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The PhD Diaries: Identities in Transformation

The PhD Diaries is a series of pieces written by PhD candidates who work in areas associated with the Identities in Transformation research theme. Over the course of several weeks, they will examine their relationship with their research and how it has changed them. Annie C. Humphrey is a PhD candidate in the School of Histories and Humanities, researching the depiction of Vikings in Middle Irish dynastic propaganda texts.

Identity in Trans*formation

I grew up in a suburb of New York City, the child of parents and step-parents without college degrees or passports. There was nothing about my childhood that suggested I’d be writing a PhD in medieval history at Trinity in Ireland while in my thirties. But during a tumultuous young adulthood I sought solace in history, became passionate about the humanities, and felt a calling to higher education.

When I came to Trinity I knew I was gender-nonconforming, but it was a far-off theoretical issue rather than a daily problem. Some of the things I like are associated with my assigned gender at birth (AGAB). Some are supposed to be for the other. I never felt like I was being subversive or contrarian to just follow what I liked. Fortunately, growing up in a liberal part of the U.S. meant that my interests were seen as quirky rather than immoral or unacceptable.

I never had an internal sense of gender. I thought no one did. I wondered why people felt so strongly about their own gender and pronouns and so on - why being called ‘mannish’ is an insult to women, and men are mocked by being called ‘girls’. I met trans* people when in my twenties who genuinely suffered by being misgendered, and eventually realised that I was the unusual one to not have an internal sense of gender. But I d been called by the pronouns of my AGAB for decades and seemed to be doing just fine.

Moving to Ireland and doing a PhD stripped me to my foundations. While Dublin is a progressive city, Irish society has slightly stronger and different gender expectations than I was used to. I found myself having to question, prove, and situate myself in ways I never did before. I felt alienated by subtle but pervasive expectations about gender presentation in clothes shops and pub behaviour. Conversation topics vary widely between between groups of men, groups of women, and mixed groups. This means that when the demographic of a group shifts (such as in the toilets), what’s acceptable to say out loud differs. Men typically buy drinks for women, even just female friends; in the US this would be considered dating behaviour but in Ireland it seems normal for men to pay for women no matter their relationship.

Meanwhile, one of the thematic chapters in my PhD thesis is on the ways gender affects the medieval Irish perception of the Hiberno-Norse in Middle Irish literature. In short, female characters have similar attributes whether they are Norse or Gaelic, but there are two different masculine ideals: the athletic and valiant Gaelic man relying on his own strength versus the heavily armoured Norse using ships and other technology. This reflects medieval anxieties about how to be a ‘man’ and indicates that there were two different value systems for men in pre-Norman Ireland, whereas women could (and likely did) function similarly in both of the ethno-linguistic communities.

To support my literary analysis of the primary source documents, I read about medieval gender studies and basic gender theory. The more I read, the more I acknowledged and agreed that gender — then and now — is performative and socially dependent. I applied what I was reading to myself and was surprised by the result. I didn’t feel dysphoric when I ‘played’ my AGAB, I just didn’t want to most of the time. I didn’t like being forced to live in one set of gendered values. I didn’t like being gendered even when no one was looking.

The turning point was when I was clad in a massive rain jacket from hood to knee, trying to get into a door through a group of students, when one politely told another to get out of my way by describing me with gendered language. I understood that this interaction had nothing to do with me, but my instant annoyance made me think. Why did I have to have a gender even when one could barely see my face or body? If gender is performative why was I always expected to perform one clearly? And why did I seem to have a problem with it, when almost everyone else doesn’t even think about it?

So in the third year of my PhD, I decided to come out fully as agender and ask that people use the singular they to refer to me. I am not my AGAB but I am not the ‘opposite’ sex either. There are some non-binary people who are ‘both’ in some proportion, but I feel off the spectrum entirely.
Coming out was so easy. I opened up my closet to pull out items that I had bought just to perform my AGAB, then realised that all of my casual and nearly all of my formal clothing was unisex anyway. I tearfully told friends that I was agender, and almost everyone said ‘That’s great! I thought you were already?’ I guess I was the last to know!

I came to Trinity to write about medieval ethnicity and changing ideas of Irishness, but the identities in transformation turned out to include mine as well.


Annie C. Humphrey

Annie C. Humphrey is a third-year PhD candidate in history under the supervision of Professor Seán Duffy and an Irish Research Council Government of Ireland Postgraduate Scholar. Their thesis is about the depiction of Vikings in Middle Irish dynastic propaganda texts c. 1030-1120, investigating Gaelic perceptions of Hiberno-Norse language, gender, technology, and culture in pre-Norman Ireland.