Virginia, Vita and the resurrection of the taboo of lesbian love

How choosing a trans-woman to read Virginia Woolf’s most intimate words is at odds with the crux of this Charleston Trust event

Artillery Row

Sex and sexuality mattered to Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West; unlike the fantastical Orlando they were born into their female bodies. Today Vita and Virginia would probably be labelled ‘TERFS’ by the smug, blinkered puritans who dominate Britain’s contemporary literary and arts scenes. The idea that a woman ought to have a whole room to herself would undoubtedly prompt outraged letters in the Guardian and demands for ‘no-platforming.’

Imagine if, during Black History month a white actor were to ‘black-up’ and read the letters of the abolitionist Sojourner Truth

Charleston was a house favoured as a meeting place by members of the Bloomsbury set, and today it is managed by the Charleston Trust. With pronouns proffered in staff email signatures and reading materials provided by the founder of Brighton’s ‘Museum of Transology’, a contemporary ‘queer theory’ gloss has been put on the historic treasures guarded at the house.

On Valentine’s Day the Charleston Trust invited ‘Lauren John Joseph’ to read Virginia Woolf’s letters to Vita Sackville-West. A representative from the charity said:

“Charleston is proud to be working with writer and performer Lauren John Joseph and actor Pearl Mackie for our broadcast event: Virginia and Vita: Love Letters. The event explores and celebrates Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West’s love affair which inspired Woolf to write her visionary novel Orlando: a defining text about gender fluidity that feels as fresh and relevant as if it were written today.”

Lauren John Joseph is what would have once been called a transvestite, and that ought to be his prerogative and no-one else’s business. Over the past few years, the performance artist and writer has shifted from the moniker ‘La John Joseph’ and opted for ‘they/them’ pronouns. Perhaps I am an intransigent bigot, but to my understanding pronouns are not to be dictated by the person being described. As manhood is central to Lauren John Joseph’s art, I will refer to the artist as ‘him’; indeed, his portfolio includes a photo of his genitals stuffed into fishnet tights and a collage of images of his half-naked male torso in various public toilets.

Lauren John Joseph does not seem particularly sympathetic to women, in a series of videos he adopts the persona of “an ordinary working mum.” These short films are sneering and shallow, dripping with a misogyny borne of what a psychoanalyst might call ‘womb envy.’  But it seems sexism does not just sell, it pays: Lauren John Joseph has received funding from Arts Council England, the Jerwood, the British Council, and the Wellcome Trust.

The blame cannot simply be laid at the stocking-clad feet of an opportunistic man, it ought to be shared by those in positions of authority who have opened the door to women’s spaces being taken and voices being talked over by men. It seems women are never quite good enough at ‘womanning’ and with a self-doubt that a feminist might suggest was the result of female socialisation, time and time again the graduate, wokerati who guard women’s history prioritise males. A need for validation on the part of those who identify as transgender women, and a desperate desire for woke points, has seen the likes of Munroe Bergdorf heading the Women’s March and Eddie Izzard lauded as an inspiring female comedian.

Imagine if, during Black History month a white actor were to ‘black-up’ and read the letters of the abolitionist Sojourner Truth.  There would be outrage and it would be justified. And yet, despite historic and persistent sexism it is still socially acceptable to replace women with men in make-up. That we don’t see this as unacceptable is not proof of progress, it simply shows how deeply mired in misogyny society still is.

Recently a lesbian activist complained to me that women seem ashamed of loving other women; that for young people today ‘lesbian’ and ‘bisexual’ are reduced to pornographic search terms.  Representation is important, but just as woke ideology controls the present, it controls how we see the past.

As Dr Sonya Andermahr, Reader in English, University of Northampton, explains:

“As far as Orlando goes, the novel was a fantasy and yes, the central character changes sex but Woolf makes it clear that Orlando had to be male to inherit the family seat. Vita was hugely resentful that she didn’t inherit Knole because she was a woman. The novel ends with a female Orlando on the cusp of a new world in which women have the right to vote.”

“While anyone is entitled to read the letters and make a performance from them, what concerns me here is that a lesbian love affair between two women is being used as an occasion for female impersonation rather than a celebration of same sex attraction. She was a predominantly lesbian bisexual and loved women as women!”

“In addition to that, it’s regrettable that female roles, which are in short supply anyway, are taken by male actors, especially when the piece is specifically about a lesbian relationship, designed to celebrate Valentine’s Day during LGBT History Month. It seems to be another example of lesbian erasure.”

In a darkly comedic twist, cartoonist Alison Bechdel is also participating in the event. Bechdel is the inventor of the ‘Bechdel test’; a measure of the representation of women in fiction, the test asks whether a work features at least two named women who talk to each other about something other than a man. The inclusion of Lauren John Joseph somewhat undermines this.

The idea of a soul or ‘gender identity’ trapped in the ‘wrong body’ is the very foundation of transgenderism

Virginia and Vita’s passionate relationship existed at a time when lesbians and bisexual women were deemed ‘inverts’; what sexologist Richard von Krafft-Ebing described as “the masculine soul, heaving in the female bosom.” It would be tempting to consign this prejudice to the past, but in adopting the ideology of transgenderism this is precisely the line taken by the Charleston Trust, albeit with rainbow glitter and woke corporate approval.  The idea of a soul or ‘gender identity’ trapped in the ‘wrong body’ is the very foundation of transgenderism, it is also at the heart of the hostility and hatred still faced today by those who are same sex attracted.

The woke clique who gatekeep art and literature have been transfixed by a mania for all things ‘queer’ and lulled by the notion that as the latest social trend, transgenderism must be progressive. 80 years after the death of Virginia Woolf and the taboo around women loving other women has been resurrected. That a man has been chosen to read Virginia Woolf’s most intimate words perfectly underscores her   observation that “As long as she thinks of a man, nobody objects to a woman thinking.”

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