Monday, November 20, 2017

The Grief of Thomas: A Sermon for Trans Day of Remembrance


“Unless I see the nail marks in his hands 
and put my finger where the nails were, 
and put my hand into his side,
I will not believe” ”

The Gospel of John 20:25
______________________________
______________________________

At this is the time of the academic year, my students are turning in their second essays and revisions of their first; and before they submit their critiques, I repeat one of my axioms: write as though your audience is in pain, because most likely they are. I believe in this. Preparing my sermon for tonight, I was certain of it. Personally, I’ve felt triggered for months and every time I feel like I begin to catch my breath, another trigger goes off. It keeps happening and I can’t make it stop. For trans persons experiencing dysphoria, we exist in a constant hum of discomfort and pain, unable to settle in our bodies or environment. We have more bearable seasons, as well as seasons where its really unlivable. A year ago this time it got really bad for me. I remember 3 A.M. on election night weeping into my partner’s arm because I knew that my friends at the Trans Lifeline were overloaded with suicidal callers. November 2016 was the busiest month in the Lifeline’s existence, fielding 2,700 calls, most during the night and days following the election. Since then, a trans person has been killed every month in the United States. Then there are the perpetual government threats to exclude us from the military, bathrooms, schools, health care and civil rights protections. I think of the rash of sexual abuse and harassment claims. I think of all the trans people whose bodies are touched and investigated without cis people realizing that what they are doing is sexual harassment; how my partner, a pastor, gets asked questions about my genitals by community members. I think about the police stopping me while I was walking with my kids or sitting outside with my mom as half dozen police surrounded me with guns drawn. I think about all those who have not lived to tell such stories. I think about all the harassed, traumatized, abused, triggered, and even the dead must do to train others on how they should and should not touch our bodies. I think about all we do to reclaim these bodies. I think about resurrected. I think about the sainted. I think about Lazarus’s tomb and Thomas’s doubts. I think about remembrance. I think about those in pain, as I write.


______________________________

______________________________


Lazarus


For those who devote their lives to saving the life of others, especially those in the trans and non-binary community, the transgender day of remembrance is a testament to our failures. I feel a bit like Jesus of Nazareth, who arrived at the house of his friend Lazarus only to be told by those grieving that he had come too late. Jesus is told that if he had been there for his friend would not have died. I can’t help but wonder if Jesus felt this too as he stood weeping on the road. But then Jesus does something miraculous. He tells them that Lazarus is not dead but only sleeping. Arriving at Lazarus’s tomb, he calls out, “Lazarus, come out.” Then from apparent death, Lazarus emerges from his tomb. On this day, I wish I had the power to bring back the dead. Each and every name listed today deserves that. We crave that. But none of us here have that power. Yet, I think about the famous movie line that goes, “there is a big different between all dead and mostly dead.” All dead, there is nothing we can do, but “mostly dead means partially alive and that we can work with.” In that case, I believe there is something we can do.

Because I do feel we have a Lazarus present here tonight; someone who feels like they are dead but may only be asleep, someone whose spirit wanders away from the body but who yet might live again, someone whose body may have become a tomb awaiting the call, “Lazarus come.” I dedicate this sermon to any Lazarus out there, someone who has come to the tomb today to be awakened from your death and slumber, to be resurrected and remember what it is to be alive. The work of resurrection is hard and will not be accomplished in one night but we may consider the ways in which our bodies are taken, the ways we may remember and return to those bodies, the ways we survive and embrace bodies that have been broken, and finally the ways that those who have passed beyond the vale and cannot be called back, those sainted dead, might still be speaking to us through their relics and stories to share the power in which they now rest.

I know there is at least one Lazarus here, because on the trans day of remembrance I often feel a sense of surprise and the thought, “I am not dead yet.” Whereas pride or shame would focus on the “not dead,” the emphasis in my own heart is on the “yet.” That terrible word, “yet,” is a weariness felt in the heart of many oppressed peoples. That word speaks of an expectation and a surprise at our own perseverance that is not our own but has found its way into our hearts. We learn this word, “yet,” from a world that expects this list of names each year. I hold back from saying that the world demands this list of names each year, like a quota. Because even if is true that in various ways the world DOES demand our non-existence, I cannot fully accept that reality out of a resistance to cynicism. What I can fully believe is that this list of names is something the world expects insofar as our deaths are accounted into the yearly breakage spreadsheets. Transgender death is part of the accepted cost of doing business, keeping this corporation of gender binaries, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, racism, and classism going.

This measurement of one’s own existence in relation to “not dead yet” is a sign of what is called slow-death. Slow-death describes populations that we actively or passively expect to die. Now, of course, we all die. But we except for the more depressive or Goth among us, we don’t regularly expect most people to die. We know it but we don’t expect it. We don’t expect a white able-bodied cisgender child to die. We expect to varying degrees the elderly to die, even those who aren’t sick. We expect the sick to die. We expect the disabled to die, even those who aren’t sick. We expect the poor to die more than the sick. This doesn’t mean we want them to die, but we aren’t surprised when they do and may be surprised when they don’t. This is slow death. Death is only one of the worst outcomes of slow-death. The other danger is not death but unlife or undeath, the state of being the living dead. Slow death creates undead by killing the soul even while life persists, like Lazarus asleep in his pit, yearning for remembrance and resurrection.



______________________________

______________________________


Thomas

When we struggle with our bodies and remembrance, I think of the story of Thomas and his need to not just see the Risen Christ but to feel him. John recalls how Thomas, one of the Twelve, was not there when Christ first appears to the disciples after the resurrection. Thus when others tell him, “We have seen the Lord!” Thomas cannot process this. Thomas gets called the doubter, assuming him to be a sort of empiricist or materialist when he says, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.” But maybe Thomas’s demand for touch is more than this. We are not told why he is not there. Maybe Thomas was like Lazarus, asleep in his grief, dysphoria, and slow death. He might have been physically present but not all there. When grief or dysphoria has taken us from our bodies, we may need positive touch to recall and remember our bodies.

