After Shame

I don’t feel sad about being trans and I won’t pretend to

I’ve been feeling a little panicked and depressed these last couple of days, which I think Is partly on account of trans stuff. I’m just finishing a scholarly essay that gets pretty deep into some material that brings up traumatic associations for me, and I got misgendered a couple of times at work the other day - referred to as “he” when being described to third parties - and it sucked. The person who misgendered me is a friend, and someone who is supportive and knowledgeable about trans issues relative to many people that I encounter at work (though nobody has been beastly about it), and I don’t have any desire to recriminate. This all happens infrequently enough, and I don’t want anyone to feel bad about it (though I’m working on being gently assertive, rather than hiding, when it happens). But as it happens less frequently, it hurts a little more when it does. Being misgendered feels like receiving a sudden and unwanted disclosure - as though a bad secret has been spoken, and suddenly I know things about you that I didn’t want to know. Or, I think I do; I think I know that in your mind, my transition is the eccentric choice of a strange young man - who will eventually become a pervy old one - and my new name and pronouns perhaps technically justifiable, but also clearly opportunistic. My co-workers have seen me go through many different cycles in the last six years. They’ve known me as a girl for a shorter period than I had a full mustache. 

So, feeling glum made me realize that I have yet to write a post on here about the most unexpected and most noteworthy aspect of transition as I’ve experienced it: it has mostly worked. The parts where I take hormones, think of myself a woman and ask others to do the same, change my name - these have all been much, much more successful enterprises than I had any reason to believe when I embarked upon them. I first thought about the possibility of transitioning when I was at college (2001-2004), but eventually talked myself out of it because it seemed like a small solution to a big feeling. Clearly, it would have involved the public confession that one has embarrassing desires, desires which leave one open to mockery. These days, as it goes, most trans antagonism is disguised as moral panics and concern trolling, that one is almost grateful for the moral clarity of mockery. It’s quite rare. But that is what terrified me the most, as a young closeted trans person: that dressing and expressing the way I wanted to would elicit laughter on the one hand, and pity on the other. Obviously, to be clear I am privileged and secure enough that I can face down these responses without risking too much, when they do appear, which is less often for me than for others. But the responses of others are so far from the point.

Notwithstanding the despicable chaos of the American healthcare system - which also affects others far worse than it does me, but nonetheless has meant that, this weekend for example, I’ve had to spend hours in phone queues because people forgot to refresh my prescriptions - I’m astonished at how well the medical treatment has worked. Suppressing my testosterone with spironolactone, and introducing high doses of estradiol into my body, has re-sculpted my flesh in ways that I had been trying to produce synthetically for decades. I feel happy when I contemplate my light and thin skin, my full breasts, my new hips and curves. But even more noticeable than the physical effects, adjusting my endocrine system has profoundly shaped the way that I perceive the world and interact with it emotionally. I have found unsuspected reserves of patience with myself and others, unexpected capacities for friendship and fellow-feeling, softer eyes, and the feeling of desperation that I used to feel at the obligation to prove myself, over and again, has abated. I still get angry sometimes and I’m still egocentric - I don’t wish to imply that I have morphed into a Victorian doll. But the rescripting of one of the basic codes of my consciousness has had effects that are far more far reaching and far more uncomplicatedly good than I expected. I feel differently, and I think differently, and I refer to those differences as the differences between how I used to think as a man, and how I think as a woman. And that designation feels perfectly and easily intuitive to me, and to those who have known me longest and best. 

Surgeries seem to work pretty well, too. Anecdotally, I have met women who say that it took a while to adjust to the experience of bottom surgery, and that there was a long period of ambivalence and doubt before that adjustment took place. But, by the usual standards to which medical treatments are held, gender transition is a very good treatment for the condition of wanting to transition one’s gender. It isn’t a good treatment for depression, anxiety, or other psychiatric issues; it won’t cure your drug addiction; it isn’t a panacea. But when trans people are asked whether they experienced relief after surgery, large majorities consistently say that they do. Of course, as people are always quick (and right) to point out, medicalization is bullshit and access to care should not be apportioned on the basis of a willingness to say that one is happy about it. But some kind of curiosity about whether most people do seem happy about their surgeries would seem in order. And there’s ample data on that, and it’s not especially ambiguous. Again, just to emphasize, nothing I’m arguing denies that trans people do not face real and systemic oppression in our present moment; nor is it to deny that that oppression leaves its marks in catastrophically high rates of depression and suicide. My point is simply that gender transition is a much more complete and effective response to the desires that trans people have - that define us as a community - than I had known before I started to transition. 

