Sunday, December 24, 2017

A Transgender Christmas Story: Gawain and the Green Knight

All princesses and knights, who know the secrets and shames, courage and joy of the season, your stories and games bless us as special gifts this Christmas

A Christmas Prayer

A Christmas Game

Christmas is a time when transgender identity or trans experiences can emerge in surprising ways, from gift giving, to games, to medieval stories. Personally, I recall a Christmas Eve when I was seven and a few months old, playing Pretty Pretty Princess with my sister and cousins. We were in my grandparents home. A few of the other girls and the boys wanted to wander downstairs to play with the billiards table. Few of us were very skilled in the game, since most of us were too short to make much use of the pool sticks. Yet a few of us did not care, preferring princess games over pool. I was among those choosing this childhood game of pretty medievalism and I wasn't winning but doing okay. I had a pink ring, pink earrings, and on my way to a pink bracelet and necklace. I loved the feel of the thick semi-translucent plastic resting on my finger and pinching my ears. These were sensations that I did not regularly get to experience or indulge. My sister was in the lead but I did not care. I was just happy to take this holiday, a time set apart from other times, when the miraculous, wondrous, and unexpected may occur, to occupy an identity in play which was not permitted to express in earnest. Few of the girls present may have even thought twice about this game, with so much else going on during Christmas Eve. Indeed, the other girls may have taken this game and its play jewelry for granted. For a young trans girl, however, it was one of the momentarily acceptable instances where I could claim to be both pretty and a princess. The ability to claim these associations, however contingently, did much to sooth my gender dysphoria and give some room for my trans subconscious mind to emerge more fully into my consciousness. I was in no rush to win or for the game to be over. If Christmas Eve is a time of anticipation, I was happy to dwell in its transition, possibility, and uncertainty.

Interestingly, the game never came to a close because before one of us could be fully princessed-up and ready to claim the crown, the fun was interrupted by Santa Clause. At this, the rest of the players ran out to get in line for gifts. I stood up too but lingered behind a few moments to fit on the final few pieces of jewelry and look at myself in the mirror. It would be years before I was able to come out as a trans woman to my family. These years would be long and hard. But for this moment on Christmas, in the context of frivolity and games, I was able to emerge momentarily as my authentic self. This was a self that I was glad to share with my family, even if they did not understand the significance at the time. Often the lives of transgender friends and family are not understood fully until much later, after coming out or transitions compel the reexamination of a whole lifetime of history. This is how  the revelation of transgender not only changes the way we view things in the present and into the future, but also compel us to look again at the past in new ways. This is true for personal stories as well as for broader histories. Trans identity, experiences, tactics, tools, and associations often exist without the cisgender society being aware of their presence. This may be because trans-ness is kept secret or because society lacks the tools and concepts by which to recognize it. Thus for long periods of our personal lives or histories, trans experiences appear only in the cracks between conventions of gender, sexuality, and even time. It is during special times, holidays, Halloween, Christmas Eve, or game nights and parties that society's trans subconscious breaks out for a moment before time presses on, setting everything back along normative divisions. Such games taught me the value of such breaks in the normal course of events and a new potential to find joy in the holidays.

The importance of joy in difficult times and populations cannot be underestimated. The last year has been difficult for the transgender community and our allies. As a result, much of my recent work has dealt with tragedy, grief, and sustaining our will to live on and fight. But that perseverance through adversity cannot be merely about our hate of evil and injustice. One does not get through the winter merely by spiting the cold. Instead, we are able to fight on because we have so much good worth protecting, growing, and celebrating. We shall get through the winter by cherishing the moments of warmth and by keeping our coals glowing. For this reason, this Christmas I wanted to have some fun and share with all of you a medieval Christmas story that might have special significance for my LGBTQI and ally readers. The story and the queer slant on the story may be known to a number of you, yet one of the joys of Christmas for me is in the sharing of old stories over and over again with fresh perspectives. Accept the challenge of Christmas Eve as a time of possibility, when what comes next might not be what we expect and when we allow ourselves to consider the past, present, and future for what they are but what else they might become. In this sense, our games and joy are the serious business of breaking free from the mechanisms of the day-to-day to question why we do the things we do and consider the reality of other choices and possibilities. May this reading of the medieval Christmas tale, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, with trans feminine associations be an impetus for some mirth, some honest conversations, some much needed affirmations, some joyful speculations, and some holiday gifts (beheadings optional).



A Christmas Story

Gawain and the Green Knight is a Christmas story full of gifts, surprises, and broken or bent binaries (man/woman, hetero-/homosexual desire, truth/untruth, civilization/nature). The tale begins in Christmas time when King Arthur's court is having a feast. The King has refused to eat until something marvelous and queer happens. Suddenly, a giant green knight enters the court on his horse, hefting a giant axe, offering a challenge: a stroke for a stroke. One knight would get a chance to cut off the green knight's head with the axe and in exchange, a year and a day later, the green knight would get to cut off the head of the challenger if he is able. After some debate, Sir Gawain agrees and swiftly cuts off the head of the Green Knight. The Green Knight's body rises, picks up the severed head, and leaves. A year later, Gawain knows it is now time to gift his own head as a gift to the Green Knight. Seeking out the Green Knight, Gawain stumbles on a strange castle. The lord promises to show Gawain where the Green Knight resides if only he will stay a few days and exchange gifts with him. The second gift-exchange is very similar to the first. Each day for three days the lord will go hunting and will bring back whatever he finds for Gawain. Meanwhile, Gawain will stay at home and upon the return of the lord, give to him anything Gawain receives while at home. Two days this contest occurs and twice they exchange gifts. The lord twice gives him meat from the hunt. Gawain, in exchange, delivers gifts given to him by the lord's wife who has progressively attempted to seduce him. Thus, two days in a row Gawain kisses the lord in true report of the two kisses the lord's wife have given him. Yet on the third day, the seductions and gifts go further. At first, the lady offers Gawain a ring, which he refuses, then she offers him something more intimate:

