LADY BRACKNELL: Until yesterday I had no idea that there were any persons whose origin was a terminus.
– Oscar Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest
This text contains accounts of queerphobia, transphobia and transmisogyny.
The sleeper train speeds through the early morning. Tall pines flash past, and behind them, mountains. In their compartments, people wake up, yawn, splash cold water on their faces. Some shave, some put on makeup, some do both, some finally don’t have to do either.
They open their suitcases to find the clothes they’ve always wanted to wear. Rather than being designed to make them hate themselves, the clothes finally fit their bodies. People come to breakfast in flowing robes, jean shorts, functional jumpsuits and sequinned minidresses.
On this train, everyone has xir own body, understood in xir own way. These are not infallible bodies, not androids, statues, or airbrushed models. Some, in the place of their origin, would be thought to be one or more of the following: too fat, too thin, the wrong colour, the wrong shape, with bits that don’t work properly. These wrongnesses remain, but they are not wrong here. Distinctions that in our world we would read as gender, race, disability wouldn’t cease to exist, but we wouldn’t experience them as scored violently onto our bodies by history.
In the dining car, everyone has breakfast, and talks about what they are going to do now that they have left the old world behind. They might build something, teach something, sing something. But the goal, and therefore the ultimate answer, is always: to care for each other, and for themselves.
This is the fantasy I’ve used to get to sleep for about ten years. I call the world in which it takes place Iris, after the Roman goddess of the rainbow. In Iris, they speak a language with a hundred pronouns. I sleep, you sleep, he/she/it sleeps, but I wake, you wake, they/she/it/he/ze/xe/sie/fae . . . wakes.
When I do get to sleep, Iris has never actually been somewhere I’ve visited in my dreams. However, it isn’t a product of my conscious mind – neither hidden desire nor utopian design, but somewhere in between, a wish given flesh. I think it’s on a train simply because I like trains, and its political economy may not have much more to recommend it – it’s an unscientific utopia, closer to Charles Fourier’s oceans of lemonade than the utopia of planned economy. Its main redeeming feature is its queerness in everything; when people say ‘everything is gay and nothing hurts’, they are speaking of Iris.
There are (flawed) Irises in the real world – perhaps a particular half an hour in one room at a certain party – but none is as universally inclusive and unencumbered by history. What makes Iris different is its movement and direction – it’s on the move and it’s never going back.
Aged nineteen, a person is told by their parents that they can’t come home unless they stop wearing makeup and dressing in certain clothes. What are their options? Clearly it isn’t the clothes or the makeup themselves that their parents object to – had this been their cis daughter, a bit of eyeliner, a modest shade of lipstick, a pink top and a floral scarf would have raised no comment. No, it was the presence of these modest adornments on something they thought was the body of their son, but was now a genderqueer nightmare.
The genderqueer person sees in their mind the short walk they’d make up the path on a street of terraced houses, overlooked by neighbours crowded in on all sides. They could have not worn the makeup and dug out a blue jumper or earth-toned scarf instead. But it would still have been the same genderqueer body and would still have proven, sooner or later, to be unacceptable.
They know this because they don’t vanish into the crowd when they’re not wearing makeup. In fact, often the days when they’re dressed in a less ‘feminine’ way are when they get the most stares. They have lost the ability to disguise themself. The ‘male’ mannerisms that were foreign to them but which they consciously emulated out of a sense of duty or need or appropriateness have vanished from their vocabulary. Even were they inclined to do so, they can no longer really perform ‘man’.
This person might be fortunate in many other ways. They might (say) be white, able-bodied, and have primarily held jobs that have meant they didn’t need to be alone outside at night. Although they’re subject to unwanted attention in a lot of public spaces, they can minimise the ways in which they are likely to be a target, and get out of a difficult situation quickly if they need to. If they don’t drink, that’s another bonus – they don’t usually need to be in pubs or around drunk people. This puts a crimp in their social life, to be sure, but they can’t separate their general social deficiencies from their genderqueerness. Some of what look like just nerdy social tics actually function to keep them safe – an obsession with bus and train timetables minimises the time they need to spend on a dark street or platform with strangers, and a habitual avoidance of eye contact makes it less likely they’ll inadvertently provoke a confrontation. Other aspects of their personality are less conducive to smooth sailing – they find it hard to explain why certain things are so wounding, and don’t make an effective complainer in institutions. A teacher or a boss who continues to see and speak to this person with reference to the wrong gender is an obstacle to be avoided, not confronted.
