Sunday, April 10, 2022

The Trans Poetics of Dysphoric History: A Talk with Jos Charles


The following are notes that introduced a Plenary Session 
at the Sewanee Medieval Colloqiuum, on April 9, 2022,
centered around the theme of Touch | Contact,
sponsored by the University of the South,
between Jos Charles and M.W. Bychowski
on Trans Poetics and History


If this plenary does the work it needs to do, we will have you rooting for a jar of pickles. It may ten minutes of introduction or it may take the whole hour but my aspiration today is that you will walk away telling people that you found some hope in a jar of pickles at a medieval conference in Sewanee, Tennessee. And hey, even if you don’t pickles will still be delicious. Really, it’s win-win! 

Our first step on this briny road is acknowledging that this plenary is actually pretty historic. At very least, in my own personal history, this is day worth remembering, when we had the rare gift of centering two trans women in conversation. It is so rare, in fact, I am tempted to say that it categorically does not happen in medieval studies that two trans women are in the same room at a conference. There are frightening few trans scholars in medieval studies. Nearly all of us are contingent faculty. Many have left the field or academia. And among those who are still here, for now, we are currently in the presence of around two thirds of the number of trans women in the field. Jos and Me. So for this reason alone, here in Sewanee in April of 2022, we are making history. 

That’s not the only reason we traveled hundreds of miles on that old dill road. I came here today because Jos, I want to pass along to you something I was once told by the sainted Sonya Sanchez. After a wonderful evening together celebrating books in Cleveland, she told me, “Sister Gabby, the world desperately needs your light. Protect yourself. Protect your light. It is precious.”  

Well, I feel this way about Jos Charles. Sister Jos, you and your light is precious. You are sacred in your embodiment of dysphoric time as a poet mediator to help us touch the discarded parts of our history, our language, and our other selves. 

But before we move on to all these parts, we should acknowledge why it is two White trans women standing before you. If we are salty, it is a drop in the bucket of a brine that has been festering for centuries, by all the parts of our society that are uninvited, unwelcome, broken down by this profession and the systems that created it. Because we cannot forget, the land and labor is salted by the trail of tears that has soaked the land beneath us, seized from indigenous peoples. At times the salt burns old wounds at the same time as it preserves the memory of reparations not yet made, hurts not yet healed, histories and hopes not yet forgotten. 



If we are to move forward, then, we must begin by inviting all parts of our embodied scholarship to participate in this conversation.

This means, if we are to engage in contact and touch, we must consider the role that contingency plays. We must speak the truth we know too well: not all touch, not all contact is good touch. 

Patriarchal touch is not good touch. Colonial contact is not good contact. White Supremacist touch burns. Ablest touch breaks. Classist touch sucks our souls. 

And we are here in defiance of those who have written our histories and those who are trying to write our futures. Just last year, over 100 laws were introduced in just three months targeting trans people, especially trans kids, especially trans girls. We are here in defiance of those who write our laws, who gain money and votes and power by telling people to be afraid of people like Jos and I, to kill people like Jos and I, to eradicate the future of young trans girls, so there will not more trans women, like Jos and I. 

We are here because trans poetics is not only about the symbolic or culturally constructed by about embodied truth, it is about speaking through wounds and broken bones – these bones broken in my body by one way, these bones broken in my skull by another – trans poetics speaks through blood that won’t clot and unregulated limbic systems. 

I invite us into critical contingency, the root of which means touch and contact, because I believe being trans and doing medieval studies does not have to hurt. It doesn’t have to hurt like this. We do not need to harm ourselves or one another like we have been hurt or told that we must hurt in order to be rigorous scholars. The hurt is not necessary. The hurt is not noble. The hurt is not just the cost of doing business. Lives and jobs do not need to be contingent. 

We are here for a conversation that invites us to participate in contingent contact and contingent touch; in the words of Jacques Derrida, to participate without belonging. We are present even if we are not all welcome. 

We are here because of the two spirit and black, indigenous, trans people of color who are not here, those who should be here, those who must come after us. We are here embodying the claim that how trans people write matters, how trans women write matters, how trans people read matters, how trans women read matters. 



Thus I want to clarify a few terms I am going to use to read the trans poetics of Jos, trans methods I call dysphoric analysis, trans resonance, dysphoric time, and genres of embodiment. 

Let’s start with dysphoria. Dysphoria is one way my brain works differently than most of the brains in this room, Jos notwithstanding. Dysphoria is also social. The DSM-5 defines dysphoria this way: as the marked suffering that emerges at the point of conflict between ones identified or expressed gender and the gender assigned to one by society. I want to emphasize that the DSM locates the point of conflict as initially external. The conflict is between a self and the society. But it becomes internalized in part as suffering. 

