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22.11.03 LaFleur et al. (eds.), Trans Historical

22.11.03 LaFleur et al. (eds.), Trans Historical

The review below mentions every author and every essay--sometimes with abbreviating titles--so that every voice, however briefly, in this excellent collection can be heard. But no expanded word limit could do justice to the complexity and diversity in these essays in terms of methodology, region, historical period, and genre: literary, visual, legal, medical or historical. As a medievalist, I had to considerably expand the temporal, geographical, and methodological bounds of my knowledge in reading about Byzantium, the Turkish and Polish languages, documents of early America--among other realms explored in these adventures. So readers are in for a tremendous experience that simultaneously expands knowledge and challenges them to learn something new. And what guides the entire stunning collection is the assertion--the incontrovertible, well proven, and important assertion--that some version of transgender identity existed in the past, in all the pasts (though manifested variously, and sometimes obliquely) in the records of art, history, and literature. The terms used then may not be the same as we use, because, as this collection makes clear, we struggle now (and will in the future) to find the most precise vocabulary (which itself will evolve) to talk about the experience of those who changed genders, displayed sexual fluidity, or in one way or another defied binary gender (a term itself that the editors complicate).

The editors anticipate the accusation of anachronism, but to my mind they and authors (graciously) prove that assertion faulty. What we call transgender experience now--and the awareness informing contemporary legal, social, and academic thought--is attested consistently in the documented past. The authors pay particular attention to how transgender people expressed themselves--how they understood their own experiences--and how the poets, artists, and historians addressed, and in some cases celebrated, what we would call transgender persons. At the same time these essays attest to the history of confusion, intolerance, and struggle, itself important and poignant. Ultimately, this is a thoughtful, well-researched, highly responsible, sober, cautionary, and often festive collection of essays in the history of transgender experience: intense, dramatic, intriguing, surprising, emboldening, and downright bracing. It’s particularly important for medieval literature, which always seems like it’s facing elimination in departments, to assert that, yes indeed, just as with feminism, queer studies, Marxism, and postcolonial studies (among others), we indeed have a vast corpus of literature that pertains to evolving theoretical concerns.

The Acknowledgements are forthright and charming, dedicating the book to “those who have come before, those who are leading us righteously in our current moment, and those who have yet to arrive,” whose legacies and futures are all “gorgeous.” Linking “queer political organizing” to “trans political organizing,” the editors write, “may that energy continue to build!” in identifying the movements for the “abolition of police, prisons, and detentions” (viii). This attention to recent events, and also to the rigors of compiling a collection during Covid 19, provide the book with an urgency and relatability that students and scholars who experienced these historic moments will appreciate.

The Introduction is itself a compelling piece of writing, beginning with the story from 1782 of the American Soldier Deborah Sampson, who lived openly as a man and also as a woman. The editors address the “wide range of questions about the possibilities and limitations that inhere in producing histories of the transgender past” (2) and very productively clarify their stance on matters of terminology and historicism. Post-1950 may seem the beginning of transgender studies, and yet this collection witnesses transgender realities in centuries past. The editors note: “the longtime existence of transgender people” allows scholars of all genders from medieval and early and modern studies “the unique opportunity to join efforts with current trans political movements, in this endeavor” (5). The collection forthrightly seeks as well to “move beyond the methodological and analytical limitations that queer theory has inadvertently (or at times intentionally) visited upon antique, medieval, and early modern discussions of gender diversity” (7).

And in a very useful statement the editors argue that “[t]his volume writes back against assumptions that trans studies falls under the purview of the modern” (8) and that “if gender is a useful category of historical analysis, so too is transgender” (9). Part of the motivation of this work is to “support the development of thicker and more meaningful connections between resilient trans pasts and current trans lives” (13). The editors acknowledge that one day their own work will be outdated, for “even by the time that this volume is in the hands of its readers, some of the terminology that we make use of today will already have become outdated and stale” (15). The provocative and richly footnoted introduction, like the essays themselves, is just chock-full of bibliography, and readers will have no problem getting deeply acquainted with the necessary background in gender and transgender studies.

Part I, “Archives: Revisiting law and Medicine,” begins with Leah DeVun’s essay “mapping the borders of sex” in studying the depiction of exotic characters in medieval travel literature--the “Marvels of the East” tradition.” DeVun argues that “this particular strain of medieval nonbinary image imagery” can be seen “not only through the lens of ‘intersex’ but also through that of ‘transgender’” (29). “The gendered inversions in monstrous-race texts,” shows DeVun, “thus provide us with a lens through which to view medieval systems of maleness and femaleness” (31). This essay also explains how we no longer use the term “hermaphrodite” that had been common in such art-historical studies.

