Thursday, May 19, 2016

Transphobia and the Middle Ages

Every year, Western Michigan University, in Kalamazoo, hosts about 3000 medievalists for a giant, sprawling, conference that I call MedievalCon. It has its significant academic context, but it's also embraced seriously fannish elements (or had them thrust upon it).

On Saturday nights, there's a panel hosted by the "Pseudosociety," in which academics deliver humorous satirical papers on invented manuscripts or whatever. Honestly, I don't know. I've been to one paper and it involved some nice elderly Irish lady making fun of "student howlers," or errors students write on their exams, and I've never really been into that kind of humor. Instead, I tend to plan a very nice dinner with friends.

This year, alas, Pseudosociety hosted two papers that were transphobic. I don't have details. I am not interested in parsing intent or whether they were really transphobic (on a listserv, a far-right-wing former prof of mine tried to make snide comments about Greek origins and changing the meaning of the word "phobia." A smart person responded, "Really, what did your Greek teacher say about xenophobia," and the far-right-wing former prof stopped talking).

What I can offer is this: An essay by MW Bychowski: "Genres of Embodiment: A Theory of Medieval Transgender Literature."

The Intro:
I am speechless. I have lost my power to speak. Last night not one but two papers were given with hate speech, transgender slurs, that use transgender to belittle medieval castrates and medieval castrates to belittle transgender. Already the next morning, the debates begin: hate speech v. free speech, ignorance v. consequence, a sense of justice v. a sense of humor. The effect of making us funny is that we are not taken seriously, we are not listened to when we speak, and we can't tell our stories. These attacks have power because they do not occur in a vacuum. Their words take force and meaning because of medievalists who believe that gender variant people don’t belong in medieval studies. Their words take on the force and meaning of laws barring trans persons from public bathrooms; a necessity to learn, teach or attend conferences. Their words take on the force and meaning of those giving women pepper-spray to use against trans people, threatening to beat us, and planting ideas in the head of a 16 year old who recently shot a local trans woman. People have asked me to say something about this. I know they want me to make sense of this; to find some way to make things better.

Now, I am speechless and I have no pardons to give; yet I come to this congress on medieval studies because my conscience leaves me no other choice. I come here because 48% of transgender women attempt suicide, because last year doubled the average number of transgender homicides, because parents bury them in clothes and names that contradict their gender identity, erasing all trace of their transgender lives. I sit with my countless dead trans friends and family looking for something to say but I have no words. So I listen. I listen to graves, the ruins of past trans lives, as they whisper to each other. They speak in many tongues from many places and many times. I hope if I learn to understand the dead and discarded trans lives that they might teach me words to say and stories to tell. I come to medieval studies because it is here that we learn to speak the language of the dead from the dead themselves. I come to medieval literature and history because we need their trans stories to make meaning out of our deaths and silences.
From there, MW dives into medieval literature, focusing on the Pardoner, first, then expanding to more general theories of medieval transgender literature and why it matters. She concludes:
Conflict is intrinsic to narrative and embodiment. It is not an over-reaction for a transgender medievalist to see the larger war and dangerous threats implicit in what may be pardoned as playful jabs. Yet the power of our oppressors can be used against them and our vulnerability can work for us. By silencing us so publicly, you are drawing others to hear our stories. By sending more of us to our early graves, you are adding to the cacophony of ghosts whispering in the machines of our destruction. By deconstructing our bodies, you reveal the maps for reconstruction written in our scars and sinews. Conflict comes with cost and we are paying it in the lives and stories of our transgender family. But one day that bill will have to be paid. For once we learn to listen to the transgender stories of the dead, each seemingly silent gravestone and medieval text will come alive with the call for justice.

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