Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Trans Saints: Imago Transvesti in The Last Time I Wore A Dress


"I stared in the mirror at the girl 
who was me, and not me:
the girl I was supposed to be."

Dylan Scholinski
The Last Time I Wore A Dress
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Imago Dei and Imago Mundi

On this All Saint's Day, I return to the question of what and who makes a saint "a saint." Is it being an exemplar of values held by the Church? The values of the World? Are saints the embodiment of all things society holds as ideal and normative? This is how saints are often regarded. In the Imago Mundi, saints are those who fit into the picture, in opposition of those sinners who do not fit. A careful examination of medieval hagiographies demonstrates that the conventional vision of saints as Imago Mundi are inaccurate. Saints were saints because they were set apart. Saints did not fit in much like sinners. In fact, by the standards of the world in which they lived, many saints may have been regarded as sinners. The marking of these saints inverted the value systems of the world and God. Saints could be and often would be Imago Dei that were set apart because they directly opposed, reformed, or resisted the Imago Mundi. One typical case that represents the subversive creativity of the Imago Dei was the Imago Transvesti of transgender saints. These trans saints are recorded in trans hagiographies as often existing on the edge of society, in places such as monestaries, where they offer an alternative image of like and an alternative habit of life. A more detailed investigation of the Imago Dei and Imitatio Transvesti in the Life of Saint Marinos the Monk on previous articles. In these medieval trans hagiographies, the trans saints faces oppression but is vindicated in the end. Because these trans lives were celebrated, they became honored as saints in the Orthodox and Catholic Church. Here, I wish to examine modern secular stories of transgender lives that do not end with celebration and canonization. What do transgender hagiographies look like when the Church no longer authorizes new trans saints and indeed has largely adopted the Imago Dei's exclusion of the Imago and Imitatio Transvesti? Who are our trans saints today and how are they made?

To explore how the Imago Transvesti works in modern secular hagiography I will examine one its the genre's genealogical descents: trans memoir. In form, trans memoirs share many generic features with hagiographies. In short, they tell the life of a trans person. A more complex answer is that they seek to make a misunderstood life of someone who is set apart from the world better understood by the world. Often, these trans memoirs come with the ethical imperative (implicit if it is not overtly stated) that the reader and the world need to transform themselves if they are to better integrate those reflecting the image of the trans life as well as to save themselves from the sins of sexism and transphobia. In other words, whether they state a moral or thesis, many trans memoirs today compel the same ethical changes in a reader's life as trans hagiographies must have medieval readers. Furthermore, an often unstated or understated goal of trans memoirs (or any memoir) is to garner a certain level of vindication, understanding, and even fame for its subject. Just as the trans saint functions as a generic image of a population calling for social change, the memoir also presents the image of a particular person. The effect of becoming familiar with the person, learning their story, and the oppressions they faced has the effect of making that person special in the mind the of the reader. That the memoir would be written, circulated, and read is honor enough for many. Yet an effective memoir, like an effective hagiography, draws readers to regard the subject life as set apart and significant if not an ethical role model. Yet even if the subject of the memoir does not offer ideals, they may yet be a guide for readers experiencing or seeking to understand and oppose the challenges faced by the particular trans person. In this way, trans memoirs resist the modern binary of saint and sinner. Medieval saints could be both and so too their modern counterparts.

