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.
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.
Though this text comes from the 1970s, when prevailing notions of gender were still painfully binary, I think there will be some usable content. I’m particularly interested in the chapter where Strathern details (and debunks) existing gender stereotypes and the very idea of gender stereotyping. In my reading so far, she’s already placed the terms “man” and “woman” in quotation marks, and made mention of ever-toxic “gender-thinking.” Looks good so far.