An Interview with Sophie Sexon

Sophie is a PhD researcher at the University of Glasgow. Their research is an AHRC-funded project which looks at Christ’s wounds in medieval manuscripts and contemporary performance art using a queer theoretical approach to explore a range of possible meanings. They have presented their research at the International Medieval Congress in both Michigan and Leeds this year. Additionally, they perform as the drag king ‘Boris Gay’ in venues across Scotland, and recently mixed performance and research to present their workshop ‘What Makes a Man?’ at this year’s first SGSAH annual symposium.

Psalter_of_Bonne_de_Luxembourg_Wound
Christ’s Side Wound, Psalter of Bonne de Luxembourg, circa 1349.

What is your subject and how did you choose it?

My PhD project combines a number of disciplines because I wanted to do something that drew my various interests together around a common theme. I research how Christ’s wound could variously be interpreted in medieval art and in contemporary performance. I came to this subject inspired by two separate events. I had seen a performance at the Glasgay! Festival in 2014 by an artist called Ron Athey called Incorruptible Remains. The performance was like nothing I had ever seen before. As an audience member, you were invited to put on gloves an anoint the bleeding and wounded body of the performer with UV paint, who was suspended on a rack with hooks through his eyebrows. The performance was about ritual and sexuality, and seemed to blur the boundaries between art and performance. It was visceral and challenging, and I thought ‘this is what I want to write about for a living’. At the time I was doing a masters in Medieval and Renaissance Studies at the University of Glasgow, and my supervisor Professor Elizabeth Robertson had shown me a series of images of Christ’s side wound that were in medieval manuscripts. We discussed the history of a variety of scholars who had argued that this looked like a vagina, and how this could be extended into a PhD study. Professor Robertson was one of the founding members of The Society for Medieval Feminist Scholarship and has been an incredible mentor to me throughout my undergraduate and masters degrees, so I was keen to have her as my supervisor.

I had previously done an undergraduate in English Literature at the University of Glasgow. Straight afterwards I sat the MLitt in Modernities, which encompassed the study of literature, art, film and a variety of other subjects in modernity. I had a year afterwards where I wasn’t sure what to do and was working 70 hours a week in a care job that was very stressful, so that inspired me to go back and do the MLitt in Medieval and Renaissance studies. I knew I wanted to do a PhD, but I was also certain I wanted to use my experience from studying both contemporary and medieval cultures. My approach was to find something that I wanted to learn more about, as opposed to writing about something I had previously studied comprehensively. I wanted to write about the influence of sexuality on how we think about and write about certain images, and decided that using a queer theoretical approach could be a way of examining images of Christ’s wound across time and across disciplines to show how sexuality shapes the viewer’s response. After thinking long and hard about how to combine my various passions I applied for the PhD, but as the subject takes into account different disciplines I am now studying across two colleges with three supervisors; Dr Debra Strickland in Art History, Dr Stephen Greer in Theatre Studies, and Professor Elizabeth Robertson in English Language. Given that my background was solely in English Literature, it presented a great challenge to take on subject areas that I felt I knew nothing about, but I knew this would really keep me keen and encourage me to work hard and so far it has really paid off!

What have been some of the highlights of your experience so far?

I am very lucky to say that I absolutely love my job. Every week I am doing something very different, and I’ve achieved things that I didn’t even ancitipate would be part of the experience. One of the biggest highlights for me has been meeting a large amount of people both studying and working in related disciplines. I was very excited to discover I wasn’t alone in pursuing a project than involved using queer theory to analyse images of Christ, and early on I met Jonah Coman, who was also doing a PhD about Christ’s suffering in late medieval art. I attended a Pecha Kucha one night at the Art School and heard Professor Vicky Gunn discussing representations of the transgender and gender fluid Christ in contemporary and medieval contexts. I got in touch, and now myself, Jonah and a host of others meet once a month as part of the Medieval Queeries group that Professor Gunn set up for queer medievalists to exchange ideas, food, and our experiences of doing PhDs. I also attended some events run by ScotMEMs which is a postgraduate-run network for people studying Medieval and Early Modern studies. Joining these networks and meeting these people led to finding out about conferences and speaker opportunities, and this year I presented my research at two major international Medieval conferences, The International Congress on Medieval Studies in Michigan, and The International Medieval Congress in Leeds. I have never travelled internationally before and so these opportunities have meant a lot to me both personally and professionally.

