essay

sometimes my layers clash with your layers

20th Jan 2020

essay

sometimes my layers clash with your layers

20th Jan 2020

this piece is an act of processing in response to a number of topics the HAMSTER 5 brief brought up. as part of the process, an open workshop was held in which people came together to discuss questions such as, ‘what is bodily practice?’, ‘is there a non-bodily practice?’, and ‘what does it mean to work or create with people whose bodies are treated the same way as yours?’. during this discussion people also created collage, badges, and blackout poetry from The Physics Room’s archival material, old National Geographics, and cheap romance novels.

only those with bodies who are treated as the norm are able to “escape” bodily practice. to be clear, their practice is still bodily, but they have the luxury of not thinking about it that way, because their bodies are the default.

certain processes aim to dissociate the body from the text. academic texts are peer reviewed, made objective, attempting to excise the body. the body should be in the text at all times. we need to re-associate the body with the text.

i only have one body. things are always in process, always connected to pasts and futures.

when venn diagrams cross over, certain things get easier. working with others who have similar bodily experiences can be revolutionary, simply because of the amount of work that has already been done, because of the shared understanding between the collaborators.

reading trans fiction by trans authors changed my life. this form of collaboration between writer and reader who both have similar bodily experiences has been revolutionary. i have encountered and discovered experiences i had already had, but not acknowledged.

collaborating across identities, writing personal and intimate pieces. reading and writing as a means of collaborating across generations, across time and history, with those who are no longer here

i am interested in the notion of reading someone's work as an act of collaboration. i think it makes sense—the writer writes, and that is the thesis. the reader approaches the work with their lived experience, and that is the antithesis. the act of reading is an act of synthesis, an act of collaboration. i believe this act has revolutionary capabilities. with this understanding, the act of sharing of any work, at any stage in the creative process, also has revolutionary capabilities.

i remember the first time i collaborated with another trans person. they edited a significant text i wrote. it was easy, i felt comfortable because we had a shared understanding, a shared politic. even though we were working in an institutional space. this connection, this collaboration, this mode of working made the director uncomfortable.

in 2014, 91 years after the term 'transsexual' was coined, i sit in a dark room and watch sylvia rivera take the stage at the 1973 gay pride rally in new york. i watch as the crowd boo and jeer. my heart fills with love and hope as she, speaking to me across decades, leans on the mic stand and stares back at the crowd, defiant.

i wrote this poem for the 50th anniversary of stonewall. queer history has always been important to me. watching that video of sylvia rivera changed my life and set me on a path i was always meant to follow. it really did feel like she was speaking directly to me. everything i do now, when thinking about and working with queer history, is trying to generate that feeling for others.

when i read that poem, i read parts of her speech. in those moments i want to embody sylvia as much as i can. sometimes, it is not just myself on the stage. i am no longer in 2019, but neither am i in 1973. we are somewhere in between.

in the film it follows, the horror is embodied in someone who is possessed by it, and they slowly and methodologically chase, at walking pace, the last person they had sex with. i feel like i'm in that movie, but the horror is capitalism, always slowly chasing me, always attempting to capture and define my identity. non-binary genders are now marketable—what was once (and still is to some extent) outside the norm is now a marketing category. i open facebook, start creating a new ad, and sigh with relief when i see i can target men, women, or all. capitalism is still alive because it finds ways to subsume the things that would kill it. thesis, antithesis, synthesis—an act of perverse collaboration, but one in which there is no respect or care, simply greed for survival and accumulation. this is a mode of collaboration we must try and avoid. in it follows, the only way to survive is to have sex with someone else, and even then it only puts another person in between you and the horror. you are still on the list.

i see more and more of us reaching out for queer history. watching these histories play out in shows like pose give me hope. although a b-plot, watching the story of ACT UP play out on screen in a mass-media format feels significant. it feels significant to see queer and trans people of colour running the show, writing the show, acting in the show and increasing visibility of these stories and identities. i worry to what extent these histories are being subsumed by normative capitalism, being used as a tool to continue that ideology.

we are in a moment where we need to learn our histories. i am lucky to have not personally experienced the impact of AIDS. i am part of a generation that has been told that all the queer struggles have been solved. i have experienced intergenerational conflict like this. i believe the way forward is intergenerational connection.

i was at an event recently where multiple generations of queer folk were in the same room, speaking about their experiences, about the ways they have experienced their bodies being policed, being surveilled, being co-opted. that was a revolutionary moment. i spoke to people of generations above me who had their eyes opened that night—shifting from "we fought the fight, the kids have it alright," to "i had no idea what they were struggling with and i have some learning to do."

this is the power of collaboration. this highlights the way collaboration across, between, and through bodily experience can create radical change.

collaborating with others with different experiences, though often more difficult, can be beneficial—for both parties or just one? collaborating across lines of privilege when you are the one holding that privilege, requires responsibility and respect. how do we navigate this best for growth, for both parties, without exploitation or appropriation?

dichotomies and binaries are always limiting. there is space between the poles, outside the poles, space so distant from the poles that the poles aren't even recognisable any more.

