Monday, May 21, 2018

The Future of Medieval Transgender Studies: Kalamazoo 2018


"It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning,
 a step along the way"

Bishop Ken Untener of Saginaw
______________________________
______________________________

The Loathly Lady of Medieval Studies

A knight stands trial before a court of female identified and allied persons, begging for his future and calling in his defense the aid of a sometimes elfin maiden, sometimes loathly lady. This queer maid-crone gives the knight insight into the mystery of futurity and women: liberty. Granting also, the knight has also been told the other demands of this medieval society of females: riches (i.e. pay us), honor (i.e. treat us with dignity), lust, joy, and rich array (i.e. let us have fun and express our bodies as we will), flattery (i.e. treat us like we know what we are talking about, maybe even cite us), and marriage (i.e. make commitments to us). But in the end, liberty is what wins the knight his future but only if he is willing to fulfill his oath to this nasty woman. The court of femmes agree and the knight gives lip service to this foul Wight. Later, in private, the knight seeks from the woman what exactly such a commitment means. What is their future together going to look like? Well, she replies, that is up to you: either I will be ugly but committed, i.e. the crone, or beautiful and uncommitted, i.e. the elf.

This is the story the Wife of Bath tells in the Canterbury Tales but it is also, I believe, the story of this session. The knight of medieval studies wants to know what it’s future looks like, the court of women and allies, or society for the study of medieval feminist studies, has given demands but now the knight of medievalism finds new potential futurity in the Wight that has been sometimes treated as an ugly crone and sometimes flirtatiously as an unspeakable desire, medieval transgender studies. Within the confines of this court and session, there seems to be some commitment, words towards a shared future. But the question of what kind of future remains. Is the Wight of medieval trans studies to be forced to pass under the beauty standards of this predominantly patriarchal and sometimes abusive knight leading her to inevitably stray from and resist him? Or will the field be grim faced but committed? Both options are on the table as well as the choice that the knight does choose and medieval studies should as well: liberation.

In identifying the sometimes loathly sometimes elf maiden in the Wife’s Tale with medieval trans women and medieval trans studies, I make a claim about the enmeshment of the medieval and the trans which many would like to keep separate. Transgender may exist out and honestly but should do so over there, in modernity, only flirtatiously visiting the medieval homestead when the knight’s lusts dare have fun with us, maybe even make jokes about us in satirical conference papers about eunuchs. Indeed, we have seen this been the case, with medieval studies of sexuality, some performed by our queer friends and forerunners, which flirt with the trans but ultimately noncommittally and tangentially. Or else trans scholars and studies will be claimed and committed to as a member of the medieval household but only as a killjoy diversity subgroup, that one Wight that is here but still doesn’t have full commerce with all the beautiful people. And either choice, keeping us proud and at a distance or close but begrudging, functions to keep the medieval medieval and keep transgender transgender. 


______________________________

______________________________

Cistory
(Cisgender Versions of History)

Cis queer historians have likewise followed the impulse of the knight in un-trans-ing medieval transgender in order to make them queer sodomites, best unknowable and unspeakable. One such queer scholar once claimed to “look through and not at the transvestite.” Indeed she does, never once using any trans word besides this claim to look through transvestism, as her primary focus is the queer unspeakability of sodomy. Eleanor’s gender, she claimed, is as unknowable as her sin and sexuality. All of this unknowability, she concludes, is very queer. I am not here to contest that there is something very queer about medieval transgender but to say that medieval trans-ness is unknowable is to intentionally un-know all the ways that such trans-ness names itself and tells its story. At times, such as in the case of Eleanor Rykener, she may be forced to reveal details of her life, like her deadname, she otherwise would not disclose. Yet she uses her detection as a way of resisting the cis and queer impulse to uncover and un-trans her.

Like Eleanor, By being accosted, captured, and detected first by medieval cisgender men and later by cisgender historians, our loathly lady becomes exploited, limited, and un-trans-ed in order to provide a momentary playful release to cisgender systems that will proceed on despite the transness in the archive. Indeed, by overwriting or unwriting this trans-ness, the medieval cisgender men and the cisgender medievalists create then compound the dysphoria in the archive by contradicting the multivalence of identified and expressed gender with a gender assigned to her by society then history. Eleanor becomes a sodomitical cross-dressing cis male and the Wight becomes an ugly old woman or else a somewhat queer elfin cis woman. At times the impulse to un-trans medieval figures may make allowances, such as defining the Wife of Bath by her tale by saying the teller is a strong and thereby masculine woman or describe Rykener by the double-billing as John/Eleanor that limits Eleanor to at best co-equal with John. 


