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?)

The confidence and clarity behind such condescension might be perversely alluring on its own, but it’s downright insidious when presented by an esteemed institution. Throw in a few references to ancient Greek culture, and, well, you get the idea. All an essay like this does is add dangerous heft to the lies trans people have heard all our lives, often clanging and banging for years in our own heads, not to mention in our families and communities.
And if you think I’m overstating how people react to a single journal article, whether literary or scientific, you haven’t been around the cocktail hours of many transgender conferences, especially those geared toward wealthy or middle class feminine-of-center people over 50. People apologize and castigate themselves with phrases and ideas borrowed from books/articles all the time.
I think self-doubt is almost necessarily a trans experience, and just as anyone might, trans folks look to authorities  (authors!) to help them find their way through. We spend years being told we aren’t who we think we are, so, please tell us, what are we? We try harder than anyone to be who we’re supposed to be, and when it doesn’t work, we get desperate for answers. That self-doubt doesn’t go away all at once. A long period of ambivalence–maybe a lifetime–can precede its erasure.
I can’t help but consider that lies and harm might be the very motivation for the essay. Why else would someone pen such a thing? Does the writer really hate so much being chided for misuse of gendered pronouns? I’m not supposed to say this, but consider the loudest anti-gay legislators later found playing footsie in the men’s room, the ex-gay researchers with their rent boys. What I mean is, it could be as simple as a writer–a self-proclaimed former drag queen–wrestling on the page with their own decision against hormones/surgery. Most writers work our way through problems on the page–there’s nothing wrong with doing so. But this essay passed editorial review seemingly without concern either for the writer’s positionality in the essay, or for the implications of publishing such a thing.
What do I mean by lack of positionality? Here we have an angry screed, but one presented as seemingly dispassionate, as though any sane, self-aware person might sit down to write against other people’s social and healthcare concerns using hundreds of insults and submit it to a literary journal rather than to one’s therapist. The connection to his drag queen past is the only bit of information I recall about the narrator, and it’s not mentioned until we’re deep in the reading. It’s meant, I think, not to establish perspective so much as to deflect criticism with the ultimate dismissal: “been there, done that.”

I think this, not the deep work of investigative memoir, is self-indulgent. More important, its publication is highly destructive.

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KtB editor Quince Mountain lives in the Great Northwoods and is currently at work on a chronicle of belated manhood and unlikely self-help. You can hear about his sexploits as a teenage cowboy for Christ here.