There is much to be learned from wanting something both ways
|Mosaïque représentant un phaseolus, type de vaisseau romain (1er siècle avant J.-C., Période Hellénistique) source|
After lunch, my friend [...] invites me to her office, where she offers to Google you on my behalf. She’s going to see if the Internet reveals a preferred pronoun for you, since despite or due to the fact that we’re spending every free moment in bed together and already talking about moving in, I can’t bring myself to ask. Instead I’ve become a quick study in pronoun avoidance. The key is training your ear not to mind hearing a person’s name over and over again. You must learn to take cover in grammatical cul-de-sacs, relax into an orgy of specificity. You must learn to tolerate an instance beyond the Two, precisely at the moment of attempting to represent a partnership—a nuptial, even.
I’m not on my way anywhere, Harry sometimes tells inquirers. How to explain, in a culture frantic for resolution, that sometimes the shit stays messy? I do not want the female gender that has been assigned to me at birth. Neither do I want the male gender that transsexual medicine can furnish and that the state will award me if I behave in the right way. I don’t want any of it. How to explain that for some, or for some at some times, this irresolution is OK—desirable, even (e.g., “gender hackers”)—whereas for others, or for others at some times, it stays a source of conflict or grief?
You pass as a guy; I, as pregnant. Our waiter cheerfully tells us about his family, expresses delight in ours. On the surface, it may have seemed as though your body was becoming more and more “male,” mine, more and more “female.” But that’s not how it felt on the inside. On the inside, we were two human animals undergoing transformations beside each other, bearing each other loose witness. In other words, we were aging.
It can be hard not to know much about one’s parents. But, you tell me, it can be awesome too. Before you had thought much about gender, you attributed your lifelong interest in fluidity and nomadism to being adopted, and you treasured it. You felt you had escaped the fear of someday becoming your parents, a fear you saw ruling the psyches of many of your friends. Your parents didn’t have to be disappointments or genetic warnings. They could just be two ordinary people, doing their best. From a very young age—your parents had always been open about the fact that you were adopted—you remember feeling a spreading, inclusive, almost mystical sense of belonging. The fact that anybody could have been your birth mother was an astonishment, but one tinged with exhilaration: rather than being from or for an other, you felt you came from the whole world, utterly plural. You were curious enough to track down your birth mother, but after your real mother died, you found yourself unable to answer your birth mother’s calls. Even now, years later, the interest you once took in finding her feels clouded by the memory of your mother, and your ongoing grief at losing her. Your longing to see her again. Phyllis.
As it turned out, my fears were unwarranted. Which isn’t to say you haven’t changed. But the biggest change of all has been a measure of peace. The peace is not total, but in the face of a suffocating anxiety, a measure of peace is no small thing. You do feel grief-stricken now, but only that you waited so long, that you had to suffer so acutely for three decades before finally finding some relief. Which is why each time I count the four rungs down on the blue ladder tattooed on your lower back, spread out the skin, push in the nearly-two-inch-long needle, and plunge the golden, oily T into deep muscle mass, I feel certain I am delivering a gift.
And now, after living beside you all these years, and watching your wheel of a mind bring forth an art of pure wildness—as I labor grimly on these sentences, wondering all the while if prose is but the gravestone marking the forsaking of wildness (fidelity to sense-making, to assertion, to argument, however loose)—I’m no longer sure which of us is more at home in the world, which of us more free.
A day or two after my love pronouncement, now feral with vulnerability, I sent you the passage from Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes in which Barthes describes how the subject who utters the phrase “I love you” is like “the Argonaut renewing his ship during its voyage without changing its name.” Just as the Argo’s parts may be replaced over time but the boat is still called the Argo, whenever the lover utters the phrase “I love you,” its meaning must be renewed by each use, as “the very task of love and of language is to give to one and the same phrase inflections which will be forever new.”
I told you I wanted to live in a world in which the antidote to shame is not honor, but honesty.
Soon after we got together, we attended a dinner party at which a (presumably straight, or at least straight-married) woman who’d known Harry for some time turned to me and said, “So, have you been with other women, before Harry?” I was taken aback. Undeterred, she went on: “Straight ladies have always been hot for Harry.” Was Harry a woman? Was I a straight lady? What did past relationships I’d had with “other women” have in common with this one? Why did I have to think about other “straight ladies” who were hot for my Harry? Was his sexual power, which I already felt to be immense, a kind of spell I’d fallen under, from which I would emerge abandoned, as he moved on to seduce others? Why was this woman, whom I barely knew, talking to me like this? When would Harry come back from the bathroom?
Some people find pleasure in aligning themselves with an identity, as in You make me feel like a natural woman—made famous by Aretha Franklin and, later, by Judith Butler, who focused on the instability wrought by the simile. But there can also be a horror in doing so, not to mention an impossibility. It’s not possible to live twenty-four hours a day soaked in the immediate awareness of one’s sex. Gendered self-consciousness has, mercifully, a flickering nature.
