Saturday, April 30, 2016

Theology of the Unseen: Transgender Women in Men's Faith Groups

“When clerics sought me … 
They bade me care diligently for the talent 
which God had committed to my keeping”

Peter of Abelard

What is transgender theology? Who gets to write trans theology? When does transgender theology begin? These are questions deeply invested in my academic research on transgender saints, pilgrims, confessions, and eunuchs in the middles ages and today. Yet as in my scholarship, I ask these questions in my daily life and writing not only for the sake of educating others but in order to navigate my own way through a world with churches, jobs, bathrooms, and classrooms continually announcing that they are not made nor meant for me. The call for the ideal and the normative has been sent out, yet it is those such as me who arrive. This meal was not laid out for us and yet we are hungry. And the hungry will feed, even if we must appropriate, share, and make places of our own. We scavenge together a transgender theology not because our path was destined to be different but because when our road was blocked, we found other ways. Or else we smuggled ourselves in caravans claimed by cisgender (non-transgender) persons. As a result of millennia of hard travels, we account in our histories much that is familiar and much that is not. We too sat at the feet of Socrates and fought beside Joan of Arc. And we have sat alone in monasteries and the cells of mystics. Transgender theology is scriptural as it is systematic, it is mystical as it is scholastic, it is orthodox as it is liberating, it is found in our bodies and it is called down from the heavens. In writing this piece, I speak with the patriarch's language but in the form of women mystics and self-hagiographers. It takes on the form of a story because besides my work in academic and sermon writing, I am most at home in narrative. And like many quests, this narrative begins with a question.


Visions of Twilight

"Can you explain men to me?" the Retreat Director asked me on the bus at the end of a long weekend in the woods. She was new to her position and I was new to participating in college ministry. We had much to learn from and about each other. I scrunched my face in confusion and uncertainty. Briefly tilting my head to look around the bus, I contemplated the question: why me? I was sitting alone in the front, enjoying some quiet, away from the rest of the group, most of whom were singing together in the back. Perceiving my perplexity at being singled out but not yet understanding why I was perplexed, she attempted to explain herself. "You see," she said, "the retreat group - in fact most our youth in ministry here - seem to be women. You are one of only two men on the trip and I want help in figuring out why that is." Ah. There it is. In this break away from the bodies and perceptions of the general group, I had forgotten for a moment that I was taken as a man. The dark lens of manhood that I wore publicly in a space like this was not of my own design or asking but had been given to me long ago beginning with the words: "It's a boy!" It determined how I saw the world and how I was able (or not) to move in it. It also shaded how I saw myself and how I was able (or not) to occupy myself. In moments like this, having separated myself from the community and their expectations, I was able to take off the dark midnight blue glasses of manhood and allow my mind's eye to adjust back to its more comfortable light of morning blush and rosewood. In this frame, I was able to let myself rest and reflect in the femme light that soothed my tired body and soul. It is important that the Retreat Director's ignorance of the twilight in which I lived, caught between night and day, shadow and light, should not be taken as a personal fault. She was putting herself out there to ask knowledge of me. Yet like Actaeon the Hunter stumbling across Diana naked in the wood, her interjection came as a surprise, challenge, and potential threat as she unknowingly broke into the private hallow of my womanhood with a reminder of the dim world of men ever waiting to pull me back.

At this point in my transition, I had walked many friends and family through the valley of dusk and dawn, man and woman, in which I was still traveling myself, but I hadn't gotten around to all the staff and church members. The often compulsory labor put on a trans person to navigate all their communities through the twilight of dysphoria and transition can be exhausting. As such it happens in inconsistent stages and pockets. In this moment, I was measuring my energy to determine whether I wanted to explain my gender and the ways it has been misread to the staff member or whether it was simpler just to hear out this question being ironically posed to me. The whole "I am transgender," plus "this is what that means," plus the inevitable fall-out would likely have taken the rest of the two hour ride back to the city. For the sake of returning to my solitude, I decided that the most expedient decision was to do my best to answer the question as it was presented without totally unpacking the situation for her. Little did the Retreat Director know, her situation was actually worse - twice as worse - as she understood. She only had one man on the trip, not two. Yet, after all, could my liminal position not help to answer her question? I had not asked to see the world as a man but I had been giving the lens and trained in how to use it - often with great pain and cost. I could answer her questions about men not because I was a man but because as not-man I knew how to live as a man among men. I was irritatingly self-conscious of this knowledge because it was hard and uncomfortable to gather and bear. I knew the cost of surrendering unseen worlds full of brilliant faerie lights in favor of living in the dim landscapes structured by the great shadowy architecture of the visible world. This taught me to take seriously other things I knew in my heart to be real, even if they are not discretely visible. I knew the patriarchy existed, even if I could not point to any one specific place as embodying it completely. "So can you help explain men to me?" she earnestly asked again. "I can try," I answered her with the unspoken caveat, "but not for the reason you think I can." 

