Friday, August 12, 2016

Those Set Apart: Hagiography as a Genre of Transgender Literature

“The Passion of Christ is particularly 
embodied in the transvestite gesture itself

Stephen Davis
Crossed Texts, Crossed Sex

The canonization of Mother Theresa as a twenty first century embodiment of womanly virtue and the comments from Pope Francis that continue to alienate and marginalize the trans community raise questions of the relationship between transgender and the Church. While modern Catholicism opposes non-cisgender, non-binary genres of embodiment, forms of transgender life, narrative, and spirituality grew in the medieval Church. It may be surprising to some, that the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Church has long revered transgender persons as saints, replete with their own hagiographies, relics, shrines, and holy feast days. One scholar lists the number of transgender hagiographies as no less than eleven. A review of these stories reveals a vast number of generic similarities between the saints lives and between the medieval and modern trans community.

Hagiography is a deceptively simple genre. Literally it means, holy writing, "hagio-" (adj.) holy- and "-graphy" (noun) -writing. Or else it means, writing about the holy ones, "hagions-" (noun) holy ones and "-graphy" (noun) -writing about. Yet when the root, "hagio" or "hagion," is examined more in depth, the meaning becomes more amibiguous. In Greek, hagio meant sacred or holy. Yet a still older meaning for hagio is different or set apart. The transformation from the one to the other is easy to grasp. The sacred is that which is set apart and different from the mundane or worldly. This has led to the common definition of saints in the twenty-first century Church to define "saints" as "those set apart." In this context, hagiography is not only "holy writing" or "writing about the holy ones" but "the writing of difference" or "writing about those set apart." By this definition, hagiography is about those who do not fit into the world as we know it.

What is trans hagiography? What are its generic qualities and social function? Many of these stories offer few examples of miracles and martyrs, focusing its argument for the trans person sainthood on their extraordinary gender and how the faithful pursuit of their authentic gender brought them closer to God. This project to examine the qualities of the trans hagiography and the trans saint as medieval genre of embodiment marks a critical intervention in the perceived history and place of transgender in the Church as well as offers a model by which we may understand current day transgender lives and narratives. In particular, I will take the case of the Vita of Saint Marinos the Monk (also called Marina, Marine, and Marinus) as it was engaged in various medieval texts and traditions to demonstrate how the oppressive setting apart of trans lives can be reclaimed as a move towards alternative forms of embodiment, narrative, and faith.

The question then arises: what forms of difference are markers of sacredness? Can the image and practice of transgender life be honored as pointing toward truth and grace? I argue, yes. As will be shown, "transvestitism” (or transition) “is the unmistakable ‘sign’ or image that links this group of hagiographical narratives," that has a central place in Christian theology even as it is marginalized (Davis 15). As a genre of embodiment that continues into the current day, trans hagiography constructs persons as particular images of divine truth (under the Imago Dei) and (through a form of Imitatio Christi) spurring the transformation of society so as to allow for and produce trans lives. If scholarship is to make the necessary assertion that transvestism in hagiography provided first, an image of God in the particularity of the trans experience, an imago transvesti is discernable in the shape of the genre, and second, as a model of Christian sainthood, readers should be able to derive this imitatio transvesti by an examination of the genre’s key features.

This argument responds to trends in scholarship on "transvestite saints" that tends to undermine the binding of trans "difference" and "sacredness." These arguments, often following TERF agendas, fight against the notion that medieval hagiographers might find something sacred in the difference of trans figures. Critiques waged against "transvestite saints," who they call "women disguised as men," is that they only reinforce the male supremacist notion that women are only holy when they are like men. The reading of the saint as a "trans man" is sacrificed for the reading of him as a "woman forced by society into the role of a man." TERF readings see transition as the entrance into a deeper prison for women rather than as an escape from cis womanhood into trans masculinity. Rather than admitting transvestism but focusing on male supremacy, I call that we admit that context of male supremacy but focus on the sacred difference of medieval trans saints.

Contrary to modern expectations, the transvestism of the saint was not something to be explained away or excused or overcome. As
Stephen Davis writes in "Crossed Texts, Crossed Sex" (2002), "[i]n many of these Lives the heroine's change of dress is virtually left unexplained … suggest[ing] that the hagiographers actually presumed that their ancient readers were already acquainted with other 'texts' — other discourses — that would have helped make sense of the transvestite motif within these saints' lives" (Davis 16). Readers of hagiographers knew what a trans person was or has some way of knowing. Furthermore, they would likely have become familiar with the trans hagiography as a genre and the trans saint as its key feature. Davis writes, "in the ninth, tenth, and eleventh centuries there was a revival of the genre," noting, "at least eleven vitae of transvestite female saints were published during this period" (Davis 4). All this is more than saying that a transvestite merely hagiography included transvestites, rather the transvestism became a central mechanism in the working of the holy writing.


