I wanted to write about a change. I wanted to work through it, to make it something readable. I was aware that I would do this, and began the task, but soon found myself uncertain about the nature of the endeavor. I had figured something out about myself, but I had not succeeded in writing something that I could share. There were words and phrases that others had pieced together to talk about it already, and I knew that I might not lose much by using them, too. However, it seemed facile and inaccurate to say that I had undergone a shift in gender identity. Though many recognize this terminology as a shorthand for something more complex, I needed to walk away from it, to spend my time looking for something more true, something more unsayable.
I began to conceive of writing a dramatic monologue, in which the speaker of the first-person pronoun was the author, and the subject of the third-person pronoun was the character she had invented as the protagonist of her monodrama. The author would claim to comment on the character, but would in fact be positioned as the speaker, and therefore give voice to her own dramatic monologue, while the character he had constructed would represent, in more objective, distanced, narrative terms, the author’s own thoughts from an earlier or parallel time.
The speaker of the monodrama had come here to write about why she had decided to transition from male to female. The convolution in the story was that she had first transitioned from female to male. Therefore, she had detransitioned. She was ftmtf, a detrans female. She figured that using these words and explaining what they meant to her would allow her to transfer a more accurate or elegant story to different people in different contexts. It would clarify why her pronouns were not consistent across the internet, or on why her voice might be read as male. But it soon became evident that there was no need to do this. It was not difficult or disturbing to explain herself to people. If anything, it felt more generative to speak ad libitum, to be surprised by variation.
She was capable of citing the number of months she had spent thinking about detransition, and could discuss the specific events and relationships in her life that motivated and reinforced it. She wanted to make it clear that she was not quite “undoing” something, and that if she was “undoing” or “returning” to the past, it was in order to understand what it meant to become a woman in the present, and not to argue that she had been deluded about her gender of origin. She would then discuss the literary texts that had renewed her interest in femininity and eventually led to the detransition itself. This would make the essay no longer entirely personal, and would allow her to write about the various connections she had failed to make in the past pertaining to the relation between gender and her creative practices, or at least her conception of the nature of work.
Re-entering the wound that is the failure to articulate a “missed experience,” however, she kept on deleting and writing, and deleting and writing. Some embarrassment surrounded the fact that she had once approached the issue of her gender in a way that was too preoccupied with closure, with the demarcation of limits, and with the desire to slide under the opacity of an imperative: I am now this, call me this. It seemed even politically suspect to use the old language—wasn’t this supposed to be about the importance of a continued exploration of gender that could not be rendered transparent in text? But after a few months of living as a woman, she lost interest in explaining the causes for a shift which was soon becoming natural to her. Good riddance to the explanation, the essay. It reminded her of how she had experienced the first transition: after a few years of living as a trans man, I stopped discussing my gender with nearly everyone who I subsequently met. What mattered in the wake of that transition was my engagement with aesthetics, with creation.
When I last determined my gender identity at the age of fifteen, it felt like a discrete movement, an irreversible step. There was a sense of experiment involved in the act of declaring that my gender was distinct from the one I was raised as, and it set off a process of probing reflexivity to try to understand what made this complex of desire and necessity so unforgettably fundamental to my life. Ironic that part of this forward motion would, and did ultimately entail considering this whole question of gender uninteresting to even think about. After the initial step of social transition, a desire to “naturalize” my gender took over; in other words, I wanted to be read as male without having to explain anything. This desire became so strong that being seen as trans started to feel unbearable; as I began to pass, I stopped speaking and thinking about my gender almost entirely. I would like to reinvest this phase of my transition with the same curiosity that I associate with the first, with the recognition that I was not curious enough then—that I wasn’t able to ask the questions I am asking now.
At one point I believed I had to explain myself in order to separate my narrative from that of others who had told stories about their detransitions in public. These stories almost without exception revolve around regret and pain. I could hardly muster regret with respect to my first transition, and didn’t feel that I had been wrongly influenced into transitioning through some kind of “trans ideology.” While I recognized that there were other factors at play in my adolescent gender dysphoria that go beyond that diagostic concept, it didn’t seem like I would have gained much from alternative “treatments.” I might even say I was proud to have embarked on this convoluted journey, and didn’t see what was so wrong with having a deeper voice that might mark me as transgender. Isn’t it the case that the rhetoric of “ruined bodies” and “irreversible damage” reifies the problem it seeks to prevent? Tossing these debates about in my head felt necessary for some time, but ultimately, I found that my compulsion to follow the political turmoil surrounding detransition was covering over the fact that it was almost entirely unrelated to whatever it was that troubled or interested me about my own detransition.
