“You have no control who lives, who dies,
who tells your story.”
who tells your story.”
'History Has Its Eyes on You'
'History Has Its Eyes on You'
The following address was given to the Transgender Studies Quarterly panel
on Trans Historicities at the 2016 Trans* Studies Conference in Tucson, Arizona.
The paper bore a dedication to Pope Francis
following the recent canonization of St. Theresa of Calcutta
and an anti-transgender agenda in the Church
Today, at this historic Trans Studies Conference, the living stand in communion with countless, unnumbered, unnamed transgender dead. Who are they? How would we know? If we died here today, how would we be remembered? Who would tell our story? What good would we leave behind for them to carry on, to emulate, to advocate? For those who come after us, we are already buried six feet deep in trans history. For those that come after us, all that might exist are a few words, a few images, a few relics from which to learn who we are to them and to define who they will be to us. For those who come after us will practice history as we teach them. For those who come after us, the futures we imagine for them will be one with the histories we reimagine for ourselves. Today, on this historic day we stand among those who count, those who number, those who name the transgender dead. We will tell the world who they are and how we knew them. We will tell their stories and stand in communion with those set apart, those remembered, those forgotten, those transgender saints.
A child is assigned female at birth but yearns for another life. One day their father says he is going to an exclusive religious space and the child must stay home. The youth blames the father for claiming a tradition that he will not share. The father responds, you are a girl and this is a place only for men. Then account me a man, says the child, if you would save my life. The father relents. The child cuts hair, changes clothes, takes a new name. The child is allowed into the religious community. Yet he faces prejudices and is ejected for a time because of slander. In time, the child proves their worth. When they die, the community comes together to mourn the passing of their brother. Only then do they find out his trans history. At this news, they confess that they love the man even more and praise him as one of the best of them. Yet even as stories spread, tellers conflict on whether to affirm the saint’s gender or return them to socially assigned sex and deadname. How will they be remembered? A man set apart, a sinner or a saint?
This story is familiar to those precious transgender dead whose images and stories are told to encourage change in today’s society and a better life for future generations. The story above could describe a number of current day trans narratives as they are told on digital media, yet its origins come from the sixth century and developed in the medieval period. The word saint is considered out of date for many, drawn from a religious history with which they do not identify. Yet I argue that sainthood, the status of being set apart, is exactly the result of many of the narratives and images concerning trans persons past and present that are downright hagiographical. If we are to wrestle control over the image and actions associated with our trans dead, we need modes of reclaiming the trans saints in our medieval history and acknowledging our saints of today.
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" -writing about. Yet when the root, "hagio" or "hagion," is examined more in depth, the meaning is ambiguous (OED, various etymologies). In Greek, hagio means sacred. An older meaning for hagio is different or set apart. The change 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 definition of saints in the twenty-first century Christian Church 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." Questions then arise: what forms of difference can be called sacred? Who or what else does not fit into the world as we know it?
In this short paper, I argue for a genre of trans literature that might be called trans hagiography drawing on a forgotten history of trans saints. I begin by establishing the key features of trans hagiography, a genre framed by the margins which marks certain trans lives as embodying the Imago Dei, Imago Transvesti, and, like the Imitatio Christi, prompting others to follow in the way and change the world, through Imitatio Tranvesti. Next, I close read one of the earliest examples of the genre, the Vita of St. Marinos, sometimes deadnamed as St. Marina to demonstrate how he articulated himself as a trans Imago Dei, an image of God in the transgender soul, for generations of medieval readers. I attend to the narrative of his death and memorial where his trans masculine body is revealed then exalted as embodying a sainted manhood that others might emulate. I then conclude with a consideration of how trans hagiography continues today through digital narratives and iconography by which we are turning our transgender dead into saints.