When I first found for myself the label ‘genderqueer’, I wondered how I would find the gendered position that would best suit me. I imagined myself on a little jetty of masculine presentation and the expectations from which I could finally push myself off, towards the opposite bank of the feminine. I thought that since I belonged on neither side, I might eventually find something in the middle, but I never have. To be queer in a heterosexist society, to be trans in a cissexist society, is always to be uncomfortable. Today many policies – and, far more importantly, cultural expectations – have spread that I never encountered when I came out. I’m not just talking about legal reforms around gender recognition, vital as they are. There are fewer stares, comments, and refusals to serve me when I buy makeup or an item of ‘woman’s’ clothing. Last year a new cis, straight acquaintance – not even in a queer space! – asked me my pronouns. But even the tiny demands that have already been made on the time and attention of cis people have created an utterly disproportionate backlash.
The material conditions of the lives of different people who use gender-neutral pronouns might vary widely. Doubtless many of you reading this think that such people – like me – are making too big a deal of the whole thing. Called irresistibly to mind are the prominent media personalities who claim that they are being ‘silenced’ when people protest about their desire not to use ‘preferred’ pronouns, casting themselves as transgressive outsiders and truth-tellers for using the pronouns that they imagine match a person’s genitalia or chromosomes, neither of which they are likely to know about. Even if you are not one of these, however, you may think that being referred to with the wrong pronouns is trivial, and that people who insist on their pronouns are sensitive, coddled, sheltered. All I can tell you is that I’ve had queerphobic abuse shouted at me in the street and I’ve been routinely, repeatedly, publicly, privately, knowingly and unknowingly misgendered by people I thought were my colleagues and my friends and I know what each one feels like, and the different kinds of mark they leave on the day, the memory, the mind and body. My entire adult life strangers have felt perfectly comfortable speculating about my gender in my hearing and without addressing me – I can hear ‘Is that a bloke?’ with no warning and find myself turned from an anonymous person into the centre of attention, and that attention is embarrassing at best and dangerous at worst. Indeed, while I was writing this essay, I heard a transphobic discussion begin at the table behind me in the cafe, mocking the appearance of a transgender prisoner whose picture appeared in the newspaper and settling on the conviction by all participants that she belonged in prison for life. I chose to move my body, and angle it so that this self-appointed gender jury didn’t see my face, not knowing whether it would have marked me out for ridicule or violence too.
It’s not an uncommon experience for me to be called ‘he’, or more rarely ‘she’, by a stranger, a doctor, a family member, or a colleague, and although there is no reason that this should happen to anyone if we all stopped making assumptions about pronouns, I try to take it in my stride, I can prevent it from ruining my day. However, as a writer who has very publicly used ‘they’ pronouns for some time – previously I would carefully reword things to avoid pronouns altogether, but for some years I have used them in every bio, they’re in my poems, I wear a ‘they/them’ pendant most days – I had the experience of sitting in the front row of a packed poetry reading, part of a series of events I had followed for years and finally been invited to participate in alongside writers and performers I respect, knowing I was about to have to climb on the stage in seconds, and hearing myself called ‘he’ repeatedly in the introduction. At this point, the politics and sociolinguistics of the issue fail me, and I can only describe the sensation: my legs shook underneath me, and I felt like I was sinking out of my body and into the floor. Had not every possible path been blocked by the press of people to whom I was about to have to perform, I would have fled, abandoned the long-awaited chance forever. Maybe this makes no sense to you. It doesn’t make much more sense to me. But it returns to me in a way that the memory of what I thought would be an achievement in my career, a night I could look back on and be proud of, doesn’t.