Scientists have learned what victims of abuse and oppression, as well as those who’ve experienced systemic abuse, the inherited trauma of slavery, the horrors of the holocaust have long felt, that prior to our physical deaths, our brains shut down, our spirits leave, to avoid that hurt that would do more than kill us, it would obliterate our souls. These are incredibly hard moments to remember because there is a reason that our spirits fly away from it, there is a reason we feel like living ghosts, because the pain of those moments are so great that our minds shut down. In the face of these deaths and stolen bodies, when our friends say, “We have seen the Lord,” our hesitancy may be a refusal of platitudes. When we grieve, it may not be enough to say, “they are alive in heaven now.” Because more than wanting to be told, we want to feel them in our arms, to hold them again. Thomas is missing his friend Jesus and nothing short of embracing his friend again will do. Amidst grief, trauma and hurt, it is not enough that our minds recall events, our bodies must be retrained and the connection between body and soul reformed.

Like Thomas, touch as a form of remembrance is important to me, especially when I feel myself pulled out of my body. This feeling is called dysphoria. Dysphoria occurs the gender folk assign to me conflicts with my gender identity. My family has been trained to notice when something triggers my dysphoria. Someone at work keeps calling me “he,” and I may not correct them because mentally I may not even be in the room. My spirit has begun to wander somewhere else out of self-defense. It happens nearly every time I take a flight. It is a fact that the TSA as a collective party has touched my genitals more than most of my lovers. I don’t want them to touch me but others depend on my traveling for work. And so, they fondle my body while meanwhile my mind is floating somewhere outside the flesh. I don’t know how this looks from the outside. Do my eyes glaze over? Does my body sag without a spirit to hold it alert? I don’t know because I’m not there. Each time my soul wanders, it takes effort to pull it back into my body.

It took years of intentional and intense effort to begin to feel like my body was a home for my spirit. In this work, touch has great power for remembrance. Thus, I have a need to write, take photos, and collect little trinkets. When my brain can’t hold all the information, objects hold the burden of remembrance for me. What are the objects that recall you back to yourself when your spirit wanders? Is it a certain skirt or sweater? Is it a bath bomb or candle? Is it a teddy bear or a beloved pet? Is it your partner squeezing your hand or your child crawling into your lap? For many of us, the work of remembrance is done by an assortment of objects and people, images and practices. In times of crisis, many of these will no longer be enough. In times of death and dying, we may find ourselves driven to find new and greater kinds of touch to remember us to our bodies. For Thomas, this meant being able to touch the friend he grieved. Some call this being skeptical, I call this being hurt. I call this an expression of a need that may sound silly to others but to us is the difference between life and death, remembrance and oblivion.

______________________________


Posted by Leelah Alcorn 12/22/2014
Captioned: "Transitioning. I Love How Literal This Is 
and How You Get a Sense of the Pain It Takes"
______________________________


The Resurrected

What happens, however, when those who are hurting need help from those who are hurt? What about the trans persons working the Trans Lifeline? What about tonight? This is the model of love that Christ offers in response to Thomas. “Peace be with you!” says Jesus on his next return, and then to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side.” On the surface, this is an object lesson on the resurrection of the body. But when one considers grief and death, the act takes on an intimate tone. Christ has just suffered dying and death. Christ retains the material remembrance of hurt. When Christ approaches Thomas, he is not only making his life and resurrection known to him, he is making his death and pain known to him as well. Christ models for us what it means for those who have come out of the tomb to help others remember life by making ourselves available and vulnerable for one another, to let others touch our pain so we may overcome our dysphoria and divisions.

Why we need the resurrected to help us resurrect us, why Lazarus and Thomas needed the words and touch of Jesus, is evident to the trans community in these times of remembrance. I remember friends in the trans community walking away exhausted and raw from online and offline conversations after another name gets added to our list for remembrance. I remember how in our hurt we sought each other out and how in our hurt we sometimes hurt each other. This is what it means to be in a traumatized and abused community. We must be very tender with each other because we ourselves are very tender. I recall the trust and vulnerability we share. I think about “the Origin of Love” from Hedwig and the Angry Inch: “You had a way so familiar, / But I could not recognize, / Cause you had blood on your face; / I had blood in my eyes. / But I could swear by your expression / That the pain down in your soul / Was the same as the one down in mine. / That's the pain, / Cuts a straight line, / Down through the heart; / We called it love.”

Love is dangerous and love is powerful. Love is a risk that may bring resurrection or death. Christianity has learned this lesson. Christianity is full of traditions that involve materially and spiritually of the broken and dying communing with the broken and dead: drinking the blood and eating the body of a dead and resurrected God, touching the bones of saints, washing in the waters of baptism as a sign of our collective death and rebirth, holding hands as we say millennia old prayers. Christianity is a religion of touch. This is why abusive touch in the Church is such a crisis. Because if we cannot trust to touch, then we lose a critical point of access in our faith. By touch we might resurrect the dead, but by abusive touch we might pluck souls from the flesh as we steal their bodies. Those who are wounded may not be in a place where they can help heal others, indeed, we who are hurting may hurt others. But there is a saying in ethics, “anything with power is dangerous.” Touch has the power to steal souls and resurrect them.

Our need and offers for material remembrance must be made with greatest care and love. We must appreciate what we ask of one another, when we ask for vulnerability. We must write and speak as though our audience is in pain, because most likely they are. We must also appreciate what we ask of one another, when we make ourselves vulnerable. The instruction, “put your finger here; see my hands,” or “reach out your hand and put it into my side” may be a gift which brings about resurrection and remembrance. Such demands might also cause further harassment and trigger our traumas. Love is a dangerous game that can mean the difference between life and death. This is the game Christ plays again and again. This is the game Christians are asked to imitate. When someone asks for healing touch like Thomas or someone asks on their behalf, such as Lazarus, this makes themselves vulnerable. This offer may be a form of consent but that position of power may quickly be abused. In this work, remembering our deaths may make us more compassionate and careful as we help others remember their life.