This article arises in response to patriarchal traditions (e.g. medical, theological, historical) and Trans Exclusive Radical Feminist (TERF) readings of transgender hagiography. Following Stephen J. Davis's excellent review of the critical tradition in "Crossed Texts, Crossed Sex" (2002), the academic attention on trans hagiography reveals a wide acceptance of the existence and effect of the genre of trans saints and trans hagiography, yet in ways that undermine a trans historical project. In the first case, trans saints are read as the psychological and psychoanalytic symptom of a represses patriarchy that at once desires and rejects femininity in patriarchal spaces. On the other side, feminist readings of trans hagiographies read trans saints as women doing men’s jobs, the inevitable resistance to a system of exclusive and subjection of women. Yet both cases look at the environment of the trans saint, at the men or the women, and not at the trans subject as a thing worth interrogating in its own right. Furthermore, nearly all readings of trans saints reduce the figure to their dead name assigned at birth gender.
Yet contrary to modern expectations, the transvestism of saints was not something to be explained away or excused or overcome. "In 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 15). 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 8). 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.
This essay can partially be summarize by the assertion: #HisNamewasMarinos. There are those who would argue that the word, “trans” or “transgender” is anachronistic for use in describing medieval lives. Yet medieval lives did not call themselves medieval any more than they called themselves transgender, or cisgender, gay or straight. Medievalists have called these saints “transvestites” for decades. And “transvestite” is just as anachronistic as “transgender.” The chief difference is that “transvestite” is a medical term that the cisgender (non-transgender) community uses to diagnosos, shame, and authorize the trans community, while “transgender” is a cultural term of affirmation, pride, and kinship. Medievalists often have little issue viewing medieval knights as straight and cisgender like they are but cringe that a trans reader might do the same. Yet each of us may look into the mirror of history as see those who look different yet similar. As Middle Ages lives on in us, if we are heirs to the past, then we all are heirs to the past.
Of the trans hagiographies, among the earliest and most influential accounts was that of St. Marinos the Monk. The Vita of Marinos was written sometime in the sixth or seventh century and through many tellings shifted over time. To keep close to the original text, the version of the Vita analyzed here comes from the Vita Antiqua; as edited by Alice-Mary Talbot and translated by Nicholas Constas in "Ten Saints’ Lives in English Translation" (1996). The Vita of Marinos is at once early Christian and early medieval. This expansiveness of readership shows a wide range of influence. Time and time again, the Imago Transvesti and Imitatio Transvesti in trans hagiography continues to be craved by a society that continually slips back into a fixed and reductive vision of creation as cis male and female. Indeed, much of the power of St. Marinos from the Vita Antiqua is that it contains extensive dialog not found in some later condensed versions, “making extensive use of dialogue,” perhaps leading to its popularity (Talbot 2). Medieval readers seemed eager to discuss trans sainthood, if possible, with the saint's own words.
Are there trans saints today? To answer this let’s turn to our trans hagiographies. Sainthood is not only a way the Church condones those set apart, or not. Sainthood is a way we tell one another’s stories. Readers of trans iconography and hagiography will be more familiar with the trans saint as what I call “a genre of embodiment.” This critical approach follows Sandy Stone’s assertion in her “Posttranssexual Manifesto” (1993) that transgender not be considered a self-enclosed gender but the acknowledgement of an array of genres: “a set of embodied texts whose potential for productive disruption of structured sexualities and spectra of desire has yet to be explored” (Stone 12) As a trans feminist, Stone is drawing on Judith Butler’s distinction between “butch” and “femme” forms of lesbian womanhood to suggest such diversity exists in all categories of gender (Stone 12). Yet as a former music executive, Stone is likely also suggesting gender is like genres as a modes of creative production that have distinct tropes and forms; ever mixing and changing.
