Tuesday, May 28, 2019

The Patron Saint of Dysphoria: Joan of Arc as Transgender


"By my staff! We are enough!"

Joan of Arc
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Before I begin, I must say that the question of whether or not Joan of Arc is transgender is one of my most asked questions, especially from non-medievalists and people who are vocally anti-trans. No sooner than my name and work is given in news articles or social media than I get trolls sending me messages, “transgender in the Middle Ages? Let me guess: Joan of Arc. What fascist fake-news garbage!” I have here removed the even more disgusting language typically included in these comments. You may also observe that I get these questions, if they are questions at all, from people who don’t genuinely want and answer but who seem to already have their minds made up about what transgender is or is not and what medieval history may or may not be. Yet, the weaponizing of Joan is not only against queer and trans populations but appropriated as a symbol of white Nationalism and an imagined origin myth of a white Christian western race. This image of “Joan the Weapon of White Cisgender Supremacy” is now working beside those harassing, interrogating, and expelling modern day soldiers (who like Joan felt called to serve their country) from a historically critical institution in the breaking down of racial segregation and the largest employer of trans folx in the world: the U.S. military.

In these contexts, the ability to question exclusive claims over Joan the Woman is critical to defend not only Joan the Person but the people experiencing modern echoes of the transphobic harassment and state sanctioned murder of Joan; those harmed by antagonistic governments and politically motivated Christians. I’m aware of how multifaceted these questions and answers are, requiring a chapter within my book project on Transgender in the Middle Ages, so today I will suffice to mark means by which we may begin asking the question: is Joan of Arc transgender?

To this end, I wish to thank the International Joan of Arc Society for inviting me here to specifically explore “Joan the Transgender Person” on a panel titled “Joan the Woman.” I take this as a good faith inquiry wherein we can model the generosity, respect, and critical inquiry lacking in exclusive and weaponizing claims to the saint. If people are willing to candidly pursue

Joan through a critical trans theory lens, we will find that in particular important respects we may say that Joan is trans, however perhaps not in the ways you presently expect. Please note, in identifying Joan as Trans, I do not believe we dismiss the wider complexity of Joan’s life that speaks to many truths and identity claims being true at the same time. That said, this talk is organized into three parts drawn from the main title, the Patron Saint of Dysphoria with each part complicating the idea of “Joan the Woman.” First, I will begin with the politics of this panel and this paper in this moment and ask how the concept of patronage may give us the flexibility to at once consider Joan “the Patron of Women Doing a Man’s Job” alongside Joan the Patron of Trans Folx in the Military.” Second, I move from our time to shortly after Joan’s death to consider how Joan rose in the popular consciousness and religious standing through rhetorical arguments using the canon of trans saints and hagiography. Third, I narrow in on Joan during the final days of life to consider how the conditions and interrogations underwent may be said to have produced a form of gender dysphoria and by which we may be able to say that whether or not we say Joan is transgender, certainly Joan died in no small part because of a medieval form of transphobia. The conclusion of these three approaches to the question of Joan as transgender is that Joan of Arc may indeed be said to be transgender by modern standards (if those standards of transgender are properly understood; which they are often not) and yet there may be a stronger case that whether or not Joan is identified as transgender enough by modern standards, Joan of Arc was certainly considered more than trans enough by medieval standards to die for it. 

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1. Joan the Patron 

Now, turning to consider the concept of Patronage may be useful to providing the foundations for even asking the question of whether Joan is trans. Currently, Joan the Woman is claimed as a patron and model by many Christian women, by virgin women, by feminist women, by women doing jobs traditionally done by men, by women who wear pants or butch clothing, by lesbian women. For many women and even men, Joan is their woman, a woman with whom they identify and people can be very defensive of Joan. Thus, the very question as to whether Joan of Arc may be trans in some way creates a great deal of anxiety. People are anxious that if Joan is somehow proven to be trans, then they will lose some sort of claim over a woman with whom they’ve long identified. This can lead to the dangerous logic: I can’t tolerate losing Joan the woman, therefore Joan must be a woman, and so Joan must not be transgender.

As an alternative to this exclusivity around Joan the Woman, there is the possibility within the Patronage model for the saint to represent multiple identities simultaneously. Take the example of St. Nicholas, who is regarded as the patron saint of children, brewers, pharmacists, and sex workers to name a few. As a patron, saints are considered advocates as well as exceptional figures with whom the population identifies. Yet children and producers of alcoholic beverages are not fighting in the street over the right to send prayers and wishes to Santa Clause, likewise, pharmacists and sex workers are not giving opposing papers at a conference over who gets to identify with St. Nick. On the level of identification, Judith Butler writes that “identity” is one way a person exists for someone else. Put another way, identity can begin with the thought, “oh me too, I thought I was the only one.” To identify is to identify with someone or something other than yourself. In this way, many people can identify with multiple parts of Joan’s experiences without exhausting all of who Joan is and how Joan may be said to identify.

In Joan’s own life, Joan identified with maids. Lesbian women, asexuals and celibate women may all share this identity with Joan. Joan identified with soldiers, an identity largely constituted by men and chivalric masculinity in the era. Thus, soldiers of any gender but especially men may be said to have identified with Joan. Joan identified with martyrs and those unjustly judged by an antagonistic government. One may seem eerie similarity between current bans and expulsions of trans service members from the military. Indeed, before the political assaults on trans service members in the military, trans author Leslie Feinberg identified with Joan in the book Transgender Warrior: Making History from Joan of Arc to Dennis Rodman. In this way, patronage as a representative and advocate works across diverse lines of experience, speaking as much about the time of those claiming the saint as the time of the saint’s time. 

