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On Being t4t, The Limits of Theory, and The Man Who Looks Like Me

BY D. CLARKE


Just after we agree, for now, not to fuck, my friend K observes that I am friends with more cis people, men particularly, than any of the other trans people either of us knows. We are driving back to Pittsburgh from an action, just the two of us. All the cis men we rolled with are riding together in the other car. “What do you talk about with them?” K asks. “I have no idea how to relate to them, but you do it so easily. I know what it is: you’re the cisperer.”


Those cis people, mostly men, are my comrades, but in this moment, and at the moment of the action, I found I did not want to be with them and their guns, that my body felt safer with K, who is a medic and trans like me. Before the action K and I got dressed together and they watched me chamber a round then tuck the pistol in my waistband. “You happy to see me?” she winked. Of course a gun is a cock, though it’s become gauche to say so. I have a huge chest; the only binder that’s ever worked for me is a bulletproof vest. At another armed protest, as everyone got dressed, all the trans people in the room eyed one another, cruising not for action but seeking power for the action, for that sweet leap of recognition in the chest: yes, I’m hot and you want me. None of the cis people surrounding us noticed, and that eye contact buoyed me all through a long and scorching Ohio day. Though I am no longer new at being trans, the ways in which trans people desire one other, and how that desire helps us constitute ourselves and carry onwards, continues to astonish me. Desire as survival. Desire that need not be expectation, or possession, but only solidarity. Sometimes I fail at this.


So how do I constitute myself in relationship to the men who surround me? The flickers of desire I feel from them worry me, and it worries me to admit I desire them: how many of them see me as a woman who insists on using they/them pronouns? What about that reading appeals to me, makes things feel easier? But I love them, and I change my sex when I carry; with my gun I acquire a kind of cis gender that amplifies a masculinity much older than this understanding of myself as trans. I think these cis men like me because I am like them, simple as that.

In February my new lover, M, who is five years younger than me, which won’t seem like much in a few years but surely does now, arrives at the bar where I am already sitting with my very dear friend B, who is seven years older than I. M has just hosted a gathering of the transfemme porch at my apartment. I tried for months not to want M; it went poorly; it was B who reminded me of the age difference between him and me and told me to get over myself and kiss M; I did, and told M of the exchange with B; M asked me to convey to B their appreciation. B, I hesitate to note, is cis, as mentioning this might reify exactly the essentialism of sex and gender that Jasbir Puar critiques[1], describing the ways in which scholarship on Kimberle Crenshaw’s theory of intersectionality, while pushing back on second-wave white feminist norms, “produces an ironic reification of sexual difference as a/the foundational one that needs to be disrupted—that is to say, sexual and gender difference is understood as the constant from which there are variants.” Cis people are cyborgs too, but fewer of them know it. Who am I to call anyone cis. Are you cis if you don’t know you’re a cyborg? Goddesses are supposedly natural; cis people too. Perhaps the choice between cyborg and goddess is the choice between transness, that is, the embrace of gender as construction and categories as “cut through and unstable,” and cisness, or a reliance on the idea of clear lines and absolute difference, that is a presumption that nature operates in some clear, fixed, divine (Goddesslike) way. Not to accuse anyone of being cis, though, to be clear, some trans people, believing fundamentally in a before and after, an essentialism tied to their own surgeries and declarations, some clear bifurcation and unidirectional progress, are of course cis themselves.[2]


At the bar M wears a pin on their jacket: I WOULD RATHER BE A CYBORG THAN A GODDESS. B asks about it. I tell them both that I have just been reading that essay in seminar. M, it turns out, is not familiar with the essay though they know the Donna Haraway text[3] that Jasbir Puar is writing back to. But M, in wearing the pin out in public, posits a complete theoretical orientation. It’s not the text, but the reference that facilitates advertisement of their own trans self consciousness: none of us are natural, and we have not done the reading.

Walking in Friendship Park with M in early spring I say something accidentally and resplendently pompous regarding the critical theory seminar I am taking on the writings of Jacques Lacan, whose ideas regarding neurosis and psychosis are in fact helping me to displace the shame I feel regarding my desire to give language to the relationship I am building with M. Lacan describes how neurosis avoids the difficult thing, creating a logic that contains the absence at its center, while psychosis creates an internally coherent logic that fills up the empty space, rather than avoiding it.[4] I just want to create a shared logic that fills up the void, I tell them. By which of course I am asking to define the relationship. Of M, I don’t know how else to describe what they are to me. Our relationship is intimate, tenuous, erotic, new. There is lover. I could say we are “seeing each other” (which I know because they told me they had let their mom know they were seeing someone new, and that someone was me), or maybe dating, or having a romantic relationship, but none of those phrases are any more true. By the time I write this essay spring is over, and we have broken up. It turns out the romantic relationship itself was avoiding the true and central thing, that though we love one another our dynamic is something other than lovers. The night I told M I wanted them they replied that they did not know if they could think about me romantically because they saw me as a mentor. I thought if we talked about it enough we could straddle the gap. Sometimes talk is action, and sometimes it’s only theory. Theory which so many days has alone helped me survive.


