Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Dysphoria is in the Water: Transgender and the Environment

"Splash, play and learn in this sensory based program 
all about water. We’ll even hike to the pond 
and check out what lives in water!"

The Morton Arboretum
Advertisement for 'Wonderful Water'

Life at the Arboretum

Turning off of the express way, around a narrow curve, suburbia disappeared behind a high hedge as I pulled into work at a local Arboretum. The sun hadn't risen yet and only one gate was open, where a sleepy-eyed guard waved me by. Cutting across the parking-lot, which would soon be filled to capacity with families and summer-camps, I parked next to the loading dock and dumpsters that served as the headquarters of this private park system. Punching in with my time card, I waved at the few cooks and other service staff tasked with getting the cafeteria ready for the day. Walking into the service area, I tucked in my uniform and joined another young woman and guy already counting the registers. While some folks disliked having to wear a uniform, I didn't mind it so much. For one, there are much worse uniforms to wear. A green shirt and black slacks were not very flattering on many of us (although some seemed to look beatific regardless) but nonetheless they were at least designed with some intention for aesthetics. But the main reason I liked the uniforms were the same reason many didn't like uniforms of any kind: it made us all look alike. Over the years working at this job, I was coming out as my authentic gender. This meant that during these years, there were times when I was effectively in drag, wearing clothing associated to the gender I had mistakenly been assigned. These prescribed clothes divided me from my gender tribes and lumped me among a gender with which I didn't identify. Yet at work, some of these distinctions, if not went away, were diminished. True, the women looked more like the men but so too the men looked more like the women. For a transitioning transgender woman, I appreciated the company and flexibility of shared androgyny. Although, despite uniforms, gender still asserted itself.

Once the doors opened, morning light streamed in (we had missed the sunrise) and so did the day's first customers. Mostly the initial guests were all staff looking for coffee or a quick meal before going off to dig, guide, guard, or administrate. They bought their food with minimal but politely familiar communication. Most Arboretum staff knew the value of keeping the people managing your food happy. The next wave was the avid nature people, bird watchers and the like. Then came the families and baby-sitters looking to fill a school-free summer day at a location covered by a pre-paid season pass. This is when things got interesting. On any given day, once things get busy, most guests are distracted. They fumble for credit cards while trying to locate one child while yelling at another to put the $5 cookie sandwich down. At this point, if they said thanks or good bye (or some other acknowledgement that it wasn't a machine taking their money), usually some form of gendering would begin. As stated, because of the androgyny of the uniforms we all kind of look alike (which some workers overcame with overt markers of gender, including keeping their pants as low as they could get away with, showing off boxers, or done up with large earrings and as much make-up as they could get away with). And in my case, at this point in my transition I looked especially androgynous. Put me in a dress and I was an obvious girl. Put me in a suit and tie and you'd likely call me a guy. In this uniform, however, it really was all in the eye of the beholder how they saw my gender. I would get, "thanks miss." I would also get, "thanks sir." Or even, "thanks miss... I mean sir." In the last case, some people would get really embarrassed and apologized profusely for gendering me as a girl. I would then have to try to calm them down, saying, "it's okay." Sometimes I would be more emphatic, "no, it's REALLY okay."

Cashiering was not terrible, as I would find ways of exercising my mind by making lists or creating stories in my head, but the constant human interactions and misgenderings would wear on me. That is why whenever the supervisor would ask who would be willing (they never said "want to") go out and clean tables, I would volunteer. The management and my co-workers admitted this confused them. The job of cleaning tables was generally despised. Often it would go to the one with lowest seniority. For a while they hired people specifically to clear tables because everyone else would avoid it. But for me it was a sweet relief. Now, I'm as disgusted as anyone by how many people (especially but not always children) leave their tables. That part I could overcome, however, not through force of will but by turning off the part of my brain that keeps my mild OCD in check. In Chicago, where the population of Eastern European Catholics is greater, I could simply say, "I'm just embracing my Polish heritage." My grandfather cleaned. So did much of my extended family and other Polish ancestors who came to the United States fleeing the World Wars and needed jobs. But more than anything, what I liked about cleaning tables was that I was able to escape my body. More to the point, I was able to escape how others regarded and gendered my body. Now, I was not invisible while I cleared trays and wiped surfaces, but I was usually ignored. Folks would bump into me and jump, as if I had just materialized out of thin air. In a sense, I had. While I worked in the dining room, my body was not man or woman. My body was a part of the machinery of the space. On the whole, this tendency dehumanizes service staff and is to be trained out of ourselves, our friends, and our children. But at this time I took advantage of their lack of regard of my body as a way to escape my body. I let my body become-machine. It would operate, clean, and order without having to be engaged by others or even myself. My mind and soul was free to wander. While at the cash-register my body had a debated gender, in the dining room I was free (to an extent) from gender and a body.


