Picture Frames

December 15, 2009

Last night I went to see Rebecca’s (yes that Rebecca) new show, Trans Form. I’d plug it if I could, but last night was the last night.

In response to a section in the piece about pre-transition photographs, I had a realization of a reframe about said pictures, but to get there I’m going to move to a criticism of the play (and almost all trans art) through Foucault’s concept of the ‘confessional’ (in an understandable way I PROMISE). So first I want to be clear that within the limitations of the genre she does really well. And she resists the confessional genre a couple times in a beautifully underplayed sarcastic lecture scene, and a series of questions taking her The Little Mermaid analogy farther than the movie does, asking the questions that the movie (and the confessional) fails to ask, going beyond the “happily ever after” that hides so much violence. I couldn’t do the Ariel/trans analogy justice, so I’m going to passive-aggressively encourage her to write about it, like so. :P

So, the confessional. Invisibility discourse, as well as discourse about “ignorance” and “silence” and discourse about how We Just Need To Tell Our Stories And People Will Like Us all share this background assumption that the thing power does is it hides, it silences, it represses–it prevents things from coming to their natural state of being all happy and open and free. Foucault’s intervention is actually something I think most readers of this blog already get–that while power *does* do those things, it also creates an incitement to speak–for example, to tell your coming out story. Again. And again. And again. ….and again, ad infinitum. It structures what you can say and how what you say will be interpreted, and how you think about what it is that needs to be said.

LGBT autobiographical art has been pushed into a mold that goes about like this: I was little, I was different. I grew up, shit was hard, I hurt and I hurt and I hurt and maybe I had deviant sexual or gender habits and I was different and oh yeah I hurt a lot, and then I slowly realized the truth about myself and I came out and it was hard and scary and I was sure everyone was going to reject me and this or that person did and it was awful but this or that person affirmed their love for me no matter what and I came out and I was true to myself THE END HAPPILY EVER AFTER. One confesses one’s trials and hardship and self-hatred and how painful Denying Who You Really Are* is–and out comes a very personal, very moving piece of art that basically says that only our pre-coming-out/pre-transition experiences are important, and that transphobia and homophobia are all either a)internal stigma and fear or b)those nasty things that bigots do and not c)something everyone does and DEFINITELY not d)something that straight/cis people’s lives and senses of self are structured around and support. One confesses, one does not indict.

I avoid talking about gender dysphoria or gender dissonance. You’ve probably noticed. I don’t frame access to transition related medicine in how much it hurts to have your body not look or feel or move like you want it to, I frame it in terms of risk of violence, of economics, of freedom of movement, of control of the body, but *why* one wants to transition I leave out. I don’t frame being transsexual as being about identifying as a sex other than the one I was assigned at birth–it’s about the State, institutions of medicine, religion, Science-with-a-capital-S, etc undermining the way I (want to) live my life.

In Trans Form, Rebecca (since that’s how y’all know her, using her last name feels weird) talks about something I’ve heard a lot before, about the pain of seeing pre-transition photos of herself, contrasted with the desire to not hide one’s history. I myself have had a lot of angst about it–the only picture that I have of me and my girlfriend from high school I can’t bear to look at. We each got it in matching frames, and it’s sitting about three feet from me, still in its frame, face down–because I can neither get rid of it, nor look at it.**

Prior to yesterday, I thought, maybe there are things I can’t talk about because I refuse to talk about that pain of gender dissonance, because I refuse the confessional. Maybe there are limits.

And maybe there are. But not this time.

