Wednesday, June 27, 2018

The Transgender Turn: Eleanor Rykener's View of Eleanor Rykener

"Qui ab eo argentum pro labore suo petens sibi consentiebat, 
invicem transeuntes ad illud complendum usque stallum predictum."

The Interrogation of Eleanor Rykener
London 1394


On December 11th, Eleanor Rykener (Elianoram Rykener) confirmed that she had been standing on Cheap Street around 8:00-9:00 PM, where and when she turned back upon and negotiated with a local man, John Britby. She was this day, as in many days before, presenting as a woman and calling herself Eleanor. She learned to perform sex work from a woman, Anna. She also transitioned into living as Eleanor with her teacher's assistance. Responding to Britby's accosting, Rykener demanded to be paid before performing any sexual acts with him. This exchange was one of a series of such exchanges that Rykener procured from other men, for pay, and other women, seemingly without pay. After this turn of the exchange, she consented to sex. She proceeded to a local horse stall and completed the transaction for which Britby had accosted her. Soon after, they were both turned on by local law enforcement, then brought to the court. Therein, Rykener consented to tell her story and how she viewed herself as Eleanor Rykener.

This is the story of Eleanor Rykener from Eleanor Rykener's perspective, and it is important to consider, especially given the way that the Cisgender Turn in scholarship has evaded such a critical trans perspective. First, it is socially important to recognize that although a cisgender man initiated the exchange with her, accosting her, Rykener turns back on him with demands that her payment and consent be established. She turns the narrative and power dynamic of the exchange around, evidencing that her trans womanhood will not be a passive text on which he will write his cis manhood. Second, it is narratively important to recognize that although the transgender turn to speak and historicize comes after the cisgender turn, Rykener consents to tell her story and name her body according to her own words. After the loss of power from various cisgender turns against her, the transgender turn works to reclaim the trans narrative and body.

The second interaction and story to be told between Britby and Rykener centers around the trans woman's demand for consent. In Latin, the word used is "consentiebat." This means, "to assent to, favor, fit / be consistent / in sympathy / unison with, agree." By demanding that payment and consent be factored into the story, Rykener works to reclaim agency over her body and story. He may see her but she turns his head. He approaches her but see receives him. He talks to her but she responds. He asks for sex but she demands payment. He engages with her sexually but she consents. He takes her to a private place but she goes there with him, may even lead him there. He touches her but she touches him back, contact always goes both ways even if only as a form of resistance. Then he is the first to speak but she speaks the most and gets the final word. Consistently, the cisgender turn may initiate and frame events but the transgender turn powers, resists, and reclaims her time, voice, and history.




The critical importance of the transgender turn that Eleanor Rykener is that she transforms a moment of staring, gazing, and being turned on from an accosting cisgender subject into a moment of mutual turning toward one another; into a moment insisting on consent. In her chapter on "Beholding" from Staring: How We Look, Rosemarie Garland-Thomson argues that given how trans people, queer people, crip people, women, and people of color are consistently stared at -- she discounts not being stared at as a viable or practical option -- we must learn how to shift the power from being all about their looking and towards our looks. The looking, as in the case of John Britby's cisgender turn, does indeed take power over and away from Rykener. But Garland-Thomson sees ways that power over one's looks can be reclaimed. "By putting themselves in the public eye, saying 'look at me' instead of 'don't stare,'" writes Garland-Thomson, "people... practice what might be called visual activism" (193). This visual activism is defined as (1) using the urge for others to look at us in order to make them see new things about us, (2) educating those who stare in order to make them look at people differently, better, and (3) to "create a sense of obligation that primes people to act in new ways: to vote differently, to spend money differently, to build the world differently, to treat people differently, and to look at people differently" (Garland Thomson, 193). In all these respects, we may witness in the way the trans woman turns toward the cisgender gaze, that Rykener enacts a form of visual activism which compels others to see new things about her, to see her differently, and to motivated to provide payment and consent to those formerly treated as passive bodies.

Although we are told that Rykener wears women's clothing and appears for all intents and purposes as a woman, there is no record of how Rykener looked. However, we have sufficient evidence to know that she turned heads. From her confession, we know that John Britby was not the first man (or woman) to turn about and give Rykener a second look. Furthermore, she not only made them look twice but she could hold their look long enough to receive sexual advances, gifts, and payment. She was beheld by the cisgender men but by her beauty she actively held onto them. "Beauty," writes Garland-Thomson, "is a perceptual process and a transitive action: it catches interest, prompts judgement, encourages scrutiny, creates knowledge" (Garland-Thomson, 187). Recognizing the beauty of Rykener is to recognize her power and the way transgender can turn power dynamics. In his cisgender turn, Britby does not mere stare at Rykener in a way that only degrades and mocks her. Certainly he objectifies her. He may be said to exploit her body. Yet to see Rykener only as such an object is to ignore how her beauty held power over others. She creates and exploits his interests and desires for her. She prompts him to judge her as worthy of payment. She uses the power of her beauty to inform him that she has will, agency and demands that consent be established. 

Tying consent to payment, the transgender turn on the cisgender gaze emphasizes how consent evidences a sort of collaboration, where one party exists, "in unison with" or "agrees" to work with the other. Consent and payment is one way the transgender turn works with and even accomplishes some of the desire of the cisgender turn. The demand for and exchange of money does represent one way that the cisgender patriarchy has domineered and exploited the body of women and especially trans women, past and present. Yet the narrative of victimhood that often frames the discussion of sex workers, including Rykener, may dangerously reduce the flow of power to a unidirectional current from a cisgender subject to a transgender object. The interrogation records that Britby did not offer Rykener money. She requested it before she would consent. This signals the existence of cis-misogynistic assumptions about power at play when Britby turns on Rykener. The cisgender turn assumes the passivity of the transgender body, allowing cisgender subjects to look at the trans object, to use the transgender object as a tool or instrument towards some end which the cisgender subject desires, and in the end to narrate the encounter in ways that benefit the cisgender subject. But the demand for payment evidences that Rykener knows that the cisgender agent wants to use her. It is an important turning point that she sees being used by cisgender persons as labor in which she is an active participant. She rejects passivity and collaboration. In "Beholding," Garland-Thomson discusses the theories of Elaine Scarry, and the "compact between starer and staree [which] is not static but collaborative" (Garland-Thomson, 187). Looking is not just something the cisgender agent does on his own. Rykener is active in the exchange, she owns her look and uses her look. The exchange of money is representative of that likewise, sex is not something that a man simply does to a woman or a cis person does to a trans person. Sex is collaborative. Yet given the power dynamics, the sex is collaborative but not a collaboration between equals. The trans woman is being exploited (from the moment he turned on her to the time spent in the horse stall) and wants compensation for that exploitation.


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