______________________________

______________________________


The Sainted

To conclude, I return to those I started discussing when I referred to the difference between the mostly dead and the all dead. I ask, is there really nothing we can do for those who are all dead? What about those who don’t walk out of Lazarus’s tomb or into Thomas’s upper room? How might we care for and remember our dead? In my work on death and dying in the trans community, I’ve seen many ways that people respond to the death of our trans siblings. I see people cut the hair of trans girls and bury them in a men’s suit. I see people put a trans boy to rest under a stone engraved with their deadname. I’ve also seen people tell the life story of the deceased, using names and pronouns they demanded in life. I’ve also seen people make icons of the deceased, decorated with wings and halos, emblazoned with inscriptions like “His Name Was Zander” and “Rest in Power.” What is the difference between “resting in peace” and “resting in power,” I wonder? I think of these icons and how as a medievalist I can’t help but imagine saints.

People often misunderstand and misuse the word saint. I think about the powerful but misleading lyric from Hamilton, “death does not discriminate between the sinners and the saints, it just takes and it takes, and it takes. But we keep living anyway. We rise and we fall and we make our mistakes. And if there is a reason [we] are still alive, then I’m willing to wait for it.” This sentiment that saints are somehow opposed to sinners I think is wrong. Saints were human with human faults. The word saint does not signify those without sin. The word saint means to set apart. One does not become a saint by choice, one becomes sainted by others. A saint is someone set apart by a marginalized society, targeted, alienated, isolated, even killed. A saint is someone who was discarded by the world but has been remembered and reclaimed. Death does discriminate against a saint like it discriminated against Mesha Caldwell from Canton, Mississippi on January 4th, 2017 or Jojo Striker from Toledo, Ohio, on February 8th, 2017.

Death does discriminate and saints teach us that remembrance can discriminate as well. According to reports, Ally Lee Steinfeld is one trans sister whose death on September 21st 2017, in Licking, Missouri, makes clear the connection between our murders and our erasure. Her killer took such pains to make the world forget her that I cannot but help but remember her: “Ally was stabbed, including wounds to the genitals. Her eyes were also gouged out. Her body was burned in an attempt to conceal evidence of the crime, and some of Ally’s bones were put into a garbage bag placed in a chicken coop near the residence.” Some people try to forget our trans family by taking away the means for awakening and material remembrance. Death and oblivion does discriminate and so life and remembrance must as well. We must remember those who are told to forget, including people of color, people with disabilities, immigrants, the aged, and those victims from other countries or parts of our country marked by isolation and poverty.

Death does take and take and take, and that’s why we can’t just keep living anyway. Life and love has to keep taking and taking, reclaiming and resurrecting the dead and forgotten. We cannot merely wait for a reason that we are still alive, by remembering our fallen trans siblings, we begin to feel the difference between resting in peace and resting in power. As Hamilton also says, we may, “have no control, who lives, who dies, who tells your story.” But we may have control whose stories we tell, whose lives we tell, whose deaths we tell. Because even now, I know what it means for someone else to tell my story, describe my body, imagine my life and death, in ways I cannot control. I know what it means to trust someone else with my body, my hurt, my memory, and my story. Remembering means re-membering our community as we lose our members to dying and death. We reach into death and oblivion to reclaim our saints. Re-membering means taking up the membership and flag of those who have fallen. Remembering means sharing each other’s pain and so also remembering and sharing each other’s power.

______________________________

______________________________

This sermon was delivered by Dr. Gabrielle M.W. Bychowski
from Case Western Reserve University
as part of the Transgender Day of Remembrance 
at the Connecticut Conference Center of the United Church of Christ 
on 20 November, 2017.

#TransLivesMatter

The Trans Lifeline
877.565.8860
______________________________


______________________________

Saturday, November 11, 2017

America's Racism Translator: A Lesson Plan in Code-Switching


“Part of what he talked about was a 'war on crime' 
but that was one of those code-words... 
which really was referring to the black political movements of the day...
the anti-war movement, 
the movements for women's liberation and gay liberation

James Kilgore
13th
______________________________
______________________________


The Presentations

Scenario: 

You are pitching a sketch based on the popularity of Obama's Anger Translator and adapted to address the way in which media as well as politicians often speak in code on issues that reflect or deepen racial inequalities in order to make them more palatable to an audience sensitive to overt racism. Your overall premise has been approved but the producers need a pilot that demonstrates how the new show "Racial Translations" would work. Together, you and your teach of four will research, write, and perform the short sketch for a test audience.


Task:

For this pilot sketch, in 6-8 minutes, your team of four will present a back and forth between two sides, one using language and rhetoric that strategically de-emphasizes racist components of the programs and one side translating that language to demonstrate how the message and systems presented participate in racial divides and inequality. While the inspiration, "Obama's Anger Translator," is intentionally comedic, this program may choose to move in a more measured and serious tone. In any case, avoid yelling racist language even for comedic effect.

Requirements:

In order to communicate the translation clearly, the translation should be broken down into two main points. Point 1 will be presented in code and then the same point will be code-switched by another presenter. Then Point 2 will be presented in code, followed likewise by a translation. All the points should connect in some way to the code-switching exemplified in the documentary, 13th, which the audience will all be familiar with and which will serve as a common point of comparison. Because this is a test audience and pilot, it is important that viewers can understand the sketch and its purpose. To make the connections and goals clear, bring in print out with names, time stamps where the points relate to the film 13th, and a script or list of main points. In response, the test audience will provide feedback at the rate of at least one comment from each of the other teams presenting pilots on the same day.

______________________________

______________________________

The Example

In the film, 13th, the documentary offers numerous examples of how media and politicians make statements/laws that avoid language connected with overt racial inequalities but could be translated to demonstrate how they drive wedges between peoples to the seeming benefit of white communities but at the expense of people of color.


A key example of this code-switching occurs in a scene that samples President Nixon's former advisor admitting to how they employed "Law and Order" or "Anti-Drug" language and laws aimed at isolating and undermining progressive movements and people of color.

"The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I'm saying? We knew we couldn't make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin. And then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders. raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did."

In this interview, the campaign director effectively acts of his own racial translator. He demonstrates how code-switching racist laws and prejudiced practices into "law and order" language would bring communities on board without having to admit to the racial inequalities being enacted.