M.W. Bychowski while working in food service

Dysphoria is in the Environment

The flight from people may be diagnosed as "introversion" and may in some ways reflect a certain discomfort I have around humans (especially in large groups) but was for me a trained response to the dysphoria I feel in social environments. Even years later, when I feel much more at home in my skin and present more unequivocally female, the constant interrogation of my gender enacted by others' stares, comments, or behavior is enough to exhaust me still. Indeed, what evidences how much dysphoria is in the society is the degree to which I am at home in my body and my body is at home in my home. In the privacy of my home, among family and friends, my gender is not under question. I am a woman and am regarded as a woman. I am not confused by my gender. Dysphoria lowers to a barely audible hum when I'm in my office grading or writing. Where gender confusion happens is when I am out in public. The confusion and dysphoria in the world is not my own and does not live in my body but cuts across my body, lashes at my body, stings my body and deposits its poison so that I will go home and itch and itch; it may leave a rash or scar if I do not apply some balm at night. Some places are better than others. However, in restaurants when I am out with my family, where folks at the next table won't stop staring or pointing, the dysphoria gets so loud I can almost not hear. "Say that again," I will tell my partner, when her words get drowned out by the open-mouthed gawking of a man a few tables down. The hum will make it hard to read the menu when the waiter asks, "and what will you have, sir?" There is dysphoria that lives in my skin but I live with it like a room-mate that has learned not to eat my food and listen to loud movies with head-phones. But the dysphoria that lives in the environment can be so exhausting, rattling walls and knocking pictures from the studs, that I can feel when I begin the flight out of my body. My mind and soul wanders, like it did in the dining room at the Arboretum, until the noise quiets down and I can again occupy my body.

The affects of the environment's dysphoria are noticeable by those who are close to me and have become attuned to its frequencies. My partner notices, sometimes before I am consciously aware, of when my spirit begins to vacate the location. She will take my hand with a pulsing squeeze that conveys, "the pain you feel is real and we can share the burden." Or with a look in eye as if to say, "they may only see a fantasy or fetish projected on your body, but I see you. I." Sometimes this is enough to pull me back into my body. Other times the best I can do is angle my mouth into an acknowledging smile, like a ghost pulling the strings of my face muscles from far away to show that some connection remains. If she can, my partner will address the immediate source of the dysphoria. She will correct the wait-staff's pronouns or stare back at the offending table until they get the message that their rudeness is registered and not accepted. But when the dysphoria gets bad enough that I have begun to fall (not into myself but out of myself) it is not just because of one small mix up or odd glance, it is because of a general widespread tone that makes it clear that such staring, anti-trans behavior, or misgendering is not an individual rudeness but an environmental standard. This is how places (restaurants, classrooms, workplaces, churches, etc.) articulate and enforce a standard that I am not welcome here. This message is not written on signs by in the eyes, mouths, and touch of its human occupants. As a result, the message is usually not received until I am deep in the environment. I may taste the dysphoria in the water but by that point I am already waist deep and have drunk enough for its toxicity to affect my body. No matter how quickly I spit out the poison and leave the space, by the time I walk out the gate, my mind and soul is long ahead of my clambering, dysphoria drenched flesh.

Increasingly, in my work and in my life I have been able to articulate dysphoria not as something that lives in the body, or rather only in the body, but is a thing that lives in the environment. I do not know what dysphoria tastes like to cisgender people. I cannot even say for sure how other trans, intersex, and non-binary folk register its diverse flavors and affects. What I can guess is that most cis people, and some trans people, don't notice the dysphoria in their water supply; or only notice it too late when someone has gotten ill or died. That dysphoria has gotten into the ground water all over our country and world seems evident. Some places seem worse than others certainly. "How did the dysphoria get into the water," is a question that a growing number of scholars, parents, and social justice movements are daily mapping and historicizing. The number of questioners grow but there is not many or many enough of us to give widespread answers. This is in part because there are those who do not want to know that there is dysphoria in their water. They do no want their wells tested and do not want to be told the results. Still others like the taste of the water, dysphoria and all. For some, dysphoria may have a sweet taste. The sweetness may come from the fact that the dysphoria does not seem to affect them but others cannot handle it. They call those who ask for dysphoria-free drinks or even dysphoria-free restaurants, "delicate snowflakes" or "liberal snobs." They drink dysphoria like hard liquor, to show their strength and to get drunk on it. If the intoxication leads them to lash out verbally or physically, well, "boys will be boys." In the end, as much as I abstain or find other establishments to eat and drink, all it takes is for some knowing or unknowing person to come in soaking with dysphoria for the poisoning of the well to begin. No environment is a closed system, water and dysphoria flow through the world ecology, creating "introverts" who stay at home and drink only from filtered-faucets as it passes down stream.


View from the Arboretum cafe without customers

"Why is that Boy a Girl?"

