To Queer and To Be Queer: Presentism, Labels, and Identity in Gertrude Stein

by Cassie DeGroot

Cassie DeGroot is a Public and Nonprofit Administration major from Stillwater, OK who wrote this essay in Nick LoLordo’s Spring 2019 “American Genius” class.

Queer people do not wear their identity on their skin. Even though queer identity can be both a core dimension of one’s person and a uniting force for an entire community, people are not born with queerness stamped on their body. Although public same-gender relationships and outward gender nonconformity often make queer identity physically visible, the ability to be “closeted” mandates that the fight for queer liberation begin with validation of queerness as real. Champions of queer liberation, whether they be academics or icons, typically point to historical figures who defied gender or sexual norms to validate queer identity as not new or unnatural. Historical precedence carries huge social sway in validating queerness as “normal.” However, even the very manner in which to examine historical queerness is swarming with disagreement, as the invisibility and secrecy surrounding queerness in history, as well as its ever-changing labels, complicate the matter of deciding who was and was not queer.

An innovative way to undertake the challenge of determining the queerness of history is to take the perspective of “queer historicism,” a method of analysis outlined by Susan McCabe outlined in a review article published in GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies in 2005 titled “To Be and To Have: The Rise of Queer Historicism.” In order to explain queer historicism, which McCabe characterizes as a desire “to analyze and situate historical texts as cultural material, fusing the work of excavation with the recognition that sexualities are socially constructed and can take multiple forms,” she synthesizes three texts about queer life and identity in recent history: “Deep Gossip,” “Making Girls into Women: American Women’s Writing and the Rise of Lesbian Identity,” and “Strangers: Homosexual Love in the Nineteenth Century.” McCabe’s queer historicism tweaks the traditional historical process of reaching conclusions from sources and historical context by incorporating an element of cultural uncertainty and complexity that is uniquely necessary in the historical study of queerness due to its social and cultural construction and innate origins. McCabe’s article presents a compelling case that the lens of historicism, its methodology, and most importantly its accompanying language cannot track or articulate “the existence of non-normative sexuality.” Mere historicism, a methodology which focuses strongly on concrete historical events and only rigorously cautious interpretation, and uses historical events as a standard of value, relies heavily on legal and medical terms. These terms are often dissonant with the highly subjective social history of gender nonconformity and homoerotic desire, because queerness was only historically defined in these spheres in order to criminalize it (sodomy, familiarity, indecency, etc.) or to medicalize it (inversion, hysteria, deviance, etc.) Homosexuality was only removed from the American Pychiatric Association’s manual of mental disorders in 1986. Because historicism has suffered major pitfalls when used to validate queer identity, some young queer people turn to the opposite perspective, presentism, the theory of introducing present-day concepts and values into interpretations of the past.

Unknowingly, in her critiques of historicism, McCabe has also commented on presentism, as her entire essay references the specific labels of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender used today in its search for similar groups who have identified under similar terminology echoed in history. In the most recent wave of queer theory and popular interest in queer culture, which includes the texts McCabe analyzes, the pendulum has swung to presentism. In the absence of proper historical terms, far too often the examination of historical figures relies on contemporary labels instead of individualized aspects of sexual behavior and gender presentation. Queer people existed before contemporary labels to define them, so they could not access or prescribe to the terms. Since they could not self-identify with modern grouping/labelling, it is problematic to use those labels posthumously to validate queer identity. To support her critique of using historicism to track queer identity, McCabe references Bruce Smith’s claim in “Premodern Sexualities” that before the contemporary waves of queer theory, our psychopolitical understanding of sexuality as heterosexual and homosexual simply did not exist in the culture or minds of queer people (Smith, 2000.) Because our contemporary understanding of sexuality didn’t yet exist, it is often easy for the casual researcher to find evidence of queer behavior in a historical figure’s life, but difficult to connect it to modern queerness, which stamps that person with an identificatory label about which they had no awareness during their lifetime. Using a presentist lens to examine historical figures does offer validation of queer identity, but only at the expense of that historical figure’s freedom to describe their own identity.

