At the center of Virginia Woolf's Orlando is the issue of gender expression and gender identity. In the beginning of Orlando, Orlando is a boy—and quite clearly male-identifying. Orlando is described with he/him/his pronouns (henceforth referred to as male pronouns), and does nothing to defy gender roles, nor voice discontent or conflict with their identity. In Constantinople, however, this changes. Orlando has their biological sex change from biosex male to biosex female. Because of this change of biosex, Woolf's biographer makes the decision to switch from male pronouns to she/her/hers pronouns (henceforth referred to as female pronouns). I believe that this is a mistake on the part of the Woolf's biographer—as I do not believe that Orlando identifies as a woman the entirety of the time that they exist after the transformation; rather, that they are gender-fluid. This belief comes from Orlando's internal struggle that occurs throughout the novel after their transformation, and from the actions that Orlando takes after their transformation. Thus, to eliminate confusion, I will use they/them/their (henceforth referred to as gender neutral pronouns) to refer to Orlando.
The first hint at Orlando not belonging to the gender assigned to them takes place almost immediately after their biosex transformation, “Orlando had become a woman—there is no denying it. But in every other respect, Orlando remained precisely as he had been. The change of sex, though it altered their nature, did nothing whatever to alter their identity” (Woolf 102). In these lines, Woolf's use of the gender neutral “their” pronoun is most intriguing. By employing this pronoun, it acknowledges the gender identity of Orlando. If Orlando was truly a man or a woman, then Woolf would have used male or female pronouns. Instead, she uses the gender neutral ones. Additionally, the lines following those quoted above explain that female pronouns are used “for convention's sake.” By using this as the explanation of the use of female pronouns, Woolf is saying that it is not because Orlando is a woman that female pronouns are used, but because of Orlando's biosex that female pronouns are used—granting credence to their pronouns not being female. The historical context is important when discussing the use of gender pronouns in Orlando. After all, Woolf was writing during the early Twentieth Century; a time when gender was contentious—and breaking from the gender binary was not something that was done lightly. Even today, this is not an easy topic to discuss—with politicians as powerful as the President of the United States wanting to legalize discrimination against people within the LGBTQIA3+ community. Thus, given the context, it does make sense that Woolf uses female gender pronouns to refer to Orlando after the transformation.
After the biosex change, Orlando has to come to terms with the difference in their lives that having a different perceived gender entails. For Orlando, this comes with resistance to the norms of the gender binary that is omnipresent in English society, which occurs nearly instantaneously in Orlando after their return to English society aboard the Enamored Lady after their time with the Romani:
And here it would seem from some ambiguity in her terms that she was censuring both sexes equally, as if she belonged to neither, and indeed, for the time being she seemed to vacillate; she was man; she was woman; she knew the secrets, the weakness of each. It was a most bewildering and whirligig state of mind to be in (Woolf 117).
Here, we see the clear admission by Woolf that Orlando does not accept their assigned gender, nor the gender that they had been assigned prior to their biosex change. Further, it shows that they know about, and have experienced the aspects of both genders—and that, in fact, they are both man and woman at the same time. Further though, the biographer talks about how Orlando “pitted one sex against the other, and found each alternately full of the deplorable infirmities, and was not sure to which she belonged” (Woolf 117). This shows that Orlando, while belonging to both the male and female genders, also belongs to neither. This further lends to Orlando being a gender-fluid individual through their own thoughts.
The next night, Orlando goes back on what they said before, thinking, “[ignorant] and poor as [women] are to the other sex” (Woolf 117). This line, on its own, seems to say that Orlando has settled the internal turmoil that their mind was the night before, settling the “whirligig state of mind,” and accepting the assigned gender given to them by the gender-binary. Indeed, they yell out at one point later that day, “Praise God that I'm a woman!” (Woolf 119). This appears to be a full-fledged acceptance of their assigned gender. However, after praising God, the biographer notes that Orlando pauses on the word “woman.” If Orlando does truly embrace their new assigned gender, with the fervor that is implied by their exclamation, then it behooves us to ask why Orlando paused on the word “woman.” The normal reasons for pausing in speech usually come about for the benefit of the audience—such as letting what was said sink in, or building tension to emphasis what is being said. However, Orlando does not have an audience. This leaves but one reason for Orlando to pause—for uncertainty. Orlando pauses after saying “woman” because they are uncertain as to their truly being a woman. This confusion is compounded by the sexuality of Orlando, as Orlando, at the time of this exclamation, does express sexual desire for women (Woolf 119). So, not only is Orlando dealing with existing outside of the gender-binary, but they are also confronting the power of heteronormativity. While this is another interesting aspect of Orlando's life, it warrants an investigation of its own, which is not within the purview of this essay. Though it would appear that Orlando is bisexual or pansexual based on the partners that they have throughout the novel.
The gender identity of an individual is something that every person must decide for themselves. In order to know the gender identify of others, we must ask them how they identify. However, there are also assumptions that everyone makes based off of the gender-expression of individuals. In the case of Orlando, gender-expression can key the reader in on their gender identity, as their mind is in conflict with this point. One of the ways in which gender-expression occurs that is most apparent is clothing. Men and women, throughout history in a majority of societies, have different ways in which they dress. This is acknowledged by Woolf's biographer, who goes as far as to say that the clothing is what ties the gender of an individual together, and that this can be completely independent, if not “in opposition” to the sex beneath the clothing (Woolf 139). This showing of clothing affecting expression is seen distinctly when Orlando encounters Nell. In this encounter, Orlando dresses and acts like a man—because, at that moment, Orlando is a man. Woolf's biographer continues to use female pronouns to refer to Orlando during this encounter, however, I believe that that is due to the time period and the power of the gender-binary, and the fear of it influencing her work (through censorship or just refusal to publish her work), because Woolf does acknowledge that at the moment Orlando is a man. This occurs when Woolf says, “Yet, having been so lately a woman herself” (158). With this phrase, Woolf is writing in the past perfective tense, meaning that Orlando was a woman recently, but is no longer. Woolf reinforces this point when she says, “She had, it seems, no difficulty in sustaining the different parts, for her sex changed far more frequently than those who have worn only one set of clothing can conceive” (Woolf 161). With this, Woolf is acknowledging both the changes of gender that Orlando undertakes, and how that is influenced by the clothing that Orlando wears.
Gender is a constant in the lives of everyone. Whether subtle or explicit, it affects how we act, how we express ourselves, and how we think. Likewise, gender is central in the life of Orlando in Virginia Woolf's Orlando. In Orlando, Orlando begins as a man in the court of Queen Elizabeth I, and is later the subject of a biosex change from their original biosex male state to that of a biosex female. While the biographer, and others in the novel, refer to Orlando as a woman, Orlando is actually a gender-fluid individual. Woolf shows this through her use of the gender-neutral “their” pronoun at the time of the transformation and with the internal conflict that Orlando has between identifying with being a man and being a woman and their feeling that they belong to both and neither of the genders at the same time. This uncertainty is compounded by the lack of language and discussion of the gender-binary, and of heteronormativity (as Orlando most certainly does not “fit” within the heteronormative framework of society at the time that they lived). Gender expression, then, is important for us, as readers, in determining Orlando's gender identity, as Orlando may not be able to express their own identity. With this, clothing is a vital way for Orlando to express their gender. When examining their expression through clothing, we find that the clothes that Orlando wears define the gender that Orlando has at that moment. Putting all of these things together allow us to clearly see that Orlando is a gender-fluid individual.