The Erasure of Eleanor Rykener: A Case Study in Trans- and Bi- Phobia

Yesterday, we had primary source storytime, featuring the oft-ignored Eleanor Rykener, trans woman, prostitute, and (loosely speaking, allowing for anachronism etc) bisexual. The fact that the Rykener case has been recounted and analysed since its publication in 1995 as that of a ‘male crossdressing prostitute’ is, I concluded, incredibly reductive.

Allow me to revise that. It’s not just reductive. It’s outright transphobic, and the fact that no one has revisited the case in peer reviewed medieval scholarship is a shame to the field.

Transwomen: a threat to your flimsy hetero masculinity, apparently. (Link goes to a list of films featuring this trope.)

Transwomen: a threat to your flimsy hetero masculinity, apparently. (Link goes to a list of films featuring this trope.)

The interrogation record, unsurprisingly, speaks only of John Rykener, and was probably elaborated and twiddled with to present him as extensively sexually deviant. The reasons, cultural assumptions, gender systems surrounding that in Eleanor Rykener’s day are not our own (side note: crossdressing is associated with sexual deviancy elsewhere in the medieval record, but not exclusively so: the Silence/Grisandolus narratives, feature one ‘good’ female crossdresser and one evil sex-mad woman who has young boys dressed up as girls to sate her lusts. One good, one bad).But those assumptions in this text have not been sufficiently questioned here, and I’m pretty sure that’s because we in the late 20th and early 21st century are awash in narratives about men in dresses. Those raging sex maniacs out to dupe normal men, and/or corrupt Gold Star Lesbians, depending on which circles you run in. [/sarcasm]

Female-assigned-at-birth persons who dressed and lived as men make it into Lesbian(like) history.1 Eleanor Rykener, who lived as a woman and worked damn hard to maintain it, doesn’t.

It is telling that the Rykener text was first published in GLQ – a Gay and Lesbian publication. There, and in the chapter in Premodern Sexualities ed. Fradenberg and Freccero (1996), Boyd and Karras frame the Rykener case in terms of male homosexual history. They state in “Ut Cum Muliere” (Premodern Sexualities, p. 103) that “in modern terms, Rykener would be described as a transvestite (because he crossdressed) and a prostitute (because he took money for sex) and probably a bisexual.” The last term, they insist, is problematic – they revise to suggest Rykener was bisexual in practice but not desire, and contrary to the text itself they insist that all of his sexual encounters with men were paid (using their own translation, I can see several instances where the question of money is unspecified). They are right, of course, that in medieval terms ‘bisexual’ is not a relevant category, but as far as I can see the modern term does quite sufficiently describe Rykener’s behaviours – and Rykener’s desires remain entirely unknown. Then, despite having argued against Rykener desiring men, in order to rule out bisexuality, Boyd and Karras locate Rykener primarily in the history of male-male sodomy. They point out that the text treats Rykener as a woman in many respects (p. 109) but they themselves use only male pronouns, and only use the name Eleanor as an afterthought.

More egregious than the ruling-out of bisexual is their first assertion: “In modern terms, Rykener would be described as a transvestite (because he crossddressed)”. No. I’m sorry, but no. Crossdressing is not all that Rykener did: she lived as a woman, she worked in three different mostly-female professions, she adopted and seems to have been primarily known by the name Eleanor. I realise that trans folk have become more visible in the 21st century than they were in the 90s, but I am pretty sure that the concept of transsexuality and did exist in the mid 90s! Susan Stryker’s The Transgender Issue was published in 1998. In 1997 Richard Ekins published Male Femaling, a book for which I cannot vouch but which from the contents list seems to make distinctions between cross-dressing and the process of living as a woman. In 1996 the anthology Queer Studies included an article by Ki Namaste on ‘Queer Theory’s erasure of transgender subjectivity’. As early as 1987, Liz Hodgkinson’s Bodyshock offered accounts and case studies of people going through sex change – and anyone with the barest knowledge of the medical approach to transsexuality should notice that in order to qualify for the procedure, one must live and identify as one’s preferred gender first. In other words: one can be transgendered before surgery.2 Does it not follow that a historical person might be transgendered, or something like it, (that is, live, be known to others and think of themselves as something other than the gender they were assigned at birth) before the surgery existed?

