Monday, May 21, 2018

The Future of Medieval Transgender Studies: Kalamazoo 2018


"It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning,
 a step along the way"

Bishop Ken Untener of Saginaw
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The Loathly Lady of Medieval Studies

A knight stands trial before a court of female identified and allied persons, begging for his future and calling in his defense the aid of a sometimes elfin maiden, sometimes loathly lady. This queer maid-crone gives the knight insight into the mystery of futurity and women: liberty. Granting also, the knight has also been told the other demands of this medieval society of females: riches (i.e. pay us), honor (i.e. treat us with dignity), lust, joy, and rich array (i.e. let us have fun and express our bodies as we will), flattery (i.e. treat us like we know what we are talking about, maybe even cite us), and marriage (i.e. make commitments to us). But in the end, liberty is what wins the knight his future but only if he is willing to fulfill his oath to this nasty woman. The court of femmes agree and the knight gives lip service to this foul Wight. Later, in private, the knight seeks from the woman what exactly such a commitment means. What is their future together going to look like? Well, she replies, that is up to you: either I will be ugly but committed, i.e. the crone, or beautiful and uncommitted, i.e. the elf.

This is the story the Wife of Bath tells in the Canterbury Tales but it is also, I believe, the story of this session. The knight of medieval studies wants to know what it’s future looks like, the court of women and allies, or society for the study of medieval feminist studies, has given demands but now the knight of medievalism finds new potential futurity in the Wight that has been sometimes treated as an ugly crone and sometimes flirtatiously as an unspeakable desire, medieval transgender studies. Within the confines of this court and session, there seems to be some commitment, words towards a shared future. But the question of what kind of future remains. Is the Wight of medieval trans studies to be forced to pass under the beauty standards of this predominantly patriarchal and sometimes abusive knight leading her to inevitably stray from and resist him? Or will the field be grim faced but committed? Both options are on the table as well as the choice that the knight does choose and medieval studies should as well: liberation.

In identifying the sometimes loathly sometimes elf maiden in the Wife’s Tale with medieval trans women and medieval trans studies, I make a claim about the enmeshment of the medieval and the trans which many would like to keep separate. Transgender may exist out and honestly but should do so over there, in modernity, only flirtatiously visiting the medieval homestead when the knight’s lusts dare have fun with us, maybe even make jokes about us in satirical conference papers about eunuchs. Indeed, we have seen this been the case, with medieval studies of sexuality, some performed by our queer friends and forerunners, which flirt with the trans but ultimately noncommittally and tangentially. Or else trans scholars and studies will be claimed and committed to as a member of the medieval household but only as a killjoy diversity subgroup, that one Wight that is here but still doesn’t have full commerce with all the beautiful people. And either choice, keeping us proud and at a distance or close but begrudging, functions to keep the medieval medieval and keep transgender transgender. 


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Cistory
(Cisgender Versions of History)

Cis queer historians have likewise followed the impulse of the knight in un-trans-ing medieval transgender in order to make them queer sodomites, best unknowable and unspeakable. One such queer scholar once claimed to “look through and not at the transvestite.” Indeed she does, never once using any trans word besides this claim to look through transvestism, as her primary focus is the queer unspeakability of sodomy. Eleanor’s gender, she claimed, is as unknowable as her sin and sexuality. All of this unknowability, she concludes, is very queer. I am not here to contest that there is something very queer about medieval transgender but to say that medieval trans-ness is unknowable is to intentionally un-know all the ways that such trans-ness names itself and tells its story. At times, such as in the case of Eleanor Rykener, she may be forced to reveal details of her life, like her deadname, she otherwise would not disclose. Yet she uses her detection as a way of resisting the cis and queer impulse to uncover and un-trans her.

Like Eleanor, By being accosted, captured, and detected first by medieval cisgender men and later by cisgender historians, our loathly lady becomes exploited, limited, and un-trans-ed in order to provide a momentary playful release to cisgender systems that will proceed on despite the transness in the archive. Indeed, by overwriting or unwriting this trans-ness, the medieval cisgender men and the cisgender medievalists create then compound the dysphoria in the archive by contradicting the multivalence of identified and expressed gender with a gender assigned to her by society then history. Eleanor becomes a sodomitical cross-dressing cis male and the Wight becomes an ugly old woman or else a somewhat queer elfin cis woman. At times the impulse to un-trans medieval figures may make allowances, such as defining the Wife of Bath by her tale by saying the teller is a strong and thereby masculine woman or describe Rykener by the double-billing as John/Eleanor that limits Eleanor to at best co-equal with John. 


