(A note before I begin: I started writing this around early September of this year, and I’ve taken several pretty long breaks while writing it. Hopefully it is not too jarring at the points where I stopped and started writing it again.)
The longer I continue my transition, the more hopeless it feels to me. I have been on HRT since around March 20, 2019. Somewhere around there, at least. Within a couple of days. In a few months I will be almost 3 years into my transition. And yet I don’t feel like I am any closer to being the woman I wanted to be since I was 8 than I was on that day in 2019.
Within the general trans sphere, there’s a tendency within us and outside of us (in the general cisnormative culture) that we should be “fixed” somehow, the method of which comes in different forms depending on who you ask. Many people (though increasingly less as time goes on, thankfully) believe transness can be solved through repressing it, some others think that it can be solved through medication and surgery, others think that you can simply will yourself into the body you desire through exercise, voice training, etc, and others think it is merely a matter of cultural acceptance within the greater cisnormative culture (lmfao). The thing tying these varying perspectives together (and thus what pervades the entire discourse and existence of transness) is this conception that through treatment or some other process, the “problem” of trans existence can be solved, and thus removed.
I recently watched several talks from a german convention about climate change, and various technologies surrounding climate change either as “problematic” (fossil fuels, for example) or “solutions” (hydrogen, electric vehicles, among others). Within this I found an interesting talk titled “Solving problems of the Anthropocene — The tricky, the hard and the impossible.” This talk interested me in particular in how it differentiated “problems” from “catastrophes.” To the speaker, “problems” are defined by the existence of distinct, tractable solutions for them. For example, searching for data in a dataset is a problem because there are algorithms that exist that are able to find that data. For something to be classified as a problem, we don’t necessarily need to know the solution (nor does the solution need to be an algorithm!!!!), we just need to know that the problem can be solved in some way and thus we no longer have to deal with the effects of that problem.
By contrast, “catastrophes” are defined by their effects not able to be removed through solving them. For example, say an asteroid were to hit the earth tomorrow. There would be no possibility to stop this asteroid, no space agency could plan a mission to stop this asteroid within a day, there is no defensive infrastructure in place to quickly act against such a threat in that timeframe. Thus the effects of the asteroid hitting the earth cannot be avoided, its effects are inevitable. This is a catastrophe. In the talk, climate change is viewed as such a catastrophe. The causes of climate change are probably unstoppable, the damage has already been done to the environment. What is left is to wait for the effects, minimize damage where possible, and adapt to the new condition the world will be in the future.
Transness as a Problem to be Solved
In the current (and past) cultural context, trans people first approach the nature of their transness as a problem. We are led to believe one of a few things:
- That we are bad or defective in some way for not being cis. We must reject our desire for being trans lest we be punished in some way.
- That we can achieve the body we desire through various means and assimilate into greater cis society. We can pass and become indistinguishable from the crowd.
- That we can make our transness accepted within cis society, and this social acceptance will be enough to fix our dysphoria and other issues that result from being trans.
In all of these scenarios, transness is a condition to be cured, or otherwise solved. The first scenario, which is the transphobic scenario, sees transness as a disease to be cured, through making the trans subject become cis again. For some, even death of trans bodies is a potential solution. To TERFs and certain “moderate” types of transphobes, this rejection comes not from within the trans subject but rejection from cis society in some way, for example with bathroom laws but can also be much broader or narrower. Either way, rejection of transness is seen as a solution: ignorance or repression alone is enough.
The second scenario is the scenario of transmedicalists and “truscum,” among other trans people. Transness is seen as a temporary disease of the body, which can be cured through the power of medicine, training, and will. Once the hormones take their course, and your body, voice, and mannerisms are sufficiently opposite gendered, you will be able to “pass,” and become just another cis person, and your self hatred with your body and your being will disappear, and you will be cured. Assimilation of trans bodies into cis culture is thus the solution.
The third scenario is a common sentiment within some trans communities and some allies. Transness in this case is seen as a purely social phenomenon resulting from hyper-rigid cultural conceptions of gender, which, once these rigid constructions are removed or otherwise deconstructed in society as a whole, there would no longer be a “gender” to be dysphoric about. The solution in this case is some sort of cultural revolution or reformation.
For me personally, I began in the second camp. I believed that the entirety of my dysphoria came from my body looking masculine and I hoped that with medication and some effort, I could love my body and not feel so alienated socially like I had been in the past. There’s a lot of girls who pass just on hrt and voice training alone, right? So I have a good chance, at least. And anyway, at least I’m no longer a gross boy anymore.