In a lucid piece of historical writing, Igor H. De Souza explores the story of Elenx de Céspedes, who was accused during the Inquisition of sodomy, revealing the role of such accusations in the history of gender fluidity. “While ostensibly targeting a sexual practice,” write De Souza, “the criminalization of sodomy in the Inquisitorial context proposed control over gender expression” (43); this at a time when “early modern society was gripped with anxiety over the boundaries between reality and unreality, a conceptual ambiguity over what constitutes a fact and who determines it to be a fact” (54-5). “Inquisitional interest,” says De Souza, manifests “an underlying concern with gender expression in the regulation of sodomy” (59).

An equally compelling historical case study unfolds in Kathleen Perry Long’s “The Case of Marin le Marcis” (early 17th century), whose gender fluidity got him sentenced to violent execution, prompting a debate about his gender status in relation to the current medical literature. Though he was ultimately reprieved from capital punishment, his story and the debates surrounding it are central to the history of the medical and philosophical understanding of gender. Long focuses on a tract on hermaphrodism by Jacques Duvall and his use of Ambroise Paré’s On Monsters and Marvels. Importantly, this chapter challenges, by adding much nuance, the well-known presentation of this historical case by Michel Foucault.

M. W. Bychowski follows with “The Transgender Turn,” initially on the case of Eleanor Rykener, a trans woman sex worker whose life story appears in the London Metropolitan archives (discussed above 6-7,) in order to isolate what some have called “cissexism,” the bias that exists in historical writing and comprehensively within academic studies, which has the effect of rendering cisgendered readings as “neutral” (95) and of relegating transgendered readings to anachronism. This essay seeks to open up “descriptive possibilities for trans histories to begin to be told on their own terms” (96). And the goal of this “transgender to call Eleanor Rykener back to the stand, to let her speak back to cisgender medieval studies by heeding her demand for consent and payment” (107).

Reclaiming unknown stories continues with co-editor Anna Kłosowska’s “Wojciech of Pozań and the Trans Archive Poland 1550-1561,” which offers a translation from the Polish of the 1561 Court deposition--the only record of the arrest and interrogation of Wojciech, who lived both as a man and as a woman, though causes of the arrest and the accusations are not mentioned in the deposition. Kłosowska pays close attention to pronouns and linguistic variety in the expression of gender in the Polish text. Ultimately “the court deposition...can play a positive role as proof of the existence of pre-modern trans and queer communities in Poland” and constitutes a “small chapter in the trans-friendly Polish history, especially valuable now that state sponsored transphobia is on the rise” (124).

The first essay in Part 2 (“Frameworks: Representing Early Trans Lives”) is Robert Mill’s “Recognizing Wilgefortis,” which engages a triptych of a crucified Saint by Hieronymus Bosch, currently in the Gallerie dell’Academia in Venice, addressing the complicated question of whom this image depicts and of what gender (art historians offer many names). Mills argues for the “bearded female martyr Wilgefortis” whose cult rose up in the 14th century in German speaking lands. Mills compellingly explores the issue of sexual ambiguity in this and related religious depictions including that of Christ’s own passion, in a richly illustrated essay exploring this complicated figure (better expressed as a “they” than a “she”) who may have “fulfilled a distinct demand on the part of devotees, especially women, for androgynous intercessors and divinities” (136-7).

Continuing to display the incredible breath of this volume, Abdulhamit Arvas explores “gender variance in the early modern Ottoman Empire,” studying the 18th-century Ҫenginame, (the book of ҫngi dancers) of Enderunlu Fazil, with a close linguistic attention to terms used to refer to the distinct gender category of these dancers, which “contest the perceived stability of the two-gender system in the Ottoman Empire” (161). Arvas’s exploration of the “köҫek,” which refers to “dancers assigned male at birth who were taken on at the young dancing companies and trained to perform for an exclusively male audience” (160), offers a striking example...[of] when gender plurality under the early modern imperial gaze shifted into a rigidly surveilled gender accordance with Western norms and regimes” (161).

Co-editor Masha Raskolnikov explores the ever fascinating Romance of Silence and the “prehistory of genderqueerness,” giving a fresh look at this text which has compelled medievalists in gender studies for decades. In a sensitive and eloquent offering, Raskolnikov shows how fiction, to be distinguished from legal and medical history, “can sometimes function as the space where the nature of sex and gender gets worked out in a relatively consequence-free way...outside of the juridical and medical frameworks that have shaped trans lives to this day” (178), even if these “alternatives might be imaginary and secretive and, in the course of the narrative, ultimately undermined” (199). Wanting to “underline the undecidable genderqueerness” of Silence, Raskolnikov, cleverly eschewing the “homework” (179) of gender assignment, uses “they” to refer to the poem’s star.

In “Transgender Translation,” Zrinka Stahuljak does a fascinating bit of detective work into the vandalism done on a manuscript copy of Vasco da Lucena’s Deeds of Alexander. Manuscripts are often cut for their gorgeous illustrations, but here the target was the Prologue, where the translator “openly acknowledges that he changed the gender from male to female of two of Alexander’s sexual partners” (210). In this richly illustrated essay, we learn that in translation “gender does not have to be faithful to its historical original” and how “the power of words to change genders was augmented by the power of images” (226), as some miniaturists avoid the sexuality of Alexander and his lovers, while Los Angeles, J. Paul Getty Museum, Ludwig MS XV 8 enhances the “transgender potential for readers of the prologue to Book V” (224).

