Monthly Archives: August 2014

Asexual Visibility — Putting The A in LGBTQIA

“What does the A stand for again?” — Whereas my beloved “T” is only forgotten in action, but more rarely in its meaning, the A is just plainly unknown. As someone identifying as 4 of the 7 letters in “LGBTQIA”, I’m fairly confident that asexuality is one of the most forgotten of the alphabet soup (in a tight finish with “I” for intersex). It’s also fairly misunderstood, as we asexual people tend to be confused with plants, eunuchs (because asexual means no sex, so not genitals, right?) or even intersex people (which is a double misunderstanding).

So just to make things clear at the outset: Asexuality is about the lack of sexual attraction. It is not the lack of sexual behaviour (alone or with others), or about the lack of romantic desire or attraction, or the desire to be alone socially or romantically. When used as in “LGBTIA”, it is especially not about a method of reproduction (unless you’re a plant, but plants can’t read this). If you want more on what asexuality is, go check AVEN (Asexuality Visibility and Education Network).

As far as I know, there is no phenomenon of large scale discrimination and violence against asexual people, not on the scale of that targeting homosexual people or trans people or intersex people. No one is forcing asexual people to be more like sexual people (and that could be more like rape). More typically, we tend not to exist.

Most asexual people are taken for something else, either as celibate (and either hoping for a relationship eventually, or having taken the decision not to have a relationship for practical reasons) or, in the case of romantic asexuals, as anything on the sexual orientation spectrum, depending on romantic preferences. Because of reasons, sexual couples don’t usually describe what they do in the bedroom: that is all left to the imagination of others. So if an asexual person in a relationship would rather hug or not touch their partner than have sex, no one will know. All that is seen is the ostensible dating and being together and holding hands and so on, which is taken as an indicator that sex may happen later. Asexual couples are invisible because out of the bedroom, they may very well be identical to sexual couples.

Indeed, one place where asexual people are facing a lot discourses that reject their existence is their very own LGBTQIA community. An important component of LGB discourses is that love and sex are a natural, fundamental parts of the human condition, and that all kinds of love/sex should be promoted. Of course, this is adapted from the heterosexist tradition arguing that sex and love are necessary for humanity, as they allow reproduction and raising children. The LGB variation takes away the focus on babies to transfer it on relationship, while maintaining the causal relationship between love/romance and sexuality, and while reinforcing the idea that these are both “natural” and necessary, that they are a fundamental component of our personhood and individuality. Sex, specifically, is also thought of in similar terms in some pro-sex feminist discourses valorising the body. The goals of these progressive discourses (legimitizing same-sex relationships or deproblematizing the use human bodies, especially women’s bodies) is good, but they work on flawed assumptions.

There is nothing “natural” in relationships or in sex or in love, either taken individually or in making a single object out of these three realities. Love or sex are not water, they are possibilities of the human person and of the human body, nothing more — you can totally live without them, as many have done throughout the centuries. In fact, something close to asexuality was raised as an ideal in many varieties of Christianity, with marriage valued as only a lesser evil solution for those who cannot restrain their desires. All the same, the idea that love and sex are major aspects of one’s life is deeply incrusted in our minds, and can be oppressive for asexual people, especially if they are also aromantic. The idea that relationship = love = sex is just as unnecessary, and particularly affects romantic asexuals.

Still, asexuality has a lot in common with the other LGBTQIA categories.

  • Like being trans, cross-dressing and (until recently) being attracted to people of the same sex, not experiencing sexual attraction or sex drive is an officiel DSM pathology, called hypoactive sexual desire disorder.
  • Like trans and intersex people (and possibly bi/pan people), asexual people are often forced to take up a position as (unpaid) Educators of Random People on asexuality, always answering the same asinine and none-of-your-business questions. Do you mean you have no genitals? Can you have sex? How do you know you’re asexual, and not just disillusioned? Why don’t you like sex? But sex is so fun! Can you masturbate? Were you abused? Hey, I saw you kiss that girl/that dude, how come you’re asexual then? And so on. And this happens especially in queer spaces.
  • Like people attracted mostly to the same gender, people who want to maintain several meaningful relationships at the same time, or people with atypical sexed bodies (trans or intersex), we have a hard time dating people who will accept us and love us as we are, because we fall out of other people’s expectations of cishetero monogamous sexual love. As a trans asexual lesbian, my dating pool is fairly limited and atypical.
  • Like same sex attraction, it is rejected as a phase, as some thing that will go away “when you meet the right person”. Just, you know, we also get this from LGB-friendly people. I even got it from the sexologist who wrote my hormone referral…
  • Like everyone except white gay males, we suffer acute visibility issues.
  • Like all the other letters, we are rarely in the media. The closest we have is purposeful celibate, or else negatively- or oppressively-portrayed religious bigots, naive girls, asocial “freaks”, “frigid women”, etc., who can only be asexual in the eyes of fans because they’re never so in canon. Romantic asexuals are virtually non-existent, unless you have enough imagination to create some (I rank Daria as romantic asexual, based on s5e12 “My Night at Daria’s”).
  • Like pretty much everyone in these categories, asexual people are not seen as the norm and are required to come out of the closet if they want their identity fully recognized.

Despite this, our experiences are nowhere. Let’s change this with a few easy rules:

  1. Don’t assume two people in love want to have sex with each other.
  2. Don’t assume everyone likes sex in general.
  3. Don’t assume people who are single are so for practical reasons (“dating is hard/costly/time-consuming, etc.”) or because they haven’t found the right person yet.
  4. Don’t say that sex/love/whatever is a natural part of Life. It may be part of your life, but that’s it.
  5. Give asexual/aromantic desires the same reality as other sexual and romantic orientations.
  6. Remember that we exist and that we are part of the community.

Youth Groups and Society, Part 3: Reinforcing Order

This is an edited version of the presentation I gave at the Montreal Student Movement Convention on June 21, 2014, which was a comparison between medieval youth abbeys and contemporary student organizations. It is divided in three parts for my blog. This is part three, which discusses how youth groups could reinforce the established order. Part two described how it could subvert it, while part one described youth in general terms. The video of my original talk is available on Youtube.

Youth Abbey and Government Authorities

The second part of this series focused on the ways in which youth associations — medieval and modern —, or the festivity associated with them, could have challenged the established order. This would be a partial view. No one wanted to give shape to popular dissent by creating or supporting such institutions. If youth abbeys only existed to allow the expression of dissent, local authorities would not have encouraged their creation — which they often did, even in the case of Turin (Barbero, 1990) described in the last part. These events surrounding the Abbey of Fools were exceptional even in its own history : under other leaders, the Abbey was completely tame and obedient.

One of the fundamental functions of youth abbeys was control of juvenile violence, in which they acted as an instrument of city government (Rossiaud, 1976). Violence was an important aspect of medieval social relations. It was even more easily forgiven of young men because of the destructive force attributed to them. As such, violence was an important part of the sociability of young men, who had to defend their honour and masculinity in public. Some would assemble in informal groups and attempt various violent feats, from group rapes to ambushes against city guards. By assembling all young men in organizations, the city elders could interact directly with their official leader in order to limit juvenile violence. As one imagines, it is easier to strike a deal with the local Abbey of Youth than with various informal groups of young men. In exchange, youth abbeys received the right to collect various dues related to their role in supervising marriage and festivities : for example, in addition to the fines they collected through charivari, in some cities, youth abbeys could perceive certain sums on every marriage, or they could have the right to collect fines for infractions committed during holidays.

