Trans History Will Hurt You
[Content Warning: this essay includes mentions of self-harm.]
In 1400 a Western man – for scholars were always men – could read every book in their world. I say “their world” to highlight how there are a diversity of worlds, at that time in even the geographic sense: Ptolemy’s ecumene stretched only from Ethiopia to the first edge of China; Yi Hoe & Kwon Kun’s Kangnido compresses Africa, Europe, and the Levant into a single drip. All world maps then assumed the mapmaker as its center. As a teenager I was fascinated by this idea, no matter how apocryphal, that there were men who had read everything and therefore exhausted books. I did not know what came after.
Today it is possible to watch every movie with a transgender character. It does not even take that long (about two hundred hours). Twenty years ago, to have read every trans memoir and book of theory strikes me as doable. There will always be some unread zine. This is a digital age.
I make note of this to point out the immense poverty of transgender history. When women, who are half the human population, recognized our much less immense poverty, our common response was to write ourselves into history. Hélène Cixous demanded “Woman must write herself… I’m speaking of a universal woman subject who must bring woman to their sense and their meaning in history.” A decade after Sandy Stone asked transsexuals “to begin to write oneself into the discourses by which one has been written.” This demand requires a transformation of historical method into the method of fiction; historical fiction has become the genre of minority, such that the only sexual works in that category which matter are by women and queers. For queer historians who deal in facts, there is still a fictive aspect in choice of attention: Why these facts? Why not retell the stories which have the most facts to their name, and are therefore not queer? And so speculative fiction pushes through a queer historian’s fact-collection like skin bound tightly in a sparsity of rope.
To live with a fictive history will transform a person. Gossip has become women’s primary language and should do. Among queers I believe language is more idiolectic. (Gossip with who? Women are everywhere.) Trans women online have a great plurality of words for trans women online: trans woman, transwoman, trans-woman, trans* woman, woman of trans experience, girlie, transsexual woman, nonbinary woman, transmisogyny-affected person, doll, trans feminine person, trans femme, trans fem. “Transvestite” and “transgenderist” were used in living memory. Unlike mulher and “woman,” travesti is never allowed to just mean “trans woman” in Portuguese. None of these terms mean the same thing; all of these terms mean basically the same thing. Reinvention is constant, which at worst induces a sensation everything you say is incorrect. “Transgendered people are demanding the right to choose our own self-definitions,” Leslie Feinberg wrote, “The language used in this pamphlet may quickly become outdated as the gender community coalesces and organizes – a wonderful problem.”
We could say a purpose of trans history is to coalesce and organize. This way a plurality of words and worlds will become a solidarity.
One of my digital trans mothers, Josie, taught me idiolectic trans history. She told me Joseph from the Book of Genesis was a trans woman. (This checks certain common boxes: eleven older brothers, refused to top women, wore a colorful dress, life story expropriated for gay musical theater.) She told me Princess Felix Yusupov who shot Grigori Rasputin through the liver was a trans woman. (Felix adored dresses, was rumored bisexual, and consumed Pilules Orientales in secret after reading their ads: “A beautiful bust is essential for a woman.”) These are two of hers. No trans women recognize the same ancestry. I asked Josie how she knew for sure and will always remember her response: “I get a bitter taste on my palate.”
When I tell trans people trans history will hurt them, I do not mean, as trans theorygirl Andrea Long Chu says too often, that being transgender is bad for you. What I mean is that hurting is good for you.
I say the purpose of trans history is masochism. I have never had interest in playing in the leatherdyke community, whose members taught me everything I know about masochist sexual practice, because as a bottom I am concerned I have no limits. I have ideated on suicide for the majority of my life. I drank hot sauce; I starved myself; I bit myself to draw blood; I self-denied sleep; I hit myself; I had affirming dreams about unanesthetized castration. I recite these facts impersonally because I cannot recall adolescence. My memory of puberty is a lacuna. Fifteen years after puberty I am unsure I could recognize I am being physically abused. This is a survival skill to address trauma. “Pain is important,” a great feminist opponent of masochism Audre Lorde wrote, “how we evade it, how we succumb to it, how we deal with it, how we transcend it…. to die, or bear the pain.” There is a third option.
Pain is good to me, when pain is good to me, because it ends desensitization. Many acts of gender transition – binding, tucking, injecting, epilating, electrolysizing, sterilizing, uncloseting, therapy – are self-harm in this good resensitizing way. “When people talk about consent they have this lofty idea of something that happens in the left hemisphere or cortex,” said San Francisco leatherdyke, tattoo artist, and general transgender culture girl Tala Brandeis, “Actually we’re animals who are much more involved in our emotions than our reasoning mind.” The Queer is at first like The Animal in how she has no sense, no meaning in history. The way evolutionary biologists write animal history, through genetic reproduction, does not work for queers. Postmodern feminist Donna Haraway has developed a concept “natureculture” which gives The Animal cultural memory. She writes “Flesh and signifier, bodies and words, stories and worlds: these are joined in naturecultures.” This is good news for my morality and continued existence.
I have discovered pain that starts on my body is not pain at all. I have discovered pain that lives in my memory is all my body feels. This is my pathology as transgender historian. As a child I would cry for hours when people so much as left my vision. I was even scared to blink. I wanted people so much. Last month I cried reading trans starlet Candy Darling’s diaries and death; she gave the title “Tricky Mother Nature” to my website and newsletter.
My queer history is the pain of recognition. It is a bitter taste on your palate, even when it is joyful. I do not plan to write many biographies, which turn the reader into an outside observer. I plan to write history grouped by common themes we all identify in. This newsletter will be reserved for the shortform: notes, lists, sketches, drops of fiction, whatever has not yet cohered in me. “Three Early Instances of the Fag Hag.” “Queerness & the Shelter System (New York City, 1990).” “Trans Women & Headshaving Tortures.” Titles like these.
Months ago I became familiar with the most common reaction to my writings on trans history, which was “Oof,” as in, “This hurts.” I first asked myself why my writing hurt people. What is most directly hurtful about trans history is its sparsity. What hurts next is how it lives, in dive bars and prison ledgers. It hurts to recognize yourself in a hurt people because you recognize you have been hurt the same. Pain you could have felt all along comes into being with such cumulative intensity that you almost feel human, albeit human of queer minority.
Friends in pain have asked me, on Transgender Day of Remembrance, why we do not have a Transgender Day of Forgetting. All we do is forget. So much discourse around trans people has been essentially cyclical for hundreds of years. Yesterday I rewatched my favorite film, Chris Marker’s Sunless from 1983. It says: “I’m writing you all this from another world, a world of appearances. In a way the two worlds communicate with each other. Memory is to one what history is to the other: an impossibility.”