Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Children of Hermaphroditus: Intersex in Medieval Pilgrimage Tales


“First-world feminist discourse locates 
[intersex politics] not only ‘elsewhere’ 
...but also 'elsewhen' in time"

Hermaphrodites with Attitude
Cheryl Chase
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Hermes and Aphrodite

In our debates of genitals, gender, and who gets the dignities of being human, what is left out of our places and discourses can be more important than what is included. Today, North Carolina's House Bill 2 (HB2) and other anti-transgender bathroom laws do more than attack trans lives. By regulating who gets to go where, who is excluded from where, legislators are turning the bathroom signs of male and female into boundary stones that regulate who get to be a man and woman, and who is left out entirely. What is left out of this binary and left out of these discussions are the intersex persons who as common among us as the number of redheads we see. Not long ago, intersex activists were in headlines educating the public about the terms "hermaphrodite" and about the need to take discussions of so called "corrective surgery" from the place of the doctor’s office to the public space. Yet during the rise of transgender debates and discourses, we forget how to look for our intersex siblings either as activists, the monsters on the edge of gender, or as the signs beside our sexist bathroom debates.

In a foundational intersex studies essay, “Hermaphrodites with Attitude,” Cheryl Chase asks, “Why... have most first-world feminists met intersexuals with a blank stare?” Why are intersex bodies not only misunderstood but outright ignored? What has led to the erasure of intersex from discourse? To answer this blankness and incomprehension, Chase examines the spatial logic that has literally and metaphorically marginalized intersex biopolitics, locating it in foreign places, out of the way of the globalized western community. While compulsory surgical reconstruction of intersex children ebbed in the 1990s, afterwards seeing a decline in intersex visibility and activism, at the same time the publication on such practices still occurring in post-colonial places such as in Africa were pervasive. The inability to read intersex bodies is not an inherent anonymity  between discourses of gender but an active shift in the conversation from a local to a foreign issue. but  “First-world feminist discourse locates [intersex politics] not only ‘elsewhere...’ but also “elsewhen” in time,” notes Chase. As a result of the western public slowly erasing intersex in the shared global space, it is re-imagined and forgotten as a problem of another time and another place. This movement from the here to the there, and from the now to the then functions as a figurative and literal marginalizing of intersex.

What can medieval studies (scholars of elsewhen times and elsewhere places) say to current refusals to read intersex with anything but a blank stare? To answer this, I will chase after Chases’s "hermaphrodites with attitude" to argue that today’s marginalizing laws have genealogical roots in medieval pilgrimage as a narrative and social practice. Chases’s use of the word "hermaphrodite" is key to this work. An outdated medical term, hermaphrodite points to a critical intersex and critical medieval cultural models of sex and genres of boundary crossing. I take seriously the medieval cultural model that states hermaphrodites are the children of Hermes (the God of Travel whose name means 'boundary stone') and Aphrodite (the God of Beauty and Love). By this sign, intersex people are marked as wonders that spur travel and lust (if not love). I assert that the genre of pilgrimage, as in the Book of John Mandeville, uses herma-aphroditism to marginalize intersex, while drawing cisgender men from loca sancta of patriarchal models of sex, creating anti-loca sancta that disorient the flow of power from centers to margins.



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The Center and the Margins

In medieval maps and pilgrimage narratives, hermaphrodites functioned as the children of Hermes, set as boundary stones (herma) on the edge of the world. For medieval pilgrims who reference T in O maps, such as John Mandeville, the Mountains of Jerusalem operate as the center of Mappa Mundi. In the process of establishing centers of geopolitics, subjugated peoples and places become eschewed to the margins. This marginalization occurs when locations considered central to public life are framed in the center and less central locations are framed on the edges. These marginalized places are sidelined in parts because of who lives there and those who live there are sidelined because of where they live. Transgender, disability and ecological scholar, Eli Clare proposes "Mountains" as places par excellence, loca sancta that by their centrality displace difference to the margins. Clare asserts, “The mountain as metaphor looms large in the lives of marginalized people. How many of us have... measured ourselves against it… lived its shadow?”  In this bio-cartographic line of thinking, the concept of such “places” works to take intersex bodies out of the shared “space” of gender conforming persons, placing them in an isolated elsewhere. Intersex people are not pictured on public signs of maps because they are not considered to be the common, normative, or ideal embodiment. Instead, medieval and modern bio-cartography uses cisgender forms of embodiment to represent different gendered spheres and those who may pass through them. Intersex bodies, if signified at all, are imagined as outliers, existing in non-essential and non-central to public places and politics. They are considered extraneous and their representation peripheral to centers of biopolitics. As a result of being marginalized on medieval maps, hermaphrodites come to signal the failure of embodiment and narrative if you wander too far from centers of patriarchal control.

