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On Wrong Love: A Response to the Geoffrey H. Nicholson Controversy

BY STEPHEN IRA


“’To get away from you!’ she answered. But this expressed only a little of what she felt. The rest was that she had never been loved before.”

- The Portrait of a Lady, Henry James


All right, who on the editorial board had sex with Geoffrey H. Nicholson?


I ask not to be vulgar, nor because I think there is anything wrong with having sex with Geoffrey H. Nicholson. For all I know, I literally have. I have certainly had sex with enough men who seem indistinguishable from him. When the preeminent journal of trans studies solicits and publishes an essay by a chaser[1], who recites a typical chaser catechism, and then a conflict-prone and radical-identified corner of trans Twitter gets mad at that chaser and the people who solicited his essay, my reaction is similar to the one I have to any chaser encounter—well, who is this guy, and can I vet him through any of my trans friends? This set of questions is as obvious as it is uncomfortable, and I believe that this discomfort tells us a great deal about the limits of our current chaser conversation.


Because, of course, here I am basically proposing that I need to know about the content of the sex lives of a bunch of trans academics, mostly women. I am reinscribing the need to surveil and hypersexualize these people! I must not do this—and so here, my problem gets worse, because this cuts off my only reliable method for evaluating a chaser’s political and intellectual credibility, never mind his romantic or platonic eligibility, which is by asking other transsexuals: Have you fucked him? How did he treat you? Did he know how to touch your body, or is he new here, or did he know too well, and then think this meant he could do anything he wanted? Who else does he know, for how long, and are they still in friendly touch? Is he going to want to dress up—that is, is he in this because he needs to transition? What about that wife he was talking about? We arrive squarely in the personal. Two modes of inquiry about the chaserncollide, and they confound one another, showing us how little it is actually possible to say about the chaser with the tools at our disposal as trans thinkers in 2020.


From Nicholson’s essay, we do not learn anything new about the chaser that we as trans people did not know before. Instead, we learn how little the chaser knows about himself—at least, how little he is capable of saying. At one point, he averrs that he has an advantage over men more attractive than himself because he knows he can be a source of gender validation, and this seems like a flicker of something Nicholson might understand—something particular to the complex social relationship between the chaser and the transsexual. But mostly what this essay illustrates is that you can be an accomplished, highly educated, reasonably thoughtful chaser, and still truly struggle to give an account of yourself that addresses what it means to be a chaser, eliding information as basic as whether you have any close trans friendships or whether you are cheating on your wife.


To make matters worse, we find that a common reaction to Nicholson’s account of himself, from the radical transsexuals, is to say that this account should not be given. Instead, someone else, someone trans, though it is not clear who, should be using the space to account for their own lives, in some way. (Here, the idea that the chaser could have an exchange of ideas with a trans person is seen to be impossible.) It’s a little difficult to buy the claim that radical trans twitter would welcome a conversation about destigmatizing chaser desire, as long as it came with a trans woman’s by-line, centered in her personal experiences with sex and dating, when that same crowd has eviscerated journalist Diana Tourjee’s recent explorations of the subject in Vice. We seem to lack a radical response to the chaser’s insufficient account other than to tell him not to give an account of himself at all—I am not satisfied with this. I need the chasers in my life to account for themselves. If I want anything from the chaser, it is for him to give me a real account of his desire and how it has changed his life. I want to know whether he has fucked my friends and whether he treated them well—I want to know that he knows that we talk to one another. It is here where I feel we might learn something new about chasers, and, as I have argued here, it is precisely this type of exchange which is precluded by the very situation of trans studies within a formal academic conversation.


Of course, trans studies has a long history of pushing against the straight academy, with many of its prominent practitioners, including some of TSQ’s editors, writing, thinking, and performing reflexively about their own sexual lives. If trans studies were the home of a studied academic formality, then I, a poet with an MFA, would not be writing this essay, or at least you wouldn’t be reading it in this venue. On the one hand, this fills me with a sense of deep optimism. On the other, trans studies’s peculiar orientation to academic professionalism is part and parcel with its vulnerability to knowledge extractivism by cis academics. It is in part the long and horrid history—extremely online—of this knowledge extractivism that animates the online rage against Geoffrey, who confesses that he may be an academic, but not an expert in this field. As plenty of trans people have pointed out, they already know more than him, just from reading like, blogspots.


I believe that these days, when we speak about the chaser, we are speaking, basically, about two different things, which we collapse to our detriment. Sometimes, we are speaking about the violence that chasers can perpetrate, predominantly against black and brown trans women, when their fear of their own desire becomes murderous misogynist hatred. This is because speaking of the chaser is often an occasion to speak of male desire, though not all chasers are men, and this murderous male desire is so dangerous that it must be a priority. Other times, I believe we are speaking about the fear of wrong love. It seems to be hard for us to acknowledge this fear, and so we collapse it into a fear of violence. At the worst, this type of critique of the chaser instrumentalizes racist and transphobic murders in order to soothe white bourgeois anxiety about the nature of desire and the perils of misrecognition. The bourgeois trans subject perceives the misrecognition of wrong love as a total annihilation of trans selfhood, one that this trans subject can only represent in its emotional totality as a fear of physical assault—even murder.