As a transgender person who is currently still able to live in this world, I have found and maintained ways of surviving in places where dysphoria can be tasted in most interactions. Getting out, in mind if not in body is one tactic. When getting out is not possible, there are sometimes an oasis where the water is not so polluted or else there are folks who have adopted filters in their home kitchens and are now able to taste the difference when they go into public. At this point it is worth noting that I was fortunate in my coworkers and managers at the Arboretum. Not everyone was a treat but during my half-decade at that particular food-service, I found some company where I could hide out and who created an environment where I could come back into my body a bit more. Sometimes, they seemed more conscientious because they gave signs of having experienced enough sexism, racism, or homophobia themselves to make them aware that water and environments are never neutral, demanding some level of awareness and care for others in the ecology. Other times, they touched on dysphoria by way of some other education or interest, political, philosophical, or artistic. Of course, being oppressed or educated does not always guarantee that one will make the environment better for all (or any) others. Sometimes folks that maybe should have known better did worse and sometimes folks who seemed to have no particular reason to be doing better nonetheless did. In any case, I remain grateful to those with whom I could find safe haven. Even momentary breaks in the grind and noise of the day allowed me to come back to myself enough to push through the rest. While five years is a drop in the bucket compared to some, I wouldn't have gotten through it without some colleagues who made the environment a place where my life could take root and find nourishment.

Moving back down from the systematic scale, there were also funny, precious, accidental moments that would fill me up with goodness (or something closer to goodness) for the rest of the day. An occurrence that happened more than once was one instigated by curious children who were usually more aware than their parents or guardians. Take for instance the summer day when I was pulled back from the dining room into the cafe. I was there not because of a coffee rush but because it was the most visible location where ice-cream was sold. Families and other groups boasting children would come in sweating from a day walking around through the children's garden or among the trees. Like magnets to iron the kids would zone in on the ice-cream and come running over. Even without kids a line to the door would form on these hot summer days. During such rushes the cafe would be filled to capacity with workers taking orders, handing out ice-cream, and taking cash. On this day I was at the cash-register. By the time they had gotten to me, the parent were over-heated and over-whelmed by the ordering process. Most handed me cash without looking at me or much more than a grunt. Such was the case with one mom who was counting out cash for her kid's ice-cream bars. Yet while she thumbed through $20's for smaller bills, ignoring me, her young boy couldn't take his eyes off of me. At the time I had shortish hair, almost a pixy cut, pearl earrings and similar necklace in addition to my uniform. Some called me elfin or a fairy; fitting considering our arbor surroundings. The boy took it all in, took me in, and then grabbing his mom's arm (who was still double-fisting her purse), he asked, "Mom, why is that boy a girl?" To her credit and perhaps explaining the child's extraordinary awareness and articulation of gender ambiguity, she replied, "I don't know, why don't you ask them?" I beamed at the question (and not just the light from the outside which was beaming so hot I would leave work with a mild-tan). "That," I told the child, "is a good question!"

Over my time in the food service, I received many such questions, asked with varying degrees of interest, consideration, and meanness. Whatever the intent and affect towards me, my hope is that prompting such inquiries did something in moving more folk at the Arboretum to be a bit more aware of the dysphoria in the environment. Because while I went home with the dysphoria drenching my uniform worse than the sweat, for a moment or maybe longer guests and coworkers would become mildly unsure, curious, or disturbed about gender. Whether it tasted good, interesting, or revolting they would suddenly become aware that in our social ecology there was something in the water than was not neutral. I now call the often rude, sometimes dumbfounded, sometimes rejoicing tizzies racing across the faces of many of those who encounter me in such a way, "transgender moments." This is not to say that they will become more trans or that they even fully understand what I am or what is going on as "transgender" but that for a moment (if only a moment) they experience a degree of the dysphoria that I do. This is not a revenge fantasy. Unlike some, for good and bad, I do not get pleasure or even reassurance by other's discomfort, confusion, or pain. Usually I go out of my way to make things comfortable, clear, and even enjoyable for others. But if others taste the dysphoria in the environment, they may begin to be able to do something about it. No one wants someone else to drink contaminated water. But the more of us that can detect pollution, hopefully the sooner and better we may become at repairing the damage done to our world. 

The language of environmental crisis being used in this case is not accidental or merely metaphorical but deliberate and real. Just as our world is not only at risk but actively and rapidly accelerating into environmental crises at the level of climate, water, air, earth, heat, plants and animals, so too we are witnesses a crisis that sees the daily damaging and yearly deaths of an alarming number of trans, intersex, and non-binary persons. Those at the intersections of transgender and the marginalization of race, disability, class, and sexuality show signs of swifter population decline. This was a personal story but no environment is closed off from the wider ecology. The thing about water is that you must drink or die; even if the water is tainted; even if you die a little in order to live. The dysphoria in the water I drank at the Arboretum ran through the workers, the guest, the food, the trees, the local economy, the neighboring towns and schools, and went back to camp with the kids who asked questions and those who only stared. The toxin was in the environment before I got there and is there after I left. The problem is big but is made up of millions of tiny pieces and participants. So too the potential for change exists within and is compounded within each member of the ecology; each with a chance to drink the water and leave the water a bit better than they found it. It all turns on a taste, a question, a story which shifts the flow just a bit, just enough.


