A note to the reader: I wanted to use this space to talk about death in a way that is not normally afforded to trans-centered dialogues. That is to say, I wanted to talk about death without focusing on the much discussed and well known fact that trans people are assaulted, murdered and commit suicide in huge quantities every year. It would feel remiss to not acknowledge this reality of death and suicide in relation to being trans, but I also wish as trans people we would have as much space as cis people to explore the multi-faceted ways of living and dying. Trans Time is an attempt at that.
- Transgender, transsexual.
- Describing a double bond in which the greater radical on both ends is on the opposite side of the bond.
“Are we so made that we have to take death in small doses daily
or we could not go on with the business of living?”
I’m sitting in an afternoon screening of Christopher Nolan’s Tenet at Redi and I’m time-traveling.
The film is a non linear detective story, the synopsis reads: a Protagonist journeys through a twilight world of international espionage on a mission that will unfold in something beyond real time. In one scene, a character explains going back in time without a clear destination as ‘cowboy’-ing it. I believe that films and other art come to us at the exact right moment when we are ready to receive them, yet I’m surprised every time it occurs. I take my pen and paper out in the dark and begin taking notes. I have been thinking for a while about the idea of a time travelling Cowboy. This cowboy has a lasso rope, one they can cast back and forth between future, past and present. They can wrangle timelines and moments.
I think of my transness like this, a wrangling.
In Tenet the protagonist, known as the Passenger, and his partner, Neil, are preparing to go back in time together. Neil is a seasoned traveller and is explaining the timeline to the Passenger. They stand in a room that holds half of a portal, on the other side of a glass window is an identical room, holding the other side of the portal.
As Neil explains the logistics of time-travel, we the audience see a timeline involving the Passenger and Neil play out in the other room, we’ve seen this timeline already. Neil explains the logistics of their mission, and before they enter he points to the other timeline and says ‘If you don’t see yourself there, you don’t go back’. My skin raises a shiver.
What would this mean to a trans person? When we look back, do we ever see ourselves? If I only went to the moments where I saw myself, what would those moments be?
On some days, this is easy to answer.
I’m seven years old, in Ireland, it’s summer and I’m holding hands with my cousin Lauren. Her mother has filled a plastic pool full of water for us to paddle in. We’ve spent all day in and out of it, rolling in the grass, eating ice lollies. I strip off my top and run around in my underwear, I can still feel the heat of the memory, the sun on my shoulder blades, on my chest, and the feeling of the cool air kissing the back of my head with it’s cropped short hair. Someone is taking photos of us, our bodies are received neutrally to the adults around us, we smile and pose happily for the photos. This memory I roll over in the hand of my mind, until it’s presence becomes a glass marble, the outside layer the life I’ve lived since, and inside, the many strands of colour that make up the shimmering memory of freedom. When looking back, the shimmering is what I seek.
Moments of freedom as a trans person feel delicate, slivers of chance, found, usually in private, in the rooms of others, in a transsexual to transsexual gaze. The next time I experience such topless freedom again, I’m 28.
I’m on Mustikkamaa with a group of gender non-conforming people. I’m reading Paul Takes the Form of Mortal Girl by trans writer Ander Lawlor. The novel takes place in 1990s American and follows Paul, a shapeshifting genderqueer, who seeks out pleasure anywhere and everywhere they can. I don’t read this book, I eat it. I’m jealous of the metamorphosing, how Paul thinks of what genitals they’d like and then they appear, how they grow their body with the magic of their own mind. The envy is painful. I read until I can’t take it anymore, until I’ve made myself both restless and tired. My mind is pulsing. I want to swim, but more than anything I want to feel the sun on my chest. I don’t remember the choice or who suggested it, but I remember the moment when two trans masc people and I walk to the water’s edge and wade in, all three of us topless. I’m terrified, bordering hysterical, as I feel the water move across my nipples. I pretend the world behind my back holds only the other queers I came with, I conjure safety. Eyes skyward, cloud-gazing, I hear the laughter of the two others swimming with me. I lie back and float on my back, lapping waves fill my ears. All good things in the world happen twice.
These moments are places I easily connect to myself, but what about all the other moments that make up a transsexual life?
Since I started questioning my gender, I’ve felt the pressure to conform to many ideas of transness. Ideas presented by cis people, the questions they ask so they can make themselves more comfortable with our existence. Questions about surgeries, genitals, hormones; questions that reveal where they would like to situate us. Oftentimes it’s black and white, either / or, it’s assimilation into places that they are interested in, and places in which trans people are not. These pressures are easy enough to shrug off.
The more complicated pressures come from my own queer community. I’ve felt as a trans person the need to cast off the person(s) I once was, only identifying with the way I present here and now. I’ve felt my childhood should have clues in order for me to identify in certain ways. I’ve felt I’m supposed to be uncomfortable when someone uses my old, or ‘dead’ name. I’ve been wondering about these reactions to things connected to the past, why does it seem as a community that we are so focused on shutting off our contact with our past selves?
I am transsexual because I am, always was. I was transsexual when I thought about marrying my cis-boyfriend and running away to the country to have children with him. I was transsexual when I wore heels and dresses from which I derived a range of feelings, from discomfort to pleasure. I was transsexual when I was called a cute little girl. I am transsexual when people in my hometown call me the name I grew up with. I am transsexual when I’m called she, woman, daughter, sister.
We are trans because we are, always were.