Ho laȝt a lace lyȝtly þat leke vmbe hir sydez,
Knit vpon hir kyrtel vnder þe clere mantyle,
Gered hit watz with grene sylke and with golde schaped,
Noȝt bot arounde brayden, beten with fyngrez;
And þat ho bede to þe burne, and blyþely bisoȝt,
Þaȝ hit vnworþi were, þat he hit take wolde.

("With that she loosened a lace that was fastened at her side, knit upon her kirtle under her mantle. It was wrought of green silk, and gold, only braided by the fingers, and that she offered to the knight, and besought him though it were of little worth that he would take it," Jessie Weston, 1898).

Promised that the garter would protect any warrior from any blow and aware that he will soon have to endure an axe to the neck, Gawain accepts the woman's underclothes. While garters were worn by medieval men as well as women, the scene makes clear that this particular garter was the woman's garter, taken off her body and put onto his. This creates an intimate association between the wife and Gawain which he will sustain throughout the rest of the tale. When Gawain meets the lord, he is hiding (soon to be wearing) women's underwear, specifically those of his wife. In this way, Gawain is like many trans and non-binary people during the holidays, either hiding their preferred clothing at home or else wearing bagging clothes to cover over the body which induces dysphoria. Trans men who have not come out to their families wear tight sports bras if they cannot wear a binder, to minimize their chest's appearance. Trans women might also wear sports bras because they are less visible under thick clothing than their preferred attire. Then there are those on the trans spectrum who fall between the clothing or identity of man and woman, wearing panties beneath a suit or a masculine suit coat over a dress. Fearing the consequences of coming out on Christmas, the season becomes a time for hiding one's clothing as a way of avoiding conflict. Yet even so, signs of one's trans-ness and queerness may emerge in expected ways. But this secret transvestism is not the only sign that Gawain has been progressively transformed into an image of the lord's wife.

Þe lorde is lyȝt at þe laste at hys lef home,
Fyndez fire vpon flet, þe freke þer-byside,
Sir Gawayn þe gode, þat glad watz withalle,
Among þe ladies for luf he ladde much ioye;
He were a bleaunt of blwe þat bradde to þe erþe,
His surkot semed hym wel þat softe watz forred,
And his hode of þat ilke henged on his schulder,
Blande al of blaunner were boþe al aboute.

("The lord was gladsome at his return, and found a bright fire on the hearth, and the knight beside it, the good Sir Gawain, who was in joyous mood for the pleasure he had had with the ladies. He wore a robe of blue, that reached even to the ground, and a surcoat richly furred, that became him well. A hood like to the surcoat fell on his shoulders, and all alike were done about with fur," Jessie Weston, 1898).

Soon to be wearing a woman's undergarment, elegantly dressed among women after a joyful day in women's company, Gawain contrasts with the lord who spent his day out hunting among men. While Weston's 1898 translation of the verse about Gawain's pleasure and company makes the sexual tensions more evident, "the pleasure he had had with the ladies," the Middle English is more ambiguous. The verse, "þat glad watz withalle, / Among þe ladies for luf he ladde much ioye," alternatively could be understood as the joy Gawain felt because he loved being in the company of women. According to a cis hetero masculinist reading of the text, why else would a man enjoy being around women except by seeing them as sexual objects? Yet a trans queer reading offers an alternative: Gawain is enjoying dressing like the girls and being among the girls, rather than being out in hunting gear among the men. At this, the woman's underwear that Gawain is soon wearing might draw attention to the elegant blue robe he wears on top, which reaches to the ground and lined with fur. Again, like the garter, this robe need not be automatically feminine for being ornate. But the robe stands out in contrast to the lord's hunting gear. Such a long beautiful robe would not be functional or socially appropriate for a hunt. Thus, standing with elegant women on one side and a hunting party of men on the other, Gawain looks more like the women of the castle than the men. A trans reading of this scene would place a great emphasis on the way in which Gawain uses clothing to affirm associations with women over men. Gawain not only performs this joy in feminine association outwardly by his robe but maintains a secret inward affinity with women through the woman's underwear.

