Monday, July 16, 2018

Transgender Ethics: NCS 2018 Remarks on the Wife of Bath's Tale


"You fucked the world up now, 
we'll fuck it all back down"

Janelle Monae
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Unmoored in Time

“In th' olde dayes of the Kyng Arthour, / Of which that Britons speken greet honour, / Al was this land fulfild of fayerye. The elf-queene, / with hir joly compaignye, / Daunced ful ofte in many a grene mede. / This was the olde opinion, as I rede; speke of manye hundred yeres ago. But now kan no man se none elves mo.” (In the old days of King Arthur, Of whom Britons speak great honor, This land was all filled full of supernatural creatures. The elf-queen, with her jolly company, Danced very often in many a green mead. This was the old belief, as I read; I speak of many hundred years ago. But now no man can see any more elves). 
But now no man can see any more elves. So begins the Wife of Bath’s Tale and so begins our study transgender ethics, with the uncertainty of changing times. And this raises the question of when and if we might ever see the elves dance again. Is this nostalgia or a utopian dream?

Let’s put this another way. Three years ago, I was invited to join an assembled team of trans people in the arts at the White House to advise the Obama administration on how to leverage the power of communication to make the nation a more ethical and equitable place for people of all genders. During the day, someone pointed out that the very existence of such a congregation of trans leadership in the White House would have been (until very recently) not only unthinkable, but even illegal. Everyone there affirmed how contingent and potentially fleeting this moment of strength was. We wanted to make the most of it. And only a couple years later, such a meeting in the White House is again unthinkable and if not illegal, certainly against current government policies and regulations. How quickly things change and change again! How precarious are our alliances and fidelity! The reason I ask this question and tell this story is that I genuinely feel part of a community without a time to call our own. In his chapter, Transgender Time, from Seeing Sodomy in the Middle Ages, Robert Mills says that scholars he talked to speak of transgender as a critical turn that has already come and gone. Indeed, while arguing for a medieval transgender studies, Mills’s chapter reeks of the anxiety that his language and research on transgender will soon be out of date. Personally, in my own work I hear the opposite but arrive at the same conclusions. From the government, from churches, from universities, and from my own field, I constantly hear people begging for time: slow down, we aren’t ready yet, we aren’t there yet, it's not time yet!

Politically, academically, historically, and personally I feel emphatically unmoored in time, compelling me to find language for the moral condition of never quite knowing whether one is ahead of our time or falling behind, moving forwards or backwards. In trans communities, we get asked, “are you pre-op or post-op?” This refers to whether or not we have had “the surgery,” which is supposed to mark a before and after in the telos of a trans person. Even if we set aside surgery as a marker of periodization, the concept of before and after this or that, hormones or transitions, leaves many trans folk feeling unsure of when they are, between periods that everyone else seems to think is important. I call this condition being trans-op. Literally, between operations. And I will argue today that this is a position of transgender ethics which might help us look back - or forward - to the time of the elves of the Wife of Bath's Tale; a time which may never have been.


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The Trans-Operative

In respect to feeling unmoored in time and alliances, being a trans ethicist feels actually very much like being a medievalist. And so, like the Wife of Bath, I look back into my books for ethical guidance, "
This was the olde opinion, as I rede; speke of manye hundred yeres ago." After all, what do we study here if not a time between times? We study the Middle Ages, an era of study defined by what comes after this but before that. And so I ask, what is the medieval answer to a transgender ethical question of contingent alliances and moral infidelity. In searching for such a response, it should be no surprise that I turn to the Wife of Bath. Indeed, the Wife’s whole moral system seems built around moral infidelity to her husbands, of which she boasts of having many, and whether good or bad each marriage seems built in some way around contingent alliances based around mutual uncertainty about commitment. However, while I pay my respects to the nasty woman, I have always found the focus of the Tale far more trans than the tale’s teller: the Loathly Lady. This is a trans-operative woman is I have ever met one. The function of her whole Tale is to demonstrate the ethical machinations of a person caught in the position where they cannot guarantee from one day to the next what the state of their partnerships, power, or even the state of their body will be. 

For those who would enjoy the refresher, here is a summary of the Wife of Bath’s Tale: 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, honor, lust, joy, and rich array, flattery, and marriage. 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.

