The Body Public

With the first appointment at the sexual health center now behind me, I find myself on the path that leads to medical transition. It’s a slow and winding path, deliberately and understandably so. But I’m on it, now. Of course this path is not a conveyor belt; on-going transition, at any stage, is elected, not enforced. But having achieved all external feminization that seems possible–to me at least, at this point–and desiring to further femme my already trans femme life, I want more. It would be false to describe my feelings towards hormones as anything other than anticipatory and excited. I can’t wait for my body to come into its own.

But with medical transition now in sight, I find myself thinking differently about my body. Heretofore, my body has been something that has been one way (masculine) and on a trajectory towards another thing (feminine). I was happy for a long time with the body I had; now I am happy moving towards the body that I want. That simple way of situating my body in relationship to time–past to present to future–is much less complicated than how I often thinking about my body now. Which is not temporal, but relational, or, how my body interacts with people. And by default, as a trans woman, my body enters some kind of relational interaction with quite nearly all people that come to view it. Because most people notice.

How my body looks, how I dress, how my brain works, and what all this means cannot be understood in a vacuum of the self. My trans-ness, aka me, can only fully be realized within the necessarily public display that is transitioning.

Judith Butler, in Precarious Life, writes:

“The body implies mortality, vulnerability, agency: the skin and the flesh expose us to the gaze of others, but also to touch, and to violence, and bodies put us at risk of becoming the agency and instrument of all these as well. Although we struggle for rights over our own bodies, the very bodies for which we struggle are not quite ever only our own. The body has its invariably public dimension. Constituted as a social phenomenon in the public sphere, my body is and is not mine.”

The body, as long as it holds life, performs for the world on our behalf. And like any performer, the body belongs in part to its audience.  My bodily transition, then, takes on the weight of all my personal, and public, interactions. I’m excited for my body’s changes. But I’m also afraid for my body, in that my body is not, as Butler writes, mine alone.

And if my body is not mine alone, what happens to it is of course outside of my control.

Transition has made plain how wholly and quickly one can be rejected. It costs nothing for others (in this others is everyone: family, friends, colleagues, strangers, twitter trolls) to ignore, or scoff, of deride, or attack me for my queer externalities. To say nothing of what will come when my physical, mental, emotional self undertakes hormonal change. This experience isn’t unique; visibly queer people have always faced the judgment of every passing eye (that it’s common is not grounds for community. Rather, it means that too much of the world really is an awful place to be queer).

And so under the eager anticipation of hormonal change, there is fear. Fear of violence, physical or verbal or emotional. Since I have started transitioning I have experienced such abuse, and to imagine that abuse decreasing as my mental and bodily feminization accompany the already exposed nature of my femme identity would be naive. My commute, by train, has become like gambling on a daily basis.

Some days it feels a bit like the Matrix. Neo on the sidewalk, being bumped constantly by all passersby, while Morpheus glides effortless through the world. I never know who exactly moves like Morpheus, but I follow her with great difficulty.

Recently, I took a night out, with friends, to a party first, then to a drag show. Efforts at achieving a new version of high-femme brought me out in an ultra-soft poofed out sweater over a long black dress. The look was as close as I’ve been to 1950s Hollywood starlet, and I don’t mind saying, I felt sexy. Until I realized that such sartorially expressive queerness communicated, without intention, an open invitation to rub one’s hands upon me. “A fuzzy lady like this demands to be touched,” I joked to a friend, making light of the situation that brought for the first time a new understanding of my body. Your touches aren’t welcome, but defusing my discomfort with a joke seemed then, and likely will in the future, an easier path than a simple assertive statement like, “please don’t touch me.”

The lesson for others, of course, is keep your fucking hands to yourself. But the lesson for me is different, and no less important to learn: Your body is not your own. Not really. Our bodies expose us to the gaze and touch of others, Butler says.

What small irritation I felt that night points to the shortcomings of body ownership and the illusion of autonomy that we maintain when we exist in public.

