Conchita and the Ontology of the Beard
“Not to arrive at the point where one no longer says I, but at the point where saying or not saying I is of no importance. We are no longer ourselves.”
Living on the west coast of Canada, I learned the name of this year’s EuroVision champion rather belatedly. Much like footie results on a Saturday morning, the decision is already made by the time I wake up to look at the news. A number of emails from cisgender friends in Ireland arrived, all of which auspiciously heralded Conchita’s crowning moment as a cause célèbre for transgender validation. That most estimable contest of glitz, kitsch, politics, and popularity had selected a gender non-conforming contestant as the victor. Progress was being made; Putin would be pouting. Indeed, a cis novelist whom I admire from Co Mayo put it to me this way: “I found it very moving. Ireland gave douze points. Let’s hope that now shifts the govt’s arse to do a great deal more towards Trans rights. We live in hope.”
I nodded my approval: “hope is a good thing, maybe the best of good things” … and all the rest of it. But inwardly my scepticism recoiled in uncertainty. My first thought, to be honest with you … oh shit — how many of us trans women will get Conchita! shouted at us at work next Monday?
My suspicions were confirmed when listening to the Neil Prendeville programme on Cork’s New RedFM. Despite assurances that he holds no malice against those who are “into that sort of thing”, our man decried the “circus freakery” of EuroVision and its bold as brass contrivances of bogus burlesque. A bearded lady won the day. After giving out about this opportuned oddity, Prendeville then immediately went on to make a sly dig at the NHS Ireland’s approval to fund sex reassignment surgery for fourteen of its citizens. The segue was all too glib an elision. From the hirsute queen of primetime Euro pop to transsexual individuals desperately seeking medical treatment for gender dysphoria … they all get dropped into the one bucket of those who are into that sort of thing. The pre-fab conflation, all too apparent.
In the climate of cowardice and condemnation that is the media’s treatment of trans femininity, one dimension and one size fits all.
TransTwitter had a debate of its own — was Conchita actually trans? Cisgender opinions seemed to be unanimously in agreement that this was so. This individual had to be transgender. How else does one view a bloke in a frock? Why else? And don’t all of those Trans 101 definitions and how-to lists specify that the ever expansive umbrella of trans* does cover gender noncomformity in all its unpredictable manifestations?
Well, yes and no. But subtlety doesn’t make for sharp pronouncements, pithy tweets, or high handed headlines.
I’m not here to “police” Conchita’s gender — but I think this performance will be an interesting example of the limits of rote definitions of trans culture, the ambiguity of where “identity” ends and “expression” begins, as well as the collapsing categories and moving goal posts of transgender experiences.
I’m not going to be able to adequately address all of these gender paradoxes in a single post; but I would like to sketch out, for future essays, why Conchita poses a challenge to static ascriptions. And one suspects this willful contravention and an aesthetic of ambiguity is part of her shtick.
In unpacking this question as to how is Thomas Neuwirth trans, and by extension his persona Conchita — we of course should begin with that collectively agreed arbitration that most trans folks accept. How does he identify? For many, that’s the gold standard.
It is that simple — but is it? As I’ve written previously — I do not believe in identity as a supra-discursive state of selfhood that is detached from the subjectivity of experience. I don’t think it holds under phenomenological scrutiny. However, practically, I do recognize that identity — and its verbal articulation, to identify as — were important interventions in trans theory. As a hermeneutical tool, identity means agency. And God knows we’re short of that.
Through the hermeneutic of identity, we as trans people can declaratively actualize ourselves and our gender against however we’ve been prescribed. Our identities are narrative rejoinders that rebuke the crossword boxes we’re shelved into. Liberation means voicing and vocalisation, with the speaking subject staking space of personal identification against codified imposition. In short, trans people speak of identity almost reverently since this, at least initially, is the nexus through which we allow our personal truth to come into being.
