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.


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