Gertrude Stein, a modernist American writer who wrote revolutionary avant-garde poetry and prose alongside a community of legendary artists like Picasso and Matisse, is one such historical figure whose identity labels have been hotly debated in both queer and literary spaces. Stein lived from 1874 to 1946, and she was one of very few people at the time who had the privilege to break gender and sexual norms without fear, as she lived most of her life under the pseudo-protection of wealth and fame in Paris, France. This privilege made possible an abundance of evidence of same-sex attraction and gender nonconformity in Stein’s writings. However, the debate rages on about whether Stein was a bisexual woman, a lesbian, a transgender man, a nonbinary or agender person, or another label entirely. The battle between presentism and historicism can be no better examined than through the lens of Gertrude Stein.

In spite of the social taboo of romantic relationships between women, Stein was in a relationship with another woman, Alice B. Toklas, for four decades. The relationship was well-known in their circle of Parisian artists and writers and was referenced indirectly in Stein’s “Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas.” When Stein died, she passed on her estate and belongings to Alice as one would to a spouse. Even though they lived openly together and their relationship was semi-public, at least known to their friends, most of the literary evidence of Stein’s love and sexual desire for women is shrouded in subtext out of necessity for publication. In private communications, like “Baby Precious Always Shines,” a selection of love notes between Toklas and Stein published long after their deaths, their love is expressed directly, albeit in Stein’s deconstructed poetic style. The title of the collection is lifted from one of Stein’s notes, in which Stein also refers to Toklas “my dearest wife” and “lovely loved baby wifey,” among other endearments. This evidence of the nature of Stein’s relationship with Alice necessitates that even the strictest adherent to historicism would admit Stein’s identity involved some sort of sexual and romantic love for women; however, this one relationship does not reveal the extent and complexity of Stein’s queerness. Aside from her love notes to Alice, Stein also makes substantial erotic references to women and sexuality without men in the abstract poetry collected in Tender Buttons. Jillian Fischer persuasively argues in favor of sexually explicit lesbian readings of many Tender Buttons poems in her article “The Sister Was Not a Mister: Gender and Sexuality in the Writings of Gertrude Stein and Virginia Woolf.” One poem from Tender Buttons, “Salad Dressing and an Artichoke” reads, “Please pale hot, please cover rose, please acre in the red stranger, please butter all the beef-steak with regular feel faces.” Fischer analyzes the poem, “pale and hot imply sexual tension […] The meat of the beefsteak implies flesh […] while buttering meat is meant to make it more tender and less dry. The act of wetting the meat becomes an identifiable euphemism to female sexual arousal, but Stein’s inclusion of the phrase ‘regular feel faces’ can be read as an allusion to oral sex performed on a woman” (pg. 21.) Following Fischer’s belief that the poem refers to cunnilingus, it is furthermore written as a request, beginning with “please,” implying that the writer is requesting oral sex from a partner, or asking to perform it. The asking means that Stein is a sexual actor in this poem. Women were sexually objectified heavily during this time, particularly by men, but the inclusion of the “please” exposes that sex between two women necessitates that women are sexual actors, not objects. “Salad Dressing and an Artichoke” is one of many examples in the collection that celebrate sexual relations between women, and the delight of sexual relations, particularly without men. Even the title has a sexual reading; in the notes for “Baby Precious Always Shines,” the editor Kay Turner argues that the title Tender Buttons, written in English when Stein lived in Paris, references its French translation, “boutons tendres,” an erotic term of endearment for nipples. Tender Buttons exemplifies Stein’s sexual attraction for women, but it does not fully reveal Stein’s queerness.