To transition is to claim a larger part in the public performance of life. “One man plays many parts,” Shakespeare wrote, a few lines after that famous quip: “all the world’s a stage, and all the men and women are merely players.” My trans-ness, or at least the embodiment of it, has of late felt akin to an entrance on the stage, a new act, another part. Shakespeare and Butler are calling on the same truth, though invariably for different ends.

The -private- photos of Marie Høeg & Bolette Berg

A friend this weekend directed my attention to the this tweet thread by Ann Louise Avery, in which Avery recounts the story of Marie Høeg and Bolette Berg. The two Norwegian photographers worked at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries. I have been unable to stop thinking about these remarkable women since.

Høeg and Berg owned and operated a commercial photography studio. According to the Preus Museum, they took portraits, and photographed life and naval operations in their hometown, Horten, Norway. What marks the two today, however, is not the work sold to the public, but a series of glass negatives that were found in a barn in the 1980s that were marked “private.”

The private photos reveal a studio transformed from commercial portraits into a wonderland of queer photography, where Høeg and Berg played against norms of gender in delightful and subversive ways.

I have little more to add to the commentary on these images other than to say, I hope you spend some time with them, and revel in the powerful, playful world of Høeg and Berg.

 

 

 

The collection is at the Preus Museum in Horten.

 

A year of queer cinema

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I’ve been searching for a way to organize 2019 as a year dedicated to queer cinema. It hasn’t been easy to find a pre-existing catalogue of queer film art, other than a one-at-a-time search and find.

So, in the spirit of randomness, I’ve decided this list from Time Out London, called The 50 Best Gay Movies: The best in LGBT+ filmmaking, shall be the primary principle. It’s structured as a countdown of “the best” in queer filmmaking, but as I have no real interest in pitting art against art, I’m approaching it instead only as a collection of sign posts through the history of LGBTQ cinema. It’s neither comprehensive, nor dictating.

Anyway, please tell me what’s missing.

Here is Time Out’s list. I reorganized the films alphabetically because I mean it: art making is not a competition.

120 Beats Per Minute – 2017
All About My Mother – 1999
Bad Education – 2004
Beautiful Thing – 1996
Blue is the Warmest Color – 2013
Bound – 1996
Boys Don’t Cry – 1999
Brokeback Mountain – 2005
But I’m A Cheerleader – 1999
By Hook or By Crook – 2001
Call Me By Your Name – 2017
Death In Venice – 1971
Edward II – 1991
Fellini-Satyricon – 1969
Fox and His Friends – 1975
God’s Own Country – 2017
Happy Together – 1997
Heavenly Creatures – 1994
Hedwig and the Angry Inch – 2001
High Art – 1998
Longtime Companion – 1989
Ma Vie en Rose – 1997
Maurice – 1987
Midnight Cowboy – 1969
Moonlight – 2016
My Beautiful Laundrette – 1985
My Own Private Idaho – 1991
Orlando – 1992
Pariah – 2011
Paris Is Burning – 1990
Parting Glances – 1986
Pink Flamingos – 1972
Pink Narcissus – 1971
Pride – 2014
Scorpio Rising – 1964
Show Me Love – 1998
Stranger Inside – 2001
The Adventures of Priscilla Queen of the Desert – 1994
The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant  -1972
The Boys in the Band – 1970
The Children’s Hour – 1961
The Hours – 2002
The Kids Are All Right – 2010
The Killing of Sister George – 1968
The Terence Davies Trilogy – 1983
The Wizard of Oz – 1939
Theorem – 1968
Transamerica – 2005
Un Chang d’Amour – 1950
Weekend – 2011

Speech, Gender, Catcher.

Mary Beard wrote this in her brief, vigorous manifesto Women & Power:

“Public speech was a — if not the — defining attribute of maleness. Or, to quote a well known Roman slogan, the elite male citizen could be summed up as vir bonus dicendi peritus, ‘a good man, skilled in speaking.’ A woman speaking in public was, in most circumstances, by definition not a woman.”

Beard’s assessment of western art and history finds that speech, the act itself, is by default a male act. Silence, in public at least (but preferably in private too) makes a woman a woman.