______________________________

______________________________

Dysphoria in the Archives

These figures embody the un-trans-ing and unknowing of trans-ness that leaves the baseline foundational assumption going into medieval studies the belief that of course such medieval persons were not transgender. Indeed, this insistence on having our cake and eating it too is exactly the conflict is the DSM-5 definition of dysphoria. The Fifth Edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorder (DSM-5) short definition of gender dysphoria is: the “marked difference between the individual’s expressed/experienced gender and the gender others would assign him or her.” I draw attention to the fact that the disorder, dysfunction, and distress is social and not individual. The problem is not that a person is transgender. The problem is that the cisgender society accosts, captures, and un-trans-es the transgender person. Dysphoria begins in the environment, dysphoria begins in cisgender people, then is transmitted into transgender bodies where is does wreckage to lives, destroying transgender pasts, transgender presents, and transgender futures.

This is dysphoria the price of either treating transgender studies as a modern field we may invoke on occasion playfully and unfaithfully, not doing our due diligence to her, or else as a diversity box we check begrudging but otherwise ignore and isolate, occasionally giving lip service to when forced to be a court of women or a society of medieval feminists. Dysphoria is the personal internalization of a social division that is willing to make exceptions but otherwise will not transform the fundamental division of male and female, medieval and trans studies. And notice, the dysphoria may not be named as such until the trans figure makes itself known but the conditions in society that produce this dysphoria, the divisions in the field and in the archives pre-exist and may even outlast a loathly lady standing up in a session pointing them out. Because these divisions are nonetheless about the control and subordinacy of cis men and women, even though it is currently trans, queer, and non-binary people and studies feeling the beating stick.

As a primarily social event between people rather than a strictly internal psychological event, dysphoria can then be detected in the field and in the archives, especially archives that deny trans identification or expression. Dysphoria is a disorder in cisgender societies and archives that demands transgender interventions to repair, to liberate, and to re-narrate. This session then is both a call for and an enacting of such a reparative, liberating, and retelling. In not only to see in these papers how we might attend to the way that the medieval cis order and medievalist cis histories have created dysphoria in the archive by learning lessons on how to transform the future of the past by transforming compulsory cisgender lives and stories. Dysphoria in the archive teaches us the need to trans(form) queerness that reifies the cisgender order by un-transing our past, thereby threatening our present. Because the root of dysphoria is the cisgender desire to not see transgender, then or now. The future of medieval transgender studies may begin the process of liberating cis folk from their ingrained ignorance.

So how do we affirm rather than accost, liberate rather than capture, and deepen rather than uncover medieval transgender and dysphoria? How do we diminish and reclaim the dysphoria in the archive towards a positive pre-modern transgender studies? I argue that the Wife of Bath’s Tale, specifically the loathly lady already shows us the way by how she turns back on the cisgender order. First, consider how the Wight responds to the knight accosting her. If she is going to be exploited, she demands to be paid before she consents. In historical terms, this is to say that historians must let the trans people speak and consent to how we use their stories. Let trans persons of the past and their allies today set their terms. Thus, if we are to tell trans histories then we must listen to trans voices. Educating, accepting, promoting, publishing, reading, and hiring trans scholars should be the goal because as the loathly lady tells us, if you want to use trans bodies and stories then you should commit to us and pay us. Commit to us with scholarships, citations, jobs, and tenure. In the meanwhile, consult, listen, and read trans studies. 


______________________________

______________________________

Liberating the Past

The second lesson from the loathly lady is her response to the impulse of the cisgender order to grasp, seize, capture, and limit her: she demands liberation. For those who have not read the Wife of Bath’s Tale for it’s trans-ness recently, perhaps because we are distracted by the Wife’s own female masculinity, the story ends after the knight being given the choice between an insubordinate distant beautiful partner or a committed but begrudely accepted partner, when he says, the choice is yours. In the end, the best future I see for medieval transgender studies is one based around liberation. This would mean not insisting on trans studies as only that proud but unmedieval modern thing on the one hand and on the other hand not relegating medieval trans figures to a few odd loathly isolated figures and scholars. In short, let medieval transgender studies become what it needs to become. And what that will look like is not something this elf maid / loathly lady can tell you at this particular court of feminists.

What I can tell you is how the Wife of Bath’s story ends. Because after the knight gives his partner the freedom to be whatever she may be, she immediately becomes a beautiful bride. Because what is beautiful is the freedom to be who we need to be be and become what we need to become which means the freedom to not only uncover and express truth but also the liberty to change our minds and even our pronouns. The Tale says she became the elfin maiden again and the story ends there, cut to black and roll credits. Yet I am not convinced that she will always stay that way. With her full liberty, she is free to use her powers as she pleases and needs. This means sometimes she may need to wear the face of the loathly lady killjoy. This may mean sometimes being the fairy dancing in the wood. Sometimes it means standing with a court of feminists as we interrogate an oppressive, misogynistic and sexually abusive field. The Tale ends there but the future is uncertain and that is the point. Because liberation demands uncertainty.

