Saturday, December 31, 2016

Noah's Queer Rainbow: Conversations with my Gender Fluid Child

"Be fruitful and multiply,
 abound on the earth and multiply in it"

Genesis 9:7

The Rainbow

I was jogging down the running path with our youngest riding beside me on their scooter. "We have to get home," I cried, "the rain is coming! The rain is coming!" Looking behind us, beyond the little drops of rain that came plunking down, the setting sun lit the clouds in a deep red with halos of autumn orange and gold.

"The fire sky will get us!" panted N. Bahr as they pushed in front of me on their scooter. For a few minutes we traded turns in the lead as I ran and they rode under trees and over a small bridge spanning a swelling river. We passed urban decay intermixed between and old barns. Periodically a mural would flash by, signatures of the Rails to Trails program that had reclaimed this stretch of old train route with paved paths and art. Just as we cross the river, the trees overhead opened up and before us rose the most brilliant and defined rainbow that I've ever seen. The rainbow began in the direction of our house, vaulted the sky, and then came down on the other side in the direction of the church where my partner is pastor.

"I need to get to the rainbow," they coughed in between labored breathes and laughter. "I'll beat you there!" I jogged until I could see the crest of the rainbow then stopped to just gaze. "You go!" I cried after them. "Keep riding Rainbow Rider! Keep riding!" As I caught my breath and watched my child race onward, I noticed a bigger, fainter rainbow framing the well defined one. Down the road Rainbow Rider stopped and waited for me. "Why did you quit running?" they asked. "Look!" I said, pointing to the second rainbow which looked like an bigger, older parent giving the brighter one a hug. For some time we just stood there staring, letting ourselves get wet. Rainbow Rider pulled close to me, letting me get the worst of the rain and cold wind. Then with a shove, they set back down the path. "Come on!" they cried. And we were off again, the Fire Sky behind and the rainbows ahead.

Where the running path meets the street on which we live, Rainbow Rider had stopped at a bench to catch their breath. By the time I arrived, the rainbows in the sky had faded into twilight. Taking the seat next to them, I said a rest was a good idea. "Can I ask you a question?" they prefaced before continuing right into the query. "When will you leave next?" I thought about my calendar for the semester. I had diminished my speaking engagements and workshops so we could save for the wedding, plus getting some writing done. "I have just one in a few weeks," I answered. "I'll only be gone for a weekend," I promised. "I miss you when you are gone," they told me, staring down and ahead across the path. "I'll always come back to you," I told them. This was an affirmation of a promise I made a few nights earlier when they asked me what would happen if Mama R. got sick and died. They had wanted to know if I would still be there to care for them. "Always," I said. Then they asked what if someone attacked me with a gun or knife and I died. "My love for you won't go away," I said, "even though you won't see me around." That was what was going on in my mind as we sat on the bench. I could only guess what was in theirs. 

"The rainbow is gone," they observed, getting up from the bench. "But not Rainbow Rider!" I said jumping up. They gave me a defiant competitive look. "I'll beat you home!" they said as they pushed off down the road. Yes, they did beat me home.


M.W. Bychowski with child under rainbow

The Covenant

Memories are funny things, they are vehicles that remind us that we are creatures at once of time and out of time. There are people that we are that no longer emerge into the world. The children that once thought our thoughts have been replaced by adults who remember the children's thoughts. The world that made us has passed and we live in a new strange world. We can be caught in the dysphoria of the then and the now, observing both, feeling both, existing in both, yet somehow discordantly not entirely in either. Such moments with our child as running through the rain, under mother and child rainbows will be with me as long as I live yet in another form. The distinctiveness of the moment fades away from me as another version rises to meet me full of meanings and connects that speak to my current concerns. The work of putting these oral conversations and histories into text works like a rainbow from scripture, to inscribe them in the sky like a covenant. The world changes, yet this will be a last reminder of a hard and hopeful moment. Even as the tone of the words shift to match our current moods and modes of speech, yet the promises we made will remain. I will return to these promises as I promised to return to my child. Time moves on and moves us with it, yet the covenant, signs, and memories bring us back together again. We change and yet we remain bound together. Previously, I considered the flood and ark as dialectical movements that carry us forward while retaining the past. Now, we might consider the rainbow as a sign that moves us backward while retaining our progress. By these covenants and constant returns we can judge how far we have gone. By these rainbows we recall where we have been and where we are going.

Noah's rainbow spans time. The bow in the sky is a covenant about the future but also a solid line that demarcates the past as a time that will never come again. In Genesis, God declares a promise to all those on the Ark, "I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth” (Genesis 9:11-17). What God has done will not happen again. New terrors, new challenges but not the same as before. God, says C.S. Lewis, never does the same thing twice. As a contract, God sets the promise of change in the foundation of the most unchanging thing, God's self. This is a contradiction that runs through our lives, especially those of trans or queer children. The biggest changes on the surface of our lives can be made to reflect an unrevealed constant within us. Alternatively, deep shifts in our hearts can occur while our faces remain static and cold. Destruction is one face of change. It looks back and honors the absences that remain with us. The other face of change is growth. It looks forward at what might arise in this new world. This side of the rainbow comes with the covenant, "be fruitful and multiply, abound on the earth and multiply in it" (Genesis 9:7). God promises new terrors but also new fruits that are not the same as the old. These fruits may be unrecognizable to those who have survived the flood. We look for the goods we know and lack, too often at the expense of the goods we have been given. These fruits do not replace the old in the sense of erasing them. They are a turn in the road that continues on but in a different way. They may lead us across horizons that were not those we once gazed toward. The loss is real but so is the growth. This does not give the comfort we might want it to give. The rainbow after the flood is both a tragedy and a hope.

