Hello dear friend! How wonderful that you’ve stumbled upon this blog of mine! I’d like to welcome you to the log of my activities and thoughts while I try to combine my interests in French Studies, Medieval Studies, Gender Studies, and Music into a thesis project. No small task. Thankfully, I have admirable supporters at my college and among my family. You can help, too! I welcome feedback on my posts or questions about any of the fields of study I mentioned or any other general thoughts of your own! This project requires the cooperation of people from various backgrounds and levels of expertise, including you!
Disclaimer: this summer is evolving into an “I’ll read anything I can get my hands on and there will be little pausing for analysis” kind of summer. My hope is that that will change with the new month.
For now, have a bare-bones analysis/takeaway dump of what is considered a seminal text in the evolving field of ‘transgender studies,’ Kate Bornstein’s Gender Outlaw:
-Bornstein uses her own experience to frame her broader discussion–when all is said and done, what does one have but one’s own life experience to draw from?
-she acknowledges that she is not the end-all-be-all authority on issues of ‘trangendered’ people, but that she has a privileged position as one of the first and loudest voices to speak out and use language accessible to many
-her main objective with this book seems to be to, through an account of a gender outlaw (someone who defies gender norms and questions the concepts of gender on a regular basis), cause the book’s readership to begin or continue to question gender
– her use of form is innovative and refreshing–the body text is flanked by quotations from multiple sides of the trans debate on one side and her own, more personal reflections on the other
-she offers her own definitions (supplemented by the aforementioned sampling from other sources) for a host of sex- and gender-related terms, all of which would have packed more of a punch for me if they had been prefaced by a mention of how the gender binary is a chiefly white construction imposed on other cultures through colonialism and as such should not be spoken of as the absolute system transgressed by gender outlaws–but that could have been too much to hope for in 1994
-her rebuttal of Garfinkle’s Studies in Ethnomethodology is astute and makes use of myriad forms of communication (including poetry and visuals) to speak to myriad kinds of thinkers
-many of her reflections on the divisiveness of the trans “community” and the exclusion of transwomen from the feminist movement seem to me to still be relevant to trans+ issues today–they are two issues I would like to follow up on, with a reading of Julia Serano’s Whipping Girl and other texts
-she pushes for an erasure of male privilege and a refusal by trans people to participate in the system that has acted as their oppressor since its establishment–this could point me towards an argument about the fragility of constructed masculinity in Silence (also I really need to get my hands on another medieval text before too long)
-I’m exceedingly intrigued by Bornstein’s conceptualization of the ‘third’ as the catalyst for change–the idea that once a third option appears where there was once believed to be a choice between two options, a universe of possibility is born. I want to see which (if any) sources corroborate with her idea
-I’ve also noted several instances where the ideas of the French Symbolists (and probably other groups people from other historical contexts, it’s just that I’ve most recently engaged with French Symbolism) line up with the nature of the binary gender system in its oppression of cispeople and trans+ individuals alike
-her opinions on ‘passing’ need to be taken with a grain of salt because of her position as a trans activist, but her views on passing as a form of silence have a fairly direct connection to Silence‘s rationale
-her clarifications and revisions in the addendum to the first edition were very helpful–I appreciated her admitting that, at the end of the day, she is like any other woman getting along in her years and not keeping up with the newest, most accurate terminology and modes of speaking because she is simply not immersed in it in the way that other, younger gender outlaws are
Now, back, to Gender Outlaws: The Next Generation for me! Tally-ho!
This was a revelatory read in many ways. It’s sadly rare that a person from my particular background is made to come up against their privilege as many times in one sitting as I did reading this book. I appreciated the book for making me uncomfortable in a way that indicated to me that I was learning, and for inspiring in me both fierce agreement and fierce opposition. The bibliography is of particular interest to me, because the book was sourced from works I would not have sought out on my own but now realize are a vastly underrepresented side of the ‘trans’ discourse, if it can even be called that.
The book is framed as a response to Nicholas M. Teich’s Transgender 101: A Simple Guide to a Complex Issue, and exposes transgender identity and the transgender ‘community’ as as an invention of the (mostly) white colonizer that prohibits people of color from expressing their gender in ways specific to their cultures. Or, at least, that’s what I made of the book. It’s written in a way that recalls an epic tumblr post, and the form itself got me thinking of how Internet platforms may well be the future of public record-keeping. Or maybe they already are and people like me who check their tumblr once every few weeks are sorely missing out.
I have more complete notes on this book, but some take-aways were: discussions of public vs private life and to what extent that is a white colonist invention, the concept of gender not being so much about what it is but about what it does, and the idea of ‘male privilege’ and who actually experiences it and benefits from it in today’s society (I’m thinking about comparing this with Kate Bornstein’s thoughts on gender-based privilege and how she experienced it in her own life, but someone out there’s probably thought of this already.) binaohan also put forward some points that would interact very well with an analysis of Silence. Paper topics are slowly forming, and it’s a month until proposals are due for the call mentioned in the previous post.