Let’s give the 90s some generosity – the fact that I found only one anthology and nothing like The Transgender Studies Reader published before the mid naughties points to the fact that trans-awareness was just not a requirement for keeping up with gender studies in the 90s. That’s crappy, but we’ve moved on, right? We’ve had two editions of the Transgender Studies Reader since then; there are plenty of books on female-to-male transitions and fewer, but still enough, on male-to-female identities, and folks like Julia Serano and Shiri Eisner out there to connect up bisexual theory and transgender theory. The DSM has been updated. So why are we in medieval studies persisting in treating Eleanor Rykener as a man? And preferably a monosexual man?

I have problems - and bullshit cis patriarchal monosexism and bi erasure is MOST OF THEMOh, wait, I know: ye olde transmisogyny. Fear of dicks in dresses. But some of it, I suspect, is also a function of biphobia: we know Eleanor Rykener slept with men, and seems to have enjoyed it or at least sought it out. Joan and the ‘numerous’ nuns are side notes. Sometimes they’re useful, when speaking of John Rykener, to remind students that gay/straight are not fixed categories for the middle ages – and nor, as this text indicates, were active/receptive. But men, as we all know, are more important.

As for lesbian(like) history, well – the premodernist has to deal with the fact that a Gold Star Lesbian will be very hard to find, and the lesbian(like) model ought to have room to encompass women who were bisexual in practice and/or desire. But 20th century lesbian history and politics have had nearly as much trouble accommodating bisexual women as trans women: in many cases, our acceptance has been contingent on a choice to eschew sex or long-term romance with men. (For a range of studies and personal essays on that, see the latter half of Closer to Home: Bisexuality and Feminism, ed. Elizabeth Reba Weisse – with the caveat that this collection is disappointingly disengaged from and ignorant of trans issues or even existence. For integration of trans and bi thinking, see the work of Serano and/or Eisner.) The Lesbian Premodern (2011), one of the few works on medieval lesbian history to come out in the 21st century,3 discusses virgins, ghosts and Hindu mythology; in it, leading lesbian and queer historians have updated their work (notably, Traub, Faderman and Bennet) in dialogue with recent developments in the field. Rykener merits not one mention.

Call me suspicious-minded, but I’m pretty sure the combination of being male-assigned-at-birth and sexually active with men just puts poor Eleanor beyond the pale.

Do me a favour (no. Do your students a favour. Do yourself a favour!). Next time you teach the Rykener case, remember Eleanor Rykener lived as a woman, received sex ed from another woman, and slept with both women and men. If you’re not sure about calling her a lesbian-like woman, I respectfully suggest: “bisexual-ish”. The 20th century bi movement has a better track record for trans-inclusivity than much of the lesbian movement, anyway – she might feel more at home with us.

— Footnotes and anecdata below the cut —-

  1. I get annoyed about that, too. I grant you, before the mid 20th century it’s nigh impossible to draw distinctions between a butch woman who likes women and a trans man who hasn’t been pathologised yet, and the boundaries between lesbian and trans man remain much more permeable today than are the boundaries between lesbian and trans woman, or gay man and trans woman. Granted those things, what we do not know is if the wives of such AFAB (Assigned-Female-At-Birth) persons (Bennet’s article cites a 15th century German couple, if I recall correctly, whose sex life was facilitated by a pigs-gut dildo) were attracted to any other AFAB people at all. If they knew about their partner’s assigned sex (and let’s give the ladies credit, it’s likely one would notice a dildo), did they think of their partner as a woman, or a husband? Both? What would that mean? And these are not questions that gets asked enough when prodding at the unknowns of the lesbian-like woman.

  2. A cautious note on terminology: the history of the terms transsexual(ity), transgender(ed), and so forth is long and convoluted. And fraught. For the most part I have used ‘trans’ as the least-offensive and broadest umbrella term. I have, with caution, used transsexuality as the noun pertaining to the psychological & medical process of transition from one binary gender to the other. Transsexualism is also used (Gender Identity Disorder and/or Gender Dysphoria are now more common and in many ways preferable terms, but they didn’t have traction in 1996). I would advise caution with use of the term ‘transsexual’ as it has a history of use as a slur, and although it is used as a self-definition by some trans women (Julia Serano being a case in point), others hate it.