In other critical ways for medieval maps and pilgrimage narratives, hermaphrodites functioned as the children of Aphrodite, hyper-sexualized as untouchable, if beautiful, wonders on which the public may gaze. Pictured on texts such as Hereford's mappa mundi, intersex bodies are drawn on islands in the margins. Care is taken to represent intersex as a doubling hybridity of male and female. Usually, as in the Hereford map, one side is drawn with breasts and a vulva while the other side is flat-chested with a penis. Rather than representing intersex bodies as whole genders according to their own standards, the message of such images is that intersex is literally half-male and half-female. The unknown is signified only by what is known. The marginal are signified only in relation to what is central. Such bio-cartographic alienation is evident in pilgrimage stories that recreate these visual cues in their narrative maps. Within this translation of visual to verbal logic, texts like Mandeville's not only mirror the physical sex of the mappa's hermaphrodites but the marginal isolation of the isle on which they live. Unlike the Amazons who maintain sexual relations with continental men and live on islands with land-bridges that facilitate this intercourse, the hermaphrodites are sexually segregated in culture as well as place on a completely water-locked island. Mandeville writes of the hermaphrodites’ self-enclosed sexuality, "they gete children when they usen the mannes membres, and they bereth children when they use the membre of the womman." While this doesn’t necessarily preclude mating with the continent, it gives an impression that the hermaphrodites exist in a closed genealogical system. Without other bodies pictured among them, including Mandeville’s, readers are led to conclude: hermaphrodites only fuck other hermaphrodites. Despite the Amazons’ independence, they interdependently mate with non-Amazon men. Hermaphrodites on the other hand can exist as an enclosed people. On one level, this signifies a sexual power withheld from the Amazons. On another level, the danger of this lack of dependency is that it can become an excuse to withhold relations between the island and the rest of the world. 

On the surface, the medieval practice of using hermaphrodite boundary stone as limits on proper gender embodiment seems just as bad or worse than modern habits of excluding intersex bodies from discourse all together. Setting the isle on the margins the farthest distance from Jerusalem these maps establish hermaphrodites as distant objects to be glimpsed but not identified with in body or space. Distance and alienation work together to marginalize intersex bodies. As a result of becoming wonders just beyond the normal world, hermaphrodites become monsters who lurk on the boundaries of public space. Gazing outwards from the inside is safe but suggests underlying fears of those on the outside desirously, even jealously, gazing in on those who enjoy the privileges of world society. As in Freudian theory, Mandeville's texts seems haunted by patriarchal fears of trans, intersex, and cis women who might envy cisgender men's phallic embodiment and will attack him for it. Of course the fear is not only to protect the exclusivity of male embodiment but its social position at the center of public life and on the top of patriarchal structures of power. By locking out other genders, the patriarchy is not only securing their sex but their biopolitical control over place and narrative. The danger of sharing physical space with sexual others, at work, in bathrooms, or the public sphere is that the patriarchal cisgender control of sex and narrative will be forever changed. By understanding how political segregation (as in HB2) functions to control embodiment as well as space, the rhetorical significance of medieval maps and narratives that picture hermaphrodites on isolated islands is better understood.  Mandeville inscribes hermaphrodites as boundary stone by placing them on an island that is not only on the margins but is confined on an island environed by water, isolated from the shared space of the continent. This begs the question: what is lost when we forget to look for intersex? What is gained by being monsters who despite marginalization still get to signify in genres of sex and travel?


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Travel and Orientations

Can we imagine other ways that medieval maps and pilgrimage narratives position hermaphrodites as children of Hermes, calling pilgrims to travel to the margins? In the Travel of John Mandeville, the centralizing structure of Jerusalem’s as loca santca can be seen in the first half of his pilgrimage text. Mandeville follows the fairly quintessential Christian pilgrimage narrative on his journey from England to Jerusalem. Following this predetermined line of flight, the Englishman moves from one marginal island to the center of Christian life. Yet numerous scholars have noted, in the second half of his pilgrimage and world mapping, Mandeville swerves. Instead of going back to England, Mandeville starts a new pilgrimage to the lands of the East. On this second journey, Mandeville inverts the traditional direction and expectation of the medieval pilgrimage narrative. Mirroring the movement from margin to center, he moves from the center of Christianity to the margins. In this narrative formulation, the Mountains of Jerusalem are replaced by the like of the Isle of the Hermaphrodites. Around this cast-off place, Mandeville writes, “beth peple that beth bothe man and womman, and have membres of bothe." The monstrous here is not simply a metaphor but a material and social body. These are at once hybrid bodies with two natures, man and woman, represented by the repetition of the word "beth" and "bothe." as well as whole beings that exist between definable states. Mandeville puts intersex bodies on the margins of his world map yet becomes caught in their gravity, pulled across boundaries of center and margin, man and women, to dwell among those who emphatically “beth.” Instead of recalling the great sacred places of Christianity, the loca sancta, Mandeville details the wonders of the intersex places and peoples as sorts of anti-loca sancta; i.e. alternative destinations that lead away from rather than to the center. Stated another way, these marginalized places become centers in their own right. They "beth" for their own sake and call others to share in their existence. The mappa mundi becomes reframed and pilgrimage is disoriented. 