Taking our gender queer child out into the waters, literally and figuratively

Read more on transgender and the environment


Don't get me wrong, water can be fun. But it can be dangerous too!

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Call for Papers: Transliterature Sponsored Conference Panels 2017

Remembering all those fighting the fight 
On the Feast Day of Saint Joan of Arc

In the open letter to the International Medieval Congress in Kalamazoo, I mentioned that there had been a downturn in transgender and intersex focused conference panels. In 2016, two sessions each were devoted to the respective gender minorities. In 2017, no sessions existed for either to attract, collect, and promote these fields. While at the Congress, I sat in on some fantastic papers that addressed trans or non-binary embodiments in some way. Also, I had some cherished coffee breaks and meals with amazing queer, trans, and non-binary scholars; some of whom were able to be at the conference because of the Transgender Travel Fund provided by the Society for Medieval Feminist Scholarship. Listening to their work and their stories, I was honored and affirmed to share in the significant contributions and sacrifices being made to improve the field and the lives of those who work in it. But I also felt the weight of how hard it is, possibly too hard and unsustainable, for those who carry the burden to push our community forward.

Amidst the tears and mutual support, there were direct actions that continue to give me hope. This includes the invitation to organize panels for the upcoming BABEL Working Group and Medieval Congress 2018. Two panels are already approved and open for submissions for the Biennial Meeting of the BABEL Working Group in Reno, NV. The first invites submissions for scholars, authors, and artists working to promote the consideration or reimagining of transgender history. The second calls for submissions to take the risk to discuss the fraught but often life-giving intersection of faith communities and scholarship. Abstracts are due June 10. Finally, at the business meeting for the Society for Medieval Feminist Scholarship a vote was called for over a dozen panels, of which only about a half dozen were selected for submitted for consideration to the Medieval Congress. I am excited and encouraged to say that when a sessions "Towards a Medieval Transgender Studies" went up for a vote, so many hands in the 100+ person room was raised that the panel was approved without a count, on grounds of being "vaguely unanimous." The session is yet to be approved by the Congress but please feel called to consider and contact me via e-mail if you have interest in participating or if you want more information.

Looking back and looking ahead, I also wanted to say a word of gratitude and wonder for all the committed, impassioned, and brilliant academics, artists, and writers I've get to know over the course of doing this work. What keeps me going and motivated to push for more sessions and engagement in the fields of trans, intersex, feminist, disability, and critical race studies is enjoyment and learning I get from encountering your professional and personal contributions. I consider my #1 job is to be a cheerleader for these amazing communities. Because you all are working yourself raw and taking big chances, doing your share and more to make the academy and our culture better. That deserves to be remembered, honored, and I am just tickled ROYGBIV to be able to work with you. Thank you and may you persist no matter how many times you are warned or have things explained to you.


Towards a Medieval Transgender Studies
(email: M.W. Bychowski,
Due September 15

The International Congress on Medieval Studies
Kalamazoo, MI. May, 2018.

Facing resistance in regards to its place in contemporary society, transgender studies is beginning to look for roots within premodern eras. In recent years, a question has been floating around medieval and transgender studies, spurring conference papers and special issues of the Medieval Feminist Forum and Transgender Studies Quarterly: how might we begin to articulate a medieval transgender studies? Gaining momentum, a critical turn towards a medieval transgender studies shows signs of emergence. If such a movement is to be possible, much work remains to be done. Following in the tradition of interventions by queer, disability, and feminist scholarship, debates are arising regarding language, identity, narrative, historicism, and methodologies. This session will serve as a forum where presenters will articulate the challenges, the promises, and the resources that lay on the road towards a trans future for the past. Participants are encouraged to consider the archives of medieval history, theology, art, medicine, science, and literature that can be put into critical dialog with trans voices from the past and today.



Imagining Trans History and Transhistoricism: 
Creation and/as/or Critique
(Email: M.W. Bychowski,, 
and Bruce Holsinger,

5th Biennial Meeting of the BABEL Working Group
Reno, NV. October 2017.

Sandy Stone’s foundational transgender studies essay, “The Empire Strikes Back: A Posttranssexual Manifesto,” sets out a necessary and broad mission for the future of the past: “transsexuals must take responsibility for all of their history, to begin to rearticulate their lives not as a series of erasures… but as a political action begun by reappropriating difference and reclaiming the power of the refigured and reinscribed body… to begin to write oneself into the discourses by which one has been written.” In the spirit of this mission statement, our panel invites a wide examination of the histories and discourses from and through which concepts of transgender develop.