The medieval trans studies that I practice and teach my students is one of many faces, mostly ones that do not look like me. And this is important, because most of my readers and students also don’t look like me, even the trans ones. Because there is no one way to be trans today and certainly no one way to be trans in the past. There is some value in identifying trans persons in the past as helping us see ourselves in the past but if the middle ages is a mirror it is a broken mirror that reflects and refracts, distorts and multiplies. Let’s not just consider those we once called “male to female or female to male” but also those mothers to virgins, reproductive men who become eunuchs, knights who become monks, intersexual hermaphrodites and trans masculine Amazons. Trans does not just allow for movement across the binary or the creation of a space in between but a breaking open of the binary so we see that even within the category of man and woman there are many identities and transitions between. Medieval trans studies is not just about transgender people who look like me. Medieval trans studies is about all of us. 


______________________________

______________________________

A Step Along the Way

The last lesson, I draw from this is not to turn away from the trans-ness in the archive not to turn away from the dysphoria in the archive. Transgender faced a cis accosting in the medieval moment just as trans histories face limiting and erasure in medieval studies. Dysphoria generated by the cis past and present is the elided reality to be detected, revealed, and disclosed. We need dysphoria not just as a way to detect trans people in archives but as a way to see the history of transphobia in cis history and cis historians. Because the loathly lady does not just tell us about herself but about her time, about the generations of historians after her, and about us. She teaches us to detect the systems that oppressed her and oppress us. The goal of liberating medieval transgender studies is that this means liberating all of us. Consent benefits us all. Equity benefits us all. Intersectional justice benefits us all. Commitment to each other in the field and not to a certain way that field has looked in the past is what will see that we have a future at all.

This liberation means working towards a future and medieval studies that is not our own. To quote a prayer made famous by Oscar Romero, “No statement says all that could be said…No confession brings perfection…No set of goals and objectives includes everything. This is what we are about. We plant the seeds that one day will grow. We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise. We lay foundations that will need further development. We provide yeast that produces far beyond our capabilities. We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that. This enables us to do something, and to do it very well. It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way… We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker. We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs. We are prophets of a future not our own.” I yearn for a day, perhaps soon, perhaps not so soon, that my remarks today and my scholarship are no longer necessary and indeed quite dated. My hopes are that some of those listening today and speaking today will be those who take us over that next step, that write that next article, organize that next session, teach the next generation of medieval trans scholars. We want to give these students and scholars more liberation than we had. A more ethical profession than we had. A middle ages that is fully medieval and therefore more fully trans. We want them to walk on the foundations that we are excavating and the foundations that we may become. And like all moments in the past and soon to be past, these moments are moments of uncertainty and many possible futures. The medieval past did end up here today but did not have to. Every moment is a moment of possibility if only we have the liberty to choose. Likewise, today, this session, “Towards a Medieval Transgender Studies,” is about the future but also about marking a moment. “We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that. This enables us to do something, and to do it very well. It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way.”

______________________________
______________________________

______________________________
______________________________

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Trans Pedagogy: How Transgender Can Save the Middle Ages


"I can't be a pessimist,
because I am alive."

James Baldwin
______________________________
______________________________


In my seminars "Beyond Male and Female: A History of Transgender, Intersex, and Non-Binary Identity," and, "Queer Christianity: A History of Gender and Sexuality in the Church," I run the assignment, The Queer Saints Project. So for this talk, I will use the figure of Joan of Arc as a queer saint to first explain our challenges and promises for medieval transgender studies. Joan allows us to consider our perspective from a distance, because transgender in the military is obviously not a modern conflict. Joan of Arc allows us to consider the current conflict we are in and how we get thru. Because each day all I need to do is check the Chronicle of Higher Education or the national news to discover a new unimagined way in which we are are being eliminated or even killed. That brings me to acknowledge that my title also begs the question, what exactly does she think the Middle Ages, or the studies of, need to be saved from? I think we each could list several things. This talk leverages trans interdisciplinarity against niche expertise, trans collaboration against isolating competition, and trans creativity over pessimism. This final point not only concludes but summarizes my main concern and my main response. Because the biggest threat I see to not only trans studies, the middle ages, but the academy in general is not any one threat from the outside against us but the threat of pessimism and despair from within us. Pessimism is not only the biggest danger for a new generation of jobs the threat that should be our biggest job to address if we are to help the new generation create a better future for our past. 

So why say that Transgender Can Save the Middle Ages? Because Transgender Studies is necessarily interdisciplinary, collaborative, and creative. These are traits that are increasingly critical to the survival of the humanities, especially Medieval Studies, in the face of a changing profession that is eliminating or absorbing fields, increasing the entry cost and exclusivity of stable sustainable jobs, and going through rapid transformations that make the future difficult to read for newly emerging talents as well as those experienced in the industry.