As the Retreat Director began her questioning, I thought on the Virgin Mary and the model she offers for trans persons looking for a place in God's vision. Despite often oppressive opinions in Christianity and western patriarchies in general, there is a natural (and even super-natural) dysphoria in the world that is especially embodied and perceived by particular peoples. There is a long tradition of transgender people and particularly trans women sitting between the worlds of light and dark, earth and sky. In Plato's Symposium on Love, Aristophones suggests that trans, intersex, and other gender non-conforming peoples may stem from a mythic origin: the Children of the Moon. The people was so named because they are at once oriented towards the female Earth and towards the male Sun, reflecting aspects of both. This ability for multiplicity (sometimes taken as duplicity) and transformation (sometimes taken as inconstancy) is also why many Greco-Roman people associated the Moon with women. In contrast with the anecdotal "man in the moon," ancient figures such as Diana and the Hecate were the women in the moon. This tradition became adopted by medieval Christianity that typically used female pronouns for the Moon and associated it with Mary the Mother of Christ. Iconography of the Virgin (be it Diana or Mary) typically incorporated the woman standing with or on the moon. It is for this reason that icons of Mary (in her many forms) are pictured with her standing on a crescent moon. It is said that Mary stands between heaven and Earth, looking down towards the mortal world and reflecting up towards the brilliance of the sun - another stand in for her Son, Christ. In an instance of what historians call "synchronicity," native peoples in Americas held beliefs that transgender persons had "two-spirits" and held them in esteem as shamans who could see across the visible divides of man and woman and also the invisible divides of flesh and spirit. In this way, transgender women have a special place in the devotion of Mother Mary because they too know what it means to stand between the world of light and the world of darkness, between all that is seen and all that is unseen.

In the end, unsurprisingly for people who know ministry, the retreat director was not just asking for my opinion but my service. For the next thirty-minutes, we had an uncanny conversation that resulted in a dramatically ironic decision: I would be put in charge of starting a Men's Faith Group and Retreat on campus. Ironically, my position among men yet not one with them, prepared me to be an effective discussion leader. I was self-aware of masculine modes of conversation because they felt like artificial second languages. Among women as a woman, I felt more intuitive and could exist without having to be constantly self-conscious or performative. I was in drag as a man, cross-dressing as a man, before I was able to come out as a woman. Thus, I had the skills to lead a Men's Group because I was a trans woman. And yet, the ability to serve a community of men in this way depended on me living as a man, sacrificing my life as a woman, and the perpetuation of dysphoria which came from seeing the world through the eyes of twilight. It was a service I could do at this time, in this moment of transition, between the darkness of manhood and the dawn of womanhood, if I dwelled in that in between place. Yes, I could direct a Men's Faith Group, although it would be more for them than for me. To sustain myself, I would need to balance this with something else. I would also need to develop my own Women's Group and Retreat. The Women's Group would have to be kept unofficial, unauthorized by the formal ministry but that would open it up to being a queer, trans, and alternative femme community - what came to be called "the Goddess Parties" in honor of our Ladies of the Moon - but that is another story. It is enough to say that if I was going to dwell in the midnight of manhood, I would need longer and larger moments to step out of the darkness and bask in the light. This moon reflects the light of day on those walking the roads through the night. I would need the light of the moon, the light of the sacred feminine, the light of Mary, to sustain my heart, if I was going to step deeper into shadow of manhood.



Visions of Night

If I was to live among the shadows on the dark side of the mood, I had to learn to better see with eyes of night. Wallace Stephens insists that if one is to judge winter, "one must have a mind of winter." So too God became human to justify the mortal and the divine. By embracing the shadows of our lives, we might find God's goodness in them, fulfilling the Taize hymn, "our darkness is never darkness in your sight." When I met with the male staff person to develop the Men's Group and Retreat, I was ready to fight for an approach to gendered conversations that disturbed the borders of manhood and called on participants to use their male privilege to unsettle the patriarchy. What I did not expect was that my challenges would be echoed by the minister and pushed further. While I was bringing a trans woman background to the table, he brought his history working with the queer activists and liberation theologians. We were not the normative picks for the leadership of a Catholic Men's Group but because both of us knew what it meant to walk in shadows of our authentic selves, we knew who else lived on the margins and how we might draw those used to being unseen into community. Who are the unseen? First, the unseen are those who exist alongside the visible world yet are imperceivable through the eyes of the world. Second, the unseen are those who are systematically made invisible. They are the people who we are taught to un-see. Third, the unseen are those who are yet to be seen. They are the hidden seeds of un-being, the fruit of an unfolding creation, the flowers that have not yet budded. They are the resurrection that comes after one lays dormant in the ground, planted like seeds of a greater second life. The unseen are promises of God yet to be fulfilled. I worked to bring these insights into designing the Men's Group and the accompanying Retreat. Over the next few years the numbers burgeoned as we drew men who were not used to being called into Catholic community or else who were not allowed to be their full selves. The flowering of these winter fruits was evident during the final Retreat at which I would minister. It was a three day urban retreat where each day a different event would challenge us to see the unseen in new ways.

