Gendering The Past

One of the inevitable results of the greater media interest in trans people is an increase in interest in trans history. On the one hand this is good for me, because it means I get invited to conferences and taken seriously, whereas even five years ago I would have been laughed at by most historians. On the other hand it means that a lot of cisgender historians are writing about trans issues in past cultures, often with very little understanding of what they are doing.

Much of this comes from a set of behaviors that stretches at least back to Roman times and probably much further. Elite men are quick to seize on any male whose appearance, mannerisms, sexual tastes and so on deviate from the currently acceptable social standards for masculinity. Such people are deemed “girly men”, or whatever the local translation thereof is. Women, on the other hand, are quick to reject this as an invasion of their territory that must be resisted at all costs. Men are men, and can never be anything else. The one thing that both sides tend to agree on is that trans people don’t exist, and therefore cannot be considered as an option.

The same sort of thing happens when cis historians look at people from the past. Men make fun of any people from history whose behavior they see as effeminate, and women insist that those people are really men. That these past people cannot be trans is backed up by a firm statement as to what being trans means.

I’m getting a little fed up with cis people telling me what it means to be trans. I wish they’d tell me, because I’m damned if I know.

Trans people can’t agree among themselves what it means to be trans. India Willoughby thinks that non-binary identities are fake. Many non-binary people insist that they are not “trans”, usually because they don’t want any medical treatment. If you talk to a two spirit person from North America, or a fa’afafine from Samoa, they may tell you that they are not trans because being trans is a Western concept that doesn’t work in their society.

There are other issues at work here as well. Historically most hijra from India seem to have identified as non-binary, despite the fact that they live full time as women and sometimes marry men. They make this identification on the grounds that they can’t bear children, and therefore can’t be a woman. That’s a cultural definition of what a “woman” is, and one that TERFs like to throw at trans women today, but it is not a distinction that we tend to draw because we prefer not to shame cis and intersex women who are infertile.

Whether someone from the past is “trans” or not is therefore a very open-ended question, and one I tend to approach in two ways: firstly by looking for persistent behaviors outside of the gender binary, and secondly by taking a very broad and inclusive definition of what it means to be trans.

All of this came to mind today when I was reading this blog post about Peter Ackroyd’s new book, Queer City. Much of the post I agree with. The tendency of male historians to only recognize the possibility of lesbianism if one party in the relationship can be shown to be using a dildo is ridiculous in the extreme. You’d think that with the amount of lesbian porn men watch they’d have a better understanding of how lesbians have sex, but there you go. Clearly their minds (or more likely their eyes) are on other things.

Where the post goes off the rails a bit is when it gets onto discussing the famous 14th century figure of John Rykener. I should state up front that Rykener’s case is a very complex one whose interpretation is heavily dependent on an understanding of mediaeval English and the mediaeval mindset. I have a couple of friends who have made an in depth study of the case and I defer to their judgement for most of the issues.

What appears to be agreed upon is that Rykener was a sex worker, and often dressed as a woman while working. They (and I’m using non-binary pronouns for Rykener because that’s the right thing to do when there is some uncertainty) appear to have done very well out of this business and their clients seem to have accepted them as a woman. When not working Rykener spent at least some of their time as a man, and had sex with women while presenting as both binary genders.

There is, of course, much debate as to how Rykener may have identified. All of the possible identities from trans woman to drag queen are possible. I gather that the consensus favors the latter end of the possibilities, though goodness knows how one makes sense of people’s statements when many of them are from court transcripts in a case where the defendant’s life was on the line.

I’m not going to get into discussing how Rykener identified. Rather I want to talk about how Lucy Allen, the author of that post, interrogated Ackroyd’s treatment of the case.

Allen begins by highlighting this comment by Ackroyd about Rykener:

Rykener called himself Eleanor, and dressed in women’s clothing. He would sometimes be a male for males, sometimes a female for males, sometimes a female for females … He enacted all these roles quite naturally, and was never thought of as being particularly adventurous.

The word that she takes exception to is “naturally”. Now certainly it is a mistake for anyone to use that word in connection with sexual behavior. The idea that cisnormative and heteronormative behavior is “natural” while anything queer is not has been rightly ripped to shreds on far more occasions that I can count. I would have been happy with a simple statement to that effect, but Allen goes on at some length.

