Wednesday, July 18, 2018

CFP Kalamazoo 2019: Dysphoric Pedagogies: Teaching About Transgender and Intersex in the Middle Ages (Due Sept 10)

"Earlier this year, UNESCO published a series of studies which showed how gender nonconformity lies at the core of both LGB and T discrimination in schools. Obviously, this also applies for intersex students. Sex education and the school environment tends to perpetuate the notion that only two sexes exist. "

The Global Alliance for LGBT Education

Dysphoric Pedagogies: 
Teaching About Transgender and Intersex in the Middle Ages 

Organizer: Gabrielle M.W. Bychowski 
(Case Western Reserve University) 

Co-Sponsor: “the Society for Medieval Feminist Scholarship (SMFS)” 
and “the Teaching Association for Medieval Studies (TEAMS)” 

Questions about transgender and intersex in the Middle Ages are nothing new in scholarship and especially not within classrooms. Students have long seemed curious about all the non-binary and non-cisgender lives that populate the syllabi of pre-modern seminars, sections and surveys. Hands can shoot up from wondering students when reading about the isles of Hermaphrodites or Amazons, sainted monks who started their life living as women, ambiguous figures like Chaucer’s Pardoner, and fictional stories like Roman de Silence or historical personas such as Joan of Arc. Whether or not we consider ourselves intersex or transgender studies scholars, as instructors of pre-modern eras we wrestle with such questions about how to respond to students who are excited to connect the gender diversity they see in their world with the images and stories they are reading about in the distant past.

This panel aims to offer a range of pedagogy techniques, lesson plans, assignments, reading lists, and anecdotes for all those interested in enhancing how they teach about transgender and intersex in the Middle Ages. The concept of “Dysphoric Pedagogies” is drawn from the DSM-5 diagnostic language that describes the experience where one’s identified or expressed gender conflicts with the gender assigned by society. Within the modern world there are many ways to experience dysphoria and there are trans, intersex, and non-binary who do not experience this conflict. We want to hear about your valuable experiences in teaching through such instances of dysphoria within the art, history, and literature in an era before the DSM-5 and its various diagnoses, or the coinage of the words “transgender” or “intersex,” How have these moments of gender diversity and conflict provoked conversations about self and society, expression and audience, nature and nurture, gender norms and non-conformity, past and present? Each presenter is recommended to consider how you’ve engaged with the resonance between medieval figures and the long history of trans, intersex, gender queerness and non-binary gender. Abstracts should be 250-500 words.

Send abstracts to Gabrielle M.W. Bychowski (


Monday, July 16, 2018

Transgender Ethics: NCS 2018 Remarks on the Wife of Bath's Tale

"You fucked the world up now, 
we'll fuck it all back down"

Janelle Monae

Unmoored in Time

“In th' olde dayes of the Kyng Arthour, / Of which that Britons speken greet honour, / Al was this land fulfild of fayerye. The elf-queene, / with hir joly compaignye, / Daunced ful ofte in many a grene mede. / This was the olde opinion, as I rede; speke of manye hundred yeres ago. But now kan no man se none elves mo.” (In the old days of King Arthur, Of whom Britons speak great honor, This land was all filled full of supernatural creatures. The elf-queen, with her jolly company, Danced very often in many a green mead. This was the old belief, as I read; I speak of many hundred years ago. But now no man can see any more elves). 
But now no man can see any more elves. So begins the Wife of Bath’s Tale and so begins our study transgender ethics, with the uncertainty of changing times. And this raises the question of when and if we might ever see the elves dance again. Is this nostalgia or a utopian dream?

Let’s put this another way. Three years ago, I was invited to join an assembled team of trans people in the arts at the White House to advise the Obama administration on how to leverage the power of communication to make the nation a more ethical and equitable place for people of all genders. During the day, someone pointed out that the very existence of such a congregation of trans leadership in the White House would have been (until very recently) not only unthinkable, but even illegal. Everyone there affirmed how contingent and potentially fleeting this moment of strength was. We wanted to make the most of it. And only a couple years later, such a meeting in the White House is again unthinkable and if not illegal, certainly against current government policies and regulations. How quickly things change and change again! How precarious are our alliances and fidelity! The reason I ask this question and tell this story is that I genuinely feel part of a community without a time to call our own. In his chapter, Transgender Time, from Seeing Sodomy in the Middle Ages, Robert Mills says that scholars he talked to speak of transgender as a critical turn that has already come and gone. Indeed, while arguing for a medieval transgender studies, Mills’s chapter reeks of the anxiety that his language and research on transgender will soon be out of date. Personally, in my own work I hear the opposite but arrive at the same conclusions. From the government, from churches, from universities, and from my own field, I constantly hear people begging for time: slow down, we aren’t ready yet, we aren’t there yet, it's not time yet!

