Friends Like These: Trans Narratives and Morgan’s Microphone
It’s barely 6am here in Vansterdam, on the west coast of Canada, and myself — and many other trans women bloggers — are sitting down to type out the ruminating aftermath of Janet Mock’s appearance on the Piers Morgan Show.
I had initially resisted saying something since, once again, my blog topic will be a response to media pastiche of trans invalidation. And I know that, as I hesitantly click, more prominent bloggers, ones who always seem to have command of the trans feminist circulation of text, will be preparing their own counterstatements. However, given that I think some of my points below will be somewhat contrarian, I hope they might add something unique to the emergent trans rebuttal.
Piers Morgan can’t be defended, whatever his intentions of being on our side. His oafish pseudo-intellectualism was in fine form last night. Continually talking over Mock, he stuck to the cis deadly sins of limelighting Mock’s romantic history, physical adaptations, and pre-transition presentations with a magnification that we are all too familiar. His notoriety as a bully, particularly in interviewing women, asserted itself once again through exoticising aspects of Mock’s personal backstory. It’s a repeat of what happened on with Katie Couric: the salacious, invasive probing of the trans person’s narrative always overrides the more pressing, preeminent issues of trans lives in the present tense.
My father, who never accepted me as a daughter, once observed with Irish pragmatism: “I think the devil probably looks a lot like Piers Morgan. Smart suit, benign smile, and a posh English accent. But when the mask slips . . .” Sure he was blithely obtuse on trans issues last night — but what did you expect? Morgan is a professional wind-up merchant. (Rebekah Brooks and the gutter press, anybody?) A boarding school bully with the entire Slytherin House of CNN to back up the rugby bluster. If you go on his programme — you run the risk of being the prop for his primetime routine.
Trans activism is committed to visibility, but constrained by the hostility of what enables us to be visible. The media, in its many guises of docutainment, will always prefer “Here’s a picture of you wearing a tux to your high school prom” over “why is access to appropriate medical care so incredibly difficult for trans people” in serving up our lives as public discourse. It’s been like this since Christine Jorgensen stepped off that plane from Copenhagen to a press armada of obliging interviewers. Trans lives offer up an abject spectacle that excites the jouissance of mainstream obsessions with bodies, identities, technologies, and a selfish voyeurism for inspiring snapshots about transformation.
However, here’s where I strike what I feel are a number of contrarian points to the twitter rallies in the trans communities last night
(1) Cis media does not believe that they owe us anything
If you play with the cis media? If you play with the cis media … how many times do we have to get cheated? Honestly, did you think Piers Morgan was going to be a gentleman? Or was there a high percentage chance that he’d blunder an interview with a trans woman through eroticizing her body as the frontier of human reinvention? We really can’t be naive about this. I could’ve told you on a punter’s pub bet of 5 euro and a packet of Benson’s that Morgan would’ve been a gobshite last night. You didn’t need a crystal ball. Soon as I heard Mock was going on — I thought, fair play to you — but this will not end an unmitigated good. We all know the sort of bloke he can be. The spectacle of conversational programming about trans folk, whatever its intentions of discussion, invariably slinks into the rhetoric of prurience and disrespect.
Yet we had Morgan state, however equivocally, his recognition of Mock as a woman and offered an endorsement, however inept, of transgender legitimacy. This is a note of optimism: an event that reflects the emergence of trans civil rights movements into mainstream debate.
(2) The genre of the transition memoir is flawed
But by utilising the cis media, we surrender our narrative authority to the override switch of their cissexist framing, ones that we theorize to be abusive, restrictive, and censoring.
Janet Mock was on the programme to promote her book: good for her. She’s an author doing what publishers demand of their authors: publicity tours, cocktail appaearances, TV interviews, and newspaper junkets. She’s there to present a literary product on behalf of her editors. And part of her job is to sell book, for the purposes of reviews and profits for herself as an author, and corporation that invested in her. This is what is expected of writers in the social savvy spectrum of a damaged print industry. As trans writers, publishers know they have a particular narrative to sell.
Trans people talk about narratives a lot, yes, but I wish we’d study some actual narratological thinking: these issues are intensely complex. Mock’s book, as a trans memoir, necessarily adopts the genre convention of a before/after dialectic. All trans memoirs — and I think this style is fatigued — marketed for a cis audience will be editorially adapted to suit the story trajectory of “me before” and “me now”. The pivot stance of trans as book jacket label depends upon this alteration. By going on a programme to promote a transgender book, the cis audience will require, as a readership, the narrative future anterior to historicise the trans subject: who you will have been as predicated on who you were.
