Content warning for Nazis, Holocaust, imprisonment, death, suicide
Another question appears: how should they be identified? While their discussion of disconnect from their assigned gender is without a doubt a potential indication that they were somewhere outside of the binary, it also could be something influenced by the narrative around queerness at the time.
The popular theory of queer scholars at the time was that someone with same-gender attraction could be defined as a third sex. This theory was something that Claude was exposed to, as they translated some of Havelock Ellis’s work which explicitly dealt with this possibility.
It is entirely possible that they were influenced by this and saw their attraction to Marcel as evidence they weren’t a woman. But, even if this was the case, does it change their right to self identify?
In the end, the argument is an interesting one but is always trumped by the simple unalienable right of every queer person to choose the words they use to describe their identity. In this case, that word is neuter.
Then, of course, comes the matter of Marcel Moore. The reasons behind using they/them/their pronouns for Moore are similar. The difference between these situations is the lack of information around Marcel’s possible gender identity.
Though Moore is thought to be behind the lens in almost all of Claude’s photos and was a graphic designer, there is less discussion or art made regarding their gender. Their lack of art about being outside the gender binary doesn't mean it wasn't their experience; in some ways, it makes it less complicated.
They changed their name to one that was neither masculine nor feminine, so there is no good reason to force either of those identities onto them. Considering how close Moore and Cahun were and how much Cahun discussed gender variance, it was unlikely that Moore didn’t understand possible implications that came with changing their name. It becomes likely that both of these people may have identified outside of the binary.
While none of these answers are perfect or without legitimate rebuttals, these answers are as good as any with the information available.
Through the writing of their book, Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore were also taking photos that played with ideas of gender, Jewish identity, family, and leaned heavily into surrealism. The two also began holding artistic salons in their shared apartment in 1922. Later in 1932, Cahun joined the Association des Écrivains et Artistes Révolutionnaires. This group had formed because of a shared belief that art could directly impact the world and a desire to use that impact to fight the rising tide of fascism.
Through this group, Cahun met André Breton and René Crevel and began associating with fellow surrealists. They became one of the few people in the scene who wasn’t a man, though they were later remembered as one in one of their fellow artist's books.
As their connections to the artistic community grew, they remained anchored to Marcel. The majority of their photos were a shared project made for a private collection and not intended to be displayed, as Cahun had always thought of themself as a writer.
In 1937 Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore cut off many connections because of the war and ran to Jersey to avoid anti-Semitic violence. Upon arrival, they went back to using their birth names and laid low until the Germans took Jersey.
Moore and Cahun set to work. They used their experience with art and disguising their genders to create works that spread misinformation, seeds of rebellion, and implied that there was a large scale resistance happening when in reality it was just the two of them.
Though some of their work was based on confusing the soldiers, they also translated and transcribed BBC transmissions into German, detailing the war crimes that were being committed. They would have these translations on pieces of paper that they would slip into soldier's pockets, matchboxes, and anywhere a soldier may stumble across it and possibly read it.
An investigation was started and Nazi authorities believed there to be a group of people doing this. When the two were discovered to be behind the actions, Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore were sentenced to death. Fortunately, the sentence was never carried out because the island of Jersey was liberated from German rule only a year later.
Claude took a picture upon their release in front of the camps with a Nazi eagle pin between their teeth.
Unfortunately, the prison caused Claude lasting health problems that led to their death in 1954. Marcel died by suicide in 1972, and the two were buried together.
During their imprisonment, Nazi’s destroyed much of Claude’s work, and after Marcel’s death what was left wasn’t discovered for some time. In their own life, Claude and Marcel’s art was never very successful, but neither of them seemed to mind. Claude had never wanted to be famous and thought that most of their work and legacy would disappear with time.
By all logic, it should have. Much has been erased by the Nazi genocide, art and artist alike. Add a queer identity that has been stifled from historical narrative time and again and no real attempt on either Marcel or Claude’s part to promote themselves in that way, it is just short of a miracle that they are remembered, that their work remains.
Even now their photography is displayed, showing that even in surrealism where at that time people who weren’t men were often relegated to the role of muse, there was amazing work being made by people who weren’t men. Their writing gives proof of gender expression outside of the binary dating far enough back to disprove the idea that non-binary identities are new and will fade.
More than anything, it shows that life is a beautiful, complicated, improbable thing, and doesn’t make much sense some times. That’s okay. That's where the beauty comes from.
[Disclaimer: some of the sources may contain triggering material]
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