The panel will be open to a range of approaches. History invites creativity. Medieval and modern texts invite both critical readers and artists to imagine the life and lives that occur in the silences, though often in very different ways. Living in a world and language not designed for it, transgender history regularly appears among the contradictions, erasures, and euphemistic metaphors in the official records. As a result, telling and otherwise recreating trans history demands careful scrutiny of the modes and limitations of anti-transphobic creative work. Introducing and connecting ideas from across time, trans historical work time and again forms intersections with transhistorical palimpsests. This panel considers the myriad ways that scholars, authors, poets, lyricists, and artists fill out the interweaving cultural pasts and presents of transgender. The aim is to ask questions, take risks, and play with the arts and sciences that connect generations of trans histories and trans dreams.

We hope to receive proposals that reflect both scholarly and creative work, and ideally a combination of the two. The session will feature a series of ten to fifteen minute presentations, followed by a discussion.


Here I Am, Stuck in the Middle with You

(Email: Ben Utter,

5th Biennial Meeting of the BABEL Working Group
Reno, NV. October 2017.

Finding, keeping, proclaiming, losing, or breaking with one’s faith is always a risky business, and in America, where faith is a big business, the bad faith of Evangelical Christian voters has made relationships riskier than ever for those who find themselves caught between mutually-antagonistic cultural communities. This roundtable session will be an opportunity for BABELers of faith or with ties to various faith traditions—Christian and otherwise—to address the relationship between faith (i.e. the non-empirical, the spiritual) and action or risk. As people between these communities, we may have acted as interpreters, if not necessarily apologists, between groups that regard one another with deep suspicion or even hostility. What are the possibilities and perils of such a position, now that we can no longer be (and probably shouldn’t have ever been) neutral points of contact? How do we use our positions at the intersection of communities that don’t often talk or get along? What are the struggles and how might these contact points be used or improved in the future? Can we condemn our “post-factual” world while at the same time avoiding denigrating people of faith? By the same token, how might we encourage our faith communities to be skeptical of neo-liberal “data idolatry” and to consider the important relationship between facts (and by proxy, research) and interpretation (and/or belief)?

We invite participation from people of, adjacent to, in recovery from, or without faith or spiritual conviction of any kind. The session will feature a series of ten-minute presentations, followed by a discussion. Please send proposals of 250 words or so describing the story, homily, confessio, prayer, waz, or apostatic manifesto you’d like to share.

Co-organizers: Ben Utter, Gabrielle MW Bychowski, Lesley Curtis, Alex Mueller, Noelle Phillips, & Cord Whittaker.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Wear Your Advocacy: Transliterature Opens an Online Store!


“Sche gan to brewyn

The Book of Margery Kempe
(Good for much but not business advice)

Transliterature Online is proud to announce the opening of an online store. Currently, the selection is limited to an assortment of button designs but more styles and items will soon be coming. All proceeds from the sales will go to funding important charities, starting with the Transgender Travel Fund run by the Society for Medieval Feminist Scholarship that just this year brought two trans scholars to the Medieval Congress at Kalamazoo, Michigan, an important conference for those interested in engaging in studies of the Middle Ages.

This year, the goal was to print a few buttons as prototypes to test to see if there was any demand for such a venture. Based on initial interest, a pilot order was placed for packs of 10 buttons in each of the four original designs. The hope was to sell enough to match the cost of the buttons (which would be covered by Transliterature as a donation) and have a few extra to give away at a later event. How surprised was I when the buttons sold out within 24 hours! The total funds generated by the pilot program was $150. At a certain point, the prototypes began to be sold as well as the buttons off my coat, and still a wait list began to develop.

For 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. In any case, 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!


"A Trans Middle Ages Matters" Button 
(mini and 2.5 inch single or 10 pack)

"They called me the LOATHLY LADY before I was nasty" Button (mini and 2.5 inch single or 10 pack)

"Queer Gower: Confess Love, Voice Pride, Reflect Your Truth" Button (mini and 2.5 inch single or 10 pack)

"Mad for Margery" Button (mini and 2.5 inch single or 10 pack)

"#Transform" Button (mini and 2.5 inch single or 10 pack)


Monday, May 8, 2017

Transgender Can Save the Middle Ages: A Letter to the International Congress on Medieval Studies

“You ask 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

The Goo Goo Dolls

Dear friends in the Medieval Congress,

I don't know most of you personally, although I would like to begin. Most of you don't know me, although that is less important. What is more important is that we all could stand to know more about all the great people in the trans community. Let me tell you a bit about them:

A magical moment happened in my house about a week ago. It was bedtime and I was reading to our 10-year-old and our 7-year-old. I usually begin with a bit of educational literature before moving on to the fiction. Well, this night I had just put down "This Book is Gay," a primer on the spectrum of gender and sexual diversity, when our youngest raised their hand. I was expecting a question (they ask great questions) but to my surprise they had an admission. They wanted to confess that years ago, when they first remember learning about LGBT identities from me, they had assumed (not yet realizing that having two moms wasn't a norm) that it was a distinctly medieval thing. Can you imagine? I am guessing that like me you learned about LGBT culture AFTER or separately from learning about the Middle Ages. But for this child, the gender queer kid of a trans lesbian family, the Middle Ages started as a queer place before it was anything else. I'm not asking for laughs, I'm just telling you about family.

That was a good night but there are harder nights. I try to read or adapt medieval stories to read to my kids. Some nights are easier. Our kids LOVE the Tale of Chanticleer. Talking animals? Big fans. Kissing butts and farts out the window? They eat that up! But then I turn to the next Tale and I see the rape of young women. I turn it again and I see women being treated as property. I turn it again and I see a father cut off his girl's head as she begs for him to reconsider. Those are harder nights. Then I still go in there to read to them. I'm not asking for pity, I'm telling you about an institution of sexism.

Then there are the days that I get approached by people on the street, at conferences, or via e-mail. I hear from established medievalists about how they are transgender but haven't been able to come out because they fear the ridicule of fellow medievalists. At conferences and online we hear the jokes. You may not know we are listening. You may not know we are trans. But we hear you. Then I find some way to respond to them. I'm not asking for explanations, I'm telling you about your colleagues.

Then there are times I hear this, "How are YOU a medievalist?" I've gotten this from prominent scholars in Trans Studies (if you are familiar with the field, you know their names) as they looked me up and down, then proceeded into a diatribe about the marginalization of female scholars, Catholicism, and male supremacy. There are many who share their view and there are real instances, even traditions, that contribute to this concern. Many in transgender studies find it hard to move into medieval studies because of some valid fears. Even if this is hardly representative of the whole of transgender or medieval studies, they voice issues that deserve to be answered. Then I (and others) find some way to defend the field. I'm not asking for thanks, I'm telling you how our profession is perceived.

Then there are times when I'm grabbing coffee with early career scholars, young women, who just aren't sure how or if there could be a place for them in the profession. The job market is brutal for those of us who are lucky enough to find work. And most are not that lucky. And we hear about male supremacist websites, about institutions intentionally favoring male candidates. And we hear men joking about how "feminism" or "transgender" is taking over everything, how funny it all is, how no one can take a joke. Then we find some way to support each other to keep sending applications. I'm not asking for you to surrender your sense of humor (although I would recommend the better brands), I'm tell you about how many women are getting Ph.Ds in medieval studies and how few of them are getting hired.

Then there is me packing my bags for Kalamazoo, like I do every year, like I plan to for many years to come. And one of the things I am packing, which is there every year, is anxiety and frustration. I recall the mocking of women, feminism, transgender persons, and the small gestures being made to give us back a bit of our dignity. I recall how last year there were two panels on transgender and intersex in the Middle Ages, how this year there are none. I get ready to go through the TSA and their policy of groping each trans person's genitals EVERY TIME because we don't match the 3D models programmed inside their body scanners. I recall how hard it is for me to get to the conference each year and imagine how hard it is for others. I will find out, as I do every year, who decided it wasn't worth the fight and stayed home. Then I'll find some way to encourage them to consider trying again next year. I'm not asking for the Medieval Congress to radically change, I'm telling you about what stands in the way of it growing.

This letter is not an attack. I'm just telling you about my community. I'm telling you about a side of your community that may not be the parts you get to see. I'm not asking for you to make everything better all at once. I'm asking that you try to make it a little better today than it was yesterday. Even if you stumble today, it will soon be yesterday and then you can try again. This letter is my way of saying that I'll be there along side you in the Medieval Congress because like you I love what we try to do here. I love it so much that I want us to do it better. I want it to be better for those who don't come or can't come. I want it to be better for those who might come or will come in the future. I want it to be better for those who are being ridiculed. I want it to be better for those who don't get it yet because you deserve to know how much better things can be. I want it to be better because I know so many amazing women and trans people who will revolutionize and revitalize any profession in which they are able to be a part. I want it to be better because I know that the Middle Ages are worth studying for everyone. I want it to be better because I know that women can save the Middle Ages. I want it to be better because I know that transgender can save the Middle Ages.

So don't do it for me. Do it for them. If you can't do it for them, do it for yourself because you deserve to be a part of a Medieval Studies that does a better job at making the world better.


