Justine Sarceran is the author of Sarah, Son of God, the tale of a transgender person in Venice. She explains why her fifth novel of historical fiction was inspired, in part, by her unusual attraction to comedian Eddie Izzard.
“So, I’ve got breasts!” British comic Eddie Izzard exclaimed as he came on stage, glancing down at his red satin bustier. The remark led into a riff about being a transvestite. Pointing to the new concavity at his midsection, he quipped, “Friends ask if I’ve lost weight. I say, ‘Noooo, I’ve got tits!’” The rest of his costume, miniskirt, tights, six-inch heels, and an 18th century gentleman’s coat, showed that it was not female impersonation, but his own gender-bending style. And he looked smashing.
In his show Sexie, he appeared with pixie-like blond hair and artfully mascaraed eyes, a shining angel of witty perversity. Moreover, the breasts often stayed with him on the street and in television interviews. For all that, he won the adoration of countless fans of all sexual orientations who, as his manager said, “want to mother him, love him, fuck him, care for him.” I could relate.
As a self-avowed "male lesbian," Eddie is but one coordinate on the wide landscape of sexual identities, and while gender bending onstage is not the same thing as the life-changing transgender experience, his humor and charm went a long way toward making transgender issues less scary to millions of people. Because, let’s face it, crossing those gender lines turns some people on but it makes other people want to kill you, so it needs all the PR it can get.
Inspired by the mystery of Eddie, and the curious urges it stirred in me, I spent a year brooding on the trans experience, separating what was off-putting from what was on-turning, and to whom. At the end, I had a novel to show for it, Sarah, Son of God, with a transgender heroine any lesbian could love.
But Sarah, Son of God is something more than a panegyric to trans women. As the title suggests, it toys with a more dangerous theme, that those who cross over know "passion" in the biblical sense of travail. To be frank, it blasphemes, unashamedly, and thus runs the risk of alienating both lesbians and Christians (as well as transgender people, if I’ve gotten it wrong.)
Fortunately, the transgender readers I heard from were enthusiastic, and I was even granted an interview in the online transgender journal Frock. Lesbian readers who contacted me also loved Sarah and only the faithful seemed ambivalent. The reviewer at Rainbow Awards expressed distaste for the novel’s treatment of biblical figures, but recommended it nonetheless for two awards. Go figure.
Why roil the waters, then, with such controversy? When there are so many other stories to be told, why of all things, illuminate a trans woman as someone to fall in love with, and then challenge Christian orthodoxy with her?
I confess it was not out of zeal for equality for all LGBT people, but because I myself could imagine falling in love with her. And perhaps I took a wicked pleasure in trying to lure readers into loving her too. It was not tolerance I pled for, but equal desirability. And if received wisdom about divine love was given a new twist as well, then that dust was worth stirring up too.
Tolerance seems a paltry goal anyhow, when trans people were some of the most courageous of our ancestors. It was trans women who poured with righteous anger from the Stonewall Inn onto the streets of New York in 1969, and who went to jail that night, in our name. Breaking gender rules can be sexy, but courage is much sexier, and the Stonewall transgender defiance that triggered the whole gay equality movement must count as heroism, the sexiest thing of all.
Thank you, Eddie, for reminding me.
About the Author
Brussels-based lesbian author Justine Saracen's work has always focused on the exotic. Trips to the Middle East inspired her Ibis Prophecy books, which move from Ancient Egyptian theology to the Crusades, and dramatizes the dangers of militant religion. Her third novel, Sistine Heresy, winner of a 2009 Independent Publisher’s Award, was a blasphemous backstory to Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel frescoes while her fourth, Mephisto Aria, is a WWII thriller with one eye on the Faust story and the other on the world of opera. The novel won the 2011 Golden Crown award for best historical novel, two Rainbow awards and was a finalist in the EPIC award competition. Her latest novel, Tyger, Tyger, Burning Bright, places us alongside Leni Riefenstahl, filmmaker of the Third Reich, and follows the desperate lives of collaborators, spies, terrorists, and homosexual lovers in Nazi Germany.