For a trans reader, the final gift exchange that follows this meeting is poignant because it demonstrates the cost of hiding rather than celebrating trans identification or association. As in the previous two exchanges, the lord offers the gift of the hunt, a set of horns, to Gawain. The cis masculine significance of the horns would not have been lost on a medieval reader nor should it a modern reader. Then it is Gawain's turn to give a gift. Rather than reveal the women's underclothes he is wearing, Gawain choses to keep it a secret. Instead, Gawain kisses the lord for a third time. The lord does not question the gift and the transvestism and the joy of female association is kept secret. While the lord does not press Gawain on the matter, the cost of keeping this secret is revealed when the contest with the Green Knight occurs. The Green Knight almost cuts off his head three times, feinting twice and then slicing the third time. This pattern, we are told, represents the two true gifts Gawain gave the lord and the one lie. While the final stroke merely cuts and does not kill Gawain, the knight returns to Camelot ashamed because of his untruth. When the story is revealed to King Arthur's court, Gawain is fully ready to be ridiculed for secretly wearing the woman's underwear. 

Þe hurt watz hole þat he hade hent in his nek,
And þe blykkande belt he bere þeraboute
Abelef as a bauderyk bounden bi his syde,
Loken vnder his lyfte arme, þe lace, with a knot,
In tokenyng he watz tane in tech of a faute.

("The hurt that he had in his neck was healed, he bare the shining girdle as a baldric bound by his side, and made fast with a knot 'neath his left arm, in token that he was taken in a fault," Jessie Weston, 1898).

While Gawain returns to court amidst post-Christmas season, wearing the woman's underwear as a mark of shame, to the knight's surprise, the court of King Arthur does not shame him for his open transvestism but instead one by one they begin to wear garters of their own in honor of their friend. This is the legendary origin myth of the Order of the Garter in England. However, to a modern trans reader, the willingness of the court to not only accept Gawain's wearing of the woman's underwear but normalize it by making it a part of chivalric tradition. Importantly, this community response is directly tied to Gawain's willingness to come out to his community about the garter. With the lord, Gawain had hid the garter for fear and shame. But having learned his lesson and received the cost of his secrecy, now Gawain enters court with the garter proudly displayed on his arm. Whether the courts reactions are good or ill, Gawain will face what comes with the courage that failed him both with the lord and the Green Knight (later revealed to be the same man). One might understand Gawain's anxiety in both cases. The transgressions of gender and sexual norms are enough to raise discomfort for a man who elsewhere fits the mold of toxic cis-het masculinity. That one should feel fear of social death or physical death is all too human. Yet the courage and honesty Gawain shows in the end by wearing his transvestism on his sleeve is rewarded. That the court should be accepting and affirming is not a given either in medieval or modern society. This is a twist in the narrative which leaves the tale with an ending that can be read fairly optimistically. Gawain and the Green Knight is a tale that can be read many ways with many different take aways; including as a model for trans inclusive Christmases.

In the end, if a family member or friend reveals to you at Christmas that they are transitioning or associating more strongly with another gender, you do not need to put on a garter or women's panties! However, openly accepting and normalizing the transition or new association is a gift worthy of celebrating. Like Gawain who feared death and shame, many trans, queer, and non-binary people might likewise enter into the Christmas season expecting the worse. In this respect, reflecting on Gawain and the Green Knight as a lesson for your transgender Christmas might lead to a more livable life with better honesty, recognized courage, and an affirming community.


A Christmas Prayer

Creator, who makes each life with a special mold and calls each with a special name, bless your creation with special joys this Christmas.

Reformer, who was born into this world's coldness and alienation, bless your chosen family with special warmth and community this Christmas.

Advocate, who knows the dysphoria and transitions in our hearts, bless us with the spirit to speak words of special power and truth this Christmas.

All princesses and knights, who know the secrets and shames, courage and joy of the season, your stories and games bless us as special gifts this Christmas.


Sunday, December 10, 2017

10 Tips for LGBTQI Persons and Allies During Winter Break

The Holidays can be a really tough time 
for queer and trans people, especially for those of us 
who come from religious families.


Over the last fifteen weeks of our seminar on "Beyond Male and Female," the students in the seminar became practiced countering anti-trans, anti-queer, anti-intersex and anti-crip discourses in society as well as tactics for locating or creating alternative structures. Indeed, the classroom became such a protected space where arguments could be practiced and alternatives could emerge. At the start of the seminar, the students drafted a "Class Covenant" that served as the guiding rules of engagement when entering into these conversations. The students drafted the agreement and voted for it. Having practiced these methods of debate and discourse over a semester within the protected space of the classroom, on the last day of classes the students drafted a new list. This list would be addressed to the world they are about to enter back into where conversations on gender and sexuality don't always play by the same guidelines as an arbitrated academic classroom. Ten tips were listed that could be adapted to scenarios such as season family gatherings, holiday parties, online comment sections, or future seminars where topics of one's identity and body arise. While hardly exhaustive, these are samples of the advice the Beyond Male and Female seminar suggest to survive and help others survive the winter break:



5 Tips for Allies

1. Model Preferred Name and Pronoun Usage

Start conversations with, "my name is___ and my pronouns are ____." Even as an ally, presumably cisgender and heterosexual, using such phrases begins to normalize the practice and creates important room for others to share their preferred names and pronouns. This may spur people to ask questions, which gives you an opportunity to provide some useful information to friends and family. Importantly, if someone does come forward with a name or pronoun other than the ones you or others use, follow their lead. Even if you make mistakes, a simple acknowledgement of the misstep and a further effort to get it right will do important work. Indeed, by openly showing that you try even as you make mistakes will encourage others to do the same.  