On the first day of my final Men's Retreat, we visited a Benedictine Monastery that prompted us to ask: How do we see the unseen as those who exist beside us but are invisible to the ways we see the world?  Too few know that a monastery exists in the heart of urban Chicago. One reason for this is that the brothers live on the south side of Chicago, an area that socio-economic and racial prejudice segregates from the rest of the city. Yet here is where the community lives and holds nightly vespers services; which this night our little band of unusual Catholics would join. Right off I noticed how the simple black garb of the monks clashes with the shining metropolis. Such garb marks them as different and some may chose to ignore them as an incongruous anachronism with no place in today's city. In seeing their black garb, I was brought to reflect on how my choice in clothing also signaled a life faded into the shadows. When I first started working in the ministry, some people expressed dissatisfaction with how I dressed. Criticisms ranged from "too much black" to comments on the nail polish or other flair I would add to feminize clothes that felt oppressively masculine. Now I saw how by dwelling together, the monks shared the dark marks of difference. I saw how some people need to see people like me if they are going to give a ministry a second glance. In contrast to the pastel polos and khakis, if the ministry wants people outside of gender norms, they need people who express alterity, opposition, queerness, and trans-ness. Put simply: if you want more trans people, you need to let trans people look how they look. Marking yourself as part of the shadows can be a critical step in finding community in the dark places of the world. In his History of Sufferings, Peter of Abelard recounts how at first he wore the mark of his castration with fear of Levitical and Deutercanonical Church law that forbade eunuchs from shared spaces with cisgender men and women. Yet by wearing the mark of his exile, he soon collected a community of monks around him. By committing to a shared alienation, Abelard and these monks showed me that when the main roads are denied to us, God will meet us out in the shadows and build a community there.

With the lesson of the Monastery in mind, on the second day of the retreat, we set to work on a gardening and landscaping service project to contemplate the darkness of the earth and all that lays hidden in its unseen depths: How might we see the unseen as seeds which are yet to sprout? How do we take our own darkness and bury ourselves in the earth with hopes of what shall come? We arrived at a shelter for women and children who have experienced abuse in order to help repair the damage that violent patriarchal systems enact on a communityIn previous years, we served there ripping up carpets and removing large furniture. This year we were planting flowers, hauling dirt, and creating flower beds with slabs of wood. Among the women and children that lived there, in the dark muddy soil, the work offered a kind of hopeful healing where trauma and brokenness could be buried and sprout with new life. In his History, Abelard recalls how castration at the hands of patriarchs caused him great pain and alienation yet in time became the source of spiritual insights. "Scarcely had I recovered from my wound,” recollects Abelard, "when clerics sought me... They bade me care diligently for the talent which God had committed to my keeping, since surely He would demand it back from me with interest." Just as each of us may wear the garb of the shadows because of unique fears, so too each of us hold unique hurts. The lesson of Abelard, this community of abused lives, and the soil on our hands was that God asks us to offer up not only our strengths but also our brokenness. In these wounds God places special "talents" that give us particular insights and resources that may lay dormant in us like seeds in dark earth until the day comes where it may bloom as a healing herb. On this day, these unseen talents took on many forms. Not everyone could do every task and all of us could not do the same task at once. As a result, we learned to invite each other to add our particular gifts to the collaborative work. While often uncomfortable and alienating, these "talents" compound our differences and add to the sum of who we are. This is a monstrous claim of Christianity and one that the trans theology affirms: wounds and suffering can be buried and rise as new life.

By the early morning of the third day, in the dark before the sun rises, our group sat together in the shade of our lessons on communities in the shadows and the seeds in the earth ready to take on one of our hardest challenges: How do we see the ignored, the un-seen? How do we call lives back from the shadows who mistrust the light because of danger and violence? How we honor that which we have shamed? In this spirit we sat in the dark, hidden in the upper room of the house, speaking quietly, breaking bread and breaking open mysteries of our lives. There we sat in a circle of chairs exchanging stories. It was my last night working with this Men's Group and there was a sense that it was time that some things be brought to light. "So," I said, convening the conversation, "I've got something to share that some of you know, others suspect, but is worth saying aloud." Then I unveiled for them that I was a trans woman. I asserted that despite the strangeness of being given the position of leading a Men's Group that I greatly valued my time getting to know them in this way. The biggest surprise for someone outside the group might be how little surprise there was. All gave signs of affirmation and thanked me for giving the specific talents and insights I possessed as a trans woman. But that was not all. My statement of self was only an opening act. What followed was a series of comings out with each person offering some aspect of their lives (gender, sexuality, past trauma) which had haunted the group but had never been spoken. Each of us in a way were like Abelard, who feared the Church's anti-eunuch laws (like today's doctrines against LGBT people) and was ashamed of coming about his castration.“How could I ever again hold up my head among men," asks Abelard, "when every finger should be pointed at me in scorn, every tongue speak my blistering shame?" In the end, each of us admitted to feeling somewhat of an unnatural presence in a Catholic Men's Group. Each of us assumed the natural place of others but felt we were an outsider following along. After tears and hugs, the last of us went to bed to grab some trace of sleep, and I realized that the sun was just beginning to peak out over the horizon. In many ways it was a sign that a long night had ended and that in the light of the third day the veil was breaking and the rock that contained life was beginning to roll away.