Millenia after Noah's story was first set on record, the Rainbow of the Covenant was claimed by the trans and queer community. The rainbow flag was adopted by the LGBTQI movement in the 1970's, after Harvey Milk reportedly challenged the flag Gilbert Baker to create a symbol for the movement. The design was inspired by Julie Garland's song, "Over the Rainbow," which was being played on the radio during the Stonewall Riots because of the singer's recent death. Baker also suggest that the flag in part reflected the colors of the free love sexual liberation movement. The flag rose to prominence after a series of tragic moments, the attack on the Stonewall Inn, Harvey Milk's assassination, and the AIDS epidemic. Like Noah's rainbow, the flag rose in the sky to mark a great loss in the world and to promise perseverance into the future. After the terrible culling of the community, the flag became a way the survivors declared that they would fight to make sure such a horror happened again in the same way. This pledge is not made in unthinking faith. We do not passively depend on divine forces to intervene on our behalf. Even Noah's rainbow covenant comes with the command that none should shed the blood of fellow humans. This means holding accountable those who enact violence against us, either directly as by the assault of bullets and raids or passively by denying life-saving care. "Whoever sheds the blood of a human, by a human shall that person’s blood be shed," instructs God (Genesis 9:6). Scripture will later call for mercy on the side of the wronged avengers, yet the rainbow here is as strict and cold as one that has recently suffered great loss and injustice. Violence incites violence. Riots are the voice of those who have been silenced too long by their oppressors. Yet more than anything, the rainbow flag shares the sentiment on which the command is given, "for in his own image God made humankind" (Genesis 9:6). Each life is a unique image of the divine and irreplaceable. Violence done against the other is violence done against the self. The flag is not only a statement that "I" am queer but that we are queer as humans. There is an ignored and silenced queer element in our community that needs to be given a voice. At its heard, the flag is both a threat and a promise.

The anxiety of those who feel restless at the rainbow flag flying in our home is warranted. The flag is a sign of our restlessness. The flag is a sign that violence will not be endured and the status quo will not remain. The rainbow flag was the second flag my family bought for our flag room. Although the Black Lives Matter is growing in prominence, the Pride Flag remains the most recognizable of the three. Shortly after we began flying the rainbow, a young local man was making a few bucks shoveling our driveway. When the Reverend went down to thank him and offer him some money, he gestured to the flag and asked, "are you a part of the family?" At first she didn't know exactly what he meant. "I'm a B," he added. She thanked him, told him the story of our family, and said he was welcome anytime to visit our home or her Church. This is often how queer community fulfills the incentive to "be fruitful and multiply." Not always by procreation are new members or worth added. As Kathryn Bond Stockton writes in the Queer Child, queer family often grows sideways. We join together out of the masses. Those who do not fit into the normative world find one another and create their own garden of life and liberty. In this way, the rainbow is not only a sign of the command to multiply, it is a vehicle by which growth occurs. The flag was flown to bear such fruit in the form of new relationships. Among a community of oppressive and prejudiced norms, the flag tells others who would resist that we are still here. In a community that tolerates gays and lesbians only if they conform to sexist, racist, homophobic, transphobic heterosexual standards, the flag is a way we remain queer. The flag insists that we may live together but we are not all the same. The flag as the statement, "we're here, we're queer, get used to it" is well known. But in times of loss and danger, the flag is also the statement, "we're still here, we're still queer, whether or not you are used to it yet." The flag refuses peace, if that means submitting to unjust and oppressive norms. The flag insists that without justice there will be no peace. The rainbow remains both a sign of tragedy and hope, of threat and promise, of loss and change.


M.W. Bychowski's flag room

The Ankh

"Do you know what this symbol means?" I asked our youngest as they flopped down on the mattress we keep beside the bed for when they get scared at night and want to be close to us. 

"Yes!" they replied. "Peace."

"Close, it means Life," I said. "This is a daily reminder that life goes on and on, even when things seem scary and like nothing will be the same again."

"Do you really think life goes on and on?" They asked.

"I do." I replied sitting down on the mattress next to them. "But not always in the way it has before. Things change."

"Do you think we go away forever?" they asked.

"I'm not sure where exactly but I think we will be together," I confirmed.

"I think we get to come back and live a different life," they added.

"That is possible," I muse. Then getting a playful grin on my face, I began to tickle them on the side. "You could become a dog..." I tickle the other side. "You could become a bird..." I tickle under their arm.

"Or I could come back and be a boy," they said once their giggles settle down. "Or transgender."

"Those are great things to be," I told them and gave them a big momma bear hug until they pushed away imitating a gagging sound. The moment of anxiety and ponderousness had passed. The conversation about life and death, change and identity had culminated in something between cuddling and wrestling. Now they were just trying to pin me to the ground. Whatever life or lives lay ahead of this child, what is certain is that they will consider it deeply, bring their loved ones close, giggle ecstatically and fight ferociously. Those are great things for all of us to be. 



Read Part 1



Queer Dialectics of the Ark: Resolutions and Reflections of 2016

"I will blot out from the earth 
the human beings I have created"

Genesis 6:7

The Flood

The end of 2016 has become a sad joke, a figure of a year that wouldn't die and made everyone miserable in its old age. In some ways, this is a variation on the classic trope of New Year's as the old man of the past knocking on the grave, like the wizened figure from the Pardoner's Tale, while the new year arrives freshly pampered like an infant. The eyes of the old are weary and regretting while the eyes of the young are bright and promising. Yet 2016 has the distinction of never being very childish or cheerful, even in its youth. The beginning of the year was marked for many by the death of David Bowie, the musical legend and queer icon. A series of high profile deaths and tragedies followed throughout the year. There began to be a sense that if we could all get through December 31st, we will have made it onto the ark. Of course, this is a false sentiment. The end of the year will not be the end of death. Nor, judging by the trend of politics and social tensions, will there be a future free of tragedy. January 1st is not so very different from the previous day. Yet every year we approach the new year like a new start. That intention and myth is not without worth and effect. There is a method to the continual starts and restarts, even as the old folds into the new. This method is how we match our collective will to the onward force of time and change. By this method we work entropy into progress. By this method we mourn the dead and hope for new life. There is value to that. Indeed, looking back at 2016, this method - which I will identify with dialectical models of writing - seems to pervade the whole year. If it is true that we can die many deaths before the end, this was a year that challenged the continuity of time with frequent breaks, tragedies and traumas that broke down our sense of life and meaning. Each time we face these cataclysms, we were forced to find a way to keep living anyway. Although few want to return to 2016, there is a lesson to learn from it. It is the lesson of in tragedy, a lesson in survival, a lesson in rhetoric.