Academic articles, particularly those that tiptoe fragilely into presentism to inform their historical readings, reference Stein’s lesbianism as a given. Titles like “Zero Degree Deviance: The Lesbian Novel in English,” and “A Signature of Lesbian Autbiography: Gertrice,” use the word lesbian as if it describes well her erotic and romantic relationship with women. However, Stein’s relationship to gender was also outside of the heteronorm, and her gender expression often leans to the masculine. Lesbians are no foreigners to masculinity; butch lesbians and drag kings are two of many woman-aligned groups who openly express masculinity. Stein’s writings sometimes allude to a degradation of the feminine and include hints of masculine self-identification that call into question the common belief that Stein thought of herself as a woman. Stein’s life defied gender and sexuality norms alike, and any discussion of her identity must examine both the gender and attraction facets of queerness. In “The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas,” which is not an autobiography, rather it is Stein writing from Alice’s perspective, recounts the tale of cutting Stein’s hair into a more masculine cut, modelled off of another queer woman in Paris, “It was only a cap of hair when Sherwood Anderson came in. Well, how do you like it, said I rather fearfully. I like it, he said, it makes her look like a monk. As I have said, Picasso seeing it, was for a moment angry and said, and my portrait, but very soon added, after all it is all there” (pg. 30.) Although Stein does not reference the masculinity of the cut directly, the comparison between herself and a monk imply masculinity. Additionally, Alice’s trepidation and the mixed reaction from Picasso indicate that Stein was aware of and purposeful about the gender norms she broke. Stein’s masculinity may point to a different gender identity. In analysis of her masculinity, Chris Coffman argues that the words “lesbian” and “woman” do not properly address Stein’s relationship with gender and proposes “transmasculine,” an umbrella term for a transition to masculinity, but not necessarily manhood, as a term closer to Stein’s identity. Coffman writes that Stein was influenced by Otto Weininger’s 1903 “Sex and Character,” a work of pseudo-psychology, defining masculinity as active, moral, and religious, and femininity as passive, amoral, and amorous. A chapter in “Sex and Character” called “Emancipated Women” prescribes that women who possess a good “amount of maleness” and lack the “feminine element” should be allowed to attain men’s “mental and moral freedom.” Although Weininger’s book is obviously horribly sexist for a twenty-first century reader, he was one of the first sexologists to suggest that there were women who could escape from femininity, an idea that might seem enticing to a young lesbian Stein who desired the freedom of men to love women and to create art, as well as to a young transgender Stein who genuinely believed she lived outside of the female and the feminine. A large portion of “Sex and Character” is spent on the concept of “genius,” which Weininger describes as a universal knowledge and understanding about the world that is only present in the “male element.” The connection between masculinity and genius is vital: without an understanding of Weininger’s depiction of genius, much of the subtext of Stein’s self-identity with masculinity would go unrecognized. In the “Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas,” Stein repeatedly refers to herself as a genius, as possessing genius specifically, not intelligence, not talent. In the passage chronicling the first time Alice met Picasso and his partner Fernande, Stein writes, “Miss Stein told me to sit with Fernande. Fernande was always beautiful but heavy in hand. I sat, it was my first sitting with a wife of a genius” (pg. 22.) Stein, still in the voice of Alice goes on to describe the many “wives of geniuses” that Alice sat with. This passage is an excellent example of how, throughout the Autobiography, Stein continuously parallels herself to Picasso, Matisse, and other male artists, and Alice as similar to Mme. Matisse and the other wives. On one hand, these parallels could indicate Stein saw women as different from her and possibly could have identified more with being a straight transgender man than a cisgender lesbian, especially due to repetition of genius. Additionally, this parallel positions Toklas and Stein more fully into the heteronormative power dynamic. On the other hand, Stein’s reconfiguring of husband and wife as genius and wife could easily be an attempt to normalize a lesbian relationship through the subversion of the heterosexual relationship, not the adoption of it.