2. Advocate for Those Not Present

Names and pronouns are most often used when people are not in the room to advocate for themselves. Likewise, people who have problems with someone's gender and sexuality might not make this antipathy explicit until the person leaves. At this moment, your role as an ally really becomes tested. Are you just an ally when the community is there to watch? What does it say that a person feels comfortable expressing transphobic, homophobic, anti-intersex, anti-queer statements when you are around? Your position as an ally and one not overtly LGBTQI means you are privileged to be in exactly these sorts of positions to advocate for those who are not present. Indeed, anti-LGBTQI people might be more willing to listen to an ally than a member of the community in question. Be aware of that power and use it responsibly!

3. Create Alternative Spaces

Even if you do not know for sure that members of your friends or family are LGBTQI, announcing yourself as a safe person and safe space will allow those who are quietly in need to seek you out. Often safety cannot be assumed and cannot go unsaid. Making your alliance known may be risky and come with consequences, however it may be a calculated risk which can be life-saving for friends and family. Once you make yourself known, you may find that the number of people who come out of the woodwork are larger than anticipated. This may lead to the formation of an ad hoc community for your local area which might convene and reconvene during breaks. Don't be surprised if you start to have regular guests of "strays" who show up during holidays until they find/make their own safe place.

4. Read and Share Important Texts

Minds don't grow all at once and not always on their own. One way to change a community to make it more safe for LGBTQI friends and family is by answering misinformation with more accurate data and stories. This can start by conversations at seasonal family gatherings but rarely are minds changed so quickly. What can help transform communities is sharing books, films, and television shows that can continue the work started during these gatherings. The trick is finding the right book for the right people. For younger people, books like "Being Jazz" might be great for teens and youth, while "I am Jazz" might explain transgender to even younger generations. For older groups, books like Caitlyn Jenner's memoir, "Secrets of My Life" would be a touchstone with someone they more likely know, who speaks to language and experiences more common to older generations. Even if you don't want to put these books under the Christmas tree, having these texts around the house to share or hand away is useful.

5. Know LGBTQI History

One of the common ways to discredit LGBTQI persons and identities is by saying how "new" it all is and how people need more time to adjust. To answer this, knowing more about LGBQTI history puts the struggle for recognition and justice into the context of struggles that reach back all the way into antiquity. For instance, Catholic family members who quote Pope Francis's complaint that transgender reflects radical new gender theory might be answered by citing the history of trans persons within the Church, counted among the canonized saints. Familiarizing yourself with figures like Saint Marinos the Monk (sometimes called Marina the Monk, despite that fact that he presented and was known as Marinos) will answer such Catholicism with its own terms and history. In such a historical light, transgender is revealed to be an ancient and integrated part of Catholic history from its very start.



5 Tips for LGBTQI Persons

1. Find Alternative Ways of Expression

If you are not safe to engage in your preferred means of expression, it may be possible to find alternative fashions that will be legible to those in-the-know but not to others. One example is for those who usually express themselves with decorative nails but feel that the home space would not be accepting of this. In this case, using clear-nail polish instead of a visible color would provide a sense of the experience in a fashion not likely to be detected by others.

2. Find Alternative Ways of Self-Affirmation

If you are not safe to engage in acts of self-affirmation or transitioning, it may be possible to use other discrete methods which accomplish similar goals in ways that are otherwise undetected. One example is for those who usually engage in chest-binding but feel this would put them in danger at home. In this case, using a sports-bra might imitate some of the effects using apparel that would otherwise go unnoticed. Alternatively, bagging clothing might help hide the chest of a trans masculine person uncomfortable being perceived without a binder or a trans feminine person who doesn't want to be perceived without their breast forms.

3. Locate Alternative Places to Go

If you do not feel safe or comfortable at home, it might be advisable to spend as little time there. In this situation, knowing of alternative places to go can be critical. Ideally, the place is somewhere one can express and affirm one's full identity. This might be the home of an LGBTQI friend or ally, or someone identified by trusted members of the community. It is not uncommon in queer homes to find "strays" from the area, people in need of safe and affirming community. Alternatively, other neutral places such as the mall, movie theaters, or public parks might be locations which are not totally affirming but which provide a break from the dangers or discomfort at home.

4. Don't Feel Obligated to Talk

If you do not feel safe disclosing information about your gender and sexuality or about your political views, do not feel required to talk. While silence has been something the LGBTQI has been fighting to break free from for many many years, silence is often the safest strategy in dangerous places. Silence can be an effective way to deal with people espousing offensive view points because it takes away attention and a potential target. While silence may be seen (as it is) as an act of resistance, there is an ambiguity in silence which may be safer than disclosing the truth or lying. Sometimes silence can be enacted discretely by tactically changing the topic or giving non-answers.

5. Remember: People May Surprise You

If you are worried about going home, but have to nonetheless, do not despair because among the bad that is likely to happen there may be unexpected good. For example, although parents, aunts and uncles, or grandparents may have more set and dated view-points, you might be surprised by how people can grow and change at any age. Usually, families have had LGBTQI people in some form or another hiding in silence for generations. They may be on the look out for you just as you are on the look out for them. Alternatively, siblings may be surprisingly affirming or flexible because they share more similar experiences to you. In general, one never knows for sure what the future holds. Good may not come where we want it but there might surprising good hiding in unexpected placed nearby.