A friend



Sunday, March 26, 2017

Genres of Embodiment: On Judith Butler's Gender Trouble

"She likes her boys to be girls"

Judith Butler

The problem of passing is the target against which Stone’s essay intends to strike back against because of its work of erasing transgender history, stories, and lives. In order to combat the gravitational force passing exerts to bring the creative composition back into the binary framework Stone turns to the body. For Derrida, the body is an event (or iteration) that remains opens to new encounters and creative possibilities. For Butler, the body is an object of desire that arises out of the admixture of the culturally intelligible ground and the figure it embodies. The turn to Butler in “the Posttranssexual Manifesto” functions as a logical expansion of the creativity of genre (i.e. if there are more than two genres, how do these genres manifest in gender communities?) but also to bring discourse of gender back to consider how trans embodiment is desirable in and of itself.

“As one lesbian femme explained,” writes Butler, “she likes her boys to be girls, meaning that ‘being a girl’ contextualizes and resignifies ‘masculinity’ in a butch identity. As a result, that masculinity, if that it can be called, is always brought into relief against a culturally intelligible ‘female body.’”[1] Butler stresses in the follow-up to Gender Trouble, for all the discourse of gender and genre it’s Bodies That Matter.[2] “Matter” or “mattering” for Butler is also a verb. We might also use the word embody. Bodies matter by embodying certain genres, even those supposed to belong to other bodies. So specific is butch womanhood, femme lesbians may specifically desire it over butch manhood or any other form of gender. The genre of embodiment matters insofar as it is valued and insofar as it participates in masculinity without belonging to it. For those who only recognize male and female as “culturally intelligible” a woman may be a woman, but for those in the know, butch and femme are distinct genres of embodiment.

As trans genres of embodying enter discourse they deconstruct assumptions of forms, methods, and orientations while also offer distinct objects that may be pursued for their own sake. A founder of discourse in trans studies, Stone cites Butler’s work on butches and femmes as useful and comparable genres to emergent trans identities, “Butler introduces the concept of cultural intelligibility, and suggests that the contextualized and resignified ‘masculinity’ of the butch, seen against a culturally intelligible ‘female’ body, invokes a dissonance that both generates a sexual tension and constitutes the object of desire.”[3] In other words, transgender does more than just disturb others’ sense of gender and sexuality; transgender embodies something, does something, and builds something that matters in its own right. A critical trans approach is not just trying to deconstruct gender and genre as an exercise in language but in order to make room for new genres of embodiment to become culturally intelligible and be recognized as mattering.

Where do the divisions of genders and new fields stop? Butler calls such questions an ontological crisis that occurs in society at large as well as in academy when the terms “transgenderism and transsexuality” are introduced, distinctions of gender she considers an acute enough division as “lesbian and gay” or “butch and femme.” The former draws stronger associations to psychiatric diagnosis and the latter with surgical operations. Both embody gender in different ways different from one another but also distinctly trans. How is it useful to say they are both trans genres of embodiment? Take the example of a Goth girl and boy in high school may be able to share more music, clothing, and make-up than the Goth girl and her cheerleader classmate. Choice of association is key but a teacher observing her students might be able to deduce the same by what Stone and Butler call “culturally intelligible” embodiments.


So why is it necessary to make trans genres of embodiment culturally legible? So different members can share clothing tips! So a person and community can be useful to another. Transgender is an umbrella where people and fields can work together but also an archive and a critical methodology with insights to share. “What about the notion, suggested by Kate Bornstein,” asks Butler, “that a transsexual… must be approached through active verbs that attest to the constant transformation which ‘is’ the new identity or, indeed, the ‘in-betweenness’ that puts the being of gendered identity into question?”[4] As Prosser tactically jokes, “transitioning is what transsexuals do.” Trans persons can offer advice and technologies to other trans persons going through transitions, even if their transitions are different. In the details, all transitions are necessarily different. Even across time, transsexuality studies have insights to offer the study of medieval eunuchs.

Trans genres of embodiment may offer a way of making sense of bodies that are not currently culturally intelligible. A critical trans method of reading gender looks for “the same in the other,” features that connects and articulates trans modes of embodiment where others only seem confusion or contradiction. This is one reason Butler address transgender in her examination of Gender Trouble, “a certain crisis in ontology… has become more acute as we consider various new forms of gendering that have emerged in light of transgenderism and transsexuality.”[5] A difficulty arises insofar as the same in the other may exist between trans persons, medieval and modern, but not necessarily between cisgender persons and either era of transgender. In short, in order for medieval figures to be culturally intelligible as trans, medieval scholars may need to become familiar with various new forms of transgender described in contemporary trans studies and literatures.

