|PBS has made a new documentary|
on Ernest Hemingway which presents their
gender variance. (photo by Yousuf Karsh)
Ernest Hemingway is know as one of the greatest writers of the 20th century. Hemingway is also known as one of the most macho male authors of the time. Yet, there is overwhelming evidence that the great author was some shade of transgender.
Before we start: I am using the term "transgender" in its most common meaning here, i.e. as an umbrella term for all kinds of gender variance.
We cannot know how Hemingway would have identified today, in a time that is a bit more forgiving towards queer and trans people than the world Hemingway lived in.
However, I will argue that given all the time they spent on trying to come to the bottom of their own gender variance, this was much more than a "fetish" (even if Hemingway, like most people, had their kinks). What we are facing here is a more fundamental nonbinary or transgender identity.
Given that I do not know how Hemingway would have presented today, I stick to gender neutral pronouns.
My main sources on Hemingway's transgender nature are Mary V.. Dearborn's book, Ernest Hemingway: A Biography, and Nancy R. Comley and Robert Scholes' Hemingway's Genders. (References below).
Fetish or identity?
Keep in mind that few of the authors who have looked into this side of Hemingway are transgender themselves, which often leads – as I see it – to some misinterpretations of Hemingway's gender.
For some the very presence of erotic crossdreaming or sexual role play, immediately leads to the term "sexual fetish". This is a term that is actively used to invalidate trans people.
Mind you, I am not saying that fetishes do not exist. Most, if not all, people have them. But it should be pretty obvious that a transgender identity is likely to express itself through sexual dreams and desires as well. Instead of using fetishes and sexual fantasies to dismiss transgender identities, we should use interpret them in a transgender and queer context.
|Hemingway did wear dresses as an infant.|
At that time kids, regardless of assigned
gender were dressed like this. I have
a picture of one male ancestor
very similar to this one of Hemingway.
Indeed, most medical experts today agree that transgender identities are shaped by an interplay between biology and hormones on the one hand and culture and personal experiences on the other. Childhood experiences may explain how a transgender identity plays out in a life, but they do not explain why one particular person becomes gender variant.
It should be noted that in the end Dearborn leaves all these hypotheses behind, arguing that Hemingway was, indeed, some shade of trans.
The Garden of Eden
The clearest signs of Hemingway's gender variance is found in their unfinished novel, The Garden of Eden.
This novel was supposed to be their magnum opus, and it is in this book that they explore their own gender and sexuality openly and earnestly.
The book is strongly inspired by their own life, and the life they shared with their wives.
They started writing the book in February1946 and by July the same year they had over 1000 pages. Hemingway lost control over the book. They never managed to finish it.
Kenneth S. Lynn writes (Lynn 1995, p 541):
No other piece of fiction... reveals as much about Hemingway's sexual duality as does The Garden of Eden. Perhaps one of the factors that caused him to withhold the book from publication was a feeling that its audacity was more than the public taste at the time could cope with.
That might be. Hemingway had, after all, spent an insane amount of energy to brand themselves as the hyper-masculine man – the big game hunter who wrote books about war and bullfighting.
Gender role playing
So what it is that The Garden of Eden, as well as other sources, tell us about Hemingway's gender variance?
The main sign is their intense interest in gender role playing, sexual as well as non-sexual. Some of this is clearly fetishistic, as their interest in hair cuts. But I would argue that this fascination points to a deeper experience of gender variance.
|The movie based on The Garden of Eden captures the way hair cuts were used to express gender variance.|
He would enact erotic scenarios regarding hair color and sex that each of his four wives would participate in. He and Hadley played out a drama in which he grew his hair while she kept hers trimmed until, when they were off on a skiing holiday and none of their city friends would see, their hair was the same length.
In early drafts of A Moveable Feast, his memoir about his youth with Hadley in Paris, he writes of their exchanges about hair—and how their haircuts looked and felt—and alludes to the changes their gender-challenging haircutting wrought in their sexual practices—which they characterize as “secret pleasures” (AMF, 183–192).
The idea that women and men could explore different sexual roles excited him terribly, as did the role that hair could play in such a drama. In two of Hemingway’s best-known novels, A Farewell to Arms and For Whom the Bell Tolls, hero and heroine talk about growing and/or cutting their hair to the same length. Out of context these conversations are not remarkable—just a little unexpected.
But Hemingway’s obsessive interest in hair is obvious to any reader of his late fiction, especially The Garden of Eden, where husband and wife embark on a period of trying out different gender roles in bed, and at the same time a course of cutting their hair and dyeing it with henna or bleach to match each other’s....