______________________________
______________________________

White Supremacy and Medieval Studies: A Lesson Plan


“This is a watershed moment that, if used productively, 
will make medieval studies home to an intellectual environment 
that is sustainable and innovative, promotes risk-taking, 
and leverages an ever greater number of experiences 
and scholarly lenses in order to build the most comprehensive body 
of knowledge about the Middle Ages possible”

Collective Statement by the Medievalists of Color
______________________________
______________________________


The Presentations

Scenario:

You work at the University of Virginia. Over the weekend, a collection of white supremacist groups (including the KKK, Neo-Nazis, and White Nationalists) hold a large scale demonstration at which various medieval symbols, weapons and armor, chivalric romances, slogans, stories and histories are presented in support of the claims of the demonstration. Significant public outcry, including investors and alumni of the university, demand a public response from the university. Key members of the university administration invite you and your cohort of scholars in as experts to advise them, specifically on the role of medieval history, literature, religion, and art in issues of race and white supremacy.

Task:

The head of your department has charged you to give a 15-minute presentation to the classroom of administrators in which you articulate an argument that answers the question, “what is the role of medieval studies in regards to white supremacy?” They have made it clear that “no role” is not an answer the university can give to the public or its big donors.

Requirements:

To make your point clear, you are advised to use every member of your group, each speaking for 2 minutes; although different experts may focus on a different part of the presentation.

Together you will present a clear argument which states what the problem is, how medieval studies may be used to answer the problem, and a clear rationale for how this may be done.

Resources and Course Engagement:

To legitimize and illustrate your position, you will use a total offour quotations taken from a stack of books your department head believes will be useful. As a fan of John Mandeville, the department head insists you use two quotations from his book of travels. The other two quotations must then be taken from one of the remaining books (The King of Tars: Introduction, The Aryan Myth, or selections from Arthurian Romances). While the administrators are educated and well read, you are told that they would benefit from these passages being clearly explained and their context in the text given. You have been warned that there may be skeptics and people unfamiliar with the issue, so your department head has insisted that you spend 5-7 minutes of your allotted time to engage the room of administrators in a wider discussion. The goal is to get people to think critically and passionately about the issue on the table and the proposed role of medieval studies in dealing with the stated problem. While you may take a variety of methods to spur discussion, you are advised to prompt dialog about how personal experiences affirm and inform the argument at hand or perhaps engage the room in a game or task which will make them think more critically about the topic at hand and see the value of the proposed position.

______________________________

______________________________

The Readings 

In preparation for the lesson, students will have read a variety of texts, drawn from historical, literary, and pedagogical studies, related to the long history of white supremacy. Uniting all of these divergent readings was the statement by the Medievalists of Color in response to how simmering white supremacist trends in Medieval Studies have been flaring up in recent months amidst a national rash of overt calls for white nationalism and historicism. This statement situated the importance of the exercise and seminar by relating course discussions to current and real conflicts in the professional world. While scholarship by medievalists of color informed the readings of the other texts on the syllabus, the statement presented a key example of the important perspectives and contributions of medievalists of color in the work of medieval studies and debates on/with white supremacy.

Some of these texts demonstrate how history has been constructed in ways that present a white supremacist narrative about how European/Aryan/Frank communities formed in response to threats from people that became marked by color (especially blackness). Framing these texts, an overview of the Crusades demonstrates the myriad of ways that a unified identity (white, Christian, Latin, Frankish) emerged out of a discordant collective of national and class interests in response to propaganda that identified the various Muslim states in the Middle East as a single "enemy" that demands a unified response in order to keep at bay and push back. Individual local accounts of alliances and peaceful relations between and within diverse religious communities before, during, and after the Crusades further complicates the problematic belief that the Crusades represent a single monolithic white Christianity in opposition to a single monolithic black Muslim force. Within the context of the Crusades, students begin to see how dialectic forces of conflict work to construct identity through the division and manipulation of history.

The King of Tars

Selections of medieval literature, including the King of Tars and Arthurian Chivalric Romances featuring the Knight Sir Palamedes, show how the construction of white Christian identity against the "black knights" of Islam in the late era of the Crusades was frought with contradictions and patterns of arbitrary and problematic associations. Students were struck by how the King of Tars tells the story of a growing non-Christian neighbor seeking to claim white Christian women and land but who are turned back and transformed by a conversion from black to white and Muslim to Christian. By close reading the text and the useful Introduction, students immediately began commenting how attributes that are overtly associated with blackness (non-Christian identity, deception, madness, hyper-sexuality, greed, violence and changeability) are all attributes that the white Christians exhibit throughout the Tale. They wondered if the text intentionally told one narrative through overt statements and another contradictory narrative through the subtle details, or if the text unintentionally tries to assert a racial and religious identity by arbitrarily dividing attributes which are otherwise ubiquitous across these supposedly essential differences. 

Sir Palamedes

By reading the earliest account of Sir Palamedes, students begin to see how the "Saracen" is defined as a point of contrast for the white Christian knight, Sir Tristan. Not only do the two knights find themselves often in literal battle, but Palamedes primarily functions in the early texts as competition in the pursuit of Lady Iseult. As such, white identity becomes defined as a defense of white Christian women from the over-sexualized threat by black men. Interestingly, almost immediately after the creation of Sir Palamedes as a non-Christian character in the Arthurian mythos, a storyteller develops a tale of Palamedes conversion to Christianity. Despite this anxiety about Palamede's faith identity, later authors tended to focus on the Saracen knight as a non-Christian. An example of how Palamedes was more interesting to medieval authors as a foil to the white Christian knight, Tristan, occurs in the Death of Arthur, where the white and black knights engage in a game of exchanging clothing. Throughout a tournament, Tristan and Palamedes change the colors of their armors, therefore swapping identities several times, confusing expectations. The effect of these exchanges is that readers have their associations between color, race, and faith identity undermined. Like the drag ball performances we would later watch in Paris is Burning, this shell-game of clothing demonstrate how the associations that contribute to racial and faith identities are culture constructs with contradicting histories and trajectories.