The question the Loathly Lady poses seems peculiar but is an extremely honest and necessary reflection of her real state of affairs. After all, the knight is a known rapist and opportunist, willing to promise anything to anyone, even a random crone in the middle of the woods, if it means it will get him out of trouble. In short, the Loathly Lady may have some power over the Knight at this moment but he has shown infidelity in the past and may again, he has abused women like her in the past and may abuse them again. Any power she has now has no time in the past to serve as a foundation nor any certainty about her power in the future. Thus, her ethos towards the knight may reasonably be either one of cynical but persistent experience, an old loyal killjoy that has been around the block so many times his tricks won’t fool her, or else a hopeful yet vulnerable young blood that shares no loyalty with the past or the present. I shall avoid making a joke about Gen-X vs. Millennials. Again, her question may seem to lack the assurances of a fixed form or fellowship but it reflects a world that offers her no such assurances.

And the answer she receives, perhaps is the best that a trans-operative can expect: liberty. The knight allows the Loathly Lady to choose her own form and degree of fidelity. The Tale says she became beautiful and loyal. But I always ask my students, “what happens next, after the screen cuts to black and the credits roll?” The facts and conditions of the world remain the same. The Knight broke trust and raped before, he may again. The Elf Queen turned Loathly Lady turned Elf Queen is a changeling, always between one transition and another. She may change again. Given her choice in partner, despite the power the partnership currently gives her, she may need this power again. Liberty is a power she must maintain, ready to change, to alter the alliance, to be morally unfaithful, to leave if the time and place turns toxic. She needs the power to stay, to hold alliances and fidelity, but also to ethically leave, break bonds and fellowship. This is the offer of contingent alliance given by the Wife of Bath's protagonist but also the only offer given to her by the world. We are told from the start, "
In th' olde dayes... Al was this land fulfild of fayerye... But now kan no man se none elves mo." The world can be filled with fairies and now we can see no more of them. The world can be filled with loathly ladies, nasty women, trans women, and feminists, but now we can see no more of them. But this does not mean that they shall not come again. The temporality of the trans-operative is the time of chronicity. Not anachronistic or a-chronic (misplaced in time or timeless), trans chronicity is the condition of going into remission and becoming symptomatic, the monster's escape and return, the transition and fluidity with many beginnings and endings, and a time full of otherwhiles.

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Moral Infidelity

This brings us back or forward to the position of the trans-operative, those not complacent to be operative, nor a double operative, but a trans-operative. I keep one foot inside the room and one foot out the door, one foot in one time and one foot in another period. We are trans-operative because frankly one can never tell when one minute you are welcomed inside the White House and the next minute not welcome in the military, in public bathrooms, or even Pride Parades. It is hard to even say that I am progressive, some days, because I have no guarantee that tomorrow will be better than today or three years ago. Occupying the trans-operative position, one strives for an ethics in a world without assured welcome and no time to look forward to or nostalgically back at. The ethics of the trans-operative Loathly Lady is a word of liberation for ourselves: things transform. Our times, our bodies, our society and jobs will change. Unmoored from time, we reject that things were ever so great as to allow us to be "Great Again" and we reject the passive naivety that our progress as a society will always be for the better. Some days we will be persistent killjoys and some days we will be beautiful traitors.

Because a transgender ethics, the ethics of the Wife of Bath’s Tale, is the ethics of the traitor. Times which do not know where or when to put us, regularly calls us traitors. White supremacists have a special hate for race traitors, white advocates for people of color; at the same time that police, government, and professions question the citizenship of people of color. Among trans-hating queers, we see the sense of double betrayal in the eyes of women who see friends in the lesbian community come out as trans men, not women, and queerly hetero, not gay. Among trans-excluding regressive feminists, TERFs, we see the turf war over feminist spaces that include trans women, who they consider men smuggling in to betray womanhood. Parents do not want trans children using the school bathrooms because they see us as liars and rapists. The US has a President who does not trust a trans soldier to serve their nation faithfully. Let us remember that when the Wife of Bath's Tale begins by saying we live in a time without fairies, "
now kan no man se none elves mo," she adds that the lack of fairies is due to our own exclusions: “Of lymytours and othere hooly freres, / That serchen every lond and every streem... Citees, burghes, castels, hye toures... This maketh that ther ben no fayeryes” (Of licensed beggars and other holy friars, That overrun every land and every stream... Cities, towns, castles, high towers... This makes it that there are no fairies). The cities, towns, high towers and walls of our world as well as our profession speak to the outlawing of fairies of various stripes. The very persistence of the nasty woman and transitioning elf is an act of treason against the time and place in which she is not supposed to exist.

