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.

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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.

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.

When a Rose is Not a Rose: Homoerotic Emblems in the Roman de la Rose

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 Rosepositing 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.

Before And After Gender

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.

New Friends!

Five new books have come into my possession, thanks to my college’s library. They are:

  • Medieval French Literature: An Introduction by Michel Zink, trans. Jeff Rider
    • Seems like a useful primer for all of the genres and sub-genres of literary and musical composition during le Moyen Âge. Only slightly upset that my library doesn’t carry the original French edition.
  • Women readers and the ideology of gender in Old French verse romance by Roberta L. Krueger
    • Will likely deal with the “female gaze” (is that a thing?) vis-à-vis literary works from this time; I flagged several chapters having to do with gender politics, sexual identity (which I understand is distinct from gender identity but bear with me here) and how issues of gender are raised in the work of the first professional writer of le Moyen Âge in France who just happened to be a woman (her name is Christine de Pisan and she has a cult following to this day.)
  • Gender Transgressions: Crossing the Normative Barrier in Old French Literature, ed. Karen J. Taylor
    • The title says it all–supremely excited about this one.
  • Crossing Borders: Love Between Women in Medieval French and Arabic Literatures by Sahar Amer
    • This was recommended to me by my thesis advisor–it was the search for this book that brought three of the other four books into my life. Again, while I realize that sexual and/or romantic identity are not indicative of gender identity, I can’t help but wonder what I may find that will have bearing on my thesis. The author may also prove an invaluable contact.
  • Before and After Gender: Sexual Mythologies of Everyday Life by Marilyn Strathern
    • This “lost novel” was written by a prolific scholar on gender studies, and there’s an afterword by the one and only Judith Butler. Can’t wait to give this a try.

 

 

Inspiration

I was inspired to begin this project while reading one of the poems, or laisof Marie de France (111-1150) entitled “Lanval” (the notion of giving each of these lais a title was something that came around later than when Marie de France was putting them to paper, hence the quotation marks.) It features a character who embodies a mixture of masculine and feminine traits; she is identified as a female, yet she rides a horse, wears armor, and speaks in an authoritative tone (comprised of words and verb tense)–all attributes atypical of women in her time. Granted, this woman also hailed from the land of Avalon, the home of fairies and other magical figures of Arthurian legend. But her story made me wonder: was it her magic that allowed her to adopt and combine masculine and feminine traits, or was this combination part of what made her magical? Or was her gender expression entirely separate from her identity as a magical being? Were there other characters with stories like hers, and in what ways?

Once I had been introduced to this woman’s story, more and more examples of masculinity and femininity coexisting in single entities appeared during my studies. In another of Marie de France’s lais, there was a female deer with antlers who prophesied misfortune for the hero of the story. In prose works, there are several instances in which the bodies of characters identified as women are physically changed so that they present as men. And there are numerous moments within the sung poetry of the first women composers of France where they adopt the roles typically assigned to men composing during the time. Exciting stuff!

My mission now is to gather as many instances of this kind that I can find and hopefully draw conclusions not only on the conceptions of binary gender identities in France at the time, but the general opinion of gender identities that fell outside of the binary. Have you come across anything like this in work from the Middle Ages in France? Do you know of anyone who might have done so? Recommendations are more than welcome! Thanks!