So, in its simplest statement, Neuwirth does not identify as a trans woman, or as transgender. In a much cited English interview, he says so conclusively. However, if one examines his statement more closely — mindful that English is not his first language — Neuwirth stipulates that he is not transgender in the way that Dana International is. Dana International, a transsexual woman from Israel (aside: why is Israel in EuroVision anyway? Oh yeah) won the contest in 1998. So one sort of suspects that Neuwirth is stating he is not a transsexual woman in the sense that International is. He’s very respectful: he recognizes that Dana is a woman in a way that he is not. However, is he precluded from being transgender in the very broad sense of the term?
This is where, to my mind, identarian performance becomes much less narratively fixed. Conchita most certainly is a highly differentiated femme alter ego, perhaps as a Dame Edna for the pop diva footlamps. Neuwirth might not be trans, but is Conchita? There’s a tradition of drag performers adopting elaborate personifications of secondary-selves — not just inventing names, but entire back stories that constitute a form of alternative subjectivity.
Now, in German interviews, Conchita — who requests female pronouns when so attired and “presenting” — clearly identities, in many senses material and psychological, as a female subject that is detached from the cisgender male paradigm. Neuwirth makes complicated observations about his relationship to Conchita in this way: “Ich habe früher eine Parallel-Pubertät durchlebt, Frau Wurst war immer schon da.”
Several aspects of this statement in German interest me: he references his narrative sense of a “parallel puberty” in which a female second-self developed and accompanied his normative cisgender adolescence. (Really, how many cis guys do that? This is more than just putting on a dress for a school play.) Moreover, he explains that she was “always there” [immer schon da]. Such phrases seem very familiar to the forms of rhetoric trans people use to ontologically substantiate their claims to identity — a sense of abiding purpose and awareness. Far from a whimsical concoction, she had always been there, and Conchita describes herself as having a meta-narrative consistency of self-awareness. It seems disingenuous to just call her a “costume”. Conchita is experimenting with identity in the morphological plural.
Conchita presents a very curious ontology of gender noncomformity articulated through the aesthetics of performance. Conchita’s enstagement resists some of the most fundamental tenets of trans classification and, indeed, questions the stability of their formulations. This is the ontology of the beard and its abject place of non-conformity and non-binary irresolvability. The beard, the marker of the irresolvable. Conchita forces us to ask questions. Where does cis end and trans begin? At what point does genderfluidity cross the boundary? Can we expect that genderfluid people to think of “identity” in the singular? How does non-binary or cross-binary identification announce itself as not-cis?
But one notes that Neuwirth describes that his femininity is about dressing up and painting — This can be irksome to many transsexual woman who are constantly accused of mimetic indiscretion in ‘faking’ womanhood through artifice. It’s all very well, some might say, that Neuwirth can don a frock for the stage, but what about those of us for whom identity is not something to be doffed on and off? At the same time though, in an evolving trans discourse as more representative than archaic, textbook MtF or FtM templates, the multiplicity and diversity of gender variance needs to be recognized as eluding clear definition. The beard signifies as much. Yet for those of us who spend thousands of dollars, and endure tremendous laser scorches and electric needle jabs for hair removal, Neuwirth can seem rather opportunistic with his signature look and on again/off again gender playfulness. Where does art end and the politico-legal subject begin?
The fact is, for most of us, that Neuwirth doesn’t identify as trans. And so be it. Perhaps tomorrow he’ll make a contrary announcement, and we’ll adjust our conversations. This may seem flimsy and capricious. But I believe that, as an emerging community, we try to promote an ethics of acceptance rather than negotiation. We err towards accommodation rather than invigilation. I’m definitely not comfortable with the latter.
However, as trans politics push for forms of orthodoxy to campaign for civil rights, a certain confrontation with perceived inconsistencies is beginning to ensue.