Imago Tranvesti

So what is the image of the transgender saint that makes them an image of God? The answer depends on how one looks at that image. Framed within the gender binary, the divisions of the world will be highlighted. From a patriarchal perspective, the trans monk embodied the division and dysphoria generated by the patriarchal exclusivity, what Davis calls, "the palpable tensions between... monastic hostility toward women as the source of their sexual desire, and... the monks' suppressed longing for female presence." (Davis 7-8). From within a patriarchal frame of reference, if trans saints did not exist then hagiographers would imagine them to relieve tensions and failings in cisgender binaries. For scholars concerned with reaffirming patriarchal structures of gender, Davis writes, "[t]he transvestite female saint is understood as the literary product of this tension." (Davis 8). The self-interested limits of patriarchal scholarship go a long way in explaining why the image of the trans saint as a living subject in itself has long been deflected.

Yet patriarchal cisgender approaches are only one side of the dice. Alternatively, from a feminist perspective, the trans saint embodies a relief of tensions for women. Davis observes, "the central motif of transvestitism would have challenged late antique social models of male authority and female subjection. The image of the transvestite saint was an image of female independence and autonomy" (Davis 9). For men, trans monks were acceptable exceptions to the rule of gender exclusivity. For women, trans monks were a defiant crossing of that exclusivity. The problem with both of these readings is that they reduce transgender to a product and solution for cisgender problems, ultimately ending with the return to cisgender binary. A critical reading of the trans hagiography represents that if one is to become a saint, to be set apart, this means radical change that will make a replacement of things back to where they were impossible.

Exploring the theological scholarship on trans hagiography, Davis concludes, "the Passion of Christ is particularly embodied in the transvestite gesture itself." Indeed, the flight from oppressive social and physical conditions, through a period of transition, and ending in a state of revealed truth is at once very trans and very Christian. Transgender transition, Davis observes, can be seen as a form (a genre) of a transition all Christians undergo: baptism. Davis writes, "the act of changing garments evokes… the Pauline baptismal formula of Galatians 3.27-28: 'As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ… there is no longer male and female; for you all one in Christ Jesus'" (Davis). Through the transition at the heart of trans hagiography, the trans monk is clothed at once in his own material and social manhood as well as the spiritual manhood of Christ which is beyond the cisgender binary of the world. 

The willingness to undergo suffering to live as one's imago dei becomes a form of martyrdom in the imitatio Christi. Hotchkiss calls this, "[the] willingness to suffer for the sins of others [which] obviously evokes the figure of Christ" (25). In medieval theology, in the incarnation, Christ too engaged in becoming embodied and becoming man. This came with privileges but also with costs. Some of the costs are evident in the passion encountered for being his authentic self. In the case of trans male saints, Hotchkiss observes, "[d]espite the governing precept of male superiority… disguise emerges, paradoxically, as a sign of humility, since it reflects a voluntary disregard for the self in favor of serving God" (Hotchkiss 25). Whether disguise of transition, receiving the benefits of male privilege demands a sacrifice of truth about past embodiments and struggles. Or else the trans men confess both the trans and male aspect of their lives and deal with cis male rejections. Either way, privilege and manhood comes with a cost. 

The transition of embodiment enacts baptism in many ways. Embodying a trans narrative can be one way toward grace and sainthood. Hotchkins, writes, "cross-dressed women [trans men] symbolically depict the power of Christianity to 'transform' its adherents… Radical transformations - water to win, death to life, male to female - informs Christian doctrine on many levels" (19). Indeed, the process of embodying manhood for trans masculine saints in many ways mirrored Christ's the incarnation of manhood and the initiates entrance into the body of Christ. As Hotchkiss writes, "she cuts her hair and puts on male clothing, thus realizing the symbol of the baptismal robe as the sign of the new man in the male image of God," (22). The use of the language and concepts of baptism making you a "new man" marks trans masculine hagiography is in many ways a natural extension of traditional Christian narratives and theology. 

The use of the baptismal robe in early Christian traditions further tied transvestite transitions to sacramental transformations. "The Pauline metaphor appears to have been incorporated into the earliest baptismal ceremonies," writes Hotchkiss, "in the removal of clothing and, after immersion, the putting on of new white robes, apparently the same for men and women. The initiate is described as transformed, reborn, and united with Christ" (20-21). The use of the word “incorporated” is significant in Hotckiss’s statement. Far from being merely a play of signifiers, where appearances cover an unchanging essence, Christian baptismal robes signified that changing clothes can mark an ontological change in the person. In contemporary trans Christian culture, trans people engage in baptisms as part of their transition process where they become named, blessed, and accepted into the body of the Church as their authentic self. In this way and others, trans narratives not only mirror or use Christian tradition but alters the way we understand those traditions. 