10 Tips for Conversations about Race and White Supremacy

“One's response... has to depend, in effect, 
on where you find yourself in the world... 
what your system of reality is.

James Baldwin
James Baldwin v. William F. Buckley Jr.

Over the last fifteen weeks of our seminar on "Racism and Human Diversity: Medieval Narratives of Blackness," the students in the seminar became practiced in arguing and listening to arguments centered around the history of white supremacy in the west and the ongoing systems of racism that govern our world. At the start of the seminar, the students drafted a "Class Covenant" that served as the guiding rules of engagement when entering into these conversations. The students drafted the agreement and voted for it. Having practiced these methods of debate and discourse over a semester within the protected space of the classroom, on the last day of classes the students drafted a new list. This list would be addressed to the world they are about to enter back into where conversations on racism and white supremacy don't always play by the same guidelines as an arbitrated academic classroom. Ten tips were listed that could be adapted to scenarios such as season family gatherings, holiday parties, online comment sections, or future seminars where topics of racism and white supremacy arise. While hardly exhaustive, these are samples of the advice the Racism and Human Diversity seminar would suggest as significant to active and respectful engagement:


Baldwin and Buckley debated racism and white supremacy 
at Cambridge University in 1965


10 Guidelines for Debates 
on Racism and White Supremacy

1. Think of Counter-Arguments

If one does not try to imagine alternative points of view, even for the purpose of refuting them, then "argumentation" is not possible. What arises without the conscious consideration of other perspectives is a shouting match between set "opinions" which neither side wish to nuance or surrender.

2. Sympathize

Because arguments occur among flesh and blood humans, not between logical automatons, arguments are bound to be informed by emotion as well as experience. Being able to sympathize, even with someone who disagrees with you, makes you a better debater because it gives you access not just to the ideas but the feelings that fuel the counter-argument. Also, sympathy allows for a better process and outcome among people who have long embodied certain points of view.

3. Be Open-Minded

Arguments are like battles and competitions, you shouldn't enter into one if you don't plan on the possibility of losing. This means being open-minded and allowing for the potential that another point of view might have information that can nuance or reform certain parts of your understanding. Arguments need not be 0-Sum games but if one enters into a debate without allowing that one's position might be partially changed or surrendered, then one is not entering fully into an argument.

4. Listen

Too many arguments break down because those engaged are not actually listening to the points being made. If you are spending your time thinking of your next point rather than listening, you might miss out of important information or potential common grounds. Without active listening, you cannot walk away more well informed and you will be unable to learn critical points of access into someone else's position.

5. Be Aware of Motives

All information if it is gathered by humans and communicated by humans will show some trace of perspective and/or prejudice. Don't assume that information presented in a form, abstract way is necessarily true nor necessarily unbiased. Be aware of what a person or persons may have to gain by presenting data in particular ways. This may not mean the information is wrong but will give insight into the sources from which the information is coming.

6. Don't Assume

To "assume" makes an "ass-" out of "-u-" and "-me." Going into a conversation, while one can assume that certain situations and perspectives are not within the person's immediate life experience, people may surprise you with what they think and feel. If you go in assuming that a person will be one the other side of all your positions and experiences, then you may miss out on important common grounds that might serve as the foundations for other differences to be negotiated and even changed. There may be a friend somewhere in a person who might otherwise seem to be an opponent.

7. Define terms

So many arguments break down because people realize that participants were speaking past each other, using different definitions and understandings of words that both sides were using. By defining terms, one may find the difference in position may stem from a difference in understanding or context rather than a difference in opinion. 

8. Inform

The goal of most arguments should - in part - be to inform. Arguments are not always able to conclude with all parties in agreement or with an evident winner or loser. As such, if one seeks to provide others with information that they can understand and emotionally process, then the seeds of change may be planted in otherwise confrontational soil. Approaching arguments in this way seeks the betterment of all parties rather than the mere defeat.

9. Assume "Good" Intentions

When certain positions result in dangerous and damaging consequences it can be easy (and understandable) for those engaging with persons holding such positions to assume that the other's intentions are as bad as their effects; or that intentions are inconsequential. While preventing harm caused by bad consequences should be a priority, when time comes to engage those who support these ideologies, it is helpful to assume that the bad actions were done for the best possible intentions. This may not be the same as "good" intentions because it may stem from ignorance and hate. Yet by assuming the alternative position is the "best possible" version of itself, then one prepares for an argument looking for common grounds and with the best possible responses. If one assumes an opponent is merely evil and operating on the weakest of arguments, then the arguments one brings to task against them will also be weaker. The goal is to elevate a conversation not engage on lowest common denominators.

10. Patience

Unlike opinion screaming matches which are often over before they begin, arguments take time. Arguments take time because they are about enacting change. Change does not occur all at once. Thus, arguments may take many sessions to conclude. If one gives into frustration, the hard fought changes and common grounds may be unnecessarily lost. Sometimes building or maintaining lines of communication may be the best possible outcome for any particular argument because they allow for the possibility of change and for the power of time to take effect.



