Saturday, June 22, 2019

The First Time I Died: A Transgender Girl's Lessons in Death


"End? No, the journey doesn't end here."

J.R.R. Tolkien
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I was around three the first time I died. Fortunately, I was witty enough to think my way out of it before it was time for my parents to pick me up from Pre-School. Despite being raised Roman Catholic, I was enrolled in a Protestant Evangelical Pre-School, called "Sunshine." It was there I learned some things about singing, napping, climbing up stairs, and even got my first kiss. The girl had pulled me aside while we were make-believing in the kitchen play set and surprised me with a small peck. I think I spilled my imaginary cup of tea all over the freshly vacuumed carpet. I remember being confused but not upset. I did get confused and upset when I got in trouble for it. The surprise and the adult response was another lesson I received at this Pre-School: openly trusting what people do or say can lead to confusing problems, especially when I have thoughts to the otherwise.


Another confusing problem occurred to me when I was driving home from Pre-School down Park Street, under the canopy of old trees that seemed to be a staple of my hometown, and we were about to cross the tracks to the north side of town. "I don't want Jesus in my heart," I told my mom. She asked me to explain why I say that. "Because I think that would give me a heart attack or something." She laughed. She was confused and asked me to explain. But I was confused too. "The school told me that to be a good person, I need to invite Jesus into my heart," I reported. "But even if he could fit in all those tubes and things, I don't think my blood could get through with a man in my heart." My imagination flashed with all the damage a tiny human could do trying to make a home, sleeping, working, and trying to prepare meals inside a kid's cardiovascular system. I asked her if that meant I was a bad person, because I didn't want a miniature Jesus to give me cardiac arrest. She told me I was a good kid and a bright kid. Then she told me that I could be friends with Jesus even if he didn't live in my heart. I thought that was a sensible compromise.

The sense of doubt in the adults of my Pre-School came in handy when it came time for me to die. They had arranged a trip for us to tour the Wheaton College Billy Graham Center. The first half of the trip was okay. I had a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and watched a video about Humpty Dumpty. Humpty Dumpty was an egg who fell off a wall and broke but he was able to be put back together. I wasn't a huge fan of the film but then again I tend to not appreciate C-rated horror films as this seemed to me to be. After this, the Pre-School teachers broke us up into groups. About five or seven at a time, we would walk through a door into a dark room. As far as I could see, no one was coming out again after they entered. Then it was my group's turn. Our teacher walked us through the door which shut behind us. I could feel the walls which were covered in some sort of dark carpet but otherwise the room was totally dark and quiet. Then our teacher told us, "you are dead. You have died." I immediately began to panic. Death hadn't hurt but I was very sad to not see my mom or my dogs or my siblings or my dad or my house again. I didn't know anyone who had died and so I felt very alone, despite being dead with a bunch of other three and four year olds.

I stood grieving my own death for about a minute before a door on the other side of the room opened, revealing a brightly lit chamber. Walking through the dark hallway into the light, I was surrounded by a bunch of other dead kids, all standing in a high room painted with bright blue sky and clouds. There was a railing, presumably to keep us from falling back to earth. I wanted to see if I could see Wheaton and maybe my home below us, so I went over to the railing. Looking down, I saw a mirror reflecting my face back at me. Scanning along the other side of the railing, I took in the effect of the mirrors reflecting the lights and the sky to make it seem as though they went on forever. At this point, I deduced that I probably was not dead. 

I think I began to cry. My teacher tried to comfort me by saying something about how we are in heaven, pointing to all the walls and lights. I did not have the presence of mind to tell her how this was a pretty boring looking heaven. I was too busy crying and holding my arms across my body. She then told me that I really wasn't dead, it was just a museum. I wanted to tell her that I had figured that out on my own and that I wasn't crying because I thought I was dead (that experience had mostly come with a sense of guilt at abandoning my family) but rather because of how enraged I was that I had been lied to again. As in the case of the the girl who kissed me while we were playing in the toy kitchen, make-believe is fine and good but you should explain the game to the people you're playing with before you start or make significant changes. I wasn't ready to be some girl's wife, girlfriend, or whatever she thought I was in her imagination. Likewise, while these adults were eager to get Jesus into my heart or get me into Jesus's sky palace, I wish the Jesus they were presenting to me was less eager to see me dead. That said, as the Humpty Dumpty film had already warned me, these adults seemed to like horror films way more than I do. All I wanted was to vacuum the rug, make some imaginary tea and take a nap without being assaulted or killed by my playmates. Is that so hard?


