Drew Cordes

Lawrence of Arabia as Transgender Allegory [Part 3]

Filed By Drew Cordes | September 21, 2012 1:15 PM | comments

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

This is the final installment of a three part series on Lawrence of Arabia as an allegory for transgender people's lives. Click here to read part one or here for part two of this three-part essay.

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.

Can You Pass?

With each success leading the Arab army, Lawrence's confidence swells, and he begins to see himself belonging with them more and more. He becomes so overconfident that it often borders on God complex:

  • As he is departing Aqaba for Cairo, Auda asks him, "You will go through Sinai?" Lawrence muses with a smile, "Why not? Moses did."
  • A report delivered to Gen. Allenby on Lawrence's progress says of the Arabs, "They think he's a kind of prophet;" and Allenby responds, "They do or he does?"
  • When he is clipped in the arm by a gunshot and asked if he is hurt, Lawrence says, "Not hurt at all. Don't you know? They can only kill me with a golden bullet."

If those episodes weren't enough to convince viewers that some psychotherapy might be in order, things become even more explicit when Lawrence advances toward Deraa, deep in enemy territory, with a paltry 20 soldiers left behind him. Morale among his most loyal followers is understandably low, but Lawrence is still blindly optimistic. Sherif Ali confronts him.

Ali: "Give them something to do that can be done. But no. No, for you they must move mountains! They must walk on water!"

Lawrence: "That's right. That's right! Who are you to know what can be done? ... Do you think I'm just anybody, Ali?" Teetering on delusion, he turns to the troops, asking, "My friends, who will walk on water with me? Who will come with me into Deraa?"

The troops are justifiably skeptical, and one asks, "Aurens, can you pass for Arab in an Arab town?"

Lawrence whips out a zinger, "Yes, if one of you will lend me some dirty clothes."

passing2.jpgAt this point we have another You're-Kidding-Right? moment of parallelism. For many trans people, passing is crucial. It is not just a matter of having a preference as to how you're seen, though self-expression is certainly a big part of it. In addition to that, trans people know that passing (or not passing) can result in harassment, abuse, even death.

This is something that never fully leaves my mind. It's easy for bigots to single out those who don't pass and target them. For many, every step along the street is a step along the tightrope. In his robe and headscarf, Lawrence is now walking this tightrope, too (though not in heels). He is no longer safely among allies in the British and Arab armies. Just like a trans person, if he does not pass, there may be severe consequences.

Lawrence's overconfidence is his undoing in Deraa. He quickly draws stares while walking the streets in Arab dress. This is something trans people must also guard themselves against. After a while, one becomes accustomed to walking the world comfortably and without fear, but all it can take is one wrong turn and one moment of I'll-Be-Fine overconfidence for trouble to surface, just as it does for Lawrence, who is captured and beaten. And raped.

This film being made in 1962, Lean is unable to detail this aspect of the torture, but it is detailed in the real-life T.E. Lawrence's memoir Seven Pillars of Wisdom. Lean, instead, merely suggests the sexual aspects of Lawrence's torture. (The audience can put 2 and 2 together. The words "Turkish prison" alone have acquired enough winking, surreptitious significance that we all know what this torture will consist of.)

This most-personal of assaults draws another dimension in which Lawrence's failed experience in passing may mirror trans people's, whose sexual difference too often begets sexual violence.

Lawrence tries mightily to endure the torture. With the first strike of the rattan, his unflinching resolve causes his Turkish torturers some puzzlement. Did he not feel the pain? But the second strike jerks Lawrence's head up and his face betrays anxiety. That second strike imparts to him a fearsome truth: He is not above pain. He is not always the exception. He, too, has his limits. From the matches of Cairo's basement office to the battles in the desert, Lawrence has been playing with fire, and he has finally been burned.

This Is the Stuff that Decides What He Wants

Shaken to the core by the previous episode, Lawrence decides to retreat to British headquarters. Before leaving, he confides in Ali and, much like a trans person might, bemoans the limitations and consequences of his current body.

Lawrence: "I've come to the end of myself, I suppose."

Ali: "And the end of the Arab Revolt?"

Lawrence: "I'm not the Arab Revolt, Ali. I'm not even Arab."

Ali: "A man can be whatever he wants. You said."

Lawrence: "I'm sorry. I thought it was true."

Ali: "You proved it!"flesh.jpg

"Look, Ali," says Lawrence, pinching his pale flesh. "Look. That's me. ... That's me. And there's nothing I can do about it."

Ali: "A man can do whatever he wants. You said."

"He can. But he can't want what he wants." Lawrence wistfully looks at his milky flesh again. "This is the stuff that decides what he wants."

For trans people, this final line is only too true. Whether one desires surgery, hormones, a change of clothes, or a haircut, the reality of our bodies weighs on our decisions. Sometimes we feel like it's holding us back, as Lawrence does here, and other, less ponderous times we may feel at peace or even happy with it, but it is always there. Always a factor.

Lawrence's identity as belonging among the Arabs has been broken, as has the steely willpower on which he prided himself. The temptation to turn tail back to British headquarters and live in denial is overpowering. He doesn't know where else to turn. He admits to Ali, "You may as well know, I would've told them anything. I would've told them who I am; I would've told them where you were. I tried to."

