and had had by her three sons, which sons now
declaring that their father was deceased, claimed that all his property
descended to them. (168)
The feminist politics
at work in Woolf’s mockery of British law do not render her novel
irrelevant to transgender studies. Rather, they highlight
similarities between Orlando’s legal situation and the difficulties
still regularly encountered in the present day by transsexuals, who are
often subject to the whims of institutions whose reliance on binary
conceptualizations of gender leave them poorly equipped to handle the
complexities of transgendered peoples’ lives. Far from liberating
Orlando from the shackles of the body, then, Orlando’s transformation
from male to female places her in a state of ontological indeterminacy,
subsisting between living and dead, royalty and commoner, man and
woman. The novel’s mockery of the absurdity of a legal system
focused so intensely on differences between the sexes is a part of its
larger strategy of unsettling teleological narratives of gender—and of
inverting the narrative of “inversion” that hinges on those
 Woolf’s feminist critique of sexism
informs the novel’s treatment both of the restrictions that Orlando
experiences upon transformation into a woman and of the homophobia that
leaves h/er queer desires latent while a man. Yet instead of
asserting that the novel’s concern with institutional sexism precludes
its having any relevance to trans studies, we might instead read
Orlando’s interrogation of desire, gender, and embodiment as
productively aligned with contemporary feminist and transgender
politics. To do so is to refuse “to perpetuate a minoritizing or
ghettoizing use of ‘transgender’ to delimit and contain the
relationship of ‘trans-’ conceptual operations to ‘-gender’ statuses
and practices in a way that render[s] them the exclusive property of a
tiny class of marginalized individuals” (Stryker, Currah, and Moore
11). As Stryker, Currah, and Moore argue, to “resist applications
of ‘trans’ as a gender category that is necessarily distinct from more
established categories such as ‘woman’ or ‘man’” helps to illuminate
the way in which all forms of gender are subject to the mechanisms of
disciplinary power (Stryker, Currah, and Moore 12). Orlando
shows these mechanisms in action. The novel’s value for
transgender studies lies not in tracking the nature of the desire for
bodily transition, but in pointing to the possibility of a
“trans-feminist” politics that is attentive to the consequences that
gender inequities have upon transgender experience. The novel’s
anti-identitarian strategy facilitates this project by thwarting claims
that Orlando’s situation can be accounted for by considering only a
single axis of oppression. In so doing, Orlando pushes us to consider sexism, homophobia, and transphobia as distinct but interlocking problems.
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CHRIS COFFMAN is
Associate Professor of English and Coordinator of the Women’s and
Gender Studies Program at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. She
is the author of Insane Passions: Lesbianism and Psychosis in Literature and Film
(Wesleyan UP, 2006), which traces the now-discredited myth of the
lesbian-as-madwoman from its introduction in early twentieth-century
psychoanalysis (Freud, Lacan) and literature (Breton, Barnes, H.D.)
through to its startling reappearance in contemporary film. She
has also published articles on Joyce’s Ulysses and Kafka’s The Trial.