______________________________

______________________________


Interdisciplinarity

Joan is a saintly model, calling for imitation of an interdisciplinary impulse, combining familiar with the disciplines of maidenhood and manhood, scripture and combat. While Medieval Studies has long been interdisciplinary in its integrating of linguistics, history, archeology, religion, economics, and art, Trans Studies offers a network of fields and professions that would radically grow any academic partnership. Beyond affinity groups such as gender and queer studies, trans studies requires literacy in medicine, psychology, law, even military code. Thus, the implicit message of critics of medieval trans studies often seems to be: but I already did my comp. exams, I don’t want to have to learn all this new gender stuff. Yet the radical interdisciplinary nature that makes it intimidating to settled experts is what is making it a training ground for students to enter into the humanities, such as medieval trans studies, with experience working with STEM and polical-science. Teaching medieval trans and intersex history at an institution that identifies as a STEM, not a Liberal Arts, university, I’m grateful to have engineering, nursing, and comp-science students affirm the importance of such classes in their curriculum. 


______________________________
______________________________


Collaboration

Joan of Arc did not save Orleans alone but did so by collaborating with a network of forces, military brain and brawn, stone, metal, and wood, animals, and God. Learning from STEM and Political Science colleagues, as well as other groups in critical race and disability studies, Trans Studies values collaboration. Isolation feels pragmatic in a highly competitive market where one person getting a job will mean many others not getting hired. Yet despite this impulse, we see trans studies and other marginal studies encouraging a radically collaborative sharing of resources, credit, and attention. Why is this? For one, this stems from a lack of resources and respectability to start. In many cases those sharing these resources are those who themselves have very little of their own or just lately gained some reserve of academic juice. It may be the best investment in the future to spend our five-minutes in the room where things happen to slip as many other people into the room as possible. Our 5 minutes of time may become only 3 minutes but the two people we brought in will have 3-5 minutes of their own to do the same. And these people we sneak in may not always look like us. Collaboration is another element of intersectional interdisciplinary work. This is how we do more with less, a skill that administrations are demanding of departments but also a skill that emerging trans studies students and scholars learn from Day 1. In the end, we find ourselves not only working with people who the academy never would have expected but working on projects that we might never have given a second thought if a friend hadn’t said, hey, let’s put my thing together with yours and join forces. This is how we transform fields, putting intersectionality at the center of what we do, not merely as an isolated one-person diversity sub-field. And it makes us better scholars! Learning to better discuss race, disability, gender from our collaborators teaches us to notice things that afterwards we question how we ever did our work without seeing.

______________________________
______________________________


Creativity

What is often forgotten about martyrs is that they may die for the faith, they generally would rather live and indeed fight like hell (as long as they can) for the living. Joan embodies such creativity for us, not only by navigating loop-holes and limitations but by being both war-like and creatively life-seeking. Likewise, creativity is an underrated aspect of Trans Studies. This is often because the academy, like most institutions, is best at replicating itself and the things it knows. As a result, Trans Studies is cast as a new form of Queer Studies or Feminism or as yet another invention of post-modern critical theory. People thus tune out either because they long ago wrote off such –isms or because they feel like they already learned the essentials of that critical turn. But trans people and trans studies does more than merely disturb cisgender people’s sense of gender, does more than merely say, “me too,” in long conversations of oppressions. Trans people and studies exists in a world not built for us. We use the things given to us in new ways that better suit our needs. Or else we invent new tools, terminology, and methods to do things that cis culture cannot. Thus, when the academy declares that the old models are no longer working, trans persons and studies says, yeah, well they never really worked for us. I teach my students to see creativity in trans studies is one that tries to create, to breathe new life, to adapt to survive. Trans Studies acknowledges that not only are academics are losing jobs but lives, with trans youths currently at a 41-50% suicide rate and the average life expectancy of a trans woman of color being 35 years. We are creative in our classrooms not just to keep our professions alive but each other. In the words of James Baldwin, “I cannot be a pessimist, because I am alive.” A creative force profession is just what we need in a pessimistic academy. Something I say before each writing assignment: assume your audience is in some sort of pain, because most likely they are. This shifts us from writing what we need to write to writing what our audience needs to read. 

______________________________

______________________________


The Queer Saints Project

To close, I’ll ground interdisciplinary, collaborative, and creative trans pedagogy with an example from my seminars, The Queer Saints Project. Over a whole month of classes, such an assignment meets traditional academic outcomes, as well as outcomes that the academy has yet to require. In our first week, students delved into the medieval theology of saints, considering concepts such as the Imago Dei, Imitatio Christi, intercessions, iconography, martyrdom and patronage. Then the class examined history, art, and literature for stories of trans and queer saints, from Saint Marinos the Monk to the gender queerness of Saint Joan of Arc. Next, students were challenged to look around them at modern queer persons – who were or would never be canonized by the Church - who have lived out the same virtues of being an icon, a role model, someone worthy of imitation, who embodied ideals, whose intercession or patronage helped those in need. They compared their stories narratively, iconographically, and socially to the historical saints. At this stage, they wrote papers making their cases for their own Queer Saints.

