Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Rest in Power: the Digital Iconography of Transgender Saints


“It's time to raise awareness for this, 
there are too many suicides... 
#HisNameWasBlake #HerNameWasLeelah 
#RestInPower #TransLivesMatter”

@MollyWhitt
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Digital Icons

Her name was Leelah. His name was Zander. His name was Ash. These are our transgender dead and they are remembered. In some ways we remember them as generations have remebered our ancestors for centuries. In other ways, we remember them in ways particular to our own time. In the current digital age, many of us receive our news through social media. For the transgender community, when another one of us commit suicide or are murdered, a too common occurrence, the news often comes in the form of a tweet, a Facebook post, or an image on Tumblr or Instagram. Messages read: "Rest in Power" and tell us "His name was...," "Her name was...," or "Their name was..." In our the highly visual world of social media, where news of death often travels via the meme machine of images with text, the names of our transgender dead are increasingly announced through a particular form of images reflecting the iconography of medieval Christian saints. This brings us back the truth that for history beyond memorial, trans persons have been born and struggled with their own times definitions and divisions of gender. Their language was different from ours as was their technologies for transition and transmission of information. Yet can we say that when one of those lives came to an end, that their friends and family did not feel the same pain we do? Are we so closed up and close off in our own time that we cannot imagine that then as now there was grief, and wonder, and hope for a better world to come. It is not so hard to imagine, if we try. And we have help in this trans historical work of grief in the form of a legacy of stories and images, hagiographies and icons that bind generations together in a common loss and common love for our trans saints.

In its current form, transgender iconography in digital media is relatively new. A survey of databases show that the phrase #HisNameWas or #HerNameWas goes back only to the early 2000s. In twitter, #HisNameWas and #HerNameWas goes back only to 2010 and does not relate to transgender until 2014, after the death of Leelah Alcorn. While Alcorn's death was not the first transgender suicide, by a long shot, nor the first one to be publicized in the media, her death was one of the first to be taken seriously by the public. In recent articles, I have argued that a significant part of Alcorn's power in death came from her unusually well written suicide note. The suicide note as a whole is confessional, seeking to make a mends between the suicide and her society. Yet Alcorn's note, as with many notes, contained a significant section that told the story of her life as a trans woman. After death, the confession on the sins of transphobia had its effect on public discourse, elevating the issue of the treatement of trans youths. Likewise, the life story section made Alcorn very accessible for many readers, trans and not-trans, elevating her as a person in the public transgender history. In a sense, her note was autohagiographical. While not self egrandizing, the note did egrandize her, making her a saint or martryr and prompting a new wave of transgender art on digital media. After art pieces comemorating Alcorn began to surface, featuring the phrase #RestInPower and #HerNameWasLeelah, later trans deaths began to commenorated in like manner. And thus a form of trans iconography emerged alongside a new set of trans saints, each with their respective life stories.
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Medieval Iconography

A picture may be worth a thousand words and pictures often call for words to offer context and narrative. In discussing trans iconography, it is necessary to talk about trans hagiography. Halos adorn many of the heads of these trans martyrs, continuing the Christian saint iconography signifying enlightenment. Iconography of St. Marinos the Monk, for instance, characteristically depict a halo around the saint's head. The halo is in turn borrowed from the ancient sun-disk, the light of which partially shrines through and partially is embodied by the saint. In "From the Invincible Sun to Christ the Pantocrator (2016), Victor Pfitzne writes of the halo's history in iconography. " Such representations and symbols are common, whether as the winged disk of Egypt... or the fiery disk of Persia or the radiating locks of Apollo-Helios in Greek art," Pfitzne writes. "The halo thus appears in Greek and Roman iconography to mark the heavenly origin of the gods and the divine authority of earthly rulers." What the light means depends on its cultural context but generally suggests some form of grace or knowledge that draws others towards a great truth.  Likewise, in "The Performative Icon" (2006), Bissera Pentcheva writes, "Light conveys the ineffable essence of souls." The halo marks the saint as set apart. The saint is a reflection of the light of God, an embodiment of the Imago Dei. At the same time, the halo marks the other ways the trans person is set apart. The particularity of his trans soul. St. Marinos, like many other trans youths, is separated from the rest of society by the exclusive gender politics of patriarchal systems. Even along these margins, the trans person becomes isolated within the self, forced to keep the light of his trans imago dei hidden from the world. The hagiographic work of the icon however is to transform the margins into centers of importance and the marginalized into lights for the world.

Another common feature is the presence of wings as though from Christian angel iconography. The word "angel" signifies messenger or go-between. In icons of St. Marinos featuring angels, these angels descend from the skies showing the close communications between the saint and God. In one such icon, the angel brings a wreath of leaves to place on the trans monk's head. The wreath is an ancient symbol signifying authority, worldly and divine. Wreathes were worn by rulers as well as priests and teachers. By this angelic gift, the wreath marks the trans saint as himself a sign from God, a trans imago dei on which the world can reflect on the diversity of God's world. In this way, the trans saint becomes a kind of angel themselves. Indeed, many modern trans icons depict the deceased as angels, go betweens, and images of hidden lights. In life, trans youths are often made to be liminal figures between gender community. In death, the angelic function turns the trans saint into a messenger on the conditions of the trans community as well as of an other world where such lives might be celebrated. As a teacher and authority in their own right, these angelic trans saints give lessons on ways in which later generations should be taught. Signifying this role as instructor and forefather, Marinos is typically imagined with a child on his lap. In his hagiography, Marinos is a surrogate father for a child abandoned by his birth family. Likewise, many trans youth today find acceptance in communities of choice rather than among those they were born. In the modern case, the message is largely the same: Learn to love one another better. See your trans lives for the beautiful souls they are. Let their inner light shine.  In today's digital world, however, these icons take on new technologies and utilize new language, including hashtags.