The Aryan Myth by Leon Poliakov

The Aryan Myth is one such historical investigation that demonstrates the many successive attempts by historians to locate an origin for white nationalism, often competing with other cultures and histories for who get to claim authentic "whiteness," contrasting the Franks and the Gallic people, the Anglo-Saxons and the Normans. The author, Leon Poliakov, demonstrates through the waves of historicism how the writing of history changed alongside political and national identities currently under construction in ascendant politics. At certain moments, the Frankish identity was hailed as the root of white civilization amidst a savage Gaul. Other years, Gallic identity rose as a rallying point for nativistic nationalism that resisted Roman and later Frankish foreign conquest. The meta-narrative of these "Myths of Origin" goes further than mere play of thesis and antithesis to push towards a synthesis that discredits the goal of discovering a single white national heritage by acknowledging the arbitrariness of the features identified as constituting these peoples as racially distinct as well as the inability to full distinguish one people from another amidst a region that was always already intermixed and interconnected.

The Book of John Mandeville

Trying all these texts together, because students were also reading the Book of John Mandeville during the week of presentations, the travels of this imagined pilgrim seemed to respond to and weave together many of their themes. Overall, students seemed to interpret Mandeville either as a positive counter-example, citing the many places that the author seems to praise non-Christians, or as a synthetic compromise, focusing on sections where the author insists on his Christian construction of identity yet also acknowledges that these peoples he visits may also have perspectives of their own that undermine the stability that either position is the absolute objective truth. In particular, students tended to quote the selection of the Book where Mandeville observes that for these non-Christians, blackness is not evil but good because as people of color they do not regard their comparatively dark complexion as a negative. Indeed, Mandeville notes, from such a perspective angels would be black and devils would be white. Of course, what does not occur to Mandeville in this section is that non-Christians might not be engaging in the same racializing rhetoric as them that emphasizes color in order to assert divisions. He assumes the game of color and racial difference are a common agreed upon conflict.


______________________________

______________________________

The Outcomes

Every class has its own dynamics, leading to a variety of outcomes from this lesson plan. Following recent white supremacist events, students began the semester shaken and less than confident in their ability to discuss issues of racism. Questions posed in class would frequently be responded to with equivocation, as epitomized by the statement, "I don't want to say the wrong thing." Over time, students became more comfortable talking with me as the mediator in a conversation which would pop-corn/ping-pong back and forth. Yet they remained taciturn towards each other. Even in small groups, there was a tension between randomly assigned sets. Going into this lesson plan, a central goal was to get the students comfortable with teaching each other and listening to each other. Overall, the lesson plan follows the "reverse-classroom" format of teaching that does just this. The stated outcomes of the lesson was then focused on engagement: everyone's voice being heard, argumentative stances being taken, active listening to and responding to other groups, and an evidentiary approach to the topic which grounds these encounters within the wider parameters of the course and the specific section on the role of medieval studies in dealing with the new and old traditions of white supremacy.

In the case of my seminar, the lesson plan was effective at prompting engagement. Voices were given center stage that had been silent for most the semester. In a seminar on race and white supremacy, there can be tensions in the classroom between students that can lead to white men doing more of the talking and women of color doing more of the listening. For our class, the lesson shook up many of the class's dynamics. Furthermore, students were pushed to take an ethical stance and get over their instinct to "not say anything wrong." This reflected on how students had grown more connected to the subject, breaking some out of an expressed apathy on the subject matter. When challenged to find a way to feel invested in the subject, participants in the reverse-classroom rose to the occasion. Students built their confidence and cases by close reading the texts in interesting and sometimes surprising ways. The diverse ways people read John Mandeville as proto-colonial, post-Crusader, or as a compromise between extreme positions sparked discussions between groups. While tensions in the class remain, the dynamics have shifted. Not everyone in the class is yet comfortable speaking up to everyone else but everyone is now doing more of the talking as well as the listening. Overall, a sense of "responsibility" and the "role" of participants in academic discussions has moved from a background frame to function more as an active ethos of the seminar.

In the end, this lesson plan may just be a jumping off point for other classes. Your seminars may have different dynamics and challenges. Certainly, other course readings and discussions would change the content of the discussions. Likewise, contexts other than those of Fall 2017 would prompt other questions and places of emphasis. Yet overall, I hope these lesson notes prove helpful as you organize your own classroom discussions on white supremacy and medieval studies!

______________________________
______________________________

Sunday, October 15, 2017

The Reverend and Doctor Are Getting Married: All are Welcome! Save the Date 18 February 2018


______________________________
______________________________

Save the Date

The Marriage Ceremony 
of the Reverend Rachel J. Bahr
and Dr. Gabrielle M.W. Bychowski
will occur on 

18 February 2018

at First Congregation Church
in Southington, CT

______________________________
______________________________

Love is not something that occurs in isolation but grows out of the light and life in the community. You are a critical part of our life story. That is why we are excited to invite you to our wedding ceremony on 18 February 2018 (easy to remember: it's 2/18 of 2-18) at the First Congregational Church of Southington, CT. The marriage ceremony will be an interfaith service that reflects the spiritual roots of our family, combining the influences of Roman Catholicism and the United Church of Christ. The service will also acknowledge that our families and communities extend beyond the church, including people from many traditions as well as those who find meaning outside of religion. Please feel welcome to attend as we bless our marriage and our diverse communities.

The ceremony is open to everyone. An open reception will follow immediately afterwards in Memorial Hall for members of the church community.

Guests from out of town will receive invitations for a reception later in the evening, although all are welcome to come prior and meet our wonderful church family!

______________________________
______________________________

More information can be found
on our wedding website:

______________________________
______________________________

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Pedagogies of Survival: Teaching Trauma in Traumatizing Times


“Here begynnyth a schort tretys and a comfortabyl 
for synful wrecchys, wherin
thei may have gret solas and comfort”

The Book of Margery Kempe
______________________________
______________________________

Compassion and Comfort

I ask only that we feel together for a time. I cannot tell you to imitate my method. I cannot tell you to imitate my feelings. I cannot fix this, these traumas new and old. I ask only that you listen for a time to my feelings and you feel your feelings alongside mine. If something I feel resonates with you, perhaps the sympathies will better us and strengthen us. I blush to say that our compassions, our feeling-together, may comfort us. By comfort I mean that fortification that being-together can give to those it connects. Comfort embiggens us so that we might together face the traumas which might crush us alone. Somehow, the comfort of feeling-together makes us a one that is more than two, yet bigger than one alone. I seek comfort that I might offer comfort, something I do not have on my own. I ask that we feel together because the feelings come without my asking, because I cannot ignore or avoid the feelings and so they must be faced. The seminar must go on, students and teachers must go on. Yet, how do we do this, yet remember as Edutopia does, "When Students Are Traumatized, Teachers Are Too." Many of us need more than a "pedagogy of trauma" but also "a pedagogy of survival" that will not only instruct our students but assist in a collective reclamation of life, power, and self.