A friend says he thinks of gender as a color. Gender does share with color a certain ontological indeterminacy: it isn’t quite right to say that an object is a color, nor that the object has a color. Context also changes it: all cats are gray, etc. Nor is color voluntary, precisely. But none of these formulations means that the object in question is colorless.People are different from each other. Unfortunately, the dynamic of becoming a spokesperson almost always threatens to bury this fact. You may keep saying that you only speak for yourself but your very presence in the public sphere begins to congeal difference into a single figure, and pressure begins to bear down hard upon it.
I will always aspire to contain my shit as best I can, but I am no longer interested in hiding my dependencies in an effort to appear superior to those who are more visibly undone or aching.
Not long ago, a friend came over to our house and pulled down a mug for coffee, a mug that was a gift from my mother. It’s one of those mugs you can purchase online from Snapfish, with the photo of your choice emblazoned on it. I was horrified when I received it, but it’s the biggest mug we own, so we keep it around, in case someone’s in the mood for a trough of warm milk or something.
Wow, my friend said, filling it up. I’ve never seen anything so heteronormative in all my life.
But what about it is the essence of heteronormativity? That my mother made a mug on a boojie service like Snapfish? That we’re clearly participating, or acquiescing into participating, in a long tradition of families being photographed at holiday time in their holiday best? That my mother made me the mug, in part to indicate that she recognizes and accepts my tribe as family? What about my pregnancy—is that inherently heteronormative? Or is the presumed opposition of queerness and procreation (or, to put a finer edge on it, maternity) more a reactionary embrace of how things have shaken down for queers than the mark of some ontological truth? As more queers have kids, will the presumed opposition simply wither away? Will you miss it?
Given that nearly every society on earth peddles the notion of having children as the ticket— perhaps the only ticket—to a meaningful life (all others being but a consolation prize)—and given that most have also devised all kinds of subtle to appalling ways to punish women who choose not to procreate—how could this latter proposition truly fascinate?)
His thin hair is damp, smells like candy and earth, I burrow my mouth into it and breathe. I don’t ever want to make the mistake of needing him as much as or more than he needs me. But there’s no denying that sometimes, when we sleep together in the dark cavern of the bottom bunk, his big brother thrashing around on top, the white noise machine grinding out its fake rain, the green digital clock announcing every hour, Iggy’s small body holds mine.
But the pregnant body in public is also obscene. It radiates a kind of smug auto eroticism: an intimate relation is going on—one that is visible to others, but that decisively excludes them. Service members may salute, strangers may offer their congratulations or their seats, but this privacy, this bond, can also irritate. It especially irritates the antiabortionists, who would prefer to pry apart the twofer earlier and earlier— twenty-four weeks, twenty weeks, twelve weeks, six weeks … The sooner you can pry the twofer apart, the sooner you can dispense with one constituent of the relationship: the woman with rights.
If all goes well, the baby will make it out alive, and so will you. Nonetheless, you will have touched death along the way. You will have realized that death will do you too, without fail and without mercy. It will do you even if you don’t believe it will do you, and it will do you in its own way. There’s never been a human that it didn’t. I guess I’m just waiting to die, your mother said, bemused and incredulous, the last time we saw her, her skin so thin in her borrowed bed.
One of the most annoying things about hearing the refrain “same-sex marriage” over and over again is that I don’t know many—if any—queers who think of their desire’s main feature as being “same-sex.” It’s true that a lot of lesbian sex writing from the ’70s was about being turned on, and even politically transformed, by an encounter with sameness. This encounter was, is, can be, important, as it has to do with seeing reflected that which has been reviled, with exchanging alienation or internalized revulsion for desire and care. To devote yourself to someone else’s pussy can be a means of devoting yourself to your own. But whatever sameness I’ve noted in my relationships with women is not the sameness of Woman, and certainly not the sameness of parts. Rather, it is the shared, crushing understanding of what it means to live in a patriarchy.
There’s something truly strange about living in a historical moment in which the conservative anxiety and despair about queers bringing down civilization and its institutions (marriage, most notably) is met by the anxiety and despair so many queers feel about the failure or incapacity of queerness to bring down civilization and its institutions, and their frustration with the assimilationist, unthinkingly neoliberal bent of the mainstream GLBTQ+ movement, which has spent fine coin begging entrance into two historically repressive structures: marriage and the military.
There are people out there who get annoyed at the story that Djuna Barnes, rather than identify as a lesbian, preferred to say that she “just loved Thelma.” Gertrude Stein reputedly made similar claims, albeit not in those exact terms, about Alice. I get why it’s politically maddening, but I’ve also always thought it a little romantic—the romance of letting an individual experience of desire take precedence over a categorical one.
Maggie Nelson - The Argonauts (Graywolf Press, 2015)