Monday, November 20, 2017

The Grief of Thomas: A Sermon for Trans Day of Remembrance

“Unless I see the nail marks in his hands 
and put my finger where the nails were, 
and put my hand into his side,
I will not believe” ”

The Gospel of John 20:25

At this is the time of the academic year, my students are turning in their second essays and revisions of their first; and before they submit their critiques, I repeat one of my axioms: write as though your audience is in pain, because most likely they are. I believe in this. Preparing my sermon for tonight, I was certain of it. Personally, I’ve felt triggered for months and every time I feel like I begin to catch my breath, another trigger goes off. It keeps happening and I can’t make it stop. For trans persons experiencing dysphoria, we exist in a constant hum of discomfort and pain, unable to settle in our bodies or environment. We have more bearable seasons, as well as seasons where its really unlivable. A year ago this time it got really bad for me. I remember 3 A.M. on election night weeping into my partner’s arm because I knew that my friends at the Trans Lifeline were overloaded with suicidal callers. November 2016 was the busiest month in the Lifeline’s existence, fielding 2,700 calls, most during the night and days following the election. Since then, a trans person has been killed every month in the United States. Then there are the perpetual government threats to exclude us from the military, bathrooms, schools, health care and civil rights protections. I think of the rash of sexual abuse and harassment claims. I think of all the trans people whose bodies are touched and investigated without cis people realizing that what they are doing is sexual harassment; how my partner, a pastor, gets asked questions about my genitals by community members. I think about the police stopping me while I was walking with my kids or sitting outside with my mom as half dozen police surrounded me with guns drawn. I think about all those who have not lived to tell such stories. I think about all the harassed, traumatized, abused, triggered, and even the dead must do to train others on how they should and should not touch our bodies. I think about all we do to reclaim these bodies. I think about the resurrected. I think about the sainted. I think about Lazarus’s tomb and Thomas’s doubts. I think about remembrance. I think about those in pain, as I write.




For those who devote their lives to saving the life of others, especially those in the trans and non-binary community, the transgender day of remembrance is a testament to our failures. I feel a bit like Jesus of Nazareth when he arrived at the house of his friend Lazarus only to be told by those grieving that he had come too late. Jesus is told that if he had been there for his friend, then his friend would not have died. I can’t help but wonder if Jesus felt this too as he stood weeping on the road. But then Jesus does something miraculous. He tells them that Lazarus is not dead but only sleeping. Arriving at Lazarus’s tomb, he calls out, “Lazarus, come out.” Then from apparent death, Lazarus emerges from his tomb. On this day, I wish I had the power to bring back the dead. Each and every name listed today deserves that. We crave that. But none of us here have that power. Yet, I think about the famous movie line that goes, “there is a big different between all dead and mostly dead.” All dead, there is nothing we can do, but “mostly dead means partially alive and that we can work with.” In that case, I believe there is something we can do.

Because I do feel we have a Lazarus present here tonight; someone who feels like they are dead but may only be asleep, someone whose spirit wanders away from the body but who yet might live again, someone whose body may have become a tomb awaiting the call, “Lazarus come.” I dedicate this sermon to any Lazarus out there, someone who has come to the tomb today to be awakened from your death and slumber, to be resurrected and remember what it is to be alive. The work of resurrection is hard and will not be accomplished in one night but we may consider the ways in which our bodies are taken, the ways we may remember and return to those bodies, the ways we survive and embrace bodies that have been broken, and finally the ways that those who have passed beyond the vale and cannot be called back, those sainted dead, might still be speaking to us through their relics and stories to share the power in which they now rest.

I know there is at least one Lazarus here, because on the trans day of remembrance I often feel a sense of surprise and the thought, “I am not dead yet.” Whereas pride or shame would focus on the “not dead,” the emphasis in my own heart is on the “yet.” That terrible word, “yet,” is a weariness felt in the heart of many oppressed peoples. That word speaks of an expectation and a surprise at our own perseverance that is not our own but has found its way into our hearts. We learn this word, “yet,” from a world that expects this list of names each year. I hold back from saying that the world demands this list of names each year, like a quota. Because even if is true that in various ways the world DOES demand our non-existence, I cannot fully accept that reality out of a resistance to cynicism. What I can fully believe is that this list of names is something the world expects insofar as our deaths are accounted into the yearly breakage spreadsheets. Transgender death is part of the accepted cost of doing business, keeping this corporation of gender binaries, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, racism, and classism going.

This measurement of one’s own existence in relation to “not dead yet” is a sign of what is called slow-death. Slow-death describes populations that we actively or passively expect to die. Now, of course, we all die. But except for the more depressive or Goth among us, we don’t regularly expect most people to die. We know it but we don’t expect it. We don’t expect a white able-bodied cisgender child to die. We expect to varying degrees the elderly to die, even those who aren’t sick. We expect the sick to die. We expect the disabled to die, even those who aren’t sick. We expect the poor to die more than the sick. This doesn’t mean we want them to die, but we aren’t surprised when they do and may be surprised when they don’t. This is slow death. Death is only one of the worst outcomes of slow-death. The other danger is not death but unlife or undeath, the state of being the living dead. Slow death creates undead by killing the soul even while life persists, like Lazarus asleep in his pit, yearning for remembrance and resurrection.




