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. 😛

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.)