Tuesday, May 28, 2019

The Medieval DSM: Teaching On Medieval Disability & Transgender


"Jo l'ai tolte desnaturee"
[I have completely de-natured them]

Roman de Silence
Heldris of Cornwall
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In her book, She's Not There: A Life In Two Genders, transgender author and English professor, Jennifer Boylan, recalls, "One day I was stopped in the hall by a professor of medieval literature... I knew it would be good because scholars of this period seem to be required by the Modern Language Association to be absolutely insane." Now, attending the medieval congress at Kalamazoo may only reinforce this notion that we are all at least a little bit insane. Indeed, I am not here to dispute Boylan’s claim. Instead, I wish to put forth the intersection of transgender studies, disability studies, and medieval studies as a productive sort of crazy-making. Admittedly, my own professional well-being depends somewhat on the premise that all this madness means something significant in the end. In particular, I propose the thesis that medieval approaches to gender and madness may productively contribute to a wider education on disability and transgender studies. Specifically, I would like to outline a pedagogical movement whereby we move students from a knowledge as a possession which might be hoarded and represented by compendiums such as the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) towards a medieval model of knowledge as a process which depends on a lyrical and dialectical dialogue between multiple authorities, which I call the medieval DSM. Now, many of us here today might contend that given the DSM is called the Bible of Psychology, then the Bible is the medieval Bible of the Psyche. Yet I will demonstrate through a lesson from my seminars, “Monsters & Disability” “Queer Christianity,” and “Beyond Male & Female,” using the debate between nature, nurture, reason, and will from Roman de Silence as the sandbox for discussion, that the medieval DSM might be best translated as the medieval dialectical storytelling method.

While I’ve taught the medieval DSM in a few classes, as I just mentioned, it perhaps is most important for my Disability seminar at Case Western Reserve University which tends to have a higher number of pre-med, nursing, biology, and psychology majors attending the institution’s well known medical schools and working in their hospitals. For these students, lecture courses are the cornerstone with knowledge gained extensively through note-taking, cram sessions, and multiple choice tests based on large compendiums of knowledge like the DSM. For them and the other students of this STEM university, the treatment of knowledge as a process which involves multiple competing perspectives challenges the models of knowledge as object which has made them successful thus far in their studies. Indeed, many regard transgender as an inappropriate topic to study in a disability seminar because it is seen as too political or too based on in the social constructionist models of gender studies, not hard science. Yet lessons such as the medieval DSM used to discuss texts like Roman de Silence challenges their definitions of disability, gender, and epistemology, or how we know what we know. 


For those who are not familiar, Le Roman de Silence is a 13th century French chivalric romance about a trans masculine knight by Heldris of Cornwall. In the narrative, Sir Silence is born in a society that does not allow women to inherit property, so when he are born without a penis, his parents elect to raise him as a son in order to protect his right to inherit their estate. This runs smoothly until he reaches adolescence at which time he becomes aware that he is not like other boys. At this point, Nature and Nurture arrive to debate with him over whether or not he should continue to follow his nurturing to live as a trans masculine male or to follow nature’s decree that he live as a woman. The two sides go back and forth until Reason arrives to offer another and perhaps a higher authority perspective. And in the end, the choice falls to the will of Silence who elects to live as a man, which he does for many years. 


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Nature

Now, when my students hear that we will be discussing transgender in a disability seminar, they expect lectures in line with the discourse of Nature in the story. They expect me to provide them with medical information which informs them first whether or not being transgender is a disability and if it is what sort of health care may be involved. When I hand them this medieval poem, they get confused. This is not the exchange of knowledge-rich professor giving data to knowledge-consuming student. Instead, I am challenging them to think dialectically, considering the natural sciences alongside those of culture, philosophy, and ethics. Even worse, I am challenging them to engage in this dialectical debate of thesis, antithesis and synthesis through narrative. Doing this is key however to growing their perspectives on transgender and disability from being a collection of facts to being a collection of facts, cultures, ideologies, and choices. By getting them to see transgender and disability as ongoing dialectical narratives, I can show them not only how understandings of gender of the mind, body, and soul have evolved over the centuries but help them to question modern definitions and diagnoses. 