We each speak an individual language, an idiolect, and might use terms that we think are perfectly benign but which might bear an unfortunate resonance for those to whom we are speaking. This does not mean that we spray our terminology at random. We listen when people are brave enough to tell us that a word has associations for them and for others that are demeaning, dismissive, or marginalising. And, knowing that we do not always feel able to re-enter language to tell each other how hurt we have been, we also listen in other ways. We read, we research, we teach each other. A tainted term can be examined, the limitations explored, but the language is not ours to use without consequence. It is a shared tool, and can only exist because of agreements between all of its users, both tacit and explicit. Sometimes that agreement is coerced, enforced, policed. But being asked to use a certain set of pronouns is not policing.
Such an attitude to language is often compared to Orwellian ‘newspeak’; in fact, it is the reverse. In 1984, Syme hopes that the language will shrink into a tiny number of words, making forbidden thoughts impossible. A proliferation of pronouns does the reverse. It grows the language, making previously impossible thoughts liveable.
(As a linguistic aside: it’s not entirely clear why some languages, Indo-European ones mostly, evolved gendered pronouns in the first place. One hypothesis is that pronouns make it easier to distinguish between people being referred to, if one is a man/he and another a woman/she. But with a proliferation of such pronouns would only make such confusions easier, and on a less pragmatic level, allow more recognition and celebration of our differences.)
Sometimes, if I’m having particular trouble falling asleep, the train reaches a destination: a small village whose modest homes I imagine stuffed with flowers and secondhand books, with a main street leading down to the river. On the river is a jetty with a small boat, which some butch Irisian who knows what ze’s doing rows or punts through the reeds and into the dense willows. The boat finds a concealed landing place somewhere in the cool shade, and a dark path leads off into the distance.
I imagine a sort of randomised path leading through the forest. Bisecting trees that would be good for climbing. Tufts of wildflowers. Ancient knolls with carved stones half-hidden under moss. Somewhere in the woodland is a house, or what looks like a house – in our world, a house is a weapon, something a landlord uses to take your money or else that its inhabitants use to keep them safe from landlords. In Iris, however, a house is a composite of people’s experiences.
Who lives here? Would my friends want to come to Iris? I have made this place on my own, so the people in it are masks, unreal. If they were real, they would make the place back, exert just as great an influence on it as I do. The Irisians are all queer and are always in love – with one another, with the land, with themselves. Could I even be one? What of myself that has kept me safe would have to be burned away to allow me to live with them?
When I first came out as gender non-conforming, I described myself as ‘genderqueer’, which I take to mean something like ‘queer with respect to gender’. Of course, to be queer in one’s gender means compulsorily to be queer in other ways, too; if you’re neither man nor woman, you can’t be straight. More recently, the term non-binary has come to be used, shortened to NB – note well; if only – and then lengthened again to ‘enby’. Finally, an easy noun. Hashtags like #mancrushmonday and #womancrushwednesday are joined by #enbycrusheveryday. Had this hashtag existed ten years ago, more of us might then have been able to conceive of ourselves as the object of crushes, or a potential ‘enbyfriend’. But in my case I think years of understanding myself as illegible to desire has made it illegible to me. I spent the formative years in which I might imagine or present myself as someone other people might crush on, might want to sleep with, might want to love, not seeing anyone who looked like me have those experiences and not hearing any language for it. There was no mental narrative I could write myself into. A lot of queers have this experience – a queer boy can have the secret and uncomfortable desire to be rescued, held, protected, while a queer girl can see herself as a dashing suitor. There are more and more cultural models that help us see that all lovers should be able to occupy both of these roles, all possible combinations, and more. But I’m twenty-eight, I’ve never had sex, and that seems more natural to me than any narrative in which someone would want me.
(I sometimes put references to fucking in my poems anyway – it seems like what people expect from a queer writer, and what people expect from poetry. Its forms – the sonnet, the lyric, even the ‘I’ and the ‘you’ poems talk in, are all about love, and the balance between its emotional, mental, and physical dimensions. So the words and grammars I was trained in talk about this.)