How does one become a saint? How does one embody the genre of hagiography? In this article, I examine the genre of trans hagiography as it was developed in medieval Christian literature and the trans saint as embodying its social and literary narratives of gender, then as today. In particular, I examine the role of the Imago Dei and Imitatio Christi in forming the image and habitus of the Imago Tranvesti and Imitatio Transvesti. In defining trans hagiography as a genre of embodiment, this article enacts Stone’s goal of making inarticulate and erased archives into legible trans histories. “In order to effect this,” writes Stone, “the genre of visible transsexuals must grow by recruiting members from the class of invisible ones, from those who have disappeared into their ‘plausible histories'” (Stone 12). From the forgotten histories of women saints, St. Marina is reclaimed in death as he was in life, called by God under the name, St. Marinos.
The first of two central features of trans hagiography is a variation on the Imago Dei, image of God, commonly associated with all saints, what I call the Imago Tranvesti. Imago Dei arouse from the assertion that creatures are made in the image of the Creator. In Genesis 1.27, God creates humanity, "et creavit Deus hominem ad imaginem suam ad imaginem Dei creavit illum masculum et feminam creavit eos" (God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them, The Bible NIV). For many trans and intersex persons, the Imago Dei of Genesis is used as a weapon by those insisting that truth is only reflected in the symmetry of cisgender men and women. Yet scripture does not say that God created humanity in only one way or only cisgender people. From an understanding of the continuing work of creation emerged a host of saint lives that attested to a far more dynamic and diverse Imago Dei: the Imago Transvesti.
The second of the two features of trans hagiography is its form of Imitatio Christi, wherein the trans saint is held as a model for imitation, Imitatio Transvesti. If, as David writes, "all early Christian hagiography... was motivated by an ethic of imitation," one scholar wonders, "Were ancient readers called to seek out the example of Christ in the lives of transvestite saints?" (Davis 33). Exploring theological of trans hagiography, Davis concludes, yes, "the Passion of Christ is particularly embodied in the transvestite gesture itself" (Davis 35). Indeed, the leaving of an oppressive conditions into new clothes, names, and ontological status is very trans and very Christian. "[T]he 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 35). By the transition at the heart of trans hagiography, the trans saint is re-clothed in his manhood as well as modeling a way out of the sin of sexism: the Imitatio Transvesti.
Today, at shrines of St. Marinos and on the Saint’s feast day in Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Church,es the iconography of the Saint is displayed. Images of St. Marinos frequently show him in clerical habits, which even when construed to resemble the clothes of a nun, signify Marinos’s life as a monk. Even when these icons display the Saint’s deadname, St. Marina, often they include the title, “the Monk.” Around the Saint’s head is pictured a halo, common to saints iconography, as a sign of the man’s sacredness. The light of the sun disk, like the light of the Son, Christ, glows from within and from before Marinos. Just as Christ was an image of God as a man, so too is the sacred image of Marinos an Imago Dei as a man. Peculiar to St. Marinos and a few other trans saints, however, is the addition of the child that Marinos the Monk raised – a fatherhood that set him apart not only from others with vaginas but other monks as well.
The Image of God and Gods image of the trans saint is not always readily visible to the world. Affirming monastic exclusivity, Marinos's father says, “Child, what am I to do with you? You are a female, and I desire to enter a monastery.” To which Marinos responds “Father, do you wish to save your own soul and see mine destroyed?" (Talbot 7). In the decision of affirming transition, Marinos advocates that soul is on the line and that his father does not have the authority to destroy what God has made. There are dangers in allowing Marinos to transition but the risks are necessary if the father is to save his child. Put another way, Marinos is asking, "would you rather have a dead and damned daughter or a living son?" Or again, "is the risk not worth it if that is what saves not only his life but also his soul?" God’s creation is ongoing. Life needs to needs to constantly change to be preserved. “The one who saves the soul is like the one who created it,” concludes the man who saves his own life by affirming his Imago Transvesti as an Image Dei (Talbot 7).
