Drew Cordes

Lawrence of Arabia as Transgender Allegory [Part 2]

Filed By Drew Cordes | September 20, 2012 11:00 AM | comments

Filed in: Entertainment, Transgender & Intersex
Tags: gender, identity, Lawrence of Arabia, movies, transgender, transgender allegory

newrobes.jpgThis is the second installment of a three part series on Lawrence of Arabia as an allegory for transgender people's lives. Click here to read part one.

T.E. Lawrence is a man who's struggling very much with who he is, where he belongs and what he can do to write his own fate in the face of great challenges and opposition. Sometimes he succeeds beyond his wildest dreams. Sometimes he fails miserably. This should sound familiar to just about all trans people.

El Aurens Is Best

After the journey through the Nefud, Lawrence is reborn. Following the rescue, Ali leads him to his (Ali's) own bed, where he personally watches over him. Lawrence wakes during the night and Ali addresses him with an Arabized version of his name, "El Aurens, truly for some men nothing is written unless they write it."

"Not El Aurens. Just Lawrence," he answers.

Like the Hazimi guide before, Ali is curious about the origins of such a remarkable man: "Your father ... just Mr. Lawrence?" Lawrence then reveals that his father is not a Lawrence at all, but Sir Thomas Chapman. He is illegitimate.

"It seems to me that you are free to choose your own name then," Ali posits.

Lawrence, now near tears and showing the vulnerable, uncertain side of the search for identity, figures, "Yes. I suppose I am."

"El Aurens is best."

"All right. I'll settle for El Aurens," Lawrence concedes.

After the newly christened Aurens turns over to sleep, Ali gathers up the articles of his officer's uniform and throws them all in the fire. The British soldier is no more. The following day, the white man with the new Arab name becomes an honorary Bedouin donning the flowing white robes of the Harith tribe. Modeling his new duds for the admiring army, a soldier notes, "He for whom nothing is written may write himself a clan."

Talk about dewy-ripe low-hanging fruit - Lawrence has now chosen a new name and adopted a completely new style of dress to represent himself. For these scenes, my job - illustrating the allegorical parallels to transness - pretty much does itself.

New clothes? New name? Come on. I won't insult your intelligence by belaboring the connection.

Furthermore, the idea of "writing oneself a clan," resonates with the many trans people who are exiled from family and re-purpose the concept to include a close circle of friends and lovers. Like them, Lawrence has no clan, neither in the British army nor back home in Oxfordshire, but now, among his friends in the desert, he does.

Immediately after "El Aurens" debuts, the Arabs invite him to take a joyride (to the degree one can "joyride" on a camel) and grow accustomed to his new robes. The scene that follows I find particularly enjoyable because it very much mimics the actions of the trans person in childhood/adolescence, trying on forbidden clothes and secretly experimenting with different looks in front of the mirror.

After rounding a corner for some privacy, Lawrence dismounts from his camel. He unsheathes the outfit's primary accessory, a knife, and admires himself in the blade's reflection while adjusting his headscarf just so (remember this moment; it will recur). He then stands against the wind, allowing his robes to blow behind him dramatically. He admires his shadow in the sand. Spreading his arms out wide, Lawrence gives in to vanity and starts running, reveling in the ripples of the robe in the breeze.

Suddenly, just as many trans youth do, Lawrence realizes he has been found out. The leader of a rival Arab tribe, Auda Abu Tayi (Anthony Quinn), has been watching the entire time. Lawrence, in midflight, pulls a double-take (which is just masterfully executed by O'Toole, by the way. Do you know how hard it is to make a double-take look anywhere near authentic? It's a gesture of overt vaudevillian clownery; yet it's pitch-perfect here.) to amusingly panicked effect. A scene in which a mother catches her son trying on his sister's dresses for the mirror would have exactly the same tone.

Who Are You?

Just before and after the siege of Aqaba, Lawrence (formerly just an office crony, you recall) is shaken by confrontations with death. The night prior to the battle charge, he is forced to execute a Harith member of the army to appease the murder of a man in Auda's tribe, the Howeitat, and preserve the two tribes' alliance against the Turks in Aqaba. Later, when reporting this incident to his new general, a disturbed Lawrence says, "I had to execute him with my pistol. There was something about it I didn't like. ... I enjoyed it."

On the journey through Sinai back to Cairo to report the victory at British headquarters, Lawrence mistakenly leads one of his two boy servants into his death via quicksand. Despite his success in overthrowing the Turkish stronghold, the responsibility for the deaths weighs heavily upon him.

He is discovering the ugly side of what it means to be a warrior and a leader. He is discovering that the liberation of forging one's own fate and identity is counterbalanced by fragile uncertainty.

whoareyou.jpgWhen Lawrence and his surviving servant Farraj finally reach the Suez Canal, Lawrence is a ghost of his former self. He is unresponsive when Farraj speaks to him, his face is gray with sand, his eyes lost in a 1,000-mile gaze.

In one the film's most chilling close-ups, a British soldier on the far side of the canal repeatedly shouts "Who are you?" and Lawrence only continues to stare into nothingness. He cannot answer because he does not know.