In other words, Mock’s future as a woman is narratively dependent, because of how memoirs work, on presentations of who she was by having been. And it’s the past tense evidence that excites cis curiosity to such extremes. But the genre plays right into those fixations of retroactive abjection and ambiguity of the “before”, inevitably, because of the trans prefix. What are you transitioning from, and what have you transitioned into? They don’t want liminal spaces: only side by side then and now.
If you’re going to publish books (and I salute this!) on a transformative discourse — you can’t claim stasis of identity in a linear way.
(3) “Born This Way” is repackaged gender essentialism
Piers was rude. We knew he’d be. “Born a man” conjures up images of babies emerging from the womb with five o’clock shadow and a demand for Axe body spray. “Used to be a man” is an annoying phrase: in what ways was she being a man? When did used to become no longer? Such terms deliberately destabilise the trans person’s identity claims of the present moment by undercutting them with evidence seemingly suggesting otherwise based upon the past. So, “Born a boy” is a softer version of “you have these chromosomes” or “God made you this way” or the “natural order has established you forever as” or, as Morgan kept insisting, “SRS is the it’s a woman!” moment. Always was, stated through elision, thus aligns with the essentialistic biologic of gender and sex as fixed, immutable, and inescapable.
But I really find the romantic ontology of ‘my true self transcendent of any and all social networks of identity formation’ to be pretty pocusy. Essentialistic rejoinders such as “I am me always me was me to be” aren’t going to be convincing except as a cheerful slogan or Lady Gaga chorus line. It breaks apart under any scrutiny of analysis. And this is where I think trans presentations — their murky metaphysical assumptions of “always” and “intrinsically” — need to evolve a bit.
I honestly don’t see how you can study the philosophy of social identity over the last 60 years and not see ‘self’ as a contrarian flux. We as trans feminists decry born this way and argue against the fixed prescriptions of gender assignment. But I don’t see much point in getting ontologically romantic about gender identities as somehow permanently inscribed in fixed allocation.
Yes, our identities are true and precious, as well as constantly under scrutiny and invalidation. The damage from these assaults break down our very will to survive and endure. Any trans person has felt the debilitating sting of identity abrogation. It’s horrible: for me, being called a man, or pronouned as such, is a graffiti storm of shit across my soul. I am a woman. No one is going to take that from me: not Piers Morgan, TERFs, the colleagues who now ignore me at work, the pizza delivery man who giggled in my direction, or the guy who yelled shite at me the other day whilst waving a placard with a bible quote about God’s love on it.
But where/how was I “always” female? It’s all very well to claim private existential truth, but that’s not definitive. We don’t want genderbread persons where we point to doodle brains and say, “There, I was always a woman there.” Trans involves transitioning: the process is co-experiential in its radical reshaping of communitarian constructs — of who others say we are and who we are changing to become.
This is a very complex topic that I would like to examine later: the terms of transgender subjectivity. But for now I jot down a few cursory notes against the emergent always was form of existential permanency.
I also briefly note a secondary problem here: retroactive narratives that favor selective interpretations of one’s own history can be riskily inaccurate. The “always knowing” has for too long been psycho-somatically prioritised as the truth claim of trans validation. And anyone who didn’t always know — because identity mechanisms are complex and intersubjective — gets told that they’re probably uncertain, or unable to assess their own state because of mental illness, and so forth. It’s dangerous.
Being trans is transformative — it involves melting down a false ego and regenerating a new subjectivity. Of shrugging off imposed and assigned dictates that categorise self as a communitarian set of relationships that caused us distress, grief, and enormous pain. Yes, I always was female, at least in an interiorised sense that I couldn’t articulate successfully until my own self-determination matured as declarative agency — but I can’t divorce that femaleness from the socially engineered role that I performed within.
Subjectivity is process, not definition. We must guide that towards what is most accurate of how our selves seek the world . . . and the world seeks us. By change. The moral imperative to becoming. When Janet Mock was given a chance to speak in a Marie Clare interview, I thought she made this point succinctly: “Though I had been born a boy . . . I would never be a man. It was the birth of my choosing this time. And now it was official: Charles had died so that Janet could live.”
Cis interpretations must be accounted for in the theatrics of presentation. Mock explaining “I was born a boy, but…” is an entirely different rhetorical act than Morgan exclaiming, “YOU WERE BORN A BOY!”