What was the trouble? It seemed to take root in a desire, a desire to become a woman and deal with the problematic nature of that claim. To put it bluntly, it wasn’t until recently that I became curious about a future in which I might use my uterus. I was fully aware of the fact that I could remain male and have a child by going off testosterone at some point in the future, but it soon became clear to me that I was not simply interested in parturition and the child, but in being a “mother,” and in being seen in advance as someone with a procreative capacity. Why and how did I come to this conviction?
I started reading a group of novels and memoirs pertaining to motherhood during my second summer in grad school. It was my interest in the formal or aesthetic powers of these texts that tricked me into seeing a kind of aesthetic significance in being a woman that might not have come to me otherwise. Of course, I don’t believe I was tricked. I think the success of Outline or Second Place comes from the fact that Rachel Cusk has lived as a woman and is interested in the question of what that means. I became aware of the fact that living as a man for me entailed the opposite: a complete lack of interest in my social position in the world and a belief that there was nothing to say about it. I conceived of myself as so blank, so limitless, that in a neurotic drive to create something novel, I avoided studying anything which felt familiar to me, the core of which was perhaps the sexed aspect of my existence. In the mean time, my writing became so associative that it became problematic to its readers. I was becoming a very proficient interpreter of literary texts, and it was clear that I loved the minutiae of what I read and noticed, but what was this supposed to mean for anyone else, including my self a couple of days or weeks from the present?
These “symptoms” seem significant as the first signs of dissatisfaction with maleness, though I did not conceive of the connection for some time. The kind of gasping effort to learn and make intensified through the first two years of grad school, though something shifted in the meantime. I’d like to say that what shifted is that I became much more aware of the force of desire in whatever I was doing. In psychoanalysis, desire is understood as something which can never be satisfied, which is structured around an object but which cannot be satisfied through that object.
Those of you who have known me recently know that I have a tendency to be dismissive of work, or of what I call “public work.” This is less an injunction against the process of working or on its results than on a certain attitude I once held towards work: the notion that work would save me from the constant dissatisfactions of life, or from the sense that life was hateful because it was ephemeral. I once told a friend, after having completed my senior thesis, that I couldn’t wait for my life to be over, but that I didn’t feel I was permitted to die, because I hadn’t yet produced anything I was proud of. The notion that I would spend the rest of my life trying to make the thing that would give me permission to die felt comforting, and lent the process of trying to create a kind of dignity that didn’t rest in any sort of external structure—it was just about me and my death.
I do not think of myself as a very career-oriented person. I have a tendency to spend my time in a state of otium, or scholastic leisure. I think writing, for me at least, has to come out of relaxation; however much I work on a piece of writing, there’s no way of forcing a favorable result. I tend to spend most of my time writing around the subjects I am supposed to attack through my academic research; a lot of my writing is done on for a posthumous audience. Public work is produced in bursts of intense activity—nothing written over more than a week of concentrated labor. The question of whether my gender has something to do with work is one that I have wanted to treat as a central concern here, in part because of its obliquity, it seeming lack of importance. There’s a common notion that men are more interested in producing things as if to compensate for an inability to give birth, while women are often less ambitious with respect to work because their creative impulses may be satisfied through motherhood. When I was a child, I had a relatively strong sense that I would not get married, because if I did so, I’d lose my freedom, my freedom and strength and ability to do whatever work I found most meaningful. This notion persisted through high school, when I came to believe that I needed to be celibate. Several events in my sentimental life had led up to this: (1) a romantic relationship, (2) a stalker of sorts, and (3) a brief crush.
In the first case, I became enamored with a person who had an apparently precocious and vast knowledge of computing, the relationship became difficult to remain in when I realized that he wanted me to be his “girlfriend.” I liked him enough to acquiesce at first, but found it unbearable to be seen as something he had obtained. I sensed in his desire that he desired something of me that had nothing to do with me, that in spite of whatever it was that made us individuals attracted to each others' individual characteristics, that there was an underlying script in play, one whose contents and contours were difficult to even articulate, though it aligned with the heterosexual marriage plot, which repulsed me. A different sort of unease accompanied the way in which the second person idealized me: what seemed like a fairly innocuous unrequited crush had the effect of making me feel powerless in relation to his gaze. No matter how consistently I rejected him, he continued to show me an affection that intensified my sense that my words and actions had already and would always be voided of meaning on account of his desire to exist in relation to me. It is not difficult to see how I read from these two events an inability to imagined a future as a heterosexual woman, how they translated into gender dysphoria. The third person elicited a desire which was simply too intense; the unwarranted disruption, the illogical intensity of being attracted to someone was hateful to me, and I thought of my crush as enacting on me a kind of chemical trickery which could be waited out, or even actively foreclosed with a new sense of gender.