This past week has been a representative embodiment of much of the work I struggle with this semester and other times in my work as a scholar, mother, and activist. This past week I have been tasked to teach trauma in a traumatic time to traumatized students. I take one this task as someone who has also struggled with trauma. How do I teach a seminar, "Beyond Male and Female: Histories of Transgender and Non-Binary Gender," discussing how bodies are stolen, imprisoned in mental hospitals, subjected to abusive conversion therapy, and pressed towards suicide in Dylan Scholinski's memoir, The Last Time I Wore a Dress? Can you possibly engage pain that students in the class not only understand but have experienced, and still feel? How do I teach my seminar, "Racism and Human Diversity: Medieval Narratives of Blackness," discussing how the trauma of slavery meets the horror of sexism in the stealing of bodies in Beloved by subjugation, rape, and torture? If each lesson plan has an arc, a beginning, middle, and end, where is it that I can bring my students? Certainly we do not live in a world without the ghosts and illness of white supremacy, racism, sexism, and their thieveries. And the text does not offer any such wholesale escape or escapism. There is liberation, there is hope, there is exorcism, but the scars and pain remains. I cannot tell the students how to fix trauma, where they might run to flee racism, how they might undo the knots of sexism and rape. I can offer them what teachers (including Dylan Scholinski and Toni Morrison) have taught me: how to survive, how to leave, and how to reclaim what has been taken, broken, killed. Yet this requires us to feel where and when we are, to feel where we and others have been, to feel together and find some strength which we might call comfort.


______________________________

______________________________



Trigger Warnings

My students are tired, so tired, and the trauma we must discuss and share is triggering of wounds that have not scabbed. The rape, suicide, torture, death, and abuse of racism, gender, and disability that our texts ask us to feel-with is so heavy and our students are already carrying so much. The hope is that, even if the texts cannot lighten our loads, at least they can give strength through a shared affect and struggle. Yet these connects are hard and demand what Morrison calls a thick sort of love. These are connections that happen at the point of wounds and scars. When students ask to leave the room, I commend their self-preservation and self-care. When they return, I am grateful for their compassion. These are the skills that students have learned to survive trauma. These are good skills. These are lessons we need to share and on which we are trying to build. Comfort may help us survive but it is no guarantee. Some of us may break under the strain. These are the stakes of our learning about trauma and survival, these are the costs, and these are our hopes. Some view "trigger warnings" as extraneous to teaching, even antithetical to teaching because it seems to offer our students an "out" from dealing with difficult learning. I don't see warnings that way. I see the warning a part of the lesson. I see the warning as part of thinking about trauma. I see the warning as part of survival. I see the lesson as part of this survival. This is the lesson Denver learns in Beloved: if one can leave, sometimes one must leave. Students do not leave class because they are experiencing the lesson on trauma any less but because they are experiencing the trauma and the lesson that much more.

A dilemma in teaching about trauma is that trauma rarely exists within a discreet period of time or along a linear temporal frame. Trauma is less like a line than an organic vine with recursive bends back toward the points of unresolved hurt, away from points of pain, and run all through with a twisting anxiety. As instructors, we teach our students to be ever conscious about context, and so we must also be. This is another way that "trigger warnings" may serve as more than a deterrent or excuse. Trigger warnings is a way of acknowledging that traumas we have experienced may not be over simply because we have been able to show up to class. This week, as we discuss the KKK, slavery, the persistence of racism and its damage, white supremacists are once again marching. This week, as we discuss transphobia, the systematic isolation and exclusion of transgender, and the despair unto death felt by trans and other non-binary persons, the federal government works to take away job protections for non-cisgender persons. This week, as we discuss rape and the abuse of women, the same federal government makes it harder for such women (all women) to reclaim agency over their bodies and sexualities. This week, as we discuss violence and the hate that will not die, a mass shooting kills several dozens and harms countless. Do we offer our students escape and refuge? Or do we offer them a place to rally and resist? What if some students desperately need the former and other students are eager for the latter? What if we, the instructors, are feeling crushed under the weight our times? Our times can be poignant reminders of the lingering significance of texts and histories that may be decades or centuries old. Our times can also leave us speechless, unable to think or argue because we feel so much. Some lessons are meant to transport us somewhere, lead us to some conclusion. Some lessons are meant to help us sit exactly where we are, when we are, and help us to exist and survive together. Sometimes, a lesson is successful not because of what students walked away with but because students (and ourselves) were able to walk away.


______________________________

______________________________



The Lessons that Don't Happen

This sum of trauma may be that the best lesson plan is sometimes the lesson that does not happen. There is power is being able to consider the people in the room, consider the time and context of the room, to consider the instructor in the room, and then change the lesson. What are some of these changes? What lessons emerge when we let go of the classes that won't happen? (Lesson 1) Students have more power than they may know. I have had classes where I've worked to help my students understand trauma in a text. Other times students understand this trauma uneasily well and the lesson becomes learning with them how to survive. Showing our students that we can change, change our directions, change our locations, change our plans, is a way of teaching them the lesson that things don't have to be this way. We have the power to adapt, evolve, respond to our environments. By listening to the students in the room, we teach (or remind) them about their own power. (Lesson 2) Remind students its okay to think with their feelings. At the start of my seminars, I tell my students that nearly all my classes teach the same three lessons but in importantly distinct forms, embodiments, and contexts: how to perceive power dynamics, how to affect/effect power, and how to wrestle with the ethics of power. Understanding that emotions are key to how social power functions and is manipulated, and affective well being is essential to ethical considerations, is a lesson students do not get enough. By acknowledging the struggle of working through pain and fear as well as the ethical role of compassion and comfort, we place our student's experiences in the center of a class, not somehow outside them at an impossible objective and amoral distance. (Lesson 3) The classroom is not the only place where learning and growth can happen. Again, sometimes the best lesson is the lesson not given, when we teach our students about the power to turn a class day into a mental health day: to get sleep, to take a long lunch, to lighten a crushing work load, to find comfort in their own way. As Edutopia succinctly writes, "Brains in Pain Cannot Learn." This may feel like giving up, giving students the day off, but in our humility we are reminding students of their own power to survive, enact self-care, and learn. 