But collaboration could go even further, as we will see with Lausanne’s Abbaye des Nobles Enfants, or Abbey of Noble Children, studied by Ilaria Taddei (1991) for the first half of the 16th century. The Nobles Enfants were indeed noble for the most part, and they came from the same families as the city councilors — many Nobles Enfants would themselves later take part in city government. Here, the Abbey was, in some ways, the marching wing of the city council. In a first period, the city of Lausanne was trying to obtain its political autonomy from the bishop. As a consequence, we see the Nobles Enfants take part in various acts of violence against the local clergy. Despite the bishop’s protests, the Nobles Enfants are backed by the city council. In 1536, Lausanne raises an army, and the two leaders of this army are members of the Noble Enfants. This didn’t end well, as the city was then conquered by Protestant Bern, which leads to a second period : now, the city council wants to moderate the application of Protestant ethics forced upon them by their new overlord. The Abbey of Noble Children are now revealed as fervent catholics, fighting the austerity forced on them by coerced Reformation. In 1541, they attack a preacher who had denounced the city’s morals. Later, when Lausanne’s consistory tried to prosecute two prostitutes, the Abbey called on the population, just as the Stolti did in Turin, and freed them both. Despite orders from Bern, the city council did nothing to punish its young men. Bern had to intervene itself and basically wiped out the Abbey in 1544, which was an important step for implementing the Protestant faith in the city. Quickly after the Abbey’s dissolution, the city council was as zealously Protestant as it was Catholic just before — and the punished Nobles Enfants were part of it. In Lausanne, the Abbey again had a protest role, but that was subordinated to the will of the elite and the city government.

The Venetian compagnie della calza, give us an even better example of the extreme collaboration between government and youth associations (Trottier-Gascon, 2014). Once again, youth associations were strongly identified with the elite, here a strongly defined political caste: all members of these youth organizations were noble young men. Collaboration between government and youth associations was strong. On the one hand, the Republic would allow young men to use state property for their activities, including chambers in the Palace, the doge’s ceremonial galley, and even various vessels from the naval Arsenal. On the other hand, youth companies played an auxiliary role in the government’s political projects. This was most obvious during the Italian Wars in the early 1500s, when they accepted mercenaries and foreign princes in their ranks to strengthen these foreigners’ relationships with the Venetian Republic. By following their elders’ orders, they would simultaneously further their city’s projects, guarantee access to more resources for their company and show their personal loyalty to the state.

Student Associations and Campus Politics

In a way, and perhaps paradoxically, the same dynamic can apply to student leaders on the local level. This is something I’ve experienced directly as a student representative on my department’s assembly for the last two years. To give some background, in the UdeM history department, we have separate associations for undergraduate and graduate students. Our undergrad students are for the most part planning to go on to graduate school in the department, and have a clear advantage to maintain good relationships both with faculty and the department in general. This is especially true of senior students, who have a lot of authority in the association — in the past years, the Secretary general was always a finishing student. In my two years sitting on the departmental assembly, there were few occasions when someone other than the Secretary General spoke for the undergraduate association. This is compounded with the fact that, as frequent interlocutors with faculty, the association and its representative tend to aspire to good relationships with the department heads. As such, student representation on the departmental level was done by individuals with a personal advantage to maintaining sunny relationships and in a process of acculturation into academic culture, which can create a conflict of interests. As far as I know, it never caused any problem in my association, but I may be biased and wouldn’t put myself above this.

At the level of student federations, the same can apply: as frequent interlocutors of College executives, student representatives have good reasons to seek good relationships with them. To give a somewhat more concrete example, at the University of Montreal, there has been much discontent at the local Federation’s application of the mandate it received to fight for rector Guy Breton’s resignation. Its official position as interlocutor made the Federation less radical than its base.

Obviously, I’m not enough of a pessimist to belive student leader systematically betray those who elected them, yet the institutionalized student movement may not always be the best vehicle for a radical student critique of what happens on campus and in academia.

Youth association as political training

In fact, practical collaboration is only part of the picture : youth organizations often function with reference to mature or general modes of political associations, and they are thought as a propedeutic to adult political life. Basically, the organizations are understood as if they are (or should be) a miniature version of the state itself and a preparation to mature political life. As such, it is seen as important that they be comparable in practice to state government.

This is clearest in Venice (Trottier-Gascon, 2014). Youth companies were thought as exactly what I said: miniature versions of the Republic. In effect, the companies themselves modeled their way of functioning of the Venetian State. Decisions were taken collectively, with voting balls, as in the Venetian government. Like the Venetian nobility, the group itself is increasingly exclusive and closed, through cooptation at entry and heavy penalties for exit. Power is shared at different levels between general assemblies, a single Prior and a series of elected officers, and the relationship between them resembles the balance of power in the state. For example the relationship Prior and officers resembles that of the Venetian doges and the various institutions limiting his powers: the Prior is valourised by the right to a distinctive, superior dress, but cannot act alone without approval from his officers. This reflects the way in which the Venetian government functioned in practice, but also it repeats the Venetian ideology of the mixed state. This myth argued that Venice had the perfect government because it incorporated perfectly all of Aristotle’s types of government: popular government, aristocracy and monarchy.

Functioning just like a smaller Republic was convenient in some ways. Although young nobles could participate in the Great Council, the central council of the Venetian system, at a relatively young, their rights on it were limited until 30 and they would only occupy very minor and undesirable positions until they were much older. Through youth companies, they learned in some basic ways how their own system worked and partook in the state’s ideology without actually participating in the central political processes, monopolized by their elders.

The contemporary student movement is quite different, and not only in terms of underlying ideology. Obviously, modern Western societies don’t have a clearly defined political caste as Venice, so there is no mandatory generational passing of relays between those who take part in youth organizations and political leaders. It is also true that students follow a number of paths after graduation, unlike Venetian patricians who often had to do politics in some way or other. However, social fluidity has its limits: students are mostly from the upper-middle class, just as politicians. And although students have various futures, there is clearly a link between student involvement and politics. At the very least, it is seen as a pertinent experience for prospective politicians. Many major student leaders « jump » into politics at some point, as was obvious in Quebec with 2012 student leaders Martine Desjardins and Léo Bureau-Blouin, or with former May 68 leader Daniel Cohn-Benditt, now sitting on the European Parliament.

Another difference is that student associations and state do not proceed from the same ideology and practice of power. Today, Western democratic states use an understanding of representative democracy where the participation of all citizens through general elections is valourised. In my experience at the University of Montreal, many associations work under a mode of direct democracy, where decisions are taken by the members present at general assemblies. The central difference between both understandings is, on the one hand, the choice of everyone, even if they are uninformed or indifferent, and, on the other hand, the choice of those who are informed through the assembly and care enough to come, even if they are a small number.