Visions of Dawn

It was on the way to my final retreat as part of a Catholic ministry in Chicago that I made the decision to come out to the rest of the staff - especially the retreat director - about the transitions I had made in the rest of my life (now including the Men's Group): I was to live all my time as the woman I already was. It became evident that I needed to make a turn that would feel like the change from night to day. The danger of living in the valley of shadow is that one runs the risk of becoming a shade of one's self. After too long, the strain had become too much. I had to make a choice. If I or the world insisted I keep on the dark lenses, I would become what they showed me: nothing, or else a blurry wraith in a shadowy veil. With eyes no longer shaded, in the light of day I saw years full of conflict and suffering but also years full of life. Faced with the choice, I chose life as a woman. Either way, the man many knew was going to die, because even if he persisted it would have been a living death. In the end, I chose the life of sharp particulars where I could at least know myself and declare to the world why I make my choices, even if that self and those choices would be brought to pain and even death in the end. To paraphrase the great conversation between those sentenced to execution in the Lion in Winter: when death is certain and all that is left is to determine how one is to die then the "how" becomes all important. If I had to face the worst, I would face it with my face in the sun. In that spirit, I made the decision that by the end of the retreat I would come out to the rest of the ministry as transgender and let them know I would be making radical transitions to fully claim my life as a woman. Among those who needed to be brought into the light with me was the Retreat Director who had asked me to lead a Men's Group years ago. She had called me to the unusual ministry which led me to explore the multiple visions of my dysphoria and now it was time that she shared the fruits of that labor. I did not know how the conversation would go but nor did I know what would come next for my life. Regardless of what may come, it was time for Diana to invite Actaeon into the hallow.

It was late in the afternoon when I found her alone and came over, in a mirror scenario as our conversation on the bus. She was deep in thought and when I sat down she had to shake herself out of it. It was on her final outing with the ministry before she left for another position and it was my final trip before graduation. The various staff people had separated into different rooms where people could go and have private talks if they so chose (implicitly to say final goodbyes). I began with some active listening, asking her about the transition she was making. This gave me a chance to meet her where she is at before I took her on a journey. She told me about her vulnerability and struggles with her work. She told me about how she came to realize that in order to flourish she would need to seek out the light of another sun. She needed to make a big change to live her life to her fullest. After a moment of dwelling in that shared feeling of transition, it was then I finally had the talk with her I had withheld on the bus, years earlier. I explained to her about who I was, who I had been, and who I intend to be. She listened for a while and we discussed what it meant to be made by God as a transgender woman. Approached from the outside, some would see transgender and dysphoria as an illness or imperfection in the human soul (mind, body, or spirit) that is to be healed by the love of God. Yet transgender and intersex studies argues that rather than being defects in systems of gender they exist as evidence of a great degree of diversity and change within gendered life. C.S. Lewis writes of God, "He imagines all things and all things different."  Thus, the perfected form of the trans person may be different than that of their cisgender sisters and brothers. Each shares in a collective life and have the marks of particular journeys. Even Christ had the wounds of Crucifixion in his risen body. Both in how God created us to be transgender and the wounds of how the world compounds our dysphoria, transgender people had a place in the beatific vision. We are often sent off on strange roads in order to venture to God and our true selves. This was certainly true of us both.

I also told her of this journey I had been on since she spoke to me on the bus years prior. It was the story of three retreats: my first as a minister when I was asked to take on men's ministry, my last a leader of a Men's Group, and this one (which we were living at the moment) which would my last as a man. Across these three acts, there was a kind of death and resurrection. I do not mean to suggest that Men's Group was to be the death of me. Rather, leading a Men's Group was a death rattle, or perhaps a death ritual marking the end my time ministering as a man. It did not cause my transition, as that was underway before the ministry ever started but it did exacerbate the experience of dysphoria that propelled the ministry. And this death was necessary in order for my life to be saved. The man that they knew was dying and was killing the woman that was trapped inside. What was needed was a surgery, a tactical retreat that would end the life of the man so that the woman could live. Or, put another way: the man who lived darkness was like a seed that needed to be buried in order for the woman to sprout and be born into the light. Beyond this literal narrative, my life as a transgender woman during this time had been a series of retreats. My time as a man was a retreat, a break, a delay in my life as a woman. It was a segue that I did not ask to take and worked often to return from. Yet my work as a minister to men marks a further delay that I was asked and chose to take. But I retreated in other senses of the word. I retreated from my authentic self. As a result I extended the dysphoria between spirit and body. I retreated from the light of day as I wandered further into the night. I did so for good intentions: to learn a few final lessons and so that I might give some service to the unseen shadows that lived out there. Thus, I told her, the story of this, my final retreat in this ministry with her marks the end of this form of retreat. I would no longer delay. From here on out, I would face the world on the front-lines in the light of day as a woman.  But most preciously, I shared with her the vision I held in my heart that gave me the drive to enter into the light which my soul needed to live but which scared me to death.