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Dysphoria in the Archives

These figures embody the un-trans-ing and unknowing of trans-ness that leaves the baseline foundational assumption going into medieval studies the belief that of course such medieval persons were not transgender. Indeed, this insistence on having our cake and eating it too is exactly the conflict is the DSM-5 definition of dysphoria. The Fifth Edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorder (DSM-5) short definition of gender dysphoria is: the “marked difference between the individual’s expressed/experienced gender and the gender others would assign him or her.” I draw attention to the fact that the disorder, dysfunction, and distress is social and not individual. The problem is not that a person is transgender. The problem is that the cisgender society accosts, captures, and un-trans-es the transgender person. Dysphoria begins in the environment, dysphoria begins in cisgender people, then is transmitted into transgender bodies where is does wreckage to lives, destroying transgender pasts, transgender presents, and transgender futures.

This is dysphoria the price of either treating transgender studies as a modern field we may invoke on occasion playfully and unfaithfully, not doing our due diligence to her, or else as a diversity box we check begrudging but otherwise ignore and isolate, occasionally giving lip service to when forced to be a court of women or a society of medieval feminists. Dysphoria is the personal internalization of a social division that is willing to make exceptions but otherwise will not transform the fundamental division of male and female, medieval and trans studies. And notice, the dysphoria may not be named as such until the trans figure makes itself known but the conditions in society that produce this dysphoria, the divisions in the field and in the archives pre-exist and may even outlast a loathly lady standing up in a session pointing them out. Because these divisions are nonetheless about the control and subordinacy of cis men and women, even though it is currently trans, queer, and non-binary people and studies feeling the beating stick.

As a primarily social event between people rather than a strictly internal psychological event, dysphoria can then be detected in the field and in the archives, especially archives that deny trans identification or expression. Dysphoria is a disorder in cisgender societies and archives that demands transgender interventions to repair, to liberate, and to re-narrate. This session then is both a call for and an enacting of such a reparative, liberating, and retelling. In not only to see in these papers how we might attend to the way that the medieval cis order and medievalist cis histories have created dysphoria in the archive by learning lessons on how to transform the future of the past by transforming compulsory cisgender lives and stories. Dysphoria in the archive teaches us the need to trans(form) queerness that reifies the cisgender order by un-transing our past, thereby threatening our present. Because the root of dysphoria is the cisgender desire to not see transgender, then or now. The future of medieval transgender studies may begin the process of liberating cis folk from their ingrained ignorance.

So how do we affirm rather than accost, liberate rather than capture, and deepen rather than uncover medieval transgender and dysphoria? How do we diminish and reclaim the dysphoria in the archive towards a positive pre-modern transgender studies? I argue that the Wife of Bath’s Tale, specifically the loathly lady already shows us the way by how she turns back on the cisgender order. First, consider how the Wight responds to the knight accosting her. If she is going to be exploited, she demands to be paid before she consents. In historical terms, this is to say that historians must let the trans people speak and consent to how we use their stories. Let trans persons of the past and their allies today set their terms. Thus, if we are to tell trans histories then we must listen to trans voices. Educating, accepting, promoting, publishing, reading, and hiring trans scholars should be the goal because as the loathly lady tells us, if you want to use trans bodies and stories then you should commit to us and pay us. Commit to us with scholarships, citations, jobs, and tenure. In the meanwhile, consult, listen, and read trans studies. 