Politically, academically, historically, and personally I feel emphatically unmoored in time, compelling me to find language for the moral condition of never quite knowing whether one is ahead of our time or falling behind, moving forwards or backwards. In trans communities, we get asked, “are you pre-op or post-op?” This refers to whether or not we have had “the surgery,” which is supposed to mark a before and after in the telos of a trans person. Even if we set aside surgery as a marker of periodization, the concept of before and after this or that, hormones or transitions, leaves many trans folk feeling unsure of when they are, between periods that everyone else seems to think is important. I call this condition being trans-op. Literally, between operations. And I will argue today that this is a position of transgender ethics which might help us look back - or forward - to the time of the elves of the Wife of Bath's Tale; a time which may never have been.



The Trans-Operative

In respect to feeling unmoored in time and alliances, being a trans ethicist feels actually very much like being a medievalist. And so, like the Wife of Bath, I look back into my books for ethical guidance, "
This was the olde opinion, as I rede; speke of manye hundred yeres ago." After all, what do we study here if not a time between times? We study the Middle Ages, an era of study defined by what comes after this but before that. And so I ask, what is the medieval answer to a transgender ethical question of contingent alliances and moral infidelity. In searching for such a response, it should be no surprise that I turn to the Wife of Bath. Indeed, the Wife’s whole moral system seems built around moral infidelity to her husbands, of which she boasts of having many, and whether good or bad each marriage seems built in some way around contingent alliances based around mutual uncertainty about commitment. However, while I pay my respects to the nasty woman, I have always found the focus of the Tale far more trans than the tale’s teller: the Loathly Lady. This is a trans-operative woman is I have ever met one. The function of her whole Tale is to demonstrate the ethical machinations of a person caught in the position where they cannot guarantee from one day to the next what the state of their partnerships, power, or even the state of their body will be. 

For those who would enjoy the refresher, here is a summary of the Wife of Bath’s Tale: 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, honor, lust, joy, and rich array, flattery, and marriage. 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.

The question the Loathly Lady poses seems peculiar but is an extremely honest and necessary reflection of her real state of affairs. After all, the knight is a known rapist and opportunist, willing to promise anything to anyone, even a random crone in the middle of the woods, if it means it will get him out of trouble. In short, the Loathly Lady may have some power over the Knight at this moment but he has shown infidelity in the past and may again, he has abused women like her in the past and may abuse them again. Any power she has now has no time in the past to serve as a foundation nor any certainty about her power in the future. Thus, her ethos towards the knight may reasonably be either one of cynical but persistent experience, an old loyal killjoy that has been around the block so many times his tricks won’t fool her, or else a hopeful yet vulnerable young blood that shares no loyalty with the past or the present. I shall avoid making a joke about Gen-X vs. Millennials. Again, her question may seem to lack the assurances of a fixed form or fellowship but it reflects a world that offers her no such assurances.

And the answer she receives, perhaps is the best that a trans-operative can expect: liberty. The knight allows the Loathly Lady to choose her own form and degree of fidelity. The Tale says she became beautiful and loyal. But I always ask my students, “what happens next, after the screen cuts to black and the credits roll?” The facts and conditions of the world remain the same. The Knight broke trust and raped before, he may again. The Elf Queen turned Loathly Lady turned Elf Queen is a changeling, always between one transition and another. She may change again. Given her choice in partner, despite the power the partnership currently gives her, she may need this power again. Liberty is a power she must maintain, ready to change, to alter the alliance, to be morally unfaithful, to leave if the time and place turns toxic. She needs the power to stay, to hold alliances and fidelity, but also to ethically leave, break bonds and fellowship. This is the offer of contingent alliance given by the Wife of Bath's protagonist but also the only offer given to her by the world. We are told from the start, "
In th' olde dayes... Al was this land fulfild of fayerye... But now kan no man se none elves mo." The world can be filled with fairies and now we can see no more of them. The world can be filled with loathly ladies, nasty women, trans women, and feminists, but now we can see no more of them. But this does not mean that they shall not come again. The temporality of the trans-operative is the time of chronicity. Not anachronistic or a-chronic (misplaced in time or timeless), trans chronicity is the condition of going into remission and becoming symptomatic, the monster's escape and return, the transition and fluidity with many beginnings and endings, and a time full of otherwhiles.