Imitatio Transvesti

"The hagiographers are not advocating transvestism," one scholar stubbornly insists, while acknowledging, "these characteristics convey the saints' extraordinary natures" (Ogden 8). For decades, a contradiction exists in medieval scholarship on trans hagiography, where academics (who sometimes seem more uncomfortable if also more pitying of trans subjects than the medieval writers) insist that although hagiography’s function is to create an imitation Christi, a way of living that brings one closer to God, there is a persistent belief (perhaps more modern than medieval) that trans-ness must be a negligible or negative trait that holiness overcomes. Nonetheless, in the 1990s, reflecting a trans affirmative counter history, Valerie R. Hotchkiss in Clothes Make the Man (1996) asks the pressing question, "If disruptions of gender hierarchy were not encouraged, why then do so many hagiographers write about women disguised as men?" 

If as Brock and Susan Ashbrook Harvey argue, "all early Christian hagiography... was motivated by an ethic of imitation," then Davis wonders, "Were ancient readers called to seek out the example of Christ in the lives of transvestite saints?" The answer must be that there was something virtuous, saintly, and even Christ-like in being trans. In "Crossed Texts, Crossed Sex" (2002), Davis offers a useful survey of the genre’s texts and contexts. While Davis acknowledges, "the image of the transvestite female saint was certainly full of contradictions," he affirms this trait of trans hagiography as central to its purpose. "The transvestite female saint was (quite literally) the embodiment of various oblique cultural discourses—an intertextually constructed body,” writes Davis. Perhaps leading to its divergent readings, trans hagiography arises as a limit testing of discourse of sex and gender, worldliness and holiness, constancy and change that become inscribed into the trans saint as an embodiment produced through the genre. 

The trans saint’s work of embodiment is critical to the work of trans hagiography. While other genres offer ideal values, hagiographies are distinguished by moves towards wonder from the materiality of everyday life. “The body is thus the primary tool for conveying the narrative's meaning, which contributes to the saint's imitatio Christi," writes Amy Ogden in "The Centrality of Margins" (8). As images of God, saints are closer to a historical Christ than abstract ideals. If saints bleed like Christ, they also bleed like you and me. Embodying the transitional crossroads between the world and God, hagiography, "calls attention to the profoundly marginal identity of all saints: from a terrestrial, political standpoint, their behavior relegates them to the edges of society, while from a spiritual perspective, it locates their identity in the overlap between the human and the divine" (Ogden 8). Far from being incidental, the contradictions and marginalization that trans saint’s embodied brought them closer to readers and to God.

As an embodiment of limit testing, the trans saint imitates Christ by moving between cultural centers and margins, drawing followers to revalue the marginalized. By aligning the imitatio transvesti with imitatio Christi, the transitional movement of trans saints participates in the Christian project of reframing margins as central to spiritual life. "Their essential liminality," writes Ogden, "points to a fundamental and paradoxical quality of hagiography: namely, the centrality of margins" (Ogden 8). Hagiography generically selected someone who the world rejected to become a saint. Indeed, this feature of hagiography illuminates its immense social power. Through trans hagiography, readers are accustomed to see something "trans" then about all saint's lives where persons are oppressed or marginal for the living out of their beliefs (much like trans folk) and also existing in a liminal (i.e. trans-) position between body and spirit, this world and the next. 

Because crossroads frequently involve conflict, as an embodiment of transition, the trans saint becomes is materially and spiritually formed by the suffering they undergo. Giving the saint’s life a “highly literary quality,” Hotchkins writes that trans hagiography draws positive meaning from the conflicts experienced during transition, "elements of flight, disguise, calumny, and dramatic anagnorisis” (15). Undergoing transition contrary to the limits of the world, often means that one will face some form of opposition. This "calumny" can be limit tests where social sins can be reveal and the trans life can prove its virtue. The exchange of clothes (more a ‘transition’ than a ‘disguise’) signals that the trans saint is more than the world understands, a man of the world and a man of God. The struggle of a trans saint, can cause scars that embody the spiritual virtue of transness and sacredness; an imitatio transvesti that cooperates with an imitatio Christi.

The crossroads that the saint embodies is the cross of Christ, a revelation of a broken world does to one that calls for radical changes that bring a higher justice. As Hotchkiss writes, "transvestite saints reveal much about gender definitions and cultural biases based on gender" (16). Embodying the conflict between the world and God’s truth, traditionally called sin, but which in secular terms may be called transphobia and sexism, reveals social structures that inhibit readers from seeing the image of god in trans lives. Thus, argues one scholar, by embodying of the transition process, "the transvestite female saint ultimately embodies the theological paradox of redemption." In the end, the imitatio transvesti is not tangential to the function of hagiography but a form and limit test of the imitatio Christi. For all the prejudice and marginalization of trans people face, perhaps the greatest gift that trans hagiography offers them (and other oppressed people) is the message that that suffering matters and can be used to bring more grace into the world.


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