Towards a Medieval Transgender Studies
Sponsor: Society for Medieval Feminist Scholarship (SMFS)
Organizer: M. W. Bychowski, Case Western Reserve Univ.
Presider: Micah Goodrich, Univ. of Connecticut
That Detestable, Unmentionable, and Ignominious Vice: Trans Women and Sex Work in Cross-Cultural and Cross-Temporal Perspectives Alina Boyden, Univ. of Wisconsin–Madison
The paper will be centering around the case of John Rykener (which the speaker explicitly notes she doesn’t feel the need to review for this audience - but for my readers who may need background try this). The historic examples will be compared with modern anthropological studies of groups like Hijras in India, with a consideration of how self-identity may shift within a stable group, either creating or erasing particular concepts of gender identity. Consider viewing gender identity as a community of practice rather than a community of self-identity. As Hijras shift to identifying as trans women, does that reflect a different identity or simply a different framing a stable identity? If we look for self-identification as “trans women” in history, we look in vain, but if we look for individuals or groups that share a community of practice with modern trans women, then the search is more fruitful. Is this a valid approach? John/Eleanor Rykener shares a number of “practices” with certain modern communities of trans women, such as the self-selection of a relatively unusual name of high status. Rykener lived as a woman for at least a portion of the time and worked in a profession (embroiderer) that is strongly female-identified, in addition to being a sex worker. From Rykener’s court record we can interpret that she embodied other aspects of female behavior than these. But in contrast to modern communities of trans women, Rykener expressed other differences, such as bisexuality. [Note: the paper was presented very rapidly, so I wasn’t able to note down many of the details.]
Trans Knights, Then and Now Ced Block, Independent Scholar
A pop culture look at the representation of transgender knights in medieval and pseudo-medieval contexts. It is only the beginnings of an exploration of the topic. Criteria for including modern stories: must have trans-coded character, “knightly” or more broadly “good-aligned melee fighter”, widely available in American media primarily comics but including video games. Texts include the medieval Le Roman de Silence and Yde et Olive and two modern texts Rat Queens (graphic novel) and Dragon Age Inquisition (game). These characters share the properties of being supremely competent fighters, over-compensation of gender in terms both of performance of gender and of the strongly gendered reaction of other characters to the knight, most of the stories deal with a magical transition, whether of physiological sex (as for Yde) or of gendered physical attributes (as for Silence). This last distracts away from a generally accessible performance of gender to a focus on an impossible standard of physical transformation. The characters also mostly have an anxiety around sexuality and sexual performance, even in a context (Dragon Age) where variety of sexual preference itself is taken for granted. Transgressive elements that are maintained through out the four texts include a joy in living a trans life and choosing one’s own path. So what’s the connection of knighthood? Is it because of being the epitome of masculinity? Only for the trans-masculine characters, whereas in modern pop culture it’s more common for the trans knights to be women. What about knighthood as a high standard of social norms? In this context successful performance of knighthood validates trans identity as a positive non-threatening contribution to the social order. Future directions: want to expand to images of Silence and Yde and add more secondary sources.
Radical Pedagogy and New Medievalisms: Sylvia Rivera, Marsha P. Johnson, and the Medieval Imaginary Nicholas Hoffman, Ohio State Univ.; J* E*, Ohio State Univ.
[Note: one of the presenters has requested that I not include their name.] The paper focuses on two modern transgender activists in the context of a hagiographic approach. Both women were activists in and after the Stonewall riots, moving on from Stonewall to further trans-related activism. Both have been celebrated by the culture in ways reminiscent of a medieval approach to sainthood. Both women were renowned for the material as well as psychological support given to their communities. Johnson was described in her lifetime in the language of hagiography, drawing from the concepts a variety of religious traditions. Johnson participated in public religious practices, in several different traditions (both Christian and non-Christian). Often she participated in ecstatic performance which was treated as mental illness, resulting in involuntary treatments. Rivera participated in a synthetic liturgy drawing from Santeria and Catholic traditions, with rituals often focused on the everyday protective needs of trans women. The way that iconic saint-like figures strongly echoes a medieval dynamic of folk veneration, as contrasted with the formal liturgy of Catholic hagiography. In summary, the paper calls for using an understanding of a medievalist approach to life narratives as a framework for understanding medievalism in the modern world. As contrasted, for example, with the pop culture framing of medievalism as violent primativism (as in Game of Thrones) that contributes to reactionary and fascist understandings of the past.
The Future of Medieval Transgender Studies M. W. Bychowski
The story of the Loathly Lady (from the Wife of Bath’s tale) provides an allegory for the future of transgender studies: will the relationship between trans studies and the academy go for the loathly or lovely lady, for begrudging truth or superficial entertainment? Must transgender studies be “un-transed” in order to be included in medieval studies? How are transgender studies affected by being primarily filtered through cis researchers? How is the topic affected by the tension between homosexual and transgender readings of the same historical data? A call to action for trans researchers to identify trans readings and trans understandings of the past that may be overlooked or outright denied and erased by cisgender scholars. In support of this, cis members of the academy must support the presence, agency, and security of their trans compatriots. We must embrace multiplicity and diversity because just as there is no one way to be trans in the presence, we must accept that there was no one way to be trans in the past.