I had not asked for the vision but grace had been given it to me from I know not where and which provided me the strength and even excitement to go forward. It was to the shocking surprise of my spirit that when I was most prepared to throw away my life in order to save it, I was given a vision of something else that presented hope of something beyond suffering and death. I can't recall when it first came to me but when it hit it was like the dawn of seeing the world for the first time after a long dim night. "I see a woman in a white wedding dress," I told her. "I see her being taken by a woman (I don't know who) to be her wife, and in that vision she is beatific with joy." At first I assumed that was some other woman. She was glimpse of some angelic or sainted figure who had been watching over me. Maybe she was a vision of my future daughter telling me to hold on to life. She looked so full of light and joy that her beauty healed my heart. But after some discernment a greater and more shattering truth was revealed: the woman I saw was me. Just as in the first case I knew that she was real and waiting for me, in this second case I knew that the vision I was given was of myself. I didn't know how that could be possible. It wasn't legal in the United States or condoned in the Catholic Church. I didn't know how I would get there but I knew how I could start. The strangest thing was how definite and particular the vision seemed to be. It was in a way more real than the life I had lived or the life I was living at the moment. In the light of it, which was brighter than mere pink, more like a rose gold, I could see more clearly. My vision began to heal and I became more real, more myself. I would always bear the parallax of dysphoric vision, the shadows in the dark would still dance in my vision, but what the vision of the woman of light offered was wholeness within that division. My boyhood, even my time leading a Men's Group, would be swallowed up in the joy of her womanhood - the woman who was me - and add new depths to that womanhood. I would be more woman because of my dysphoria, because womanhood would grow with it. Womanhood itself grows in glory because of trans womanhood. In the dysphoria of the beatific vision, made sharper by the lunar light of the Virgin and the contrasting shadows of Abelard, God showed me a glimpse of how heaven sees unseen transgender lives.



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Sunday, April 17, 2016

The Island of the Amazons: the Medieval Place of Transgender

“Amazon: < Latin Amazon, < Greek Ἀμαζών, -όνα; 
explained by the Greeks < ἀ priv. + μαζ-ός a breast” 

Oxford English Dictionary

A young child is being prepared to have their identity affirmed for the first time in their lives but before this happens, tradition dictates that they will not be recognized as a member of this gender unless they first undergo surgery to alter their sex characteristics. They are expected to go through a form of mastectomy, called by some “top surgery.” After this transition, parts of the body usually marked as feminine are altered to follow normatively masculine forms, giving access to traditionally masculine activities. Such gender transitions are not freely available, or imaginable, in all places in the world. The youth lives in a community that is marginalized, isolated on a kind of island, on the edge of normative society. Certainly this is how John Mandeville described the Amazons.[2]

In this paper, I read John Mandeville’s descriptions of “the Land of Amazons,” focusing on the rhetorical framing of its land and people, through a trans and intersex lens to critique how the text defines forms of embodiment and physical environment through refigured and reinscribed gender systems. I argue that the Isle of the Amazons was imagined as a trans place on the edge of shared space where bodies and the society might be otherwise reconstructed, and that the land-bridges and social histories that connect the normative with alternative suggests potential for integration or rehabilitation of medieval transgender places to a greater extent than the water-locked “Isle of the Hermaphrodites;” which seem less able to be integrated into patriarchal forms of embodiment and power. This project follows in the line of Sandy Stone’s seminal transgender studies text, “The Empire Strikes Back: A Post-transsexual Manifesto.”[3] I take literally her call: “transsexuals must take responsibility for all of their history, to begin to rearticulate their lives not as a series of erasures… but as a political action begun by reappropriating difference and reclaiming the power of the refigured and reinscribed body.”[4] A critical trans politics requires a medieval transgender history that reclaims bodies that have been refigured and reinscribed, at times—in effect— to un-trans them, and at others with a yearning for other forms of embodiment and other futures than those that existed in a medieval cisgender framework. Just as modern transgender studies must name the struggles of the past, it must take responsibility for the futures imagined and permitted by pre-modern cultural ancestors of transgender, intersex, and other non-binary peoples.

First, I respond to the historical place of transgender in medieval studies, particularly the tendency in feminist and queer scholarship to situate Amazons as and through cisgender womanhood, while admitting to some level of cultural masculinity; deemphasizing the surgical transition as a definitive narrative for Amazons—aspects situating them in histories of transgender and masculinity. Second, while drawing on trans theory looking to reclaim the power of erased histories, I unpack how the “Isle of the Amazons” looks forward, extending to touch, and anticipate cultural descendants in modern transgender communities.[5] This “co-extension” between the Amazons and their environment for trans community signals that pre-modern society was more prepared to integrate refigured and reinscribed embodiments than it was intersex forms of gender.[6] Finally, I mark how Mandeville’s text maneuvers such medieval trans figures for contingent relations and futures with patriarchal and trans exclusive radical feminisms.



I. Refigured Bodies

Before queer and trans feminists made social (re)constructionist claims on gender, Mandeville knew that one is not born an Amazon but becomes one. His Amazon are social and physical constructs, surgically made by a mastectomy to the right or left breast. Mandeville writes, “þei don awey þat on pappe with an hote hiren” and a child is made an Amazon.[7] The gender designated at birth determines who may become an Amazon and live on the island, or leave to be raised with men, yet it is not until surgery that gender is set. Surgically refigured and reinscribed, a child gains entry into the place of an Amazon. The word “Amazon” comes from the Greeks who explain it as being derived from “a-” (without) –“mazos” (breast); “Amazon” names a person who has undergone top surgery. Thus while Amazons play a role in the history of strong and/or butch cisgender women, they have more genealogical connections with trans men than previously imagined. In the modern cultural imagination and also in the modern medievalist readings, the Amazon has been taken as what Karma Lochrie in her excellent Heterosyncrasies, calls “stone butch” women, embodying concepts of “female masculinity,” which prepare the way for a trans intervention while not yet moving beyond cisgender womanhood.[8] In her study, Lochrie acknowledges the trans-humanism of the Amazon’s embodiment citing “Camilla’s desire for the helmet,” in Lydgate’s Laud Troy Book, as the Amazonian orientation toward a “masculine prosthetic.”[9] This prosthetic impulse points towards the reconstruction of the Amazon’s gender, as physical as well as social forms of life, reflect a kind of trans masculinity that goes beyond merely the drive for power or erotic enjoyment. Amazons enact what Lochrie calls “the breakdown of sexual difference,” yet does more than simply disturb gender; reconstructing as much as they deconstruct.[10]