Sexual desire was a cutting down of that notion of the self as potent and capable; of the individual sustained by his own, self-determined modes of operation. My parents had enforced a certain belief in me that marriage trapped a person, kept someone from realizing their “full potential,” and that children were essentially parasitical drains on a person’s creative force. It took some time to attach these notions to the sense that no relation with a heterosexual man would be possible, even if it was manifest in an undeclared attraction. But when it happened, it stuck neatly and quickly.
I was talking to my mom about detransition. In spite of my disavowal of maleness and of the initial reasons for my transition, I said that testosterone served an important transitory function in my development, that it brought me in touch with the possibility of beauty, or of soul and body following an ethos. The law, in essence, was always one of beauty, and disliking my position as female or feminine was a screen. I seemed to want to resemble the boys I was attracted to, I said, which I can't account for now. She theorized that the reason for this had something to do with my childhood practice of catching grasshoppers. The leap was not sufficient as an explanation, but it was suggestive in proportion to how much we laughed. My family experiences some kind of hyperaesthesia, we place too much emphasis on the value of the appearance of things. The intensity of my desire to become a certain animal was distinct from the affection some other kids in school would express with respect to their pets. The hermit crabs, the grasshoppers, the various caterpillars, the millipede I kept—were of the sort that couldn't gaze at you, couldn't ask you for anything. My primary experience of animals is of their withdrawal, and if my father exerted any law it was to tell me that having pets was stupid, that animals were meant to be wild, and that their of what it meant to feel burning desire for an Other came in the form of my entomological exploits.
I grew up in a somewhat gender-nonconforming family, though both parents are more or less conventional in terms of dress and appearance. My mother occupies the role of the patriarch: she earns the money, enforces rules, makes decisions, expresses strong opinions of what is good or bad. My father is primarily domestic, does part-time teaching, and acts kind of like a chauffeur. There was no clear sense of what it meant to be a woman or a man growing up, but I learned a great deal from the outside world. In the beginning I have no idea what I was, but at some point, around the age of five, there are pictures of me wearing pink, and numerous records of me drawing numerous princesses. Then I became more preoccupied with spending time outdoors. I admired goddesses of the hunt and figures like Skađi and Athena and Nausicäa who were not at all “masculine” but who did things I liked to do, like running a lot and chasing things, or spending time observing or caring for invertebrates. I had no sense of non-conformity in dress as being a horizon for my identity until I was several years into grade school and found that I did not like certain forms of femininity in other girls, perhaps because they were either not familiar to me or because my parents had actively discouraged me from being too “conventional.” I was almost violently discouraged from playing with barbies at one point in time—they ripped their heads off—and I think my parents found my interest in Britney Spears or Sailor Moon hard to understand.
All I know of the time that followed is that my ego began to revolve around an athleticism which at first revolved around animals; a desire to be as fast as a peregrine falcon or a cheetah, to have keen senses and strength and quickness. But this soon became an epicycle which revolved around boys: I wanted to run fast with them, I was obsessed with the chase, and I was aware of the erotic nature of my attraction. I played tag with them—I chased them down, I got chased. I played soccer, which was more collaborative, but it also involved “stealing the ball,” and I found that I preferred to play in the defensive position. Sometimes I’d manage to steal from my crush and this was much more exciting than winning or scoring a goal, which I rarely ever attempted. I don’t know where this libidinal attachment to running around came from, but it existed around boys and insects. I could leave my mom’s hunch about catching grasshoppers as an enigmatic joke, but it brings to mind a fairly long chain of associations. One comes from Kōbō Abe’s Woman in the Dunes:
The theory had been advanced that the man, tired of life, had committed suicide. One of his colleagues, who was an amateur psychoanalyst, held to this view. He claimed that in a grown man enthusiasm for such a useless pastime as collecting insects was evidence enough of a mental quirk. Even in children, unusual preoccupation with insect collecting frequently indicates an Oedipus complex. In order to compensate for his unsatisfied desires, the child enjoys sticking pins into insects, which he need never fear will escape. And the fact that he does not leave off once he has grown up is quite definitely a sign that the condition has become worse. Thus it is far from accidental that entomologists frequently have an acute desire for acquisitions and that they are extremely reclusive, kleptomaniac, homosexual. From this point to suicide out of weariness with the world is but a step.
