The power of naming: on Trans Day of Remembrance

Content note: this article discusses violence against trans people.

On the 11th December, Eleanor Rykener was brought before the courts in the City of London for the crime of prostitution. She had a long history of sex work having worked in London and in Oxford over a number of years. But she also lived and worked as an embroideress with a group of other women some of whom she confessed were also sex workers. Eleanor first came to attention of modern scholars through the work of David Lorenzo Boyd and Ruth Mazo Karras in 1995. There she was known as John Rykener, as she was listed in court documents. And she was celebrated as the earliest known occurrence in the medieval court records of ‘same sex intercourse’. You see, Eleanor appeared before the courts in 1395 and yet 600 years later, in 1995, the only way she could be understood was a male homosexual because she was, as Foucault might have suggested, understood by the acts she committed and laws she broke not by who she was or how she identified.

The key sentence for us now, in 2020, is not that she lived successfully as a sex worker procuring clients amongst scholars, monks, priests and alderman of Oxford, London and York but that when not working as a sex worker – she lived amongst women as an embroideress. And the use of the female form, embroideress, tell us what we need to know. She was not working as a man embroiderer in amongst women but as a woman embroideress. She was accepted by women and men as a woman doing women’s work – as Eleanor Rykener.

The nature of records in the past is that, for the most part, we only come into contact with non-literate people when they break the law and appear in court. And as a result we don’t hear from Eleanor again but whoever she was and however her life went, on December 11th 1395 she appears in our history as one of our earliest recorded trans woman forebears.

Eleanor’s existence belies the version told constantly by media, police, academia, medical science, all the haters, and above all transmisic feminists that trans* is a modern invention of patriarchy and queer theory.

The problem we have – not only trans and nonbinary people but queer people, people with disabilities, black people, people of colour, indigenous communities, working class and peasant people, and indeed radical political people – is that we so often only occur in the records when we come into contact with the legal process. In cultures that have lost their oral history traditions and/or where people cannot read or write – our forebears appear only when they break the laws of their times and are recorded as criminals or when they have been abducted, deported or enslaved.

And we see the effects of this when various cultures and identities celebrate a history month: LGBT, Black, trans, women’s etc. Activists and historians trawl through available records, or more usually through texts printed by other historians, and elevate particular individuals as icons of the past to remember, celebrate and name.

Too often, though, the names dragged out of history and celebrated are not seen in context of who they were in their own time or how the historians were categorising them in our time. Thus Eleanor Rykener was discovered and celebrated for 25+ years as the earliest example in mediaeval texts of a same sex practitioner. And sometimes called gay. By decontextualising Eleanor from the material about her life and only focussing on the acts she was accused of – she is stripped of her life as a transgressive woman or at least a full time cross dresser and is deployed as a proto gay man. She is, in short, erased.

This is important because this also happened to Dr James Barry. A celebrated doctor of the 19th century whose body gave him away after death when, to the shock of those dressing him for burial, he was literally unmasked as a ‘woman’. In the social and political mores of recent times – full of herstory and lgbt-story – Dr James Barry was held as a feminist hero who subverted male exclusionary practices and became a successful doctor by passing as a man. And in the politics of reclaiming so popular in the 80s James Barry became a de facto heroine of the struggle of women to get a proper education and enter ‘the professions’.

But what if, to the horror of the transmisics, we asked a different question. What if Dr James Barry wasn’t passing as a man to be a doctor but was living as a man and getting away with it in the heart of male medical community. What if Dr James Barry isn’t an example of a woman subverting male categories but is subverting All gender categories. What if Dr James Barry was what we might call a trans man.

James and Eleanor are 400 years apart but they represent more than just outliers for us when we consider transgender day of remembrance. In our acts of remembrance, we often remember our siblings who did not survive the cruel harshly policed categories of the modem colonial euro-american gender binary. Those murdered by clients, boyfriends, family members, random strangers, incarcerated people, and the state. People who still continue to only appear in our records when they are identified by courts and legal institutions.  Working class trans women working as sex workers to earn the money for surgery, trans women murdered by boyfriends who claim a kind of trans-panic when their masculinity is undermined on discovering their girlfriend has a dick. Billy Porter eloquently called out the whole black community in the early months of the black lives matter protests by reminding the African American communities of colour of north america that most of the black trans women who died in 2020 were not killed by law enforcement or white neo-nazis but by black cis male domestic partners who used personal violence to enforce gender boundaries and defend their fragile masculinity.