Part of my concern is the language used to describe Rykener. We have: “conning men” and “lucrative deceptions”. It is, of course, entirely possible, that Rykener did think that they were deceiving their clients, but this sort of language is very dangerous. The idea that trans women are engaged in a massive deception aimed at cis men is the number one reason for trans women being murdered. If you are going to make such allegations then you should make sure you are certain that is what is going on, and note that deception is not the default mode of trans women.

The other issue is that Allen attempts to prove that Rykener’s behavior is not “natural” by showing that they had to learn it.

Specific women helped in the process, each experts in her trade: Anna, a ‘whore,’ and Elizabeth, whose surname ‘Brouderer’ denotes her profession of embroiderer or seamstress. Rykener’s citation of these women’s names may partly be an attempt to spread blame (Elizabeth Brouderer crops up elsewhere in the London court records, and her name might easily have elicited knowing nods from an audience). But it’s also a subtle way of reminding that audience of the artificiality of the performance of femininity. Rykener needed to learn to dress and act like a woman; he may have fooled men, but the women who worked with him were under no illusions whatsoever.

And later:

But, in attempting to naturalise ‘queer’ London, Ackroyd instead erases all traces of artificiality from the performance of femininity, naturalising a very different type of gender politics, in which women’s awareness of things men do not notice is simply overlooked.

What Allen appears to be saying here is that Rykener’s femininity was not “natural” because they had to learn it from women, and that Rykener could only learn it imperfectly, as opposed to women who don’t need to learn such things. In other words, she’s saying that for women femininity is “natural”, but for men it isn’t and that therefore trans women can never be women.

In practice, of course, transition is a process, a very long process. No one taught me to dress and behave as a woman. I learned most of it myself through reading teen girl magazines and through observation. When I started living as a woman I thought I had it pretty much sorted, but of course I didn’t and I learned a lot more from experience. Twenty-odd years later I don’t think much about it, I just do it. Whether I do it well or not rather depends on who is looking at me and whether they know I am trans.

What I do know is that I have friends whose performance of femininity is not the same as mine. Some of them are much more feminine, but others are much less so. There are some for whom we might say that being feminine “comes naturally”, and others for whom it doesn’t. We are not using “natural” here in a way that suggests that all women are biologically coded in their chromosomes to be feminine: to love pink, frilly dresses and the latest Hollywood heartthrob. Rather we are using “natural” in the same way as we might say that someone takes naturally to swimming, or speaking French, or mathematics. There may be some biology involved here, but if there is it is a more subtle, less well-understood biology than simple chromosomes, and it may be strongly influenced by upbringing.

What stands out to me about Rykener is that they appear to have been very comfortable wearing women’s clothing, adopting feminine mannerisms, and having sex with men while doing so. Most men would run a mile rather than do any of that. Rykener, therefore, is a person to whom femininity seems to have “come naturally”, despite the obvious social pressures in 14th Century England for people assigned male at birth to behave in a masculine fashion. That doesn’t prove where on that continuum from trans woman to drag queen Rykener might have fitted, but it does show that there was something about them that was radically different to the typical mediaeval man.

10 thoughts on “Gendering The Past

  1. I think you have managed to misread not just my post, but the original documents (which I linked to in my post, as I discussed the same misreading of them by Ackroyd).

    Most of your objections seem to follow the chain of logic ‘I have decided Rykener is trans, therefore, if Allen comments on their deceptive behaviour or their artificial femininity, it is offensive to transwomen’. But I don’t share your premise, as I made clear. I don’t think it is tenable to read Rykener as proto-trans. The case records stress the fact that this is a deliberately deceptive assumption of the most superficial ‘feminine’ characteristics, by a person who is pleased with his own capacity to deceive for financial gain. I don’t think that sounds like a transwoman at all. Consequently, when I (in the company, by the way, of a lot of medieval historians) discuss the mercantile and deceptive aspects of the account, I’m not saying anything whatsoever about trans women. There is absolutely no implication that femininity is natural to women, as the well-known phrase ‘performance of femininity’ indicates. It’s a term widely used in gender studies.

    Other errors, which you might want to correct:

    – Rykener never claims to have had sex ‘as a woman’ with women. This was a significant part of my original post, a correction I offered to Ackroyd. I’m unclear why you would reinstate the error, but it does explain why you misunderstand what I’ve said about binary gender.
    – The records are in Latin, not Middle English (link provided in my post). Again, this is very important as Latin is an inflected language, and the court scribe is interested in thinking about what that means for pronoun use.
    – It seems unlikely Rykener’s clients ‘accepted’ him as a woman: in fact, they differ in their responses, as the court records indicate.

