Rage, Concluded (A One-Year Anniversary Special)

I’m tired of thinking and feeling my way through rage, but having been writing about nothing else for a week, I’ve felt myself bludgeoned by my own rage for the last few days, with little enough recourse. First, a couple of basically trivial pieces of bad professional news happened to fall on the same day, and, sad to say, I still have no better response to any kind of work-related disappointment than a surge of don’t you know who I fucking am?, a new and utterly irreversible grudge, and then a desperate but usually successful attempt to find some kind of new ground on which I can feel safe from whoever threatens me. An Enneagram type 3, my self-worth derives to a sometimes unhealthy degree from visible professional success, rather than from family, friends, self-reliance, etc. So even the smallest slip - a moment when I am passed over for a fellowship or an article doesn’t land where I’d hoped, feels less like a bump and more like a profound and terrifying loss of momentum, even a loss of self. If I hadn’t spent all week grieving my mother’s rage, too, I’d be inclined to attribute my frantic relation to work to the lack of dignity and respect I felt in my own personhood, growing up. But my dear old ma has her own problems, and some part of it is probably not connected to any choices she’s made, but caught in eddying patterns of socialization and repression in which we are both caught, against our will and beyond our redress. 

A more actionable rage emerged at a meeting I was just attending for one of my campus committees at Berkeley, in which I learned that Ann Coulter is due to speak at UC Berkeley next Wednesday - in Wheeler Hall, in fact, the home of the English department; in the auditorium, which is directly below my office. It’s trans day of remembrance, too, which may be no more than a horrifying coincidence. That campus administrators have waited until less than a week before the event to announce it - and that the emails in which our volunteer student observers and “peace counselors” were informed over email that their labor was requested for “an event next Wednesday,” without any further information, seems like sufficient evidence to me of a cover-up designed to avoid scrutiny and oversight. A shameful concession to the delicate sensibilities of the free-speechifying fash, who apparently demand not merely unrestricted access to the public purse for their dumb jamborees, but also for the events to remain secret until it is too late for anyone affected by them to organize any kind of response, whether militant or protective or even just rearranging class to keep, for example, trans students out of the paths of the club-wielding nazis who will doubtless follow Coulter into the Berkeley English department next week. 

I let my rage show at the meeting - and of course all of the people present shared some part of it. I felt embarrassed by the way it slithered out of my throat, a quick slip at the front and then a catch at back, my words snagged on something. The sheer cowardice of the choice to hide the choice, not that Coulter should not be allowed to speak on campus - I’m on the record arguing that we don’t have grounds to exclude her (which we do now and did in 2017 with Yiannopoulos). The problem is, again, that the expenditure of bringing a fascist to campus will militarize the campus and male it impossible to inhabit safely for undocumented students, trans students, other queer students and students of color, and any one else who might have reason not to share campus space with literally hundreds of armed cops. And as in 2017, the administration’s strategy - hide the news - implies that they think of we sho are targeted by the fash as the real problem, the people who have to be kept out of the loop lest we make too much of a fuss. It’s one of a number of ways in which campus admin has accepted the fash framing of the free speech question: the reasonable expectation of time and space to rearrange classes, provide community resources and also, you know, actually protest fascism, are somehow framed as cozy accommodations demanded by cosseted nancies. 

I don’t know that there’s much to do about this rage - the inefficacy here is as palpable and as humiliating as claiming not to care when one loses a competition one has expected to win. But the humiliation is not the whole thing. UC Berkeley administrators were very wrong to conceal this from the community, and they should feel ashamed of themselves.

Earlier today I was privileged to be sent an essay that someone is working on regarding trans feminism and free speech (not for attribution or circulation yet, which is why I’m not saying the name of the author or anything about it). It mentions the Reed/Castiglia controversy of this time last year - another fucking controversy about trans people and free speech on campuses. And I realized I have yet to actually grieve my feelings about that. I suppose I can’t assume knowledge of what happened: the short version is, a professor named Christopher Reed published an anti-trans manifesto on his departmental website, and I wrote a critical response that argued a Title IX basis for protecting trans students and workers from deadnaming and misgendering, and positioned the campus anti-trans activism of liberal free-speechers within a broader fascist campaign against universities, for which trans people were the scapegoat. Reed, evidently apoplectic about my essay, co-authored with his partner Chris Castiglia a ferocious response, doubling down on the content of his anti-trans argumentation, while significantly ramping up the rage quotient, and scapegoating me personally for espousing a “type” of transness, from which presumably better trans people (the example Reed and Castiglia gave was Taylor Mac, laughably) distinguish themselves. 