I feel some gentle sadness when I reflect on the time - over a decade - between first knowing that, at least in part, I wanted to transition, and finally starting hormones. And I think at least part of my reluctance to try transitioning was an attachment to my own unhappiness and feeling of incompletion, perhaps a feeling of attachment to my own shame. The place we accord shame in some of our queer communities strikes me as both necessary and stifling. Necessary, because the triumphalist narrative of gay liberalism and the march of the gay civil rights movement offers little except propaganda to queers of color, disabled queers, poor queers, fat queers, sex workers, and any of our community whose bodies or lives fail or refuse to conform to those of the postulated white hero of gay neoliberalism. I also absolutely appreciate the aesthetic and ethical value that queer theory derives from negative affects and attachments - I think particularly of Heather Love’s work, which has been so instructive to me in my own writing.

But then I also wonder, for myself, why I allowed my faith in those attachments to stop me from considering transition - at least dipping my toe in the water - before now. And there are many reasons why I didn’t transition in grad school, or when I lived in France, or just after college, or whenever - it is easy for me to tell that story to myself without requiring any explanation other than my own fear and cynicism. But then, I think that story needs a dimension that is not personal, but structural: I wonder whether my commitments to the queer logic of negative attachment prohibited me from believing that transition could help me the way that it has, and I wonder whether other trans people (closeted or not) feel the same way. We should be able to admit, I think, that our institutional resistance to enforced happiness has produced its own regulatory affective norms - of sadness, melancholic attachment, and perhaps above all, shame. I read about queer shame far more than I feel it. Shame is a shibboleth for queer theory, and has been ubiquitous for nearly twenty years. “Gay Shame” is the title of both an edited collection by David Halperin and Valerie Traub and of one of the most beloved queer political movements of the present moment. Shame and Its Sisters is the title of Eve Sedgwick’s edition of the essays of Silvan Tompkins, one of the most influential texts in affect theory; Sedgwick’s essay “Shame, Theatricality, and Queer Performativity” one of the most influential recent studies of James.

Is queer life so full of shame? Surely it doesn’t have to be. A gay student of mine recently asked why the theoretical descriptions of anal eroticism in the canon of queer theory so frequently center shame, when neither he, nor most other gay men with active sex lives he had spoken to, took shame to be in the top, let’s say, five feelings associated with buttfucking. There are exceptions, I responded: Lee Edelman’s essay “Piss Elegant,” for example, includes an erotic description of the queer body that makes it sound meaningfully different from an invigorating session wrestling with Negative Dialectics. But, I had to concede, these really are exceptions. If everything one knew about sex one had learned from theory, it would seem like the ultimate downer. Fun, delight, embarrassment, low key crushes, romance, giggling, and comedy: these are, it turns out, hard to write about compellingly without reducing them to expressions of failure, shame, self-loathing, self-pity, or rage. People certainly do: Lauren Berlant, obviously; Melanie Micir... many others, especially critics whose queer theoretical interest is motivated by avowedly feminist commitments. But sometimes even analytic frameworks that seem to allow some place for delight, especially the delight of women, often spike the football at the last minute. Sedgwick’s lovely notion of reading as reparation, for example, turns out to be another exhortation into the “depressive position” that the psychoanalyst Melanie Klein takes as the necessary form of healthy relation to trauma.

I started writing publicly about trans issues partly because I thought it worth trying to say loudly that this life is actually possible and livable. The ideas that that principle has spun off for me - don’t assume every surprise will be a bad one; don’t assume something has failed before it has been tried; don’t assume that the final victory of capitalism is certain; don’t assume that nothing works, or that reading a text sensitively means acting as though it couldn’t work - have since become important aspects of the way I teach at work. But I thought it might be worth ending by naming some of my own feelings about my transition, which has already involved a lot of hormones and will soon involve some well-meaning doc sharpening the scissors. I feel optimistic; I feel fragile; I frequently feel sad and poignant; I feel rueful; sometimes I feel itchy and impatient; I feel reflective; I feel centered in an experience of the world that is utterly new and fresh; man, I feel like a woman; and damn but I feel pretty. I don’t feel ashamed in the least, and I won’t pretend to. When I feel serious about the critique of respectability politics, I don’t mope around acting like Hannah Arendt on an especially banal day. I flash my trans tits and occupy the clinic.

Oh, and 86% of trans women experience orgasm after vaginoplasty.  I’m looking forward to that. 💅💋😂💄✌️