I can see two presentist perspectives informing Alice and Gertrude’s gendered relationship characterization. The first perspective is that Stein is a lesbian and the gendered power dynamic described in the scene is due to Stein and Toklas lacking non-heteronormative models. The second is that Stein is transmasculine and felt that they could fit a heterosexual relationship mold. Both interpretations are complicated when put into historical context because in much of Stein’s writing, she is aware and critical of heteronormativity. For example, In Tender Buttons, there is a single-line poem “Cutlet” that reads “A blind agitation is manly and uttermost.” Jillian Fischer analyzes the line, “The “blind agitation” Stein refers to can be interpreted as sexual arousal, but her description that it is “manly and uttermost” also indicates that “manly” sexuality is considered necessary to a woman’s sexual experiences.” Further, the idea that manly agitation is “blind” indicates that Stein may think that men do not see women erotically in a genuine and meaningful way as individuals, the way other women do, so the male arousal is unseeing of women’s personhood and useless in comparison to arousal between women. Fischer goes on to propose that the overly formal language of “uttermost” pokes fun at the supposed necessity of masculinity for women’s pleasure. Within this frame of reading, each time Stein writes of erotic sexual experiences with women and loving such experiences, it is in knowing defiance and critique of heteronormativity, not in imitation of it as either a transmasculine person or a heteronormative lesbian. Kay Turner takes the argument that Stein is knowingly critiquing heteronormativity further, writing that in the love letters between Stein and Toklas, when they use words like “wife,” reveal that they “reveled in a kind of domestic theatricality; they staged the gendered roles of husband and wife as an obvious yet meaningful performance–a form of ‘serious play’.” Perhaps when Stein places Alice in a different category than herself, it is not in an exaltation of the heteronormative, but a form of erotic mockery. They are playing as if they are husband and wife purposefully, for their own domestic delight, or to play out a gendered sexual dynamic in which Stein is more dominant and Toklas is more submissive. In other words, evidence of heteronormativity in their relationship could be intentional, not an unfortunate product of the time period or evidence of a transmasculine identity. Both of these presentist representations forget that Stein had already labelled herself with the best gender and sexual marker she could access: genius. “Genius” as Stein understood it cannot be tracked directly to lesbian or transmasculine, but it is solidly queer.

Stein’s considerable celebrity and comparable wealth gave her enough protection to be more “out” than other queer people of her generation, but it still strangled her ability to speak publicly and directly about her sexuality or gender. For context, in 1928, the British writer Radclyffe Hall published the book The Well of Loneliness, a novel about a woman whose gender presentation is masculine and who is attracted to women. Hall self-identified as an “invert,” the popular term coined by sexologists in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century to describe homosexuality, but she is widely regarded today as a lesbian. The novel intended to humanize and evoke empathy for inverts. Even though the book was nonsexual in nature, Hall was charged with obscenity and the book was banned as pornography (Grahn, 135.) Hall was not an anomaly; the writings of queer people around the globe were suppressed legally and culturally. Since widespread publication was impossible, discussions of queer identity were fractured or entirely silenced, and queer people could not engage in public conversation about labels and groups. Likewise, Stein could not engage with decades of published queer theory or community conversation to develop her identity, so it is unlikely that she has identifications for herself that would interconnect with labels of today. She used words like genius and wifey to describe herself and Alice. These coded self-identifications must be examined as queer history in their own right, not used as evidence for an identification Stein never used.

Even after careful analysis of Stein’s masculinity and relationship to women, a clear modern-day label is impossible to find, in part due to the present dichotomy between non-normative gender (transgender, agender, etc.) and non-normative sexuality (lesbian, bisexual, etc.). The defiance of gender norms in modern terms would mean Stein was either a lesbian exemplifying that women do not have to be feminine, or a transgender or nonbinary person rejecting femininity and womanhood. Either choice places Stein into a different group of people with their own community and icons in 2019, and both disregard that there is no evidence to support the claim that queer people separated gender and sexuality at the time. As mentioned, “sexual inversion” was a term used by sexologists during Stein’s time to describe men who loved men and women who loved women, but they explained the “affliction” of the female invert as “the masculine soul, heaving in the female bosom.” This meant that there was no homosexuality, merely “latent heterosexuality” and the beginning of an understanding of transgender identity. Inversion is an example of the belief that gender and sexuality were intertwined or dependent on each other. Even today, sex and gender are combined parts of identity, regardless of the labels that divide them. Elaborating on her famed Gender Trouble, in which she argues that gender is performance, not inextricably connected to biological sex, Judith Butler argues, “Gender norms operate by requiring the embodiment of certain ideals of femininity and masculinity, ones which are almost always related to the idealization of the heterosexual bond” (pg. 17.) Gender and sexuality are tangled together by the cultural systems that create and propagate them, and labels are the only frame by which they can be separated. Before the popularization of these identifications, the lines between sexuality and gender were much blurrier for people with non-normative sexuality or gender performance. Even after analyzing gender performativity and gender norms, lesbian romance, and sexualization of the female body present in Stein’s writing, it is much easier to pinpoint aspects of her identity than to give her a single label.