I’m not alone in any of this, but I’m maybe not quite typical either; of course lots of enbies date, have relationships, that can exist outside the various gender and sexual binaries we negotiate. I don’t want to make these relationships sound superhuman – they give rise to their share of misunderstandings and heartaches. And as with lots of queer dating, the lines between friendship and something else are not always clear. The danger of this, however, is the difficulty of saying ‘no’ – if someone says ‘we will have that unconventional connection, that love between the cracks’, there is no ‘no’ there, or not one that can be easily heard as drawing one boundary and not another. If you’re standing on a lonely rock with someone, and they grab on too hard, the choice is either to grab on just as tightly, even if you don’t want to, or for both of you to fall off.
Many times, I have needed to go to Iris to fall asleep. The prospect of the thousand small ‘he’s that would pepper the coming day, the ambiguous loo dashes, the stares and comments, muttered or shouted, could only be settled enough to drift off by imagining that I might open kinder eyes on the imaginary sleeper instead.
But there is no Iris. It doesn’t exist, never will, never can. Sometimes I imagined it might be the sort of place we could bring about on another planet – a terraformed Mars, or an earth-like world in another solar system, a blank green-and-blue place ready for building. The fantasy of Iris is a place without history, because gender is only history. It doesn’t live anywhere, it’s not inherent anywhere, but while we’re living in history, we are stuck with it.
So, I can see that Iris is a bad thing to want for many reasons. For one, its patterns seem to come from colonial fantasies about terra incognita. (This is actually true of many of our imaginaries of gender: as B. Binaohan notes, ‘the history of transgender and/or the history of homosexuality […] emerged as whites began to exert hegemonic control over (for lack of a better word) queer discourse’.) It relies on the belief that there are parts of the world that are ‘unexplored’ – those already living there don’t get to give them cool new names out of Greek mythology or slice a mighty railway into its virgin forests. It’s also part Hogwarts Express (meritocratic fantasy – rescues the people born special from the sad, everyday world) and part the opening pages of Alasdair Gray’s Lanark (individuals’ failure to fit into a strange, uncaring world see them swallowed by pits and turned into medicalised monsters). The train whisks you away from all of your problems, often into new exciting, magical ones, but those are driven by rules for heroes, and not by history. Imagining a perfect future in order to escape from the world means we don’t have to fight for anything, we just have to live as new people. But being those new people is only possible through fighting and learning.
For all these reasons and more, I used to think that my need for Iris was a weakness. Utopianism, I knew, is just bad politics. I should focus on changing things here, now, every day. I should go to sleep each day exhausted from all the work I’d done, ready bounce out of bed excited about what I’m going to do tomorrow. I worried – I still do – about how to balance my political duty with my need to fall asleep. Mismanaging that balance has often led me to hide from the difficult conversation, to neglect the possibility of the more just in favour of the good-enough, or the survivable. But the *wanting* of Iris itself did not make me weak, or if it did, it was also a resource in the face of that weakness. Being able to imagine nothing better was what I used to do. I could not imagine my life as a man – there was and is no such life.
But there are also certain experiences in which, in a body hailed by a society in a certain way, I can only participate either as a man or as a queer. The former not being an option, the latter then asks me to participate in a queer community. But queer communities (which should never be spoken of in the singular) are not Irises. They are marginal, always under economic and physical threat. And to be clear, many of them are beautiful places when they make their temporary and precarious manifestations, but some of them are classist, racist, ableist, ageist, misogynistic, transphobic, transmisogynistic, or all of the above. I’ve been fortunate enough to participate in some experiences of queer community that made me feel included, although some of them did this while excluding others. Faced with situations of this kind, some people ignore this, some try to change it, some leave – I’ve done all of these things, and they have not always been the right decisions. On balance, though, more often than I’ve felt included I’ve felt excluded, either through being ignored or being actively pushed out. The problem with queer community, as Wilde might not have said, is that it takes up too many evenings, and I’ve ended most of those evenings emotionally exhausted, throat scratchy from shouting in a noisy bar, lying awake in my cold bed.
(These are things I’d never have had the courage to say if I hadn’t first read them in the Radical Transfeminism zine, and elsewhere.)