    I accept that you’re not a historian of this period and it is difficult to get to grips with material outside your subject area, but all of these points were made quite clearly and you could have acknowledged them. Instead, you’ve twisted both my words and the original source in order to accuse me of views I do not have or express in my post. I’m quite bemused by this.

    I’ve written a follow-up post, which you might like to read.

    1. Hello Lucy, thanks for dropping by, and apologies for the slow response. I’ve been out all day.

      I’m happy to take corrections on matters of fact. As I said above, this is very much not my period. However…

      I have absolutely not decided that Rykener was a trans woman. Indeed, I said above that what I have seen of expert opinion tends towards them being more at the drag queen end of the continuum. The fact that I’m using gender neutral pronouns for Rykener is a fairly obvious clue that I don’t regard them as identifying as female.

      Regardless of how Rykener may have identified (which we can never know for certain), the use of a deception narrative is very dangerous. If you are going to use it, you need to make very clear who is making the accusation and whether your subject regards themself as a deceiver.

      Your comment about some clients not being deceived is very interesting. I’d actually been wondering about that on the train home. One possible explanation of the story is that Rykener took on the female persona as a means of allowing their clients to appear to pick up an apparently female sex worker, but in fact get to have male-male sex, without putting themselves at risk in public. We know that some 19th century male sex workers did this. However, if this is the case, no actual deception is taking place (except of passers by) and the whole deception narrative becomes a fiction invented presumably to protect the clients. It becomes akin to the “trans panic” defense that men use as an excuse for killing trans women.

      Against that we have your assertion that Rykener boasted of their deceptions, so we’d need some motivation for their going along with this narrative when they knew it wasn’t true.

      There’s also the comment in your second post where you say, “What about ‘Anna, a whore,’ who taught Rykener to have sex ‘as a woman’?” What does that mean? Why would Rykener need to know that if the clients were not deceived? I’ve seen interviews with Western trans women who talk about only selling fellatio so that they don’t need to risk giving themselves away, and with hijra who boast about a technique for fooling a man into thinking that he’s entering their vagina from behind.

      The comment about Rykener never having sex with women while in their female persona is also useful to know. The mere fact of having sex with women does not in any way make a statement about gender identity. I know lots of trans women who identify as lesbians. But if they had sex with cis women they’d want to do so as women.

      All of which is very interesting, but none of it is conclusive. It can’t be. In any case, modern Western concepts of “gay” and “transsexual” are meaningless in the 14th Century. That’s why I said above that you need to get away from those ideas and have a much broader view of what living outside of social gender expectations means. One which, at the very least, includes all of the variation we see in trans communities today.

      So, again as I said above, I prefer to look at what people do. I look for persistent behaviors outside of the gender binary. Rykener demonstrates this. While we can’t be sure how Rykener felt about their own femininity, we do know for certain that they were happy to embrace a level of feminine performance that most men would recoil from. That suggests that they were much less wedded to their masculinity that the average man.

      None of this, and here we get back to the main point of my post, should have anything to do with whether Rykener needed to be taught feminine presentation. I know trans women who have known next to nothing about it when they transitioned, and cis men who needed no teaching. I think we agree that gender presentation is a performance, but how one presents, and how successfully one does that, has no bearing on identity. I know it is an idea that the media loves to push, but if you want to understand the gender of people from the past you have to let go of that confusion.

      1. Cheryl, the court records are *right there*. I’ve linked to them twice. Please read them and refer to them. It will put to rest a lot of what you seem to consider up for questioning.

        Of course, the standard reading of the Rykener case is that his deceptions enabled men to have male-male sex.

        ‘Gender’ is not a concept I think translates well to the medieval period (or, indeed, most periods in the past). Nor does ‘identity’. These are anachronisms that should not be imposed on people whose views we can’t reconstruct.

        Likewise, you should not presume that modern people identifying as female cannot chose their own pronouns and use ‘they’. It’s not for you to decide.

        I can’t help feeling you are pushing a particularly narrow, prescriptive view of what ‘gender’ must mean, which doesn’t fit the historical evidence. You seem confused that I advance several possible interpretations of material. This is simply good history. I’m not tied to any one interpretation (though I have my preferred combinations of readings, and I certainly exclude some possibilities). I’d urge you to try to be a bit more open minded, too.

        1. I will get around to reading the court records at some point, because it is a fascinating case. But if I did so here and made an interpretation based on that you’d just tell me that I wasn’t competent to do so, wouldn’t you.