Without knowing terms Stein used for herself and without Stein knowing modern terms, identifying Stein by any contemporary identification or label ultimately fails and is terribly disingenuous to her experience. I have used the word queer throughout this argument as the catch-all for gender and sexuality nonconformity purposefully due to its strategic and linguistic strengths. In doing so, I draw upon Kathyrn Kent, who defines queer as a “transhistoric term that may include any act or protoidentity that exists outside the realm of bourgeois, heteronormative reproduction and its correlative ideology of gender roles […] I intend it to be understood as a term that is simultaneously oppositional and nonspecific” (pg. 2.) Queer is not nonspecific to be indecisive or placating. Using queer as a term for historical figures both legitimizes non-normative sexuality and gender and recognizes that those figures understood sexuality and gender differently than we do. The overarching word queer defines historical figures as solidly nonnormative, solidly requiring queer historicism, but solidly refuses to assign specific modern definitions, and in this balancing act answers the question of how to walk the line between presentism and historicism. If Gertrude Stein lived in 2019, she might have identified as a lesbian, genderqueer, nonbinary, bisexual, transgender, or any other queer label that spoke to her, but she did not live in 2019. The purpose of analyzing historical figures’ queerness should not be to ponder counterfactual versions of their lives, but to celebrate their actual identities, like Stein’s genius, and celebrate the validation they offer to modern-day queer people. Without the application of any labels, the content of Stein’s writing and her public life are sources of inspiration for the queer community today. Judy Grahn earnestly explains this importance in “Really Reading Gertrude Stein,” writing, “The symbolic value of Gertrude and Alice, obviously married and utterly loyal to each other, obviously accepted and even revered by others, cannot be exaggerated” (pg. 237.) The importance of Gertrude Stein to the queer community is not contingent upon a label, but upon her actions and the way she lived her life. Stein loved Alice B. Toklas for forty years. Stein wrote her love and desire for women, her abdication of gender norms, and her critiques of heteronormativity into her poetry and prose, and those aspects of her writing serve to validate queer identity and and comfort the queer community. Focusing on identification instead of identity only serves to fracture the queer community into smaller parts and alienate gender from sexuality. Stein was queer; her queerness in the early 1900s validates all non-normative genders and sexualities. It does not need to be labelled further. To take from Gertrude Stein herself, during a lecture she once said, “It is awfully important to know what is and what is not your business.” Any labelling of Stein beyond queer completely ignores her own, fully understood, coded sexuality, and is very much not our business.

Works Cited

Butler, Judith. “Critically Queer.” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies, 1 November 1993, pp. 17-32.

Coffman, Chris. “Visual Economies of Queer Desire in Gertrude Stein’s The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas.” Arizona Quarterly, 2014, pp. 49-83.

Coffman, Chris. “Reading Stein’s Genders: Transmasculine Signification in the 1910s and 1920s.” Texas Studies in Literature and Language, 2017, pp. 1-27.

Fischer, Jillian P., “The Sister Was Not a Mister: Gender and Sexuality in the Writings of Gertrude Stein and Virginia Woolf.” Lawrence University Honors Projects, 2013.

McCabe, Susan. “To Be and To Have: The Rise of Queer Historicism.” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies, 2005, pp. 119-134.

Stein, Gertrude & Grahn, Judy. Really Reading Gertrude Stein: A Selected Anthology with Essays by Judy Grahn. Crossing Press, 1989.

Stein, Gertrude & Turner, Kay. Baby Precious Always Shines: Selected Love Notes between Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. 1st ed, St. Martin’s Press, 1999.

Stein, Gertrude. Tender Buttons: Objects, Food, Rooms. Dover Publications, 1997.

Stein, Gertrude. The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. Vintage Books ed, Vintage Books, 1990.

Stein, Gertrude. “What is English Literature?” Lectures in America, 1935.

Weininger, Otto. Sex and Character. Authorized translation of 6th ed, William Heinemann, 1906.