I sincerely believe that literary criticism and composition can save lives and change the world. I recall sitting on the train to Washington DC to teach the first class of 2016 to a room full of new students. Taking my seat, I turned on my cell-phone and turned it off a minute later. All over social media was the news that on this day, January 10th, David Bowie had died. Almost a year later, I still have difficulty perceiving this as a world without this Star Child in it. On that first day, I was in shock and didn't know how to even begin processing the tragedy. Faced with an introductory class in a few hours, I threw my grief into the lesson by doing what I often do when I am grappling with such pain: searching for meaning within literature. The terrible irony hit me that the one I most wanted to help me get through Bowie's death is Bowie himself. In that spirit, I began this seminar on Transgender and Social Justice with a music video of Bowie and Queen's "Under Pressure." This was a providential way to begin the course and the year as a whole. In this song, these trans and queer icons left us a lesson on how to live in the face of death and oppression. What do we do when we hear our friends crying "let me out?" Do we "turn away from it all" or "sit on the fence?" "It doesn't work," they inform us." This is a world without absolute security or places to hide. No matter where you go or how much you try to keep your head down and push on, you will have to recon with the hurt and the cries. You can wall yourself off but eventually the pressure will be too much and the flood will take you. The only way to face the pressure, say David Bowie and Freddy Mercury, is to face it head on with something that can out last tragedy and change the world: love. Yes, they admit, "Love is such an old fashioned word." The word and sentiment have been tried over and over again. The horrors keep on happening. Death keeps coming. But love is a dialectic, they say, "love dares you to care for the people on the edge of the night and love dares you change our way of caring about ourselves." Love is not a way to fix death or stop suffering but is a way to face it, fight it, and live amidst it. Love will not silence our opposition but it will give us a counter argument. Love is what must come next.

My favorite method of writing to teach is dialectic argument, a style of writing, narrating, and living that is all about integrating what has happened, what is happening, and what comes next. The structure establishes an argument (thesis), introduces a counter-argument (antithesis), then arrives at a conclusion that continues the argument but takes the counter-argument into account (synthesis). I organize my lesson plans to follow this rhythm. One week will introduce an idea, grounded in one book or one part of a book. The next week we explore a competing idea from the same period, place, or text. The third week we conclude the section by considering how a third text or part of the text attempts to resolve the tension between these ideas. We consider how the synthesis works and how it fails, introducing a nascent thesis and antithesis which usually is the segue into the next section. The paper which comes at the end of the section or the next section likewise is supposed to follow a dialectic and engage in the texts we study. Usually the prompt is not so simple as to generate a rehash of the same thesis, antithesis, synthesis we explored in class but is tight enough to encourage them to use the various points and counter-points we discussed. By asking them to engage with a counter-argument, I hope to teach them compassion for topics they may dislike or an ability to criticize a topic they do enjoy. While books that make us very sad or angry often provoke the sharpest arguments, I try to steer them to critique subjects for which they have some love. Critiques tend to be the most useful and respectful when the critic approaches the text with the sensibility of a friend offering loving advice. When you see some good in the text but want it to be better, to fulfill missed opportunities, and live out its potential, then those who read the argument tend to be more open to the criticism. Also the argument tends to be more measured, nuanced, and specific. Afterwards, by offering our own synthesis of ideas, productive criticism that says "yes and..." or "yes however," we can appreciate how hard it is to resolve these conflicts while also pushing others to generate more goodness.

The last month of Spring classes saw the death of Prince, offering my students one more chance to consider the work of rhetoric before the final paper. Just as he had done in the first class, we watched a landmark performance of Prince: Let's Go Crazy. "Dearly beloved," coos the Artist, "we are gathered here today, to get through this thing called life." A queer icon famous for playing with gender and sexuality in his art and life, Prince knew the great cost of living on through the tragedy of the everyday. Yet his was not a song of despair or stoic perseverance. Prince got through this thing called life by imagining something better than life as it was then bringing others together to share this vision. "Electric word life, it means forever and that's a mighty long time" continues Prince, marking the feeling of excitement and anxiety, purpose and weariness in our enduring existence. "But I'm here to tell you, there's something else," he adds, "the after world." For Prince, the after world is not the same as merely living on through life or death. The after world is "something else" of another kind. "The after world," is what comes next. Imagining such a world is critical in the work of moving from persisting to progressing. Dreaming of, looking for, and working towards "something else" is how we move on after monotony and trauma, beyond life and death. In the wake of Prince's death, we need the promise of "something else" for those of us still trying, "to get through this thing called life." From Bowie and Prince we receive songs and rhythms that progress us forward, a method, a dialectic.  Proceeding through Spring semester 2016 with my Transgender and Social Justice class was full of hardships and each time a new wave hit us I tried to get my students to put it into their reading and writing. Dialectical methodologies are all about introducing something new and different. Dialectics are all about conflicting ideas, persons, and movements. By taking such an approach to literature, we saw how all narrative is in some form of an argument where conflicting forces are attempting to resolve some tension. Taken in this way, our music and literature turns from a flat, self-enclosed object of study into an active agent that seeks to engage in the world. Our stories call us to engage with them with the promise that through them we might find a method to carry on.



