This post requires some introduction, because I originally wrote it in late March, and left it in my drafts until now. This was mostly because I was afraid of backlash, whether in the form of direct harassment on social media, or in the form of not getting the PhD funding I was then waiting for. I didn’t know if these fears were justified, but they were enough to make me hesitate, especially as AHRC funding decisions were coming up within the next month. It wasn’t that I thought it would stop me from getting funding — it was more that, if I posted it and then didn’t get the funding, I would always wonder whether these two things were related, and I couldn’t face that uncertainty.
The thing about AHRC funding is that if you get it, you’re notified in early April; if you don’t, you’re left hanging, waiting in case some additional funding becomes available later or you’re able to secure a scholarship elsewhere. If I had got funding at that stage, I would have posted this in April. But, as you can probably guess, I did not, and so I was left waiting… and waiting… and waiting, unsure whether it was a good time to post it.
Then, in May, as a result of entirely unrelated factors, I was subjected to transphobic harassment on social media, including transphobes posting my author headshots, taken from my website, and speculating about my assigned gender and, by extension, my genitalia and healthcare choices. I ended up locking down my Twitter account for a few weeks, making my YouTube videos private to deny them further ammunition, and otherwise going into hiding as far as public internet presence was concerned. It was comparatively mild compared to what other trans people have experienced online, but it still made me afraid to be publicly trans. I lost my nerve, stopped posting anything too obviously queer on social media, and developed significant anxiety about how some of my future books would be received (due to being much more explicitly queer/trans than my previously published titles) and whether I would be able to cope with that.
In other words, it destroyed any chance of this being posted. At least for a while.
But that fear is exactly what this post is about. It is about defying those who want to cow us into invisibility and silence, to push us out of the public eye and out of their publications because they make it unbearable for us to stay. It is about asserting my right to exist as myself within academia, my right to do the research I want to do, and the validity of that research.
So here’s the post. I’ve left it more or less as it was when I wrote it at the end of March, with a few tweaks, corrections, and additions to reflect the time that’s passed.
On the 24th of March, I announced the publication of a long-awaited academic article of mine. Entitled ‘”What Manner of Man is this Hound?: Gender, Humanity, and the Transgressive Figure of Cú Chulainn’, it’s colloquially known in certain corners of the internet as my ‘trans Cú Chulainn’ article, although in actual fact it’s only partly about transmasculine readings, and is significantly about monster theory.
This article begin life as part of my undergraduate dissertation, way back in 2017-18, and I’ve been talking about it on Tumblr for almost as long, which is why some people have genuinely been waiting five years to read this. It’s rare for an baby academic like me to have that kind of eager audience, and I’m afraid I’ve rather tested their patience: although I wrote it up into an article in 2019, presented a section of it a conference in 2020, and submitted the article in 2021, it’s taken until now for it to be published.
I’ve been rewarded, however, with a slew of enthusiasm on Tumblr: “I’ve been waiting literally years to read this, I’m so excited!” say bloggers eagerly in their tags, a level of enthusiasm few academics experience when publishing a new article.
(You can download and read the article for free on the Research page of this site, btw.)
Because my work on queer readings of Táin Bó Cúailnge originated as part of my undergraduate dissertation, and it’s in that final year of undergrad I first started posting meaningfully about my research online, this has become my online academic brand. This was the first area of research I worked in, so people associate me with it — especially on Tumblr, but also on Twitter, where I gained quite a lot of my followers after appearing on the Motherfoclóir podcast to talk about this.
It’s funny, because actually, academically, queer theory represents only a very small part of what I do. I’ve mostly moved on to other areas of research: my MA thesis was about Láeg mac Riangabra, and while I occasionally make shippy jokes on Tumblr about his relationship with Cú Chulainn, that wasn’t an aspect I was exploring. My PhD proposal revolves around friendship in the Ulster Cycle, the very thing that critics of queer readings think people like me are neglecting or erasing. And my other two published articles have nothing to do with queer readings — one is about Láeg in Brislech Mór Maige Muirthemni and Oidheadh Con Culainn, and one is an edition and translation of a fragmentary onomastic text about the seven Maines, the sons of Medb and Ailill.
(Although I did recently use that research to answer somebody’s questions about queer interpretations of Táin Bó Cúailnge, so I guess even that can be queered if you try hard enough.)
For the most part, I have shifted towards expressing my queer readings transformatively, e.g. through retellings, and focusing on other areas in my academic life. It’s partly because I didn’t want to be pigeonholed as somebody who exclusively worked on queer stuff. It’s partly because my interests genuinely shifted. And it’s partly just a coincidence in terms of what I’ve been working on right now, and what’s moved to the back burner.
