Tranny Rage: The Politics of Mythologizing Transness, 2014
Written for Dirty Looks NYC blog, June 2014 as part of programming for Dirty Looks/Museum of Transgender Hirstory and Art program Transsexual Menace.
If you wanna talk tranny rage, honey, I got a lot of tranny rage. It pisses me off sometimes, ‘cause people don’t think that we exist or you’re not there, like, ya know? Or we just exist on The Heraldo Show? I mean, c’mon! Ya know? We pay fucking taxes!
(Vor Transsexuellen Wird Gewarnt (aka Transsexual Menace.))
This expression of frustration from Eva Love, a major subject of the 1996 documentary Transsexual Menace, has stuck with me for months after seeing this film for the first time. Her anger in larger cultural erasure rings true as a trans woman (spectrum person) myself. For many of us, our first exposures to other trans people (primarily trans women) are on talk shows. As a young person, I can remember seeing these women engaged in vicious verbal battles on tv, and I remember my amazement of these women’s trans statuses and their fierce senses of self depicted on screen. I knew I identified with these unabashed personalities, though now I’ve come to understand how cringeworthy and vilifying these narratives are. While I feel considerably disconnected from these crafted conflicts, this idea of visibility leads me to theories of embodiment that are more critically relevant to my own gender and art practice than ever. Here, I am interested in exploring the juncture of myth/unreal and human/real in its relationship to trans visibility. I feel that the tension inherent in the empowerment vs. the exotification of mythologizing trans-ness brings up larger questions of autonomy, and also holds space for fluid queerness in the changing face of trans cultural politics.
This larger question of “existence” refers directly to the idea that trans women are that of mythological fabrication, that we can exist conceptually; as tv and film characters, as the “turn of events”, or “the wildcard” thrown into a storyline to further dramatize a narrative. Our lack of “realness,” traditionally referring to our ability to “pass” as our identified gender, but also, for the sake of this paper, our lack of real, lived humanness makes us susceptible to all kinds of oppression when actually encountered out in public. From the shock and awe of seeing the Mystical Unicorn trans person in the flesh (1), to the “reactionary” gruesome tactics of overkill (2), the spectrum of reaction to this undesirable embodiment is varied and based on factors interconnected with trans people’s visibility, access to resources, race, class, etc.
By fighting for human recognition, we fight for the opportunity to be seen as valid and relevant and very real members of society. I think constantly about the way our mythological, Made-for-TV statuses means that we slip through the cracks of systems that are set up to help others (3). Because my body does not exist in an easily digestible, human way, it will never get the basic care or biological considerations it needs without a fight. And here I recognize that my ability to access resources such as healthcare is in and of itself a privilege. I’m trying to process what it means to even be able to have these issues at all (lack of recognition in healthcare when so many of us don’t have access to healthcare in the first place, for example), and I am working to find opportunities to leverage this privilege (in ways like actually pushing for tangible recognition in the system as opposed to staying quiet/passive/etc.,) to support those who don’t have these resources at all. But I digress...
While the mythologizing of trans womanhood can be an enormous detriment to the movement towards recognized embodiment, access to resources, ending of systematic violence, etc. I can’t help but mull over the relevance mythological creation has in my own sense of self and how I validate my personal experience of my gender through the mirror effect (seeing myself reflected back to me out in the world.) What happens when the most visible trans activists in popular culture are not accurate representations of my own experience as a gender queer trans person? Where do I look for that mirror? What if these mirrored examples are actually that of mythology? Can mythology be empowering rather than disempowering?