But while M and I are still together in that old way, and a few days after the conversation about Lacan, I go on and on about, I think, some poem while we are lying in bed. M cracks themself up. “That’s something the man who looks like you would say.” The man who looks like me also wears a leather jacket and has the sides of his head shaved; the hair up top is unwashed. Like me, he is a grad student who carries a book and journal everywhere. The man who looks like me is caught up in his own intellect, unbearably. I am not a man, though occasionally I round up to one, and as a man in others’ eyes, if not my own, my desire means something new that I don’t yet fully understand. At some point M and I agree that I am their boyfriend thirty percent of the time.

The language the transamorous man uses to talk about the trans women he desires makes my skin crawl. He is cis. How do those of us who are not trans women, and who engage in intimacy, romance, sex, or desire with trans women, talk about it openly? We just do, but not like that. Maybe like this.

Back in Massachusetts, when L and I were still together, trying and failing to understand ourselves as women, they rolled over in bed one afternoon in Athol and looked me up and down as I dressed. “Hey big guy.” An electric shiver shot through me. In that other bed years later in Pittsburgh, M tells me they like that when we go out together, we can be two dykes or two faggots, depending on the day.


Because of my gender, but also of my sex, the fact that long hair and huge tits will code me as a woman despite my best efforts, and because of my whiteness, I am granted a strange proximity to cis masculinity.[5] Because I look as though I absolutely am not, I am, robustly and incongruently, allowed to be. I drink whiskey and black coffee and I know how to shoot a gun. I am six feet tall in boots and people on the street don’t harass or catcall me. Brilliantly, my friend G, who protests that she is not trans and who in the middle of the night emails me the essay “The education of little cis: Cisgender and the discipline of opposing bodies,” calls herself cish, as in cis-ish, because mostly she lives inside the concept but she knows that it’s a lie. My sex feels all right; it’s my gender that troubles me. And one of the troubles is that the two are, while different, inextricable after all this theory.[6]


See the return of the term transsexual in recent years. Whether they employ medical transition or not, trans people engage in a practice of somatic conceptual alteration that undermines, or at least challenges, cis capitalist ideas of naturalness, particularly the assumption that sex is both unchangeable and, resultingly, meaningful. This essay assumes that sex, like and in relationship to gender, is both changeable and meaningful. Following queer and gender studies discourses of the early-2000s that sought to define gender and sexuality separately (“Who I desire has no bearing on what I am!” and vice versa), certain channels of contemporary trans life and trans scholarship are challenging this: I want to be desired as I desire myself to be. The transgender subject, acting on and for herself, is again transsexual.


My friend Y and I come out to each other as trans on the same day, and the day after that he writes a poem about it: “I never want to disappear unequivocally into masculinity. Womanhood is the country I come from, a home I reach back for to reproduce, recreate, replenish.”[7] Rereading, I feel distant from the confidence I expressed four years ago, my sentiments as he quotes them more troubling to me. How do I take resources from a place I miss thoroughly and really no longer belong to?


In April M confesses to me that they have never read Dean Spade after declaring that his work retains a relevance that many early-2000s queer theorists, hellbent on experience as the only analytical tool to such an extent that they refused extrapolation or making meaning past themselves, do not. I have read Dean Spade and I think they are right. I love to be right. So does the man who looks like me.

In “Reading Like a Depressed Transsexual,” Cameron Awkward-Rich writes, “transmasculinity has increasingly posed an un- or misrecognized problem for imagining trans-inclusive feminisms [8] Having not read this essay, M says more or less this very thing to me on their couch one night. Like a lot of white people who wrongly believed themselves to be girls as teenagers--or something like wrongly, I was a girl, it’s just that woman didn’t come after--I got into radical politics by reading about feminism. M, who is transfemme, is tired of our community of anarchists, all the transmasculine people who stopped getting read as women and then forgot about feminism, made the word uncool. I think the robust Jewishness of this community, myself included, is somehow related. Just because Ashkenazi masculinity is read as effeminate and often trans by white Christian society does not mean that Jews don’t need feminism, don’t have fucked up gender roles. Awkward-Rich continues, “[R]ather than seeking new terms of resolution, I excavate the depressed transsexual as a position from which to think through living with the lack of trans(masculine)feminist integration, even if it does not feel good.” It does not feel good. I start having conversations with the friends we share, but not enough. I get read as a woman but I am treated like a man.