“I was born a baby,” Mock would explain. A doctor proclaimed, “It’s a boy,” I’d hasten to add. “Assigned male at birth” or “understood to be a boy” — we have alternatives to what Morgan intoned last night . . . ones that recognise, but do not concretise, those previous sex-assigned realities of a social and anatomical designation that developed upon false, but evident, presentations. For trans people, and our transitions, the assignment depends dysphorically on the enbodied arrangements that we knew were inaccurate and distressing. Mock makes this important point in the quote above by declaring “. . . never a man”. Now this is the imagined to the performative: the futurity. The renovation of internal and external identity. Mereological visibility. Transition.
I think any transsexual woman understands that incidenary psychical phoenix of oldname dying and truename being born. The external rebooting of variables that challenge all absorbed assumptions — the caustic challenge that we are not static concepts, and we will pull apart the relational demands of how “others see us.” This begins to preface what transition entails: we find new senses of our subjective continuity, while working with that continuity which can’t be divorced from the prior stream of social subject positions and their gendering.
Some of those tweets arguing for some hocus pocus perfect selfhood of pure transcendent me-ness last night are not the route to go, in my opinion, for trans politics. Such identity claims immediately lead to shouts of “chromosomes!” and “souls” and “if you were always a girl, then how could you transition”? Trans feminism attacks these assumptions and the hierarchy of meanings that structure those assumptions. We must account for the individualised assertions of who we must be as determined by who we are, through multiplicities, not repeated structures.
I am extremely proud of the fact that who I am now is absolutely not who I was before — that the face the world forced upon me is not the face I now present. This is the highest morality, in my view.
The question of trans subjectivities are extraordinarily intricate, but also personally intense and individualistic. No “one size fits all” boxes or systems. We are stories. Ones at war with crossword boxes of assignment. I prefer to have no boxes at all.
(4) Piers wins, but he’s on our side
Morgan announced last night that he will have a proper go at Janet Mock tonight. Once more the trans world will be characterised as an angry horde or scent driven hive mind. Last night, 4 mil followers heard PM slag trans people. Cue PM bemoaning how hyper sensitive the twitter community is. Cue a dozen trans blogs about what an arse he is. Cue the applied mathematics of a counterblast against the trans. Tweets like this will now rule the day: we’ve handed Piers Morgan an ersatz ally’s martyrdom.
However one tallies the results, last night was not a productive cultural moment for trans visibilities. It’s now landed. The game of tautological parkour through words. The whiplash disaster of a night for trans people will be an empire of echoes in many, many ways. With all due respect to Mock, I honestly think — whether the intentions were publicity of pedagogy — going on Morgan’s programme was a risky judgement. Her purposes, undoubtedly, was social advocacy. I suppose she trusted him, which was probably a mistake, although he feels that he — the microphone — has been wronged by us — the minorities.
He’s upset with us. But Morgan’s still on our side. Or so he’s proclaimed by way of snappy recapitulation. So, what do we call a shift in public opinion that’s underscored by acrimony and recrimination — a Pyrrhic victory, a tainted spotlight, or hobbled progress?
With friends like these, who needs … what do we need? Does the trans community require allies at any cost, quantified by the market share of their platform? The crucial juncture could spring us forward, or devour us whole. Strategy, sharpened by urgency — direct action and assertive agency make for the the truest allies. Let’s not pedestalise anyone. Not Janet. Not Piers. No. We don’t need personality infatuation. We need leadership and capability.
I return to my earlier point about transition memoirs: by their very mirror-shift presentation they elicit cis framings imposed as normative interpretations. I urge trans writers to consider other forms of self-expression. Be wary, please. Hopefully, enhanced by experience and enthusiasm, our TV spokesfolks will hone their presentation skills; but the discourse cannot be relegated to entirely too few hands. Not conversation TV. Not mainstream press junkets and their blogs. We need to keep critical voices in trans feminism. Too much of it is turning into quick fire journalism of superficial summary. We can’t let this be a battle of hyperbolic publicity. This moment of great opportunity elicits the courage of us all. The sound and the fury … what it will signify? That’s for trans people to decide.
While all of this was coming down big style last night, my wife — also trans — and I stumbled upon random FB photos of ourselves in boymode, circa the dysphoric horror of age 15. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. I wept. Then gasped into a giggle. Like a chortle put into relief. Breathed out, because —
An other I then. No longer mine to have been.