When cis people talk social constructionism, they want to figure out why we transition/why we’re trans and how *that* has been socially constructed, but why we experience being trans in the way we do–e.g. as painful–is ignored at best and generally naturalized. The story stops at happily ever after, and Prince Eric never beats Ariel or pressures her into having sex with him, suddenly having different genital equipment is never a problem for her, and nobody ever tells mermaid jokes on TV–because none of that needs explaining or analysis. But while trans people often fall into the trap of debating why, or otherwise biologizing transness, a social constructionism from a trans perspective asks: why the hell is looking at these pictures so goddamn hard? It starts from the assumption that more analysis is needed, and understands gender *dysphoria* as socially caused, not being trans. My brand of strict constructionism attempts to explain why that hurts so damn much without recourse to a naturalized gender dissonance–not because I’m sure it doesn’t exist, but because I hate the confessional, because I don’t want pity I want answers, because I think our lives can be better, and because pain is more likely to be oppression than deficiency. I can’t be all “Not gender dysphoria, gender euphoria! I love being trans!” because, well, that depends on the day–but I can focus on other things, on transphobia and how transphobia structures our understandings of ourselves and the pain we feel “internally.”

What I realized, when I heard about the photo albums, and the pictures on the walls of her parents’ house, was that these were the memorabilia of an occupation, held onto and commemorated by its collaborators (witting or unwitting). Yes they represent a historical “truth,” a “past” one does not want to “deny”–but so do guns and chains and whips and bombs, and you don’t see them in the family photographs. Well, not if you were on the receiving end, anyway.

In the logic of the confessional, all my past is my true past, attested to by photographs that I can either speak/display or hide/conceal. But this “truth” was caused–these pictures document oppression on my body, they are the memorials to transphobia’s impact on my life and in my skin, they are not only the memorials to that time when I was still forced into appearing male, but memorials to that coercion itself. What these happy-memory-photos evoke is not that walk in the park or my high school graduation, it’s the 21 years of my loved ones’ complicity, the eleven-or-so years of transphobia holding me so tightly in its grasp it re-wrote my face with the ink of testosterone. And it is precisely the medium of the photograph, that purports to tell the unmediated, timeless, “unavoidable,” “natural” truth, on which nothing has been written, that propagates that violence across time to the present day, that amplifies the memory of oppression. It is precisely how a camera takes a person and makes a static image, an object that can be reproduced, moved, or displayed without my knowledge or consent that reiterates cis power to determine my body, its appearance, its reproduction, and its movement, and puts it on display without my knowledge or consent.

So find some other way to remember me. You don’t have to get rid of them–I’m not getting rid of mine–but don’t put them anywhere you wouldn’t put a picture of a painful, violent, complicated-at-best memory. I’m done confessing the pain of those photos, and I’m done feeling ashamed and ambivalent of “not being radical enough to embrace my past”–now take them down.

*Sorry, I got hooked on TVTropes. I’m not linking you’ll get stuck there for weeks on end.
**Ironically, I apparently both look really uncomfortable in the picture and was uncomfortable in the moment it was taken, for reasons that said ex-girlfriend ascribes to gender stuff. (I have a harder time seeing or remembering.)

13 Responses to “Picture Frames”

  1. Rebecca said

    Consider me encouraged. ;) I’m hoping to post some more about the show in the coming weeks, and get video clips together by the end of the year. (Hopefully.)

    I want to address the second chunk of your post first – the part about photos and the “memorabilia” of pre-transition life – because I think my response to the first chunk will be longer and a bit more off-topic. So.

    But while trans people often fall into the trap of debating why, or otherwise biologizing transness, a social constructionism from a trans perspective asks: why the hell is looking at these pictures so goddamn hard?

    It had never occured to me to ask that question, why, because you’re right: there’s this assumption, an implicit understanding, that all that physical stuff is hard to deal with because it’s a reminder of the internally-focused pain of being trans.

    It speaks to the confessional nature of sharing a story of being different. Of, as you said, “I grew up, shit was hard, I hurt and I hurt and I hurt and maybe I had deviant sexual or gender habits and I was different and oh yeah I hurt a lot, and then I slowly realized the truth about myself and I came out and it was hard and scary and I was sure everyone was going to reject me and this or that person did and it was awful but this or that person affirmed their love for me no matter what and I came out and I was true to myself THE END HAPPILY EVER AFTER.”