Finally, on the last week of classes they reflected back on themselves, asking, “what makes me queer?” and “what makes me set-apart or sainted?” Making their own icons and mottos, mini saint’s lives, students shared struggles, hopes, and insights with one another. I had a queer woman of color share that our discussion of hair as a sign of shamed and reclaimed pride helped pull her out of a mid-semester depression when a flurry of white-supremacist hate against her hair made her question her own beauty and value. Her hair made her a saint. Her mottos were, #It'sMyHairAndIWantItForever and #TheBeautyOfAFro. Another student reported that she felt coming into the class that medieval history and religion were the property of white cis-het men and now she feels like she can claim these things and in which she can sees herself. Her motto was, #Thebiblesayswhat? A non-binary student wrote saying that they hardly ever get to see gender queer adults not only living but thriving and that this has transformed their sense of what is possible for their careers. Earlier in the semester, someone told me how sad they seemed and how they wished to scoop this student up and protect them. By the end of the semester, this student was saying how they wanted to scoop up those queer younger than them and keep them safe. Their motto was, #MournTheDeadFightForTheLiving. They affirmed that often we can save ourselves by saving one another. And that, after all, is really the thesis of my talk. When all is said and done, that is why I work in this field. This may bring a new generation of students to transgender or medieval studies but because trans and medieval studies can help empower new generations to create a new future from our past. Yes, Transgender Can Saves the Middle Ages, by which I mean, through intersectional collaboration and creativity embodied problematically by figures such as Joan of Arc, I believe we might just save one another. And yes, yes, we might find ourselves burned at the legal, federal, religious and professional stake. But I cannot tell you or my students what troubles the future may hold, I can help you learn how to face them.

______________________________
______________________________



______________________________
______________________________

Monday, May 7, 2018

Wear Your Advocacy Wave 2: Disability, Transgender, and Feminism


“Sche [back] to brewyn”

The Book of Margery Kempe
______________________________
______________________________


Transliterature Online is proud to announce new arrivals to the online store. Following an initial limited run of an assortment of button designs, including "Mad for Margery," "Queer Gower," and "A Trans Middle Ages Matters," more styles and items are finally coming. Wave 2 will continue to hit medieval crip, feminist, trans, and queer buttons, now featuring, "Make the Middle Ages Accessible," "She Called Herself Eleanor," and "They Called the Loathly Lady, Before I Was Nasty." 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.

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! Thank you also to N. Bahr for modeling our Wave 2 buttons!

______________________________
______________________________

Wear Your Advocacy
Wave 2

"Make the Middle Ages Accessible" Button 
(2.5 inch single or 10 pack)


"She Called Herself Eleanor" Button 
(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)



______________________________
______________________________

Wear Your Advocacy
Wave 1

"A Trans Middle Ages Matters" 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)

______________________________
______________________________

Saturday, April 28, 2018

The Future of Queer Medieval Organizing: A 10 Question Survey


"If there's a book you want to read, 
but it hasn't been written yet, 
then you must write it."

Toni Morrison
______________________________
______________________________

Welcome to the Queer Medieval Studies Survey

Out of an increased interest in queer medievalist organizing, this survey looks to collect responses on the areas of greatest need and possible growth. The questions are designed to be general but not exhaustive. All responses are anonymous. The responses will be collected and used to inform future queer medieval organizing.

This is a collective and open door process. Anyone who wants to be involved and help steer the conversation is welcomed. This work needs to be inclusive and intersectional. While Transliterature (and Gabrielle M.W. Bychowski) is managing this survey, she considers herself primarily a facilitator in this conversation. 

In fact, if you prefer, you may fill out and share this survey without directing participants to Transliterature Online by using this link: 


This survey is aimed at growing and developing existing queer organizations as well as highlighting opportunities for new voices, networks, and initiatives.
______________________________
______________________________

______________________________
______________________________

Thank You!
______________________________
______________________________

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Transgender in the Modern Military: A Lesson in Class and Culture


"The financial cost of transition-related care, in short, is too low to matter."

Aaron Belkin
Caring for Our Transgender Troops
______________________________
______________________________

Framing the Lesson
  • Patriotism: x2 Higher Enrollment than % than Cisgender Population
  • Veterans: Significant Number of Post-Military Transitions
  • Legacy: Long History of Trans Service Persons

Debates around transgender in the military may arise and may arouse a wide range of tangential discussions in a host of classrooms; on medicine, the military, law, government, and politics; on classism, sexism, homophobia, and disability. As an activist and consultant, I see how these conversations have direct effects on the present and future of thousands of transgender persons in the armed forces and countless people affected by the politics. As a scholar of cultural studies, I see how this issue is inextricably tied to wider norms and problems related to gender, sexuality, class, race, religion, geography, and embodiment. As a historian, especially as a medievalist, I see how this issue is both very of the present moment, and also very much a part of ancient history. As a public writer, a scholar, and a teacher I want to frame lessons in response to explicit and implicit claims against transgender service people.