Beard’s words, like every spark that enters my mind of late, penetrated slowly but persistently through my transitioning identity. This transition most notably occurs externally via my body; but of course everything else that is Leigh undergoes the transitioning process. Including my own memory.

And so reading Beard sent a ping into my hippocampus (thanks, Dr Christine Blasey Ford), which surfaced a long past memory of my own interaction with speech, and silence.

When I was a boy, specifically a teenage boy, I was one of those very common brand of boys that loved The Catcher in the Rye. Salinger’s book spoke to me and I have a copy, in my hands at this moment, that is worn, weathered, an annotated through and through. From ages sixteen to twenty, I read the book countless times, and marked the margins continuously. The memory evoked by Beard was this: my sophomore year of college I loaned my copy of Catcher to a friend, a private act that was to me as intimate as sharing a diary. She noted one annotation that stood out, and asked why I might think as I did and if I was, really, okay.

First, the passage. It’s towards the end of the book, when 16-year old Holden is spiraling nearly out of control, and is looking for dramatic exits from his life:

“What I’d do, I figured I’d go down to the Holland Tunnel and bum a ride, and then I’d bum another one, and another one, and another one, and in a few days I’d be somewhere out West where it was very pretty and sunny and where nobody’d know me and I’d get a job. I figured I could get a job at a filling station somewhere, putting gas and oil in people’s cars. I didn’t care what kind of job it was though. Just so people didn’t know me and I didn’t know anybody. I thought what I’d do was, I’d pretend I was one of those deaf-mutes. That way I wouldn’t have to have any goddam stupid useless conversations with anybody. If anybody wanted to tell me something, they’d have to write it on a piece of paper and shove it over to me. They’d get bored as hell doing that after a while, and then I’d be through with having conversations for the rest of my life. Everbody’d think I was just a poor deaf-mute bastard and they’d leave me alone. They’d let me put gas and oil in their stupid cars, and they’d pay me a salary and all for it, and I’d build me a little cabin somewhere with the dough I made and live there for the rest of my life. I’d build it right near the woods, but not right in them, because I’d want it to be sunny as hell all the time. I’d cook all my own food, and later on, if I wanted to get married or something, I’d meet this beautiful girl that was also a deaf-mute and we’d get married. She’d come and live in my cabin with me and if she wanted to say anything to me, she’d have to write it on a goddam piece of paper, like everybody else. If we had any children, we’d hide them somewhere. We could buy them a lot of books and teach them how to read and write by ourselves.”

Reader, how does that passage strike you? This is the vision of a boy wanting to escape life. Does it strike you as depressive? Concerning? Holden’s story is that of expulsion to institutionalization after all, and this vision comes only pages before he will bottom out at the sight of some school graffiti, and end his whole story with this advice: “don’t ever tell anybody anything.”

I can’t account for how this fantasy is read by any other reader in the history of this too-often read book. But in the margins of my copy, it says this: img-1961.jpgThis is the life. Holden’s fantasy for escaping the world and its unbearable hypocrisies and failures is built entirely on the abandonment of speech. In silence, escape. Put in Beard’s terms, Holden views his liberation as an abandonment of his masculinity. Giving up the act of speech is giving up the embodiment of man-ness. How queer.

In my copy, on the previous page, there are also multiple colored underlinings of this sentence: “That way I wouldn’t have to have any goddamn stupid useless conversations with anybody.” Red, green, and blue lines underscore that one. No more stupid, useless conversations with anybody.

Beard’s book triggered in my memory the confusion my friend expressed to me when she read this marginalia. This is the life?, she said. Why?

I couldn’t tell her. I didn’t really know.

Later, in college and for about a year afterward, I told people, out loud, without irony, that I wanted to be a monk. I would take a vow of silence, and a vow of celibacy, and cloister myself for the rest of my life in some monastic community where I could work the land and read and write and drink whiskey (this fantasy was inspired in no small part by Thomas Merton). In this silent life, I would never again have to travel through the mundane world of conversations and small talk and performing normal interactive person-to-person engagement with the world.

Contemplation, instead, would be my life’s objective.

The motivation behind this impulse never seemed clear to me, but this remains an undeniable on-the-record part of my life: for years, I wanted to escape speech. I still, if that friend asked, couldn’t explain why.