Yet the reconstruction of gender does not end with being refigured, as Amazons is divided further into two sub-genders: the upper-class knights and the lower-class archers. These subdivisions reflect medieval patriarchal concepts about embodying hierarchies. There must be those born to be rulers and workers in Mandeville’s medieval imagination, even among a gender divergent society. His Amazons illustrate theories of trans politics, even as they create hierarchies within gender variant communities. Mandeville writes, “ȝif it be a womman of gret lynage þei don awey the left pappe.”[11] The surgery has both physical and symbolic effects. Madeville claims that the left breast is removed for material purposes, “þat þei may the better beren a scheeld.”[12] Through this surgical transition, a child is marked as an Amazon in general and as upper class in particular. This further division of society according to artificially constructed embodiments demonstrates the Amazons’ (and Mandeville’s) understanding that gender and class are pliable discourses that can be made and remade, divided and reconnected as desired. The shielded Amazons represent the island's biopower by reflecting figurations of medieval patriarchy, specifically the armored class of knights who ruled much of Europe. The island of England, from where Mandeville supposedly derives, is lorded over by the knights visually distinguished from the other lower orders of troops as armored riders. Furthermore, such shields came to be adorned by the coat-of-arms. These shield symbols sub-divide the knightly class further as these coat-of-arms signified the great families, martial orders, and deeds of its user. Thus, a shielded Amazon might be marked further by "gret lynage," even from those other shielded Amazons. The whole apparatus of the shield functions physically and symbolically to defend the structure of the Amazon's body, as well as the island as a physical and cultural place.

Mandeville goes on of the lower classes, “ȝif it be a womman on fote þei don awey the riȝt pappe.”[13] The description of the second class of Amazons as those "on foot" is telling of their relationship with the first class. Evidently, the reading that those Amazons of “gret lynage " and holding "a scheeld" are indeed a reproduction of medieval mounted knights is confirmed by describing those supposedly not born into privileged families as those in Europe who fight unmounted, on foot. In this respect, these Amazons represent a supposedly less wealthy class, lacking a horse, and thus more likely to be killed in combat. Furthermore, it puts them on a physically lower position than the mounted Amazons, suggesting subordination. Thus, while Amazons as a people evidence what Lochrie calls a “self-determining desire,” the liberation from patriarchal social divides is not complete.[14] Rather, gender and class distinctions between the bodies and social positions of Amazons are reconstructed rather than simply deconstructed. As in patriarchal readings of a woman’s lack of a penis, particularly trans women, the lower order of Amazons becomes signified through physical and social castration. The foot soldier class is first defined by a lack of the right breast and the lack of a horse. Because the removal of the left breast facilitates using a shield, the left breasted Amazons likely do not carry shields or the accompanying coat-of-arms; especially as archers. Likewise, the removal of the right breast is supposed to have a material as well as social function, "for to scheten with bowe turkeys."[15] The tactical role of archers in medieval warfare was as quick and lightly armored attack force drawn from the lower classes. As an enforcer of the physical and social structure of the place of the Amazons in the world, these archers are at once the most vulnerable and the most distant relationship to the shared political space of the battlefield.


II. Contingent Places

As the surgical refiguring and reinscribing of the Amazon shows the potential for hierarchical divides to be reconstructed in trans embodiments, so too do descriptions of the Amazon’s physical environment suggest ongoing contingent relations to patriarchies. In the Travels of John Mandeville, the author tells of a second pilgrimage to the margins of the world after the pilgrim made to the center of the Christian mappa mundi, Rome. On the margins, Mandeville does what most cannot. He arrives at the Isle of Amazons. “Besyde the lond of Caldee is the lond of Amazoyne,” writes Mandeville. [16]  “This lond of Amazoyne is an Ile aƚƚ envirouned with the see saf in II places where ben II entrees .” [17] Looking upon the isolated place of the Amazons, his descriptions suggest that part of the difficulty of penetrating into the Amazonian world is that it is nearly cut off from the rest of the world by water. Unlike the Isle of Hermaphrodites, which is bordered on all sides by water, by land bridges Amazonia retains a shared space with the continent. In his descriptions Mandeville seems to suggest significance between the Amazon’s relation to patriarchal forms of gender and the Isle’s relation to the continent. Mandeville writes, “ beȝonde þat water duellen the men þat ben here [the Amazons’] paramoures & hire loues, where þei gon to solacen hem whan þei wole.”[18] Using the land bridges, the Amazons continue contingent relations with the patriarchies, keeping them as socially close as they are physically. The physical relations of the island suggests contingency in two ways. First, as points of material coextension, given that contingency comes from the Latin con- (“together with”) and –tangere ("touch"). [19] Second, the contingency of the land bridges reflect how the social relations between Amazons and the patriarchies occur only in highly controlled and limited ways.

