Uncovering Christine & Judith in July

Happy July, all! Just a quick update today to say that I’ve finished up with some key excerpts from Christine de Pisan’s oeuvre and they’re leaving me feeling stronger in my convictions that my thesis topic is a worthy one. This likely stems from feeling closer to Christine through spending time with writings sourced from different points in her life. More than other authors I’ve studied, Christine is a person of periods. She arrived at the discovery of her love for learning relatively late in life, after going through childhood, adolescence, and a decade of happy marriage and childrearing. She describes all of this and more in one of her first long-form pieces, a sort of memoir called L’Avision Christine, or “Christine’s Vision.” I’m cheerfully adding memoir to the increasingly long list of points of intersection between Christine’s life and that of a modern-day queer writer (think David Sedaris or Alexander Chee and you’ll hopefully see what I mean.)

June has, admittedly, been a slow reading month for me. I relocated, started a new job, and did heaps of introspection on the subject of what it means to be my queer self in 2018. But I have big plans for the month of July, which I am christening the Month of Judith as June was the Month of Jonathan (yes, I may have been spending valuable reading time binge-watching the reboot of “Queer Eye.”) I’ll begin my acquaintance with Judith by reading from Gender Trouble, followed by Bodies That Matter. I realize that Butler’s swath of work is vast, and that there are writings of hers more pertinent to my topic. But, just as Christine must do in her Cité des Dames (which, by the way, may be a darker metaphor for medieval Europe’s particular brand of capitalist heteropatriarchy than I first thought) I need to start with a strong foundation and work my way up.

Onward to July–to deepening, widening, and sharing my nerdy synthesized interests!

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Hello, June!

Happy June to all! Let’s kick off this Pride month with a little queer subtext:

Along with Feinberg’s Transgender Warriors, I finished a biography of Christine de Pizan by Charity Cannon Willard, the foremost scholar on this topic to date. Such rampant queerness (even if tempered by dated-ness and the perspective and agenda particular to each author!) Both books gave me plenty to think and write about–and it was definitely illuminating to read them both in parallel.

Selected points of intersection that I found compelling are as follows:

  • the simultaneity of trans/cross-gender persecution and emerging capitalist economic systems in the general time and geographical area where Christine was writing
  • Christine’s deep admiration for the work of Jeanne D’Arc (Joan of Arc) coupled with Feinberg’s devotion of an entire chapter (along with references liberally sprinkled throughout hir book) to Joan of Arc’s personal experiences with trans/cross-gender persecution
  • the marked class differences between Christine, who circulated amongst the nobles of the Italian and French courts, and the peasantry who Feinberg documents as having participated in comparatively communal societies, with cross-gender activity in ritual being a key component thereof
  • what for me was a distinctly second wave feel to components of both Feinberg’s and Christine’s ‘feminisms,’ if either can be defensibly called so

Both of these books will serve as part of the foundation for the rest of the summer’s research. Leslie Feinberg’s was a sweeping history of trans/cross-gender activity in largely Western contexts, with an interesting perspective on kingdom/nation-building in the Middle Ages and how that relates to the oppression of the trans community (I use both words very loosely) then and now. Charity Cannon Willard offered a thorough and informative account of the major events in Christine’s life and the connective tissue between them. She also did a wonderful job contextualizing each of Christine’s major works, connecting them with events in Christine’s personal life and with the larger political/economical situation in France and the surrounding areas. I have pages and pages of notes stuck in the margins of Willard’s book, which I must set to transcribing at once. Off I go!

Research Summer Round II

Another academic year gone, this one a particular whirlwind. I will spare this blog the details of my semester abroad in Canada, as well as my semester of exchange at a small liberal arts college on the West Coast.

Instead, with my final papers still hot off the presses, the time seems ripe to dive into research for the summer. I’ve just fired off an email to my thesis adviser, letting her know that my intentions this summer are to work a day job (which I’m sure will be lovely and rewarding) and to spend my weekday evenings mowing through books.

My hope is that this blog will keep me accountable, and at the very least leave me with a record of what I do get done so that I will have something (digitally) tangible to share with said adviser.