But hindsight provides a lens. Queering my youth, my memory, as a transfemme adult, I can’t help but wonder if what Beard is saying about speech and gender wasn’t incubating in my mind, permeating even as my behavior overcompensated in masculinity. Because even as I longed for silence, I spoke. Too often. I happily partook of my privilege in the classrooms and communities I inhabited. But I also sought a way out of it, permanently.

Anyway. I never took a vow of silence. Never abandoned speech. Instead I abandoned masculinity.

 

The Queerious Case of Severus Snape

Albus Dumbledore, J.K. Rowling has told the world, is gay. She didn’t include this information explicitly in her books, but laid some hints here and there, allowing Rowling to reveal, after the books were the biggest book phenomenon of all time blah blah, the true identity of Albus Percival Wolfric Brian Dumbledore.

That Dumbledore is gay is historic for queer representation. Kind of. I mean, the fact that he is gay but that he is not gay in the novels has always felt a bit like a copout. Metaphorical queer representation (think The X-Men, or, like, most of Harry Potter) has been wonderful and important in movement history. Literal representation, though, is qualitatively and quantitatively different. Rowling was able to tip-toe her way towards the line of having an actual gay man in her books, but didn’t, for whatever reason (no judgment here) go all the way.

So it goes. We’ll see what happens in Fantastic Beasts on that front, I guess.

As I think about the ways queerness extends into and beyond gender and sexual orientation, I’ve thought a lot about the one a character in the H.P. series who does embody literal queerness. And that is Professor Severus Snape. When it comes to representation of queer anti-heteronormativity, and explicit non-participation in straight life, no one comes close to Severus.

Think about it. Severus, as far as the books and films are concerned, never had a romantic relationship with anyone. He was an outcast in his youth, and in his adulthood  chose complete separation from the world. He has zero personal relationships. He has no friends, no partner; there’s never a mention of his feelings for anyone save his long murdered high school crush. The sum total of his emotional capacity appears to have been given to Lily, who rejects him for the ultra-hetero douche bag, the very man who led the bullying of Snape in school, James (the worst!) Potter.

The heteronormative system that dominates culture depends on only three necessary values. 1. Gender essentialism (males, females) 2. Marriage (straight marriage) and 3. reproduction (make babies). Of course, het-cis norm structures are vastly more complicated than this; their reach seemingly endless and unstoppable. They hold up patriarchal systems, governments, religions, and within these systems they find countless forms of exclusion and rejection for any individual that falls outside of the key hetero norms.

But, in my view, the whole goddamn system boils down to just those three values: Men and Women, Marriage, Babies. (Homonormativity, a more recent and complicated development of / for the LGBTQ community, participates in two of these three, and has some similar, yet not nearly as damaging, norms).

Snape values none of the core hetero norms. We have no inclination that Snape values emotional connection, let alone partnership, let alone marriage. We have no reason to believe he has ever had sex. The two primary relationships of his life are with Dumbledore, whom he doesn’t seem to like but has used to create a secret life, and Voldemort, with whom he makes a lifelong commitment, then breaks it while faking it.

He does not want, or even particularly value children (and he’s a teacher!). And yet, in his queerest act, he secretly devotes his life to the protection of the child created specifically as a result of his own rejection. Lily, the only person we know Snape cared for, ever in his whole fucking life, married his tormentor, gave birth to the one, only to be murdered by the same dark wizard that Snape had sworn allegiance too, which led Snape to embody such enormous guilt that gave his life for that same rejection-inspired child. That’s some anti-normative shit, that is.

I don’t know if I’m making the case, here. I don’t know if you’re convinced by Snape’s queerness, but for me, he represents one of the most explicitly anti-normative characters in fantasy. Every consequential decision Severus makes–and he makes many, as all individuals with a secret life must–represents the explicitly queer rejection of het-cis norms.

Young people’s literature needs more Snapes.

 

Sartorial Exsanguination

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Out of the closet, everything.