What is the difference between Neuwirth and a crossdressing AMAB who occasionally assumes female attire and thus attains a ‘female identity’? Oh, and that chorus — “What about the toilet?” Does Conchita go to the ladies loo? What if he declares, “Actually, I am a woman, by virtue of my dress and what I enable the attire to demonstrate of my intrinsic understanding of myself.” What precisely would that change, other than a verbalized shift of reference? And the semiotics of the beard? Is a transsexual woman less of a woman because she doesn’t shave, or have a beard? Should she be barred from the toilet? And does Conchita’s female approximate as showmanship negatively impact those of us who are visibly trans and must take the bus to work every day?
These questions can be confusing, and perhaps seem supercilious. But I believe we’re witnessing a difficult rhetorical limit in the dialogical framework of trans discourses. The dynamic of identity/expression disrupts the discursive limit. Distinguishing and discerning the seemingly infinite points of identity that the trans umbrella permits can be a profoundly freeing opportunity in terms of both societal analysis of gender, as well as the intensely private struggle for self-awareness. Yet we’re witnessing an ever inflating breadth of what trans can include, and concurrently a collapse in what cis once demarcated. This tectonic friction of terminology is not sustainable.
This is not an essay on the polemics of drag. Personally, I detect in Conchita’s self-articulation a more complex identity/expression matrix than the superficial hyperreality of cis-gay drag as typical enacted. (Wurst, Conchita’s second name, is a ribald pun typical of the subculture). Drag — its sassy couture of excess in costume, wardrobe, and simulated womanhood — has acted as the queer carnivalesque of parody for decades. At the same time, its misogynystic aspects — made all too apparent in recent collisions between that community and transgender women — does literalize woman as a simulation of extreme performance located beyond the atmosphere of everyday life. One cannot ignore how this presentation will reframe cultural notions in a way that disadvantages transgender women. It’s ok, so long as it’s a joke. And let’s be honest: cis gay men will graciously address a drag performer with female pronouns by virtue of sequins … but the very same balk at referring to a trans woman who just served their coffee as “she”.
Is Conchita thus harmful to our understanding of consistently lived transgender embodiment? One can see Conchita as a codified gimmick — an anthropomorphic fuck you to Vladmir Putin. Her victory is not mine. Trans women certainly, in general, have not felt her triumph as a shared celebration. But I’m also cognizant, as we’re loathe to return to the diagnostical priss of the 1970s, that we don’t wish to begin announcing the ways in which Conchita cannot be trans, as those same arbitrary criteria could be deployed to invalidate various trans women who are women. Conchita cannot be exemplary of anyone.
I believe what underscores this debate as to her not being trans, or if she occupies a zone of multi-subject gender fluidity, are two key problems. I cannot address either fully here, and will try to do so at another time. But let me those issues that I think are far more important that whether or not Conchita is trans*. (The asterisk and all)
First — the first is the poorly explained dynamic of “identity” and “expression” in much of trans theory. Too often, trans writers resort to a naive Cartesian perspective of an insulated knowing that, with mystical adherence, defines an essentially gendered self. Given the shite we take, one can see the romantic power in holding on to this abiding presence of absolute self-knowledge. Nonetheless, more difficult phenomenology questions of what logic we use to signify our identity through the necessary acts of expression (semiotics) must be clarified if there’s to be any kind of reliable coherence. (This problem is most obviously evidenced in the line of attack used “I’m cis but don’t call me cis cos I’m not cis!” arguments popping up. I also feel that non-binary positions are poorly addressed by this model)
The second problem returns us to Neil Prendeville. I don’t really care how Conchita identifies. It doesn’t actually concern me. What is problematic however is that — at no fault of Conchita’s — cis media enforces a one-dimensional gestalt of transgender lives that consistently elides difference for cheap portraits under which we all can be subsumed. It’s like the media only can frame us through one of those painted cardboard silhouettes, with the face cut out. The superficial palimpsest that they uniformly overlay upon our experiences. Their presentations eschew individuality and intricacy. They think they can just queue us up one and all — one by one shove our heads into that stranded, empty space. One size fits all. One template for all the faces. A dude in a dress. Their story is fixed and unchanging. And no matter how much our visages vary, we’re all forcibly inserted into that singular space of static, reductive façade.