In my first year I went to see a lot of performances and spoke to a lot of performers about their experience of presenting queer interpretations of Christ. Shows like The Gospel According the Jesus Queen of Heaven and Triple Threat were very formative in helping me think about gender and sexuality in performance, and both of the creators were very warm when I approached them to discuss their work. Meeting performers gave me confidence to start making performance work about gender myself, and I started performing as my drag king alter ego Boris Gay at queer nights in Glasgow. Performing not only helps me think about performance for research purposes; it provides a refreshing and fun break from study, and has had a really positive effect on my confidence. I’ve taken part in a couple of LADA’s DIY projects, which are incredible opportunities for performers to meet and develop skills. Having a lot of conversations with inspiring people has provided research links for me to pursue and the discussions have formatively helped me to define the terms I use to discuss gender and sexuality in the thesis.

What are some of the challenges you face?

Loving your job comes with a certain degree of care, and because I care about what I do I am also prone to worry about it frequently. Looking after your mental health and not letting worries get on top of you is as much a part of the work of a PhD as writing and research is. The Impostor Syndrome is common among PhD researchers, but there is a big difference between feeling occasionally worried and obsessively beating yourself up to the point where you feel like you can’t cope. I was diagnosed with bi-polar affective disorder when I was 19 years old. This means that I sometimes need some extra support to be able to get through the workload and to deal with depression and anxiety. Luckily the disability service at the University of Glasgow has provided a range of comprehensive support for me throughout my degrees. My advisor has helped me to apply for assistive technology and counselling sessions. Currently I see a mental health advisor once a week to check-in and discuss how I’m feeling. Many people at some point experience difficulty throughout their PhDs, and the support of this service has really helped. I had a major depressive episode at the very start of my PhD and had to take some time off to recover. It can be hard not to feel guilt for taking time off, but I realised that you can’t do any research unless you feel mentally and physically well, and that it’s important to ask for help if you feel overwhelmed. There is a wide range of support out there. Charities like See Me Scotland and the Glasgow Disability Alliance provide support and advocacy for people with mental health difficulties. Following on from discussions at this year’s International Medieval Conference, a Medievalists with Disabilities network is being set up, and you can find out more by following the #disIMC hashtag on Twitter.

What advice could you give to other PhD researchers?

Going to conferences has been an incredible and invaluable part of my PhD experience so far. It is nerve-wracking at first, but the more people you meet the easier it gets, and you start to recognise people and form groups of your own this way. I would advise getting involved with what is happening in your department and at your institution. There are reading groups, visiting speakers and club societies that cater to a wide variety of interests, and I believe it is essential to mix work and play to maintain a healthy balance.

It might sound simple, but it is very important to remember to eat well, sleep, and exercise when you can. I used to hate that advice, but it is much easier for me to get to the office and write when I make time to do these things. It is also essential to take time off. I can get caught up in thinking ‘I can’t take a day off this week because I haven’t done enough’, but if you don’t force yourself to take time off you can end up exhausted. You also have to make time for longer holidays, which is something I didn’t realise until my counsellor put it this way; ‘if the PhD was an advertised job where you were paid less than minimum wage and worked without a holiday for three to four years, would you apply for it?’ Undoubtedly the answer would be ‘no’, so you have to make sure you don’t find yourself in this situation when you’re setting your own hours.

Pick something that really excites you as a subject and to leave around reminders to yourself about how exciting it is. Silly things perk me up, like decorating my office with kitsch Christ paraphernalia; I have a glitter Jesus coin-box on my shelf that I store up cash in to buy myself a reward each month. Find things tangentially related to your research that are exciting to watch and read. I like to watch medieval documentaries on iPlayer, and their arts section is generally brilliant. For instance, if you’re studying contemporary women’s fiction, there’s a ballet on iplayer at the moment inspired by the writings of Virginia Woolf. I also try to vary my learning resources, and frequently use MOOCs (Massive Online Open Courses) to get a basic knowledge of a subject area. Sites like FutureLearn, Coursera and Edx offer a truly baffling range of courses; you can study almost anything from learning about the songs of the Beatles to courses on Medieval Books of Hours.

My top advice, across the board, is to speak to as many people as possible. This can be very difficult in person, but don’t be afraid to send e-mails and join networks online as a starting point. Academic twitter is fun and resourceful, and I’ve heard about many events through adding people and following their tweets. If you are interested in my research you can follow me @ladymede where I tend to tweet about intriguing medieval manuscripts and queer events happening across the UK.

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