Before I do, however, I want to acknowledge that transgender people's relation and participation to the military does not merely exist as a way to spite transphobic complaints. One could and should be able to have a rich, complicated, and historical day (or semester) discussing transgender people in the military without giving transphobes more than a footnote. It might be hard to avoid the draw to address major transphobes, especially those commanders-in-chief, but such trans-positive conversations are possible and important. Reports show that transgender people enroll in the military at twice (x2) the rate of cisgender people. These numbers increase exponentially when they consider all the transgender people who have transitioned after leaving the military. Transgender people currently and historically have a complicated and long relationship to institutions of warfares and service to the nation. Indeed, once one considers the many historical and fictional gender non-conforming and gender variant persons that appear in texts from Disney and Lord of the Rings to Joan of Arc's interrogation, there is material enough to fuel many lessons without directly needing to addressing the myths and misinformation of transphobes.

Yet teaching often occurs at bleeding edges but these are often also growing edges. I tell my students that I conservatively spend 60% of my time reading what people who hate me and my communities than I spend reading about the wonderful things that we actually do and are. In reality that percentage is probably a lot higher. Because lessons are about the information that others need to receive and not about the information I want give, this practice of leaning into the hate is often the most effective at bringing the haters closer to embracing me and my communities. Following that policy, I have thrown together some notes that may be useful for a wide range of audiences on the critiques of cost and class, culture and history in the web of transgender in the military. The goal is to be accessible and adaptable for various readers or teachers. An advanced series of lessons might be given using critical theory, expansive histories, and memoirs that further fill out and complicate these conversations. Indeed, my own scholarship leans into the particular significant nuances of medieval stories, particular those tied to Joan of Arc and Roman de Silence, that are critically important to current transgender studies on issues of military service, nationalism, sexual embodiment, history, and faith. That is where I am going but I do not want to go there alone. Joan of Arc leads by example in showing us that we do not turn the tide of a war on the battle grounds of culture, history, and government in solitude, nor by merely working with those who agree with us, but by working, fighting, and sacrificing alongside those who do not yet understand or approve. The culture and history of transgender in the military time and again teaches many lessons, among them the willingness to serve, defend, and support those who otherwise would not share a church, a nation, or a classroom. Such a willingness may very well better us in our capacities as activists, scholars, and teachers; as it may then affect even more of us in our capacities as citizens and voters.

Example Discussion Questions:


  • How does the higher than average number of transgender persons serving in the armed forces compare or contrast with public conceptions of the political alignments of trans populations? What are a few of the social, economic, and historical factors that may contribute to the U.S. military being one of the largest employers of trans persons nationwide?

  • How does transitioning after a military career potentially affect relationships between veterans and other service persons? What are a few social, legal, and personal factors that may lead to this historic trend of waiting until after retirement to transition?

  • How does the long history of trans persons represented in armed forces (going back to medieval literature and history) widen the conversation about transgender military beyond the immediate concerns of federal bans, American policy, or contemporary politics? What are factors about military service that might be similar and different for trans service persons in the distant past?

______________________________

______________________________


A Lecture on Classism

Responses to Stated Critiques

  • Costs: Extraordinary Expenses vs. Low Costs Relative to Overall and Gender-Specific Healthcare Budget Totals
  • Cohesion: Prejudice vs. Testimonies on Troop Camaraderie
  • Competency: Mental Illness vs. Excellent Records of Service

Costs: The stated critiques around transgender people serving openly in the military open hinge arounds the cost of transition related healthcare. Such critiques tend to claim either concern for ballooning the military budget in general or a personal repulsion at tax money going to help transgender people transition. The former claim is addressed in the critical literature and interviews suggested, where dedicated studies as well as direct professional experience demonstrates that transgender healthcare represents a tiny fraction around (2-4 million) out of the massive healthcare costs of the military (around 50 billion), which is all the more diminutive in relation to the overall military budget (around 600 billion). This is in part related to the relatively small number of transgender service persons and that a great number of these service persons will not elect to undergo surgical procedures which make up the majority of the projected expenses. Furthermore, placing the amount spent on transgender healthcare in comparison to other gender specific expenses (such as the much larger amount spent on erectile disfunction treatment like Viagra) likewise puts these costs in context. In regards to the latter personal concern, the literature likewise addresses how the military covers ordinary and extra-ordinary healthcare costs for all of its service people that is particular to their needs. This includes eye-glasses for those with vision related issues and Viagra for those with erection related issues. For transgender persons, transition related healthcare is deemed necessary and normal by the medical community.