We all get called loathly nasty ladies, traps and traitors to our own nations –nations in the political and Chaucerian sense—because our liberty, our power, our bodies, and our alliances are deemed unthinkable or illegal. That is why we must from time to time do the unthinkable or even illegal, why we occupy times and places in which we are not welcome, not because we may but because we must. Because, we have no time to wait or start again. Because we have no past or future into which we can flee for a sense of safety. Because when we occupy times in which white knights of hate are emboldened, when men rape and abuse the vulnerable, and our old allies sell us out, treason to such nations may be the only ethical recourse. In the words of the Venerable Janelle Monae, “you fuck the world up now, we’ll fuck it all back down.” Unmoored from time and nation, we become the loathly lady that ever escapes and returns, we become the beautiful traitors who love our nations enough to stop it from hurting us, and we become agents of change, the trans-operatives and transgender ethicists that are here to tell our allies: if you do not stand with us when we are weak, then you may not receive our loyalty when we are strong.

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Tuesday, June 26, 2018

A Day in the Life: A Mental Health Care Regimen


"I keep my spirits high, find happiness by and by,
if it takes a life time"

Jason Isbell
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The Reverend (my husbutch, spouse, partner, best friend) regularly comments how I have the most intentional mental health regimen and personal boundaries she knows. Other people have also asked me to explain what those look like. To give a brief example, I have included a normal (or rather ideal) schedule of my work week, Monday-Friday, when I am home. When I am away from home, my schedule varies with more time given to things like writing, teaching, or networking in place of time with the family. But when I am away, these times for connection often still occur through Skype, FaceTime, and phone calls. I have also included some thoughts about my personal boundaries, in regards to focus, time, space, and energy.

My generally approach to mental health puts an emphasis on the domestic over the medical. I make time for cooking food that makes my body feel good, exercising, resting, praying, and connecting with my family. On the face of it, these things may not seem very exceptional. They may seem downright conventional or cliche. But I've found that most people don't spend the time or aren't allowed to spend the time on such cliche things like going for a daily jog or wrestling with an eight-year old. I get into periods when I am working so hard that these boundaries and routines are abandoned in favor of getting things done. But my mental and physical health tends to suffer almost immediately. By years of managing myself and my health, I have learned how much I really do need to maintain certain practices and boundaries to be more effective, more charitable in my disposition, and more joyful.

It is worth stating that these are things that work for me. I share them because I was asked. Also it was a bit fun to reflect and record them. They are descriptive of what I do for reasons that make sense to and for me, I do not offer them to be prescriptive for anyone else. Opening up up a window into a day in my life is an act that makes me vulnerable to criticism. What I do may not work or make sense to you. I eat meat. Many many people I respect and love do not eat meat. I don't drink alcohol (or very rarely). Many many people I respect and love to drink lots of yummy things. I jog. Many many people I respect and love don't or can't jog regularly. I pray. Many many people I respect and love don't pray or pray differently. Likewise, my boundaries make sense for how my mind and body work as well as how society tends to engage me. For others, my boundaries may seem insufficient or too limiting. In the end, I share this because I believe that honestly and openly being me will help others to honestly and openly be them. There might be some things here that inspire you and they might prompt you to realize or share some of the helpful things you do. In the ongoing conversation around mental health, let's be charitable and tender with one another! Thank you for reading.


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Normal (Ideal) Schedule
Monday-Friday


5:45 AM - Wake Up. Drive oldest child to bus stop at library.

    • Husbutch and I will take turns waking up or sleeping.

8:15 AM - Walk youngest child to bus stop at street corner.

    • Husbutch and I will take turns.

9:00 AM - Cook and eat breakfast 

    • Protein and peppers. I tend to avoid carbs for reasons of health and personal taste. Over easy eggs or occasionally sausage with various vegetables, especially poblano peppers, banana peppers, jalapeno peppers, onions, celery, carrots.
    • Recommended spice: salt, black pepper, smoked paprika, turmeric.

10:00 AM - Work
    • Write, read, lesson plan, respond to e-mails, grade.
    • Take breaks every 20-30 minutes to clean or organize.

