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.