At the top of my pile is Leslie Feinberg’s Transgender Warriors: Making History from Joan of Arc to Dennis Rodman–something to help me ease back into my chosen subject matter. I have an absolutely lovely edition on hand, a gift to myself from Powell’s City of Books in Portland, Oregon. I adore Feinberg’s no-nonsense style, and look forward to this work being a good and healthy read. Christine de Pisan will follow closely behind.

I would love to live in a world where my thesis was the only thing related to academics that will occupy my mind this summer. But there’s graduate school to be considered. And if not graduate school, then fellowships or teaching assistantships. I am fortunate to have the fire lit under me to work towards accomplishing my academic and personal goals this summer. I am fortunate and I will not forget it.

Happy summer break to all who will be taking one, and chin up to all who can’t.

Odds and Ends

It’s time for another housekeeping post, in which I catalog what I’ve recently read and am currently reading and occasionally diverge into events of my personal life. Let’s get to it!

I recently finished Gender Outlaws: The Next Generation, the earth-shattering compilation of poetry, prose, and in-between writings of those somewhere along the gender spectrum or outside the gender binary speaking about their experiences pertaining to that positioning. Or, at least, it would be earth-shattering if more people knew about it. Despite its being published seven years ago now, and despite its being edited by such a well-known author and activist as Kate Bornstein (with the indispensable help of trans writer and theater artist S. Bear Bergman), and despite its being relevant to one of the foremost debates in this country at this time over the politics of gender identity, the book was entirely unknown to me before it arrived on my doorstep. Truth be told, I bought it thinking I was purchasing an updated version of Gender Outlaw, and was more than pleasantly surprised when I saw the diversity of form, perspective, and background of the contributing authors. And it was extra special to see the work of someone I knew personally through an an early music a cappella group we were both a part of in my first semester of college. I was thoroughly impressed with the book, and would love to work in some of this complex perspectives on trans+/gender non-conforming/other-gender identities into my eventual thesis. Thanks to Seal Press for bringing this book to life and to my attention–I have a feeling I will be rereading these stories for personal benefit for years to come.

Today, I also finished Thea Hillman’s collection of short essays on her intersex identity relates to her politics in romance, family, and society: Intersex (for lack of a better word.) The essays (which evolved into poetry at the very end) ranged from heart-wrenching to heartwarming, and I enjoyed the act of reading all of them, including the ones that left me aching for the sorrow or enraged for the divisiveness of some members of the trans+ community. I also had the surprisingly uncomfortable experience of reading about a location in one of the stories and realizing it was one I had passed countless times, having grown up in nearly the same neighborhood as the author. It was nice to learn that Hillman received a Master’s degree from and served on the Board of the college I will (hopfeully) be attending in the spring.

Separately, I am knee-deep in Julia Serano’s Whipping Girl, and let’s just say I’m excited to write another masterpost once I’ve finished hearing what she has to say. I think it would be interesting to write on my experience of Whipping Girl as an audiobook read by the author, having the words literally coming from her own mouth. More to come on this.

I also attended the San Francisco Trans March last Saturday. This was my second time at the event, and I was once again impressed by the out-and-proud displays of trans+ folk and allies from the Bay Area and beyond. But the event coincided with many of my conflicting thoughts surrounding the trans ‘community’ and the ‘trans-‘ label itself coming to a head. I am not at a point where expressing these thoughts in writing will be helpful to me, but I hope to eventually reach that point.

In objectively happier news, I’ll be collecting four books from the university library next week. Among these are the predictable Gender Trouble by Judith Butler, Female Masculinities by Jack Halberstam, and the medieval text Ami et Amile. The unexpected party guest is Histoire des transsexuels en France by Maxime Foerster. I know nothing about this book beyond the title and that it was the only result returned in my search for the terms ‘transgender,’ ‘history,’ and ‘france’ at once. I can only access Le Roman de la Rose inside the library itself, and consequently it has its own events on my Google Calendar.

That’s all for now! Fingers crossed that I can produce an acceptable paper proposal for the Institut de Genre (the organization that put out the call for papers) before July 10.

Kate Bornstein, Gender Outlaw

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!

b. binaohan, decolonizing trans/gender 101

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!

The More, the Merrier!

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.

Silence and the Next Generation

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. 

Gender Outlaws and Paper Conferences

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!

Update 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.