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Tuesday, May 28, 2019

The Medieval DSM: Teaching On Medieval Disability & Transgender


"Jo l'ai tolte desnaturee"
[I have completely de-natured them]

Roman de Silence
Heldris of Cornwall
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In her book, She's Not There: A Life In Two Genders, transgender author and English professor, Jennifer Boylan, recalls, "One day I was stopped in the hall by a professor of medieval literature... I knew it would be good because scholars of this period seem to be required by the Modern Language Association to be absolutely insane." Now, attending the medieval congress at Kalamazoo may only reinforce this notion that we are all at least a little bit insane. Indeed, I am not here to dispute Boylan’s claim. Instead, I wish to put forth the intersection of transgender studies, disability studies, and medieval studies as a productive sort of crazy-making. Admittedly, my own professional well-being depends somewhat on the premise that all this madness means something significant in the end. In particular, I propose the thesis that medieval approaches to gender and madness may productively contribute to a wider education on disability and transgender studies. Specifically, I would like to outline a pedagogical movement whereby we move students from a knowledge as a possession which might be hoarded and represented by compendiums such as the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) towards a medieval model of knowledge as a process which depends on a lyrical and dialectical dialogue between multiple authorities, which I call the medieval DSM. Now, many of us here today might contend that given the DSM is called the Bible of Psychology, then the Bible is the medieval Bible of the Psyche. Yet I will demonstrate through a lesson from my seminars, “Monsters & Disability” “Queer Christianity,” and “Beyond Male & Female,” using the debate between nature, nurture, reason, and will from Roman de Silence as the sandbox for discussion, that the medieval DSM might be best translated as the medieval dialectical storytelling method.

While I’ve taught the medieval DSM in a few classes, as I just mentioned, it perhaps is most important for my Disability seminar at Case Western Reserve University which tends to have a higher number of pre-med, nursing, biology, and psychology majors attending the institution’s well known medical schools and working in their hospitals. For these students, lecture courses are the cornerstone with knowledge gained extensively through note-taking, cram sessions, and multiple choice tests based on large compendiums of knowledge like the DSM. For them and the other students of this STEM university, the treatment of knowledge as a process which involves multiple competing perspectives challenges the models of knowledge as object which has made them successful thus far in their studies. Indeed, many regard transgender as an inappropriate topic to study in a disability seminar because it is seen as too political or too based on in the social constructionist models of gender studies, not hard science. Yet lessons such as the medieval DSM used to discuss texts like Roman de Silence challenges their definitions of disability, gender, and epistemology, or how we know what we know. 


For those who are not familiar, Le Roman de Silence is a 13th century French chivalric romance about a trans masculine knight by Heldris of Cornwall. In the narrative, Sir Silence is born in a society that does not allow women to inherit property, so when he are born without a penis, his parents elect to raise him as a son in order to protect his right to inherit their estate. This runs smoothly until he reaches adolescence at which time he becomes aware that he is not like other boys. At this point, Nature and Nurture arrive to debate with him over whether or not he should continue to follow his nurturing to live as a trans masculine male or to follow nature’s decree that he live as a woman. The two sides go back and forth until Reason arrives to offer another and perhaps a higher authority perspective. And in the end, the choice falls to the will of Silence who elects to live as a man, which he does for many years. 


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Nature

Now, when my students hear that we will be discussing transgender in a disability seminar, they expect lectures in line with the discourse of Nature in the story. They expect me to provide them with medical information which informs them first whether or not being transgender is a disability and if it is what sort of health care may be involved. When I hand them this medieval poem, they get confused. This is not the exchange of knowledge-rich professor giving data to knowledge-consuming student. Instead, I am challenging them to think dialectically, considering the natural sciences alongside those of culture, philosophy, and ethics. Even worse, I am challenging them to engage in this dialectical debate of thesis, antithesis and synthesis through narrative. Doing this is key however to growing their perspectives on transgender and disability from being a collection of facts to being a collection of facts, cultures, ideologies, and choices. By getting them to see transgender and disability as ongoing dialectical narratives, I can show them not only how understandings of gender of the mind, body, and soul have evolved over the centuries but help them to question modern definitions and diagnoses. 


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Nurture

For instance, the debate between nature and nurture are present throughout modern medical treatment of transgender people. This dialectic hit a powerful anti-thesis in the 1990s with the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act that codified many protections and rights of people with disabilities while also including a clause which first disregards homosexuality as not being a disability or disorder and yet including transgender as being a disorder yet one not deserving of protection or support. Trans diagnoses were listed in this clause alongside pedophilia and bestiality. Indeed, we see this debate occurring today with the Trump administration considering transgender too much of disability and thus marking trans people as not fit to serve while also removing healthcare protections so as to allow anti-transgender insurers and doctors to refuse to cover what they consider to be a life-style and not a disability.