But as far as the internet is concerned, what I do is queer readings of Irish lit.
And that’s fine. There are way, way worse reputations to have. But I have to say, not everybody is thrilled about it.
Last year, I received a serious of anonymous hate messages on Tumblr from somebody who was intensely angry about my work. As far as I could tell, they claimed to be a student in my own field, and they were furious that I, a queer trans person, might point out that medieval literature can be analysed more effectively if we free ourselves of the assumption that everybody in any given text is heterosexual and exists within a modern western gender binary. Controversial, you see.
Anon accused me of being simultaneously a nobody, whose work was of no value and whom nobody really respected, and also an unavoidable plague, whom they could not themselves escape because I had so dominated the field with my queer agenda. I wasn’t sure how I could be both a nobody and everywhere, but evidently I’d succeeded, and it was upsetting this person considerably.
They made various other accusations, some of which I couldn’t disprove — for example, they claimed I’d only won the CMCS Prize for Young Scholars due to lack of competition. This may well be true, for all I know, but since there’s no evidence either way, it still looks good on my CV, and I can only assume there’s a measure of bitterness about the award that drove Anon’s campaign. They were angry that my ‘trendy’ research was being legitimised in this way, since everybody knows that editions and translations of fragmentary onomastic texts are all the rage with the queer theory crowd these days (??).
Some of their tirades were amusing — or at least, they were either funny or upsetting, so I picked funny, because laughing at them was better than letting them get to me. Mostly, they instilled in me a sense of spite. I’d already moved on from queer theory, but it made me want to go back and publish more of it — to present at every conference, to submit to every journal. If they thought I was an unavoidable plague before, I reasoned, I would make sure that got even worse, and they’d never be able to escape me getting my grubby queer little hands all over their precious medieval literature.
The saga ended after a few days. Anon’s grievances had become increasingly specific, and I’d pointed out that if they weren’t careful, they were going to give away their own university affiliation and, by extension, their identity. Either this scared them into silence or they simply got bored, but the incident never recurred. I continued with my work, and my research, although my spite-fuelled urge to publish was slightly dampened by my life circumstances getting a lot more complicated, robbing me of the time to act on it.
The spite didn’t go away, though.
It was noticeable throughout Anon’s tirade that it was my work on queer readings, and particularly trans readings, that they were targeting. Of course it was. There are a lot of people who would like to pretend that queer and trans lives are a modern invention, and a lot of people who are viscerally uncomfortable with the idea of disrupting the assumptions we make about medieval texts’ constructions of gender and sexuality, for reasons they often won’t interrogate.
But anyone who reads my latest article will see that I’m hardly making any radical claims: it’s simply a preliminary study of why transmasculine readings of Cú Chulainn might be useful and add nuance to our understanding of masculinity in the text, before I then go off talking about monsters for the entire second half of it. In fact, I’ve been distinctly worried that the people who wanted trans readings will be disappointed that I’m not nearly as bold as they were expecting.
The thing is, it didn’t matter. This person hadn’t read my article. It wouldn’t have made a difference if they had. What they were reacting against, what they were objecting to, wasn’t really my work. It was me, as a queer, trans scholar, existing boldly in academia without hiding those facts about myself.
They want me gone. They made that pretty clear. Not just my queer theory work, but me as a scholar. The sooner the better.
And that’s why it didn’t make a difference to them that my other work isn’t on queer theory, and why it wouldn’t keep me ‘safe’ from this kind of bigotry if I never wrote about gender or sexuality ever again. There is no way to be the ‘good’ trans person, to be ‘acceptable’ levels of queer, to squash myself into a normative box enough that they can forget I’m different and start to accept my scholarship at face value. Because my work, to them, will always be coloured by the fact that I’m a queer trans scholar whose work is informed by my own understandings of the world, and thus is tainted by my agenda.
So if I’ll never be good enough, why try?
Once upon a time, I thought, maybe I shouldn’t provoke people. I thought, I’ll get pigeonholed. I thought, I need to do some stuff other than queer theory so that people take me seriously as a scholar. I thought, I have to prove myself, over and over again.
But it’s pointless.
They will never want me, whether I spend the rest of my academic life writing about queer readings or whether I dedicate myself to editing obscure lists of names and trying to determine chronological continuity between interrelated texts. But the latter will make it a lot easier for them to ignore me, and the former… well, the former will piss them off. And you know what? I think there are certain people in the world who deserve to be pissed off.