12:00 PM - Pray
    • Daily Mass at a progressive Catholic Church on Tuesday and/or Thursday
    • Book of Hours, especially during Lent, Advent, Pentecost, Christmas, and Easter.
    • Going for a walk is a good informal alternative.

12:30 PM - Eat Lunch
    • At home: protein and salad. I prefer arugula and kale. Spinach is nice. Olive oil with balsamic vinegar, and salt to dress. Nuts and dried fruit if available. Cut onion. If meat was absent or light for breakfast, will prepare chicken or small lean steak.
    • Chicken recommended spice: turmeric, non-smoked paprika, granulized onion, granulized garlic. Serve with fruity and spicy hot sauce on the side.
    • Steak recommended spice: cumin, salt, black pepper, chili powder, diced onion. Serve with earthy and mid-range hot sauce on the side.
    • Left-overs from previous night's dinner are common replacements.
    • Sushi on Wednesday for Lunch Special Discount.
    • Polish Food on Friday with Husbutch.
    • Watch cooking show or talk show while eating.

1:00 PM - Work
    • Write (or revise morning writing), read, lesson plan (different class), respond to e-mails, grade (different class).
    • Try to shift to different form of work from the morning if possible.
    • Take breaks every 20-30 minutes to clean or organize.

3:00 PM - Jog
    • On high work days: listen to music. Allows for relaxation and creativity.
    • On low work days: listen to audiobook.

3:45 PM - Shower
    • Kids will arrive home from school during this time.

4:00 PM - Spend time with Kids
    • Kids will need about 30 min down time after school.
    • N. Bahr will want physical games. Tuesday and Thursday are Karate.
    • C. Bahr will want pop culture or art project engagement.

6:00 PM - Cook dinner
    • Kids will want carbs. Rice with beans or pasta.
    • Husbutch will want protein with no carbs. Dry rubbed chicken drum sticks, steak with minimal seasoning, or chili.
    • Include vegetables in creative forms. Family favorite is curried peas.
    • Cook larger amount if Uncle Mike will also join meal.
    • Light work while cooking: editing, reviewing work, reading posts or e-mails. Nothing that requires very much attention or else burned food will occur. 

7:00 PM - Eat Dinner
    • Bless food. Husbutch does it best but kids do it the most adorably.
    • Do "best parts of the day" with everyone present.
    • If no other adults are present, kids will ask me to watch a show for the later part of dinner. An episodes in our ongoing Power Rangers run is generally chosen.

8:00 PM - 9:00 PM - Bed Time
    • N. Bahr (the youngest) has an earlier bedtime and takes longer to get ready.
    • C. Bahr (the oldest) has a later bedtime and is quicker getting ready.
    • Read a book to the children. Selections include: Mama Gabby re-tells medieval literature with a queer feminist twist, Being Jazz, This Book is Gay, Animorphs, Twilight Saga, Wonder, Harry Potter, Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children.
    • Tell kids how much we love them.
    • Answer N. Bahr's late night musings about life, the universe, and everything.

9:00 - 10:00 PM - Work (Finish Up)
    • Review and revise writing, don't write anything new. Read light and short material. Don't grade at this point of the day. Avoid sending e-mails unless urgent.

10:00 PM - Midnight - Time with Spouse
    • Husbutch is usually home from meetings, work, or other activities at this point.
    • Husbutch will want to watch action or drama. Watch this earliest because otherwise they will pass out and I will be left unable to sleep.
    • I will recommend a comedy. Watching this later will often involve husbutch passing out midway and me laughing myself into rest.


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Boundaries


Focus
  • Work: When I sit down for a project, I devote a massive amount of attention and multiple levels of consciousness to it. On lower level tasks, keeping several tasks going at once will keep something small from becoming more complex than it needs to be. On higher level tasks, devote time and energy specifically for working on the one project to allow for some likely fixation. This fixation will take the form of endless revisions or alternative approaches. 
  • Family: I tend towards OCD and my family tends towards ADD. I will want to stay on a topic or project until it is complete, while my family will want to run multiple projects at the same time which often results in incomplete tasks. Breaking up family activities into small chunks allows for a sense of completion amidst the inevitable change in the weather of interest.
  • Friends: everyone has different needs and energies during social engagements. Being able to be intentional both about the focus I give and when it is time to change the subject or walk away will often result in better quality attention and less burnout. Often, when my husbutch is applauding me for taking care of my mental health is it because of witnessing my ability to limit engagement or to tactfully disengage from social situations in which I have hit my limit or which are taxing my energy and focus at an unsustainable rate. I am a believer in giving enough energy to people but not more than I know I can healthfully give.

