Katie Leonard * English 341

Proposal and Theory Overview


A. I will analyze Catalina de Erauso's Lieutenant Nun: Memoir of a Basque Transvestite in the New World. (Stepto trans.; Boston: Beacon Press, 1996)

B. I will use the theoretical approach of Foucault and Queer Studies, or more specifically, Gay and Lesbian studies. This theoretical approach is particularly appropriate for Lieutenant Nun because its practitioners begin with the assumption that gender is primarily a culturally constructed identity, more than a biological "fact." Feminist theorists, especially Monique Wittig and Adrienne Rich, have expanded this insight into a political analysis, arguing that heterosexual gender categories inextricably embody the social and economic oppression of women. Wittig argues that lesbians have a unique ability to avoid this oppression because of their evasion of the role of "woman." Rich argues that heterosexuality needs to be deeply questioned as a political and social institution that systematically oppresses all women: i.e., that lesbians are not "safe" from oppression because they are forcibly pushed into the heterosexual role of woman. Both of these theorists focus on homosexuality, specifically lesbianism, as a way to explore the hidden, naturalized or unconscious ways in which heterosexuality enforces (rather than simply functioning as the context for) men's oppression of women.

In light of these theories, the work of Marjorie Garber is useful. Garber follows the approach that gender is socially constructed, for more or less explicit "reasons" of control, identity or oppression. However, she argues that the transvestite, as a "third sex," presents both an alternative to the binary gender and orientation systems (male/female, gay/straight) and a culturally resonant site for exploring the unconscious ways in which gender is understood. For instance, the confusion over whether emergent transsexuals are to be referred to as "he" or "she", an issue that presents itself at least in the translation of Lieutenant Nun.

I will explore whether any of these theoretical approaches are valid in the time context of Lieutenant Nun, since all these authors agree that a binary understanding of gay vs. straight dates only from the late nineteenth century in the United States. The question of Erauso's sexual activity is difficult to broach, since she refers only teasingly to her interests and actions in that realm. However, that itself begs the question: is it anachronistic to attempt to get at Erauso's gender identification by way of her sexual activity? Is it Erauso's personal gender identity, or her performance of gendered acts and roles (nun, soldier) which assign her a social role? Is Erauso empowered as a women or as a presumptive man by her male activities, some of which directly oppress women? In short, is it meaningful to escape male oppression by becoming a man?

I'm not sure whether this counts as a "ramification for style," but one of the complicating factors regarding my choice of this topic is that I consider myself generally heterosexual, whereas most of the theorists interested in gay and lesbian studies are in fact gay- or lesbian-identified. On the one hand, it seems to me that if their findings regarding gender and identity are valid, they should be understandable to me, regardless of my emotional involvement in "identity politics." On the other hand, if, as Rich suggests, my heterosexuality is in some ways a "false consciousness," or an internalization of enforced standards of sexuality, then I may be blinded to suggestive interpretations, or to inconsistencies in my own thinking. I have considered incorporating some kind of personal cross-dressing or cross-gendered experience into the paper, but I'm unsure about whether that would be feasible or meaningful (it might feel more like a journalistic publicity stunt or a SNL skit). I also considered attempting to write my essay without incorporating my own gender/sexual identity, but, if it is so ingrained and so unconscious as these theorists are suggesting, it might be impossible (but perhaps worth a try).

C. Sources (I feel that I have annotated these above):

Monique Wittig, "One is Not Born a Woman." In Henry Abelove, Michèle Aina Barale, and David M. Halperin, eds., The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader (New York and London: Routledge, 1993)

Adrienne Rich, "Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence." In Abelove, et al, eds., The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader

Marjorie Garber, Vested Interests: Cross-Dressing and Cultural Anxiety. (New York and London: Routledge, 1992)

Catalina de Erauso, Lieutenant Nun: Memoir of a Basque Transvestite in the New World. (Stepto trans.,; Boston: Beacon Press, 1996)