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Super-Nature
and Reason

While the American Medical Association, American Psychological Association, the American Psychiatric Association and dozens of other authorities consider gender dysphoria a valid medical condition deserving of care and yet not one that inhibits a person’s ability to serve, the refusal to recognize the natural facts of trans life are often follows super-natural or spiritual authorities. In Silence we see this escalation from nurture and nature to the super-natural with the arrival of Reason. Here the medieval DSM makes students productively uncomfortable again by challenging them to consider their own first principles, belief systems, and ideological biases. The gender binary that anti-LGBT politicians medical providers promote is not based in science or history but in the philosophical fallacies of pre-determined outcomes. This flawed logical doctrine that there are only two genders causes doctors to operate on intersex children in order to force these exceptions to this binary back into the binary, rather than recognizing that their binary is disproven by the biodiversity of chromosomes, hormones, phenotypes, and neuro-types. 

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Liberty

With natural sciences, cultural nurturing, and ideological rationales considered, modern and medieval scholars will often come to conclusions before stopping to consider that the debate Silence has four members of this dialectical storytelling and not three. While Nature, Nurture, and Reason all make their cases, in the end the decision falls to Silence. Silence choses to live as a trans man. The significance of this decision is highlighted both by the thousands of lines of narrative that extols Sir Silence living his best life but also in the tragedy that ends the story when Silence undergoes a sort of forced to live as a woman by the natural authority of Nature, the cultural authority of the King, and the Super-Natural Logos of Merlin. This tension between the start and end of Silence’s narrative marks how disability and transgender studies is more than just the natural or social sciences debate over what someone is but over the ethical question of who and how we empower trans and crip people to make decisions about their own lives.

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In the end, Le Roman de Silence is an effective tool at not only teaching students about medieval transgender and disability but in understanding a different way of knowing through the medieval DSM. Knowing as a dialectical storytelling method not only teaches students about medieval ways of analyzing differences in body and mind, but in challenging them to reconsider how they know what disability and transgender mean. I firmly believe that critical thinking itself may be defined by this ability to have multiple voices and perspectives in mind at once (whether or not one allegorizes them) and being able to synthesize factual, cultural, epistemological and ethical decisions based on them. This multiplicity of voices is often absent in social media and politics which put us all into echo-chambers where our favorite authorities pass down truths which repeat themselves through retweets, likes, and shares. The ability to sit in a classroom and synthesize perspectives into a shared narrative of knowledge is more important now than ever.

Thus, I return to the quotation offer by my trans sister and fellow scholar of literature, Jennifer Boylan, when she says that “scholars of this period seem to be required by the Modern Language Association to be absolutely insane." In a modern world where modes of thinking are defined by in-groups and out-groups, those who believe or disbelieve the same science, who share or reject the same cultures, who believe or disbelieve the same super-natural authorities, and who approve or condemn the same sorts of choices, maybe this era and our classrooms need more medieval insanity if that insanity means being able to think on multiple levels at once. Being able to at once play the games of the enemy and win, or else to know enough to refuse to play games which are rigged against you, may mean not only the difference between an A or a B grades but can be life-saving for trans and crip people who often find themselves at the mercy of ever changing authorities who try to decide what our lives mean and what our choices me be, and can perhaps be the difference between a livable and an unlivable life for them and others.

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The Patron Saint of Dysphoria: Joan of Arc as Transgender


"By my staff! We are enough!"

Joan of Arc
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Before I begin, I must say that the question of whether or not Joan of Arc is transgender is one of my most asked questions, especially from non-medievalists and people who are vocally anti-trans. No sooner than my name and work is given in news articles or social media than I get trolls sending me messages, “transgender in the Middle Ages? Let me guess: Joan of Arc. What fascist fake-news garbage!” I have here removed the even more disgusting language typically included in these comments. You may also observe that I get these questions, if they are questions at all, from people who don’t genuinely want and answer but who seem to already have their minds made up about what transgender is or is not and what medieval history may or may not be. Yet, the weaponizing of Joan is not only against queer and trans populations but appropriated as a symbol of white Nationalism and an imagined origin myth of a white Christian western race. This image of “Joan the Weapon of White Cisgender Supremacy” is now working beside those harassing, interrogating, and expelling modern day soldiers (who like Joan felt called to serve their country) from a historically critical institution in the breaking down of racial segregation and the largest employer of trans folx in the world: the U.S. military.