Too quickly, the Imago Dei becomes reduced to a cisgender binary, masculum et feminam, and the trans man is left without a place in a gender segregated monastery. While at first Marinos is accepted as a monk of exceptional virtue, exceeding other men, he is unable to divulge his trans history because of the fear instilled in him by his father. As a result of passing, Marinos soon falls victim to stereotypes about hyper-sexual monks as he is one day spending a night away from the monastery at in Inn. Shortly after his stay, the Innkeeper’s daughter claims Marinos secuded him, like many a monk, and impregnated her. This scandal gets Marinos removed from the monastery because he is unable to show his Imago Transvesti and the physical impossibility of this claim. Without a place among cisgender men or women, Marinos becomes a homeless beggar until one day he and the child of the woman are given pity and accepted in the monastery.
Often in holy writing the only way back to an original state is to move forward. Time and change can not be turned back but one can return and remake one’s Imago Dei. Thus, ironically, it is by the work of a sexist Imago Dei that the Imago Transvesti is able to reclaim itself as even great than before. In death, when Marinos’s body is discovered, the truth of his Imago Transvesti, and the falsehood of the sexist stereotyping falters. Yet because of this recursive movement away from the Imago Dei of a trans monk, Marinos is turned into a father of the woman’s son. A man held as the image of monastic celibacy, as a man born with a vagina, is father to a child. God creates an image of the creature but it unfolds slowly, often sliding back and forward before that image of the creature is actualized. The Imago Dei is recursive because God’s creation is ever co-creative, requiring a trans saint to turn back on himself to make himself the Imago Tranvesti.
Why are hagiographies read, icons made, shrines visited, or feast days honored? A key goal of trans hagiographies is the production of trans saints by inspiring imitation. In Christianity, the ideal embodiment of humanity is Christ. All human grace directs followers along Imitatio Christi. The significance of saints is that they begin (and largely remain) embodied like much of humanity. Their beginning is more powerful the more like readers they are. All paths lead to Rome but everyone begins at different points and so take different routes. The value of trans saints is that they begin closer to those who share trans positions or else may follow a trans route. As each trans person is an Imago Dei set apart in a special way as an Imago Transvesti, so too the path towards Christ that trans hagiographies lays at the feet of followers is Imitatio Transvesti. By walking the path of Imitatio Transvesti, followers come to share their sacred genre of embodiment.
For trans saints, the imitation of Christ that leads them to embody Imago Dei also leads them to follow distinctive trans forms of life and this take on an Imago Transvesti. Following Valerie R. Hotchkiss in Clothes Make the Man (1996), readers can see how in cutting his hair and changing his clothes, Marinos, “thus realiz[es] the symbol of the baptismal robe as the sign of the new man in the male image of God," (Hotchkiss 22). In medieval monastic culture, one is not born a monk but becomes a monk. After a few years in the monastery, records the Vita, "[they] considered [Marinos] to be a eunuch, for she was beardless and of delicate voice" (Talbot 8). Because of a shared inability to impregnate women, trans monks and eunuchs are both exalted by monasteries. The habit of trans monks, Imitatio Transvesti, is affirmed as an extension of monkhood’s goal, setting one’s body among men yet apart from worldly manhood, "the result of... great asceticism" (Talbot 8). In Imitatio Christi, a monk is not a worldly masculinity. All monks are men drawn from their natural bodies, changed, set apart to become a new kind of men.
Rejected from the monastery, lost between worlds, doubly set apart and excluded by cis men and women, the monk becomes sainted by his endurance of oppression. When the superior discovers the Imago Transvesti of Marino’s dead body, he cries, “Forgive me, for I have sinned against you. I shall lie dead here at your holy feet until such time as I hear forgiveness for all the wrongs that I have done you” (Talbot 11). Too often society is better at mourning the dead than affirming trans persons in life. Yet adopting Marinos as a way of enacting grace, the superior affirms Imitatio Transvesti –allyship. As with Marinos, so with him. The superior feels the sin of his community like a pain is his body as it was in Marinos’s. If injury comes to the trans person, then so with him, as a reminder and guide. The superior will be brought closer to Christ, to Imitatio Christi, through his Imitatio Transvesti. By taking on the weight of the trans community’s oppression, allies can join in the hard but moral road towards justice, love, and health for Imago Transvesti.
