Nonconforming before Genderqueer

In their 2018 article, “Trans, Time, and History,” scholars Leah Devun and Zeb Tortorici investigate the possibilities of using transgender as a lens to write history, what they call “trans before trans.” Taking their inquiry as a starting point for our class, this course will investigate how art and literature have been used to imagine alternatives to the gender binary, focusing on the period between 1750 and 1950 in Europe and America. We will examine many different depictions of androgyny, examining its various functions as a spiritual ideal, as a critique of the gender binary, and as a way to express homoerotic desire. After briefly considering how the androgyne—a nonbinary gender—was imagined in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, we will examine writing by the eighteenth-century Swedish mystic Emanuel Swedenborg and the long influence of his thinking on how Europeans and Americans understood the idea of an androgyne. Our inquiry encompasses study of Black trans history in the fugitive slave narrative of Harriet Jacobs and in the androgynous sculptures of Harlem Renaissance artist Richmond Barthé. We will also study the lives and work of gender-nonconforming artists such as writer Rachilde and photographer Claude Cahun. 

2 credits.

Course Code: HTA 215

  • Founded by inventor, industrialist and philanthropist Peter Cooper in 1859, The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art offers education in art, architecture and engineering, as well as courses in the humanities and social sciences.

  • “My feelings, my desires, my hopes, embrace humanity throughout the world,” Peter Cooper proclaimed in a speech in 1853. He looked forward to a time when, “knowledge shall cover the earth as waters cover the great deep.”

  • From its beginnings, Cooper Union was a unique institution, dedicated to founder Peter Cooper's proposition that education is the key not only to personal prosperity but to civic virtue and harmony.

  • Peter Cooper wanted his graduates to acquire the technical mastery and entrepreneurial skills, enrich their intellects and spark their creativity, and develop a sense of social justice that would translate into action.