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transgender studies, Mills’s chapter reeks of the anxiety that his language and research on transgender will soon be out of date.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.



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