Lawrence articulates exactly this earlier on Aqaba's beach, just after victory. Looking pensively out to sea, flowers thrown by Sherif Ali fly past his shoulder into the surf. Ali congratulates his comrade: "The miracle is accomplished. Garlands for the conqueror. Tribute for the prince. Flowers for the man."

Lawrence: "I'm none of those things, Ali."

Ali: "What then?"

Lawrence: "Don't know."

Unlike the incidents of the previous section in which Lawrence adopts a new name and wears (and is "caught" wearing) a socially significant new wardrobe, here I cannot point to an uncannily obvious parallel. These scenes evoke a more abstract emotional empathy with the trans experience. I can only tell you personally that when I see Lawrence in these scenes - rudderless, impassive, damn near broken, lost - I know exactly how he feels. And I know this because I am trans.

Lawrence is discovering/becoming himself, but he doesn't quite know who that is, the same as a transitioning person. Life sometimes disturbs him when he is living as himself - its arbitrary death and the intoxicating nature of power - just as living as oneself as trans often disturbs by way of the loss and gain of male privilege, strained relations between mind and body, the increased threat of violence, and experiences with bigotry.

More than just the uncertainty of who you are, it is the knowledge that who you are now has consequences, both for yourself and others. Granted, the contexts are radically different, but the end effects are the same: Lawrence is lost the same way the trans person is lost.

If there is one image that haunts me, trans person, more than any other from this movie (which, again, is very long indeed and averages about one haunting/memorable image every 2-3 minutes) it is that of the speechless Lawrence staring at nothing, face blasted by sand, either unable or unwilling to answer that most basic question: Who are you?

Back at Headquarters

One significant obstacle for trans people is socializing with those who were attached or accustomed to them in their "previous" gender. There is often difficulty and outright resistance among people to call a trans person by their desired new name and pronouns. The fear of rejection, verbal abuse, and even violence is palpable.

When returning to visit old family and friends who are unreceptive (or possibly outright hostile), some may even feel tempted to cast off their "new" true gender and return to the previous birth-assigned one, just to avoid confrontation for the duration. For some trans people, this is the only way they are able to return, because some misguided family members will insist upon it.

Similarly, before Lawrence leaves Aqaba for Cairo, Ali confronts him, suspecting he will cast off the "Aurens" identity in the presence of his old British compatriots and environment. "In Cairo you will put off these funny clothes. You'll wear trousers and tell stories of our quaintness and barbarity ..."

Lawrence, however, has no such plans, and responds only by telling Ali, "You're an ignorant man."

True to his word, Lawrence and Farraj walk right into headquarters and up to the officers' bar clad in their robes, trailing a wake of desert dust and silently horrified tight-assed Brits. After some brief kerfuffle, he communicates to a superior that he and the Arabs have taken Aqaba, and a meeting is arranged with the new Gen. Allenby (Jack Hawkins), who is in charge of Arabian operations. This will be an important meeting, and Lawrence accordingly maunders "I had better shave."

His superior suggests, "You'd better get into some trousers, too." Lawrence responds only with a vitriolic look.

Gen. Allenby also fails to understand, asking, "What's the meaning of coming here dressed like that? Amateur theatricals?"

Lawrence answers with severe, hipster-level sarcasm, "Oh yes. Entirely."

They have not been through what he has been through. They do not know what these clothes signify to Lawrence. Nor do the cisgendered understand what being able to openly wear one's desired clothes signifies to trans people.

Quickly though, Allenby realizes that despite his appearance and less-than-stellar reputation, Lawrence has accomplished an extraordinary feat and possesses abilities that could greatly aid the fight against the Turks in Arabia. crowdlookson.jpgAllenby goes so far as to seek his counsel and discuss strategy (which Lawrence and his ego are only too happy offer), and the two parade around headquarters with an air of reverence and camaraderie.

By the end of the strategy powwow, the rest of the base has seen the two conferring and has heard of Lawrence's miraculous success in Aqaba. When he finally goes to leave, the crowd of once inimical compatriots now swarms him with fair-weather congratulations and pats on the back.

We know from the initial scenes in Cairo that he was not well-liked by his peers, so we, and Lawrence, can be certain that what the soldiers are cheering and admiring is the deed and not the person.

This presents a new conflict for him, however. He is now virtually a celebrity in the native environment where he was once an outcast. Will he continue to strenuously explore himself as El Aurens out in the desert? Or will he revert to the British officer, accepted and appreciated (but never truly seen as who he is) in the familiar and now-comfortable world he came from?

This is the essential question for trans people as well: Will you be yourself, even though doing so may present difficulties? Or will you bury yourself amid the familiar and comfortable, the easy way out - to do and be only what others expect and desire?


Thank you for reading Part 2 of Lawrence of Arabia as Transgender Allegory. Your patience and determination to do some Internet reading that requires more than 2 ½ minutes is appreciated and it will be rewarded... with Part 3.

Thanks for reading this long essay about a long movie that came out a long, long time ago. There is a reason people still talk about this film after more than 50 years. If you've never seen it, I encourage you to do so; and as I mention at the beginning of Part 1, it will be back in select theaters Oct. 4 for one day. Seize the opportunity!

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