I don’t want this to devolve into an argument about which understanding is best, but what is interesting is the mismatch between the understanding of democracy effected by the state and that which is followed by some student associations. To the eyes of many outside the student movement, including journalists, this undermines the legitimacy and democratic character of decisions taken by student associations because they do not follow the understanding of democracy legitimized by state practices. In fact, the model of the sovereign general assembly is rather common in other non-profit organizations, and reaching even a low quorum can still be an issue for them. Yet I’ve seen no one go out of their way to say that they are undemocratic. To me, this points to the fact that, even if they don’t follow the rules of state ideology, students associations are understood with reference to them. The question people outside the movement ask is: do they or don’t they come up to the standards of “democracy”, in the normative understanding? This is, I think, specific to students associations, because, as youth organizations, they are given the imperative to prepare young people to adult politics. As a consequence, they are judged negatively if they fail to achieve these standards, even if they proceed, in fact, from a completely different model of democracy. It’s as if they really were “miniature states” or propedeutic governments for the benefit of young people.

Works cited

Barbero, Alessandro (1990). “La violenza organizzata: L’abbazia degli Stolti a Torino fra Quattro e Cinquecento”, Bollettino Storico-Bibliografico 88, p. 387-453.

Rossiaud, Jacques (1976). “Fraternités de jeunesse et niveaux de culture dans les villes du Sud-Est à la fin du Moyen Âge”, Cahiers d’histoire 21, p. 67-106.

Taddei, Ilaria (1991). Fête, jeunesse et pouvoirs : L’abbaye des Nobles Enfants de Lausanne, Lausanne, Cahiers lausannois d’histoire médiévale.

Trottier-Gascon, Caroline M (2014). “Les compagnie della calza : fête, patriciat et jeunesse à Venise”, Le Verger 6 (awaiting publication).

Youth Groups and Society, Part 2: Subverting Order

This is an edited version of the presentation I gave at the Montreal Student Movement Convention on June 21, 2014, which was a comparison between medieval youth abbeys and contemporary student organizations. It is divided in three parts for my blog. This is part two, which discusses how youth groups could subvert the established order. Part three will discuss how they could reinforce it. Part one described youth in general terms. The video of my original talk is available on Youtube.

In parts 2 and 3, I will compare youth abbeys and student associations on numerous contents. Part 2 is on their subversive potential.

Youth Abbeys

In the Late Middle Ages and Early Modern Era, in most of Europe, young men were very often part of youth associations, often known as “youth abbeys”. They were not religious organizations, unlike what their name suggests: on the contrary, the abbeys were secular organizations of young men, who mostly organized festive activities and supervised marriage in the community (Davis, 1971; Rossiaud, 1976). I will talk principally about urban organizations, but there were also similar associations in rural areas, with more or less the same functions (Muchembled, 1992). As we will see, they had a lot in common with modern student associations. They make a much more interesting comparison than medieval students, who were mostly clerks studying living in a foreign city. This will be obvious when we talk about Turin a bit later.

As I mentioned, the main activity of youth abbeys was to organize festive activities or social gatherings between members, generally with alcohol. Some of these were planned, yearly events. Youth abbeys would take an important part during Carnival season, in January and February, and during the festivities of the month of May, including May Day. Youth associations would also take part in civic festivities, for example to celebrate the local patron saint or to greet visiting princes. Other occasions were spontaneous, for example through the festive way in which they enforced their right of regard on matrimony. The rituals themselves, like charivari, were festive, and the way the victims could acquit themselves was generally to pay food and drink to the young men. Also, many activities were for and by members themselves, either with a clear reason, such as someone’s wedding, or without any, because they wanted to.

However, this festive and jolly appearance hides an important, but variable political role. Their political potential was entirely unofficial, and was certainly not explicit in their statutes. These were official, legal documents, authenticated by a notary. They were often redacted under the supervision of the city council or the princely court. In Venice, by 1529, company statutes had to be approved by the heads of the Council of Ten, the most prestigious Council in the Republic which was also in charge of most issues of internal security. All the same, the local abbey often protected the community’s autonomy against foreign elements. Since it was a permanent organization, the abbey could easily receive the community’s attitudes and organize or foster popular movements of opposition, even against local authorities themselves. This was reinforced by attitudes which made young men the defenders of the community, as we have seen.

Alessandro Barbero (1990) described the case of Turin’s Abbazia degli Stolti, or Abbey of Fools, which is particularly interesting to understand the role of youth organizations in organizing the community for its defence. In normal situations, the Abbey was rather tame: its leaders came for the most part from important and rich families. However, Barbero describes several major incidents of violence in which the Abbey played an important role, over and above the city council, to defend the community against foreign elements.

The first two happened in 1486 and 1490, and were related to the contested power of the Duke of Savoy over the city: the first incident is a fight between ducal archers and citizens of Turin; in the second, an important ducal counselor was pursued by a mob and forced to take refuge in a house because he was thought to hold three young people prisoner. Although the ducal court saw them as acts of rebellion, the community felt they were only taking up arms to defend themselves. They had no help from the city authorities, afraid of reprisals, but they were helped by the Abbey of Fools. At least in the second incident, we know the Abbey was leading the community in its defense, and it may have been involved in the first. Both happened St John the Baptist’s Day, which was the patronal holiday of the city. This holiday encourages parochial sentiments, which may helped the conflicts to develop, but it was also under the care of youth and of the Abbey of Fools.

The Abbey of Fools also played a defensive role against the students of the Turin University. Now, as I mentioned earlier, students then and now are not the same people. University students were mostly young clerks who did not come from the city. For the inhabitants of Turin, they were a negative influence and a foreign danger in the town itself. Students were seen as disturbing, since they had a tendency to drink a lot and to pick up fights with the locals. The Abbey’s response was to fight the students in the same way, in which they were seen as the defenders of the community. During the Carnival, in 1526, when students tried to hold their own Carnival activities, the Abbey attacked them to maintain its monopoly on festivities. The ducal court was outraged and tried to force the Abbey to stop, yet the community stood behind the Abbey in its dissent — it even helped them in fighting the students and remained complicitly silent after the events. Once again, the Abbey acted against the will of the city council, which thought that the University played an important role in maintaining Turin’s prestige.

The last event described by Barbero, occurred in 1532, on Ascension Day — once against, a holiday, under the jurisdiction of the Abbey. A conflict strikes in the cathedral between two parties of the Savoyard nobility, and the duchess is forced to take refuge in the presbyter. The people, mobilized by the Abbey, assembles with arms outside the cathedral, in support of one of the two sides. Basically, the Abbey of Fools has the city under its control, and it was their leader who defused the conflict.In fact, in 1532, the Abbey of Fools showed the power it could conjure. During this period, it was the point of reference of the community when it had confidence neither in the city council nor in the ducal government. As a permanent organization, it had the potential to rally and unite the citizens of Turin for their defence against external threats, like the foreign ducal government and the foreign university students.