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Nurture

For instance, the debate between nature and nurture are present throughout modern medical treatment of transgender people. This dialectic hit a powerful anti-thesis in the 1990s with the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act that codified many protections and rights of people with disabilities while also including a clause which first disregards homosexuality as not being a disability or disorder and yet including transgender as being a disorder yet one not deserving of protection or support. Trans diagnoses were listed in this clause alongside pedophilia and bestiality. Indeed, we see this debate occurring today with the Trump administration considering transgender too much of disability and thus marking trans people as not fit to serve while also removing healthcare protections so as to allow anti-transgender insurers and doctors to refuse to cover what they consider to be a life-style and not a disability.

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Super-Nature
and Reason

While the American Medical Association, American Psychological Association, the American Psychiatric Association and dozens of other authorities consider gender dysphoria a valid medical condition deserving of care and yet not one that inhibits a person’s ability to serve, the refusal to recognize the natural facts of trans life are often follows super-natural or spiritual authorities. In Silence we see this escalation from nurture and nature to the super-natural with the arrival of Reason. Here the medieval DSM makes students productively uncomfortable again by challenging them to consider their own first principles, belief systems, and ideological biases. The gender binary that anti-LGBT politicians medical providers promote is not based in science or history but in the philosophical fallacies of pre-determined outcomes. This flawed logical doctrine that there are only two genders causes doctors to operate on intersex children in order to force these exceptions to this binary back into the binary, rather than recognizing that their binary is disproven by the biodiversity of chromosomes, hormones, phenotypes, and neuro-types. 

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Liberty

With natural sciences, cultural nurturing, and ideological rationales considered, modern and medieval scholars will often come to conclusions before stopping to consider that the debate Silence has four members of this dialectical storytelling and not three. While Nature, Nurture, and Reason all make their cases, in the end the decision falls to Silence. Silence choses to live as a trans man. The significance of this decision is highlighted both by the thousands of lines of narrative that extols Sir Silence living his best life but also in the tragedy that ends the story when Silence undergoes a sort of forced to live as a woman by the natural authority of Nature, the cultural authority of the King, and the Super-Natural Logos of Merlin. This tension between the start and end of Silence’s narrative marks how disability and transgender studies is more than just the natural or social sciences debate over what someone is but over the ethical question of who and how we empower trans and crip people to make decisions about their own lives.

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In the end, Le Roman de Silence is an effective tool at not only teaching students about medieval transgender and disability but in understanding a different way of knowing through the medieval DSM. Knowing as a dialectical storytelling method not only teaches students about medieval ways of analyzing differences in body and mind, but in challenging them to reconsider how they know what disability and transgender mean. I firmly believe that critical thinking itself may be defined by this ability to have multiple voices and perspectives in mind at once (whether or not one allegorizes them) and being able to synthesize factual, cultural, epistemological and ethical decisions based on them. This multiplicity of voices is often absent in social media and politics which put us all into echo-chambers where our favorite authorities pass down truths which repeat themselves through retweets, likes, and shares. The ability to sit in a classroom and synthesize perspectives into a shared narrative of knowledge is more important now than ever.

Thus, I return to the quotation offer by my trans sister and fellow scholar of literature, Jennifer Boylan, when she says that “scholars of this period seem to be required by the Modern Language Association to be absolutely insane." In a modern world where modes of thinking are defined by in-groups and out-groups, those who believe or disbelieve the same science, who share or reject the same cultures, who believe or disbelieve the same super-natural authorities, and who approve or condemn the same sorts of choices, maybe this era and our classrooms need more medieval insanity if that insanity means being able to think on multiple levels at once. Being able to at once play the games of the enemy and win, or else to know enough to refuse to play games which are rigged against you, may mean not only the difference between an A or a B grades but can be life-saving for trans and crip people who often find themselves at the mercy of ever changing authorities who try to decide what our lives mean and what our choices me be, and can perhaps be the difference between a livable and an unlivable life for them and others.

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