    And while I don’t think that narrative is inherently false or of no value (and I’ll get to that in a bit) I do think the way you’re framing things is really powerful – that these objects are a physical memorial of the external oppression inherent in our society, the gender policing, all of the (external) reasons why it sucks to come out.

    I think there’s a tendency in transition to say “It’s not you, it’s me” about lots of things. (Or, maybe that’s just my big conciliatory tendency. I’m working on it…) But sometimes it is the “other,” society, parents, coworkers, even close friends and family and loved ones, who do things that hurt and oppress and control. Hopefully they’re doing so unintentionally, and not out of bigotry or malice, but that only lessens slightly the blows to conform.

    And having photos up on the wall, particularly of family or those involved in gender policing and creating gendered expectations, is a way of celebrating that control and oppression. And that sucks.

    However (you knew a “but” had to be coming) I don’t think that invalidates the value of the confessional as a method of personal or community growth. Yes, saying “We Just Need To Tell Our Stories And People Will Like Us” is a little naive, but I really do believe that it’s a lot harder to hate someone – or even just to find them icky – once you get to know them. You may still disagree with them, but I really to believe that a sense of understanding makes hatred more difficult.

    As for my show, specifically, the motivations have been pretty open-handed-ly selfish: I’m trying to process being trans, why I didn’t transition earlier and how that’s shaped me, transitioning now, dealing with past v. present v. future, and how all that impacts who I am today. I really do hope the show was valuable for others, but that honestly wasn’t my original goal with making art about my identity as a trans woman.

    As part of all that, this show was very inwardly focused: How I felt, how I dealt with things, what I’m thinking, how things made me feel. Which brings me to…

    One confesses one’s trials and hardship and self-hatred and how painful Denying Who You Really Are* is–and out comes a very personal, very moving piece of art that basically says that only our pre-coming-out/pre-transition experiences are important, and that transphobia and homophobia are all either a)internal stigma and fear or b)those nasty things that bigots do and not c)something everyone does and DEFINITELY not d)something that straight/cis people’s lives and senses of self are structured around and support. One confesses, one does not indict.

    I totally agree that my show falls into this category of personal narrative. I don’t mean that to be self-deprecating because, again, the show accomplished a lot of what I was hoping and I got a lot out of it. But you’re right – the very structure of the show was, for the most part, looking back at my experiences and bringing my personal narrative up to where I am today. It had lots of A and B from your list, and fit C and D as well.

    And I really appreciate that as a criticism and as feedback, because I would like to push myself further, personally and artistically. I touched on this a bit at one of the talk-backs, but I do want whatever queer/trans-related piece I work on next to focus more externally. To cast my gaze to others, rather than so exclusively to myself, and (hopefully) to indict and incite.

    That was a long-winded response to your post, so I think I’ll leave it there for now. If I have more thoughts, I’ll share them in a separate comment. And I’ll hopefully have video of my show, and more about Ariel, up soon. :)

  2. Bond said

    Hell yes. Great, great post.

  3. Carrie said

    Really fascinating post.

    I’m the high school ex-girlfriend in question. My copy of that photo is hiding face-down in a drawer somewhere — because it is painful and complicated-at-best. Because even though I loved and cared about you, my clueless transphobia is part of that scene. I’d like to not bring that into the present.

    There’s a certain amount of discomfort at confronting my own privilege in there, too — my complicity as a straight-cis person, both then and now. I indict myself with that photo. Maybe that’s why, or part of why, I read it as painful.

    I like your analysis here. In the confessional model you describe, it’s too easy for me to cast myself as one of the “good guys” in the story — clueless, but came around — and leave it at that. And that’s not really the truth.

  4. Carto said

    Yeah, a good post. I guess something similar was going on in my mind when I wrote about anniversaries: http://cartographies-of-my-interior.blogspot.com/2009/12/anniversaries-of-things-past.html ; it *is* very painful to remember, and while many of the memories are supposed to be good ones, the institutional, thorough-going oppression does taint them. Photographs being one prime example.