Student Organizations

On this point, a comparison with student associations is illuminating. In theory, their role is limited: they organize campus life, offer activities and services, represent the students in limited ways, hold parties etc. The social aspect give rise to one of the most common myths of student associations: that they are a clique of students invested heavily in partying and drinking, not unlike youth abbeys. However, since they have a permanent structure, they can easily gather the student’s discontent and give shape to their dissent. In general, this applies to the specific issues of students, which will be expressed through the small core of elected student officers. Impressively, in 2012, provincial student organizations even channeled general discontent against the Liberal government. This is not unlike what happened in May 1968 in France, when student unrest lead to several weeks of strike throughout the country against Charles de Gaulle. In both instances, students were at the origin of a wider, national protest movement.

Thus, student association have a clear political role: they join social movements, organize actions, hold demonstrations, and so on. This is what explain the second myth surrounding student associations : that they are a refuge of marxists, anarchists and other radical left-wing activists always attempting to start an uprising about something or other. In fact, this officiously capital political side is officially hidden, often under the imprecise and sober label of “external affairs” or given to a “mobilisation comity”. It lies in a fuzzy institutional situation. In Quebec at least, the most important means of action, the student strike, is wholly extralegal. Not only is it outside the law (as the 2012 injunctions and the subsequent conviction of the Laval History association remind us), but associations’ statutes themselves are not very clear about what seems to be the most important decision they can take. The charter of the convicted Laval History association (AÉÉH) says nothing of strikes. I also looked at a few associations’ charters at the University of Montreal : Law (AÉD) and Philosophy (ADÉPUM) did not mention strikes, Economics and Politics (AÉÉPUM) and Architecture (RÉA) only mention it amongst the powers of the General Assembly. In my own History association, the word “strike” (grève) appeared only once, in a new article on referenda added in 2012 during the student strike. Reforms changed that situation, and our charter now defines clearly what strikes are and how they are declared, but this was potentially illegal. Despite this lack of official definition and the informal character of strikes, the fact remains that the political role of student associations, and especially strikes, decisively forms their image and function. As the two myths I mentioned exemplify, popular perception of student associations focuses on the official festive role and the unofficial political role.


As such, both youth abbeys and student organization follow a similar schema. An organism destined to group and represent young people and in charge of the organization of joyful activity for its members, expresses and organizes protest because of its structure and permanence — after all, no one else will. When an institution groups young people, it is often festive, and it can easily become politically meaningful. It is obviously not a direct heritage, as they historical trajectory is not the same — as I understand, from 19th-century secret societies to the contemporary movement, student organizations start rather political before gaining a festive function, whereas youth abbeys were always festive first and political as an aside. Still, both situations draw from mentalities and cultural practices which are quick to join youth and defensive protest.

Protest and festivity

Importantly, these also associate protest and festivity. The openly displayed festive character of both medieval youth abbeys and student associations is very close to their political, protest activities. Just to clarify, here, by “festivity”, I mean a festive spirit characterized by collective joy, during chosen moments which are more or less taken out of normal time. By “protest”, I mean all forms of discourses and actions expressing opposition to a situation, be it political, social, economic or other.

Protest is often itself festive, in a way. By essence, protest is optimistic: those who denounce a situation are convinced of their right, and that they can indeed change this situation. In the Middle Ages, peasant revolts targeted royal agents, as it was thought that all that mattered was to warn the King of the “abuses” of his agents — even though the policy was in fact the King’s, and the agents had his full backing. This is more complex in a democratic society, yet members of social movements nonetheless think that they must draw the attention of the population — seen as sovereign — for change to happen. During the student strike in 2012, I remember that there was much interest at how opinion polls would react to the events, since it was thought that protest actions would draw people’s attention to the issues and convince them of the rightness of the cause. This is obviously not what happened, not in the Middle Ages, not in 2012, but this state of mind creates optimism, which participants can express through the register of festivity.

A consequence of the interaction between festivity and protest is that several objects, symbols or rituals can be used equally for festive or protest purposes (Bercé, 1976; Humphrey, 2001). Noise, fire and light belong to both festivity or protest (or maybe to festivity, and thus to protest): think of bonfires and fireworks, slogans and songs, drums, etc. The Quebec “concerts de casseroles” are an interesting example. Although their relation with similar demonstrations in Chile and South America was often noticed at the time, the protest “concerts” also had much in common with the much older ritual of charivari, which was effected by young men.

In the typical charivari, often organized by the youth abbey where there was one, young men in disguise gathered at night and made all the noise they could in front of their target’s house — with screams, songs, drums, pans, horns or other instruments (Gauvard & Gokalp, 1974; Le Goff & Schmitt (ed.), 1982). The ritual was normally used to punish infractions to collective morals, especially remarriage of widowers to young women. Although their objective could be to incite fear, the participants were not normally violent. The ritual ended after several days or when the victim paid a “fine”, often free food and alcohol. However, this standard ritual could also be used for political purposes. In political charivaris, government officials became the targets of this ritual and inoffensive form of protest. In fact, it seems that in the 19th century, when youth abbeys were gone, charivari lost its traditional role in certain areas, whereas the political form became more frequent. Even in Quebec (Lower Canada at the time), political charivari was used as a tactic during the 1837 Patriot Revolt (Greer, 1990)! Charivari’s effectiveness for protest was enhanced by the fact that participants were often disguised, and could as a result hide their identity against repression.

Mask and bans

In fact, disguise and masks are also used both for festivity and protest, as exemplified by mask bans. The principle of disguise and the mask as an object are common to both protest and festivity. A mask allows its wearer to avoid ordinary constraints or inhibitions of social life, which is an important aspect of festivity. This is what enables carnivalesque inversion, for example, or legitimizes masked balls or costume parties. The same idea exists even at Halloween, but with it also involves ritual menace in the ritual threat of “trick or treat?” Could that exist if children did not wear masks and disguises?

The avoidance of constraints is also what gives them political potency. Masks are often claimed as a symbol by those who want to act for good despite bad laws: they are worn as a precaution by incognito superheroes, claimed by the Anonymous collective and supporters of freedom of speech… and perceived as a grave danger by the forces of law and order. This is because masks symbolise anonymity and allow their wearers to hide and escape repression.

As such, masks have been the target of regular bans at the very least since the 15th century. For its opponents, masks favoured disorder, violence and various infamies. In Venice, a 1454 proclamation described masked men “who could not be seen or recognised, saying very obscene words, committing very obscene acts and shouting” (Crouzet-Pavan, 1992). The decision banned all sorts of disguises, on pain of losing the disguise, 200 pounds and 2 months in prison. (By the way, this flies to the face of Foucault’s (1975) assertion that prison was not used as a punishment in the early modern period.) In England in 1511, a similar Act denounces masked groups who go around town, from what follow “murders, felonies, rapes and other great sufferings and incovenients” (Twycross & Carpenter, 2002). In addition to avoiding surveillance of his own person, a mask-wearer could escape his role in a medieval society where everyone’s rank, everyone’s place in society must be immediately obvious and visible. Therefore, masks allowed rites of inversion or confusion of ranks. For the enemies of masking, even an honourable man could practice vice when his face was hidden, while vile peasants could mock their superiors when nobody could recognize them (ibid.).