Whatever poor choices Geoffrey H. Nicholson may be making with the various trans people in his life, to say nothing of his hilariously sparely mentioned spouse, those trans people appear to be consensual participants. They could choose not to text him back next time. I don’t think Geoffrey is a violent threat. (Of course, I have misjudged chasers in the past, and paid a personal price.) Nonetheless, I believe what we are talking about here with Geoffrey’s essay to be the fear of wrong love. The fear of being loved for what one is, rather than who; the fear of being loved by a married man who cannot be honest about your relationship, cannot even speak of it in public under his own name; the fear of being seen improperly, then loved for what is being seen. In other words, we are afraid of a situation like one I faced in Iowa some years ago, when I slept with a man who sought out trans people of all kinds, and told me after sex that because of my vagina and my gay affect, that it was basically the same as having sex with a woman. We are afraid of that basic disrespect emanating out into the rest of the relationship (it was already doing that, in Iowa), potentially transforming into abuse, as trans people know it so easily can with any cis person who doesn’t believe that you are what you are. But however vulnerable the situation of transphobia makes us to the pain of wrong love, however vulnerable trans people are to abuse from cisgender partners, wrong love is not a trans problem. It is not a chaser problem. It is a problem everyone has; it is the problem that systems of meaning-making as diverse as heterosexual marriage, political lesbianism, and T4T sexuality all attempt to safeguard against.


And how can we leave the question of who exactly the chaser is so thoroughly unpacked? Too often, what passes under the sign of “the chaser” or “transamory” in intra-trans community conversations is the white, cis, male chaser, whose desire is understood to extend to trans women and trans women alone. But this chaser is messy, and often exceeds his bounds of whiteness and heterosexuality. Even as he makes trans women the target of toxic projection, she will often frustrate everyone, by turning into a woman. (Frequently, here, the business of controlling the boundary between chaser and trans person provokes a recapitulation of the endless intra-community debate over the transgender/crossdresser boundary.) Not only that, but desire for trans people—even dehumanizing desire—is not the sole provenance of the white cis male chaser. If we call on the chaser to give an account, and we do not sufficiently limit this call, how can we be sure the person who will answer us is not a cis queer femme from 2009? And who was it that explained to me how my own desire for other trans people was qualitatively different from a chaser’s desire? I don’t know, but somewhere along the line, as a person with a trans partner of ten years, I seem to have acquired this received wisdom.


Trans people are told perhaps the most often, of any hated group of people, that our decision to live freely will doom us to wrong love. It is understandable that we might be sensitive about the possibility of it. But let’s take the long view for a moment: in a situation where trans people are told every day that wrong love is the only kind of love that’s possible for us, how can we even consider this problem of wrong love on the scale of the individual chaser? We are in a world where a chaser memoir was one of the biggest books of the past several years! We are way beyond a conversation about whether Geoffrey might make an okay boyfriend. The book I’m talking about is The Argonauts, of course, which I don’t think is necessarily a bad book, but certainly has never had to account for itself as a memoir of chaserhood in a way that might allow me to understand it. Consider Amy Marvin’s work on the trans curio, and the inspired connection she draws between chasers like Geoffrey H. Nicholson and cultural chasers like author and sexologist J. Michael Bailey, placing them on a continuum of her own divising. I’m certainly not acccusing the avowedly earnest and genuinely politically committed Maggie Nelson of being on par with, say, Bailey, and his infamously transphobic and, as Marvin points out, extremely horny, screed, The Man Who Would Be Queen.


I am not, personally, consumed by the question of how to eschew wrong love in my life—but the cultural chasers who’ve become so ubiquitous alarm me a great deal. Encouraging me to support the occupation of Palestine because the Israeli government is pro-trans—that’s the kind of bad chaser behavior that worries me, and that I wish we named as chaser behavior more often. After all, I can always stop texting Geoffrey, but my fetishization among liberal imperialists will not stop texting me. My ex-credit card company keeps showing me ads of happy trans people on Facebook—they have their real names on their credit cards! I think trans studies could do itself a real favor by pursuing the intervention Marvin has offered us in reframing the question of the chaser away from like, whether or not these guys would make good boyfriends, and into the question of what the chaser’s relationship is to cultural production—perhaps the production of some of those very cultural objects that taught so many trans people we were doomed to wrong love.


The stakes of destigmatizing chaser desire are very high, because love is very important. I believe that in 2020, a time when the chasers seem more and more culturally ascendant, it is necessary to pin them down and demand an account from them—however much they might enjoy it. If this account bores us, we should demand a better one, not turn with rage upon the trans editors or curators who asked for it (probably the most dispiriting aspect of this entire adventure—is this T4T academic practice? I hope not). If this account causes us deep discomfort, I believe one of the things triggering that discomfort is our fear of wrong love. I believe we must name this fear, just as we must name the personal nature of our desire to vet the chaser and the informal, social manner in which we have historically dealt with this figure. If we were able to speak openly, with one another and with chasers, who are a more diverse group of people than any of us would like to admit (lots of them are trans), about the methods by which trans people try to protect ourselves from wrong love, this conversation would be different—better.

[1] Calling chasers “chasers” instead of transamorous men allows me to take both myself and them a little less seriously.

Stephen Ira is a writer and performer. His poetry has appeared, or is forthcoming, in venues like DIAGRAM, Poetry, Fence, American Poetry Review, and tagvverk. As an actor, he has originated roles in plays by poets including Maxe Crandall and Bernadette Mayer. In 2013, he was a Lambda Literary Fellow. In 2019, he completed an MFA at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. He is currently a poetry editor at the speculative magazine Strange Horizons.

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