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2. Joan the Saint 

Amidst all the people who identified with Joan during life and for generations after, it was only relatively small amount of time after the death of the French leader before Joan’s retrial began, at which point the designation and association with trans saints began. In numerous cases heard across the retrials of Joan of Arc, the figure of Marinos the Monk is frequently cited. Joan’s contemporaries made this connection in part to understand Joan within the context of others similar to Joan that they knew, holy people who likewise expressed genders and habitus other than the one assigned at birth. If Joan’s contemporaries possessed the word transgender, they might have used that explicitly as they connected Joan and Marinos. In the case of Marinos and Joan, both were trans masculinity identified, as they transitioned from an identity as a maid to an identity as a form of celibate medieval masculinity, the monk and the virgin soldier. It is hard to miss that by the late Middle Ages a sub-genre of saint’s life had developed that included different types of saints who lived some form of trans life that was sanctified by the church.

Likewise, the invocation of the teachings of another saint, Saint Thomas Aquinas, was used to further this process of reclaiming Joan the trans heretic to Joan the trans saints. In particular, Question 169 of the second part of the second part of the Summa Theologiae that discusses modest dress was invoked, wherein the reply to objection 3, Aquinas allows breaking the norms of gender specific clothing in special cases, writing, “Nevertheless this may be done without sin on account of some necessity, either in order to hide oneself from enemies, or through lack of other clothes, or for some similar motive.” While Joan was not in disguise or lacking other clothes, there were other necessities and special motives to present in masculinity military attire. By this logic, Joan was not guilty of a lack of modesty because of the necessity of wearing work appropriate clothing but also the necessity of Joan being a person with a divinely sanctioned and driven identification with the medieval masculinity identity of knight.

From trans hagiography to Thomistic theology, the retrial of Joan of Arc seemed less aimed at denying the trans-ness of the martyr as trying to justify that trans-ness is not heretical but may in fact be saintly. The wider debate in the retrials concerned Joan’s motives and mind, which was repeatedly said to be affected by the voice of God. This led to the tension between the super-naturally marked trans-ness of Joan either being demonic or heavenly. These two positions are represented among Joan’s contemporaries by the competing English and French trials. Strongly on the side of heresy and an anti-trans program were the English who sought the death of Joan. Moving in a more progressive direction while also citing ancient authorities, were the French who were willing to allow that even a saint, perhaps especially a saint could be transgender. After all, does not the word saint in some way name those set apart that God marks for some special non-normative purpose? However the spiritual question is resolved, neither side, English or French, unilaterally denied that transness was in some way real and significant. 

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3. Joan the Dysphoric 

To conclude, I’ll consider how the circumstances of Joan’s life and death show signs of gender dysphoria and experiences of medieval transphobia. Thus it is necessary to provide a summary from Fifth Edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders for “Gender Dysphoria.” This is crucial for many reasons but especially because many people who declare that Joan can’t be trans, do not know much about current definitions of transgender or gender dysphoria. Many people operate on public assumptions based on the Gender Identity Disorder version of the diagnosis which has been debunked as bad science or use the word “transvestite” which has largely been out of use in medical communities for almost 50 years.

Here are a few key things to know and consider about gender dysphoria and Joan. First, the short definition of gender dysphoria in the DSM-5 describes the experience of having one’s gender identity and expression misgendered by a society that assigns to you and compels competing gender identities, habits, and roles. Gender dysphoria is a self-society problem not chiefly an internal issue. Second, gender dysphoria may be experienced by people who are not transgender and not all transgender people experience dysphoria. A cisgender woman who wears pants and who receives criticism and pressure to wear dresses experience a degree of dysphoria. Conversely, trans people who transition and live in affirming homes and communities may experience very little gender dysphoria because their gender identity is not subject to great degrees of antagonism. Based on this short definition of dysphoria, we may turn to Joan’s life and death, where we see consistent scrutiny over Joan wearing military garb traditionally assigned to men. Indeed, throughout the trial of Joan, the saint is consistently harassed over clothing, has clothing taken away and replaced, including overt and covert rape threats, as well as a series of verbal denigration over Joan’s gender expression culminating in Joan being killed.

The longer definition of gender dysphoria goes on to discuss symptoms of this conflict, including a strong desire for certain gender markers and habits and a strong aversion to other gender markers and habits. The DSM-5 does not specify what genders are being referenced out of recognition of the great range of biodiversity of gender now recognized in the sciences, such as the recurrent diversification of chromosome, hormones, phenotypes, and neuro structures . Gender studies of the Middle Ages also speaks to the wide range of distinct identities in society which are treated with particular legal, spiritual, and social significant such the Virgin, the Wife, the Widow but also the Eunuch, the Monk, and the Chivalric Knight. Current trans scholarship and medicine affirms that gender transition can occur through many gender identities and exist between gender identities, producing a wide range of non-binary, intersex, and gender queer identities. As such, being a maid, a virgin, a mystic, and a knight all at once was by medieval standards quite trans and likely (as we see in the case of Joan) to produce instances of dysphoria. 

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To conclude, while I cannot say whether or not a time-traveling Joan transported into 2019 would identify as a trans man but I can say that Joan would likely understand and experience many of the circumstances experience by trans men, trans masculine people, butches, non-binary people, asexual people, intersex people, and other members of the trans community. Furthermore, the circumstances of Joan’s life and death which point to extended periods of dysphoria and transphobia, as well as the effort among Joan’s own contemporaries to understand Joan in the context of trans saints and trans hagiography, all point to the reality that whether or not Joan is transgender by modern standards, Joan of Arc was transgender by medieval standards for some to kill Joan for it and others to redeem, sanctify, and later canonize Joan for it. And perhaps, in the wake of Joan the person’s life, death, and legacy we may rightly call Joan the Patron Saint of Dysphoria. Thank you.

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