Why should I squash myself and my research interests into a safe conventional acceptable-to-bigots box, for the benefit of people who never wanted me there in the first place? I shouldn’t. I won’t. And the very fact that they don’t want me to be here makes me all the more determined to keep doing what I do.
So I hope Anon knows that within 48 hours of uploading my article to this website, 275 people opened or downloaded the PDF. More than 350 people visited the page where it’s hosted, and presumably looked at the abstract, and at my other work. My tweet about it got more views and engagement than anything else I’d tweeted this year (including when I announced The Hummingbird Killer… clearly my audience has priorities). These numbers may not sound exceptional to those in large academic fields, but for an independent scholar in a niche area of study, hosting an article on their own website (ruling out people accidentally stumbling on it while looking for another article)… yeah, that’s pretty good, actually. Those are some pretty good numbers.
Five months down the line, that number has doubled. As far as I can see from the stats I have access to, the PDF has been opened/downloaded at least 550 times. Some of those may be the same people coming back to check something, to re-download it; some may be bots. But even if only a fifth of those downloads are real people… that’s still a hundred people who’ve sought out my article. Downloaded it. Maybe read it, maybe cited it.
Because people want trans readings. People want my trans readings. People want my scholarship, because I deserve to be here.
I don’t know when I’ll return to queer theory. I have a few articles in mind, a few texts where I think trans readings would do a great deal to illuminate the layers of the story. I might write them next month, or in three years’ time. And maybe there will be people who are angry about that: in my field or out of it, on the internet or in person. Maybe there will be doors that get closed in my face because of it.
But if people don’t want that work, then it’s because they don’t want me, a person who is queer, trans, and unashamed. And if they don’t want me, well, that sounds like a them problem.
Because, as I edit this post on 3rd September 2023, I can confirm that although I didn’t get AHRC funding, I did, at the very last minute, get full PhD funding via two Cambridge-specific scholarships, and I will be starting a PhD in the department of Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic this October. I’ll be working on friendship and interpersonal relationships between men in the late Ulster Cycle, looking at how these relationships are depicted from the medieval to the early modern period and the various influences shaping their development, such as chivalric romance. I imagine this research will show up plenty of queer possibilities, even if they’re not my primary focus, and I’m looking forward to examining intimacy and loyalty within various contexts.
Moreover, in July, I presented a paper at the International Congress of Celtic Studies, and received some great comments and made some great academic connections as a result of it — including one that might result in more queer readings in the near future. And I just had another article accepted for publication (pending revisions), my first time submitting to a journal with no caveats about age or qualifications, as if I were any scholar. The peer reviewers, despite their exacting corrections, clearly thought my work was worth something, and while some days that’s harder to remember than other days, I’m going to choose to believe them.
So I’m going to keep plaguing the internet and my field with my research, and if Anon and others like them don’t like it… I actually don’t care, except that spite is a way more effective academic motivation than any traditional ‘publish or perish’ rat race, and every time my work annoys somebody who doesn’t see me as a person, it just makes me want to do it even more. Publish and persist. Persist as a scholar and persist as a person and persist as a thorn in the side of everyone who wants us gone.
As a medievalist, I can say with confidence: trans people have always been here. And as a trans person, I will say with defiance: you won’t get rid of us.
And as a trans medievalist, I’ll say: hi, can I interest you in an article about monster theory, boundary-crossing, and trans readings of Cú Chulainn? Because it’s open access and available to read right here.
Disclaimer: I would be remiss if I didn’t note that although I face certain barriers as a queer, trans, disabled scholar, I still benefit from white privilege. While I’ve been occasionally treated as an outsider for being English without a meaningful claim to Irishness, this has primarily been from people outside academia, and I haven’t faced the automatic othering that people of colour often face in medieval studies, Celtic studies, and academia as a whole. Indeed, as a white English person I’m often assumed to belong (“So is your family Irish?”) in a way that Irish people of colour are not (“But where are you REALLY from?”).
Moreover, I’m a coward: while I preach defiance about the nature of my research, I know I’ve not done enough, in the past, to publicly call out bigotry within our field and in related areas. I could make all sorts of excuses about feeling vulnerable as a student, struggling with energy levels due to my disabilities, or not having enough information to feel confident speaking up… but others in the same position as me have done far more to stand up for the vulnerable and the marginalised, and the people most directly affected by these issues rarely have a choice about whether they’re involved or not. I want to do better on this, because the hate mail that I’ve received pales in comparison to some of the vitriol that gets thrown at others. I hope that the institutional support (and funding) of being a PhD student rather than an independent scholar will empower me to do more in this regard, and I want to at the very least acknowledge that I’m aware of these dynamics and the ways that I have failed in the past to challenge them.