Time

  • More time is better. Rushing results in poorer work and health. Crip time is slow in my viewpoint not because all forms of embodiment are necessarily sluggish but because allowing for many possible contingencies, revisions, and accessibility demands a greater amount of flex time. Rushing tends to result in less accessibility and care.
  • Be willing to say "no" or "not right now" to requests. If requests will create a time crunch that results in poorer quality work and working conditions then be willing to refuse them, withdraw from non-essential projects, or to push back deadlines.
  • Break up longer tasks into shorter goals. This will allow for flexibility in an uncertain future, making it easier to adjust as conditions, resources, interests, or feedback changes.
  • Rhythm is key. The body (including mind and emotions) is a living thing full of beats, compressions, releases, spikes, and dips. Being able to create an environment and workload that follows regular pacing helps to make harder tasks more manageable and boring tasks more interesting. 
Place
  • Work: because I tend to be more OCD and anxious, I need a work environment that has sufficient distractions and entertainment. This will interrupt the cycles of work or stress. Collectibles, non-work related books, pictures of family trips, and music or podcasts can help maintain a productive mood.
  • Outside of Work: because I am transgender, spaces can be dangerous for me. To create real and imagined safety, I tend to go to the same places on a regular basis. I eat at the restaurants, shop at the same stores, go for walks around the same routes. Over time, the population and staff of these areas get used to me. This acclimatization reduces conflict and may even result in unexpected allies, friends, or safe zones if danger arises.
  • Travel: because I cannot control a lot of the safety or comfort within places I travel, it is critical to find touchstones of both when I am away from home or work. People tend to stare or behave with increased rudeness towards me in places of public transit. I tend to prefer better ranked hotels because the staff is often better trained to deal with non-normative guests. Spending more for a taxi or hotel, and spending more time to walk or rest are worth while investments in places that can be dangerous and/or exhausting. Traveling with a friend or colleague can help with both safety and comfort.

Energy (Intellectual)
  • Don't feel like you need to give an opinion on everything. Thinking deeply and critically is work. Consider social media and small talk another form of work, so avoid the unnecessary or unproductive variety. Other people will often say something better or be the better person to say something. Know when to speak and when to sit back to instead support other voices.
  • The majority of the time, most people just want to feel like someone hears them. Giving affirmations that you are listening and that someones words are valuable is key. People too often do not state or affirm they heard statements because they seem obvious. Too often obvious solutions to problems are missed because people do not say or listen to them.

Energy (Emotional)
  • Listening to, being present to, or witnessing to human emotion is labor. Feeling things is like working a muscle. I wouldn't sprint for 20 minutes without slowing down or taking breaks to walk and stretch, likewise emotional labor should be balanced with time alone or alternated with other emotions. A well timed joke, a sobering comment, an intermission to discuss another topic are all effective at maintaining and enduring longer emotional labor.
  • Time alone nearby trusted people is key. People exhaust me and I find it difficult to not notice the million emotional, intellectual, physical, and social signals people send off. As such, a space where I don't see or hear the many subtle signals allows me to disconnect and recover. However, I do not like being isolated or totally alone. An office space or neighboring room in which I can settle will allow me to recenter myself while still being within reach.

Energy (Physical)
  • Too much energy will result in higher anxiety. Increasing the amount of exercise helps with this. Solitude will help burn off extra physical energy that results from excessive emotional or intellectual conflict. Ironically, fast paced music will help organize the extra energy by acknowledging the surge rather than trying to ignore or eschew it.
  • Too little energy will result in a more depressive and sluggish state. Eating better or more often and sleeping more will help. Be aware that sleep is an investment. More efficient work and socializing can be done with better rest. Overtired or slugging work or socializing will take longer and be less effective.
  • C. Bahr and husbutch prefers lower energy activities for longer periods.
  • N. Bahr prefers higher energy activities for shorter periods.

My Body
  • This is a whole post to itself, given how people can have varyingly healthy and unhealthy attitudes towards trans women's bodies.

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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
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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. 


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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. 


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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. 


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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. 


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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.”

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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
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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.


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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. 


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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.

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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. 

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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.

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