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.
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.