Moral Infidelity

This brings us back or forward to the position of the trans-operative, those not complacent to be operative, nor a double operative, but a trans-operative. I keep one foot inside the room and one foot out the door, one foot in one time and one foot in another period. We are trans-operative because frankly one can never tell when one minute you are welcomed inside the White House and the next minute not welcome in the military, in public bathrooms, or even Pride Parades. It is hard to even say that I am progressive, some days, because I have no guarantee that tomorrow will be better than today or three years ago. Occupying the trans-operative position, one strives for an ethics in a world without assured welcome and no time to look forward to or nostalgically back at. The ethics of the trans-operative Loathly Lady is a word of liberation for ourselves: things transform. Our times, our bodies, our society and jobs will change. Unmoored from time, we reject that things were ever so great as to allow us to be "Great Again" and we reject the passive naivety that our progress as a society will always be for the better. Some days we will be persistent killjoys and some days we will be beautiful traitors.

Because a transgender ethics, the ethics of the Wife of Bath’s Tale, is the ethics of the traitor. Times which do not know where or when to put us, regularly calls us traitors. White supremacists have a special hate for race traitors, white advocates for people of color; at the same time that police, government, and professions question the citizenship of people of color. Among trans-hating queers, we see the sense of double betrayal in the eyes of women who see friends in the lesbian community come out as trans men, not women, and queerly hetero, not gay. Among trans-excluding regressive feminists, TERFs, we see the turf war over feminist spaces that include trans women, who they consider men smuggling in to betray womanhood. Parents do not want trans children using the school bathrooms because they see us as liars and rapists. The US has a President who does not trust a trans soldier to serve their nation faithfully. Let us remember that when the Wife of Bath's Tale begins by saying we live in a time without fairies, "
now kan no man se none elves mo," she adds that the lack of fairies is due to our own exclusions: “Of lymytours and othere hooly freres, / That serchen every lond and every streem... Citees, burghes, castels, hye toures... This maketh that ther ben no fayeryes” (Of licensed beggars and other holy friars, That overrun every land and every stream... Cities, towns, castles, high towers... This makes it that there are no fairies). The cities, towns, high towers and walls of our world as well as our profession speak to the outlawing of fairies of various stripes. The very persistence of the nasty woman and transitioning elf is an act of treason against the time and place in which she is not supposed to exist.

We all get called loathly nasty ladies, traps and traitors to our own nations –nations in the political and Chaucerian sense—because our liberty, our power, our bodies, and our alliances are deemed unthinkable or illegal. That is why we must from time to time do the unthinkable or even illegal, why we occupy times and places in which we are not welcome, not because we may but because we must. Because, we have no time to wait or start again. Because we have no past or future into which we can flee for a sense of safety. Because when we occupy times in which white knights of hate are emboldened, when men rape and abuse the vulnerable, and our old allies sell us out, treason to such nations may be the only ethical recourse. In the words of the Venerable Janelle Monae, “you fuck the world up now, we’ll fuck it all back down.” Unmoored from time and nation, we become the loathly lady that ever escapes and returns, we become the beautiful traitors who love our nations enough to stop it from hurting us, and we become agents of change, the trans-operatives and transgender ethicists that are here to tell our allies: if you do not stand with us when we are weak, then you may not receive our loyalty when we are strong.



Sunday, July 1, 2018

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

"Undecimo die Decembris anno regni regis Ricardi secundi decimo octavo, ducti fuerunt hic coram Johanne Fressh maiore et aldermannis civitatis Londoniensis Johannes Britby de comitate Eboracum et Johannes Rykener, se Elianoram nominans veste muliebri detectus."