Likewise, can we imagine other ways in medieval pilgrimages that hermaphrodites are children of Aphrodite, bodies that call us to love and reflect on our own diversity of gender embodiment? Despite isolating them on an island of their own, for Mandeville, the multiple genitalia and reproductive capabilities leave intercourse between the continent and hermaphrodites an open question. The pilgrim does not give a history or anthropology of intersex culture but does detail the sexual capacity of the hermaphrodites; sexual capacities which could give grounds for other kinds of social, economic and political intercourse. In his imagined world, a hermaphrodite could mate with man or woman. The reproductive capacity of Mandeville's hermaphrodites could leave them hyper-isolated or hyper-relational. The difference between intersex as disability and hyperability depends on whether or not the cisgender community permits permeable borders. If intercourse is allowed and are allowed to share space and sexual life with the public, then they could radically diversify possible sexual identities and relations. What would Mandeville call a ciswoman who loves a hermaphrodite? What would he call a cisman-intersex relationship? To begin these questions, what is the name for hermaaphrodite-hermaphrodite relations? And are there different varieties of intersex genders and sexualities? Going beyond an exterior physical description of the hermaphrodite's bodies into the socio-sexual implications of intersex life and culture immediately disorients the supposedly set gender binaries. What begins as a crisis of category turns into a demand for a new system of sex and society based around critiques implicit in the island and gender of the hermaphrodite. In the end, Mandeville's silence on intersex culture may arise from fear of his own desire for joining with them as Ovid’s tale, where a lover assaults the traveler the two merge into the first hermaphrodite. Perhaps we put gender diversity on islands because we love and fear it too much.  

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Here and Elsewhere

There may be much lost and gained by being children of Hermes and Aphrodite. Yet unlike today’s eschewing of intersex politics, the hermaphrodite as a cultural sign disorients the structures that divide and conquer our sexed bodies and genres of discourse drawing across borders to other spaces and bodies. Such veering suggests that if intersex is placed in the margins, then that is where we should go. From the margins, the anti-loca sancta of hermaphrodites, we see an alternative vision of a common world. Such a vision is imaginable in Mandeville's medieval vision of a world full of diversity, yet has further roots in Augustinian thought. Regarding a question on the existence of hermaphrodites and their place in the world, in the City of God Augustine argues that God's mappa mundi is  greater and more inclusive than ones made by the world. “For God,” writes Augustine, “the Creator of all, knows where and when each thing ought to be, or to have been created, because He sees the similarities and diversities which can contribute to the beauty of the whole. But he who cannot see the whole is offended by the deformity of the part, because he is blind to that which balances it, and to which it belongs.” From Augustine to Mandeville is a tradition of using hermaphrodites to disorient readers' sense of the world as a determined place with fixed natural forms of life. Mandeville's second pilgrimage begins with an invocation of the world's seemingly endless diversity and ends with a call for further travels and stories to fill in the gaps which his pilgrimage narrative inevitably leaves incomplete. Such authors open an interconnected world greater than the dived places constructed by those whose view of sex and the world is woefully small. Hermaphrodites do not simply challenge the binary of gender, falling between two established sexes, but force readers to imagine a world map big enough for many kinds of gender and a world narrative big enough to find meaning for and through them all.

In the end, we can return to a world of gender diversity by becoming  hermaphrodites again, children of Hermes and Aphrodite. Through the critical imaginative work that medieval pilgrimage tales such as Mandeville's demands, we can return to a more dynamic and diverse understanding of space. This is important work. With intersex children continually being born, arising out of the ever changing forms and genetics of human gender, the ability to see diversity not only in marginalized places but all around us is just as critical in the fourteen century as it is today. The result of this cultural work is to form a more livable relation between gender and space, as Chase writes, “to create an environment in which many parents of intersex children will have already heard about the intersex movement when their child is born” (203). By imagining the anti-loca sancta of hermaphrodites, these alternative elsewheres and elsewhens can turn intersex from an insular minority into living evidence of the diversity of gender embodiment around the world.  Under a critical intersex lens, pilgrimage narratives such as Mandeville's tales disorient our bio-cartographic maps of gender and space, begging the question the stability and the justice of our boundaries around gender and gender segregated spaces. By reading like a hermaphrodite, medieval scholars can ally with medieval pilgrimage narratives in the work of making a better world for non-binary bodies. It is not enough to begrudgingly admit transgender or intersex bodies access to public spaces but to want the diversity they represent and the beloved people they are. Or we can double down on our a gender policing and segregation, leading to the alienation of trans, intersex, queer feminists from our patriarchal medieval world, sending us to islands (isolated organizations, academic journals or panels) where we talk only to each other like a close academic genealogical system. Yet even on the margins, we continue to invite travelers to cross boundaries, like Mandeville, to step out of your sense of cis security into a more dynamic world. And if and when you find us, yes, you may share our bathrooms.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Genres of Embodiment: A Theory of Medieval Transgender Literature



"The trans movement suggests a world 
full of gender and sex variation, a world 
much more complex than one divided into 
female-bodied women and male-bodied men." 