Similar fears exist in the 21st century, as recent legislation in France, in the UK and in other countries demonstrate, but they take a different form. In Montreal, the infamous P-6 bylaw is widely known for its ban of masks during protest marches. But what is widely known is boring, so I’ll talk about Bill C-309. It’s also more appropriate here than P-6 because the latter also has measures against demonstrations in general, while C-309 is a pure mask ban. C-309 was the proposal of Conservative MP Blake Richards in October 2011 and it became law in June 2013. C-309 forbids people to wear “a mask or other disguise to conceal their identity without lawful excuse” during riots or unlawful assemblies. Following Blake’s description, these “occur when citizens on the streets of their own city have reasonable grounds to be afraid”. The new legislation, unlike P-6, does not ban masks during lawful assemblies. The debates in Parliament surrounding it will serve as a case study to see how law enforcement and supporters of Order see masks. In fact, several Conservatives who intervened, including Richards, are retired police officers.

Bill C-309 was an answer to the Vancouver Stanley Cup riots in June 2011 — in fact, most people invited in committee came from British Columbia —, but also the G20 protests in Toronto the year before, and were later fed by the Quebec student strike. Let us now follow anti-mask discourses for a while. For Richards, riots “often begin as peaceful demonstrations of one type or the other, and end up being escalated by masked criminals who are hiding in plain sight”. His supporters claim the law targets “looters” who use the disorder as a pretext to “wreak havoc in [the] city”, but more specifically so-called anarchists, defined by Richards as “those individuals who come to protest with the premeditated intent to use the assembly as a cover for their criminal behaviour”. In fact, the language used reveals a fear of “anarchist” organizations only waiting for an occasion to loot and unleash violence: for example, “many of the people wearing masks and facial coverings were part of organized groups with premeditated intent on confronting the police and causing mayhem” (their “sole objective”, according to the Tory MP Robert Goguen), and who “come prepared with a complete tool kit”. To fight “anarchy”, no alternative: masks must be banned. With C-309, police will proceed with “pre-emptive arrests” and prevent further developments, because “in preventing people from being disguised in those kinds of situations, we may be able to prevent those kinds of situations from ever occurring”. Far from inhibiting right of assembly, the Bill should protect “individuals who are looking to be part of a peaceful protest, because it will prevent those who want to infiltrate it in order to engage in criminal activity”. It would prevent degeneration of protest into riots, which forces police interventions to stop the demonstration.

Here, the carnivalesque danger or the social threat of the medieval mask seems transferred directly in the political scene: the mask is the instrument of “anarchists”. In French, this association between mask and so-called “anarchy” has passed in lexicon: chienlit, an old word related to masks, masquerades and carnival, has come to denote pejoratively disorder and chaos — especially since May ’68, in De Gaulle’s famous word: “La réforme, oui, la chienlit, non” (reform, yes, chienlit, no). At the same time, by characterising them as “looters”, supporters of the bill and of Order assimilate political opponents to common criminals and delinquents, which discredits their protest by making it subpolitical. This is a process described by Foucault (1975) and used time and time again. The recent characterization of the Ferguson events as “riots” (rather than, say, “rebellion”) is another good example of this.

In practice, neither medieval urban oligarchies nor the Conservative government had much to fear from masks themselves or what they represent. In both case, it represents the destruction of Order, either social order, through carnivalesque inversion of hierarchy, or political order through ill-defined “anarchism”. In reality, mask bans were unused (and unusable) in the Middle Ages : the laws had to be reproclaimed periodically, which shows they probably did not work as intended. In effect, masks were everywhere, in fact. As for C-309, it is redundant with already existing measures : participating to a riot is a criminal offense, and wearing a mask while committing a crime is also illegal, so the Bill creates nothing new. In fact, through these laws, medieval cities and modern government sought less to silence opponents than to answer fears of disorder and affirm, in front of their supporters, an imaginary victory of Order on masks and Chaos.

Works cited

Barbero, Alessandro (1990). “La violenza organizzata: L’abbazia degli Stolti a Torino fra Quattro e Cinquecento”, Bollettino Storico-Bibliografico 88, p. 387-453.

Bercé, Yves-Marie (1976 [2006]). Fête et révolte : Des mentalités populaires du XVIe au XVIIIe siècle, Paris, Hachette Littératures.

Crouzet-Pavan, Élisabeth (1992). « Sopra le acque salse » : Espaces, pouvoir et société à Venise à la fin du Moyen Âge, Rome, Istituto storico italiano per il Medio Evo.

Davis, Natalie Zemon (1971). “The Reasons of Misrule: Youth Groups and Charivaris in Sixteenth-Century France”, Past and Present 50, p. 41-75.

Foucault, Michel (1975). Surveiller et punir, Paris, Gallimard.

Gauvard, Claude, & Altan Gokalp (1974). « Les conduites de bruit et leur signification à la fin du Moyen Âge : Le Charivari », Annales E. S. C. 29 (2), p. 693-704

Greer, Alan (1990). “From Folklore to Revolution: Charivaris and the Lower Canadian Rebellion of 1837”, Social History 15 (1), p. 25-43.

Humphrey, Chris (2001). The Politics of Carnival: Festive Misrule in medieval England, Manchester, Manchester University Press.

Le Goff, Jacques, & Jean-Claude Schmitt (ed.) (1982). Le charivari, Actes de la Table ronde organisée à Paris par l’École des hautes études en sciences sociales et le Centre national de la recherche scientifique (Paris, 25-27 avril 1977), Paris, Mouton, 445 pages.

Muchembled, Robert (1992). « I giovani e I gruppi giovanilli nella società rurale francese », in Agostino Paravicini Bagliani & André Vauchez (ed.), Poteri carismatici e informali : chiesa e società medioevali, Palerme, Sellerio, p. 17-37.

Rossiaud, Jacques (1976). “Fraternités de jeunesse et niveaux de culture dans les villes du Sud-Est à la fin du Moyen Âge”, Cahiers d’histoire 21, p. 67-106.

Twycross, Meg & Sarah Carpenter (2002). Masks and Masking in Medieval and Early Tudor England, Aldershot, Ashgate.

Youth Groups and Society, Part 1: Youth, Age and Gender

This is an edited version of the presentation I gave at the Montreal Student Movement Convention on June 21, 2014, which was a comparison between medieval youth abbeys and contemporary student organizations. It is divided in three parts for my blog. This is part one, where I talk about youth in general terms. Part two will discuss how youth groups could subvert the established order. Part three will discuss how they could reinforce it. The video of my original talk is available on Youtube.

In this presentation, I will show some aspects of medieval youth organizations and their relationship with society, in order to establish parallels with contemporary student associations.

First, I would like to give more background so you know where I’m coming from when I talk about medieval youth and the student movement. I’m a history student at the University of Montreal, and I’m currently completing my master’s thesis on Venetian youth companies, which I’ll mention a few times in this talk. I’ve also been involved in the association of undergraduate history students at my university in the past two years, last year as Secretary General, and I’m also doing LGBT activism on campus. As such, although what I say is rather reliable when I talk about medieval youth associations, I only have my own subjective experience and my own observations to work with when I talk about the student movement.

What is youth?

The word “youth” has various applications and meaning, so I’d like to say exactly what I mean when I describe it as an age category, and explore what it can involve. To be precise, when I will say “youth” about the Middle Ages, I actually mean “male youth”, for reasons that will be evident soon, and because the organizations I study are male-only. When useful, I will oppose “youth” to “maturity”, for the humble reason that I know no better word.