The contact between the isle and the continent at land bridges shows a kind of pseudo-symmetrical reflection, even inversion of the patriarchy on the Amazon’s side. “In þat lond þei haue a queen þat gouernetℏ aƚƚ þat lond & aƚƚ þei ben obeyssant to hire,” writes Mandeville, “And alweys þei maken here queen by electioun þat is most worthy in armes.”[20] The land and people of Amazon are oriented towards the governing of one monarch, as in patriarchies. Yet this subordination comes through an act of collective will. This was the ideal in many patriarchies as well but often the realities were otherwise. Such a hierarchal system, especially one based on group agency, demands the constant expression of physical and social power. The Amazons power, as evidenced by their bodies, is predicated on the contingent ability of violent authority, “[f]or þei ben rigℏt gode werryoures & orped & wyse, noble & wortℏi.”[21]

The matriarchy of the Amazons at once replicates the patriarchal and undermines it by revealing its social construction. The place and identity of the Amazons are not as naturalized some patriarchies but must continually constitute itself by enacting its power through war and economic success. “And þei gon often tyme in sowd to help of oþer kynges in here werres for gold & syluer as otℏere sowdyoures don,” writes Mandeville. “And þei meyntenen hemself right vygouresly.”[22] These exercises of physical strength “meyntenen” the embodiment of Amazon's physical power while also reaffirming their social powers and contingent alliances with other lands. These exercises are not radically different from other patriarchies but because of relative newness and seeming artificiality of the Amazon society these performance may be more necessary. This reflects how other trans persons and communities are continually called on to hyper perform binary genders, that trans women enact high femme dress or trans men demonstrate physical butchness.

The emphasis on the Amazon’s replication or ongoing contingent relations with patriarchal ways of life is heightened by the relatively isolated, singular, and abridged descriptions Mandeville gives the Isle of the Hermaphrodites. For the author, intersex bodies seem to contain the multiplicity of gender, disproving the theory that men and women exist in utterly different and incomparable spheres. "In another ile beth peple that beth bothe man and womman, and have membres of bothe," writes Mandeville.[23] The repetition of the words, “beth” and “bothe,” emphasizes how Mandeville is struck by the double-ness of their being. The dangerous power of these bodies seems to fascinate and repulse Mandeville, who examines their bodies in only three sentences over four lines without noting anything of their culture or history, compared to the nearly twenty lines the Amazons are given. In effect, the Hermaphrodites are isolated from the ongoing marking of time as they are imagined on an island, disconnected from public space.

The greater emphasis on the Amazons may be considered a result that just as the land bridges make the place of the Amazons an incomplete island so too the trans figures seem to be more able to be integrated (back) into the patriarchal forms of life. As Lochrie observes, medieval texts often imagine the potential for “the Amazon’s [re]assimilation into courtly femininity, as unstable, even queer, as that assimilation may be.”[24] The act of transition for the Amazon’s body suggest that at one time they were bodies that could have potentially been submitted to normative gender hierarchies. Likewise, contingency of the land provides the means for request of the Amazons. Indeed, the history of ongoing flow of blood, money, and semen from patriarchal lands through the passage of the land bridges into the Amazon’s land seems to reflect how this trans society reproduces itself through the continual intercourse with and replication of the patriarchy. 



III. Reconstructed Histories, 
Contingent Futures

Just as the Amazons were once in a patriarchal system, they may be again. Unlike the Isle of the Hermaphrodites, imagined as a naturally segregated place and people, the Isle of Amazon is denaturalized by Mandeville providing a history of how the Isle and the form of gender came to be. Mandeville distinctly contradicts certain readers opinions about the Land of the Amazons, “þat reme is aƚƚ wommen & noman, Nogℏt as summe men seyn þat men mowe not lyue þere, but for because þat the wommen wil not suffre no men amonges hem to ben here souereynes.”[25] The Isle did not naturally generated the Amazons. They were socially constructed out of change and political will. “For sum tyme þer was a kyng in þat contrey,” writes Mandeville, until the kingdom was embroiled in a war where most men of power were killed, “kyng higℏte Colepeus… & aƚƚ the gode blood of his reme.”[26] In many senses of word, it was a revolution, a turning of Fortune’s Wheel, which brought the rise of the Amazon as a land and people. Mandeville’s history suggests that it was the undoing of the patriarchy, not simply men, that gave rise of the matriarchy. “And whan the queen & aƚƚ the othere noble ladyes sawen þat þei weren aƚƚ wydewes & þat aƚƚ the riaƚƚ blood was lost,” writes Mandeville, “þei armed hem & as creatures out of wytt þei slowen aƚƚ the men of the contrey þat weren laft.”[27] The bloody birth of the Amazons evidence that it was not a popular movement but the work of matriarchs - led by the queen and noble women - against the remaining men of lower birth. While the rise of the Amazons changed the orientation of space and society, it replicated patriarchal hierarchies. There remained a monarch and a ruling class as well as a lower class, their bodies reflecting the structure of the island as a divided and subjugating space where each body has its place or else is excluded.