Wish me luck!
Last Sunday I attended the second-annual citywide book fair in a city neighboring mine, and it was a fruitful day for research materials. I wasn’t particularly optimistic about finding trans-related material at the fair, since a) trans scholarship by transpeople remains hard to come by almost anywhere and b) the brand of queerness typical to this particular liberal pocket of a city can be fairly trans-exclusionary. I was expecting, at best, a well-meaning older lesbian woman trying to argue the trans subtext of several obviously lesbian erotic poetry books. And, in a way, that was what I got, with several key differences: the enthusiastic representative of Manic D Press seemed genuinely interested in my thesis topic when I mentioned it offhandedly, and only tried to sell me two extraneous books that looked interesting but would have been too general to have had any real bearing on my research. She was so kind and so willing to have a real conversation with me, though, that I ended up buying two books from Manic D Press. I began the first of these, Intersex (for lack of a better word) by Thea Hillman, last night. It is proving to be a collection of some of the shortest, sweetest, most powerful stories I’ve read in a good while. I’m more impressed than I can express to be reading a personal account of an intersex person and absorbing her opinions on intersex, queerness, and other aspects of identity. While this is lighter, less critical reading than the thesis necessarily needs, some of the key ideas that Hillman puts forward could certainly make it in. Disclaimer: I do not mean to imply that trans and intersex issues are remotely the same, but I’ve been thinking more and more that a contemporary perspective from intersex individuals could help me shape my opinions of certain instances in French medieval literature that could indicate the presence of intersex identity. More once I’ve finished the last story in Hillman’s book.
(Also, that Bornstein analysis is coming, but as this post suggests, I’ve been preoccupied with welcoming more and material into my life. Good things keep coming and it’s becoming a welcome challenge for me to keep up!)
In other news, I opened a library card at the local high-profile university–millions of books to choose from for a whole year! Even the twenty minutes spent in the library to open the card left me awestruck. There’s just so much to be known in the world!! I am so looking forward to spending my weekends there this summer.
Coming: a rough analysis of b. binaohan’s decolonizing trans/gender 101, which I also incidentally finished this past week.
Yesterday, I completed my first reading of Sarah Roche-Mahdi’s translation of Silence, a thirteenth-century French-language romance by one Heldris of Cornwall. The romance charts the story of Silentius/ia, a person of fluctuating gender presentation and identity. S/he is born to royal parents who decide to present their child as a boy to the kingdom. The reigning monarch has forbade women from inheriting property in his land, and so it behooves the child to present as a man. The narrator is aware of a possible contradiction between identity and presentation, referring to Silentius/ia (often simply referred to as Silence) as “the boy who was a girl” and variations thereof. The narrator switches between he/him and she/her pronouns for Silence whenever (presumably) he thinks it appropriate. This manifests when the child, having entered puberty, becomes the subject of a spirited debate between Nature and Nurture, both allegorical figures in the story. Nature would like for Silence to act “according to her nature” and engage in activities typical of young medieval women (spinning thread and staying out of the sun.) But Nurture, a figure representing the process that we today might call socialization, pushes Silence to continue living as a man–this s/he does to great success. Silence is skilled in minstrelsy, jousting, and warfare–all typically mens’ activities. S/he inspires a queen’s lust, traps the wizard Merlin, and reverses the law against women’s property rights. Oh, and s/he becomes Queen of England. While Silence is an altogether fanciful tale, I believe the author raises some serious questions about gender roles and inequalities as well as the smoke and mirrors of gender presentation. I’m not at a point in my analysis where I think I understand the author’s stance on the questions (presumed) he raises, not to mention my own opinion. More later when I reach that point.
Also, I began the sequel-of-sorts to Kate Bornstein’s Gender Outlaw, titled Gender Outlaws: The Next Generation. This work is a collection of perspectives from both established and emerging gender outlaws, edited by Bornstein and S. Bear Bergman. I’ve read nearly four perspectives thus far, and find each to be rich and illuminating. I’m excited to read the rest, as well as to track down my next two medieval targets: le Roman d’Eneas and Grisandole.
I’ve finished Kate Bornstein’s Gender Outlaw, and overall I’m glad I took the time to learn from her perspective. Throughout her book, Kate mentions several sources from trans activists, scholars, etc. that I’m sure will become useful later on. I benefitted from reading her story in several ways: I had the experience of listening to a unique trans voice full of humor and a lust for life, I was able to read her breakout play Hidden: A Gender, and I got a sense of where the trans community was in the 1980s and ’90s–at least in Kate’s circles. I’ll be going over my notes in detail at a later time.