Entrance into transgender studies demands a certain familiarity and competence with disturbances. Whereas the compulsion to pass orders transgender histories to erase moments that break from the norm and reorient back to cis binaries of male and female, critical trans studies to affirm new networks of what bodies and what body parts matter, what Butler calls, “the sexed body as ‘ground’” as well as the technologies with which those bodies compose themselves into culturally intelligible genres, “the butch or femme identity as ‘figure’ [that] can shift, invert, and create erotic havoc of various sorts.”[6] Trans-ing embodiment means looking at the dysphoria and diagnosis of transgender, the scars and scalpels of transsexuality, the clothing changes of transvestism, as well as the chromosomes and “secondary” characteristics of intersex to discover and claim the narratives, tropes, and tools as primary in producing particular genres of embodiment.

Trans studies is more than a definition of a diagnosis or a queer disturbance in the gender binary, as transgender has functioned for decades as a big tent. A key part of Stone’s manifesto is that there is no one easy definition of transgender. This is the reason Stone offers genres a model of thinking about trans genders as well as why she points to Butler’s work on butch and femmes when she writes on “the proliferation of specifically gay discourses of sexual difference, as in the case of ‘butch’ and ‘femme’ as historical identities of sexual style,” also citing, “queens, butches, femmes, girls, even the parodic reappropriation of dyke, queer, and fag.”[7] The work of transgender demands more than a single monolithic definition. Once one gets into the study of transgender one discovers a vast network of interconnecting histories and embodiments. Far from deconstructing gender into oblivion, genres of embodiment demand a broad field of complexity.


The work of genres of embodiment is to allow the silenced body to speak of all the arts, the histories, materials, relationships and transitions that go into composing it. Opening the stitches and scar tissue of eunuchs and transsexuals to let them speak, navigating the conflicts of dysphoria in order to give voice to silenced calls for reform, all of this this can be painful and difficult. “I could not ask a transsexual for anything more inconceivable than to forgo passing, to be consciously ‘read,’ to read oneself aloud—and by this troubling and productive reading, to begin to write oneself into the discourses by which one has been written ”[8] Culturally intelligible trans bodies and genres, histories and literatures emerge out of plausible histories, often breaking the systems which have allowed for us to personally and collectively belong for so long.

To make plausible histories, trans-ness is explained away, elided as exceptional, or erased. Defining passing, Stone articulates it as a form of ahistorical belonging, “to be accepted as a ‘natural’ member of that gender. Passing means the denial of mixture. One and the same with passing is effacement of the prior gender role, or the construction of a plausible history.”[9] These plausible histories are not only personal but collective. A plausible history of the middle ages is one where a cis man can uncritically consider a medieval knight as a natural ancestor or himself a natural heir to his manhood. Such a history does not allow for shifts in genres of manhood that occur in intervening centuries and the figures whose lives’ testify to the transition and diversity of genres.

Conversely, a trans person who denies a cultural ancestry with eunuchs and hermaphrodites likewise creates a plausible history where forms and eras do not mix. In order to “belong” to a binary society and field, the specifics of history are smoothed over to be considered “plausible” and the narratives forced into standard forms to be “culturally intelligible.” Of such histories, Stone writes, “[t]ranssexuals who pass seem able to ignore the fact that by creating totalized, monistic identities, forgoing physical and subjective intertextuality, they have foreclosed the possibility of authentic relationships,” and consequently, “transsexuals know that silence can be an extremely high price to pay for acceptance.”[10] The price of a gender that cuts across all time or a temporally exclusive one—existing only within one period—is the denial of relations to other persons or possible ways of life. In the end, both histories of passing are ahistorical as they do not account for change or diversity as a natural result of the evolution of gender over time.

A close reading of bodies across history suggest that cisgender binaries may have never existed and certainly do not exist now. Seen from within genres of embodiment, the problem is not that bodies are truly silent but have been silenced because we do not yet know how to make them culturally intelligible, so we pass over their stories and histories. As Arthur K. Frank observes of the Wounded Storyteller, “[t]he body is not mute, but it is inarticulate; it does not use speech but begets it… Hearing the body in the speech it begets is never an easy task.”[11] We can get lost in all the genres of speech they beget as they are born, wounded, and transition. The challenge of listening is that we cannot know the meaning of bodies in advance. New forms, narratives, and languages may be needed to hear what is said. To trans embodiment may begin as simply as listening to bodies. The task may be hard but once we begin to listen we find that bodies are too full of speech. By listening with trans lives, not only do their forms take shape but the tools and stories, the genres of embodiment that they turn to in order to compose themselves.

[1] Butler 156.

[2] Judith Butler. Bodies That Matter: The Discursive Limits of Sex. New York: Routledge, 1993.

[3] Stone 230.

[4] Butler xi-xii.

[5] Butler xi-xii.

[6] Butler 157.

[7] Butler 41, 156.

[8] Stone 232.

[9] Stone 231.

[10] Stone 232.

[11] Arthur K. Frank. The Wounded Storyteller: Body, Illness, and Ethics. London: The University of Chicago Press, 2013. 27.


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