When we struggle with our bodies and remembrance, I think of the story of Thomas and his need to not just see the Risen Christ but to feel him. John recalls how Thomas, one of the Twelve, was not there when Christ first appears to the disciples after the resurrection. Thus when others tell him, “We have seen the Lord!” Thomas cannot process this. Thomas gets called the doubter, assuming him to be a sort of empiricist or materialist when he says, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.” But maybe Thomas’s demand for touch is more than this. We are not told why he is not there. Maybe Thomas was like Lazarus, asleep in his grief, dysphoria, and slow death. He might have been physically present but not all there. When grief or dysphoria has taken us from our bodies, we may need positive touch to recall and remember our bodies.

Scientists have learned what victims of abuse and oppression, as well as those who’ve experienced systemic abuse, the inherited trauma of slavery, the horrors of the holocaust have long felt, that prior to our physical deaths, our brains shut down, our spirits leave, to avoid that hurt that would do more than kill us, it would obliterate our souls. These are incredibly hard moments to remember because there is a reason that our spirits fly away from it, there is a reason we feel like living ghosts, because the pain of those moments are so great that our minds shut down. In the face of these deaths and stolen bodies, when our friends say, “We have seen the Lord,” our hesitancy may be a refusal of platitudes. When we grieve, it may not be enough to say, “they are alive in heaven now.” Because more than wanting to be told, we want to feel them in our arms, to hold them again. Thomas is missing his friend Jesus and nothing short of embracing his friend again will do. Amidst grief, trauma and hurt, it is not enough that our minds recall events, our bodies must be retrained and the connection between body and soul reformed.

Like Thomas, touch as a form of remembrance is important to me, especially when I feel myself pulled out of my body. This feeling is called dysphoria. Dysphoria occurs the gender folk assign to me conflicts with my gender identity. My family has been trained to notice when something triggers my dysphoria. Someone at work keeps calling me “he,” and I may not correct them because mentally I may not even be in the room. My spirit has begun to wander somewhere else out of self-defense. It happens nearly every time I take a flight. It is a fact that the TSA as a collective party has touched my genitals more than most of my lovers. I don’t want them to touch me but others depend on my traveling for work. And so, they fondle my body while meanwhile my mind is floating somewhere outside the flesh. I don’t know how this looks from the outside. Do my eyes glaze over? Does my body sag without a spirit to hold it alert? I don’t know because I’m not there. Each time my soul wanders, it takes effort to pull it back into my body.

It took years of intentional and intense effort to begin to feel like my body was a home for my spirit. In this work, touch has great power for remembrance. Thus, I have a need to write, take photos, and collect little trinkets. When my brain can’t hold all the information, objects hold the burden of remembrance for me. What are the objects that recall you back to yourself when your spirit wanders? Is it a certain skirt or sweater? Is it a bath bomb or candle? Is it a teddy bear or a beloved pet? Is it your partner squeezing your hand or your child crawling into your lap? For many of us, the work of remembrance is done by an assortment of objects and people, images and practices. In times of crisis, many of these will no longer be enough. In times of death and dying, we may find ourselves driven to find new and greater kinds of touch to remember us to our bodies. For Thomas, this meant being able to touch the friend he grieved. Some call this being skeptical, I call this being hurt. I call this an expression of a need that may sound silly to others but to us is the difference between life and death, remembrance and oblivion.


Posted by Leelah Alcorn 12/22/2014
Captioned: "Transitioning. I Love How Literal This Is 
and How You Get a Sense of the Pain It Takes"

The Resurrected

What happens, however, when those who are hurting need help from those who are hurt? What about the trans persons working the Trans Lifeline? What about tonight? This is the model of love that Christ offers in response to Thomas. “Peace be with you!” says Jesus on his next return, and then to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side.” On the surface, this is an object lesson on the resurrection of the body. But when one considers grief and death, the act takes on an intimate tone. Christ has just suffered dying and death. Christ retains the material remembrance of hurt. When Christ approaches Thomas, he is not only making his life and resurrection known to him, he is making his death and pain known to him as well. Christ models for us what it means for those who have come out of the tomb to help others remember life by making ourselves available and vulnerable for one another, to let others touch our pain so we may overcome our dysphoria and divisions.

Why we need the resurrected to help us resurrect us, why Lazarus and Thomas needed the words and touch of Jesus, is evident to the trans community in these times of remembrance. I remember friends in the trans community walking away exhausted and raw from online and offline conversations after another name gets added to our list for remembrance. I remember how in our hurt we sought each other out and how in our hurt we sometimes hurt each other. This is what it means to be in a traumatized and abused community. We must be very tender with each other because we ourselves are very tender. I recall the trust and vulnerability we share. I think about “the Origin of Love” from Hedwig and the Angry Inch: “You had a way so familiar, / But I could not recognize, / Cause you had blood on your face; / I had blood in my eyes. / But I could swear by your expression / That the pain down in your soul / Was the same as the one down in mine. / That's the pain, / Cuts a straight line, / Down through the heart; / We called it love.”