In these contexts, the ability to question exclusive claims over Joan the Woman is critical to defend not only Joan the Person but the people experiencing modern echoes of the transphobic harassment and state sanctioned murder of Joan; those harmed by antagonistic governments and politically motivated Christians. I’m aware of how multifaceted these questions and answers are, requiring a chapter within my book project on Transgender in the Middle Ages, so today I will suffice to mark means by which we may begin asking the question: is Joan of Arc transgender?

To this end, I wish to thank the International Joan of Arc Society for inviting me here to specifically explore “Joan the Transgender Person” on a panel titled “Joan the Woman.” I take this as a good faith inquiry wherein we can model the generosity, respect, and critical inquiry lacking in exclusive and weaponizing claims to the saint. If people are willing to candidly pursue

Joan through a critical trans theory lens, we will find that in particular important respects we may say that Joan is trans, however perhaps not in the ways you presently expect. Please note, in identifying Joan as Trans, I do not believe we dismiss the wider complexity of Joan’s life that speaks to many truths and identity claims being true at the same time. That said, this talk is organized into three parts drawn from the main title, the Patron Saint of Dysphoria with each part complicating the idea of “Joan the Woman.” First, I will begin with the politics of this panel and this paper in this moment and ask how the concept of patronage may give us the flexibility to at once consider Joan “the Patron of Women Doing a Man’s Job” alongside Joan the Patron of Trans Folx in the Military.” Second, I move from our time to shortly after Joan’s death to consider how Joan rose in the popular consciousness and religious standing through rhetorical arguments using the canon of trans saints and hagiography. Third, I narrow in on Joan during the final days of life to consider how the conditions and interrogations underwent may be said to have produced a form of gender dysphoria and by which we may be able to say that whether or not we say Joan is transgender, certainly Joan died in no small part because of a medieval form of transphobia. The conclusion of these three approaches to the question of Joan as transgender is that Joan of Arc may indeed be said to be transgender by modern standards (if those standards of transgender are properly understood; which they are often not) and yet there may be a stronger case that whether or not Joan is identified as transgender enough by modern standards, Joan of Arc was certainly considered more than trans enough by medieval standards to die for it. 

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1. Joan the Patron 

Now, turning to consider the concept of Patronage may be useful to providing the foundations for even asking the question of whether Joan is trans. Currently, Joan the Woman is claimed as a patron and model by many Christian women, by virgin women, by feminist women, by women doing jobs traditionally done by men, by women who wear pants or butch clothing, by lesbian women. For many women and even men, Joan is their woman, a woman with whom they identify and people can be very defensive of Joan. Thus, the very question as to whether Joan of Arc may be trans in some way creates a great deal of anxiety. People are anxious that if Joan is somehow proven to be trans, then they will lose some sort of claim over a woman with whom they’ve long identified. This can lead to the dangerous logic: I can’t tolerate losing Joan the woman, therefore Joan must be a woman, and so Joan must not be transgender.

As an alternative to this exclusivity around Joan the Woman, there is the possibility within the Patronage model for the saint to represent multiple identities simultaneously. Take the example of St. Nicholas, who is regarded as the patron saint of children, brewers, pharmacists, and sex workers to name a few. As a patron, saints are considered advocates as well as exceptional figures with whom the population identifies. Yet children and producers of alcoholic beverages are not fighting in the street over the right to send prayers and wishes to Santa Clause, likewise, pharmacists and sex workers are not giving opposing papers at a conference over who gets to identify with St. Nick. On the level of identification, Judith Butler writes that “identity” is one way a person exists for someone else. Put another way, identity can begin with the thought, “oh me too, I thought I was the only one.” To identify is to identify with someone or something other than yourself. In this way, many people can identify with multiple parts of Joan’s experiences without exhausting all of who Joan is and how Joan may be said to identify.

In Joan’s own life, Joan identified with maids. Lesbian women, asexuals and celibate women may all share this identity with Joan. Joan identified with soldiers, an identity largely constituted by men and chivalric masculinity in the era. Thus, soldiers of any gender but especially men may be said to have identified with Joan. Joan identified with martyrs and those unjustly judged by an antagonistic government. One may seem eerie similarity between current bans and expulsions of trans service members from the military. Indeed, before the political assaults on trans service members in the military, trans author Leslie Feinberg identified with Joan in the book Transgender Warrior: Making History from Joan of Arc to Dennis Rodman. In this way, patronage as a representative and advocate works across diverse lines of experience, speaking as much about the time of those claiming the saint as the time of the saint’s time. 