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Liberating the Past

The second lesson from the loathly lady is her response to the impulse of the cisgender order to grasp, seize, capture, and limit her: she demands liberation. For those who have not read the Wife of Bath’s Tale for it’s trans-ness recently, perhaps because we are distracted by the Wife’s own female masculinity, the story ends after the knight being given the choice between an insubordinate distant beautiful partner or a committed but begrudely accepted partner, when he says, the choice is yours. In the end, the best future I see for medieval transgender studies is one based around liberation. This would mean not insisting on trans studies as only that proud but unmedieval modern thing on the one hand and on the other hand not relegating medieval trans figures to a few odd loathly isolated figures and scholars. In short, let medieval transgender studies become what it needs to become. And what that will look like is not something this elf maid / loathly lady can tell you at this particular court of feminists.

What I can tell you is how the Wife of Bath’s story ends. Because after the knight gives his partner the freedom to be whatever she may be, she immediately becomes a beautiful bride. Because what is beautiful is the freedom to be who we need to be be and become what we need to become which means the freedom to not only uncover and express truth but also the liberty to change our minds and even our pronouns. The Tale says she became the elfin maiden again and the story ends there, cut to black and roll credits. Yet I am not convinced that she will always stay that way. With her full liberty, she is free to use her powers as she pleases and needs. This means sometimes she may need to wear the face of the loathly lady killjoy. This may mean sometimes being the fairy dancing in the wood. Sometimes it means standing with a court of feminists as we interrogate an oppressive, misogynistic and sexually abusive field. The Tale ends there but the future is uncertain and that is the point. Because liberation demands uncertainty.

The medieval trans studies that I practice and teach my students is one of many faces, mostly ones that do not look like me. And this is important, because most of my readers and students also don’t look like me, even the trans ones. Because there is no one way to be trans today and certainly no one way to be trans in the past. There is some value in identifying trans persons in the past as helping us see ourselves in the past but if the middle ages is a mirror it is a broken mirror that reflects and refracts, distorts and multiplies. Let’s not just consider those we once called “male to female or female to male” but also those mothers to virgins, reproductive men who become eunuchs, knights who become monks, intersexual hermaphrodites and trans masculine Amazons. Trans does not just allow for movement across the binary or the creation of a space in between but a breaking open of the binary so we see that even within the category of man and woman there are many identities and transitions between. Medieval trans studies is not just about transgender people who look like me. Medieval trans studies is about all of us. 


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A Step Along the Way

The last lesson, I draw from this is not to turn away from the trans-ness in the archive not to turn away from the dysphoria in the archive. Transgender faced a cis accosting in the medieval moment just as trans histories face limiting and erasure in medieval studies. Dysphoria generated by the cis past and present is the elided reality to be detected, revealed, and disclosed. We need dysphoria not just as a way to detect trans people in archives but as a way to see the history of transphobia in cis history and cis historians. Because the loathly lady does not just tell us about herself but about her time, about the generations of historians after her, and about us. She teaches us to detect the systems that oppressed her and oppress us. The goal of liberating medieval transgender studies is that this means liberating all of us. Consent benefits us all. Equity benefits us all. Intersectional justice benefits us all. Commitment to each other in the field and not to a certain way that field has looked in the past is what will see that we have a future at all.

This liberation means working towards a future and medieval studies that is not our own. To quote a prayer made famous by Oscar Romero, “No statement says all that could be said…No confession brings perfection…No set of goals and objectives includes everything. This is what we are about. We plant the seeds that one day will grow. We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise. We lay foundations that will need further development. We provide yeast that produces far beyond our capabilities. We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that. This enables us to do something, and to do it very well. It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way… We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker. We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs. We are prophets of a future not our own.” I yearn for a day, perhaps soon, perhaps not so soon, that my remarks today and my scholarship are no longer necessary and indeed quite dated. My hopes are that some of those listening today and speaking today will be those who take us over that next step, that write that next article, organize that next session, teach the next generation of medieval trans scholars. We want to give these students and scholars more liberation than we had. A more ethical profession than we had. A middle ages that is fully medieval and therefore more fully trans. We want them to walk on the foundations that we are excavating and the foundations that we may become. And like all moments in the past and soon to be past, these moments are moments of uncertainty and many possible futures. The medieval past did end up here today but did not have to. Every moment is a moment of possibility if only we have the liberty to choose. Likewise, today, this session, “Towards a Medieval Transgender Studies,” is about the future but also about marking a moment. “We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that. This enables us to do something, and to do it very well. It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way.”

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