Eli Clare
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On Saturday evening, May 14th at the 51st International Congress of Medieval Studies, the Societas Fontibus Historiae Medii Aevi Inveniendis, vulgo dicta, “The Pseudo Society,” held a panel wherein multiple papers repeatedly used derogatory words and references to the transgender community, including negative comparisons with eunuchs and bestiality. During the event, audience members walked out in protest and afterwards the organizers apologized for the offensive content. Throughout the night and the next morning, I processed what all this meant in a wider context. I am not a judge or jury, audience or administrator, so I make no judgment regarding the personal composers of the papers or their intentions; be they good, bad, or an ugly mix of the two. However, I am a transgender woman working in medieval studies at a time when the place of non-cisgender men in the field is under question and when the arrest, beating, and killing of transgender persons are actively sanctioned and encouraged by public figures. In this context, the belittling of trans persons in a public forum can make doing work and living life harder for transgender people by encouraging negative associations and undermining the seriousness of our ventures. If we believe that words have power, we must remember that power can also be dangerous. This is especially the case when a group in a position of higher power mocks a group of lesser power. Free speech does mean free from consequence. One of the consequences of this dangerous speech is that the night before I was to give a talk on the possibility of medieval transgender studies, the challenging context in which this talk and this possibility existed was highlighted. Without needing to be asked, although I was asked, the question arrived: what do we say when others misuse or abuse the power of speech against a vulnerable community that is struggling to gain theirs?
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Speechless

I am speechless. I have lost my power to speak. Last night not one but two papers were given with hate speech, transgender slurs, that use transgender to belittle medieval castrates and medieval castrates to belittle transgender. Already the next morning, the debates begin: hate speech v. free speech, ignorance v. consequence, a sense of justice v. a sense of humor. The effect of making us funny is that we are not taken seriously, we are not listened to when we speak, and we can't tell our stories. These attacks have power because they do not occur in a vacuum. Their words take force and meaning because of medievalists who believe that gender variant people don’t belong in medieval studies. Their words take on the force and meaning of laws barring trans persons from public bathrooms; a necessity to learn, teach or attend conferences. Their words take on the force and meaning of those giving women pepper-spray to use against trans people, threatening to beat us, and planting ideas in the head of a 16 year old who recently shot a local trans woman. People have asked me to say something about this. I know they want me to make sense of this; to find some way to make things better.

Now, I am speechless and I have no pardons to give; yet I come to this congress on medieval studies because my conscience leaves me no other choice. I come here because 48% of transgender women attempt suicide, because last year doubled the average number of transgender homicides, because parents bury them in clothes and names that contradict their gender identity, erasing all trace of their transgender lives. I sit with my countless dead trans friends and family looking for something to say but I have no words. So I listen. I listen to graves, the ruins of past trans lives, as they whisper to each other. They speak in many tongues from many places and many times. I hope if I learn to understand the dead and discarded trans lives that they might teach me words to say and stories to tell. I come to medieval studies because it is here that we learn to speak the language of the dead from the dead themselves. I come to medieval literature and history because we need their trans stories to make meaning out of our deaths and silences.

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The Pardoner's Exempla

Toward that end, I will now listen with you to a medieval trans figure who knew what it means to be speechless at the point of hate, castration, and rejection from the community. By attending to the Pardoner’s Prologue in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales I hope to offer language for us to discuss medieval trans studies as well as frames which might help us make meaning and connections with them. To begin, I consider how the Pardoner answers hate speech and threats of his divergently gendered body by pointing to other bodies that have been dismembered and discarded. Then, by framing them with the force and meaning of relics, he tells those who view them as trash to kiss and value them. From such medieval and modern work of reclaiming bodies from the trash heap of history, we may understand transgender studies as the reframing of a set of embodied texts that make meaning through reconstructed relations to themselves and to the dangerous forces that made and unmade them.

So what of the Pardoner? Scholars have determined that the Pardoner exists within the genre of literature known as "exempla" and the genre of body known as "eunuch." These structures of literature and genre are not unlike each other. Each takes a text, in this case the body of the Pardoner, and makes it the facta, the material example, to validate a dicta, or doctrine. Eunuchs and other castrates historically were men who had their bodies made examles of for society’s edification. They were castrated as criminals to prove the power of Law, castrated as holy singers in the church to prove the power of God, and even castrated by slave owners to prove the power of rich lords. In the Canterbury Tales, the Pardoner is once described as a gelding, a castrated animal, and is later threatened with castration again by the Host. Even narratively, the Pardoner’s Prologue and Tale is framed by the Physician’s Tale about controlling an unruly woman’s gendered body by cutting it to pieces.

Yet the power of the Pardoner's words is that he is able to re-narrate fragmented, scarred, and discarded bodies to become holy bodies that produce a sense of re-claimed wholeness. These words wrap around and redefine his body and associated body parts so that “Relikes been they, as wenen they echoon.” Of the Pardoner's many relics, he spends the most number of lines preaching on the efficacy of a part of slaughtered lamb, "a sholder-boon" from "an hooly Jewes sheep." Such shoulder-bones, following the surgical logic of discarding parts as refuse, would have been thrown away after butchery. The relic points to rejected parts of body and society, lamb and the Jewish community, locating mechanisms by which the fair, smooth appearance of wholeness is formed. By reframing material facts, it is from the state of fragmentation that the body of the Pardoner and the shoulder-bone imparts wholeness to society.