I was also forwarded a call for papers covering issues of gender and sexuality in French literature from the Middle Ages to today–how perfect is that? Proposals are due July 10. We shall see whether I can organize my thoughts and choose a topic before that time!
Updates, updates, it’s time for updates!
Much has happened since I last posted. I finished my semester (hooray for being done with half of my undergrad career, small boo for having half left.) I completed the last steps to secure my participation in an abroad program this coming fall (details to follow.) And I assembled new sources for the beginnings of summer research!
Right now I’m knee-deep in Kate Bornstein’s Gender Outlaw: On Men, Women, and the Rest of Us. While the work is dated, the account is still honest and will be a useful companion to Gender Outlaws, a sequel of sorts that I have in the queue. This book makes for thought-provoking reading, and the style is more easily-comprehensible for me than some of the scholarship I’ll be reading. In other words, it’s nice to alternate this work with readings from Silence, a French medieval romance edited and translated by Sarah Roche-Mahdi. I’m attempting to use the English translation to help me understand the Old French, and it’s proving a worthy headache.
In the next few weeks, I hope to find more (modern) French-language scholarship as well as trans-focused research. I’m scouring libraries every chance I get, and hoping to purchase a library card for a local big-name university. Today, though, was a stop in a public library near where I’m staying. The one tangentially-related source I found, Michael Bronski’s A Queer History of the United States, mentioned transgender identity on around six pages of multiple hundreds. This paucity of trans-relevant information in a book published only six years ago could have disappointed me; instead it was a good wake-up call about the kind of search I will have to make for information pertaining to my thesis.
Today I was put in contact with a scholar who has been on my radar all year. She is a graduate of my college and multiple professors have recommended her work to me and I almost slept in her house when I was in New York City and I hear she has a cute dog.
As of today, I have two prospective thesis advisers for my project! In addition to the adviser who helped me formulate the initial idea for the project, I have someone on board who is a professor in the Department of French Studies at my college and also serves on the Advisory Committee for the Department of the Study of Women and Gender (or at least I think that’s what he officially does–I know that he has a thumb in each of those pies.) He and I had a very productive conversation–we went over the syllabus for a class he’ll be teaching in the fall on immigration and sexuality in modern France, and he showed me his fresh new book (no joke, he opened a cardboard box full of first editions and handed one to me!) After talking with him, I am inspired to expand the scope of my thesis project to include writings from what is now the Middle East in addition to France. There was a great deal of cultural exchange between the two regions during my time period of interest, and it would be very interesting to compare attitudes on gender identity and expression in both areas. I now have a thesis committee of two, and stacks of books recommended by each of them. Can’t wait to dive in once my term papers are submitted!
Apologies for this segue into material only tangentially-related to my thesis research, but I’ve had a really exciting development in regards to my French term paper.
A professor at a neighboring college (and the director of an Early Music group I sing with) has just linked me to a project he and several other scholars undertook with help from the National Endowment for the Humanities some years ago. It’s called “Teaching the Medieval Lyric with Modern Technology” and it basically involves uploading texts, recordings, source materials, and research on composers within the wide category of French medieval lyric (everyone from the troubadors to Guillaume de Machaut.) In other words, a goldmine for the kind of material I’ll need for my term paper (and possibly my thesis.) The term paper will be focused on the one example of a woman troubador, or trobairitz, with a poem that survives with its original music. I had the honor of performing part of it last Friday, and giving an oral presentation on my own musical analysis of the song. And now it’s the focus of my term paper, and I have access to one of the original manuscripts, some scholarly papers, and recordings of the song. I’m honestly like a kid in a candy store right now.
And the best part is that the database of information will still be there if I ever need it for thesis research. I’m so grateful I showed up to rehearsal early and had the conversation with my director that ended with him sharing this project with me.
This is the first of the essays I’ve read in Gender Transgressions: Crossing the Normative Barrier in Old French Literature–and I love it. Unfortunately, what makes the article so great is what makes it irrelevant to my thesis project: it is an alternate reading of the canonic text the Roman de la Rose, positing that the central romance of the work occurs between two male figures rather than between a male and female figure. The argument is made chiefly by decoding the undoubtedly coded language used in the work, chiefly words like rose (literally “rose” but possible code for “penis”) and baiser (literally “kiss” but possible code for “sex” or “fuck”) and citing instances that attest to a deep love between the two allegorical male characters. The argument is presented very well, but the fact remains that sexuality and gender are two distinct concepts that I will need to keep separate in my mind. There was a clear benefit to the article, though, in that it challenged the automatic gendered assumptions people make that affect their conception of how a story is supposed to grow. This was more in reference to heteronormativity and European conceptions of gender roles in romance, but it was helpful nonetheless.