A large public protest against the co-authored screed took shape, with many of the trans people Reed and Castiglia had hoped might flock to the anti-Lavery side in fact writing essays on my side of the question but with, usually, much stronger and angrier rhetoric. A couple of the responses from trans studies, in fact, did not refrain from remarking that my essay had been too soft on Reed’s manifesto, or too quick to seek a legal framework for redress. An open letter defending my position was signed by dozens of my senior colleagues in queer studies. Sensing that the cadre of reasonable trans whose arrival as reinforcements were expected, had in fact defected, Reed and Castiglia realized they were defeated at least on the public front, and co-authored another dumb essay, this time apologizing for their tone (but not their position) and recognizing that they had hurt some “good people” (whereas they had only intended to hurt me, a bad person). Though I was specifically not addressed in the apology, I made a genial public statement saying that it was a good thing and seemed sincere. At which point a couple of other weird things happened - the action having been so apparently successful in unifying the field against a couple of trans-antagonistic dudes, some people began to wonder whether my own document was an example of “cancel culture,” or some such; and a couple of fair-weather “allies” who hadn’t signed the letter but wanted to be thought of as down-with-the-trans, wrote somewhat gamey Facebook posts about how the very strength of the collective response in defense of trans people proved Reed’s initial point that academics are too deferential to trans people, or perhaps that trans people are violating the prevailing norms of queer culture. Which like, when those norms are transphobic, one hopes that we are. 

It was odd to read this narrative reconstructed today, because it feels so far away and still like I’m stuck within it, wearing the same mask of genial reasonableness that I wore in the original essay, in my first tweet thread after the escalation, and then my attempt to wrap the thing up after the apology. The wind changed and It stuck - many scholars I admire reached out to thank me for the article, and another crop to congratulate me on my public equanimity, but to Danny (who saw me up close) or any of the small number of people I was talking to about this all IRL, it was very obvious that my primary affective responses were a mixture of genuine terror for my personal and professional security, rage, and a sort of indirect, hypomanic glee - the glee that two men who clearly hated me had made such a stupid and avoidable tactical error.

I don’t really know how to grieve it all? Reading through the materials again I was hooked on this line: “the claim to have solved the problem of being an ‘effeminate boy’ by discovering the ‘fact’ of being a woman seems to slide back into nineteenth-century pseudo-scientific essentialisms about men’s and women’s souls trapped in wrong bodies.” Now, as a piece of reasoning, it’s quite easy to follow - we prefer our cocktail of pseudo-scientific essentialisms served in a highball of chromosomal theosophy. Boring enough. But the sentence offered a reading of the following line in my essay: 

“While my family, my friendships, and my romantic life have all had to make emotional adjustments in light of the news that a person they had known as an agreeably effeminate lad was, in fact, a woman that looks like a man, I have appreciated the efficiency and kindness with which my transition has been handled at work.”

It was a line about my fucking family, dudes. I would expect that any queer hermeneutic capable of sustaining any degree of attachment to either of those terms would be prepared to accept that the vocabularies and grammars of self-description with which we struggle to make our inferiorities available to those whom we love, are to some necessary extent nonce constructions, whose shifts in register are responses to the ministrations of tact, desire, incoherence, and attachment. I think everyone knows - but this hurt then, and it continues to hurt now, and I suppose that when one’s grievances are deferred in the name of moving on, tact accomplishes a more pernicious goal than that of imprecision - it involves the permanent silencing, the silencing in perpetuity of not just trans femininity, but femininity as such. Femininity, a state of permanently deferred grievance, situates itself in an oblique relation to rage.

I’m still writing in the margins of Susan Stryker’s essay on transgender rage - but here I think stipulating that the specificity of trans feminist rage is that it is channeled not merely through the introjected negation of the will to embodiment (which I take to be Susan’s claim in general) but through a secondary reinscription of masculinity in the social domain. Even when we speak as trans women, we speak wrongly. In which light, the rage I share with Susan pulls us apart not merely from my mother, the fascist-enablers in the Berkeley admin, and Reed, but also as compulsory masculinity as a force for political normalization. When I rage, I rage as a foreclosed femme, and the grievance will remain infinite until the wound (yes, lez say, that wound) heals.

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