In the end, a pedagogy of survival is not a lesson plan I can set in advance or summarize for those looking to imitate it. Trauma is like a cancer, a form of life that grows and changes. Likewise, survival requires adaptability and transformation in response to classroom environments and the lives that populate them. The lesson is to be able to let go of our lesson plans when our students and circumstances change. This does not mean that there are no ways forward. There are many ways forward. Which ways is best for you and your students greatly depends on who you are, where you are, when you are teaching, and what we all bring to the classroom. On each of my seminars, I ended the last class of the week by compiling lists of ways in which we can reclaim our power, our lives, and survive. We drew from their experiences and the text's offerings. Among the list was the comfort of writing, the comfort of reading, the comfort of sharing one's feelings with another. In its own way, this is a function or hope of www.ThingsTransform.com. This is a corner of the internet where we may share a corner of our minds and hearts. For that, I thank you. Thank you for feeling-together with me for a time. I do not know what it is you felt but knowing you are there gives me some comfort. Sitting alongside my self, I am not sure what lesson I walk away with, but I am grateful that tonight I can walk away from my work, leave it here, and go engage with the things that transform me.


______________________________
______________________________

Sunday, September 17, 2017

I Shouldn't Be Here, But Here I Am: A Birthday Reflection and Wish


"You asked me what I want this year
And I try to make this kind and clear
Just a chance that maybe we'll find better days"

Better Days
the Goo Goo Dolls
______________________________
______________________________

In memory of Ally Steinfeld
______________________________
______________________________

A Birthday

I was born premature with my umbilical cord wrapped around my neck. I came quickly and my mother wasn't even able to be given any pain medication when she got to the hospital. She arrived and thirty minutes later, so did I. When the doctors saw the cord and the color of my skin, they went into immediate action to get me breathing. The strangling cord was cut and I was coached into taking my first breath. I was lucky. I was lucky to be born in a hospital with doctors who knew what to do. I was lucky my mother was a nurse, practiced in delivering babies, who had the knowledge and access to the care we needed. I was lucky that the night before, my mother stopped while brushing her teeth and called to my father, "I think I am ready for this baby to be born." My father laughed because I wasn't due for weeks yet and my mother was showing no signs of labor. But late that night, things began to happen quickly. My mother woke up and told my father that the time is now. They rushed to the hospital and if traffic had been worse I would have arrived into the world in the back of a car with a cord around my neck and no doctors with sharp scalpels to give me air. I was lucky. I was privileged. I shouldn't be here, others in similar circumstances aren't here because they lacked such luck and resources like life-saving healthcare. They had just as much right to be here but aren't. But here I am.

Flash forward ten years, I am double-digits and proud of that as I sit in a doctor's office with a strange humming machine pressed against my chest. A few days earlier I was at my routine physical and the doctor checking my heart had heard an abnormality. He had another doctor come in and listen. Then my mother was told to take me in for an echocardiogram to confirm. The results are conclusive, I have a heart condition. While twenty years later, further research has showed that my condition is not fatal and that people with my diagnosis can have full rich lives, at the time the material facts and the current knowledge painted a far grimmer picture. I was warned that my life expectancy would but markedly less than my peers and that, most certainly, I would need open heart surgery by the age of thirty at the latest. The doctor could see the immense concern cringing my mothers practiced face. Both could see the color draining out of my skin. Open heart surgery is risky, even on the relatively young. Thirty-years old seems far away to a ten-year old but not nearly far enough away. The doctor assured me that he would do everything he can to prepare me and keep an eye on my condition. I was told to watch what I eat, to exercise, but also not to push myself too hard. I was given a note that would excuse me from gym class at school.

 I never used that note, however. Buying into what Eli Clare calls, "the super-crip" narrative, the moment I was told that I couldn't or shouldn't be out running the mile with my classmates, I felt the compulsion to show that I could and would. In fact, I joined the track team, literally jumping over hurdles. But pushing myself didn't change the fact that I would and still do get light-headed when a burst of heart palpitations hit my body like a punch to the chest. Nor did it allow me to enjoy coffee later in life without bringing on similar stress with a cup of full black. Nonetheless, I am turning thirty-years old this year and although I am relatively young, I still don't feel any more prepared for open heart surgery. Fortunately, that is no longer regarded as necessary. In fact, after years of regular cardiograms and doctor's visits, as well as many miles run, I am not shorter nor shorter-life spanned than those without my heart condition. My diagnosis is the same but the prognosis is good. I was told I shouldn't be here, many others with better bills of health aren't here, but here I am. Despite the panic I felt at the age of ten, I am grateful for the luck and resources I was given, for the doctor's note even if I didn't use it, and for the whole team of people who were on my side and ready in case my heart gave out. What if that attention and care was given to those other kids, regardless of having a white nurse mother and a diagnosed heart condition? How many more that aren't here would be? How many more birthdays would be celebrated?


______________________________


______________________________

A Reflection

When at the age of eighteen a pair of police officers drew their guns and pointed them at me, my first reaction was disbelief. I was standing in front of my condo with my partner, a friend, and my mother, working on a school project. The disbelief was not dispelled until I was pinned against a car being frisked. My initial surprise arouse from many sources but not least because we were not doing anything dangerous or illegal. Of course, years later, when I would have the police called on me yet again I wasn't doing anything dangerous or illegal either. In both cases I was being investigated by police because someone who saw me judged me to be a strange person who doesn't belong in their normative safe white community. In both cases I was with my family. Years later, it would be my children who had to watch as a police officer interrogated me to determine that I  was these children's other mother and not a pervert and child abductor as the onlooker had supposed. This time, however, it was my mother who had to watch in fear, praying that her daughter didn't get shot in front of her eyes. I recall having to tell both my mom and my children that everything would be okay, that we would talk and everything would be sorted. Of course, in reality, I had no such assurance. In the end, both sets of police soon realized that I was no threat and that they had been given bad and prejudiced information about me. Yet in the moment and afterwards, I am keenly aware of how many trans persons, youths, people with mental disabilities or illnesses, and people of color do not have such luck. I ask myself, had I been a trans person of color would the police officers have paused long enough to listen to our story? What if the prejudice of the passerby who saw me had ignited the same prejudice in the police officers, sparking the outcome which too often comes when the thought, "you shouldn't be here," takes the form of violent action?