The Ark

The story of Noah's ark is a lesson in God's rhetoric. A study of the Bible, starting with Genesis, reveals a dialectic structure to the narrative of God's people. Beginning with God's Creation of humanity, readers can perceive humanity's fall from grace as a counter-argument, a statement of alterity, that will be synthesized again and again in the later books where God seeks to save and liberate humanity from its mutually-imposed bondage. Yet stories can also be begun from a human perspective. Humanity finds itself created and in a garden not of its own making, generations faced with oppression and tragedy that they did not chose. From a human perspective God can seem to be the antagonist, time and again breaking into our ways of life and interrupting it, causing us to reevaluate and rebuild. A exemplary instance comes in the story of the Flood and Noah's Ark. If we begin with the perspective of humanity, life has been continuing apace when seemingly all of a sudden God brings upon the world a deluge that will wipe out all life on Earth. Working together with God, Noah synthesizes a solution with God's terror, the old world will pass away but a part of it will be preserved on a massive Ark. First, there is a dialectic debate between Noah and God, argument meeting counter-argument, and the Ark is the synthesis. Second, from this argument arises the embodiment of this dialectic: the argument of the world will face the counter-argument of tragedy and death to synthesize a future where the world will continue in an altered form. The effectiveness of this synthesis (however horrific it may be) is that it also answers the dialectic from God's perspective as well. God ordered a just humanity and world, the world fell into injustice, the flood and Ark together will bring about a justified world. This structural overview of the Bible, and the story of Noah's Ark in particular, establishes scripture not only as a mythic dialog but a dialectical argument. Noah's Ark is not merely a prop in a story but an embodiment of rhetoric. If we learn the lesson of Noah's Ark, we can apply this dialectic to our own tragedies.

Many readers and illustrators of the Noah's can't help but focus on the animals. While the humans are our direct stand-ins, our mythic ancestors, the animals in and out of the ark tend to get the focus in medieval liturgical plays and manuscripts drawings. There is something more sympathetic about the animals. They did not cause or deserve the punishment of the Flood, yet their destruction or survival is decided on by divine and human forces not their own. While scripture focuses on humanity, it is difficult to read the animals as inconsequential. The decision to save some of them is one sign of their value. The decision to save more of some kinds of animals and less of others is a sign that the animals do not all have the same value. God instructs Noah, "Take with you seven pairs of all clean animals... and a pair of the animals that are not clean... and seven pairs of the birds of the air also" (Genesis 7:2-3). Despite illustrations and common understandings that the Ark contained two of every animal, it did not. The repetition of the phrase "two by two" perhaps contributed to this misunderstanding. Among the animals, there would be a total of fourteen members of "clean" species and only two members of "not clean" species. This distinction is generally understood as those animals that are good to eat, use in work, and sacrifice in contrast with those who are not. Again, not only do the animals have no word in the argument of who will die and who will be saved, they have no word in determining which groups will have a greater level of security and which will be abandoned. Many marginalized and oppressed people understand that the aid or disregard they possess is often determined by others and often distributed based on who will be most useful to those in power. By identifying as the animals, we enter into a larger debate: who among us are the "clean" ones who will be given a greater degree of life and who among us are considered the "unclean" ones whose existence will be minimally tolerated? Are we the sheep or the snakes?

In the wake of LGBTQI rights activism, more plays and illustrations of Noah's Ark have appeared imagining why there are no unicorns in the world. The unicorns, imagined as gay icons, were not allowed in the ark because when they arrived two by two they were in sets of men and men or woman and woman. Not fitting the compulsory statute for heterosexual breeders, the unicorns were left to die. Many of those who lived and died in the AIDS epidemic may identify with these unicorns, abandoned to perish in a natural tragedy while those in power condemned their deaths as the just vengeance of an angry God. Currently, the transgender community may feel they have missed the boat with suicide rates of near or beyond 50% and a steadily increasing rate of homicide. People of color may likewise understand what it means for those in gated communities to exclude and abandon them, allowing only "the good ones" to enter their safe zone if and when they are useful. In election seasons in the United States it is easy to feel like the Ark is being built for the next four to eight years and the politicians are choosing which groups will get a greater or lesser place in their respective futures with entrance contingent on the groups willingness to be helpful to them. When one of the two Arks (candidates/parties) fails, the other Ark may mock those who do not have a preferential place in their establishment. Indeed, the rhetoric that allows certain Arks to win is on the basis of what groups will be considered "clean" and what "unclean" groups will be left to die or culled then domesticated. Countless candidates have offered dominant groups a larger representation in the Ark while promising to drive marginalized groups (the queers, feminists, Muslim and Jewish populations, immigrants, people of color, people with disabilities) into the flood waters. Every four years or so the dialectic of the Ark is performed on a national stage, incorporating many of the arguments and counter-arguments being lived out every day around sex, transgender, racism, religion, science, and animal rights. For this reason, many of us may have lost faith in the Ark and its promises for a brighter future for some, at the expense of the rest.

For those who survive, who make it onto the proverbial Ark, we may question the great cost and value of this survival. For us unicorns and snakes, we question the justice of living to see a new year when so many of our friends, family, and community members have perished. By the flood, the ruler of the world, "blotted out every living thing that was on the face of the ground, human beings and animals and creeping things and birds of the air; they were blotted out from the earth" (Genesis 7:23). Whole communities, arguments, and ways of life have been blotted out. Voices and songs have been silenced as violence choked and drowned them. We have heard their fear, anger, and sadness. Now we hear only the faint echoes in our ears and hearts. What makes us one of those many or few who get to enter into this new future? Are there not those we admire who die? Have we not lost those who might have done more for the world than we? We may think of many who are cleaner, more useful, and deserving of life than us, yet they are among those we lose as we continue on living. The future is ours but it should have been theirs. Or at least a great portion of the future should have been theirs. Because theirs would have been a better future, a brighter future, a future needing fewer floods and with bigger more inclusive arks. Who are we that survive? What will we do with this unfair gift and debt? Who am I to stand here in the place of transgender siblings who died by the terror of suicide, abandonment, and murder? Who am I to walk away from my encounters with police when my black counter-parts are wheeled away to the morgue? Where is the justice in the Ark? Where is the goodness in the choice and choosers? Those who have passed will not live to account the value of their deaths or see justice in this world. Nor might we ever understand our own survival or see the end of the story. The fullness of time is not ours but we will live to see many different kinds futures. The dialectic will continue. New counter-arguments and new syntheses. We will not see the end of the argument but by being a part of the debate we can shape who the conversation carries forward the meaning of the past. We can teach the world to revalue those who were not chosen for any Ark. We can tell stories that revalue their deaths. We can enter their arguments back into discussion. By taking the Ark as a rhetoric lesson, we can learn how to live out the dialectic the future needs and our history demands.