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2. Joan the Saint 

Amidst all the people who identified with Joan during life and for generations after, it was only relatively small amount of time after the death of the French leader before Joan’s retrial began, at which point the designation and association with trans saints began. In numerous cases heard across the retrials of Joan of Arc, the figure of Marinos the Monk is frequently cited. Joan’s contemporaries made this connection in part to understand Joan within the context of others similar to Joan that they knew, holy people who likewise expressed genders and habitus other than the one assigned at birth. If Joan’s contemporaries possessed the word transgender, they might have used that explicitly as they connected Joan and Marinos. In the case of Marinos and Joan, both were trans masculinity identified, as they transitioned from an identity as a maid to an identity as a form of celibate medieval masculinity, the monk and the virgin soldier. It is hard to miss that by the late Middle Ages a sub-genre of saint’s life had developed that included different types of saints who lived some form of trans life that was sanctified by the church.

Likewise, the invocation of the teachings of another saint, Saint Thomas Aquinas, was used to further this process of reclaiming Joan the trans heretic to Joan the trans saints. In particular, Question 169 of the second part of the second part of the Summa Theologiae that discusses modest dress was invoked, wherein the reply to objection 3, Aquinas allows breaking the norms of gender specific clothing in special cases, writing, “Nevertheless this may be done without sin on account of some necessity, either in order to hide oneself from enemies, or through lack of other clothes, or for some similar motive.” While Joan was not in disguise or lacking other clothes, there were other necessities and special motives to present in masculinity military attire. By this logic, Joan was not guilty of a lack of modesty because of the necessity of wearing work appropriate clothing but also the necessity of Joan being a person with a divinely sanctioned and driven identification with the medieval masculinity identity of knight.

From trans hagiography to Thomistic theology, the retrial of Joan of Arc seemed less aimed at denying the trans-ness of the martyr as trying to justify that trans-ness is not heretical but may in fact be saintly. The wider debate in the retrials concerned Joan’s motives and mind, which was repeatedly said to be affected by the voice of God. This led to the tension between the super-naturally marked trans-ness of Joan either being demonic or heavenly. These two positions are represented among Joan’s contemporaries by the competing English and French trials. Strongly on the side of heresy and an anti-trans program were the English who sought the death of Joan. Moving in a more progressive direction while also citing ancient authorities, were the French who were willing to allow that even a saint, perhaps especially a saint could be transgender. After all, does not the word saint in some way name those set apart that God marks for some special non-normative purpose? However the spiritual question is resolved, neither side, English or French, unilaterally denied that transness was in some way real and significant. 

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3. Joan the Dysphoric 

To conclude, I’ll consider how the circumstances of Joan’s life and death show signs of gender dysphoria and experiences of medieval transphobia. Thus it is necessary to provide a summary from Fifth Edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders for “Gender Dysphoria.” This is crucial for many reasons but especially because many people who declare that Joan can’t be trans, do not know much about current definitions of transgender or gender dysphoria. Many people operate on public assumptions based on the Gender Identity Disorder version of the diagnosis which has been debunked as bad science or use the word “transvestite” which has largely been out of use in medical communities for almost 50 years.

Here are a few key things to know and consider about gender dysphoria and Joan. First, the short definition of gender dysphoria in the DSM-5 describes the experience of having one’s gender identity and expression misgendered by a society that assigns to you and compels competing gender identities, habits, and roles. Gender dysphoria is a self-society problem not chiefly an internal issue. Second, gender dysphoria may be experienced by people who are not transgender and not all transgender people experience dysphoria. A cisgender woman who wears pants and who receives criticism and pressure to wear dresses experience a degree of dysphoria. Conversely, trans people who transition and live in affirming homes and communities may experience very little gender dysphoria because their gender identity is not subject to great degrees of antagonism. Based on this short definition of dysphoria, we may turn to Joan’s life and death, where we see consistent scrutiny over Joan wearing military garb traditionally assigned to men. Indeed, throughout the trial of Joan, the saint is consistently harassed over clothing, has clothing taken away and replaced, including overt and covert rape threats, as well as a series of verbal denigration over Joan’s gender expression culminating in Joan being killed.

The longer definition of gender dysphoria goes on to discuss symptoms of this conflict, including a strong desire for certain gender markers and habits and a strong aversion to other gender markers and habits. The DSM-5 does not specify what genders are being referenced out of recognition of the great range of biodiversity of gender now recognized in the sciences, such as the recurrent diversification of chromosome, hormones, phenotypes, and neuro structures . Gender studies of the Middle Ages also speaks to the wide range of distinct identities in society which are treated with particular legal, spiritual, and social significant such the Virgin, the Wife, the Widow but also the Eunuch, the Monk, and the Chivalric Knight. Current trans scholarship and medicine affirms that gender transition can occur through many gender identities and exist between gender identities, producing a wide range of non-binary, intersex, and gender queer identities. As such, being a maid, a virgin, a mystic, and a knight all at once was by medieval standards quite trans and likely (as we see in the case of Joan) to produce instances of dysphoria. 