This morning I’ve been pulling out the remnants of pre-Leigh from the apartment. Mostly, clothes. Pre-Leigh’s sartorial existence has been shoved into boxes and bags, little ceremony to be found except for the salute provided by my own interiority. And even she doesn’t know exactly what farewell message best suits the moment.

Saying farewell to the masculine uniform of a previous version of myself renders neither joy, nor sadness. Just a representation of the passage of time. And change.

After all this is just the uniform; a representation of a gender identity that I had and no longer have. I’m not taking Chris to the Goodwill never to be seen again. Or, the whole Chris, at least. Chris remains in ways I don’t quite understand; but he’s not dead. His name is still on my drivers license, and frequently (too frequently, honestly) in my ears. But his name remains, next to Leigh. Before Leigh, legally and regretfully. Chris, jealous in the deep hidden regions, sees Leigh only as the new addition. Leigh: the shiny new she that has made Chris a backward facing, stuck in time shell of masculinity no long relevant or desired as a part of this future. He’s not wrong.

But when Chris wasn’t a shell, I loved him, too. When Leigh wasn’t in the picture. When she was a subtle tremor in a beating heart, yet to rip through a body and replace the blood of a man with a new vitality. Before a femme transfusion occurred (full bloodwork yet to be run). Life force, I’m saying. Whatever that means. She communicated with Chris, that day that she could no longer tolerate straight legged jeans and a J.Crew cardigan. She was out, and Chris, henceforth, was just not me. I’m still working out how that was possible; the how seems so important. My therapists tells me it’s not.

Anyway. It’s been more than a year since Leigh arrived, and in that time I’ve realized things.

That Leigh is not a detour. That Leigh is alive in a way that Chris simply is not. That Chris is not dead, but Chris is not the girlish boyish girl that Leigh is and wants to be. That holding on to the uniform has become a crutch and a curse.

And so I’m getting rid of it, today.

This morning.

Now.

Andrea Gibson comes to town; I shall die (with squeals).

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Favorite tour shirt ever. @marylambertsing

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Tomorrow, Andrea Gibson, queer poet and object of my distant/lyric adoration, will be in Minneapolis on a release tour for their new book, Lord of the Butterflies. I’m attending this event, and will be happily releasing any restraints I may have placed over the 16 year-old girl currently emerging from my chest, who waits impatiently today for the chance to squeal with delight in their presence.

To be sure, the 16 year-old girl to which I’m referring, she is real. I love her, and she is me. Perhaps it’ve been better if a more age-appropriate girl emerged from the depth of my soul or tummy or wherever she was, but here I am regardless, enduring the slings and arrows of finally coming out as the genderqueer trans femme I didn’t even know I was waiting to be.

For much of my adult life, I was happily straight, happily married and in love, though carrying within me a potato sack of denial about what I did in fact know (I was not a hetero boy). That denial was released when I came out as gay; only to immediately confront something I did not know (I was not a boy).

The comparison has been made by many LGBTQ folks, but in case you’re not reading the queer writers of the world, coming out as an adult is very like entering a second adolescence. In my case, coming out in my mid- (or late? is 36 mid or late?) thirties, I’ve found the emergent experience of second adolescence to be highly disorienting.

Great effort did it take me, getting from in the closet to out of the closet. First, just to myself, then to my first secret-keeper, then eventually to others, only to go back to the first person to come out again, this time with a more precise notion of my identity, with additional details culled from my therapist and shared with the unwarranted confidence of youth…it’s all very much like being in high school again.

I wonder not infrequently why this pubescent teenage mindset must set upon the newly queer folks of the world. I wonder how it relates to becoming the Responsible Queer Advocate I imagine myself being. I mean, I’m a parent. I love being a parent. Can I also be an emotional adolescent, prone to the common mistakes of 16 year-olds, throwing on-and-off identities like vintage skirts?

Obviously, the answer is yes. And the feeling, while admittedly taxing for the people around me, is also intoxicating. Just thinking about hearing Andrea Gibson tomorrow moves me. I hope that the piles of tears I’m waiting to shed provide me even a pittance of the emotional depth of the teenage heartbreaks this girl never got to feel. Intoxicate me now.