Gender bending sex games
But Hemingway's interest in role playing went far beyond visits to the hair dresser.
Hemingway and their fourth wife Mary Welsh engage in crossgender role playing in bed:
"Let’s play around, I’m gonna call you Pete, you call me Catherine."
The 2008 movie based on The Garden of Eden captures some of the gender queer aspects of Hemingway's book
In her journal (Mary Tramontana notes) Mary Welsh wrote that he was the best man she’d been with in bed.
He “wanted his wife to be both completely obedient and sexually loose.” She “enjoyed the sexual part, cut her hair short and bleached it platinum, because it excited him, and sometimes pretended that she was a boy and he was a girl,” the narrator ...tells us. “He dyed his hair too.”
This role play went far beyond a fetish for short hair. Indeed, it is pretty clear that the two of them changed the traditional gender roles during love making.
Ken Burn's new PBS movie about Hemingway presents a condensed version of Hemingway's entry in Mary's diary from 1953 (which is included in Moddelmog's article "Casting out the forbidden desires from The Garden of Eden,"found in Gizzo and Svoboda p. 276f):
She has always wanted to be a boy and thinks as a boy without losing any femininity. If you should become confused on this, you should retire. She loves me to be her girls, which I love to be, not being absolutely stupid... In return she makes me awards, and at night we do every sort of thing which pleases her and which pleases me... Mary has never had one lesbian impulse but has always wanted to be a boy. […] I loved feeling the embrace of Mary, which came to me as something quite new and outside all tribal law. On the night of December 19th we worked out these things and I have never been happier.
Was Hemingway referring to pegging (where the woman penetrates the man anally with a strap-on)? Possibly.
Debra Moddelmog refers to a crossed out paragraph in The Garden of Eden in her book Reading Desire: In Pursuit of Ernest Hemingway:
[David] lay there and felt something and then her hand holding him and searching lower and he helped with his hands and then laid back in the dark and did not think at all and only felt the weight and the strangeness inside and she said, “Now you can’t tell who is who can you?”
Whatever is the case, pegging or finger play, Hemingway definitely takes on the traditional "bottom" role in this scenario. Given the transphobic and homophobic prejudices of the day, this is a long step away from the manly man with big hunting rifle.
By the way: Note also how many of Hemingway' female characters do not adhere to the traditional female roles of the time. The women in Hemingway's life and books are in may respects more radical than "the man". In The Garden of Eden Catherine wants to be a boy.
So what did Hemingway make of it all?
Transgenderism [sic] was almost unheard of among the general public at the time; the first widespread media coverage of gender reassignment surgery was in 1952, when George William Jorgensen became Christine Jorgensen.
Almost everyone viewed this case as extremely bizarre; it was not until 1967, when Jorgensen published her autobiography, and 1968, when gay rights was born in the wake of the Stonewall Riots, that the issue of transgenderism even entered public discourse. And it was not until the turn of the last century that the specific issues associated with it got any acceptance.
For a gender-ambivalent man born at the turn of the twentieth century, there was no escape from the binary, male-female notion of gender except through cross-dressing; role playing, both sexual and otherwise; and/or fetishism.
There was, actually, literature available at Hemingway's time describing transgender identities. Hemingway had read sexologists like Havelock Ellis and Alfred Kinsey. It must be said, though, that Ellis' misconstrued ideas about homosexuality as a kind of pathological "gender inversion" was more harmful than helpful for the queer and trans readers of the day. Kinsey's approach to homosexuality was more constructive, but he also pathologized trans people. I am not sure what Hemingway read into all of this.
Tramontana writes that when Hemingway realized that their male assigned child was gender variant they said: “Gigi , we come from a strange tribe, you and I.” Gigi came out as Gloria Hemingway after her father's death.
So it seems that Hemingway had a pretty clear idea about the transgender nature of their feelings.
|Paperback version of the published (and abridged)|
version of The Gaarden of Eden.
The transgender journey
They definitely understood what we now might call the transgender journey, i.e. the process of self discovery and self acceptance many transgender and queer people go through.
It is interesting to note that Hemingway framed this unfolding of gender and sexual variance as a return to some kind of primitivism, i.e. the true nature that lies under the veneer of contemporary Western culture and morals.
Hemingway was basically turning the Colonial and racist narrative of the "Primitive Other" into something positive – a tool they could use to approach their own "forbidden" side. This is highly problematic, to say the least, but it clearly helped them understand themselves better.