Toward the end of examining trans hagiographies in a modern form and context, I will close read Dylan Scholinski's The Last Time I Wore a Dress. The memoir recounts the years the author spent incarcerated against his will in a mental hospital, in large part because of a diagnosis of Gender Identity Disorder. The book details the extreme lengths the hospital enacted in order to erase the Imago Transvesti from the young trans boy and inscribe the Imago Mundi, the image of a normative heterosexual cisgender girl. An additional reason for this study comes from a shared personal context. The town that Scholinski grew up in and the hospitals in which he was incarcerated exist within the same Polish community in which I lived. Just outside of Chicago, Scholinski was a transgender teen a number of years before me, yet if he had been allowed to receive public education it would have been entirely possible that we may have graduated from the same high school.  In many ways, the life of Dylan Scholinski recalled in the memoir reveals an alternative image of how my life may have developed. The particulars of his life draw sharp distinctions between us, yet this ability to see parts of one's self reflected in the Imago Transvesti of another is a function of the trans memoir and hagiography. Just as the cloister of Saint Marinos reveals something about the medieval Imago Dei and Mundi, so too mental hospital of Dylan Scholinski reveal much about the image of transgender and normativity in our world. In order to better understand these images, this examination will occur in two parts in order to counterpoint the study of Saint Marinos's medieval hagiography. First, I will examine how the memoir presents the conflict between his Imago Transvesti (as a particular form of the Imago Dei inscribed in his "soul") and the Imago Mundi of the hospital. In the second part, I will attend to the relations and habits formed between Scholinski and another mental patient who believes that he is Jesus Christ. The practices of alliance formed between the patient who acts too much like a man and the patient who acts too much like Christ form a secular, mad, modern form of the Imitatio Chrisit. 

To begin, it is necessary to understand that images are not always visible with and through the eyes but can be constructed and consumed through a variety of media, including narrative. The Imago Mundi that is imposed on transgender youths is just as varied as the Imago Transvesti it is supposed to replace. Just as the Imago Dei is supposed to be present in every human life and yet each life is distinct and ever changing, there is something diverse and dynamic about images. The Imago here concerned are moving images. In this respect, narrative may be better at capturing the living Imago Mundi than static photographs. Thus, without needing to give photographs or fixed details, Scholinski is able to communicate what the Imago Mundi was for him and how it was imposed on his trans life in the mental hospital. "Every morning I lowered my eyelids and let Donna make me up," he recalls. "If I didn't emerge from my room with foundation, lip gloss, blush, mascara, eyeliner, eye shadow and feathered hair, I lost points. Without points I couldn't go to the dining room, I couldn't go anywhere, not that we were going many places to begin with. Without points, I was not allowed to walk from the classroom back to the unite without an escort.... Either choice I hated: makeup, or a man trailing in my shadow" (IX). From the memoir, readers are not given a specific image of girlhood being forced onto his body, yet by listing the tools of inscription a generic image of cisgender femininity is invoked. The color of the lip gloss did not matter so much as the application of makeup. The Imago Mundi is more about the power of execution, the authority of the world to dictate how his gender is embodied more than any specific feature. The point system emphasizes the abstraction of the Imago Mundi as a value structure to be inscribed and imposed. Just as there may be many varieties of transgender saints within the Imago Transvesti, the Imago Mundi which opposes it is able to transcend time period and gender norm as a force of marginalization that at one moment sends one youth to a monastery and at another moment sends another to a mental hospital.


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Images of the World

Icons of saints are set apart because they are Imago Dei and not merely images of the world. The transformations of appearance in many hagiographies show audiences how divine truth can exist just on the edge of what the world can see, on the horizon of understanding, or just beneath the mundane. While transgender transitions are often imagines by the public as a form of disguise or drag, covering up the identity of the person, for trans saints this transvestism, the Imago Transvesti, reveal in visible ways what society has long covered with its own designs. Scholinski recalls looking at himself done up in the mirror of the mental hospital where he was held and forced into feminine clothes against his will. "I stared in the mirror at the girl who was me, and not me: the girl I was supposed to be" Scholinski writes(IX). The mirror scene is a traditional mechanism of transgender film, art, and narrative to show disjunctures between the outside and inside. The duplication of the images represents competing images of the trans person themselves. Which will win out? The image the world sees or the image inside the trans person, written, as Scholinski describes, in their soul? "The staff was under orders to scrutinize my femininity: the way I walked, the way I sat with my ankle on my knee, the clothes I wore, the way I kept my hair. Trivial matters, one might say. But trivial matters in which the soul reveals itself," Scholinski writes. "Try changing these things. Try it. Wear an outfit that is utterly foreign to you... See how far you can contradict your nature. Feel how your soul rebels" (IX-X). As in a mirror, one image faces off with another. Another critique waged against trans persons, especially transvestites, is that they are too changeable. Yet Scholinski's resistance to the gender forced on him demonstrates that his soul is fixed even while his body changes. The Imago Dei is made of things unchanging if unseen while the image of the world is mutable if empirical. 