Dysphoria shapes our embodied experience of time. The fact that experiences of time are gendered I will take as settled theory. Queer time differs from straight time, crip time differs from able-bodied or capitalist time. So too with trans temporality. Just as dysphoria emerges in the entanglement of self and society, so too does dysphoric time. Dysphoric time can be defined much like dysphoria itself: as the marked distortion that emerges at the point of conflict between one’s identified and expressed gendered temporality and the temporality or timelines assigned to one by society. 

This brings to resonance. Dysphoric time is asynchronous. Dysphoric time is polychronic. Those forces drawing us across boundaries of gender, language, era and discipline, I call trans resonances. Because there is something in your that resonates in something in me. There is something in Eleanor and Joan, in Marsha and Sylvia, that resonates with things in my body. There are objects, books, buildings, clothes, make-up, whole ecologies that resonate with my bodies across the lines of gender and genre, telling us: these things, these places, these time periods are not for you. Yet here we are. We come because we are called. We stay so we can amplify that call to others. 

But I argue dysphoria does more than hurt. It shapes. It creates. It forms and informs how we talk, walk, wear, eat, play. Between trans person and transphobic worlds, what emerges is dysphoric poetics. Thus we can read for and through what I call a dysphoric analysis that traces these knots of self and society that I call genres of embodiment. 



The work of Jos Charles exemplifies the ways that trans lives and trans poetics become co-constitutive. Trans-ness exists within every age and in every culture on this planet, but each trans life is articulated within the specific material and symbolic frameworks available. 

We know this about culture, we know this about language and history. Yet we do not talk enough about how genre and poetics inform the specific forms of trans-ness that emerges within a culture, not the ways specific forms of trans-ness produce particular forms of cultural poetics. 

Medievalists are beginning to discuss how Chivalric romance structure the fictional life of Sir Silence from Roman de Silence or the historical life of Joan of Arc. How does their trans masculinity emerge from Chivalric narratives and romance poetics? Likewise, with the recent publication of Trans and Genderqueer subjects in medieval hagiography, we are beginning to see the other side of the circuit: how does the medieval canon of transgender monks, many of them sainted, influence the genre of saint’s lives? 

But with the work of Jos Charles, we see the emerging potential of trans medieval poetics. In trans culture and transgender studies, we see the ways that anime, music, art, television, gaming, and meme culture has shaped various subcultures of trans identity. But what happens when it is not Against Me blasting on our earphones but rather Icelandic sagas or penitential manuals? 

The embodied writing of Jos Charles testifies to the ways that medieval history, and transgender medieval history, shapes the way that trans people live, speak, and articulate ourselves today. 

At the same time, the medieval trans poetics of Jos Charles is redefining how we might understand, organize, read, and write medieval history. She shows us how to write the medieval in a trans way, how to compose trans poetics in a medieval way. 

Jos Charles has done this as author of the poetry collections a Year and other poems (2022), feeld, a Pulitzer-finalist and winner of the 2017 National Poetry Series selected by Fady Joudah (2018), and Safe Space (2016). She does all this while currently teaching as a part of Randolph College's low-residency MFA program. She does all this after having completed an MFA from the University of Arizona and working on a PhD at UC Irvine. 

Jos Charles does all of this with body that lacks salt because HRT flushes sodium from the bodies of trans women. HRT also makes it easier for trans women to cry, so even more salt leaves our system! But we have good news: hope comes in a jar of pickles; pickles which have become a sign in trans feminine culture of community and shared food cravings. So, we have waited long enough, please enjoy!



Thursday, March 10, 2022

Silence in Charlottesville: Combatting Narratives of White Supremacy and Transphobia


Presented at the Medieval Academy of America 2022
Identities Trans and Beyond in the Roman de Silence


The old joke goes, “Transitioning is what transsexuals do.” In the minds of the cisgender public, trans people change, we shape-shift, alter forms. It’s what we do! This old joke builds on similar ideas. Religious converts convert, it’s what converts do. Immigrants immigrate, it’s what immigrants do. The significance of these definitions are not that they recognize a key events in the lives of trans people, converts, or immigrants. Rather, these jokes and cultural beliefs frame whole groups of people by what might have been a single event. This transition, conversion, or immigration is extended across time, framing our entire ontology in a timeless state of change.

What is passed off as a joke takes on a serious danger within the world of geopolitics. Trans people, non-Christians, and immigrants are the ever threatening danger ever on the move, ever changing, ever deceitful in the minds of White Christian Patriarchs. We are the imitators, whereas White Christian Patriarchs are the originals. We cross borders, while White Christian Patriarchs stand their ground, protect their property, defend blood and soil.