Queer community is somewhere you’re supposed to be able to be yourself. But if as a transfeminine person you do something that someone else doesn’t like (asserting your autonomy, disagreeing with someone, or simply existing), that person can defend themself by invoking the supposed hidden, essential manhood underneath your, by contrast, counterfeit femininity. To them, this proves that you were only ever really a man. A trans woman posting online of her very existence is described as ‘a man talking over women’. A transfeminine shopper using a single private changing room in the same set of changing rooms as their cis women friends is hounded as a pervert. These kinds of attacks feature with depressing regularity in the mainstream press, especially in Britain, and it is buttressed by an online trend of transphobic trolling and shadowy funding from the religious right. (On this have other pens written more eloquently, but venture down that rabbit-hole with caution.)
But we encounter it also even from our friends, even from fellow queers. Sometimes this is because of the sense of their own vulnerability they are made to feel keenly. The way people with vaginas, uteruses and periods have their daily practical needs and pain dangerously invisiblised leads some to circle the wagons and say that the needs of the ‘female body’ are ignored in favour of an ideology that ‘gender is a feeling’. This is in some ways an understandable reaction, and a politics that elides the material conditions of people’s lives in favour of abstract notions of identity is a vicious weapon of neoliberalism. But of course those needs that are made invisible and shameful are not needs only of the female body – they are the needs of the bodies of trans men and many nonbinary people as well, and made all the more invisible in those cases. Gender is at once a material condition and a psychical state.
Often people use phrases like ‘socialised as boys’ and ‘socialised as girls’ – this is a way of talking about those assigned male and female at birth respectively. If we had been socialised as boys and girls, we would have become men and women, because men and women are the products of that socialisation. You all *tried* to socialise me into a boy. It didn’t work. But ‘socialised as’ is used in this way to undermine a trans person’s conception of their own identity, to gaslight them into doubting themselves and the success of their transition (as if we needed it).
Having said that, ‘transition’ is itself a problematic term, and it has been used in the past to flatten out the trans narrative: trans people, ‘born in the wrong body’, are tasked to locate the ‘real’ gender and, having found it, settle into their facsimile version of normal life as best they can. This ‘reality’ is thought to be a kind of essence buried deep beneath both the aberrant body and the socialisation, which conception leads to the idea of a trans person as someone who ‘used to be a man/woman’, but isn’t any more. As Verity Spott writes in her Trans* Manifestos, ‘“Trans” supposes transition, but where is that transition from and to? […] We are not in transition. We are in occupation.’
I started with The Importance of Being Earnest, because for me writing this essay was a little like being found in a handbag in a train station, while the manuscript of a three-volume novel of more than usually revolting sentimentality was carried to Iris in my stead. In Wilde’s play, the governess Miss Prism makes the tragic and ludicrous mistake of confusing someone else’s child with her own text. When we think of ourselves in terms – when we surround ourselves in terminology, which we so often have to do in order to be seen – we nevertheless make the same mistake. But without this mistake, we would be ignored, miscategorised, overwritten. My origin here is my terminus.
You can’t ask a poet not to point out the laboured pun – term-in-us. The term, the pronoun, the little variable in the algebraic sentence, is also felt to be held inside, like an essential component, a pronominal soul. A tiny glowing ‘xe’ stamped onto the being of one person, an iridescent ‘they’ in another, a burning ‘she’ in a third. When we get the wrong pronoun, the right pronoun hurts us.
It’s tempting to think of gender as ‘just a label’ that we’d be better off without, as if we can take it off at will or when we don’t need it and wander around the world freely. This is manifestly untrue, although given almost every label I’ve ever tried to remove from anything has done so in rips and scraps and destroyed itself in the process, maybe the analogy is accurate after all. Terms shouldn’t have to be the be-all end-all, but sometimes using the wrong one, or inhabiting incorrectly the one you’ve been given, is terminal.
*xe/xem/xir. ‘Xe boarded the train, taking xir suitcase with xem.’ The same sentence about someone with ‘she’ pronouns would be: ‘She boarded the train, taking her suitcase with her.’
Photograph © Peter Amende