Ali: "So would any man."

Lawrence: "Well any man is what I am. And I'm going back to Allenby to ask him for a job that any man can do."

As much as Lawrence once boasted of his difference he now wants to be anything but. He'd be glad to return to his former pencil-pushing duties in that "nasty, dark little room" at this point.

Following humiliating, frustrating, or sometimes violent failures, the temptation to return to living in denial is present for trans people, too. Stories of the binge-and-purge cycle are ubiquitous among crossdressers and trans people - wardrobes of other-gender clothes are built up then thrown out, then built up again. (As if transitioning wasn't expensive enough.)

Certainly I had my own experiences with it. With everything that I was, I wanted not to be trans. I ignored it and buried it and retreated to what I knew: masculinity. It worked, for a while. But it can't last.


Lawrence knows it can't last, also. At headquarters, he finds he cannot run from his difference. During a brief chat with comrades, he mentions his uniform was stolen. The two soldiers assume it was taken by an Arab and offer the bigoted, epithetical comment, "Bloody wogs," which takes Lawrence aback. As they part, Lawrence overhears a catty comment, "Lays it on a bit thick, doesn't he?"

Despite the professional respect, Lawrence is still an outcast. When he tries to resign himself from Arabia in a meeting with Allenby and Dryden, Allenby angrily reminds him of who he really is:

Lawrence: "The truth is I'm an ordinary man. ... And I want an ordinary job, sir. That's my reason for resigning. It's ... personal."

Allenby: "Personal? You're a serving officer in the field, and as it happens a damned important one! Personal? Are you mad?"

Lawrence strains to hold himself together (more masterful stuff here from O'Toole): "No. And if you don't mind I'd rather not go mad. That's my reason, too."

Allenby: "Look Lawrence, I'm making my big push on Damascus the 16th of next month and you are part of it. Can you understand that? You're an important part of the big push!"

Lawrence becomes enraged: "I don't want to be part of your big push!"

Allenby: "What about your Arab friends? What about them?"

"I have no Arab friends! I don't want Arab friends!" grits Lawrence, desperate to deny himself.

This is a low point. Much as despairing trans people do, Lawrence wants nothing more than simply to be someone else. I can remember a similar moment from my past, which is likely representative of more than a few other trans people.

I sat in the car of a friend who had just bought female clothes for me at the mall, which I was too ashamed to buy myself. I felt terrible. She did her best to console me, saying, "It's nothing to feel bad about. This is just your thing."

At that point, I broke, blurting out in a mixture of shame and anger, intonating similarly to Lawrence's aforementioned line, "I don't want it to be my thing!" (I got better. I rather enjoy "my thing" now.)

Allenby is in a bind. He needs the fractured man standing before him for his own military purposes, so he continues trying to convince Lawrence of who he is, but not before changing gears to a more sensitive and flattering pep-talk approach.

"I believe your name will be a household word when you have to go to the war museum to find who Allenby was. You're the most extraordinary man I've ever met."

Lawrence, on the verge of tears and still wanting to escape himself, says only, "Leave me alone."

Allenby: "Well that's a feeble thing to say."

Lawrence concedes, "I know I'm not ordinary."

Allenby: "That's not what I'm saying."

Lawrence surrenders: "All right! I'm extraordinary. What of it?"

Allenby encourages him: "Not many people have a destiny, Lawrence. It's a terrible thing for a man to flunk it if he has."

Suddenly Lawrence, ever susceptible to a good ego-stroking, has a lightbulb moment and embraces his ability to lead the Arab army. However, it will not be as a loyal British officer; it will be as El Aurens. The relationship between he and Allenby becomes a pas de deux.

Lawrence: "They (the Arabs) will be coming for Damascus, which I'm going to give them."

Allenby: "That's all I want."

theyllcomeforme.jpgLawrence: "All you want is someone holding down the Turkish right. But I'm going to give them Damascus. We'll get there before you do. And when we've got it, we'll keep it."

Lawrence is not only embracing the role of leader again, but is using the word "we" to refer to himself and the Arabs. He also is back to using supremely ego-centric language as well, hyperbolically noting that he personally will deliver an entire city ("I'm going to give them ...").

The full leap back into the brazen role of El Aurens is completed with a frame of Lawrence dramatically looking out over the courtyard and (of course) milking the moment, saying of his army, "The best of them won't come for money. They'll come for me!"

David Lean then cuts to the gathering army in the desert accordingly cheering the name of their approaching leader: "Aurens! Aurens! Aurens!"

Trans people may not have a cheering crowd to encourage us to overcome setbacks (though, I'm sure if many of us asked our friends to indulge us they might enjoy doing so), but we do have a community of allies who see us as we want to be seen and encourage our self-exploration, the same as Lawrence does in the desert.