As a body who that has experienced being oppressively made into a living example for others, the Pardoner's demonstrates how exempla might liberate a body by reclaiming and reframing its meaning. To evidence this, the trans figure boasts the transfiguring power of his words and relics. First, promises the Pardoner, for those who "taak of my wordes" and physically place the shoulder-bone in a well, live-stock pierced by "any worm, or worm ystronge" and washed in the water will be made "hool anon." Second, bodies penetrated by disease, "of pokkes and of scabbe, and every soore" if they drink of the well shall "be hool." Third, if listeners "keep eek what I tell," says the Pardoner, “the good-man that the beestes oweth... drynken of this welle …His beestes and his stoor shal multiplie." If one drinks in the words of the Pardoner’s artificial wholeness and reclaims butchered bodies from the refuse of society there will be more life in the world. A sense of wholeness in the body and society comes into being out of the presence and power of fragmented bodies formerly deemed meaningless and worthless. New dicta arise out of forgotten and silenced facta. In this way, the Pardoner shows us how  to regain control of the exempla of castration and fragmentation that made him a eunuch. Furthermore, he demonstrates how the mechanisms of castration make and depend on eunuchs to prove their power. By listening to the facta being whispered by silenced bodies we can gain knowledge and power over the genres that define our bodies and structure our stories.

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Genres of Embodiment

So what genres define our bodies and our stories, past and present? Our medieval transgender lives are relics that we have forgotten how to read. They have no monstrances or reliquaries that tell us their stories and instruct us to value them. Instead, they have been discarded as waste among the trash heaps of history or else taken and used to tell other stories for other agendas. While laying the indispensable groundwork on which medieval transgender studies might arise, queer medieval scholars, like Carolyn Dinshaw in Getting Medieval, desire “to look at, not through, the transvestite,” as part of a project of queer history, yet too often see only “a crisis of categorization” that points to a queer concern, the unspeakable sin, “that is sodomy” (106). This desire for finding queer silence draws queer scholars away from the construction of transgender and towards the indeterminacy of the text, concluding “the silence of the records regarding this case [of a transgender life] might be the final silence of death, or the muteness of a maimed life” (112). The analysis that turns towards the silence and death of transgender can too often miss the whispers and resurrection. Thus the danger of queer medieval approaches to medieval transgender: that in the excitement of undoing binaries, we invoke specters of trans lives only to deconstruct the genders and genres by which they are able to speak.

The transgender lives of the past did not only live outside binaries and categories but understood (even misunderstood) and used (even misused) them in order to reclaim power over their bodies and their speech. In other words, our
 transgender lives do more than simply disturb your cisgender lives. We create and we exist within wider genres of trans embodiment. A critical trans approach to body and narrative insists on thinking in terms of relations and sets. Editor of Transgender Studies Quarterly (TSQ) and author of Transgender History, Susan Stryker, holds out hope for transgender's ability to reconstruct (and not only deconstruct) categories. Stryker argues that transgender is a word that ever challenges limits,  an “umbrella term for an imagined community encompassing transsexuals, drag queens, hermaphrodites, cross-dressers, masculine women, effeminate men, sissies, tomboys, and anybody else willing to be interpreted by the term” (4). As a critical methodological term, transgender is not merely a claim to an identity category or medical dysphoria but a way of being inter-textual. Trans(-gender) studies embraces the prefix "trans-" as a way of thinking with and relating different ideas, locations, times, and bodies. Whereas other theoretical projects may see transgender as falling in the silence between modes of discourse, transgender studies insists that by linking and extending discourses the trans bodies may speak louder and in more varied ways than cisgender texts that obey their limits.

By establishing trans genres of embodiment, we can offer narrative frames that allow trans lives to speak rather than leaving them in the deconstructed ruins of gender. In a seminal trans studies essay, “A Post-Transsexual Manifesto,” Susan Stone call for us to embrace trans theory as the creative work of reconstructing categorization, 
“[t]o begin to write oneself into the discourses by which one has been written” (232).  In contrast with definitions of transgender as a modern pathology or emergent third gender, Stone calls for a social model of transgender as a critical intervention in the study of genre. In this framework, transgender is an archive of relics that have been cast aside or silenced because they challenge our current modes of categorization, “a set of embodied texts whose potential for productive disruption of structural sexualities and spectra of desire has yet to be explored” (231). Rather than merely undoing binaries, transgender transforms fixed pairs into dynamic and diverse sets that meet and converge, emerge and branch. Rather than demanding we set aside our history, a critical trans studies challenges us to do the potentially harder work of changing how we structure and understand our history. By learning how to read in a dysphoric way, medieval literary scholars can learn how to read trans lives that often speak in doubled or trebled voices. By reading for genres of embodiment medieval trans studies can offer new frames by which silenced trans bodies can speak, “to begin to articulate their lives not as a series of erasures… but as a political action begun by reappropriating difference and reclaiming the power of the reconfigured and reinscribed body” (232). Trans modes resist the enclosure of difference in the medical model or the silence of a cis-historicist model of gender, by admitting that all bodies function inter-textually.