I mean, I still desire to assimilate and just be another woman, not hyphenated, nor prefixed. But the more I think about it the more I realize being trans has much more variety in goals, outcomes, and experiences than can really effectively be reduced to these solutions. And, in addition, there are a lot of limitations to how much one’s own body can be changed to suit them, and how much we can change society to suit us. We cannot change our bodies to look exactly how we want. We cannot simply remove the various traumas that result from being trans. We cannot make everyone respect and tolerate us, and see us the way we wish to be seen. We cannot even make ourselves see ourselves the way we look in the mirror (thank you, body dysmorphia).
These limits are what define being trans, in the current era. We are defined by being able to change ourselves a little, or even quite a lot, but not always to where we want. We are defined by a society that sometimes is accepting, sometimes even enthusiastic to support us, but is always in some way alienated from us, and still by and large seeks to eliminate us. We are defined by being unable to assimilate or be normal.
And so we lead into Catastrophe.
Transness as Catastrophe
What can be done about a problem with no solution? We refuse to be erased. We often cannot assimilate. We can make marginal improvements to society, but it is gradual and draining. Maybe the problems with our bodies can go away with technology and the problems with society can go away with activism, but that is not something we will see the results of today, nor maybe even in our lifetimes. So in the meantime we are limited.
Within Catastrophe, there is an understanding that one’s own existence will no longer be the same as it once was. Within the topic of the climate crisis, this means that someday, eventually, our lifestyles will have to change. Cities will be flooded, people will be relocated. Deserts will take over much of the earth, and forests will dwindle. There will be large amounts of loss which cannot be prevented. The result of a problem without a solution is a change that cannot be prevented, but we wish we could.
The discovery of being trans and the navigation of it is not nearly as large or horrific a scale as the climate crisis, but within oneself it has the same effects. Discovery and acceptance of being trans necessarily leads to the destruction of that person — you are no longer cis, your body as it currently exists no longer belongs to you and will do things that will disturb and terrify you, you may be forced to maintain an identity that does not belong to you and alienates and traumatizes you, etc. It is complete disaster of the body, and the next step is to recover and rebuild. But this cannot be done, the damage has already been thrust upon the body by hormones, puberty, and age. There is no escape from the wreckage of the past, the body cannot be discarded and remade. Neither can the mind, its experiences, traumas, and coping mechanisms. We are left with a catastrophic wreckage of skin, bone, muscle, fat, blood, and nerves.
The Trans Body, Haunted
In a way, the notion of catastrophe is explicitly hauntological. The body becomes marked by the past in a way that always continues into the present, despite all attempts to conjure it away. Trans bodies are identified by others not by what we are or what we seek to become, but what we once were and what we cannot escape. This inability to conjure away the spectre of our collective pre-transition selves is the precise point at which the trans subject becomes catastrophe, where we are no longer human but half-human, half ghost.
The tragedy of the ghost is one where there is no corporeal substance to grasp at, no point where it can be touched, felt, explained, or determined. This is what makes spectres so difficult to confront. Without a way to grasp at what is haunting, there is no way to kill it, or conjure it away. The ghost remains, an ever-present notion of what once was and what shall continue to be. The ghost reminds us that the past does not die in the present, but lives precisely here with us, as a testament to what we cannot simply remove or ignore about ourselves and the world around us.
Hauntology was originally discussed by Derrida in “Spectres of Marx,” a book printed just after the fall of the Soviet Union, a time when to many Capitalism seemed to really have killed Marx for good. Derrida notes that despite the many eulogies of Marx many were all-to-quick to make, it is not quite so easy to kill a spectre. Even then, it was clear that modern liberal capitalism still had the same failures and problems it always had, in which the spectre of Marx continues to live in to this day. These are problems that cannot be solved by placing rubber concrete on the cracks, if it were. Capitalism cannot simply solve its own contradictions without ceasing to be capitalism. Similarly, trans people cannot simply become cis. We need a radical change in how trans people are perceived and how we are treated by others before our ghosts will stop haunting us.
Catastrophe as the Catalyst for Revolution
I strongly reject the notion that trans people are aberrations who need to be fixed or assimilated in some form into cis society at large. Within current society we are simply haunted by our transness in a way that necessarily discriminates us and prevents any hope for assimilation without horrific amounts of misery. Instead, there must be a more radical solution. This does not mean embracing the ghosts, internalizing that trans bodies are aberrations and inferior. Instead we must create a new society where these ghosts no longer have a place to haunt us.
Part of catastrophe is that there is no solution — well, yes. There is no solution in our modern society for transphobia, just like there isn’t for climate change. However, this precise contradiction, this breaking point, is the precise point where the breakthrough for a revolution must occur. Like Thatcher once said, “There is no alternative” — it must all burn down.
And only from those ashes can a new society be built.