The Flag

On Christmas 2016, I received a model of Noah's Ark for my desk. Currently, it is in my office being steered by a little lego figure of me that my partner created. This is a bit of a joke, as she recognizes my office as a bit like my ark where I manage my stress about the world and work with others to get more us through the flood. Like those running around the ark plugging holes, I recall have to explain my simultaneous disappearance from an active public life and the look of barbed intensity when I would be spotted outside the home. During this time, it was all hands on deck in the transgender community. The Trans Lifeline reported an all time high of over 1,000 calls by the end of November. At this time, the usual method of Transliterature changed from meditative pieces on literature to a communications avenue just for getting resources from those who wanted to help and to those who could help.  Back in November, when the future of the United States became covered in the floods of hate and fear, I was utterly uncertain which of us would make it onto the boat. Too many didn't. The Transgender Lifeline is a service whereby the trans community and allies takes care of our most vulnerable. On election night, the lines were almost drowned as hundreds of calls inundated with tragedy. Their voices were among those pleading to Noah to be saved as tides of violence and antagonism were on the rise. Not everyone makes it onto the ark and not everyone survives the past the damage done by the counter-argument. We do what we can. We initiate contingency plans and open our doors to those in need of somewhere to weather the storm but we cannot change the world over night. For some time, we will continue try to stay afloat or swim. We have been in this boat before. In ways, we never left it. Many of us have lived through floods before. Yet this experience at seafaring is no assurance that we will make it through this deluge. Nor is there confidence that we will have a place in the world when the storm recedes. This is where symbols again become important. 

Beyond signs like arks that keep us going, flag are another way that we communicate to one another, assert our arguments, organize, and reclaim the world. My partner and I were standing in our closet-office, discussing the place white supremacy, Neo-Nazis, and the KKK would have in the new world. I see more of the town I live in while I go for jogs. Along the way I see confederate flags raised. There are those who try to reclaim these flags by saying that they represent "southern pride" not slavery or white supremacy.  But you can't reclaim the flag which flew in defense of slavery. You can't erase that. And white supremacy is all about pride for "our (white) people." This is hardly an argument or counter-argument. Arguments can be integrated into a dialectic, add some good. But this is too poisonous. This doesn't play fair. This lies and rewrites history, because history and morality is not behind it. This is how the flood of ignorance works. Ignorance is not only about a lack of knowledge but a willing refusal to acknowledge truth. Ignorance is about ignoring the truth. Hate steers with the gut and clouds the mind. Like a storm and flood it causes trauma, making it hard to determine what is up and what is down. Hate incites desperation when there is enough room on the ark or land for us to share. The confederate flag is not an argument, it is the breakdown of arguments. White supremacy is not a sign of strength but of weakness, the oppressor excusing their actions because they cast themselves as the oppressed. White supremacy is not an argument, it is an ignorant refusal to engage in the facts and reason that define arguments. All it has is storms and floods, flags and hate, gut feelings and swinging arms. In the midst of discussing our concerns in the office, my partner and I concluded, "no, not within these walls. In this home, we follow a better thesis." The decision was made to buy a transgender and gay pride flag, as well as a Black Lives Matter flag.  In the first case, they would be our way of saying to ourselves, this is who we are. In the second case, in this world no one can assume we are not racist, anti-transgender, anti-queer, anti-feminist, antisemitic, anti-Islam, or anti-immigrant. Quiet passivity is not going to make the world a better place.

The flags came out at different times and received different reactions. The first one to be pinned in our front room window was the transgender pride flag, boasting stripes of pink, blue, and white. Most people who drove by probably don't know what it is. That didn't matter right away. The flag was for us and for those who knew what it was. Next came the rainbow LGBTQI pride flag. This one people would recognize but would arouse too much fuss. The last addition to be put up in the flag room (newly named) was our Black Lives Matter (BLM) flag. Our support for the movement was nothing new and we deserve no attention for it. The message is the thing that will be read, not us. And when we do appear in the frame (or window) there is a value in a predominantly white town to see a white family speaking out against racism. More than the two flags that came before it, in this town a BLM flag gets a reaction. We have already been asked by our landlord to take down the flags. He says he refuses to help us or pay to fix his property if we are targeted and attacked. Indeed only a few weeks before we moved into house, there was a rash of swastikas drawn across the town. Others in the town have commented, "how could they [our family] bring that into a nice peaceful town like this?" Peaceful here means white supremacy that denies that it is racist. The Blue Lives Matter banners fly over the town center. Of course black lives and police lives can both matter, by such banners make it clear what side of the debate they are on (if there needs to be sides) and whose lives are more valued here. To say otherwise is to start a fight because the assumption is that white supremacy has won. The flags of white supremacy are all around us in different forms. I have little use for those I consider good people but with a dearth of courage. What good is your goodness if you don't flex it for others? As I have observed, often this unwillingness to be brave comes not from too much fear but too little. Those with the privilege of security have the capacity to go through life without much significant danger. Safety is not an evil itself. But too much safety is a crutch that trains us to unconsciously and compulsively defer to the violent systems that cage the submissive and destroy the defiant. This evil unjust peace is why we will not take down the flags. This turf is not securely colonized, it remains up for debate. The debate is underway. A rainbow rises above the flood and the dialectic continues.