No Prisoners

This iteration of the Aurens identity, though, differs from the past. Lawrence immerses himself so deeply that he becomes prone to the "barbarous and cruel" Arab customs he once (misguidedly) decried. (This movie has a whole study-in-ethnocentrism thing going on, as well. That last pre-parenthetical sentence is a multicultural can of worms, I know, but this essay is long enough already. The differing cultural perceptions of the characters could be - and I'm sure is, somewhere - an entirely separate paper. Again, I am omitting a lot of stuff.)

Trans people, too, cannot forget all the dangers the rest of life has to offer after one's more natural identity is embraced. Transition, hormones, surgeries - these things are not end-all answers; they are improvements. They get the trans person (hopefully) to a level playing field of emotional existence. From there, the same threats and challenges faced by everyone else are still present.

In convoy to Damascus during the night, Lawrence and Ali notice the sky lighting up above a distant city suffering a downpour of British artillery. Ali says to Lawrence: "God help the men who lie under that."

Unmoved, the Lawrence for whom once "mercy (was) a passion," coldly answers, "They are Turks."

Ali shows his compassion again: "God help them."

The following day, Lawrence gives in fully to the dark side of his Aurens identity. As the army marches north, they come across a band of retreating Turks, defeated and wounded. Some of Lawrence's new recruits, hired mercenaries, salivate like wolves before wounded prey, urging, "No prisoners."

In what has become a full reversal of temperament, Ali is now the one beseeching Lawrence to show compassion. "Aurens, not this. Go around. Damascus, Aurens. Damascus."

noprisoners.jpgLawrence can barely hold himself together. O'Toole plays this scene as one would a starving man set before a buffet of forbidden food, or one struggling to hold back raging sexual arousal. (If the opportunity to personally avenge my own severe torture and rape presented itself, I'd be pretty tempted, too.)

Lawrence's face twitches, his breath is heavy and uneven. A solitary Arab soldier whose village was destroyed by the Turks then vengefully charges by himself and is shot dead. Lean gives us a frame of his blood spilled in the sand, and we, the viewers, know that Lawrence has the excuse he was looking for. He raises his hand and with bloodlust screams the order to his army: "No prisoners! No prisoners!"

When the massacre ends, Ali finds Lawrence covered in gore and visibly shaken. As he once admired himself in the knifeblade of his Harith robes, born again with a new sense of self (remember that moment?), he now holds up the knife to find a very different reflection looking back at him. Another low point. "Aurens" may be a truer representation of who he is, but it is not without its own treacherous pitfalls and corruptions.

Going Home?

In Damascus, the political showdown between Lawrence and the Arabs against Allenby and the British is disheartening. The various tribes struggle to unite and work together as a cogent governing body, and eventually must compromise with the British.

Facing failure and the knowledge that even among the Arabs he has flaws and limitations, Lawrence dejectedly sits in the now-empty town hall with Ali and Auda. Auda has had enough of politics and appeals to his friend to return with him to desert life, "Come with me, Aurens. ... Back. I know your heart. What is it? Is it this? This is nothing. Is it the blood? The desert has dried up more blood than you could think of."

Lawrence: "I pray that I may never see the desert again. Hear me, God."

Auda: "You will come. There is only the desert for you."

When they take final leave of their friend, Auda confronts Ali, "You love him."

Ali: "No, I fear him."

Auda: "Then why do you weep?"

Ali: "If I fear him who love him, how must he fear himself who hates himself."

Lawrence is no longer running from himself, either as Brit or Aurens. Instead he has taken a step back to survey the extremes of himself he has explored.

His brushes with death and bloodlust have taught him that though he is accepted and capable of extraordinary things in the desert, that he cannot escape the darker aspects of his nature. However, neither can he run from his nature by hiding himself in the guise of an ordinary Brit.

The answer to selfhood Lawrence seeks is in neither place. He ends the film similarly to how he began it - between worlds, knowing that he must decide who he is, but for everything he's been through, no closer to knowing how to do so.

I often speak to people, both trans and cis, about a similar phenomenon of transition that isn't voiced nearly enough. And that is that no matter what you go through - surgeries, changing voice, growing/losing hair, hormones, changes in how you're perceived - you're still you.

None of these things will make the dysphoria you feel all better. There will always be problems. Some may be solved in the process, but new ones will indubitably pop up in their place.

Transition can be a journey to hell and back, like Lawrence's, but physical changes and accomplishments are not the same as finding and strengthening your inner self. You can pill, slice and pluck your way to the body you always dreamed of, but "you" will still be there, inside, waiting to be dealt with.

At the end of his adventure, Lawrence finds this is only too true. The film's wonderfully minimalist final scene illustrates this perfectly. After being granted discharge by Allenby (at the polite request of Feisal), a British soldier chauffeurs Lawrence along a desert road. finalshot.jpg

He sees a pack of Arabs traveling by camel along the shoulder and stands in the car to see if he recognizes any friends. He does not. He then sits back down. His escort speaks a pleasantry, "Well, sir. Going home."

Lawrence is mildly baffled: "Hmm?"

The chauffeur repeats: "Home, sir."

He only remains silent as the film's fitting last image, Lawrence's face partially obscured by the dirty glass of the windshield, fades to black.

Lawrence has no "home." He is left only with himself. And who that is, we, and he, can only partially see.

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