These days, I feel like preexisting mythology, specifically the Jewish conception of Androginos and the alchemical Sacred Androgyne are the most tangible ways I can understand my gender. There is something deeply validating in understanding the religious importance and historical significance of the androgynous body, the divinity in the androgyne, the wholeness of a very complicated, almost spiritual gender. There is only so much alienation one can feel from normative, linear trans narratives before they go seek out stories and conceptualization in other places. In her book Sacred Therapy, psychotherapist Estelle Frankel explains:
Carl Jung once said that modern people’s tendency to “pathologize” stems from the fact that we have forgotten how to mythologize. The gods live on in us as symptoms, he says, rather than as living archetypes. In Jewish spiritual healing we re-learn the sacred art of mythologizing. We learn to embody and live our sacred stories; as Elie Wiesel once said: “People become the stories they hear and the stories they tell.” (p.3)
To discuss Jewish mythology and mysticism, though, is to also discuss the notion of access to histories in general. Trans people’s recorded histories, or hirstories, are limited at best. It is only recently that there are visible trans historians in the US making accessible the research they’re doing. This limited connection to history feels, in this case, integral to the mythologizing process. As a young trans person with a pretty extreme experience of gender, contact with historical information and with my trans elders felt and continues to feel strained and misaligned and at times unobtainable. I can’t help but feel alienated from histories that are centered in essentialist views of gender and a dismissal of experiences that do not follow those narratives. The mystical qualities of the androginos feel fluid enough to represent my constantly evolving body and identity. In her piece Male and Female God Created Them, Margaret Moers Wenig explains:
When the Biblical text says “There was evening, there was morning, the first day,” it means, of course, that there was evening, there was dawn, there was morning, there was noon time, there was afternoon, there was dusk in the first day. “Evening and morning” are used to encompass all the qualities of light that would be found over the course of one day. So, too, in the case of Genesis 1.27b, the whole diverse panoply of genders and gender identities is encompassed by only two words, “male” and “female.” Read not, therefore, “God created every human being as either male or female” but rather “God created human kind zachar u’nikevah (4), male and female and every combination in between.” (p.16)
As I explore this material, I am simultaneously working through the alienation I felt from growing up in a religion dominated by heterosexual and cisgender-normative pedagogy. I was positive that my spiritual community and legacy did not recognize my queer body, my queer desire, my queer life experiences. The act of reaching towards mythology feels like a direct response to this disassociation and an active reclaiming of religious beliefs and rituals that I was previously unaware were mine to identify with in the first place.
While I feel the rights and humanness of trans people gain momentum and light when fighting against the mythologizing and de-embodiment of the trans experience, I can’t help but seek out this mythological nature as a form of validation. I realize that seeing an iteration of one’s trans identity or community in popular culture is in and of itself an amazing step forward, but I caution the assimilationist ideology of “just like you” as it creates an oppositional space for “not like you” to justify exclusive and oppressive thoughts and actions. This search for mythological connection is a personal one. My conceptual and creative practice of
rediscovering of Judaism and esoteric traditions is a way to interact with my own trans identity, and I don’t intend to speak for other trans people. Though, as I watch Eva Love profess her Tranny Rage amidst the grainy 90’s backdrop of a Transsexual Menace protest, I return my own with empathy and also a perpendicular understanding that my trans body is, in fact, mythologically divine.
1) I remember walking through the East Village of New York sometime in 2006 with trans nightlife personality and performer Amanda Lepore and was surprised to hear multiple passersby incredulously exclaim “Woah, dude! That’s a transsexual!”
2) A term described by Eric Stanley in his paper Near Life, Queer Death as: “a term used to indicate such excessive violence that it pushes a body beyond death” (9)
3) At the doctor’s office, I often have nurses reminding me of my “overdue” cervical exam (due to the changed gender marker on my ID and within their system), only to be met with my blank look and the frustrated response “I don’t have a cervix.” I fantasize about the day when medical records will reflect our actual, complicated, non-essentialist bodies, and I won’t have to remind my doctor of the body parts I have or don’t have and how they do or don’t function.
4) “...a common biblical figure of speech in which a whole is alluded to by the sum of its parts” (Wenig, 16).
Frankel, Estelle. Sacred Therapy. Boston, MA. Shambhala Publications, Inc. 2003. Print.
Moers Woening, Margaret. “Male and Female God Created Them: Parashat Bereshit (Genesis 1:1-6:8)” Torah Queeries: Weekly Commentaries on the Hebrew Bible. Ed. Gregg Drinkwater, Joshua Lesser, and David Shneer. New York and London: New York University, 2009. 15. Print.
Stanley, Eric. “Near Life, Queer Death: Overkill and Ontological Capture.” Social Text. 29 (2011) Web. 6 June 2014.
Vor Transsexuellen Wird Gewarnt (aka Transsexual Menace.) Dir. Rosa von Praunheim. Perf. Eva Love, Mayomi Rifiou, Rosalyne Blumenstein. Rosa von Praunheim Filmproduktion. 1996. Film.