in our community, we talk a lot about passing. for many it is an end goal, understandably so. passing can bring massive amounts of safety. but passing is not something innate to yourself or your body, passing is conditional and changes in every single interaction you have, every time anyone perceives you. you have no control over it, not really.

really, almost everything about our bodies is like this. even though our bodies should be our own, they exist most when they are perceived. or perhaps they exist least when being perceived—our own tangible body replaced by someone's perception of it. it is significant when someone's perception of your body aligns with your understanding of your body. being seen instead of being perceived.

when talking about bodies, we often think in hierarchies. when talking about fat bodies, sick bodies, we talk about “better”. i am chronically ill. i will not get “better”. “better” is a construct and the goalposts are always changing. none of us will ever really reach “better”. there will always be another “better”. “better” is the default body, but even default bodies have a “better” they are told to strive for.

even “improvement” implies that your current body is not enough. “improvement” implies invalidity.

your body is valid, your body is beautiful, your body is functional even when it doesn't function like other bodies.

“improvement” and “better” are tools to sell. we can only get “better” through consumption. “better” is a billion-dollar industry.

there is a difficult tension between bodily acceptance and trans experience that sonya renee taylor works through well in the body is not an apology. we, as bodily activists, must acknowledge that for some trans people, changing parts of their body is necessary for survival and the alleviation of dysphoria. at the same time, as trans activists, we must acknowledge (despite the gut instinct to say “that won't work for me”) that radical self-love is an incredibly useful and revolutionary tool.

it is very hard, at times, to even consider that we may one day feel comfortable about parts of our bodies we currently want to change or remove. it can feel impossible. i want to honour and respect that difficulty. i want to acknowledge that this won't work for everyone. i sit in both of these spaces. there are still parts of my body i would like (or need—i'm still not sure which) to change. but there are other parts of my body that i feel no longer need changing. the act of reading-collaboration of the body is not an apology led me to this space. thesis, antithesis, synthesis.

i'm also interested in notions of bodily change that capitalism and normativity hasn't got to yet. in pittsburgh, there is a conference called PLEASE TRY THIS AT HOME on radical bodily autonomy and biotechnology. their tagline is QUEER CYBORGS WANTED. so many trans people are already engaging in this practice, because the medical establishment refuses to recognise them. we share knowledge about the treatments we need to survive, we purchase what we need in online black markets, and we become more knowledgeable than the medical establishment anyway.

this once-grassroots movement is growing and growing. we now have an international trans healthcare professional organisation, by and for trans people. we have a similar organisation in aotearoa. i am interested in the ways we necessarily professionalise and legitimise, co-opting capital and normativity ourselves in order to improve things for others, for those utilising that black market, and for those that cannot even access that black market. i myself operate professionally in healthcare spaces. i worry sometimes about the way this professionalisation has closed doors even as it has opened others.

in the collaborative workshop, we discussed healthcare contexts, especially around mental health. someone shared their experience of working in these spaces, and the suspicion the institution held about encouraging creative collaboration between patients—the fear that bringing these people together will worsen their health, for some reason or another. this is a fear. doctors were not able to discern how others with shared experience of mental distress could possibly provide healing the doctors were not already capable of.

been thinking and writing more about bodies, my body, my relationship with my body, how my body relates to other bodies

collaboration requires vulnerability. i find vulnerability hard but this is a project i am committed to. i will grow, because it is necessary.

bodies are complex and complicated and have many layers. sometimes my layers clash with your layers. how do we work through that?

holding and nurturing an understanding of the ways our bodies align and the ways they don't is critical to moving forward. collaboration on personal matters can be difficult, but it is possible and rewarding.

we acknowledge that, as queer and trans folk, we all carry complex traumas. sometimes these traumas may interact weirdly or conflict with each other - hold space for that and be gentle

we have run a small, personal, intimate and domestic queer space for nearly three years. we all hold traumas, and these traumas have conflicted. for example, trans folk transitioning from different directions will occasionally meet in the middle in ways that might clash. understanding this and holding space for each others' feelings is essential.

recently, an online celebrity of sorts implied that encouraging acceptance of non-binary folk and the pronouns they use makes it hard for binary trans folk. this may be true for this person, and others may feel the same way, but there are ways through and around this. working through this requires radical acceptance. it requires love. it requires being able to step back from your traumas, while still holding them in tenderness along with the trauma of others—the hardest thing.

i think the way forward must include open communication in good faith and holding space for love, understanding, and a willingness to appreciate each other's experiences. this was the spirit in which the workshop was held: people were invited to contribute and share and discuss our experiences, their similarities and differences.

as queer and trans folk, the traumas we hold often lead us to a gut reaction of lashing out or shutting down. this is an understandable response. when so many spaces are hostile or dangerous, it is safer to assume the worst. it means we will be sure to avoid the worst, and the good that we avoid as a result is a necessary cost.

it is hard to be vulnerable. it is the work of creating safe, comfortable, loving and understanding spaces to exist and collaborate in that aids us in starting to shift away from this position of fear and distrust. hold space for that and be gentle.