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To conclude, while I cannot say whether or not a time-traveling Joan transported into 2019 would identify as a trans man but I can say that Joan would likely understand and experience many of the circumstances experience by trans men, trans masculine people, butches, non-binary people, asexual people, intersex people, and other members of the trans community. Furthermore, the circumstances of Joan’s life and death which point to extended periods of dysphoria and transphobia, as well as the effort among Joan’s own contemporaries to understand Joan in the context of trans saints and trans hagiography, all point to the reality that whether or not Joan is transgender by modern standards, Joan of Arc was transgender by medieval standards for some to kill Joan for it and others to redeem, sanctify, and later canonize Joan for it. And perhaps, in the wake of Joan the person’s life, death, and legacy we may rightly call Joan the Patron Saint of Dysphoria. Thank you.

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Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Crip Blessings: A Poem for a Race and Disability Seminar


A poem for my students
inspired by the Spring 2019 syllabus
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May you question what’s wrong with perfect 

But always try to do better.

May you change the world

But never so much that we lose the power to evolve and grow.

May you turn and face the strange

Even when that strangeness is your own future.

May you journey far into other world

And learn to see the other in the self.

May you stand up for the outcast

But beware of desire that turns into hellfire.

May you love your hands, your feet, your face

Enough to be able to face the past that lives with us.

May you be big enough to care for the small,

And small enough to see the magic in the world.

May you call out abuse and oppression

But always out of love that goes beyond yourself.

May you not be afraid of your own monstrosity

But never lose the ability to accept care when you need it.

May you find allies in the most unlikely of places

As we consider the past and dream of a better future together.

May we never forget the discarded parts of our lives and families,

Because they may ever come back hungry for better.

May we dream with our eyes wide open,

But never so much that we cannot perceive truth from lies.

May we find ways to survive even the worst of times,

And find support that will not take advantage of us in our moment of need.

May you follow and grow in your genius,

Without taking ourselves out of the contexts of our world.



May you reject moral apathy, intellectual laziness, and boredom,

As you focus on the elements of goodness, truth, and beauty around us.

May you walk away from this class learning something of how to learn

And keep it with you as you become more yourself in the years to come.

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A Queer Christian Blessing: Prayers Upon the End of the Seminar



A poem for my students
inspired by the Spring 2019 syllabus
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May your life be full of many beginnings

And may you never lose your creativity.

May you find and form communities

But may your feast tables always have seats open for the stranger.

May you speak truth to power

Even when it flies in the face of what people have known

May your letters never just be one way

But ongoing correspondence across the ages.

May you cherish the good that is given

But not be afraid to explore change and new worlds.

May you be big enough to see across many vistas

But small enough to retain a sense of wonder and uncertainty.

May you give light and life to your inner self

And may the world learn better how to see that light.

May you imagine visions of worlds big and small

And may you have faithful companions to help bring them into being.

May you find room enough in your wading pools for a neighbor,

Because there are more than one way to love.

May you reach out of isolation

And find community and strength in one another.

May you find to wisdom and strength for the mountains you must climb

And may we make the road easier for those who come behind us.

May the road ahead be brighter than the roads behind

As one good grows apart from another good and yet shines brighter for its company.

May we find ways to survive even the worst of times,

And find support that will not take advantage of us in our moment of need.

May you gain the courage to leave places and things that do not serve your growth

And yet bring with you those things and people who can help you on the way.

May you love goodness and know truth beyond yourself,

And find ways not to exploit but instead to amplify the good and truth of others.



May you reject moral apathy, intellectual laziness, and boredom,

As you focus on the elements of goodness, truth, and beauty around us.

May you walk away from this class learning something of how to learn

And keep it with you as you become more yourself in the years to come.



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Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Wear Your Advocacy Wave 3: Transgender, Queer, Crip, and Feminist


“Nature goes to her coffer and opens it up. She has at least a million molds there, and she has very great need of them, for if she had only one form everyone would be alike that no one would ever be able to tell who was who or what their name was"

Roman de Silence
Heldris of Cornwall
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Transliterature Online is proud to announce new arrivals to the online store. Following an initial limited run of an assortment of button designs, including (Wave 1) "Mad for Margery," "Queer Gower," and "A Trans Middle Ages Matters," and (Wave 2) "Make the Middle Ages Accessible," "She Called Herself Eleanor" and "They Called Me the Loathly Lady Before I Was Nasty," more styles and items are finally coming. Wave 3 will continue to hit medieval crip, feminist, trans, and queer buttons, now featuring, "Medieval Disability Studies," "Medieval Transgender Studies," "Queer Medieval Studies" and "Feminist Medievalist." All proceeds from the sales will still go to funding important charities, starting with the Transgender Travel Fund run by the Society for Medieval Feminist Scholarship that brings trans scholars to important medieval conferences. This scholarship is important both for its symbolic and practical investment in a more inclusive future of the past.