When I say “youth”, I refer to a period in someone’s life which corresponds very roughly to their 20s, but it is not actually defined by age. Nor is it defined by economic or legal autonomy, marital status, or having children, even though, then as now, most young people did not have full autonomy, were not married and had no children (Gauvard, 1982). In effect, what defines male youth as a category is a set of behaviours and attitudes — in a way, age is performative, just as gender, in Judith Butler’s sense of the word. In the Middle Ages, youth was an age of freedom from responsibilities (or of irresponsibility), of unrestrained sexuality and frivolity. As such, it was associated with two special times : night and festivity — both of which could involve alcohol. As you may have noticed, this is not remote from our own understanding of youth. But youth — male youth, always — was also associated with strength and violence, and young men were thought the most adequate people to defend the community against external threat (Muchembled, 2008). Once again, this is still applicable today, as shown by recruitment in the army and the practice of conscription in the 20th century.

Youth and Gender

An important point to mention about youth is that its experience is differentiated according to gender. However, the relationship between youth and gender is more complex. In fact, medieval ideas of male youth and femininity were either identical or exactly opposite. On the one hand, both young men and women were seen as irresponsible, accused of spending in abandon and thought sexually insatiable. To young men and women was attributed a weakness of will and reason, which lead to dependency on older men — and most directly on the pater familias, the father of the family. Young men only stand better in this patriarchal system insofar as they are meant to take the place of their elders in an undefined future. As a result, women and young men were excluded of politics (to different levels) and targeted explicitly by anti-luxury legislation and moralistic preachers (Crouzet-Pavan, 1996).

This idea that young people and women are hopeless spenders is still very present, as some offensive stereotypes exemplify. For instance, dating a woman is seen as taking on tons of expenses, and women themselves are accused of shopping all the time for the most expensive dresses. The same applies to young people, who are thought of as spoiled and dependent on the newest Apple products. Specifically, this was used against students during the 2012 strike to discredit their aspiration to lower. A great example of this sort of rhetoric was used by Richard Martineau’s famous tweet: “Spotted on a terrace in Outremont: 5 students with red squares, eating, drinking sangria and speaking on cell phones. This is the life!” [My translation, original here]

Although the mind of young men was weak and incomplete like that of women, they were the repository of the community’s physical strength and violence — justified and defensive violence, of course. Young men were active, “fiery”, intense. As such, the representation of youth stands at the complete opposite of the representation of women as weak and passive. If you join all of this into a coherent system, to young men was given a special destructive force to defend the community against external threats; to women, a creative force, through procreation, centered internally in the community itself. But as they are both alike in their insufficient mind, this system justifies the monopoly on power of mature patriarchs, who did have the solid and clear mind allowing them to direct these destructive and creative forces, to have power over youth and women. This is well exemplified in this extract from the second of Leon Battista Alberti’s Libri della famiglia:

The beauties of a man trained in arms, in my opinion, are in a proud presence, in strong limbs and in skillful acts in all tasks. I judge the beauties of an elder in the prudence, affection and reason of his words and councils; and whatever is esteemed a beauty in an elder will assuredly be judged very differently from what is in a young gentleman [cavalier]. Thus, I judge that the beauties of a woman can be judged not only in the charms and nobility of the face, but also in a well-shaped body able to carry and produce for you very beautiful sons in abundance.

In a way, we see an intersection between age and gender, crossing gerontocracy and patriarchy into a sort of “mature patriarchy” — in fact, “patriarchy”, being etymologically about “fathers”, would express adequately this age/gender complex, but it is already given a wider meaning. In mature patriarchy, young men are only in a better position than women (young or not) in that they are expected to ascend to the dominant age category, while woman always remain in their oppressed gender category.

I think the same dynamic still works today. Don’t you?

Emerging adulthood?

Another interesting point of comparison is modern and medieval demographic and economic realities, which were rather similar for youth. Young men in the Middle Ages generally married in their late twenties. They normally had not inherited from their parents, which would give them economic self-sufficiency if they were of the more favoured classes. As described by Arnett (2004), this also applies to youth nowadays, and even more so to students. He describes the period between 18 and 30 y.o. as “emerging adulthood”, an age of relative freedom and self-discovery that stands between adolescence and full adulthood, neither really one or the other. It’s hard to know how much « self-discovery » happened to young men in the 15th century, as life occupations was more fixed than now, but they did have freedom, as we have mentioned earlier. They had licence to have sex as they desired (preferably with prostitutes or widows so as not to dishonour unmarried girls or married women), they could drink, challenge each other in games or in fights and have all the fun they wanted. However, this similarity does not hold for the period between the Middle Ages and the late 20th and early 21st century.

Works cited

Arnett, Jeffrey Jensen (2004). Emerging Adulthood, Oxford, Oxford Universtity Press.

Crouzet-Pavan, Élisabeth (1996). « Une Fleur du mal? Les jeunes dans l’Italie médiévale », in Giovanni Levi et Jean-Claude Schmitt (ed.), Histoire des jeunes en Occident : De l’Antiquité à l’époque moderne, Paris, Seuil, p. 199-254.

Gauvard, Claude (1982). « Les jeunes à la fin du Moyen Âge : une classe d’âge? », Annales de l’Est, 1-2, p. 225-244

Muchembled, Robert (2008). Une histoire de la violence : De la fin du Moyen Âge à nos jours, Paris, Seuil.

My Tips for Trans Women’s Makeup

If you don’t care about the explanations and just want the tips, skip below!

This won’t keep with the tone of what I write in general, but I think it’s useful. At least, it is for me, since I often end up giving these tips online, and now I can just copy paste them from here or give the link. There are some good resources online as well (one, two, three, and tons more on Youtube and elsewhere), so I advise you check them out too.

I’m not a professional myself, but I’ve experimented a lot with makeup as a trans woman, with the help of the above resources and of my friends and with some professional advice. I assure you that all of this is achievable to learn for a clumsy trans girl who never had any art talent since that “art” thing was gender-policed out of her in elementary school, nor any knowledge of makeup or female stuff at all, ever, like I was about a year ago.

These tips are obviously not for everyone. Take what you want, need or can do. I’ll just go through what I do myself. Therefore, you must understand who I am.

Style: I’m a very girly girl. I like looks that flash a bit. I tend to favour pin-up retro looks, so I like applying a fairly straight style of eyeliner to keep the focus on my flashy red lips.

Attitude: If you can pull it off (which depends makeup skill and anatomy — that is, luck, which I am glad to have), I think wearing a good amount of makeup is a great way to get called “Miss” and “Ma’am”. My attitude is that even if your beard shadow sort of shows or your face is a bit square or whatever, you can subtly put so much feminine clues that they won’t notice the bad bits and focus and your gorgeous red lips or fancy eyeliner. Also, people conditioned me to feel bad without makeup — when I wear less, I tend to get more transphobic nonsense, whereas I’m getting more and more sexist nonsense now that I’ve improved and gotten better products. And since I can’t chose “None”, I still prefer sexist to transphobic nonsense.