When society cannot dig out the transgender soul, it suffices to control the person's embodiment down to the skin. Scholinski recalls that when he was first brought against his will to the asylum, he was forced to strip off his clothes. "A clerk went through every pocket of every pair of my torn-up jeans, unrolled the cuffs of my socks, put her hand in the silky lining of my suitcase," Scholinski records. "I'm certain I had to take off all my clothes down to my bra and underwear" (7). Once inside the hospital, Scholinski's clothing and gender will be closely controlled by the medical staff. At the threshold to this isolation, the medical panopticon cuts through the layers of the identity that Scholinski had built for himself. When social construction is reduced to systems, the creative work and agency of the trans life (and its Creator) can be take out of the equation. The trans person is imagined as only a social construct, without its own internal choice or image. Trying to control the changes of the the trans life, the medical hospital works to strip Scholinski down to the core and then rebuild. The system excuses this extreme invasion of the trans person's body on the grounds of healing. They claim to seek out unhealthy or toxic elements on the body (drugs, weapons, contraband) in order to exert changes in the body (behavior, mindsets, beliefs) because of the danger the trans person poses to trans exclusive society. By reaching down toward the transgender soul, the medical system turns the trans life into an embodiment of a disease to be quarantined and set aside from the general population (thereby justifying the systems existence and force); the negative or inverse images of cis society. 

Altering the visual image of the trans person is not enough, systems construct narratives that turn them either into a sinner or a saint. In medical systems, sin as a spiritual disease (an illness of the psyche, or soul) is replaced by the diagnosis of a physical or mental disease. For many trans persons, such as Scholinski, their lives were pathologized and seized through the imposition of a diagnosis for Gender Identity Disorder. After being processed, reclothed and given a room wherein he will be kept, the doctors begin in on Scholinski to tell him the medical justifications for his isolation. "[The Doctor] said the other diagnosis was something called Gender Identity Disorder... He said that means you are not an appropriate female, you don't act the way a female is supposed to act," recalls Scholinski (16). The "supposed to" here reflects an implicit command in society that the medical system here makes explicit. Instead of religious commandments, "thou shall" or thou shall not," which are supposed to have divine authority and authorship, medical discourses follow social assumptions and norms without easily definable origins. Often, cis society defined itself by how it set apart and controlled trans society as its negative image. Cisgender became not-transgender. Scholinski was not affirmed as a trans man but as a "not... appropriate female." The invisible truth of the transgender soul or image is recast from a thing unseen into an embodiment of negativity. Transgender is treated as the dis- to the cisgender's -order. Without context or narrative, Scholinski's trans life would not be recognizably diseased. Yet forced within the discursive and physical frame of medical institutions, Imago Transvesti are set apart as a dangerous alternative to the ruling image of the world.

In the negative construction of the Imago Transvesti, environments, narratives, and images work together to set apart trans lives. Scholinski recalls what may one of the earliest moments that an authority told him that he embodied the wrong picture of himself. The moment occurred when an educator brought Scholinski aside in school and ran through ideas of what professions he might like to have one day. "She held up cards with pictures of a policeman, a farmer, a construction worker, a secretary and a nurse, and said which ones I'd like to be: police officer and construction worker. She looked at me with a curious face like a mother robin. She was the first one who said I had a problem with my gender" (30). Likely, the genitals of the images are not visible yet the gender of the figures are supposed to be apparent. Police are supposed to look like men. The nurses are supposed to look like women. In turn, these socially dictated images are supposed to reproduce themselves. Implicitly, a girl sees an image of a female secretary and so becomes a secretary. The oppressed can be an instrument of enacting an oppressive system. A mother robin works to create a little robin, even if both will remain caged. Yet Scholinski was not only choosing jobs considered "inappropriate" for women but positions "inappropriate" for any marginalized person. Police officers enforce the law, enacting the power of systems on society. Construction works on the other hand enact the literal power to shape the image of the world. What would the world look like is women were in charge of the legal and physical structures of the world? What would it look like is transgender persons could claim that authority? Or intersex or disabled persons? Evidently, by choosing images other than those assigned to him, Scholinski is following another image, an alternative image, an Imago Transvesti that may be an "inappropriate," disordered, and problematic choice. In the end, Scholinski will be isolated and set aside because of following these Imago and not the image of the world.