After initial sales at the Medieval Congress in Kalamazoo, Michigan, we are doing a restock in order to send buttons via mail to those who were not in attendance. If sales continue to hold steady, in future conferences I will continue to try out new designs as well as some of the old, so everyone who wants to donate and get a button can. Likely, there will start to be designs exclusive to specific events, available only at the conference. Again, even if this is a temporary experiment, Transliterature is proud to be able to facilitate funding toward some great causes and working with you to build advocacy for important issues. Thank you for your investment and interest!

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Wear Your Advocacy
Wave 3

"Medieval Disability Studies" Button 
(2.5 inch single or 10 pack)

"Medieval Transgender Studies" Button 
(2.5 inch single or 10 pack)


"Feminist Medievalist" Button
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"Queer Medieval Studies" Button 
(mini and 2.5 inch single or 10 pack)


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Friday, March 1, 2019

Sapphic Visions: the Queer Erotics of Hildegard Von Bingen


"Inside, you’ve got heaven and earth, and all of creation. You’re a world—everything is hidden in you."

Hildegard Von Bingen
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Assignment Overview

In this exercise, the seminar will creative a "vision" that queers (alters, disturbs, widens) Christianity through contemplation on the virtues and circumstances of Hildegard Von Bingen. These visions will take the form of a visionary presenting specific insights on the given topic and the other members of the group representing the students or adepts presenting questions or alternative points of view. The goal is to rehearse and then present discourses that arise from or cut across the life of Hildegard Von Bingen. All of these discourses call on students to offer their own insights and experiences. This means that visions and queries are rooted in the historical figure and context of Hildegard but applied to later and current events. Again, this is not a recitation of facts and dates but rather an invitation to contemplate and discourse around important contributions that arouse of women-center relationships, the erotics of chastity, queer family, convents, the divine feminine, mysticism v. scholasticism, and the body v. the mind.


Each group will be given some time in class to research, script, and rehearse. Because the goal is to incite conversation, the visions and adepts' queries need not be pre-written word for word. The task is to generate a discussion which will conclude with the visionary and the adepts inviting others into the dialogue.
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Sample Groups

Vision 1: The Love Between Women,
Hildegard Von Bingen and Sister Richardis


Convents were attractive to a wide ranger of women for diverse reasons, not least because of either a lack of attraction for reproductive sex with men or a desire for intimacy with women. This intimacy need not always be reduced to sexual intercourse, just as heterosexual relationships should not be. Yet for women who love women, convents were places where same gender community and intimacy could be enjoyed. Numerous cases of overtly sexual or chastely erotic relations between nuns are found across the generations. A famous such pairing existed between Hildegard Von Bingen and Sister Richardis. Some scholars strongly suspect that their relationship was sexual. Others believe their intimacies manifested in other forms. In any case, this love between women was greater than any other relationship either of them possessed, especially with any living man.


Because sexual intercourse, including queer sex, tends to focus on penetrative sex, society has often not been able to define sexual relations between women. This failure to define women's love for other women, especially by men, has led to many queer female relationships to be overlooked or excused. The misogynist question, "what do women want?" has riddled generations of men. The question, "what do women want from other women?" usually never gets asked even if it could be answered. In any case, within the contexts of women exclusive spaces, queer women's relationships are allowed to grow and evolve to include the sexual but also forms of intimacy than are unknown in male-dominated society. What was going on between Hildegard and Richardis? The men of her world may never have been able to properly guess.

Vision 2: Queer Erotics of Chastity
and Non-Reproductive Sexuality

Despite being defined by heterosexuals by their modes of sexual activity, queer people have a wide range of intimacies and erotics that go beyond the normative definitions of sex. As in normative relationships, queer relationships include a great deal that is not explicitly sexual. Yet even when these relationships get heated, they need not always involve traditional sexual contact. Demisexual and asexual relationships may privilege forms of intimacy that are either non-physical or do not involve genital contact, such as handholding, nuzzles, cuddling, and sitting comfortably quiet together. Indeed, with modern kink, BDSM, and queer communities, a wide range of relationships and erotics can be explored that are both non-reproductive and non-penetrative. Toys, impact play, role playing, power exchange, and bondage all offer a variety of ways for people to explore each other and themselves intimately without genital play being involved. These experiences can be not only erotic but spiritual. Many of these practices and instruments are based on medieval faith practices wherein the mortification of the body was meant to excite spiritual growth and discipline.