A newsletter from Grace Lavery arrives in my inbox: “So what would an anti-transphobic method of literary criticism [look like]? One emerging, immanently, from the soldiarities that do exist in the social (and erotic!) practices of queer and trans communities?”[9] In trans communities, we are reading each other. A gun amplifies my cyborg body into masculinity. The man who looks like me calls himself a feminist and does nothing about it. Awkward-Rich writes that “transmasculine narratives that produce the boy as a feminist masculinity often rely on the deferral of the girl.” I love men, and I’m not one except when I am, and I want to look like me.


Once, early in our relationship as lovers, I wear a dress, which I rarely do, when meeting M’s other lover SP, and M admits to me months later they worried that to SP I would not, in that dress, appear trans enough. Later SP says that they felt intimidated by me: because I’m older and an academic, and because they could tell how much M wanted me. “Desire, Awkward-Rich offers, “that which causes us to reach for something outside of ourselves, always arises from a wound that we would like the object of our desire to heal. And although desire always exceeds the object, although the wound remains open, we remain attached both because the promise of closure is not broken, merely and perpetually deferred, but also and most importantly because something usable is produced by the attachment.”


What’s wrong with being a man? That’s insidious TERF thinking stuck inside of me, how boring to preemptively cancel my own being. How boring that I used to live in Northampton. TERF logic is horribly lacking in imagination: a world in which other people are somehow safer than cis men,[10] a world in which gender is only two rigid (!) things.[11] I love men, and sometimes I am one, and it’s desire, or its absence, that brings out what’s worst in me, though whiteness and masculinity make it easy. Such freedom: anyone can be toxic! Desire, too, brings out what’s best in me.


Months later K and I clasp hands at another protest, the first since quarantine. SP becomes a friend, then a crush, and mails me an envelope of seeds. After we break up M’s friends start checking on me, not because of my wounded heart but because they want relationships with me, and my dropping by with M is no longer a guarantee. Yet two weeks after the breakup I do drop by past midnight, as lovers do. M and their housemates are moving in the morning and the kitchen is not packed even slightly. I hoist boxes and wrap mirrors in discarded scarves. M is meticulous, a Virgo, not to be like that but it’s true, and I know them well enough to meet their expectations, to treat their possessions with appropriate care. In the wake of our breakup I feel something else opening, this attachment still of use. My old desire in a new form propels me into that apartment, and causes me, instead of working on this essay which is now past due, to reach for an object outside of myself. That object, as it happens, is a milk crate full of books which I place on a stack in the storage pod. The books, I should mention, are mostly theory, which M has yet to read.


NOTES

[1] Jasbir K. Puar, “‘I would rather be a cyborg than a goddess’: Intersectionality, Assemblage, and Identity Politics,” EIPCP (2011).

[2] Torrey Peters, “CisWorld.” Heavy Feather Review, 2019.

[3] Donna Haraway, “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century." Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. Routledge, 1991.

[4] Jacques Lacan, The Psychoses: The Seminar of Jacques Lacan. Taylor & Francis, 2013.

[5] C. Riley Snorton, Black on Both Sides: A Racial History of Trans Identity. University of Minnesota Press, 2017.

[6] And by the time I’ve returned to edits on this piece, the preceding lines have become untrue. I cut my hair and started injecting testosterone. To my surprise, I liked it. I had no idea I wanted a cock, with its shocking and sudden erections, so completely, though the fascination with guns should have clued me.

[7] Yanyi, The Year of Blue Water. Yale University Press, 2019. 22.

[8] Cameron Awkward-Rich, "Trans, Feminism: Or, Reading like a Depressed Transsexual," Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 42, no. 4 (Summer 2017): 819-841.

[9] Grace Lavery, “Sedgwick,” The Stage Mirror, 2020.

[10] “Noah Zazanis, “On Hating Men (And Becoming One Anyway).” The New Inquiry, 2019.

[11] Sophia Giovannitti, “In Defense of Men: On the failures of Political Heterosexuality and No Cis Men,” Majuscule Lit, 2020.


D Clarke lives in Pittsburgh, PA, where they are a doctoral student in history at the University of Pittsburgh. Their work has appeared in Public Books and World Literature Today.

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