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.


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