Below is the first half of a conversation between Grace and myself on the nature of BINARISM, on the similarities between binary and non-binary identities, on avoiding pitfalls, on being afraid of theory and reluctant to cash checks; the second half will be released later today on The Stage Mirror. Enjoy!
Grace Elisabeth Lavery: So, it's Sunday morning, we've been tussling over the temperature of our apartment again - or rather, our bodies have been tussling, and we have been very polite while they've done so - and it's time to pick up that thread of conversation we've been pulling on for a while: binariness. We are both binary trans people, which is in some ways a little embarrassing for both of us. In two ways, first because we cannot really be binary without prolonging the existence of a (binary) sex/gender system that is bound up with long histories of violence and domination. And then second because we are maybe supposed to come up with an alternative explanation for the existence of that binary that avoids all the pitfalls of the usual one. But this is all so theoretical…
Daniel Alexander Mallory Ortberg: It is Sunday morning and I have turned the heat on for you! It's all for you, Damien!* // After you, my dear Alphonse.** I hope you can sleep now.
It does feel a little strange for a number of reasons to think of myself as a binary trans person, not least of which is what you’ve called "the trouble of living in a very theorized way." As you may well remember, my own transition was not founded on a solid idea of myself as A Man so much as a tortured series of gropings in a tentative, hopeful direction, during which time I felt like nothing so much as a series of question marks. And I'll say too, that one of the ways in which I feel a bit at a loss during such a conversation is that I haven't studied any theory, which sometimes makes me worry that I'm not qualified to talk about being trans (or to, you know, come up with an explanation for the existence of a binary that avoids old pitfalls, or what have you). I've picked up some basic concepts just by virtue of living with you, of course.
GEL: Ok, well, let’s start here with one of the most instructive gestures of trans theory as I read it today - and I'm still familiarizing myself with a lot of excellent work done by a lot of people over a long time - has been demonstrating the limits of the critique of binary thinking. Here's a passage from Cáel Keegan's essay "Getting Disciplined: What's Trans* About Queer Studies Now?" that might help launch our conversation:
"To the extent that women’s studies seeks the liberation of women and others (gay men, lesbians) who are oppressed by sex “like women,” trans* studies must perform a but that insists against the foundational schema of sexual subordination (M > F), saying but gender is not real like that. However, in response to queer studies’ investment in deconstructing the gender binary (M/F) to unravel heteronormativity, trans* studies must turn inside out, articulating a constative but that asserts but gender is real like this." (Keegan, 2018)
I take Cáel to be saying that trans studies positions itself against feminist theory by arguing that the sex/gender system is not "real like that," but also positions itself against queer theory by asserting that gender does have some kind of foundational or decisive meaning. I've been working on something in the field recently called "The King's Two Anuses," so I appreciated the two buts.
DAMO: My understanding of how you describe Cáel's essay is something along these lines: Neither "men are from Mars, women are from Venus" nor "all gender is fake so nobody should really want to transition once they understand that." (If I am misrepresenting either feminist or queer theory, I apologize!) I want to make sure I'm on the same page with you before trying to add much more to this conversation. I feel a bit more tentative than I anticipated! I think one of the things this is bringing up for me is a sense that when I started to transition, I wrote a check I couldn't actually cash, because if I were ever called upon to furnish a well-thought-out foundation for doing so, I'd have to mumble something like "Well, um, I really wanted to..." and have to go back to Cis Island.
GEL: The paradigm you're describing about writing a check you're worried you can't cash is exactly the one that I'm most interested in feeling my way through. It terrifies me! And it terrifies me especially because when trans issues make their way out into the wider world to be dissected and lionized, the signature question appears to be can this trans woman cash that check? So like, I don't think we're going to solve that problem any time soon. One of the main reasons we wanted to talk about this topic was in order to explore the utility of desires that aren't immediately or primarily theorized. It of course makes no sense to change one's life on the basis of an instinct that one never queries or attempts to qualify. But for both of us, I think, desire came first and we're still trying to supply language to explain it. Neither of us has succeeded to our own satisfaction, yet. But I think some sense of like, no I am actually a man and no I am actually a woman is important to both of us?
DAMO: I think of that support group I go to pretty regularly, the "broadly transmasculine and transmasculine-adjacent" one, and I find there at least that we all have a lot in common and tend to think of ourselves as a pretty tight-knit group, even though lots of us don't think of ourselves as trans men. And it's odd because I think sometimes I hear "binary and non-binary" thrown about as if they were two options, like "Here is the binary thing, and here is the non-binary thing," when non-binary can mean...ten million different things? And binary transition can often have a lot in common with various non-binary transitions.
GEL: That’s so gorgeous. What I'm really struck by is your refusal of the binary distinction between binary and non-binary transitions. I like that so much, and it seems so true of so many trans masc nb people I know, that they both are not trans men, and yet they are somehow of your party too. I'm not sure I always feel the same thing with trans femme nb people, though I wonder whether that's mostly because my field of reference is smaller, at least in the communities I interact with in the Bay Area. For me, the various differences I felt between different modes of identifying and presenting at different times of my life before transition were all much more similar to each other, than any is like transition (by which I mean: hormones and a name change). I'm obviously not trying to make a hierarchy there, but the difference to my life that hormones made was so great that I tend to feel as though my experience has more in common with that of a trans masc dude on HRT than a trans femme chick who isn't. But of course, also my particular affiliative instincts aren't the best basis for a feeling of political solidarity or commitment, especially when people's access to HRT is restricted by, among other things, a murderously anti-trans culture and an obscenely inequitable system for distributing healthcare.
Also, you understand theory perfectly well.
*Nanny, The Omen
**Goofy Gophers by way of Shirley Jackson -- I just this minute did a bit more digging on the origins of "After you, my dear Alphonse," and apparently before it was a Goofy Gophers bit it was a comic strip by Frederick Burr Opper about a pair of Frenchmen described thusly: "Alphonse was short and grotesque; Gaston was tall and grotesque. The strip's premise was that both were extremely polite, constantly bowing and deferring to each other. Neither could ever do anything or go anywhere because each insisted on letting the other precede him."
I like this a lot, especially "of my party". I definitely have affiliative instincts towards trans men, AFAB nonbinary folks and people in the butch lesbian sphere. Sometimes I've been like, hey, it's very important to some of these folks that their identity is distinct from others of these folks! am I erasing something or other by thinking of them all as one big group??? but the "of my party" concept is great there because it implies fellow travelling as opposed to sameness!
"refusal of the binary distinction between binary and non-binary transitions" is also great because it's like, fractal nonbinariness, which I have spent a lot of time pondering. we're still in a space where some people treat nonbinary as a Special Flavour Of Trans and other people treat it as a Thing Halfway Between Cis And Trans, neither of which is quite right because, you know, the point...is...that trying to describe the whole situation with reference to Precisely Two Things is gonna cause problems...that is the point........
I love the idea of binary/non-binary as its own kind of binary. There’s a camp for trans men (the name escapes me but one of the Original Plumbing guys is behind it) that explicitly asks non-binary trans men not to attend—binary men only. The bright line baffles me because what does it even mean?? What’s the difference? I am not asking as a criticism (although I have some of those, too). I’m asking because I would love for someone to delineate the difference so that I might understand myself?? One of the necessary conditions of my transition was letting go of the need to explain it or, truly, even describe it beyond the mechanics and my immediate feelings, yet some people are so clear that they can comfortably sort gender into piles?