On this new year, I feel like Noah in the Holkham Bible (c.1320), looking out of the ark at the end of the storm and with a bird in each hand. The raven will not return with good news (Genesis 8:6-8). The dove will come back with a sign of hope (Genesis 8:9-13). It is clear that Noah is more hopeful, as he gazes toward the dove in the illustration. But what can I see? What does my figure see from the Ark in my office? What word of hope can I share from this perch? There are times I turn up like Noah's dove, with an olive leaf in my mouth, prophesying a new world if only we can hold on and fight our way there. Other times I feel like Noah's raven, flying off into the dark without any good news to share. I must admit that there were times in 2016 that I did not have much hope to offer those in the Ark. Like the raven, I saw the many lives with their heads below water. The Holkham illustration makes clear the cost of such widespread wrath. More of those who were abandoned by the ark are visible in the image than the privileged few who were included. In the lower right hand corner, we see the raven sitting on the drowned corpse of a horse. It is hard to bring back news of a bright future when so much has been lost and will never return. Indeed, this year that began with the death of the Star Child (turned Black Star) David Bowie ends with the death of Star Wars General and Princess Leia. Our heroes have passed away just as the world ahead looks ever more dismal. Yet the nature of our work on transgender, disability, and medieval literature involves digesting a lot of death with the aspiration of biting onto a nugget of hope I try to function more like a dove than a raven. Where is our olive branch? How do we become like the dove in the bottom left corner, finding new life amidst the desolation?  Let us remember that the first dove Noah sends out finds no dry ground. The dove finds much the same as the raven. Yet the dove returns. Then Noah waits and tries again. The raven despairs. The raven rejects the logic of the ark. The dove keeps trying even when there is no hope in sight. The dove tries, fails, and tried again, like the movement of a dialectic argument. That stubborn persistence and loyalty to each other may be our hope. This is not hope for any particular future. This hope is a rejection of the world that is, an assertion that the flood of hate will not get the final word. Our hope is our flag, a sign that whatever the future holds, we remain and the dialectic continues.



Read Part 2



Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Trans Saints: Imitatio Christi in The Last Time I Wore A Dress

“The more I talked to Jesus, the more I liked him, 
and the less crazy he seemed. 

Dylan Scholinski
The Last Time I Wore A Dress

Imitation as Counter-Reality

Imitation is not only a matter of performance but embodiment and circumstances. In "Body Talk: Gestures of Emotion in Late Medieval England," Paul Murphy writes on how Christ fashioned the model by which the Imitatio Christi would follow in later generations. For Christ too, this was a process of engaging with and reacting to the world, to the point of suffering and death. "The cross forces Jesus to take on the shape of the cross," observes Murphy, "and as such, humankind are to be considered exemplars of that shape just as they are to imitate Christ's example" (Murphy 2016). Our bodies take on the shape of our sufferings. Imitatio Christi then is not only how we respond to God but how we respond to the world. The figurative cross-section is visible in how the Imago Tranvesti can move toward the Imago Dei at the same time that it is set apart and marginalized by the Imago Mundi. As a result, while postmedieval generations of trans persons may find themselves living outside of Christian community and faith, nonetheless they can come to share in the suffering of Christ (or Christ figures). In this way, while occupying a point in the modern era, trans persons can find themselves within a living narrative of medieval continuity. Murphy observes that for late medieval Christians, "It did not suffice to imitate Christ in his moral teachings, but rather it was demanded that a sensual and emotional activity be completed to better understand the sufferings of the Passion" (Murphy 2016). Unlike models of Christianity that emphasizes otherworldly purity, the Imitatio Christi of saints emphasize sharing a lived position of suffering and opposition to an unjust world. In this vein, one does not become a saint by excelling in worldly virtue but by opposing the norms of the world in ways that bring one closer to the suffering of others, particularly the suffering of Christ. Following this tradition within the hagiographic genre, Dylan Scholinski's memoir, the Last Time I Wore A Dress, surprisingly makes an overt move toward affirming an Imitatio Christi from within the secular circumstances of the mental hospital. For Scholinski is gifted with a chance to relate to a living Christ figure in the form of a fellow mental patient who believes himself to be Jesus Christ himself. Through their shared sufferings by a world that rejects them, the two form a conjoined Imitatio Christi and Imiatio Transvesti that gestures back toward a medieval tradition of imitation even as it responds to very modern circumstances.

Imitation gives a sense of counter-reality or non-reality. The madness of a man who claims to be Jesus Christ is diagnosed as disordered in this sense. It is not-real that he is Christ, therefore to live as though he is Christ is sick. Likewise, the "girl" who lives like a "man" is regarded as imitation of the same non-reality. Imitation as a form of fakeness is then the justification for the asylum locking up youths. Scholinski's memoir however argues against this understanding and argument on imitation. "Even if we'd looked up Gender Identity Disorder, I don't think anyone would have tried to fake it," Scholinski writes. "We knew the rules: pacing, screaming, hallucinating and vomiting were okay. Not okay was walking around with a scarf in your hair, for a boy, or being like me, a girl who never felt comfortable in a dress" (24). A man knows that he is not to say he is Jesus Christ unless he is Jesus Christ. A youth knows that he is not to live like a man unless he is a man. The rules are evident and understood. The other things Scholinski lists are also understood as unacceptable but for different and related reasons. Pacing, screaming, living out visions or fashion statements, even vomiting are all forms of resistance. They are ways that those incarcerated for being fake and unreal assert the reality and transgressive power. In screaming and vomiting the body literally unleashes their internal disgust with the reality being shoved down their throats. In pacing, as will explore shortly, the body walks and may even cross the limits of freedom. Imitation may be counter-real in another sense than non-real. Imitation may be a way of changing reality, asserting alternative ways of being, living, and relating.