To review, unlike a certain brand of queer studies that would like to see gender (including but especially the categories of man and woman) erased and forgotten, transgender studies makes the radical yet pragmatic move to insist that we can keep thinking in terms of categories but reframe what and who determines what bodies (facta) fit into what genres (dicta).
 This move from gender to genre plays upon a critical etymological genealogy. The English term “gender” comes from the French “genre” which in turn comes from the Latin “genus,” meaning a category. If “trans” signifies a crossing, a critical understanding of “trans-gender” or “trans-genre” should not be limited to recognized genders, but open to existing between categories, as well as changing and producing categories in the process. This critical approach does not seek to exist without gender and genre but to build archives of modes of embodiment that is constantly growing and being revised.  Transgender and disability studies scholar Eli Clare sums up the critical work of trans studies by reframing the discussion of gender and genres, "The trans movement suggests a world full of gender and sex variation, a world much more complex than one divided into female-bodied women and male-bodied men. Many trans activists argue for an end, not to the genders of woman and man, but to the socially constructed binary." A transgender man is still a man, just not in that way. A transgender woman is still a woman, just not in that way. A gender queer person is still gendered just not in that way. Changing, creating and mixing genres is complex but so is the realities of gendered life. Ever “across” or “between” modes of embodiment, a critical trans literary theory follows the diverse genres of transgender through their historic genealogies, from eunuch to the transsexual, from hermaphrodite to intersex, from division to dyshoria, from monasteries to mad houses. Each genre existed within different genres of embodied gender and understood themselves by reframing the rules of different genres of literature; genres we may need to relearn.


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Reframing our Relics

"Nay, nay!" cries the Host. Like many anti-trans reactionaries, the Host fears that the trans bodies and stories of the Pardoner threaten the naturalized hierarchies of his world. If the silenced speak and the discarded are recollected, then those on the bottom of the patriarchal chain of being might try to rise up against their oppressors. The Host fears the call to love that which he has regarded as shameful and so he uses hate speech and humor to put the trans speaker back in his place. He yells, "[t]hou woldest make me kisse thyn olde breech, / And swere it were a relyk of a seint, / Though it were with thy fundement depeint!” The Host claims that the remade bodies of the Pardoner and his relics are not fundamentals of Nature, but "fundements" to be refused as shit. The Pardoner’s body resembles the fragmented relics and stories he tells and the Host threatens to ensure that the stories of these broken bodies share similar ends. One might imagine someone making similar comparisons between transgender and bestiality, implying that both are equally unnatural, shameful and worthy of scorn. A trans discourse that demands we change our ways of framing and valuing the world is reacted to with hate speech that blurs the line between playful mockery and pretense to violence. "I wolde I hadde thy coillons in myn hond," says the Host, "In stide of relikes... Lat kutte hem of, I wol thee helpe hem carie!" The Host threatens the Pardoner with violence and the refusal of remade bodies and meaning. Through hate speech, people like the Host refuse the revaluation of discarded parts as new wholes in their own right. Parts remain parts. Refuse is refused. Trans bodies are denied the power to speak their own facta or dictate the dicta by which they’re understood.

Is there hope in the scars and silences of the Pardoner? What can we do with exempla that are deployed to make an example out of the trans body? It should not be missed that after these threats and mocking, the trans figure is scared into silence. The effects of a cisgender speaker using their power in a public forum in this way is that trans voices can be unpowered or excluded. This silence does not arise out of the transgender person's escape from the order of speech but by the active work of those undoing their voice. Persons and organizations like the Host reject the reframed and reimagined relics trans discourse offers and insists that they are dangerous fantasies projected on dead and silent bodies. Yet as we acknowledge the social forces that enforce this silence, can we see the retreat into speechlessness as yet another mode of discourse? Can we see silence as a call for help from those who might fill in the gaps and read between the lines? While scholars argue that the Pardoner’s silence at the threat against his body is a sign of passive absence, this may be an active opening up the body’s vulnerability in order to pressure others to remake and reclaim scarred bodies and relationships. Submitting to the Host’s sharp words and knife, the Pardoner compels the Knight’s help. “Namoore of this, for it is right ynough!” cries the Knight, “Sire Pardoner, be glad and myrie of cheere; And ye, sire Hoost, that been to me so deere, I prey yow that ye kisse the Pardoner.” The Knight has social authority to defend the Pardoner but also physical power. He is a person of privilege who might leverage his speech and body in defense of the silenced and vulnerable trans figure. And this is more than an unprompted act of charity on the part of the cisgender man. Choosing non-violent resistance, the Pardoner bears his vulnerable body, challenging onlookers to recollect a sense of solidarity with the refused body and to call out, “Namoore of this, for it is right ynough.”