Hemingway writes in The Garden of Eden:
You must do better than anyone ever can and never leave out anything because you are ashamed of it or because noon would ever understand. You must not let ["the white taboos" – crossed out in the manuscript] things you must not say nor write because you are white and will go back there affect you at all and you must not deny or forget all the tribal things that are important. The tribal things are more important really. (Manuscript of The Garden of Eden K422.1/23, quoted in Comley and Scholes).
This also explains Hemingway's obsession with tanning, which is often associated with their interest in hair cuts. It seems to me that Hemingway was trying to get past their own oppression of queerness and gender variance, as well as the one of the culture they lived in.
Here's Hemingway again:
She changes from a girl into a boy and back to a girl carelessly and happily and she enjoys corrupting me and i enjoy being corrupted. But she is not corrupt and who says it is corruption? I withdraw the word. Now we are going to be a special dark race of our own with our own pigmentation, [and we already have our own tribal customs – crossed out in manuscript] growing that way each day as some people would garden or plant or raise a crop. The trouble with that is that it will not grow at night too. It can only be made in the sun, in the strong sun against the reflection of the sand and the sea. So we must have the sun to make this sea change. The sea change was made in the night and it grows in the night and the darkness, that she wants and needs now grown in the sun. (K422.1/2, chap . 4, p. 4, quoted in Comley and Scholes)
In spite of the confusing contradictions found in this paragraph, it seems to me that Hemingway argues that you need to be consciously aware of this other side of you for it to grow and be turned into something good.
|Ernest and his wife Mary Hemingway on a safari in Kenya.|
As Comley and Scholes point out all of this is connected to the concept of transformation, of a metamorphosis.
The manuscript of The Garden of Eden refers to a sculpture by Rodin: The Metamorphoses:
"Will you change and be my girl and the let me take you? Will you be like you were in the statue. Will you change?"
He knew now and it was like the statue. The one there are no photographs of and of which no reproductions are sold.
"You are changing," she said. "Oh you are. You are. Yes you are and you're my girl Catherine." (K422.1/1, 21)
The sculpture by Rodin, "Ovid's Metamorphoses", was made as part of the larger work The Gates of Hell.
The name refers to Ovid's story about the naiad Salmacis and the boy Hermaphroditos. Salmacis fell in love with the son of Hermes and Aphrodite and prayed for the two to be united forever. So they became one person, male and female at the same time.
The transgender nature of the tale makes perfect sense in this context, and the lesbian aspects of the sculpture itself does too. Rodin's models were two ballerinas at the Paris Opera.
|Rodin's sculpture (Museo Soumaya)|
The Garden of Eden was eventually published in 1986. That is, however, a seriously shortened and edited version, where much of the explicit gender variance is cut away.
Stephen Colbert interviews Ken Burns about the new PBS documentary, which explicitly looks at Hemingway's gender variance.
What does this mean for us today?
I believe this revised understanding of Hemingway is important for many reasons:
For the wider transgender community it is helpful to know that one of the greatest American authors of all time was transgender. Positive visibility is key in a time of anti-trans prejudices and aggression. (Not that Hemingway was an unproblematic character, mind you!)
I like the fact that Hemingway, the role model of intellectual hyper-masculinity, had the courage to explore their female side and present it in a way that can be of help to trans and queer people today. We need to discuss transgender sexualities.
Hopefully it will also make cis and straight people think a little bit more carefully about the complexity and diversity of sex and gender.
Most of all, the contrast between Hemingway's public persona and gender variance might stop both cis and trans people from automatically believing that the public facade of gender expression and gender role play equals a person real sense of gender. The mask we wear is often one forced upon us.
- Kenneth S. Lynn 1995: Hemingway
- Mary Katharine Tramontana 2021: "Ernest Hemingway: The Old Man and the Androgyny"
- Debra Moddelmog 1999: Reading Desire: In Pursuit of Ernest Hemingway
- Debra Middelmog and Suzanne del Gizzo 2013: Ernest Hemingway in Context
- Ernest Hemingway: The Garden of Eden
- Nancy R. Comley and Robert Scholes 1994: Hemingway's Genders
- Suzanne del Gizzo & Frederic J. Svoboda 2012: Hemingway's The Garden of Eden
- PBS documentary on Ernest Hemingway
- Zagria: Gloria Hemingway (1931 - 2001) writer, doctor. (I have not been able to find a single article about Ernest Hemingway's transgender daughter that does not refer to her with male pronouns.)