I told a friend once that it would be funny if people came here expecting to read about my detransition, and instead found an extended meditation on my Oedipus complex. The joke isn’t so out of line given that in Gender Trouble, Judith Butler, through a reading of Freud, argues that gender identification is produced through a melancholic attachment to a parental figure:
In the experience of losing another human being whom one has loved, Freud argues, the ego is said to incorporate that other into the very structure of the ego, taking on attributes of the other and 'sustaining' the other through magical acts of imitation. The loss of the other whom one desires and loves is overcome through a specific act of identification that seeks to harbor that other within the very structure of the self: 'So by taking flight into the ego, love escapes annihilation' (178). This identification is not simply momentary or occasional, but becomes a new structure of identity; in effect, the other becomes part of the ego through the permanent internalization of the other's attributes. (Gender Trouble 73)
The boy, then, “forfeit[s] the mother as object of desire,” and either “internalizes the loss through identification with her, or displaces his heterosexual attachment, in which case he fortifies his attachment to his father and thereby ‘consolidates’ his masculinity.” (76). The girl may likewise identify with her mother, or with her father. The question then becomes, why this and not that? Is there something innate in a child’s disposition that might lead to a specific structure of attachment, or does it come down to the personal traits of the mother and father? A bit later in the chapter, Butler comes up with the following formula: “gender identification is a kind of melancholia in which the sex of the prohibited object is internalized as a prohibition” (80). I immediately think of the strength of my mother’s prohibitions: do not be like your father, do not marry someone like your father. From this we might derive a straightforward relation between the prohibition on my father and my own prohibitions on desire in later adolescence, which coincided with an internalization of maleness. Hence the ease of repudiating heterosexuality, e.g., the aforementioned “third person.”
He hadn't understood how little sense he made as a person without Reese until after she began to detach from him, until the lack of her became so painful that he started to once again want the armor of masculinity and, somewhat haphazardly, detransitioned to fully suit up in it.
She had, of course, long come to understand that masculinity dulled her, that it dissociated her from herself. But honestly, that's all she wanted at that point. A pocket of space to separate herself from the bright emotions of shame and fear, a veil between herself and the curious eyes on the subway and at work, a sheath over the sharp edge of furious betrayal that lacerated her whenever she met Reese's gaze; and likewise, a sheath over that awful longing for Reese as she had so innocently seen her before Stanley. A week before Reese's birthday, Amy stopped taking her anti-androgens. She and Reese took their last shot together on the night of Reese's birthday, before they went out for sushi, and that brief return to the vividness of estrogenated emotion so scalded that the next week, Amy faked taking her shot. She never took one again.
I didn’t conceive of “detransition” as a possibility until I read a novel last June—Torrey Peters’s Detransition, Baby, from which I’ve pulled these quotes. The main characters, Reese and Amy are two trans women in a romantic relationship until Reese starts cheating on Amy with a man. After a brutal confrontation, Amy decides to detransition, and became Ames. He is told by a doctor that his transition has rendered him sterile, which leads him to accidentally impregnate the woman he’s involved with, Katrina, who is unsure that she wants the baby, given Ames’s hesitation about fatherhood. Ames’s hesitations surround his latent sense of femaleness. Since he knows that Reese wants to be a mother, he proposes that Reese enter the family unit. And so the drama of the plot surrounds the question of whether or not Katrina, Reese, and Ames will end up finding a way to configure a kinship relation around the unborn baby. Ames was the first detransitioner I met.
Reese doesn’t quite believe that the detransition was a move in the “right” direction, and I was inclined to agree. If Ames has detransitioned because of an acutely traumatic incident, will some form of healing later lead her to retransition? Does the boundedness of the traumatic event which leads him to “suit up” in the “armor of masculinity” make his new gender contingent on a temporary need? In any case, the novel led me to follow detransition stories on platforms like Reddit and Youtube. I did not identify strongly with what I saw, as most of the more vocal detransitioners of the FtMtF variety detransitioned after only a few years of living as male and expressed a great deal of regret and resentment. Though I could not recognize myself in much of this, I became ambiently interested in the possibility of detransition. I had already begun to “feel” myself as more female than before; dysphoria was so distant as to be completely alien to me. And around this time, I read Sheila Heti’s Motherhood, most of Rachel Cusk, Mieko Kawakami’s Breasts and Eggs, Patricia Lockwood’s No One is Talking About This, and various works by Mei-mei Berssenbrugge. Women’s writing became an artistic horizon for me; Peters’s book one more instance of a novel which made womanhood—and trans life—interesting, worth writing.