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Set Apart

Isolation is no safe haven for the trans saint. The exclusionary system of the cisgender binary allows for no mixtures and movements between categories. Expelled from one space by choice or force, trans saints are often not allowed entrance into the other. As a result, trans persons medieval and modern often find themselves caught between chairs, homeless. This sense of homelessness began for Scholinski early in his life, when he was shopping with his father and needed to use the restroom. "On the door it said: WOMEN," recalls Scholinski. One his way out however, he encountered trouble, "a balding clerk with wet produce stains on his apron gave me a look of raw hatred. He grabbed my hand. He wanted me to know who my parents were and I said my father was in the aisle. We looked down each one until we saw him pausing before the cereal. The clerk hauled me over and said, ' We found your son in the women's bathroom.' My father said calmly, 'That's not my son.'" (106). While he was sent to the mental hospital in part to make him accept his place as a woman, spaces for women were often not safe for Scholinski. His presence and performance of identity alienated him from women's spaces. Yet neither was he accepted as a man among men. It is true enough for his father to say, "that's not my son," yet his actions in committing the child to a mental hospital was enough to say, "this is not my daughter." Trans youth often find themselves placed in the dangerous no-man's-land by the enforcement of gender binaries in spaces like bathrooms. Here the privacy of cisgender persons is protected not by merely isolating trans persons but by ensuring that they don't have even the same privacies to relieve themselves in peace. In other moments, Scholinski recalls going to and being assaulted in a bathroom, "a group of them followed me in and said 'are you sure you're a girl?' Sitting in the stall I waited until the laughing stop and I heard the door close behind them" (106). These acts may seem like the innocent misunderstandings of a Clerk or a few youths but they reflect a wider systemic oppression of trans persons. The pressure put on the Imago Transvesti will not release until no space is left free from the mark of the Imago Mundi. Trans saints are made to be set apart for a special place in the tapestry in Creation but as an excluded and erased smudge that is at home no place.

There is no place in Imago Mundi for the Imago Transvesti. Rejected from communion with his family, school, or wider neighborhood, Scholinski finds himself at the medical hospital without any other place to call his own. When Scholinski first arrives, he insists to a member of the staff that the asylum is no home for him either. "I told her I didn't need to be here. 'Uh-huh,' she said" (13). The response is sarcastic, a dismissive reply to crazy person who does not know they are crazy. Yet it is also ironically true. This hospital will not be a home for him. Recording various observations of various medical staff during his time in the care of the hospital, one doctor observes, "Patient has no sense of home" (35). The young trans man has a residence. He dwells -against his will- in asylums for several years. Yet this place of isolation is a physical embodiment of his marginalization and separation from the world. This is a place he is set apart and not merely set somewhere else. He is sainted not by becoming an exemplar of acceptable norms but by being unacceptable. If the trans man makes sense, this meaning and orientation is not of this world. Indeed, the function of the medical isolation is in part to ensure that the trans man does not become at home. When Scholinski is moved to another hospital, he finds that he is again being disoriented through his gender as he is placed (as a girl) among a male-only unit. "All other units were co-ed, a mix of psychotics, violent types and regular depressed people," Scholinski explains, "so there was no reason to throw me into the all-male unit, they could have shifted a depressed boy around. I suppose they thought throwing me to the boys would encourage my girly-girl side" (138). The move is supposed to shock him, emphasize his girlhood and thereby reorient him towards men in a sexuality and not gender identity. While Scholinski was able to form an alternative community in his last hospital, this move is intended to further throw him off his center. In this way, the memoir emphasizes the sainting of the trans youth by showing how the world continually functions to displace him, set him further aside until he comes to embody that sainthood.