What can seem to anarchical queer schools of thought like a return and submission to old rules of gender and narrative, in a trans genre theory is revealed to be a reconstructing and reclaiming of the modes of production. In order to change the rules of systems, we often need to learn to think like systems. In the process we learn about our vulnerabilities as well as the vulnerabilities of the discourses in which we are entangled. As a result, a transgender approach to eunuchs takes into account the eunuch as a genre of medieval masculinity as well as an engine in the mechanisms of the genre of exempla (the example) on which modern medicine is built. Genres of embodiment like exempla make the material facta of trans lives indispensable to the dicta of gender control. Anti-transgender discourses need the facts of trans lives to prove their doctrines, even as their framing of these lives distort and silence these facts. In the end, this does not result in the destruction of trans lives in anti-trans narratives but in the control and subordination of them. We become jokes for them to tell and fears for them to spread. Framed by exempla, eunuchs sell the tales of their lives to secure physical and social capital for those who have influence over them; be they the state, the Church, or the academy. Under the orders of these cis-exclusive organizers, the trans eunuch is made “whole” and safe by leaving behind parts of his body, meaning, and power. Yet the scars of the Pardoner reminds the knight and the readers of the countless bodies caught on either side of the bloody operations of sharp machines: power flows not through the erasure of scars but through the open making and unmaking of the body, revealing the dangerous instability of all lives — enfolding transsexuals, castrates, virgins, geldings and mares in a shared vulnerability and resistance. The genre of the eunuch exempla shows us that there are unique forms of resistance in embracing one’s vulnerability, one's mockery, one’s speechlessness. By not giving pardons, trans bodies connect to the agency of those around them in ways that put pressure on the system that makes and unmakes them.

Conflict is intrinsic to narrative and embodiment. It is not an over-reaction for a transgender medievalist to see the larger war and dangerous threats implicit in what may be pardoned as playful jabs. Yet the power of our oppressors can be used against them and our vulnerability can work for us. By silencing us so publicly, you are drawing others to hear our stories. By sending more of us to our early graves, you are adding to the cacophony of ghosts whispering in the machines of our destruction. By deconstructing our bodies, you reveal the maps for reconstruction written in our scars and sinews. Conflict comes with cost and we are paying it in the lives and stories of our transgender family. But one day that bill will have to be paid. For once we learn to listen to the transgender stories of the dead, each seemingly silent gravestone and medieval text will come alive with the call for justice. We do not rest in quiet peace but rest in untapped power. For those with the skills and intention to read in a critical transgender mode, the trans body incites storytelling by its scars of castration and surgery, confessions of sin and dysphoria, places of isolation and exclusion, and relics of death and silence. We know the questions people ask of these trans bodies: how did this happen? When did you change your name? What was it before? How did you change your body? What is it now? What made it change? Will it change again? All these questions require going backwards and forwards in time. These questions require stories. But I am here to say that sometimes the trans bodies go speechless. They are quieted by the violence of hate speech prefiguring exclusion and acts of violence. 
Where they don't give answers or pardons, they offer questions and challenges. Yet even when trans lives are speechless, excluded, or killed, our ruins and relics will remain with you. So long as the past remains, we may find the reliquaries, genealogies and genres of embodiment that help us make sense of our present. When the living are dead silent, their relics will continue to speak. Will you listen?
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Listen to more transgender stories
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Sunday, May 8, 2016

Other Ways to Be a Mom: Lessons for a Transgender Daughter


"When I was a child...
there was something in the water, 
now that something's in me...
 it's in my roots, in my veins, it's in my blood"

The River Lea
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Our mothers are often mysteries to us. For those of us lucky enough to have a mom who raised us with care and love, we may still know them best simply in the capacity of that care. We know our mothers as moms. Getting to see beyond the vocation of being our parent, especially when we are young, gives us glimpses at who our mothers are when otherwise we aren't looking. And these moments, when we step outside the role of mother and child, we are often called even deeper into the mystery that is motherhood. The door to their other worlds open and what we see enriches the world that we share with our parent because we better appreciate all that is beside, beyond, or behind how they mother us. 

For me, I got a chance to see into what my mom did and was when she wasn't being my mom during a period of time in the 5th grade when I was being taken out of school on a regular basis for safety reasons. It was at this time that the process of taking me away from my fellow girls and placing me in the company of boys was amping up. At school, as my schoolmates and me approached adolescence, parents of the other girls at school weren't arranging play dates with me much anymore. Instead, I found myself being introduced to the boys at school to find friendship and a common identity. I was increasingly being told, "you are a boy," which had all sorts of connotations including who I was and who I was supposed to play with. The problem was that I did not feel comfortable doing the things young boys do in the way many of them like to do it. I didn't feel an affinity for the boys or a belonging among them. It's hard to say whether I felt like I didn't belong because I really wanted to be with the girls or else because I was made to feel like I didn't belong by the boys. In any case, among these young men, I stuck out as different and so I became a target.

This may have been one reason (who ever knows the reasons) why I soon began to be bullied. I would be verbally mocked and used by other boys to show off their strength. I would be grabbed, shoved, and smacked as the young boys demonstrated to the other boys at school that they were strong and were not the bottom of the pack. I would come home with bruises on my arms and neck. I was asked why I didn't fight back and do the same to them. I said that I didn't want to be a part of competition. I wasn't going to gain acceptance by hurting others and I didn't want to be a part of a community (or norm of gender) that required this kind of initiation. The further problem was that the school system wasn't going to do anything about it, especially if they didn't catch it happening in the moment. The school said to my parents the same suggestion: your child should just fight back. In the end, with few options, my mother made the decision to keep me out of school on a regular basis. This was the circumstances that put me in the position of following along as my mother went to her job visiting children as a home healthcare nurse.