My old name brought me to a point, and then it didn’t serve anymore, and so I let it go. Dead-naming is a complicated concept, of course there are moments when the use of a name is violent and an exercise in power, when the person using it is doing so to harm you. Dead-naming can be erasure, it can be an active way of discrediting the sheer struggle it takes a trans person to get to the point where they say: this is my name, now call me it. There are terrors, traumas, paperwork, pain, attached to my old name. I love and prefer my name now. It gives me euphoria to hear others say it, it makes me feel respected and loved. But why must we kill parts of ourselves to get to that stage? Why must we associate our pasts with the dead?
What expanses could we open up if we gave space for our childhood, teenage and all other past selves to exist and be honoured in our transness? For all moments from our lives to be considered queer without clues to suggest such?
Queerness is because it is.
Transness is because it is.
Assigning who and what is the ‘right’ type of queerness or transness serves nobody, least of all the ones trying to admit things to themselves. Trans people so often face abuse and battles in their daily lives, the inclusion into a community shouldn’t reproduce those systems of persecution. When first coming out I’ve had queer partners laugh at me dating cis-men, as if there is any one way to be queer, I’ve had other trans people joke about the make up and other ‘gendered’ products I hold from my past. Why do we fight gender so much and then end up bringing those very structures back into our intimate spaces? The work you do alone to figure out who you are and what that might look like is some of the most important work of transness, but in my experience, the most magic moments of self determination have been through being seen by another trans person.
Early in my gender-questioning days I met another gender-questioning person. One of the ways in which we spent time together was to lounge on their sofa and take turns showing each other our favourite music videos. One evening they ask what my dream self would be, I pull up Perfume Genius’ ‘Slip Away’ video and say this. They watch it with me, stroking my leg, and say I see it. I hadn’t gotten anywhere near the outward gender-fuckery that I had wished for at that moment in time, but their comment sustained me for quite a while. Later on a trip to a flea market they find a silk white ruffle shirt, resembling Alan’s from the video, and send me a photo with a text can I get it for you?
We can create futures for each other, by extending care and space for the many possibilities that might lie dormant in someone and how those sleeping things might show up.
Every year since I decided to uncover more and more parts of myself, first: queer, then: non binary, now: trans-masculine, I move closer and closer to a future-self that has been waiting all along. Since starting testosterone this year I felt a rapid movement toward that person. A process of mental stabilizing that was happening year by year, slowly, pre-T, has now just fallen into my lap. My emotions levelled out, I don’t cry so much anymore, and the urge to die is gone. That is to say: I’ve become interested in living.
I’m confronted by this realisation when watching Sally Potter’s Orlando with a friend on a cold Sunday in November. I had put off this film for years, telling myself I would read the book first, but that day it felt right and so we lay back and slipped inside Woolf’s timeloop. At the beginning of the film, a lover poses a question to a young depressed Orlando, why are you sad? Orlando answers that it’s because they fear tomorrow and what that might hold. They live in constant anticipation of their future pain and through their own (unconscious) choice relinquish any pleasure possibly accessed in the present. I relate. As a younger, confused person the future held only terror for me, what possibilities were there for me in aging: marriage, pregnancy, children? I didn’t want any of it, scared, I scrambled for representation, but looking within the cis-het lifestyle, naturally, as a trans person, I found nothing.
Orlando spends the first part of their life tied up in questions of society, in what ways they can be useful, in the expectations of others. They are seen tripping, running frantically in these younger scenes. They experience various gender expressions until they are brought to the 18th century, where they must live as a ‘woman’. They lose everything as a result, their house, their agency, their fortune which kept them safe. The loss seems to ground them.
As Sally Potter’s film builds to a close we’ve travelled 400 years with Orlando to 1980s England. A black intertitle appears on screen, white text flashes and reads: BIRTH. We see them pitching their biography to a publisher, who says it will be a bestseller. It seems they’ve finally claimed their narrative, found some sort of voice. In a beautiful scene of layered time, we watch Orlando arrive at their old family home, this time with a child in their arms. They walk calmly, happily, with their queer family, toward the tree where the film opened in the beginning. Orlando sits against its trunk and the child runs in the landscape with a video camera, we see the shaky handheld footage of a child’s curious eye running toward their parent. The camera captures a crying Orlando, toward which the child poses a question, ‘Why are you sad?’, echoing the lover’s enquiries from many years ago. Orlando answers; ‘I’m not… look’ and points to the sky, where a winged being hovers singing the most transsexual song I have heard in a movie to date. The Angel’s words: I am coming / I am coming through / Coming across the divide to you / In this moment of unity / Feeling an ecstasy / To be here, to be now / At last I am free / To be free of the past / And of the future that beckons me / I am coming / Here I am / Neither a woman, nor a man.
I turn to my friend and ask about the other intertitles we’ve seen throughout the movie, “Poetry, love, sex, politics, birth… what was the other one?”, They say they can’t remember, a common response from both of us, neurodivergent people, trying to recall details from the many films we watch together. Later on my walk home, I’m scanning reviews of the film, someone has listed the missing title: Death. I stop under a streetlight and re-read it. There was a time when death would be the first word that would have stood out to me in all the ones listed. It feels beautiful that now, at this moment in my life, its presence washes over me, its urgency no longer felt.
A symptom of being suicidal for the formative years of your life is when you find yourself at a place where you don’t want to die, you’re 30 years old and for the first time seriously considering what it might look like to grow old. It feels poetic to me to now to age as an out transsexual faggot. I want to see myself as an elderly person and for the first time I can actually imagine it. A greying moustache, wrinkled veiny hands, a deep, time-changed voice.