That is why the events of the Unite the Right Rally here in Charlottesville are not funny. The White Supremacist and White Nationalist movements that gathered in this city repeated narratives that framed trans people, non-Christians, and people of color as collective threats to the supposed constancy of the White Christian Patriarchy. This prejudice intertwined racism with sexism, transphobia, homophobia, anti-Semitism, and Islamaphobia. Organizations such as the Southern Poverty Law Center have long been tracking the ways that anti-transgender rhetoric functions as a tactic of White Supremacists. This extends from protests and threats, to violent murders of trans women, to an array of anti-transgender policies that the political Right is putting into law this very month. “We are protecting the social order. We are protecting the nation,” Daily Stormer editor Andrew Anglin wrote, “Somebody has to stop these sick fuckers.”

Now, the beliefs of the White Christian Patriarchies might as well be a joke because they are built on flimsy fictions. The White Men who stood their ground in Charlottesville stood on ground they themselves seized from Native American nations. The White Men were themselves immigrants, colonizers, mass converters, and shape-shifters. The worldview of the White Christian Patriarchs as unmoved movers is based on false narratives and erased history. But what else is new? Historians and scholars of Medieval Studies will tell you, nothing is new about this.

In Black on Both Sides, C. Riley Snorton unpacks the ways that trans people and people of color have been coded as especially changeable, deceitful, and unstable. The term he develops is transitive. Trans people and people of color are defined by transitivity, a susceptibility to changing. Transitivity marks trans people and black people as deceitful. Spaces like bathrooms must be policed because people believe that trans women or black men will sneak into these spaces to assault White women. Sports teams and professions must be segregated, excluding trans people and people of color, because people believe trans and black bodies are too unstable, trans and black bodies are make sports unfair or uncontrollable. Yet transitivity does more than mark trans and BIPoC as threats. Transitivity also marks trans and BIPoC as easy targets for White Christian Patriachs to come in a fix us, convert us, unmake us. Because after all, changing is what transitives do isn’t it? Trans bodies, non-Christian bodies and bodies of color are the clay to be shaped and reshaped by the unchanging eternal Logos of the White Christian Patriarchy.
While Snorton traces this practice from Charlottesville back to the early American colonies, this model of conquest and conversion, colonization and conversion therapy, has earlier developments during the Crusades. In my article On Race and Sex in the Cultural History of Race (2021), I argue that the practices of marking trans bodies, non-Christian bodies, and bodies of color as transitive targets to be remolded and fixed by the White Christian Patriarchy evolved out of Crusader concerns over what to do with the people who occupied the lands under European conquest and settlement. Narratives of forced conversion not only concerned the altering of a person’s religion but their racial and gender identities as well.
A classic example of this transitivity within the Crusader context is the King of Tars. In this story, a non-Christian king weds a Christian woman who bears a child without bones or form. Nothing can be do to give the formless child an able-bodied existence until the father converts to Christianity at which point he becomes white skinned and the child is given form. This confirms, the story supposes, the thesis that non-White, non-Christian people are not proper men, unable to fulfill their sexual roles as fathers until they are converted by the White Christian Patriarchy which fixes the racial, sexual, and religious transitivity of the subject. Over time, the figure of the transitive body being either killed or fixed became a staple of Chivalric Romance. While sexual indeterminacy in Roman de Silence has been celebrated among some queer and gender studies scholars, I argue that the transitivity encoded into the title character evidences centuries long practices of frame trans bodies as easy targets for practices of conversion therapy developed within White supremacist and Christian supremacist camps during the Crusades.

For the purposes of this argument, I will interpret Sir Silence as a trans man who uses he/him pronouns, although I acknowledge an argument for non-binary trans identity. Attempts to frame Silence as female seem, from my perspective, only to buy into the anti-trans White Supremacist project the larger romance establishes to weaponize a trans literary character. I begin by examining Silence in his adolescence when he has discovered that could have been raised as a girl, resulting in an oft-cited debate with Nature, Nurture, and Reason. While affirming his own trans masculinity, Silence learns a dangerous lesson from the ways his own identity has been cultural constructed and deconstructed. Like modern day people like Rachel Dolezel and Ja Du, Silence believes that the discursive elements of gender means that anything can mean anything, any body can freely signify any identity, and like so called “transracial” White people who present themselves as People of Color, Silence immediately darkens his skin in an act of literal minstrelsy. For the next section of the Romance, Silence changes his name, skin color, and identity in order to live as a minstrel from one of the woodland communities. Marjorie Garber and Robert L. Clark has also noted that this scene problematically extends the transgender themes of Roman de Silence into what might be called “trans-racial” identity in the Dolezelian sense of the word. We might also call this a form of medieval black face.