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What I saw my mother doing in her work taught me lessons about who she was as a woman and the kind of person I wanted to be. My mother is a registered nurse. She jokes that her job often feels like being a professional mom for strangers. In her job, she would go on daily drives to different houses and schools where children of all kinds needs depended on her for assistance. On these drives, I would sit in the back seat on a blanket and read or do homework. Sometimes as she went inside to offer healthcare to patients, I would stay in the car and continue to devour books. I most loved reading mystery books at this time. The authors and characters would keep me company while I was out of school and my mother worked. We would sit together during lunch time when I would tell her about what I read and she told me about work. She liked reading by didn't always have time to do as much as she wanted. She enjoyed finding out about books through me. In fact, years later, as I read for my job, she still calls me up (sometimes while having lunch) and ask me about what authors and characters I've made friends by reading.

During this time traveling with her on her job, I began to want to be more involved. If I was going to come along with her on her home visits, I wanted to see her do it and help if I could. And so, with permission, she started bringing me inside more and I got to see my mother being a nurse. When she arrived, my mother would change I.V.s, change bandages, or administer medicines. Sometimes I would ask what was going on in the bodies of the patients. Sometimes she would tell me what she was doing and why. But most often she would just introduce them and start chatting. She knew the medicine of what was going on and what needed to be done but that wasn't what was most important for me to know. Instead, she would insight conversations where I got to learn their names, how old they were, what they liked to do for fun. Other times I would just be silent and watch her world. I would listen to her listen, hear her sooth their anxieties, and answer questions they or their caretakers might have. 

What I was most struck by was how quiet she was. She would do her vocation as a nurse in that peaceful, silent way that made me recollect the Polish nuns in our community in obtrusively doing their devotions. I saw how she would hold the kids who couldn't hold up their own heads. The gentle way she would take their hands. And when there was conversation, especially when they were discussing the needs of the child, I recalled how quiet she was then too. In these dialogs, she would mostly listen. "It is their health," she would tell me. "I am there for them. They are in charge." And I saw how her silent but affirming presence made people feel. They would open up to her even though she was practically a stranger. She cared for them, not as a mother to a child but in another way. She made them feel like they were in this together. That she shared their hurt and frustration as well as their goals and excitement. And this is how I learned the real meaning of compassion: sharing our passions, the good and the bad. And from this a community grew out of compassion, shared hurts and hopes, rather than by blood or competition.


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By studying and waiting at my mother's side, I learned that there were other norms and other ways to do community. When raising children, mothers can exercise that special power of helping to define what is normal for the child. Other people can say  or do things that effect children but there is a quiet consistent world-making that a mother (mother-figure or other parent) uses to set what the day to day expectations are and how a child is trained to react when expectations are surprised. What my mother showed me by allowing me to see her as a nurse and not only as my parent was who our wider family and community could be. Our days were full of people who recognized the need for care and wanted us to be on their team.  It wasn't explicitly said but I silently learned through this new routine to identify alongside those with whom we spent our days. I saw myself among kids with chronic suffering, people who needed special ongoing care, and children with various disabilities who couldn't go to school with others their age. 

In a way, by taking me out of class to going along with her, my mother was caring for me as a parent but also in the way she cared for these other kids who couldn't find a place in the current education system. To us both, she gave the message that we weren't alone and that outside of the norms other people set we could form our own community of compassion. Together, queer, trans, and crip kids could sit with nurses, moms, and caretakers in a world of our own. My mother was showing me that these could and would always be my people if I ever stepped outside the usual routines of school. My mother showed me another way to respond to violence without reacting in violence. When an environment gets too harmful or dangerous, sometimes the best thing you can do (if you can) is leave. Outside the doors of the normal there was communities of care. My mother was showing me that there are and could be other ways of doing and being normal. This community and compassion was the normal she offered me. She offered it without preaching or lecturing or trying to put it in terms a child could grasp. She offered it to me because she had a power greater than words: she was my mother and by opening who she was to me, it was through her that I learned about the world and about myself.

Years later, I am now a mother myself and engaged to another mother who through compassion daily shares lessons and hurts and hopes and frustrations and excitement about motherhood with me. My community and family has grown to include two gifts, two children who I couldn't have planned or imagined and are better people because they are so radically themselves. And these children make me a better person, a better scholar, a better partner and a better mother because I get to parent them. All the while, especially on Mothers' Days like today, I am so grateful that I live in this world and in this community because my mother gave me the gift of herself that showed me that showing compassion can save us, that those we give care to can care for us in return, that the rejects of society have places where we are welcome and celebrated, that there are other ways of being normal. In so many ways, I am alive today because of my mother. And now I get the honor to follow in her footsteps as a woman, as a mother, and much more. I hope and strive that I can offer the same compassion to my children that they might share in the diversity of who I am so that together we all may venture further into the vocation and mystery of motherhood.


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