  5. Ariel Silvera said

    Great analysis of the ‘confessional’ narrative! It’s true that a lot of LGBT narratives go like this, and I keep seeing it. At the same time, I’ve also observed that a lot of Trans narratives acknowledge the “and shit is still hard” bit after the ‘happy ending’ of coming out. I’ve got an article in the upcoming first issue of BoLT magazine where I talk about ‘the coming out comedown’, and how difficult the year after coming out was.

    At the same time, I’ve become rather concerned that a lot of explicitly trans art is very focused on the personal narrative. There are a lot of performers, musicians and writers who are transcending this on all sides. And while I can see the worth in telling our stories (and I think ALL of us should!) I realise that the personal narrative is becoming full of tropes. To the point that when I put out my first article for RAG magazine dealing with the body, I was terrified of making it a personal history feature…

    In any case, I do find the issue greatly complex. I used to, in my depressive fits, be very erasing of my own past and history. I’d be very embarrassed of things I’d done, mostly stuff that’s not terrible or unforgivable or anything. And a part of my coming out process was tying it all together and saying yeah, know what, this is me, this is what I’ve done, and it helped me a lot.

    My past is complicated by the fact that I don’t think I ever had the feeling of gender dissonance described by others. I had certain feelings I couldn’t describe, as Julia Serano puts it, the feeling that something is off. But I’ve always been very good at repressing this sort of thing I guess. Back in Argentina, conforming is about survival a lot of the time, and my parents have always been very scared to not be seen outside the norm.

    Mainly because they are not in the norm. My mother is a former communist, my father is an autistic spectrum person, they’re both big liberal lefties who care more about people than money, a rarity in a lot of Buenos Aires. They’d had it rough and so they didn’t take risks, and instilled the same upon me.

    So when I think about the oppressions put on my body, I realise they were also put on my parents body, when my dad was almost taken by the police for typing a letter calling for a university strike, the time my mother was on the bus and saw the bodies of her comrades who’d been shot in the local branch of the communist party. These fears were passed on to me, converted into attitudes toward life. Sometimes, when I’m very angry at my parents and how they deal with my transness, my gender expression, etc, I try to remember that before my past, there was their past also…

  6. [...] about the power and potency of lived experience; it’s something I’ve been dwelling on and a recent article by one of the trans community’s more brilliant writers, Cedar, has crystallised some oblique issues I’ve been having. Her article delves into deeper [...]

  7. Tina Russell said

    I was offered the “trans part” in my school’s production of the Vagina Monologues, and as soon as I read the script, I declined. This article really speaks well to why I declined… I didn’t want to get up and tell the canned “every-tranny” story in front of an audience who’d already formed it in their heads. (Of course, I understand that appropriating the stories and struggles of other communities as her own is what Eve Ensler does best, but that’s another rant…) It felt like I’d be in some freaky, transsexual minstrel show, congratulating my fellow liberals for how they already think about me.

  8. [...] justified their sense of superiority over other oppressed groups. It’s kept up the demand to “tell our stories,” and tell them depoliticized, it’s heaped cis people’s work onto trans people. And it condones cis people’s [...]

  9. [...] lighting and so on), when it comes to the casual photo, we very often see it as truthful.  As Cedar said: And it is precisely the medium of the photograph, that purports to tell the unmediated, timeless, [...]

  10. [...] Didn’t want a penis. Did want a penis. Sex change. Was one way, now the other way. And the pictures….Lord…the pictures. This is what the miracle of science can do! “You were a very [...]

  11. [...] first time I read Cedar’s post, I did not understand. I understood her words, and appreciated how she felt about the old pictures, [...]

  12. Nat said

    I know its a year old, but thank you for articulating this so well. Brilliantly done. THANK YOU.

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