The Interrogation of Eleanor Rykener
London 1394


On December 11th, the Archive -- London Metropolitan Archives, Plea and Memoranda Roll A34, m.2 -- was present and witness to the turn of events on Cheap Street between John Britby and Eleanor Rykener, recording their confessions and the interpretations of these confessions by the scribe. In the previous sections, the Archive has been taken as an extension of the scribe's view of the events. But the Archive is also our only record of Britby's view of events. And likewise, the text is also our record of Rykener's view of events. Thus while the scribe put ink to paper, the authorship of the Archive is a collaborative work with words, perspectives, and narratives being contributed by multiple persons. Because it is an assemblage of multiple co-authors, the Archive is not identical to any one view of Eleanor Rykener or her story. As such, the Archive is worth considering in and of itself as evidencing the dysphoria in the archive of Eleanor Rykener and the wider dysphoria in the medieval archive which has been compounded by the Cisgender Turn and which the Transgender Turn seeks to answer.

What does it mean that the Archive, Plea and Memoranda Roll A34 m.2, is a dysphoric Archive? The short definition of dysphoria provided by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5) attests that gender dysphoria occurs when one's gender identity or expression conflicts with the gender assigned by society, for a period of at least six months. The longer diagnostic definition also acknowledges the present of a disgust for certain forms of gender and an overwhelming desire for another form of gender. In both these respects, the Archive, A34 m.2, both reflects dysphoria, embodies dysphoria, and creates dysphoria. In the first case, the Archive reflects the dysphoria in the courtroom. The central question of the interrogation seems to be whether or not Rykener is a woman, Eleanor (according with her expressed and identified gender), or a man (according with the assigned gender given by the court and other parts of her history as "John"). The courtroom reflects the textbook circumstances of dysphoria. Furthermore, I would argue that the Archive, A34 m.2, does indeed have three co-authors, Eleanor Rykener, John Britby, and the scribe. Because the Archive is the composite perspectives of all three regarding Rykener's gender, the Archive itself embodies this dysphoria of self and society, identity and expression versus social assignment. The Archive also seems to embody the tensions, disgust, and desires of all three. The Archive records that Rykener calls herself Eleanor, yet repeatedly calls her John nonetheless, yet uses Latin to carefully avoid using gendered pronouns. The Archive embodies the disgust for and desire for different genders. Finally, as seen in the consideration of the Scribe as the perspective which greatly informs the Cisgender Turn on Eleanor Rykener, the Archive is also the grounds on which a Transgender Turn may arise as well. 

What do we do with dysphoria? This is a foundational question that the Transgender Turn seeks to answer on the individual and systematic scales. Faced with evident dysphoria, the cisgender turn may very well throw up its hands with frustration or joy. Unspeakable! Ambiguous! Queer! Yet following the lead of Eleanor Rykener's turn, a transgender turn on the Archive, A34 m.2, might likewise seek to alleviate dysphoria by transitioning discourses. This means changing some of the ways that we discuss the Archive, for instance the names and pronouns that we use, but does not necessarily mean that problematic or messy parts of history are merely erased. Granted, some forms of transition use the formulation of absolute change as describe by Carolyn Walker Bynum in Metamorphosis and Identity, wherein the past and future are divided absolutely at the point of change. Yet this is not the only or perhaps the most ethical form of trans history. As Sandy Stone writes, "transsexuals must take responsibility for all of their history" (Stone 49). So must the Transgender Turn. Yet how do we move forward without erasing the past? How do we synthesize the old turn and the new turn? Once again, Rykener's leads the way by epitomizing a Transgender Turn based on consent, payment for labor and a privileging of the transitioning identity.