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#HisNameWas...

Hashtags are a digital age replacement for pithy prayers, titles, or sayings about saints. In the Middle Ages, such inscriptions would gesture back to a shared body of knowledge from the saint's hagiographies. In the current day, hashtags are short phrases accompanied by the pound (or hash) sign that link together other entries on social media. By clicking a hashtag, search engines can collate together a host of texts, images, and video using that same phrase. A specific phrase often associated with trans saints of the digital age is #HisNameWas... The significant of the phrase, "His name was...," "Her name was...," or "Their name was..." in trans iconography has several intertexts. The most popular association is with the 1996 novel Fight Club by Chuch Palahniuk and its later adaption to film in 1999. In the book, a group of men come together to form a fight club which bonds them closely with one another and the groups leader. Among the  fight club is Robert Paulson, a man with hefty breasts due to a large amount of hormones in his system. In time, the group has become so close that the abandon the use of their names because they regard them as signs of individuality that interfere with their mission of collectivity. One night however, the man who was Paulson is beaten to death in a fight. Afterwards, the leader says his name before the group. Taking the statement as a message that it is only in death that one's true name is remembered, the rest of the group begin chanting, "His name was Robert Paulson." From this story about a man with breasts and an erased identity being killed and remembered, the resonance for the transgender community is clear. Many feel that trans persons who are killed or brought to death by suicide have also had their trans identity systematically erased. Thus the statement, "His name was...," becomes a form of remembering him and restoring to him his identity. Of course, while Paulson was ridiculed for being a man with breasts, like some trans men, he did not experience many regularly referring to him as anything other than a man. As such, for the trans community, the affirmation of the pronoun adds to the significance of the phrase.

The need to stress the gender and pronouns in trans iconography and hagiography testifies to the many ways society continues to battle over the lives and afterlives of the transgender dead. Parents bury their dead child under their deadnames and forbid mention of their trans identity. Images at memorials are limited to those that show the pre-transitioned gender of the trans person. This battle over trans history stretches far into the past. Scholars note how despite the plentitude of trans saints, most medieval hagiographers use the pronouns assigned to them at birth rather than the pronouns appropriate to the life they chose and lived. Many scholars then take this as permission to do the same. To this day, nearly all scholarship on the genre of trans hagiography, usually called transvestite saints lives, uses cis essentialist pronouns and deadnames when referring to saints. A trans woman is call a transvestite male. A trans monk, such as St. Marinos, is called St. Marina. Charitably, I anticipate most of these decisions are made out of systematic ignorance and divisions between medieval studies and transgender studies. Furthermore, medieval scholars and many writing on current day trans deaths tend to gravitate toward the names and language used by what they regard as authoratative sources. Thus, if the parents of the child did not call their son a trans boy, then they will not either. If previous scholarship or the hagiographer in the sixth century did not use male pronouns (or switched back and forth) then the scholar will use female pronouns. In all of these cases, transgender histories become erased as unauthoratative like a meme machine. In the face of this, statements like "Her name was Leigha," or "His name was Marinos" are critical. Such hastags transform how we frame, connect, and understand the icons and the lives they represent. Hashtags such as this are a way of shaping discourse, rearranging histories, and reclaiming saints.

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Rest in Power

Last year, during the 2015 Transgender Day of Remembrance, the role of images and narratives in mobilizing the power of transgender saints was honored when members from the trans art, literature, and media community were brought together at the White House. Here, representatives from TransParent, the Danish Girl, as well as local writers, artists and myself were brought together to discuss our respective work and how we might better honor the death of those who have passed and affirm the life of those still with us. To the pleasure of my medievalist heart, many current day artists from Baltimore to Hollywood are increasingly aware that the tradition of trans storytelling and imagery stretches far in our collective past. Before there was the Transgender Queen of Hell lighting up Tumblr, the paintings of Lilly Elbe were decorating the wall of the elite, and before her the icons of trans saints drew medieval pilgrims to come in touch with trans relics and listen to trans hagiography. But honoring transgender youth does mean merely remembering them; i.e. turning them into pieces of art and media to be bought, sold, and consumed. What makes trans iconography reflect the medieval trans saints on whom their images draw influence is that they inspire action and change lives. Saints are not those who were without sin but those whose stories have been crafted within the genre of hagiography and whose images have transformed them into models for imitation. Trans iconography is a sign pointing us down the road towards a better future than our history records. Only once the images mobilize our strength towards justice can be truly say that the deceased rest in power. Only once that justice is attained (if ever) can we say they rest in peace.

So long as we merely remember, trans iconography will be needed. So long as we fail to remember, trans iconography must be demanded. So long as peace and power is only something to be remembered, to mark those who are no longer with us, trans iconography will always point us to a world beyond and better than our own. Some may regard it elevated rhetoric to cast these trans icons in the mantle of trans saints, yet history teaches us other lessons. Medieval hagiographies show us that the power of image and narrative can make a saint out of a sinner; and not only out of the dead. Saints inspire. Icons point the way. Narratives tell us how. The medieval Church passes on a tradition that the living stand in communion with the saints. A modern cynical attitude might suppose this simply is a way to raise up the dead to honor among the living. A hopeful premodern attitude might see this as a call to the living to earn a place among the honorable dead. We must suffer like they suffered if we are to know its cause. We are to stand where they stood if we are to face what opposed them. We shall fight as they fought if we are to embody their power and earn their peace. Sainthood is not something iconography remembers but a discourse that runs between past and present that turns both towards a different future. Marinos and Ash do not stare at the sun wondering how to embody its grace and might. These trans men are shown with the sun disk at their back because they go where the light points them. In the end, trans icons, medieval and digital, are not so much something to look at as someone to look with at the world where we stand.

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