          Besides, my problem is not what the records say, but how you present your interpretation of them.

          I see that you accept that Rykener’s clients knew exactly what they were getting, but still present this as a “deception”. I have to wonder why you are so wedded to this idea that a deception took place.

          If a female-identified person asked me to use gender-neutral pronouns for them I would of course comply with that request. But that’s not what is happening here. I am using gender-neutral pronouns to indicate that we can’t be certain how Rykener saw their gender. You insist on using male pronouns for Rykener and insist that I am gendering them female.

          As to gender not being a useful concept for looking at mediaeval people, why? Did they not have genders? Or do you simply not have a framework for understanding gender that is applicable to anyone outside the Western 20th Century bubble.

          As to my having too narrow a concept of what gender means, you’re just trolling here now, aren’t you. This entire discussion has been about me trying to get you to open up to a more nuanced discussion of gender and you insisting that you are right despite the fact that you agree there are various possible interpretations of the material.

          By the way, I spent two days last week at an academic conference where people were discussing gender issues in a wide variety of contexts, including a number of historical periods. One of the academic books I read yesterday included a fascinating essay on how the ancient Greeks gendered plants. Its all very interesting. Maybe if you tried listening a bit you wouldn’t feel it necessary to try to shut down any discussion of gender in your own period.

          1. Cheryl, I’m an academic who works *on* gender.

            I blog about my work on gender.

            I tweet about my work on gender. I know you know this, because you read my blog and follow me on twitter.

            The trial records are maybe a paragraph long. If you were perhaps to read them, you would stop misquoting them, misunderstanding them, and throwing your toys out of the pram when you’re corrected on your misinterpretations of them.

          2. I also do academic papers on gender, both in history and literature.

            I teach trans awareness courses. I get paid for helping people understand gender, in particular to understand how the existence trans people explodes traditional ideas about gender.

            And, you know, actual trans woman who might know a thing or two about being trans.

            All of which you are choosing to ignore because you don’t want to have a conversation with me about this stuff.

            I have tried very hard to be polite about this, but it is pretty clear that you don’t want to listen because you have no respect for me or my expertise. Please stop wasting my time.

        2. I mentioned my academic work, because you suggested I wanted to shut down discussion of gender in my academic period. I don’t – the reverse is true. I simply don’t accept that Rykener is best read the way you read him. And I don’t really understand why, when you refuse to read the primary source, you believe you can have any informed opinion. You attacked my original piece, misread it and misunderstood it, and seem surprised I might object.

          I am sure you know a huge amount about being a transwoman, and I defer to and respect that experience. But I’m afraid you are not likely to convince me you have a better understanding of a medieval court record you haven’t actually bothered to read!

          1. I suggested that you wanted to shut down discussion of gender because you said you didn’t think gender was a concept that translated well into the mediaeval period.

            I have said before that my issue is not with how the court records are interpreted, but how you present that interpretation. These are two different things.

            Firstly I am concerned with your obsession with the deception narrative, especially as you admit that the clients were probably not deceived. And secondly I think that your comments about Rykener being taught womanly ways have any bearing on interpreting gender.

            Will you please stop inventing straw man arguments.

        3. But gender doesn’t translate well. It’s a complicated concept. Certainly, no one ‘identified’ as one or other gender, and this is anachronistic language that worries me in the context of the past.

          The deception narrative is right there in the court record. It’s the reason I believe reading Rykener as trans doesn’t work well – to persist in believing that I am somehow insulting trans women by referring to it in the context of Rykener’s case suggests a base failure of logic.

          You cannot possibly comment on my interpretation of a record you’ve not read. Just read it. You might even find it interesting. I’m sorry, but this will be my last comment. I appreciate you feel deeply about this – deeply enough to accuse me of quite unpleasant things before you did your research – but it’s not fair on me and not fair on the many historians and trans scholars who take these issues seriously.

  2. What the hell is natural femininity? What is defined as feminine seems to me to vary from culture to culture and time to time and it seems to me all women have to learn what their culture defines as feminine. I am not a feminine woman despite having long hair – rather more to do with a hairdresser phobia and being somewhat of a hippy than any cultural definition of feminine – and Paul has far more feminine hair than me, his hair went into natural ringlets and still manages a few to this day (yes, jealous). Sorry got diverted there, but if you want to talk about natural feminity you need to be extremely careful about what you define as natural and I’d argue that it is very difficult to justify any culturally defined feminity, ie any that women have to learn, as ‘natural’. Am I completely off base with that?

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