Rather than simply being a movement of liberation, breaking down barriers, the Amazons’ power comes through the continual exclusion of genders viewed as too male. Mandeville writes, “fro þat tyme hiderwardes þei neuere wolden suffren man to dweƚƚ amonges hem.”[28] The Amazon’s first self-definition came from expelling men and continues to serve as central to the personal and collective power of the island by allowing men to enter only to send them away again. When the Amazon’s chose, “þei drawen hem towardes the londes marchynge next to hem. And þan þei haue here loues þat vsen hem & þei duellen with hem an .8. dayes or 10 & þanne gon hom aȝen.” [29] The travel of the men into and out of the island reflects the goal of their visit: the penetrative entrance into and out of the body of the Amazon. This sexual intercourse (the movement between gendered places) is instigated and structured by the Amazons as not only an insistence on the need for consent but as an expression of the power to exclude. Mirroring the transition children identified as girls into one of two kinds of Amazon, the island ejects children identified as boys from the Amazon’s body and island. “And ȝif þei haue ony knaue child,” writes Mandeville, “þei kepen it a certeyn tyme & þan senden it to the fadir whan he can gon allone.”[30] The child who would be a boy (like his father) enters the Amazon's body, stays for a time, and leaves. In being birthed and removed, the child becomes a boy. It is a process of unbecoming-Amazon just as his sisters undergo one of two processes of becoming-Amazon. For a moment, before their gender and place in the world is assigned, they occupy the liminal space of the womb, like the Island's land bridge, dwelling for a time at the transition towards one of several possible genders. In a sense, this movement and transformation marks even the boys of the Amazon's with a contingency and transgender relationship to embodiment and space.

There is dangerous power—power even to create something new—in erasing the past and excluding undesired elements of gender, as modern transgender studies knows. Reading personal transgender histories, Stone explains how transitioning “makes the world safe” for the new gender “by erecting and maintaining an impenetrable barrier” between the new and the old, “reinforced again and again.”[31] What Mandeville presents in the Land of Amazon’s history is a vision of the public, collective practice of the same kind of building borders and denying mixture in order to secure the new forms of gender. The power of the patriarchy was to subjugate female bodies and deny access to spaces of influence and if trans movements fall into the groove of change by exclusion, “[t]he highest purpose of the transsexual is to erase his/herself, to fade into the ‘normal’ population as soon as possible.”[32] In effect, the matriarchy becomes a mirror image of the patriarchy. The trans masculine is attained at the cost of the liberation of other genders.

The continued reproduction of patriarchal access, bodies, and social systems is at odds of the Amazon’s movement, meaning that it needs to cover over aspects of its past and operations; making history safe for future politics. “Part of this process is known as constructing a plausible history— learning to lie effectively about one's past,” writes Stone.[33] Transgender studies needs to take responsibility for all of its history and practices of denial, the putting up of walls around the past or around identity only replicate the practices of subjugation and exclusion that has and continues to be used against trans persons by the patriarchy and Trans-Exclusive Radical Feminism (TERF).[34] Scholars, feminist utopias, or Isles of Amazons, can set defending turf/TERF against male impurity and rejecting identification with trans bodies at the expense of liberation and histories; be they butch or Amazon, transgender or intersex, modern or medieval.





[1] "Amazon, n." OED Online. December 2015. Oxford University Press.
[2] John Mandeville (Cotton) XVIII. 1.103.
[3] Sandy Stone. “The Empire Strikes Back: A Posttranssexual Manifesto.” Body Guards: The Cultural Politics of Gender Ambiguity. (New York: Routledge 1991).
[4] Stone 14.
[5] “Touch” from Carolyn Dinshaw. “Touching the Past.” Getting Medieval: Sexualities and Communities, Pre- and Postmodern. (Durham, NC: Duke UP, 1999). 1-2.
[6] “Coextensive” from Lynne Huffer. Mad For Foucault: Rethinking the Foundations of Queer Theory, (New York: Columbia University, 2010).

[7] John Mandeville. Mandeville's travels : translated from the French of Jean d'Outremeuse, ed. from Ms. Cotton Titus C.XVI. XVIII. 1.103. Ed. P. Hamelius. (Ann Arbor, Michigan: University of Michigan, Digital Library Production Service

[8] Karma Lochrie. Heterosyncrasies: Female Sexuality When Normal Wasn’t. (Minneapolis MN: University of Minnesota 2005). 103-4.
[9] Lochrie 118.
[10] Lochrie 131.
[11] Mandeville 1.103.
[12] Ibid.
[13] Ibid.
[14] Lochrie 121.
[15] Mandeville 1.103.
[16] Ibid. 1.102.
[17] Ibid. 1.103
[18] Ibid.
[19] "contingent, adj." OED Online. Dec 2015. Oxford University Press,
[20] Mandeville 1.103.
[21] Ibid.
[22] Ibid.
[23] John Mandeville. The Book of John Mandeville. XIII. 1892-3. Ed. Tamarah Kohanski and C. David Benson. (Kalamazoo, Michigan: Medieval Institute Publications 2007).
[24] Lochrie 116.
[25] Mandeville 1.103.
[26] Ibid.
[27] Ibid.
[28] Ibid.
[29] Ibid.
[30] Ibid.
[31] Stone 7.
[32] Stone 11.
[33] Ibid.
[34] Cristan Williams. “You Might Be a Terf If…” 24 September 2013. The