Cost: By a combination of money (I don’t have a lot of money, being a student, but I’m doing okay, thanks to supportive parents and to scholarships) and personal choices (I’m sad to say I bought few books this year), I can afford what I want to look like. But understand that this makeup is costly. I spend 50 $ and more on makeup every month, a lot of which goes into the essentials (foundation, powder, concealer, etc.).

Body, or the paper I write on in the morning: I have a lot of fairly dark and visible beard, so I must absolutely put tons of makeup on to hide it. I have brown eyes and brown curly hair: I have a neutral everything, so I can put whatever colours I desire. Also, my skin is fairly pale, with a touch of pink, and it’s “medium” (not too oily or dry), or so said the makeup artist who matched my foundation to my skin, and it can take a lot of beating (i.e. foundation) without my feeling anything.




(I will add pictures later.)

What you will need

  • A good razor (with an actual blade, not an electric one)
  • Shaving cream
  • Moisturizer
  • Exfoliating cream
  • Foundation (liquid or cream)
  • Foundation brush or other applicator
  • Something to cancel the beard shadow (you want an apricot/orange coloured product)
  • Concealer
  • Pressed/compact powder
  • Powder brush
  • Makeup remover

What I recommend

  • Eyeliner
  • Mascara
  • Blush
  • Lipstick
  • Q-tips

Other fun products, as desired

  • BB Creme (“BB” stands for Beauty Balm, apparently)
  • Lip gloss
  • Lip pencil
  • Eye primer
  • Eye shadow
  • Lash curler

1) Getting ready

Because some of us must do that, and it’s sort of important.

First, shave shave shave. What I do is this: apply shaving creme, shave normally, clean, apply shaving creme again, shave against the grain, clean. “Against the grain” isn’t necessarily upwards, just experiment with it. The moustache area is tricky: I often try to shave it by going left to right/right to left, but it’s risky. If you don’t feel really sure of yourself, it’s often best to have a tiny bit of shadow than to cut yourself there. Before doing anything, let everything rest for a few minutes. Also, about once a week, I exfoliate, normally between the first and second shave, because… I don’t know, that’s when I do it. It gets rid of dead skin.

Then, moisturize. I use serum because I have a good one, but normal moisturizer should do. I don’t know, I’m not very good with skin tips, though, but it seems to work. You definitely want to put moisturizer, etc. Shaving so close can mean your skin will be very irritated if you don’t beware. Been there, done that.

2) Basic makeup

I start with an apricot-coloured primer over the beard area. Primer makes your makeup adhere better to your skin. The colour is important here: it cancels the blue-ish tint from the beard shadow. The cheap version of this is to use cheap orange lipstick after the concealer.

When that’s done, concealer. Dot it over the beard area, then smudge by hand. Concealer, well… conceals things — like facial hair! You can also use your concealer to hide any imperfection elsewhere on your face, especially dark circles underneath your eyes.

Now, the time is come for foundation over all the face. You want something with high coverage — cream foundation is best. You will probably need a good brush, too (mine, from CoverFX, comes with a sponge, which may be fine too). Apply it everywhere. Foundation is the most important product. If you can, go to a makeup shop and request someone’s help with choosing the right foundation for your skin tone and a good brush. It’s totally worth it, trust me.

Finally, apply powder. You may need another brush. Powder sets everything in place. You definitely want your foundation not to move. I prefer tinted powder to translucent powder, because any pigment is better than none when you have a beard to hide.

For lighter looks (for instance when you’re pre-transition but want to deal with dysphoria, or because you just like it with less stuff, or because it’s costly, or whatever) you can use lighter foundation. Before I went full-time, I used BB creme (basically, a moisturizer/sun creme/foundation/other things all in one) instead of actual foundation, and obviously didn’t apply anything other than basic makeup. It looked right, I hid the worst of the dysphoria-inducing beard, yet I didn’t attract attention as “OMG this dude is wearing makeup”.

3) Eye makeup

Eye makeup is probably the most important thing for feminization, in my opinion. There are thousands of ways to do it, but this is what I do.

Apply eye primer. It makes everything else stay in place.

Then, apply eye shadow. I want to emphasize what’s there already, not to make my eyes the focus of my overall look. What I do is this: 1) apply a shade that’s close to my skin tone basically everywhere 2) apply a gold, shiny colour in the inner eye — this makes my eyes stand out 3) apply a darker colour in the outer crease — this adds definition. When that’s done, blend a bit. I got this technique for this video, which I find funny.

After that, eyeliner. I go for eyeliner-heavy looks in general. Do a line on top of the eye (I start in the middle, then go both ways). Near the inner eye, make your line thinner and thinner. In the outer side, there are a lot of possibilities, but you definitely want some sort of wing. It takes a lot of practice to get right. Try starting with a felt-tip eyeliner, and certainly NOT liquid eyeliner. Expect to fail patheticly the first few times (I had more product inside my eye than out). If it doesn’t look quite right, put makeup remover on a Q-tip and take off what doesn’t work, and start again.

Generally, I take a pause or do something else to allow the eyeliner to dry out, then I curl my lashes and apply mascara. It’s relatively straight-forward, just experiment. Be careful, though. I often put two coats. Wait after the first to let it dry correctly.

4) Other makeup

You can do everything here whenever you desire after the basic makeup is done, or find another routine. Personally, after I apply eyeliner, I let it dry and put on blush, put on a first layer of mascara, apply lipstick while it dries, and finally apply my second layer when that’s done. But there are no rules here — I don’t even follow that all the time.

Blush is very useful because after foundation and powder, you may have little colour left. Blush will make you look a bit less weird. There are many ways to do this. I recommend following roughly your cheekbones with your brush, as it will help feminize your face. In the same area, you can apply cream blush by slabbing it on the cheekbone and blending it out with a sponge. Try to find something that’s not too far from your lips, for instance more of a coral blush with bright red lips, or pink blush with pink lips (of course). Ask for advice, actually. I’m still figuring this out myself.

Lips are fun. If you have one, start with your lip pencil. It will stay forever and help everything else stay in place. Colour the outside of your lips, then fill in. It will act as a sort of base. To emphasizes your Cupid’s bow, do an X in this area. Then, put on lipstick. It takes some practice, but it’s relatively straight-forward. To finish, as desired, you may add some gloss (either clear or of roughly the same colour), which will make your lips super shiny and beautiful. Lips may lose the colour as the day wears on, so I tend to carry my lipstick and lip gloss with me at all times.


My routine seems long, and it is at first, but after a year of doing this every morning, I get amazing results in less than 30 minutes. What I suggest if you’re just starting is to slowly add little elements from time to time, so that it always takes about the same time. Early on, I only hid the beard and put lipstick. After a time, I curled my lashes and put mascara. Then I added blush. Then I added gloss on my lipstick, then eyeliner, and so on. After about six months of practice, I do everything here in 30 minutes or less.