Cohesion: Another area in which the public political concern focuses is on concerns about troop cohesion and culture. The thesis essentially boils down to the projection, "if I, a 'normal' American would have issues working with transgender persons... theoretically ... then the military MUST have issues as well." Based on the reports generated by military leadership, there is no cohesion problem. In this respect, the military seems to know what it can and cannot handle - in respects to troop cohesion - better than the transphobic public; in no small part because of the intentionality given in recent decades to the integration of women, people of color, and LGB service people. This does not mean that every military unit will have a culture that is explicitly pro-LGBTQI politics. What this does mean is that as far as the leadership and independent research has seen, members of the military being LGB or T (transgender) in no way interferes with troop cohesion or effectiveness. In comparison, the military may still be a hard place to be a woman, however being a woman is no longer considered a reason to exclude someone from military service. Addressing this concern, the interviews with current and former transgender military service peoples (as well as their comrades) helps to humanize and contextualize the cohesion already occurring within the armed forces.

Competency: A less popular claim among professional politicians but a more popular claim among the uneducated public is that transgender people are mentally ill and therefore not able-bodied enough to serve. In this respect, not only are the military specific studies helpful but the wide array of medical and legal literature going back for many years that affirm that being transgender is not a mental illness. What educated and specialized experts can explain is that transgender people require gender specific healthcare much in the way other men, women, and intersex people require particular forms of healthcare. The fact that menstruation related healthcare may be needed by some women and not by most men does not make them disordered. The medical community regards transgender persons as part of the natural, normal, and healthy gender diversity of the human species. Some transgender persons may experience gender dysphoria but this can be readily managed by decreasing prejudice against transgender persons and increasing transition related care. Once again, these specific needs for some trans service persons is not considered extra-ordinary nor in any way inhibits their ability to serve. In fact, what medical studies have shown is that transgender troops are healthier and more effective at their jobs when allowed to serve openly as well as receiving the full range of transgender related health care. Once again, interviews with specific service people also demonstrate the many extraordinary accomplishments and success of transgender persons in the military. This replaces the image of transgender persons as disordered with images of trans persons as strong, efficient, and productive members of the armed services.

Example Discussion Questions


  • What is the role and responsibility of the military to provide limited or full healthcare to armed service people? Does gender specific healthcare (men, women, trans people, etc.) complicate these responsibilities or not? How should the military respond to partisan political complaints from the public that does not approve of trans healthcare on pro-religious rather pro-military grounds?

  • How might a person coming out as transgender improve rather than hinder troop cohesion? How does "bringing all parts of yourself" to military service improve rather than hinder a trans person's capacity to serve? What are non-military or non-transgender comparisons we might draw to similar conflicts around integration?

  • How might a transgender service person be trans but not experience dysphoria? How might anti-trans prejudice or transgender bans increase dysphoria? What are the qualities of dysphoria and does it in any way inhibit the performance of duties? How do debates around transgender and mental illness bring latent and overt ableism in the military to the forefront?


______________________________

______________________________

A Discussion of Culture

Responses to Unstated Critiques

  • Sexism: Military as Masculine Space vs. History of Women Service People
  • Homophobia: Military as Hetero Space vs. History of Queer Service People
  • Ableism: Military as Able-bodied vs. History of Extraordinary Health Needs

Sexism: the attacks leveled against transgender service people are in many respects extensions of wars that have been waged against women, queers, crips, people of color, and the poor for decades onto centuries. Approached from a wide-screen historical timeline, transgender exclusion and inclusion in the military may be seen as another wave of the old debate of whether non-men could and should be allowed to serve. In these old assumptions, men were supposed to be cisgender, heterosexual, able-bodied, white and educated (at the level of command and prestige) or usually, mostly, white and poor (at the level of the commanded). Thus the question of transgender inclusion meets with implicit biases that the military is a place for "real men," meaning cis men. But this tradition of manhood has already been under revision as the complaint that gay men are not "real men" is proven wrong. Likewise, cisgender heterosexual women were and are met with the demand that they can be "just one of the guys" as they fight for the right to fight alongside the "real men." In this vein, the Disney musical Mulan, specifically the song, "Be a Man," gets at a cultural assumption about the military and manhood which is suspicious of other genders, including other ways in which one can "be a man." Consider the line, "you are unfit for the rage of war, pack up, go home, you are through, how could I make a man out of you?" Such a lyric rings heavy in the ears of trans service persons today, just as it rings for the great many queer service people dishonorably discharged from the military on account of their sexuality, as it rings for the centuries of women who could and did fight alongside men in war without recognition. The story of Mulan serving in the military at once represents trans men and women, queers with unspeakable truths and desires, and women doing the work without being able to stand up and claim the credit for fear of being told, "pack up, go home, you are through."