The crux that many saints face is what to do when there is no place in the world exists for them and the image of another world remains unclear or uncertain. Too often, escape from the isolation the world imposes on trans life is death. Scholinski recalls how the medical process of chipping at his Imago Transvesti layer by layer changed his appearance but made him a soul with no life left in body. "My new self was pleasing. My new self: girly-girl dead stranger" (120). The image of the girl being fashioned was not only an artificial construct, it was an unlivable life. Rather than embrace a trans image of life, the medical staff preferred instead to turn Scholinski into an image of cis girlhood even if it killed him. The face of a girl was for the trans man the face of the dead. One way or another, liberation or isolation, transition or death, the girl in the mirror was no long for the world. Leaving nowhere left to run in the world or in himself, Scholinski considered suicide the final option. Better death than an unlivable life. Yet this final act of self agency, this final corner where the medical staff could not get at him, death, was painted for the trans man as an unfair rejection of the world. "Suicide is a selfish act," said one of the medical staff after Scholinski's suicide attempt, "Do you know that?" (73). In a place where no personal decisions (that did not follow the medical systems guidelines) was considered selfish and aberent it is not surprising that suicide would be among those personal decisions that the staff condemned. For a system only concerned with the appearance and mechanical functions of life, an unlivable cis girlhood was preferable to escape by death. Ironically, such condemnation and how it was responded to only served to demonstrate how this "selfishness" and isolation was in fact constructed by the medical environment. After being chastized for his suicide attempt, Scholinski was brought into a private room to think about what he had done. "Why the hospital would lock me in a room by myself when I felt so sad I wanted to die, I don't know" writes Scholinski (73). By leaving the suicide alone in a room after his attempt, the statement is made: you cannot escape even by death. The temptation to try again is teased and yet thwarted by the stark reminder of the  recent failure. The lesson is made: life and suicide both lead to isolation. Without escape all that is left is submission.

The mechanisms of mental hospitals not only inscribe the Imago Mundi over the visible Imago Transvesti but carve itself into the inner life of the trans saint. While the hospital could and would regulate his outward appearance, Scholinski protected his inner life and truth as his final holdout. "I like to be in control," admits Scholinski, "to keep what was inside my brain inside. It was the only form of privacy I had left" (85). While the hospital insisted that he embody to image of femininity and a sexual orientation toward men, in his mind he maintained the Imago Transvesti as a hidden truth as well as meditate to himself, particularly in his journal, about his experienced attractions to girls in the hospital. This tactic worked for some time, or seemed to work, until one day Scholinski found that even in isolation he was not free. The doctor called the young trans man into the office and discussed with him details of his "disordered" feelings toward women, encouraging him to instead adopt a heteronormative relationship with men. That is when Scholinski realized, "They had read my journal" (98). While in isolation after his suicide attempt, it seemed as though being alone was the final line for the treatment. If he could submit to being a trans saint, set apart because of his diagnosed pathology, then in that sacred cloister he could be free. The trans life of the Imago Transvesti could survive if only within a small hidden frame. Yet this was to be. The World is a jealous God and will permit idols to no other. Over the course of years, Scholinski survives the isolation and treatments of his forced incarceration. Yet when the time comes for him to leave the physical walls behind (coinciding with his approaching legal adulthood) the test of the Imago Mundi was whether it could function to isolate and control Scholinski when he was on his own.  "No one was watching me. Nine months of survellience: I'd survived seclusion, I'd hugged the males, I'd walked around with globs of blue on my eyelids, and now I was here" (127). For years afterwards, Scholinski recalled feeling the eyes on the back of his neck and an inscribed sense of shame that kept him from fully living out and showing his Imago Transvesti. He experienced depression and relapses into suicidal thought. Yet as he carried with him the chains of the mental hospital, practices of liberation and creation developed within the asylum helped him finally break free and reclaim an authentic image of his life - an Imitatio Transvesti built upon a queer and mad Imitatio Christi.


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Coming soon:
Part II: Imitatio Christi in the Last Time I Wore a Dress
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