Well before my tenth birthday I already knew about another factor of my life which I was told the prognosis of even without doctors or fancy buzzing machines: I am transgender. If open heart surgery at the tender age of thirty took the blood out of my skin, I can't imagine if I knew the statistics then about how many trans kids attempt suicide a decade before that by the age of twenty. The Youth Suicide Prevention Program says 50% of trans persons will attempt by the age of 20. The American Society for Suicide Prevention states 41%. Another widely reported figure states that if I was a trans woman of color, I may not worry so much about heart surgery at the age of thirty because my life expectancy is not that much later, with an average figure of 35 years of life. These are the numbers that further research compounds, not corrects such as in the case of my heart condition. This diagnosis, whether given by a doctor or by society, brings with it a prognosis that should make all of us sit up and pay attention. Turning thirty, these are the numbers and names that still haunt me. When I accepted who I am, affirmed that I would transition, I prepared myself for the type of life and violent death that I am more likely to face. I have been told, directly and indirectly, that as a trans woman I should not be here. But here I am. That presence would feel like a victory if not for how many trans persons (especially trans persons of color) who should be here, should have been told that they should be here, but are not. 

And this is not just a matter of luck and access to healthcare. Because the too often fatal prognosis for trans folks are not determined by fate but by people, by other human beings. As scholarship on necropolitics, precarity, and "slow death" is showing, suicide is not a matter simply of bad luck or a bad apple. Suicide is inextricably linked to systems of shaming, abandonment, isolation, marginalization, and expectations which bring on depression, anxiety, despair and death. These systems of education, care, and prejudice which divide those whose lives will be managed from those whose lives will be abandoned, are also the systems which divide cisgender from the trans, intersex, and non-binary, male from female, straight from queer, able-bodied from disabled, white from black (and all other persons of color), the Christian from the non-Christian, and the haves from those whose resources have been taken or exploited. Such systems have said to me time and again, you shouldn't be here, but here I am; not least because in other ways and times I fit the criteria of those to whom society says, you SHOULD be here. The negative and mixed messaging is enough to send too many just like me or those better, more promising, more normative than me, to their graves. But to those who hear the compounding voice made from the many intersecting utterances of "you should not be here," there are many who should be here that aren't and many who have less of a chance to be here whose persistence should be lauded all the more. I hear traces of their condemnation in the voices which condemn me and also in the voices (those white supremacist, able-bodied, educated Christian voices) which praise me in part, even if I fail to live up their demands. In being able to say, "here I am," I feel the loss (the socially engineered loss) of all those who aren't. In being able to say, "here I am," I feel the responsibility to remind everyone to consider that they are not and why they are not.


______________________________


______________________________



A Wish

Over my years here in this world, I have seen many time and ways that people have been told "you shouldn't be here" and the many ways these wishes are made into reality. Recent events in the government, the United States as a whole, and even in Medieval Studies in particular, has stressed the persistence and power of dominant groups issuing the demand that marginalized peoples and persons no longer be allowed to be here. I have been told this. I see my friends told this. I see important colleagues told this. I see queer, trans, and crip graduate and undergraduate students told this. I see people of color told this. And I see the consequences. These words have power. These wishes are not silent thoughts or harmless opinions. These wishes are real and are having disastrous consequences. Yet it is not too late. The candles have not all been blown out. We might make other wishes, better wishes.

The cruelty but also the power of it is that these deaths and these messages, "you shouldn't be here," are not sentences from heaven or Nature but the judgements of humanity. This is not a matter of magic or super-natural wishes. Life is not a resource which must be hoarded for some and denied to others. Affirmation and welcome that you should be here is not something which runs out the more you say it. Indeed, the longer and more I become present here in this country and this world, the less I feel that "here" belongs to me. I am "here" but I do not possess it. There are many more who should be here, could be here, might be here if we didn't work so hard at belonging here and making here belong to us. Take for instance my role in the academy, the more I find myself, against odds, still here in the scholarly community, the greater I feel the pressing absence of all those who should be here but aren't or are here but are still told that they shouldn't be because of being outspoken, trans, queer, crip, feminine, old, young, poor, or a person of color. In an academy that is shrinking in funding and size, we need all hands on deck. In a culture grappling with transphobia, racism, sexism, ableism, xenophobia, and homophobia, we need more critical voices (especially among the oppressed) to turn the tide. In a nation which daily increases the volume and spectrum of the voices which say, "you shouldn't be here," we need more open and affirming voices, more voices of difference and dissent which respond, "but here I am," then add, "and so they should be too." It need not be survivors guilt or imposter syndrome to say, "I don't belong here," if we turn that statement into a demand on behalf of others who should be here.

On my birthday, when I say, "I shouldn't be here, but here I am," I do not wish to express self-pity. Rather, I am overwhelmed with gratitude for all who have literally said to me, word for word, the statement, "so long as I am here, you will be too." What is more, my birthday wish is that I may be able to say the same to the others who are here but pushed to the margins, those who are here but aren't certain they should be, those who are here but aren't sure for how long, those who are here but told they aren't welcome, as well as those who aren't here, won't be here, might be here, could be here, and should be here. My wish is that we say in greater frequency and clarity, responsibility and variety, "you should be here" and "so long as I am here, you will be too." This is not our gift to them because we do not belong here any more than they, "here" does not belong to us. Rather, if we make this wish, then we might receive the gift of their presence and that is something worth celebrating.


______________________________


Transgender and intersex persons are still constantly told 
by society and the law that they are not welcome here, 
in restrooms that correspond to their personal gender identity.

______________________________