Then again, heterosexual culture has also defined and condemned queer erotics for being non-reproductive. Yet non-reproduction is itself something that can be erotic, life-giving and even spiritual. Despite this privileging of reproductive futurity, non-reproductive forms of sexuality, gender, and community are central to Christian traditions. The convent is one such place in which non-reproductive life was celebrated as bringing one closer to God. In these contexts, asexuals and demisexuals might rejoice in the freedom from being expected to engage sexually. Lesbians, bisexuals, pansexuals and even heterosexuals might rejoice in being in intimate relations with a community of all women. Again, the freedom from reproductive sex may be viewed as a relief and may orient the person towards other forms of relationship and pleasure. Chastity itself can be one of these queer erotics that bring its own form of excitement. 

Vision 3: Queer Family
and the Convent

Queer family often looks different. For many LGBTQIA people who are not accepted by their family of origin, a family of choice is the their primary support. Then for queer couples who elect to have families of their own, the children are often either adopted or mixed. Then there are queer families which are not concerned with reproduction in the normal sense of the word. Rather, family forms informally with elders taking on the parenting role or friends soon becoming like siblings. In special cases, intentional communities such as those women's communes and lesbian communes can form. Some of these collectives are built to last year-round and others are temporary affairs, constituting weekly events, monthly meetings, or yearly festivals. In the case of some lesbian separatists, specific rules and structures form that dictate who can join as well as what the roles of members will be.

Like these queer families and intentional communities, convents form familial structures that use the language of mother, sister, and daughter while not being related by blood. For many of the members, the convent becomes more of a family to them than their family of origin. As in other queer communities, adoption and choice are how the family grows rather than by heterosexual reproduction. These non-normative forms of sexuality, gender roles, and community can themselves be considered queer. Then there are the countless queer people who have joined convents over the generations: lesbians, bisexuals, pansexuals, asexuals, non-binary or gender queer people, as well as both trans men and women. In your group, your task is to consider the ways in which convents may contribute to how we understand queer family as distinct from the traditional heterosexual household.

Vision 4: Nuns
and the Divine Feminine

A result of the co-mingling of faith life and womanhood together in the exclusive spaces of convents was a development in theology of the feminine. While the patriarchy of the Orthodox and the Catholic Church was definitively male, with the advent of convents Christian culture began to transform and nuns increasingly became the on-the-ground workers for the Church. With growing population and relative power, womanhood began to shift in Church discourse from being a primarily secondary and subjugated gender towards being an alternative form of being as well as approaching the divine. As convents developed separately from monasteries and other male influences, a theology of the divine feminine rouse in prominence. The question turned from problematics (how do we deal with the faultiness of women in contrast to a deity characterized as masculine?) to celebration (how might God embody and honor the feminine?)

In your group, consider the ways in which a spirit of femininity may be said to exist? Is it social, natural, super-natural? How does the life of Hildegard Von Bingen and the development of convents illustrate the possibilities and conflicts that arouse when a theology of femininity began to speak back against patriarchal church politics? How might a feminist, a gynophilia, lesbian, or lesbian feminist perspective inform or reform Christian theology?

Vision 5: Theology of the Body:
Women Mystics vs Male Scholastics


In the Middle Ages, scholastic theology celebrated the re-examination of Classic Greco-Roman texts and Reason-centered theology. Yet nearly all of these scholastics were men. Women rarely found their respect as theologians and when they did it tended to be based in mysticism. Mystic approaches to theology were rooted in direct contacts with spirits over the mediation of the written word, the sensuality of the physical body over the mind over matter emphasis of male scholastics. This corresponds to traditions in which men are supposed to be more rationale and ruled by logic while women are supposed to be more emotional and ruled by their bodies. Women mystics followed this patriarchal division in certain ways, yet in other ways demonstrated how the eroticism of female bodies and emotions can allow for different ways of encountering the divine. Consider in what ways that mysticism's defense of devalued gender and embodiment represent a queer turn in theology.

How does the various bodies and emotions of women allow for distinct insights that are might not occur as readily in male dominated theological circles? How does a theology that arises out of the body defy certain limits and ways of knowing which focus on the mind? How does mysticism allow women to work around assumptions that exclude women from reading or writing about the Bible, Classical philosophy or scholastic theology? How have queer women, non-binary folx, and trans people of all sorts developed alternative forms of knowing and speaking that fill in the limits, blanks, and gaps left by heteronormative cisgender men?

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