Part III, “Interventions: Critical Trans Methodologies,” starts with a fascinating essay by Emma Campbell on the medieval bestiary’s depiction of the hyena, an animal “known for its alleged ability to switch between male and female embodiment” (236). The medieval Bestiary tradition “provides a means of exploring the imbrication of animal studies, gender studies, and natural history through a transgender prism” (235), while “demanding an analysis that also extends to sexuality geopolitics and race” (236), for, “in all their manifestations bestiary hyenas offer negatively marked interpretations of transness,” combining “transphobic, anti-Semitic, and misogynist positions” (259). The essay ends by reflecting upon the “tensions inherent in excavating a transgender past from medieval sources” (260).

In a bracingly clear and richly textual argument, Micah James Goodrich examines depictions of healthy and unhealthy bodies in relation to “rehabilitation politics” and “biosalvation” in Piers Plowman. This closely argued essay makes a major contribution to disability and trans studies by associating the complexities of the transgender body with that of the maimed or broken bodies in Piers, which play a role in the poem’s scheme of salvation. Goodrich argues that this poem “confronts the idea of a productive body through the apparatus of salvation: to be productive is to be a ‘healthy’ member of a social whole” (267). Since these distinctions rely upon the “legibility of debilitated bodies” (268), transgender studies can help us discern “what kind of social collective gets to decide the authenticity of an individual body’s capacity” (268).

In “Where are all the Trans Women in Byzantium?” Roland Betancourt asks where we might find traces of the lives of “women assigned male at birth” (297) because there are, by contrast, in Byzantine history many detailed lives of “individuals assigned female at birth, who for a variety of reasons chose to live most of their lives as monks, usually presenting as eunuchs” (297). Betancourt seeks “to articulate the deeply queer existence of trans women, whose identities have all but been purged from the historical record through screeds of invective” (299). This reality compels us to find them indirectly--“even those weakly glimmering possibilities of trans women” (299)--by reading “the vitriol of male authors who have chosen to deride an imagined group” (314).

Alexa Alice Joubin offers “Performing Reparative Transgendered Identities,” in two films, The King and the Clown and Stage Beauty. These films display, respectively, the “open-ended amelioration of injustices by enabling character self-realization” without characters needing “reparation”; and then a narrative “that showcase[s] direct and regressive changes organized around ‘restoring’ trans characters to perceived norms of binary gender and heterosexuality” in a mode that caters “to (mostly) cis-heterosexual audiences’ binary imaginations” (322). Despite the “risk of imposing trans as a contemporary category” onto works set in the English and Korean pasts, these differing historical labels, argues Joubin, do not “invalidate [these characters’] trans experiences” (344).

The final essay, “Laid Open” by Scott Larson, studies the Boston trial of Anne Hutchinson (1637) and P. M Wise’s “sexological examination of [Reverend] Joseph Israel Lobdell” (assigned female at birth) whose arrest in 1869 for false preaching “connects to a longer history of religious gender variance in early America, particularly to forms of...religious revivalism wherein religious participation regularly included gender-transformative practices” (351). These cases display that “[w]hile trans histories have been understudied, gender-variant subjects have been overexamined” (351). Larson, furthering the “ethical work of trans scholarship,” cautions contemporary researchers against “the imperative to locate, classify, and prove a singular identity for individuals in order for them to be properly considered part of trans pasts” (362), lest “gender-variant people be stripped for the satisfaction of the audience” (362).

In a forthright and compelling “Epilogue,” co-editor Greta LeFleur writes “against consensus” and in a productive way troubles some of the theoretical paradigms of current transgender and queer theory. She draws attention to “the kinds of questions that queer theory and the history of sexuality have equipped us to explore, and those questions for which queer theory and the history of sexuality have proved woefully inadequate” (367).

She questions the term “nonbinary” as not appropriate to describing situations “before the gender binary in fact existed,” an approach which she says “sits uncomfortably with me, as a historian” (368). “Indeed,” she continues, “trans people have always been ingenious and, furthermore often very stylish authors of vocabulary for their own experiences, and then and now, I think it is of the utmost importance that we listen to them rather than assume that present-day vocabularies would automatically take some sort of Whiggish, progressive priority over past ways of being and naming” (368).

LaFleur concludes that “there is not, and probably will never be, consensus regarding what trans history is or means, how to recognize it, or how to practice it,” but this, however, is “a strength of this burgeoning field, rather than a weakness” (374). LaFleur dramatically ends the essay with hope that “the lack of consensus” that is invoked here will eventually and “(probably sooner than later) provide just the kind of fertile rot that will render fecund ground for new, more nuanced, and more creative inquiry. I can’t wait” (375). Thus ends this uncompromising, richly researched, self-aware, and dramatically important collection of essays on transgender lives from the past.