It’s tempting to move from here into another discussion of how my aesthetic engagements with these texts led me to refind myself as a woman, to take interest in a tradition, history, or cultural identity which I had previously repudiated. But there was something else at work already: the thing I’m still trying to find out how to write about in the sober light of the first-person pronoun.
I’ll try to do it the only way I know—by referring to someone else:
L'amur is what appears in the form of bizarre signs on the body. They are the sexual characteristics that come from beyond, from that place we believed we could eye under the microscope in the form of the germ cell regarding which I would point out that we can't say that it's life since it also bears death, the death of the body, by repeating it. That is where the encorps comes from. It is thus false to say that there is a separation of the soma from the germ because, since it harbors this germ, the body bears its traces. There are traces on l'amur. (Seminar XX, p. 4)
Lacan goes on to say that the sexed traits of the body are only secondary, that the body’s jouissance does not depend on them. But why bring them up at all? What is the role these bizarre signs play in the shape of a life and a being’s vision of how that life might wriggle its way towards death?
This isn’t a question that I seek to answer in language. I don’t know how it’s possible to address. To refer back to my second epigraph: “Sex is that which cannot be spoken by speech; it is not any of the multitude of meanings that try to make up for this impossibility.” Somehow this breakdown of sense has become important to me, important enough for me to decide to answer in a particular form of life. I raise the question as I detransition; and I declare I am not, in the end, interested in what it means to be a creative human being, but that I am impacted by the brute force of cunt.
This isn’t over, of course—just barely begun. The writer seems frustrated still by the pronoun “I,” by the sanctimony of its cant in relation to the pressurized intensity of the single word cunt. She wants to make a series of cunt jokes, and tell an actual story with real characters and events, and to declare, out of a sense of political responsibility and general politeness, that her interest in the sexed aspects of her being are not meant to resolve signifier with signified. The experience which she is in the process of bringing into existence for herself—i.e., detransition, is not based on a desire to return to the ease of conflating a type of genital with a gender. She does not think she is becoming “cis,” but rather doubly folded, doubly trans. It’s the weirdness or sense of self-scission which occurs in publicly acknowledging the relation between her gender and her sex that she seems to acknowledge in the act of shifting her endocrinology and self-presentation to what some people deem “natural.” This is more like becoming a trans woman whose sex just happens to align with that of a cis woman, or just being a woman in a scenario where everyone’s surprised to learn that you have ovaries—under no reference to the concept of “cis” or “trans.” She feels especially “denatured” by the contortions of attempting to figure out what she is trying to communicate and to whom. Transition narratives, she reminds me, are almost always crafted for very specific purposes: to convince doctors to write you a prescription, to convince your family not to cut you off, to convince a partner not to leave you. What are the stakes of writing about a transition in which none of this is at stake? Is it a purely political question, attractive to speak about because of the apparent dearth of detransition narratives which refuse to long for the fiction of the “natural”?
Perhaps, though she knows she is still failing to write about what can’t be written, or what “doesn’t stop not being written.” And again this is a question of how sexual difference remains pertinent to the structure of desire. Where and how she came to encounter a sense of its importance to her is not a mystery, but it feels better to let language falter in its place—the “brute force” of that sense that something is there inside of you which is also without, threatening to cut you down and make you nothing other than a immensely complicated folding of proteins—making the awareness of that available to others in the daily acts which constitute her gender performance or masquerade: that’s how she might scribble around the embarrassment of the eroticism behind the desire to become a woman. And what that predicate means can’t be said beyond this chain of events whose meaning can only be apprehended when the series is cut off and punctuated and made into a finite sequence of interpretable images. Here are some, there are others. Right now all she knows is that in writing this, she has almost forgotten. She has forgotten what she wrote before which she believed was wrong, and that is what writing does for her—it punctuates the chain of languaged life, pitting it now with holes and then with cliffs. Lost in here was a simpler narrative, in which she simply left it at the fact that she was now going by different pronouns—but it seems alright, she says to me now, to present it as a vague muddle, or perhaps like the flashes of light which manage to make it through the thick but quickly shifting clouds of some late summer’s afternoon.
Some texts and films which influenced me...