Sedgwick

Not that I have any interest in “canceling” a major critic, but I have noticed over the last few years a great deal of sentimental attachment to Eve Sedgwick, an attachment it is quite difficult for me to share. I *have* shared it, at times - but I think since I started to transition, I’ve begun to associate her thinking more with the emergence since the 90s of a new form of anti-trans polemic, one which takes for its mission the protection of recessive modes of gay life, and postulates that the increased availability of medical treatment for children (hormone blockers, say) as evidence that effeminacy is at risk of pathologization by the medical state. The evidence suggests otherwise, of course - that parents are generally much more supportive of gay children than trans children; and that trans people accordingly spend many years waiting to obtain any kind of treatment, and grow increasingly at risk of depression and isolation. But it makes sense if (and only if) one assumes that all effeminate boys grow up to be either gay men, or closet cases, and masculine girls grow up to be either lesbians or closet cases.

Sedgwick’s clearest statements on this subject come up in her essay “How to Bring Your Kids Up Gay,” whose provocative title is designed to prepare (presumptively straight) parents to resist trans medicine. It is clear that Sedgwick applauds the distinction of sexuality from gender, but also that she thinks it risks conspiring to make male femininity an impossibility, even within gay communities (“There is a discreditable reason for this in the marginal or stigmatized position to which even adult men who are effeminate have often been relegated in the [gay] movement”.) But more pressing is the consequence that “while denaturalizing sexual object-choice, [this way of distinguishing between gender and sexuality] radically renaturalizes gender,” creating a risk that trans medicine will lead to a “none-too-dialectical trope of progressive /consolidation/ of self.” Such consolidations are not problems, of course, when the self in question is “gay,” merely when it is trans. For this reason, the essay lurches from panic about trans medicine’s epistemology, to raging polemic about trans medicine’s politics: “These books, and the associated therapeutic strategies and institutions, are not about invasive violence. What they are about is a train of squalid lies. The overarching lie is the lie that they are predicated on anything but the therapists' disavowed desire for a non-gay outcome.” She goes on to characterize the emergence of trans medicine as “the less visible, far more respectable underside of the AIDS-fueled public dream of [gay bodies’] extirpation.”

This kind of sloppy polemic does no credit to the author of “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading,” nor does it seem capable of registering that even if its own paranoid fantasy were true - that trans medicine was a plot to exterminate gay people - that in itself would provide no grounds to protect gayness against it, since it offers no grounds for valuing “effeminacy” other than the claim that it is threatened by trans medicine. But that claim is a remarkable one, and both rhetorically and structurally Sedgwick’s position resembles that of contemporary terfs, who found organizations with names like “LGB Alliance” to demonstrate their contempt for trans people; who rail against the 1984-like imposition of pronoun voluntarism; who weep saltier tears for masculine girls than feminine boys, but whose fantasies of extermination are no less lurid than Sedgwick’s. This during the period of neoliberal gay acceptance, in which the white and normalized gay bourgeois has never been less under threat of “extirpation,” least of all from trans people. In other words, it would be misleading to say merely that Sedgwick’s anti-trans polemics reflect a 90s gestalt; rather, she was profoundly ahead of the curve in terms of transphobia, and indeed is cited by transphobes for precisely these reasons.

One of the central paradoxes of transition, I guess, is that one collaborates with a medical state, often against one’s commitments as well as one’s interests, in order to obtain new techniques for shaping one’s body. Dean Spade and others have written about trans opportunism as one of the mechanisms of the sex change: we don’t believe, generally, that “gender identity disorder” is a pathology requiring redress, but we *do* want hormones and surgeries, so we allow the doctors to spin out their theories of our sickness. Eve Sedgwick’s understanding of sexuality explicitly leaves no such room for trans ingenuity; rather, the possibility of a medicalizing intervention into the lives of trans people appears only as a threat to effeminate male gayness (and, I suppose, to female gayness too - though the thought seems to trouble her less). In other words, in her framing of the relationship between effeminacy, gayness, and transness, Sedgwick’s position is that of the LGB Alliance, or another anti-trans organization: that “gay” and “trans” are competing and irresolvable explanations for the same phenomenon, and that therefore solidarity between the groups is impossible. So the particular “anti-homophobic” method that she develops is in fact not merely compatible with, but inextricable from, hostility to trans people. It’s also ironic, I think, that trans people ourselves so often read and recite Sedgwick - partly, no doubt, because queer theory’s remarkable success at reproducing itself as the authoritative voice of anti-essentialist praxis over the last couple of decades seems both attractive and anxiegenic to an emerging field whose conditions of possibility are still, genuinely, emerging - and partly, too, out of an embarrassment about transsexuals that we’ve all been talking about recently. (I’d like to talk about our collective embarrassment about transvestites, too, one day.) So what would an anti-transphobic method of literary criticism look like, or one which didn’t posit an inevitable conflict between gay and trans people? One emerging, immanently, from the soldiarities that do exist in the social (and erotic!) practices of queer and trans communities?