Next, I have used being transgendered as my preferred term for the phenomenon of existence-while-trans. I follow Shiri Eisner in prefering the past participle as a visible reminder that a processess of gendering has happened here to produce trans- and cis- gendered individuals. The logic here is similar to that by which proponents of the social theory of disability prefer ‘disabled person’ to ‘with disabilities’. And as with disability terminology, theory is all well and good but real people get hurt by either option. The only surefire way to avoid fucking up when it comes to individual people is to ask them first. If you want my advice, I would suggest using specific information (assuing it’s relevant and public) about specific people (S is a trans woman, A is genderqueer and uses a wheelchair) and an umbrella term for groups (S and A are both trans). Accept the possibility of getting it wrong, apologise when you do, and don’t make a fuss.

  1. Amidst a lot of queering theory and history works – the editors of The Lesbian Premodern have worked quite hard to connect up medieval and modern lesbian historians, and lesbian historians with queer theorists – see their intro for distinctions and overlaps between the two concepts. The Lesbian Premodern is available in PDF from Palgrave Connect, bestest academic e-book database ever.

Caveat or, in before objections: re. the myth that bisexuals blame lesbians (and queers) for biphobia and/or monosexism: that’s not how intersectionality works. We’re all well aware that these privilege systems ultimately originate with, and ultimately support, heterosexism. Intra-queer biphobia comes as a betrayal, though.

Caveat #2: If you’re wondering ‘but doesn’t the concept of bisexuality reinforce the gender binary’, shmeh. The commonly-used definition ‘attracted to same and other genders’ (or variants thereon) has been around for longer than I’ve been alive, and is now the standard used w/in bi communitites. BUT. I do have reservations about that definition and the usual “bi isn’t binary” arguments. HAPPILY for me, Aoife just posted an essay on the value of ‘bisexual’ as a term, which addresses my qualms and more accurately represents my own concept of bisexual existence than, say, Fliponymous’s essay (although it’s not wrong). PLUS Aoife fills a lack I only realised I had when writing footnote #2, that is, the need for a social model of sexual identity.

Vastly personal disclaimer: I wish I hadn’t found so much to object to in Karras and Boyd’s “Ut cum muliere“, really I do, because both of them – and indeed most of the Rykener chapter mentioned above – are brilliant, and I hold some of their work quite dear to me. Being the person I am, I did not gravitate to the Queer Collective at USyd or modern bi or lesbian history when I needed resources to interpret my own experience. I clung instead to the queer theory and history of sexuality I found right in front of my nose in the library shelves I was already haunting. Boyd, Karras, Tyson Pugh, and so on. There’s a tattered, scrawled on photocopy of Boyd’s article on Sir Gawain and the Green Knight that was the only hard-copy article I brought overseas with me, because as it’s been passed from me to my friends and then my students it is, in some odd way, a record of how I got my head around this stuff: when I had no idea how to live as a queer person, by gum, I was going to master queer literary scholarship. So if I’m angry about their handling of Eleanor Rykener, it’s in the same way as the tumblr user I linked above is angry when they encounter surprise biphobia in the queer community. You guys were supposed to be on my side!

Thanks & due credit to: Kiera & Sam both reviewed these posts, Kiera extensively edited them, and Kiera and friend K.N. both puzzled over Latin adverbs with me. And I owe a debt of gratitude to one particular friend, whom I knew when we were both undergrads beginning to work out our relationships with gender, sexuality, religion and academia. I had a much easier road with all of these than did my friend, but they started me off thinking about who gets occluded in the lesbian-like framework, and my decisions on teaching and talking about Eleanor Rykener and many other texts are to a great extent determined by the question: would I feel ashamed of myself if L.M.’s twenty-year-old self was in the room? There are worse barometers to have.

And finally, I remain grateful to the MDST students (and the course-coordinator who trusted me with this!) at USyd for not only being open queer and gay history in the first place, but willing to entertain and run with bi- and trans- oriented critiques when I first raised them. I expected anything from difficult tutorials to hostile accusations of bias, and I got thanks, enthusiasm and delightfully personalised student presentations.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s