Heterosexism: an excessive amount of critique, attention, and ridicule is leveled at transgender persons through sexually loaded rhetoric. As a scholar but also a reader and target of much anti-transgender argumentation, it is not lost on me how much of the language, terminology, images, and metaphors used by transphobic people are drawn directly from pornography. The term "she-male" is a clear example because a simple Google search with demonstrate that the word is almost exclusively used in porn and only secondarily used in transphobic rants. Other terms such as "tranny" or "trap" likewise drawn from heterosexual anxiety around the intentional sexual engagement with trans sex workers or the fear of unaware sexual engagement with trans persons. Yet even the fascination with trans people's genitals in arguments about what makes a "real man" or "real woman" demonstrates how much of "realness" and "manhood/womanhood" is grounded for many heterosexuals in their sexuality. By this logic, being a man means penetrating women with a penis (as opposed to women-with-penises). As stated above, this not only reduces what it means to "be a man" to a sexual act which is otherwise tangential and irrelevant to military service but an act that is specifically heterosexual. Thus one can understand the exclusion of transgender people from the military as homophobia in another form. This is not surprising, as even within the queer community, extremely femme gay men and extremely butch lesbian women (a certain amount of whom later came out as transgender) were repeatedly hidden or excluded as representing the least socially acceptable version of queerness. The narrative that helped lead to open service in the military for gay men and lesbians was presenting cis queer men and women in ways that contradicted the public image of them as sparkly fairies in drag and the butch leather dykes. One sees even in the "positive" images of transgender persons being represented in the media (in an effort to gain social acceptance) a repetition of the formula, trying to show extraordinarily normative and binary trans men and women as otherwise indistinguishable from the very same cisgender heterosexual men and women that gay men and lesbian women were compared to years prior.

Ableism: across the board, one of the worst things a soldier can be called (insofar as it will exclude them from remaining a soldier) is not simply to be called "not a man," but to be not an "able-bodied" man. All service people in the military (even office clerks) are supposed to be able-bodied combatants that could lift a weapon and fight if the occasion arises. Thus, the exclusion of trans people, women, and queers can be understood as extending from the primary claim that they are not as able-bodied as cisgender, heterosexual men. The line "unfit for the rage of war" is itself an invocation of disability, as the lack of ability or fitness for war. Claims and misinformation that transgender people are innately mentally ill are then also claims that they are unfit for military service. These claims are both the easiest to disprove (for audiences that accept years of medical science and evaluation) and also some of the most problematic to answer without conceding disability in the military as essentially undesirable and unfit. If addressed head-on, this tension can be unpacked to show the complicated network of military duties actually and potentially expected of someone in the armed forces. A wheel-chair may make it hard to move from dug-out to dug-out but may not be a problem for someone driving a tank; unless the tank needs to be abandoned; unless... the list of potential possibilities for service and for an inability to serve multiply with every "what if?" What such evaluations show is that a transgender person is effectively able-bodied in regards to all the same grounds as a cisgender person with all the same capacities. What is also shown is the tangled web of expectation and contingency that defines all the ways a person may be considered able or unable to serve in different circumstances. Inevitably and necessarily, this will also address the ways in which the wages of war produce disabled bodies - literally bodies that have been affected by violence so as to be made disabled. Among the most prominent forms of being disabled by the military is mental illness, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The irony then is that the military produces bodies (including minds) that it otherwise would not include if those conditions were derived before and outside military service. 

Example Discussion Questions:


  • Are debates about transgender service in the military separate from other debates around cis women and queer women? In what ways is this a continuation of previous feminist movements and in what ways does it introduce particular concerns? How do you respond to claims that gender segregation should be preserved for biological, reproductive, or traditional reasons?

  • How might anti-transgender sentiment be misplaced or misunderstood homophobia? Is the anger against trans service persons vengeance for allowing LGB persons to serve or is this a completely different phenomenon of hate? How might LGB persons be adding fuel to the transphobia?

  • Should transgender service people completely disassociate themselves from disability identity in order to serve? Should trans service people maintain this association in order to advocate for people with disabilities being allowed to serve? How are advancements in technology and warfare changing what it means to be a soldier in ways that contrast with the demands for bodily capacity during previous trench wars? How inclusive and accessible should the military be? How might being more accessible provide surprising benefits to force effectiveness?


______________________________

______________________________

Recommended Readings

Critical Studies - Regarding Lifting the Original Ban


  • A. Belkin, New England Journal of Medicine, “Caring for Our Trans Troops” (2015)
  • Schaefer, Iyengar, Kadiyala, Kavanagh, Engel, Williams, and Kress, RAND Corporation, "Assessing the Implications of Allowing Transgender Personnel to Serve Openly" (2016)

Interviews with Transgender Troops - Regarding the New Bans



  • The Ellen Show, Youtube, "Ellen Chats with Transgender Military Couple Logan & Laila Ireland" (2017)
  • Fox 11 LA, Youtube, "Transgender veteran Shane Ortega discusses Trump's military ban" (2017)

Film Scenes for Close-Reading - Regarding Military Culture

  • Disney, Mulan, "Be A Man" (1998)
  • New Line Cinema, Lord of the Rings: Two Towers, "Eowyn" (2002)

Pre-modern Texts for Historical Reference 

  • Heldris of Cornwall, Roman de Silence, "Sir. Silence"
  • Historical Association for Joan of Arc Studies, Primary Sources and Context Concerning Joan of Arc's Male Clothing
______________________________


______________________________