Dr Ina Linge is Lecturer in German at the University of Exeter, where she is also Co-director of the interdisciplinary Sexual Knowledge Unit.

I started out as a new Lecturer in German in June 2020, in the middle of the pandemic. It has certainly been a challenging and exhausting time to develop new modules and teach them for the very first time. But I have also found it immensely enjoyable to create modules on topics that I love and to draw on my own research in my teaching practice. In this blog post, I want to reflect on one particular text that I love to teach and research: N.O. Body’s Aus eines Mannes Mädchenjahren (1907) [Memoirs of A Man’s Maiden Years, transl. Deborah Simon, 2006].

Narrated by the pseudonymous author, Norbert Body, the autobiography recounts his experiences of having been assigned female at birth and later transitioning to live as a man. This remarkable historical source offers insight into understandings of sexual and gender diversity in Wilhelmine Germany, decades before the heyday of Weimar queer culture. Many students are surprised to discover that Body was able to eloquently express his gender identity over a hundred years ago. But what makes Body’s account so special is the insight it offers into how gender and sexuality intersect with a range of topics that are central to the German Studies classroom: the relationship between sexual sciences emerging in the German context and the production of popular literature; gender and Jewishness; fact vs. fiction in autobiographical writing; and the importance of education on sexual matters (Body makes a plea for better sex education).

I teach Body’s Memoirs as part of my final-year German module ‘Sex, Sciences and the Arts’, where it introduces students to key conceptual terms developed by Foucault in his History of Sexuality.[1] It allows students to explore the tension between emancipation and discipline in the context of Sexualwissenschaft (sexology or sexual sciences), where sex is put into discourse and thereby forging modern concepts of sex, gender and sexuality. Body’s memoirs are endorsed by sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld in a foreword and epilogue that literally frame the narrative as a sexological case study. On the surface level, Body ostensibly categorises himself within a sexological system by repeating catchphrases from the discipline. I have encountered students who have found this apparent complicity with medico-scientific discourses deeply troubling. I understand their frustration: we so badly want the history of sexuality and gender to be a history of radical progress towards equality, diversity and inclusivity.[2] I urge these students to understand the barriers Body would have encountered (and that LGBTQI+ people still encounter today) that complicate resistance. I also encourage them to look beyond this apparent complicity: a closer reading reveals that the text employs narrative strategies and metaphors which communicate a resistance to medico-scientific categorisation. Contrasting these instances of ‘complicity’ and ‘resistance’ illustrates the ‘wiggle room’ available to sexual and gendered subjects as they accept categories but also push back against their normative constraints.[3]

Outside of the university classroom, I had the great pleasure of co-hosting an educational workshop on Body’s memoirs with a group of transgender and non-binary young people as part of the Wellcome Trust-funded Transformations project (http://transformations.exeter.ac.uk/). The participants explored the history of gender and science and asked questions about medicine, identity, and authority through creative workshops, oral history research, creative writing, and performance. We asked the participants what they thought about the fact that Karl Baer (the person behind the pseudonym N.O. Body) apparently retained his former name ‘Martha’ as a middle name. The resounding response was: ‘Why not?’ Our questions about Body’s decisions and the way Body presents his life in writing are so often guided by our own expectations of what the author should or shouldn’t be able to say. ‘Why not?’ is by far the most theoretically enriching and conceptually open approach to the text, which we considered alongside sexual-scientific thinkers of the day (reincarnated in our team members below).

These workshops culminated in a podcast in which a young non-binary person and a talking Suitcase travel through time in search of trans history (http://adventuresintimeandgender.org/). The podcast and its linked material (accessible via the ‘wormhole’ tab) feature trans and non-binary thinkers, writers and artists from across time and cultures and highlight the importance of trans history; they can be incorporated into the classroom to contextualise Body’s writing across time and space. I begin my seminar by explaining that the podcast makers went in search of the first trans person and then asking whether they found them, and why (or why not). This enables us to explore the importance as well as the difficulties around labels and categories of gender and sexuality, the role of science, the conceptual difference (or lack thereof) between gender and sexuality around 1900, and a critique of Foucault (who speaks of sexuality, but not gender identity).

For some students, especially those who do not identify as cisgender or heterosexual, Body’s autobiography confirms that LBGTQI+ people have existed across time and space. For others, this is the first time they have been asked to reflect on gender and sexual identity. When I teach this text as part of a second-year module, I split students into small groups and ask them to write chapter headings and summaries for a section of the book. Students inevitably use a variety of pronouns to describe Body. In class, we discuss our reasons behind choosing a particular pronoun and discuss whether we can find this information in the text, which is written in the first person. This leads to a discussion of how we can ever understand how a historical person identified, especially when contemporary identity categories did not exist in the past. Our classroom discussion helps students to understand that the meaning of concepts and words we recognise today (‘sex’, ‘bisexuality’, ‘Geschlecht’) changes over time. It shows them the importance of understanding literature and autobiography in an historical, cultural and scientific context. So viewed, Body resists a clear categorisation according to contemporary understandings of ‘transgender’ or ‘intersex’. This offers an opportunity to understand how various histories of sexuality (e.g. the history of homosexuality, transgender history) are rooted in shared historical documents. And it shows that German LBGTQI+ history is central to our understanding of sex, gender and sexuality today.

References:

N.O. Body, Aus eines Mannes Mädchenjahren (Berlin: Edition Hentrich, 1993 [1907])

N.O. Body, Memoirs of A Man’s Maiden Years, translated by Deborah Simon, preface by Sander L. Gilman, afterword by Hermann Simon (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006).


[1] Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, vol. 1, The Will to Knowledge, transl. Robert Hurley (London: Penguin, 1998).

[2] On the value of looking at ‘backward’ queer history, see Heather Love, Feeling Backward: Loss and the Politics of Queer History (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007). For a critique of the queer progress narrative see Tamara de Szegheo Lang, “The demand to progress: critical nostalgia in LGBTQ cultural memory,” Journal of Lesbian Studies 19:2 (2015): 230-48.

[3] I borrow the term ‘wiggle room’ from Tracie Matysik, “Beyond Freedom: A Return to Subjectivity in the History of Sexuality,” in After the History of Sexuality: German Genealogies with and Beyond Foucault, ed. Scott Spector, Helmut Puff, Dagmar Herzog (Oxford: Berghahn Books, 2012), 185-201.


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