Love is dangerous and love is powerful. Love is a risk that may bring resurrection or death. Christianity has learned this lesson. Christianity is full of traditions that involve materially and spiritually of the broken and dying communing with the broken and dead: drinking the blood and eating the body of a dead and resurrected God, touching the bones of saints, washing in the waters of baptism as a sign of our collective death and rebirth, holding hands as we say millennia old prayers. Christianity is a religion of touch. This is why abusive touch in the Church is such a crisis. Because if we cannot trust to touch, then we lose a critical point of access in our faith. By touch we might resurrect the dead, but by abusive touch we might pluck souls from the flesh as we steal their bodies. Those who are wounded may not be in a place where they can help heal others, indeed, we who are hurting may hurt others. But there is a saying in ethics, “anything with power is dangerous.” Touch has the power to steal souls and resurrect them.

Our need and offers for material remembrance must be made with greatest care and love. We must appreciate what we ask of one another, when we ask for vulnerability. We must write and speak as though our audience is in pain, because most likely they are. We must also appreciate what we ask of one another, when we make ourselves vulnerable. The instruction, “put your finger here; see my hands,” or “reach out your hand and put it into my side” may be a gift which brings about resurrection and remembrance. Such demands might also cause further harassment and trigger our traumas. Love is a dangerous game that can mean the difference between life and death. This is the game Christ plays again and again. This is the game Christians are asked to imitate. When someone asks for healing touch like Thomas or someone asks on their behalf, such as Lazarus, this makes themselves vulnerable. This offer may be a form of consent but that position of power may quickly be abused. In this work, remembering our deaths may make us more compassionate and careful as we help others remember their life.



The Sainted

To conclude, I return to those I started discussing when I referred to the difference between the mostly dead and the all dead. I ask, is there really nothing we can do for those who are all dead? What about those who don’t walk out of Lazarus’s tomb or into Thomas’s upper room? How might we care for and remember our dead? In my work on death and dying in the trans community, I’ve seen many ways that people respond to the death of our trans siblings. I see people cut the hair of trans girls and bury them in a men’s suit. I see people put a trans boy to rest under a stone engraved with their deadname. I’ve also seen people tell the life story of the deceased, using names and pronouns they demanded in life. I’ve also seen people make icons of the deceased, decorated with wings and halos, emblazoned with inscriptions like “His Name Was Zander” and “Rest in Power.” What is the difference between “resting in peace” and “resting in power,” I wonder? I think of these icons and how as a medievalist I can’t help but imagine saints.

People often misunderstand and misuse the word saint. I think about the powerful but misleading lyric from Hamilton, “death does not discriminate between the sinners and the saints, it just takes and it takes, and it takes. But we keep living anyway. We rise and we fall and we make our mistakes. And if there is a reason [we] are still alive, then I’m willing to wait for it.” This sentiment that saints are somehow opposed to sinners I think is wrong. Saints were human with human faults. The word saint does not signify those without sin. The word saint means to set apart. One does not become a saint by choice, one becomes sainted by others. A saint is someone set apart by a marginalized society, targeted, alienated, isolated, even killed. A saint is someone who was discarded by the world but has been remembered and reclaimed. Death does discriminate against a saint like it discriminated against Mesha Caldwell from Canton, Mississippi on January 4th, 2017 or Jojo Striker from Toledo, Ohio, on February 8th, 2017.

Death does discriminate and saints teach us that remembrance can discriminate as well. According to reports, Ally Lee Steinfeld is one trans sister whose death on September 21st 2017, in Licking, Missouri, makes clear the connection between our murders and our erasure. Her killer took such pains to make the world forget her that I cannot but help but remember her: “Ally was stabbed, including wounds to the genitals. Her eyes were also gouged out. Her body was burned in an attempt to conceal evidence of the crime, and some of Ally’s bones were put into a garbage bag placed in a chicken coop near the residence.” Some people try to forget our trans family by taking away the means for awakening and material remembrance. Death and oblivion does discriminate and so life and remembrance must as well. We must remember those who are told to forget, including people of color, people with disabilities, immigrants, the aged, and those victims from other countries or parts of our country marked by isolation and poverty.

Death does take and take and take, and that’s why we can’t just keep living anyway. Life and love has to keep taking and taking, reclaiming and resurrecting the dead and forgotten. We cannot merely wait for a reason that we are still alive, by remembering our fallen trans siblings, we begin to feel the difference between resting in peace and resting in power. As Hamilton also says, we may, “have no control, who lives, who dies, who tells your story.” But we may have control whose stories we tell, whose lives we tell, whose deaths we tell. Because even now, I know what it means for someone else to tell my story, describe my body, imagine my life and death, in ways I cannot control. I know what it means to trust someone else with my body, my hurt, my memory, and my story. Remembering means re-membering our community as we lose our members to dying and death. We reach into death and oblivion to reclaim our saints. Re-membering means taking up the membership and flag of those who have fallen. Remembering means sharing each other’s pain and so also remembering and sharing each other’s power.



This sermon was delivered by Dr. Gabrielle M.W. Bychowski
from Case Western Reserve University
as part of the Transgender Day of Remembrance 
at the Connecticut Conference Center of the United Church of Christ 
on 20 November, 2017.


The Trans Lifeline