And then there’s Coco. She died on 26th October 2020. Being transported from her home to a psychiatric institution in the custody of the police. She too was misgendered by the law – described by the police as male and recorded as such by the authorities after her death. It was only because of outrage by sex worker advocacy groups, black lives matter toronto and subsequent media reports that the police apologised and then corrected their report to list her as a trans woman.

And here we have the nub of TDOR. If our siblings living in Trudeau’s much vaunted liberal canada can be misgendered and wrongly recorded and if our forebears whether trans men like James Barry or trans women like Eleanor Rykener can be erased by historians & activists of the present – then our efforts to understand who we are and who we were is massively undermined.

Not only are working class, BIPoC, disabled, immigrant and/or undocumented, criminalised/incarcerated and/or queer trans  and nonbinary people under constant gaslighting by own communities and the state but we are being historically gaslit over our existence in the near or distant past. In trying to uncover our forebears whether they are called gender nonconforming, trans, homosexual, cross-dressers, lesbian-like, or they only exist in the records as a survival sex workers or successful transcendent individuals, we must remember that it is not us who are new to the breadth of human history but our haters

Naming and the power to name is a massively political act. The enslaved africans renamed by white owners; indigenous people’s whose deities were renamed by christian missionaries; the stolen generations of so-called australia; plant collectors renaming flowers after their friends; regions, cultures, nations and oceans renamed by invaders, colonists and occupiers. Historians naming and renaming people’s gender & sexuality. And twitter users deciding they have the right decide what a person’s pronouns are, what their ‘true’ name is, doxxing and deadnaming. In naming ourselves for ourselves whether as political lesbians removing patriarchal surnames or Eleanor and Amelio using different names to the one their parents assigned them – how we name ourselves, categorise ourselves and identify our selves is part of a strike back not only on gender lines but class, ethnicty, colonisation, occupation and capitalist categories of existence.

The state polices modern gender boundaries through law and through gendered prisons, through psychiatric diagnoses of transness and access to medical services, through gender recognition certificates and access to hormones, and its many accomplices police those borders through demonising trans people who want to use a toilet, go to a gym, go swimming or just buy a bra or a binder.

But even as TDOR reminds us of the high price paid by trans and nonbinary people who transgress the most recent constructions of sex and gender, it also gives us a chance to see our existence in longer time-frames. Not only in the context of  different cultures and their conceptualisations of sex or gender but across time itself.

Eleanor, James, Fanny and Stella, Amelio, Quentin, Orlando and Stephen – across time, across culture, across contemporary radical politics. On Transgender Day of Remembrance we remember our dead  and those driven to self harm, psychological trauma and self hatred by the gaslighting online, in the media, in parliaments and even in anarchist politics. But we also can take solace that whether our forebears lived as 12th century embroideresses like Eleanor or 20th century Mexican revolutionary generals like Amelio Robles, were eminent doctors like James Barry or are activist models like Munroe Bergdorf or Ravyn Wngz, the remembrance of trans and nonbinary existence is not only our deaths but also our lives. In our heroism in the face of hatred, erasure and the struggle not to allow or create special exceptions in a binary world, we aim to bring down the whole gendered sexed binary completely so that all of us may be who really we are without being labelled, categorised, policed, punished, murdered or betrayed.

To all my comrades, siblings and allies out there, even as we remember Coco and demand justice from the Toronto police, we must also remember James and Eleanor and Amelio who carved out an existence for themselves and won. And with the support of each other and our allies and co-conspirators, many more of us can also win and live our lives as a who we are: anti-capitalist anarchist revolutionaries who fight for freedom, justice and equality   irrespective of how we were designated in the first few minutes of our births

Kellan Farshéa

(she/they/Ma’am)

further reading:

Amelio Robles – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amelio_Robles

Dr James Barry – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Barry_(surgeon)

Coco (Say Her Name) – https://www.them.us/story/black-trans-woman-death-police-custody-toronto-black-lives-matter

Ravyn Wngz press conference on black trans lives matter – https://marksking.com/my-fabulous-disease/the-scorching-words-of-ravyn-wngz/