Monday, May 8, 2017

Transgender Can Save the Middle Ages: A Letter to the International Congress on Medieval Studies

“You ask me what I want this year
And I try to make this kind and clear
Just a chance that maybe we'll find better days

The Goo Goo Dolls

Dear friends in the Medieval Congress,

I don't know most of you personally, although I would like to begin. Most of you don't know me, although that is less important. What is more important is that we all could stand to know more about all the great people in the trans community. Let me tell you a bit about them:

A magical moment happened in my house about a week ago. It was bedtime and I was reading to our 10-year-old and our 7-year-old. I usually begin with a bit of educational literature before moving on to the fiction. Well, this night I had just put down "This Book is Gay," a primer on the spectrum of gender and sexual diversity, when our youngest raised their hand. I was expecting a question (they ask great questions) but to my surprise they had an admission. They wanted to confess that years ago, when they first remember learning about LGBT identities from me, they had assumed (not yet realizing that having two moms wasn't a norm) that it was a distinctly medieval thing. Can you imagine? I am guessing that like me you learned about LGBT culture AFTER or separately from learning about the Middle Ages. But for this child, the gender queer kid of a trans lesbian family, the Middle Ages started as a queer place before it was anything else. I'm not asking for laughs, I'm just telling you about family.

That was a good night but there are harder nights. I try to read or adapt medieval stories to read to my kids. Some nights are easier. Our kids LOVE the Tale of Chanticleer. Talking animals? Big fans. Kissing butts and farts out the window? They eat that up! But then I turn to the next Tale and I see the rape of young women. I turn it again and I see women being treated as property. I turn it again and I see a father cut off his girl's head as she begs for him to reconsider. Those are harder nights. Then I still go in there to read to them. I'm not asking for pity, I'm telling you about an institution of sexism.

Then there are the days that I get approached by people on the street, at conferences, or via e-mail. I hear from established medievalists about how they are transgender but haven't been able to come out because they fear the ridicule of fellow medievalists. At conferences and online we hear the jokes. You may not know we are listening. You may not know we are trans. But we hear you. Then I find some way to respond to them. I'm not asking for explanations, I'm telling you about your colleagues.

Then there are times I hear this, "How are YOU a medievalist?" I've gotten this from prominent scholars in Trans Studies (if you are familiar with the field, you know their names) as they looked me up and down, then proceeded into a diatribe about the marginalization of female scholars, Catholicism, and male supremacy. There are many who share their view and there are real instances, even traditions, that contribute to this concern. Many in transgender studies find it hard to move into medieval studies because of some valid fears. Even if this is hardly representative of the whole of transgender or medieval studies, they voice issues that deserve to be answered. Then I (and others) find some way to defend the field. I'm not asking for thanks, I'm telling you how our profession is perceived.

Then there are times when I'm grabbing coffee with early career scholars, young women, who just aren't sure how or if there could be a place for them in the profession. The job market is brutal for those of us who are lucky enough to find work. And most are not that lucky. And we hear about male supremacist websites, about institutions intentionally favoring male candidates. And we hear men joking about how "feminism" or "transgender" is taking over everything, how funny it all is, how no one can take a joke. Then we find some way to support each other to keep sending applications. I'm not asking for you to surrender your sense of humor (although I would recommend the better brands), I'm tell you about how many women are getting Ph.Ds in medieval studies and how few of them are getting hired.

Then there is me packing my bags for Kalamazoo, like I do every year, like I plan to for many years to come. And one of the things I am packing, which is there every year, is anxiety and frustration. I recall the mocking of women, feminism, transgender persons, and the small gestures being made to give us back a bit of our dignity. I recall how last year there were two panels on transgender and intersex in the Middle Ages, how this year there are none. I get ready to go through the TSA and their policy of groping each trans person's genitals EVERY TIME because we don't match the 3D models programmed inside their body scanners. I recall how hard it is for me to get to the conference each year and imagine how hard it is for others. I will find out, as I do every year, who decided it wasn't worth the fight and stayed home. Then I'll find some way to encourage them to consider trying again next year. I'm not asking for the Medieval Congress to radically change, I'm telling you about what stands in the way of it growing.

This letter is not an attack. I'm just telling you about my community. I'm telling you about a side of your community that may not be the parts you get to see. I'm not asking for you to make everything better all at once. I'm asking that you try to make it a little better today than it was yesterday. Even if you stumble today, it will soon be yesterday and then you can try again. This letter is my way of saying that I'll be there along side you in the Medieval Congress because like you I love what we try to do here. I love it so much that I want us to do it better. I want it to be better for those who don't come or can't come. I want it to be better for those who might come or will come in the future. I want it to be better for those who are being ridiculed. I want it to be better for those who don't get it yet because you deserve to know how much better things can be. I want it to be better because I know so many amazing women and trans people who will revolutionize and revitalize any profession in which they are able to be a part. I want it to be better because I know that the Middle Ages are worth studying for everyone. I want it to be better because I know that women can save the Middle Ages. I want it to be better because I know that transgender can save the Middle Ages.

So don't do it for me. Do it for them. If you can't do it for them, do it for yourself because you deserve to be a part of a Medieval Studies that does a better job at making the world better.


A friend




  1. Not that it is anything more than a drop in the bucket, but I wanted to flag for you and the medievalist community that the Society of Medieval Feminist Scholarship is now offering a Trans* Travel Fund to provide grants towards costs for alternative travel plants for conferences given TSA and other discriminatory and unsafe situations for trans* scholars. It is a new initiative, not widely known, and would welcome input for how to make it more available to the trans* community.

  2. Thank you for sharing this piece. I will bear it fully in mind the next time I am able to attend Kalamazoo or any other medieval studies conference. It was a delight to meet you at NCS, and I look forward to running into you again to hear more about your important project.