The movement of people within the mental hospital causes unexpected relations to occur and over time patients and staff began to imitate one another. Indeed, at first Scholinski tried to assert a level of superiority and distance between himself and other patients. In this way, in his first encounters he imitated the role of staff more than fellow patient. "Being in a mental hospital was a boon for my counseling skills," writes Scholinski, "although after a while I got confused." Over time of meeting the personalities of the hospital, Scholinski began to like them and even began to question how alike they were or could be. A trans youth incarcerated with persons with different diagnoses put them all into similar positions, made similar demands, and forced them into similar routines. Likewise, as with many friendships, relationships with the other patients as peers brought Scholinski to regard himself more as an equal with them. Yet the more he began to associate and imitate other patients, the more the divide between himself and others, trans and mad, began to dissolve. He began asking how he appeared to others. "Maybe I don't know I'm insane," Scholinski wondered. "They don't know they're insane, so why should I know?" (20). After reflecting how life in a mad house made him question what madness actually is, Scholinski describes how the system reacted to such discussions arising between patients like him and Jesus. "The staff discourage this sort of questioning," writes Scholinski. "They liked the line between sane and insane to be perfectly clear" (19). The act of turning someone into a saint can be a transgressive move. In the eye of society, those who have been set apart are marginalized because they resist normative traits and values. The work of re-narrating the mad house into a place where one may meet Jesus Christ (or one representation of Him) and the mad as perhaps worthy of imitation turns the system of madness inside out. 



Imitation as Solidarity

"'I am Jesus,' he said. 'I Know it's hard to believe, but I am Jesus.'" What draws Jesus and Scholinski together is that both of them believe themselves to be persons that other people do not believe them to be. In the case of Scholinski, the butch soon-to-be trans man is isolated by a world that insists that he is (and should be) a girly girl. Jesus's case is more specific. Jesus is isolated by the world because they deny he is Christ. Ironically, the world also denied that Jesus Christ was who he said he was. In both cases, it is as much the belief of the patient as much as the disbelief (or alternative belief) of the doctors that set them apart from the rest of society. Despite the differences between Scholinski and this modern Jesus (or the biblical Jesus for that matter) there is a shared subject position: men who believe they are other than the world believes. Over time, this shared physical and social position turns into a shared ethos of resistance and support. They began to believe in each other. Scholinski writes, "the more I talked to Jesus, the more I liked him, and the less crazy he seemed. Zealous, but not dangerous. I could imagine him in the outside world, preaching. He'd probably help some people." The argument that Scholinski employs here is a traditional one in the transgender community as well as Christianity: 'so what if you don't believe what I believe? If it makes my life better and doesn't hurt others, what harm is it in letting me be?' Jesus offers the trans youth a way of believing in themselves and affirming others. Beyond their ontological claims, these assertions for alternative networks of care and support when the authorized system turns against those under its care. If the world regards them as disordered sinners, they will be saints for one another.

Sharing in the discourse of Jesus, the trans youth begins to imitate him in various ways, forming a unique kind of Imitatio Christi. A signature feature of this Jesus (much like the Jesus of the Bible) was that he was an unstopping walker. Jesus would walk the halls to the limit of his capacities. In this walking, Scholinski followed Jesus. "A couple times I paced with him, down the long corridor and back, for exercise," recalls Scholinski. "I wanted to help him. I was always this way, helping my friends. I thought of myself as a roving counselor. It kept people a nice distance away from my problems." Scholinski finds that by helping others he is helping himself. Maybe by saving others (in a way) from the harm of this place, he could save himself. Regardless of why he did it, the walking itself taught the trans youth a valuable way of liberation. The walking was a sign of transgression against beging caged. It helped them imagine and prepare themselves for the day that those walls would not be able to contain them. "Escape was something we all talked about," admits Scholinski. "It was a sign of sanity; it was a statement, I am not one of these people, I am not a mental patient" (51). By imitating this mad Christ's physical actions, the mad trans youth imitated his mental actions as well. In the walking was the statement that they could not be contained. They could not be contained forever by physical walls, nor could they be contained by the walls of diagnosis and marginalization. Like a form of prayer, even if this habit did not magically give them what they wanted instantly, it did prepare them and instill in them a form of resistance. The walls and staff kept them bordered yet within these restrictions they could exercise a degree of freedom and life. Set apart from the world, they could create their own world and walk every square inch of it. While they could not cross the boundaries that separated them from those outside, they could at least cross the boundaries that separated them from each other.

The saner Jesus seems to Scholinski, the more mad he fears he has become. Scholinski considers this dillemna without coming to a firm conclusion. He asks, "If I thought he was sane what did that make me? Mental hospitals are rife with this kind of debate. Are people like Bob [a.k.a. Jesus] simply more sensative than the rest of us? Bombarded with information, the delusioned find it hard to function in the world, but is that their fault or the world's?" Deconstructing the definitions and boundaries of madness, the trans youth becomes habituated to skills that will indispensible in preserving his own sense of truth. Are transgender persons insane and disordered or are they simply more sensitive than the rest of us? Bombarded with information, the dysphoric find it hard to function in a world of fixed and binary genders. But is that the fault of the trans youths or the world? This alternative way of thinking and living is attractive for those set apart by society. Scholinski admits to imitating Jesus even to the extent of claiming to sharing in his visions. "I used to hear voices," Scholinski told him. "That wasn't true, but I didn't want him to feel alone. Plus, I wanted to fit in" (19). Rather than making fun of him through sarcasm or trickery which assert the non-reality of Christ's understanding of himself, Scholinski's claim of sharing in the visions of Jesus is rather an attempt at solidarity. The trans youth wants Jesus to know he is on his side; and, he admits, to try to get Jesus on his side. By reaching out to Jesus, Jesus reaches back towards Scholinski. Much like the Jesus Christ of the Bible, the Jesus Christ of the Mad House challenges others to cross borders and identify with the isolated and marginalized. Whether either Jesus was right about their personal ontological or metaphysical claims, this does not mean that their ethical and social critiques are not valid. The Jesus that Scholinski meets offers him a way of life to imitate that could lead him to make the world a more sensitive and just place.