What “Wrong Body”? An Anthropology

The expression “girl/boy in a boy’s/girl’s body” is probably the most frequent to describe what trans* people are, especially in the media. Some trans* people do indeed recognize their experience in this, but not all (I don’t), yet this does not hamper its popularity. In effect, this expression is the officious standard way to describe what being trans* mean in a sympathetic manner. which I take to mean that it’s the most accessible for newcomers to trans* realities and the fastest to understand and express. What will interest me is why saying “boy in a girl’s body” is so comprehensible and seems so adequate at first sight. What conception of the gendered human being, what philosophical anthropology of gender underlies it? And how is it original or typical/symptomatic of our understanding of being human and gendered? Finally, what does it express on trans* realities or on gender as understood in Western societies?

1) First, to say someone is a girl in a boy’s body carries a dual or dualist understanding of the human being — that is, that it identifies two constitutive parts to the human being, spirit and body. Dualism is not the only possible way we understand the human being — in fact, in Western Christianity, it became dominant only in the second half of the Middle Ages. Another understanding in three parts was more influential in the tradition of Greek philosophy, following Aristotle and many others, where the spiritual part was divided in the animal soul and the rational, human mind. We still use this in some circumstances when we oppose heart and reason — in Pascal’s word, Le coeur a ses raisons que la raison ne connaît point (“Heart has its reasons that reasons does not know”).

Also, as postulated by modern neurobiological sciences, the experiences attributed to the spirit could all be understood as physical events occurring in the brain. This is founded on a different, monist anthropology, founded on a single component, the material body. We conciliate our instinctive dualism to this radical materialism by creating a dual opposition between the head and the rest of the body. This is what motivates loads of research on alleged “male” and “female” brains, with different levels of seriousness. My “favourite” one is the “extreme male brain” theory of autism, according to which autism would apparently be explained by having an “extreme male brain”, whatever that means, basically because lists autistic traits look like partial lists of masculine stereotypes. (Obviously, as a one of many autistic trans women, I have an extreme male brain. Makes sense.)

In any case, it is only through a form of human duality, radical or materialist, that an inadequation can be created between sexed bodies (body) and gender identifications (spirit/head).

2) This inadequation is established on another aspect of our understanding of gendered human beings, binary essentialism. By this, I mean that femininity and masculinity would be different essences, that they are things absolutely and ontologically distinct and discontinuous categories by their nature — basically, that being a man and being a woman are totally different things, and that there is nothing besides these two options. “Woman in a man’s body” is original in that it applies essentialism to dualism to divide complete male/female essences into spirit and body sub-essences: it postulates a male body and a male spirit, and a female body and a female spirit, as opposed to male and female total beings. This is what allows it to express what “trans*” means: following this model, a cisgender person would have matching essences in spirit and body, while a trans person would have sub-essences of different genders.

All the same, the underlying binary essentialism underlying the idea of being a “girl in a boy’s body” is also what creates most of its problems. First, the idea that men and women be totally different by their nature is behind many misogynistic discourses. It justifies social inequities even today, and it establishes barriers between men and women, and between “male” and “female” as categories — the same essentialist barriers which, in other contexts, also work to deny trans* people their identities. Also, as there are only two gendered essences, it is impossible to be something outside these essences, to have a body or a spirit neither male nor female. From a binary essentialist position, non-binary and intersex people are invisibilized. Their positions and identities are understandable only as a mix of female and male essences, as an in-between, not as an independently valid reality. Binarity is not necessary for essentialism to exist, but it is only avoided by creating new, different essences — say, by creating other intersex or non-binary essences (which doesn’t work, because these umbrella terms describe a variety of very different realities), or by creating an essence for each distinct reality (in which case, taken to its limits, it isn’t an essentialism in the first place).

However — and I want to stress this –, the expression itself works on an understanding of the gendered human being which goes beyond trans* people, individually or collectively. “Sport is a man’s world”, “woman are better at cooking”, “boy’s will be boys”, and so on, are also founded on a spontaneously essentialist understanding of gender. If one uses a form of binary essentialism to explain what a trans* person is, or to understand who one is as a trans* person, it is because most people already understand gender is an essentialist mode.

3) In this essentialist dualism, spirit and body are not necessarily on equal footing. Even though, when assigning gender at birth, and sometime when explaining gender differences, priority is given to physiological traits, in general, we identify the person as an individualized being with their spirit, not their body — that is, we are spiritualist. Thus, when we say “a man in a woman’s body”, we mean that if someone’s spirit is feminine, this person is a woman, whatever the body tells us. In the variant formulation “born in the wrong body”, the fact of being trans is framed as an error of attribution — for instance, a masculine body was given to a feminine person and spirit by a natural or cosmic mistake. The primacy of the spirit allows for defining a person’s gender following their perception of their gender, as a component of the spirit, and not necessarily in accordance with the genitals, components of the body. Thus, it also legitimizes body modification, as opposed to psychological therapy, as the best strategy for dealing with trans* status, because the problem is not the spirit, as the foundational part of the person, but the body, relegated almost as an accident. This is probably the most positive feature of the expression.

Nonetheless, if being trans depends on the gender essence of the spirit, a permanent component of the human being, this means that perceived gender identity should also be permanent. As such, the expression is connected with transnormative discourses. When criteria for “transsexuality” were first created in the 1960s, doctors used the stable presence of cross-gender feelings since childhood as a necessary requirement. Indeed, if a trans woman is a woman because of her feminine spiritual essence, it should be expected that this was known since childhood, that the difference of essences between spirit and body was more or less always felt. Otherwise, how can a feminine essence be postulated? As a result, the feminine status of trans people without persistent cross-gender traits or feelings is quickly denied — as were access to transition services until recently. The proximity with transnormative discourses makes the expression more understandable in that it is closer to an already existing and relatively accepted model, but potentially excludes many trans people from it.


Here, my point here was not to defend to criticize the expression, but to understand it. It is entirely valid for trans* people to use it to understand and to explain who they are. All the potential problems the expression carries are not problems created by the expression, but problems in our common anthropology of gender that are reflected in it. As a way of explaining trans* realities to others, it could be argued that it’s simplistic, but not much more than some starkly feminist anti-patriarchal discourses that omit some aspects of trans*, intersex or LGB realities for the purpse of communication. Although intersectionality is good, we can’t always cover everything every time everywhere. Choices have to be made. And in the case of the “wrong body” narrative, apparently, it works at expressing what it seeks to express: what is, at it’s most understood level, a (binary) trans* person. I mean, Pat gays-caused-hurricane-Katrina Robertson was able to express sympathetic (yet flawed) opinions towards trans* realities through this expression. I deem that a victory.

What I am critical about, however, is the overuse of the expression in the media, and especially the overly dramatic way being trans* is described. Trans* issues have seen a lot of coverage recently, which should mean that most people have some idea of what a trans* people is, at least at some basic level. This should mean that the rhetoric crutch, appropriate though it is, does not have to be thrown about everywhere. This is problematic as it reinforces a normative way of being trans*, with the potential of excluding some trans* people, but also because it denies individual experiences for the purpose of a neat, clean narrative. Furthermore, what’s “in” today is to add a layer of pathos by making us “prisoners” of our “wrong body” — whether or not we feel we have the wrong body, and, if we do, whether or not we feel “prisoner” of anything.

The only solution I know is to ask, always, that our individual experiences, histories — and anthropologies — be described accurately and finely, not stereotypically. We deserve better than pity, we deserve ourselves.