The Imitatio Transvesti does not mean that we seek out suffering for its own sake, yet it affirms that the suffering of marginalized trans persons can be a road to sainthood. By sharing narratives and enactments of the Imitatio Transvesti, society affirms that living a trans life matters and has meaning. The wins and joy matters. So too the losses and grief has meaning. Those who have endured dysphoria and division from families, religious communities, or gender segregated spaces have lessons to share with us. Those who have endured the fight to be accepted among a certain gender, to undergo transition, to live through homelessness, or defy impossible odds to become a parent, have gifts to stories to tell. Imitatio Transvesti in this way functions as Imitatio Christi calling the world to make a better world for the world to come. A call the world regularly fails to imagine, to imitate or even to remember the names of those who showed the path.
Are there trans saints today? To answer this let’s turn to our trans hagiographies. His name was Marinos. Her name was Leelah. These are our transgender dead. In the current digital age, their messages read: "Rest in Power" and tell us "His name was...," "Her name was...," or "Their name was..." In some ways, we remember them in ways particular to our own time: hashtags and memes. As a form of iconography, #HisNameIs art for transgender persons killed by murder or suicide had a resurgence in 2015, shortly after the death of Leelah Alcorn. Before this time, the phrase “His Name is…” was most commonly associated with the character from Fight Club, a man with breasts whose name is erased by given back to him in death, “His Name was Robert Paulson.” With the rise of the trans iconography movement this reclaiming of name and identity after death shows that in some ways we remember our dead as generations have remembered our ancestors for millennia, through the iconography of medieval Christian saints: halos and angels.
Because social media is highly visual, it follows that to honor transgender dead, the #HisNameIs movement adopted features of the Imago Dei from hagiographic icons. The most common stylization on these icons cutting across tumblr, twitter and instagram is the face ringed by a halo or sun disk. In "The Performative Icon" (2006), Bissera Pentcheva writes, "Light conveys the ineffable essence of souls" (647). 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. Marinos, like many other trans youths, Zander or Ash, was separated from society by the exclusive cisgender politics. Among margins, the trans person becomes isolated within the self, forced to keep the light of his Imago Transvesti hidden from the world until revealed in their icons after death.
The power of the #RestInPower movement is that like Imitatio Christi it calls on trans persons to hold on through oppression and allies to fight that oppression. For me, a palpable instance of Imitatio Transvesti came in the 2015 Baltimore Uprisings. When Mya Hall a trans woman of color was killed by police, her image joined the RestInPower movement, telling Baltimore to remember #HerNameWasMya. Leaving my Baltimore apartment to march, I saw people from communities who do not always get along in Charm City, side by side yelling #BlackLivesMatter and #TransLivesMatter. While most know the Uprising as following the death of Freddie Gray, for many trans, queer, people of color, this was also the uprising of Mya Hall who was killed two weeks before Gray. Trans persons and allies walked the street where Hall once walked in Imitatio Transvesti and Imitatio Christi, in opposition to the violent police and military dividing the city.
To conclude, I ask: do we not have dead to remember? Do we not have martyrs? Do we not have history stretching back millennia full of images and stories? To quote the musical, Hamilton, “death doesn’t discriminate between the sinners and the saints, it takes, and it takes.” And again, “You have no control over who lives, who dies, who tells your story.” Sainthood is not only a way the Church condones those set apart, or not. Sainthood is a way we tell one another’s stories. We might reframe the stories and images of our transgender dead in ways that transform how the world sees the image of sacred differences, ways of living that are worth living in an unlivable world. If we are set apart, let’s reclaim our saintedness. Whatever our backgrounds, trans saints draw us to the margins, to change, and to goals greater than us. Come, the graveyard of trans history is bursting, buried under deadnames, may we tell the world who they were. Come, our dead rise to stand in communion with us, let’s show the world their power.