Despite the cisgender turns' ignorance and compounding of the problem, the dysphoria of the Archive can follow the transgender turn toward transitioning by ethically engaging it within the terms it sets for consensual use. While the dysphoric archive contains the stories of multiple persons, cisgender and transgender, only the consent of the cis persons has thus far been affirmed by later historians. Although certainly coerced into telling his story by the courts, John Britby consents to tell his story within the persona of John Britby. Because this name and identity seems to match his given name and identity, defining him as cisgender, the scribe and historians affirm both by telling the story of John Britby as John Britby's story. The power to tell one's story and one's name may be considered perfunctory by some, yet the fact that it can occur without remark points to an element of cisgender privilege perpetuated by the cisgender turn. Britby consents to tell his story in a certain way and that certain was is respected. We see how remarkable this consensual exchange between storyteller, scribe, and historian is when we consider the case within the same archive wherein the grounds for consent are not honored. Like the cisgender man, the transgender woman, Eleanor Rykener, is also asked to give her name and story to the court. The name she gives the court is Eleanor. The story she tells is Eleanor's story, mostly concerning her life as Eleanor. These are the grounds for her consent, that she will tell her story but she will tell her story her way: as Eleanor. Yet the scribe and the cisgender turn on the archive do not honor the conditions of this consent. The scribe and cisgender turn uses Rykener's story but remove or side-line Eleanor from it. Instead, the scribe and cisgender turn calls her John, her deadname. Throughout the archive, the scribe calls her John. The cisgender turn follows suit. Alternatively, some in the cisgender turn force Eleanor on the same level as John, describing her as John/Eleanor. Even as Eleanor is placed alongside John, however, she is placed second. As ever, the supposed cisgender persons gets their turn first and the transgender turn comes second. Yet Rykener did not consent to tell her story as "John" or as "John/Eleanor." She consented to tell her story as "Eleanor." The story is thus the story of Eleanor Rykener, wherein John is a footnote. Thus the dysphoria arises from the lack of honoring the conditions for consent. Thus the demand of the transgender turn to transition how scholars approach the archive, to diminish the dypshoria, to eschew the deadname in favor of Rykener's self-identification, and to honor the grounds for a consensual telling of her story.

Before she would consent, Eleanor Rykener demanded to be paid. The demand for transgender persons to be paid for their labor goes hand in hand with Rykener's conditions for consensual relations between the trans body, the trans story, and those who would use them. Yet how should Rykener be paid for her story? No longer living nor with identifiable ancestors, such payment cannot be monetary in the same form as an author might receive from consumers and publishers for sharing her story. Certainly, Rykener was not likely paid by the courts for her story. Indeed, she may have been punished instead. Yet to merely follow the medieval court's treatment of Rykener should not be the motto of the transgender turn toward the archive. Rather, we should consider how else we might honor Rykener's insistence that trans lives be compensated for their labor and use. At this point, another option arises from elsewhere in medieval scholarship: citation. Why should we not consider Eleanor Rykener an author of her own story? Critics might respond that Rykener did not write down her story, that the writer of the Archive is the scribe. Yet other cisgender medieval cisgender storytellers likewise utilize scribes, indeed they may even had been illiterate, and we still give them the honor of citing them as authors. The Book of Margery Kempe is one such example. The Book boasts of using a scribe, multiple scribes, yet scholarship still has adopted the tradition of calling the Book her book, the Book of Margery Kempe. Shall we deny Rykener, another medieval woman who may likewise have been illiterate and therefore dependent on another man to scribe her story? Now, one might respond that Kempe had more control and intention in composing her book than Rykener does over her story. Yet this merely extends the prejudice for literate male authors, or cisgender authors, to include a prejudice for authors of a class and wealth to claim control over their words. Kempe likewise found herself before courts and in prison, yet she had money to tell her side of the story and to preserve it in a book. For all the payment she received in exchange for her sexual consent from the Britby's of her city, Rykener does not have the class nor money nor cis male identity to purchase control over her words. Thus taken from her by coercion, Rykener's story is taken, used, copied, and retold within the cisgender turn without ever paying the author back. This injustice and break from Rykener's conditions for consent might likewise be rectified by another transition in scholarship: naming Eleanor Rykener as an author of her story. Or, at very least, she should by listed as a co-author alongside John Britby who likewise tells part of Rykener's story. Only by paying Rykener through citation and a byline can the transgender turn establish and maintain a commitment that is as important for medieval trans lives as modern trans lives: if you wish to use trans stories and trans bodies, you should pay trans subjects, at very least give them the credit of authorship over their own lives, bodies, names, and stories.


John – Eleanor is a coproduction by TEHDAS Theatre and puppet theatre HOX Company.
 It was also part of the Turku European Capital of Culture 2011 official program. 
It has been touring in England, Italy, France and USA after the premiere.