My goal is not to simply call Silence a racist. He is a fictional character and like the rest of his story, the author wrote and framed the narrative in certain ways to produce certain effects. My argument is that Haldris of Cornwall presents Sir Silence’s trans-ness as a sort of justification for his minstrelsy and cross-racial performance. Transgender bodies are presented in Sir Silence are presented as malleable and transitive, leading the dangerous conceit that trans people are lying about one part of their identity and therefore might be lying about other things.

Now, someone might reasonably interject that other chivalric knights also pretend to be other people and other identities. This only furthers my point that what we see in Roman de Silence is a systemic feature of a genre of literature that arouse during and after the crusades which celebrates the power of violent soldiers who uphold the White Christian Patriarchy to make and remake identities through the force of their power and privilege.

This episode of Dolezelian “trans-racial” minstrelsy sets up the infamous conclusion of Roman de Silence where the trans man is publicly outed, stripped naked, and then physically remade into the image of a submissive woman under the thumb of the White Patriarchy.

Indeed, the finale of Roman de Silence plays out much like a scene of a secretly non-Christian character at the end a Blood-Libel play. Merlin’s arrival in the court promises private information about people in the court who are not who they say they are. Merlin outs the Queen for having an affair with a trans feminine person. Then he proceeds to out Sir Silence for being a trans man. All of this information plays on anxieties within the White Christian Patriarchy: can we control our women? What if women aren’t what they say they are? Can we truly trust our knights? Merlin is exploiting the paranoid need of the White Patriarchy for control, especially over the sexual and racial identities of the Kingdom. If women or men are not the women or men they say they are, then the bloodline might become tainted. If the White Patriarchy cannot control the bloodline, the land may be inherited by the wrong people. In the end, Merlin is one more man in a hood claiming to defend blood and soil against racial and sexual others.
Beyond mere words, these paranoid narratives of conversion and control effect themselves into law enacted on the bodies of racialized and sexualized minorities. The trans feminine woman and the Queen who seems to desire trans people just too much are both killed. Their bodies are destroyed for coming into contact with trans femininity. Then as now, White Patriarchal culture sees trans femininity as worthy of violence and death. But the trans man is stripped naked, his body assaulted by the court, and then physically marred by the hands of an allegorical embodiment of Nature. And because the anxiety of Roman de Silence is the same anxiety as the post-Crusader White Christian Patriarchy, i.e. that you cannot tell who or what people are merely by looking at them, Nature removes the dark skin of Sir Silence, crafting his skin color to match that of a White Christian woman. Much like the King of Tars, Silence has been transformed in skin color as a sign that he is now a sexually via body that the White Christian Patriarchy can use in its work to control blood and soil.

Many of us see subversive possibilities in the queer indeterminacy of Roman de Silence. I don’t think this is wrong. But we must remember that this reading is subversive in a literary genre built around romanticizing violent control and conquest by White Christian Patriarchies. The final act of Roman de Silence confirms a thesis set up in the many episodes preceding it: transitive bodies, especially trans bodies and bodies of color, are fundamentally shape-shifting, unstable, and deceitful, requiring the White Christian Patriarchs to fix them through a process of religious conversion and conversion therapy. This very month, we see White Nationalists targeting Critical Race Studies and Trans people in schools in yet another attempt to control the future of blood and soil in this country. Over 100 anti-transgender bills in under a few months have been introduced and they are beginning to get ratified. This is conquest. This is control. This is White Nationalism. This is the same story playing out over and over again.

The truism of Chivalric romance is that Blood will Out. But looking across centuries of lies about blood and about soil, this is a false narrative built by paranoid White Christian men. The lies that have been told are maintained by desperate fits for control through violence, money, and prejudiced laws. But none of these words can change the reality of who we are and what we can become. Trans people and people of color lived in the Middle Ages. Trans people and BIPoC live powerful lives today. No erasure or lies can Silence our Truth. You cannot Silence us in Iowa. You cannot Silence us in Texas. You cannot Silence us in Charlottesville. We are here and ready to tell a better story than the one you have been told for far too long. Let us tell stories not of transitivity but of trans authenticity. Let us tells stories not of vulnerable White women who need to be protected from trans people and people of color but racial equity and sexual liberation. Let us not tell stories of White fear and male control but rainbow love and trans hope. I’m not saying we should stop reading Roman de Silence but I am saying: let’s tell a better story.