Against Literary Transphobia
An early writing mentor told me once that sharing my story will save lives. I believe in the power of words to save lives, but the flipside is their power to harm. And I can’t overstate the harm transphobic writing like Daniel Harris’s “The Sacred Andogen: The Transgender Debate,” published in The Antioch Review, can do.
It’s especially true in this case, where the narrator pretends hyper-rational distance and breezy self-awareness at once, undergirding his arguments with pseudoscience and vague, belated references to personal experience. Oh, and the language, the language is nasty. The essay is full of slurs and specters–demonic possession, Sybil, trans breasts as “ulcerated saddlebags”–disguised as wit. Perhaps as a misguided protest to the author’s stated confusion around trans pronouns, he instead uses the definite article, as in “the TG should exist…”, thus flattening trans lives into distant abstraction, the ultimate othering.
Take note that the Antioch Review is a magazine with a mission to publish the best words, to “revive the moribund art of literary journalism.” A note on their submission page says, “Our literary standards are as high as we can enforce them.” In other words, this essay was published not despite its foul, hard-hitting language, but because of it. I can find no novel argument here, no compelling progression of ideas, only the vilest of regurgitated misogyny and transphobia with mockery stacked so busily and so high one can’t help but wonder how long and what balance it must have taken. Ah, we do favor one-note meaning and toil, don’t we? And “free speech,” yes! How could it possibly be hate speech if it’s just rebundling what’s already been said, what’s said all the time? How brave, that writer! Give him an award. One to the editor, too, to crown his neat stack of laurels, including a lifetime achievement award for magazine editing. Lifetime achievement, indeed! Population control and magazine editing in one swoop!
And yes, for the record: yes, I believe lives are at stake. Not metaphors but actual human lives.
I’ll move on, lest we sully the twin spires of art and free speech.
Though the writer seems to claim feminist authority by calling trans people pre-feminist, he uses demeaning and objectifying, often sexualized descriptions of women throughout. So why not call this essay out for its misogyny, as well as for transphobia? It is up to the author, it seems, to decide how a vagina should present itself, (as an “orifice” apparently, not a “fibrous lump”), and how legitimate women should look–not “vacuous fantasies” such as [names of real women] but “average,” like “the” [unnamed] “hippies, braless, triple-A-cup coed in jeans and T-shirts…”
No surprise that race is a problem here, too, with dismissive references to Michael Jackson, Rachel Dolezal, and the Venus of Willendorf meant as easy parallels–and who would want to be that? OITNB‘s Laverne Cox is not lauded because she’s a stunning actor but because she “slaps on a transdermal estrogen patch.” (Does she? Do we even know Laverne Cox’s hormonal status and delivery mechanism? Shall I assume Antioch Review fact-checked this, along with many other claims about medical/surgical statuses and experiences?)
I think this, not the deep work of investigative memoir, is self-indulgent. More important, its publication is highly destructive.
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