Imitation as Resistance

Whereas the Imago Dei affirm the diverse creative power of God, the Imitatio Christi affirm the agency among persons to transform their lives and that of their community. The work of imitation brings alternative forms of life and community together, the authorized systems will exert the supremacy of their definitions and boundaries. By affirming the same in the other, imitation can be an act of solidarity and resistance. While often tolerated, the subversive defiance of Jesus's continuous walking was did not go unnoticed by the hospital workers. Scholinski recounts one night when the conflict between patients and staff burst into violence, challenging the contingent alliance established between Jesus and the trans youth. Scholinski explains, "they went after after Jesus because he wouldn't go into his room at bedtime. He kept pacing" (33). The physical control and isolation of patients was an exercise of power whereby the normitizing establishment worked to control and isolate disruptive spirits. "Three guards held him down on the floor and Jesus whipped his body around, screaming and crying. This guards swore at him. It was nasty," recounts Scholinski (33). Each movement of Jesus's body was an material act of resistance much like his continued assertion of the man he is was an internal act of defiance. Yet the force of putting him on the ground as well as the shoving around his body showed how the medical system could curtail even these movements. The dangerous persistence of the system was that it could be in one moment fixed and in another moment fluid while retaining a degree of control on the body being disciplined. Jesus could yell and twist but we could not escape the firm hands of the hospital. The battle to put Jesus into his room was an assertion that the staff could put the man in his place in a variety of ways and senses. The momentary restricting of Jesus relates to the logic of the asylum as a whole: the hospital has a right to hold the bodies of patients and to assert ever more isolated control. The time specific enforcement of power (asserting a bedtime) likewise related to the overall authority of the hospital to remove the patients from the general population for a given amount of time. The removal from public time and community is imitated in the removal from the time and community within the hospital between patients such as Jesus and Scholinski.

The attempt to isolate and divide Jesus and Scholinski from each other are met by resistance between the bond formed during the regular walks prompts the trans youth to stand in solidarity with his companion. "Another patient, I don't remember who, ran over with me to help Jesus. We yelled, Leave him alone, he's not hurting anyone," recalls Scholinski (33). Ironically, the demand to "Leave him alone" reflects the goal of the staff in one way. The hospital intends on isolating Jesus from the others, inhibiting his ability to walk and talk with them and inspire their imitation of his transgressive spirit. Yet in another way Scholinski's demand inverts the meaning of the isolation. While the hospital removed Jesus and the trans youth from the general population, setting them apart, it also allowed for them to form an alternative community and become saints for one another. Indeed, this night, they would become momentary martyrs for Jesus. "A guard with huge arms wrestled me to the floor and put his black leather boot on my head," recounts Scholinski (33). Because the imitation of Jesus did not stop at walking and talking together, the trans youth's decision to stand by his friend results in him receiving similar punishment. While subdued, the act of resistance forced the hospital to extend their energy threefold.  Scholinski admits that the hospital staff spoke their message louder. "He stood over me for a long moment to make sure I understood who held the power," Scholinski recounts. "I understood. 'Shut up, you fucking crazy queer,' he said" (33). Much like the tradition of imitating Christ by "turning the other cheek," the act of others taking and multiplying the punishment was a way to shame the medical staff. The imitation was a message that there are alternative ways of living, understanding, and enacting power. While Jesus and the trans youth were insane by the standards of the medical staff, the staff was out of line by the standards of the patients. As Scholinski repeated several times in various ways, Jesus being Jesus, like the trans youth being a trans youth, wasn't hurting anyone. "So what if Jesus wouldn't go into his room?" Scholinski asks. "He was peaceful until they arrived" (33). In this moment that the hospital staff was asserting the supremacy of their Imago Mundi, the Imago Transvesti and Imitatio Christi worked together to offer a peaceful alternative. Who are the ones that need to be physically restrained: the ones going for a night walk or the ones beating children?

The scene demonstrates the way and the cost of Imitatio Christi for transgender saints. Yet it the narrative also opens up for others to join in the imitative act of solidarity. The invocation of a nameless other person, "Another patient, I don't remember who, ran over with me to help Jesus," works much like the unnamed "Beloved Disciple in the Gospel of John" wherein the reader can imagine themselves running to Jesus's aid (33). The Imitatio Christi of Dylan Scholinski is not without dangers nor is it normatizing in the way the Christ of his wider society has become. Standing beside one another can be taking blows meant for another. "The next day my neck and shoulder were so sore the nurse gave my Tylenol," recalls Scholinski (33). In a hospital where medicine is regulated, especially for those with recorded drug transgressions, the gift of pain killers is both an act of care and erasure. The medicine is an act of forgiveness but also a reward for a patient who has returned to following the rules. Just as how the removal of pain smoothes over the materials consequence of the defiance, the act of care works to reassert relations between patient and hospital, oppressed and oppressor, after a swift blow to divide the relations between patient and patient. The immediate force of the violence followed by the lingering memory of the pain can secure the system in silence. "In the meeting we didn't mention Jesus being beaten up" remembers Scholinski (33). Nonetheless, Tylenol is not a very powerful drug. Nor is the act of care able to make all things right and peaceful again. The pains will persist and the memory will be retained until a time that voice can be given to both of them. In this way, through the trans hagiography the veil of silence is lifted. Old wounds are reopened and at last the pain is able to speak. Years after Jesus and Scholinski were divided, the pattern of their relationship continues, offering a model of imitation for other oppressed groups to follow. Even if one is not Christ or a trans man, one can embody the same form of resistance and community through a shared suffering in the Imitatio Christi.



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on Transgender Saints