Many of the conversations involving the mixture of LGBT citizens and the greater population have focused on children. Self-labeled “traditional family” advocates talk about the importance of having two opposite-sex parents to children as they develop. Advocates for LGBT inclusion have pointed to recent teenage suicide statistics as an indicator of damage caused by outsider status.
However, this week we’re forced to ask a more pointed question: How can we meaningfully classify the sexuality and gender of children?
In “Mäedchen in Uniform” (1931) we explore the story of an all-girls boarding school. Recently the film has been viewed as a lesbian love story between Manuela (a student) and Fraulein von Bernburg (her governess). This is particularly exemplified in one quote from von Bernburg as she was speaking to Frau Oberin:
“What you call sin, I call the great spirit of love, which takes a thousand forms.”
It’s easy with today’s lens to see this as a statement acknowledging and condoning same sex love. However, that’s when we strip away all contexts. We’re talking about the emotions of a fourteen-year-old girl towards her governess and mother figure. Even if it were same sex love, there would be far more depth than a “simple” lesbian relationship.
However, it’s also important to note that we don’t see any elements of sexuality here. Aside from the fact that Manuela may not have matured enough physically by this point to experience any sexual urges at all, it’s unclear she’d know how to handle them even if she experienced them. She expresses that she’s upset she can’t go with von Bernburg after her goodnight kiss, but the subtext is that she’s simply sad to be separated. While it would have been fairly difficult for many young girls to have comprehensive sex education in the Prussia painted by Frau Oberin, it seems Manuela would have been at a specific disadvantage due to her mother’s absence.
Along similar lines, we examine The Well of Lonliness by Radclyffe Hall. For the purposes of this post, we consider only the first few chapters. In that brief window, we see Stephen develop an emotional attachment to Collins, a housemaid in her parents’ service. Stephen generally prefers many activities that would be associated with men, including reading epic adventure stories. In several scenes, Stephens dresses up as one of the (male) protagonists to charm Collins, generally to some effect.
There are a few competing readings of these antics, but they largely center around LGBT themes. Some see this as a case similar to Mädchen where a young woman has developed a crush on an older woman, as an indication of homosexuality. However, again, the sexual element is lacking. At this time Stephen is seven, and has almost certainly not entered puberty. Some might argue then that the scenes are instead homoromantic, though even that seems a stretch. The mentality of a seven year old is fundamentally different than the mentality of a matured adult, and using these types of terms is disingenuous.
Some instead see this as a case of gender dysphoria, acting under the assumption that Stephen is a trans man. I find this theory to be much more plausible – modern psychology research indicates that a gender identity is established by age three. Indeed, it seems to fit with the opening chapters that indicate Anna and Phillip had hoped for a son. Even Stephen’s name strikes us as oddly male given her (presumed) female anatomy. Indeed, it’s interesting to ask what exactly about Stephen leads us to believe that she is a “she”, beyond Radclyffe’s assertion. Stephen is described as having broad shoulders and being handsome as her father. She is at an age before any major sexual differentiation has occurred. Setting aside the issue of genital configuration, few readers would have had trouble saying that someone meeting Stephen’s description simply was a young boy.
Unfortunately I don’t think that anything in either of these works, or in my own life, has lead me to a reasonable conclusion on the queering of age. Gender and sexuality are complicated in any case, and more so when we have to question the agency of ability of our subjects to experience either. Both Mädchen and Radclyffe seem to be asserting that there is something deeper than sex in homosexuality. I’d be wont to agree. However, it’s not clear what that is, or how it fits into the modern narrative. It remains an open question: Is there some way to really understand if/how ideas of sexual identity impact minors?