Whose Trans Realism?

Nevada and the fiction of fucking up

Kay Gabriel

Creighton Baxter, abduction of a woman, 2021. Color pencil, graphite, and ink on paper. Courtesy the artist

Here’s something I remember about Nevada. A couple years after the now-defunct Topside Press first published Imogen Binnie’s novel in 2013, a lot of young trans writers I knew called it a book that made them want to write. I remember a website, Have You Read Nevada, where you could download a free PDF of the book. I remember half a dozen conversations where a young woman said the book helped her transition, and many more where someone spoke about gifting the book to a friend they suspected might do the same. I remember the trend of referring to that type of person as a “James H.,” in reference to the Walmart clerk in the titular state whom the novel’s protagonist, Maria Griffiths, tries and fails to force into a gender epiphany. I remember feeling sort of superior to the trend at the time, and I also remember loaning out my copy to shy, awkward people who seemed like they wanted permission for something. In retrospect, this feverish exchange feels a little youthful. But it remains notable that a funny-dark punk novel about a fuckup bookseller on a doomed road trip put trans life in conceptual reach for a lot of people who, by their own admission, wanted and needed it. Reading her interviews, I doubt that Binnie intended to write a book—in her words, “not a happy” one—that could change people’s lives at such a dramatic scale, but she did, and she did it tremendously.

What did Nevada, which was reissued to much fanfare by Farrar, Straus and Giroux this June, make possible? And why did it resonate so widely and with so much force? A massive cultural shift, still poorly understood, took place at the start of the last decade. To borrow a phrase from Stuart Hall, the “primary definers” of trans life in the late twentieth century and early aughts were almost entirely people without personal stakes in it. On the one hand, medical and scientific professionals empowered themselves to produce expertise and make determinations for people who were or might become trans. On the other, culture industry profiteers reaped the benefits of lurid fascination with trans life as it played out on daytime TV, in porn, or in lusciously financed movies about trans psychosis (The Silence of the Lambs) or trans death (Boys Don’t Cry).

While a small, oppositional trans cultural scene developed in the last few decades of the twentieth century, in urban enclaves like the Bay Area, New Orleans, New York, Toronto, and Montreal and eventually online on sites like strap-on.org, it remained largely subterranean until the early 2010s. Facing a curious mix of anti-trans animus, apathy, and objectification, trans people were actively shut out from the kinds of positions and resources required to make cultural interventions at greater scale. Transgender studies, as a scholarly field, was in its infancy. Most trans people with university jobs were paid low wages to teach, rather than living wages to write or research. Transgender Studies Quarterly didn’t exist—it launched in 2014—nor did trans-focused presses or periodicals. If acquisitions editors at large publishing houses looked for books about trans people at all, and some of them did, they gravitated toward writing that would repeat back what most people believed they already knew.

Binnie’s novel overlaps with other trans literature of its period in avoiding catharsis in favor of something more meaningful.

The dominant literary genres about trans people during this period were therefore memoir, with its unimaginative constraints on self-representation, and the briefly popular genre that the writer Casey Plett called the “gender novel,” in which non-trans people wrote heartbreaking stories about gender freaks on sentimental journeys. In retrospect, these rigid genres seem as precisely scripted as the Maury clips where trans women reveal their status to shocked and aggro boyfriends. In memoirs like Jan Morris’s Conundrum (1974) and Renée Richards’s Second Serve (1983), an individual testifies to a personal, isolated narrative of dimly unhappy pre-transition life, sudden epiphany, and timely medical intervention. The narrative form of the transition memoir centers on the pain suffered by, and salvation granted to, a deserving and decidedly isolated individual; it invites a non-trans reader to gratify themselves in the spectacle of someone else’s perverse desires for sex change and experience catharsis when this deserving individual finds the personal salvation they’ve earned. In more recent years, as Plett suggests, Jeffrey Eugenides’s Middlesex (2002) set the paradigm for the gender novel, in which a gender-variant protagonist “with all the flaws of a Disney hero” grows up in an unsupportive household, runs away from home to discover their authentic self in a victimizing and indeed traumatizing urban environment, and eventually overcomes personal hardship to make their way back to their humbled and now more accepting family.

The trans memoir and the gender novel converge in at least four respects: They address a predominantly cisgender audience; they use narrative form to secure and enforce expectations about the limited scope and trajectory of trans lives; they deliver catharsis through the spectacle of a deserving, though perverse, person transcending suffering; and they rewrite being trans as a matter of solitary events endured alone rather than a form of social life that a lot of people experience and enjoy together. The cumulative result of these narrative forms is to provide a reader with sentimental excess over someone else’s graphic abjection. In these genres, trans people remain safely contained within their own individual pain, non-trans people gratify themselves through the protagonists’ experience and transcendence of hardship, and nothing fundamentally changes about the social relations that made the narrative possible in the first place. The trans memoir and gender novel genres, in this sense, are basically conservative: they manipulate sentiment to shore up life as it’s currently lived, where transition is rare and gender works out its social force in powerful but highly limited ways on some strange people over there.

Not so Nevada, which forcefully tears away from nearby literary precedent, departing from the didactic and sentimental functions of memoir and gender novel both. Take diction: Binnie ditches both the memoirist’s sincerity and the gender novelist’s impartiality in favor of casual, chatty sentences that make her writing feel as familiar as gossip. Or form: in place of a straightforward narrative of suffering transcended, Nevada splits into two uneven halves. The first describes Maria burning through her Brooklyn life in a matter of days, as she dumps her girlfriend, gets fired from her minimum-wage job as a bookseller, spends her meager savings on heroin, and steals her ex’s car. The second jumps forward to Maria’s collision with James in a Reno suburb, where she spends a day or so failing to convince him to transition.

Unlike the catharsis-ready protagonists of the trans memoir and the gender novel, Maria Griffiths struggles, but it’s hard to find your way to feeling bad for her. In that sense, she’s neither a sympathetic victim nor a villainous freak. Maria is both self-deluding and kind of a bitch. She instrumentalizes her friends. She’s constantly rehearsing the details of her transition in a way that makes her selfish and boring. She dissociates routinely during sex with her nice and understanding girlfriend, and she so ruthlessly avoids talking about it that the girlfriend has to initiate a breakup to get her attention. In a banal and recognizable way, she responds poorly to her bad situation: poverty wages and heinous labor conditions at the famous independent bookstore where she works; the unattainable cost of medical care that could make her life more livable; the drumbeat of shitty treatment by most people ever; and a lack of emotional and social resources with which to resolve rather than displace these problems by, say, dumping them into the lap of some schmuck on the other side of the continent.

Maria’s obsessive focus on her own transness is the one respect in which Nevada takes place on the same terrain as the genres it shoved aside. It turns out that the one thing Maria got right was changing her sex, and she rehearses it like the only song she knows how to play. She talks about it on her micro-famous blog; she talks about it to James so much that it derails their friendship; she’s probably still talking about it to herself when James ditches her in Reno at the novel’s abrupt close. The novel rehearses the enormity of human want that sometimes takes the shape of transition: that totally ordinary, totally upending desire for another sex, another form of social meaning and embodied sensation, all of which could give pattern, heft, and coherence to a life that otherwise might feel like it belongs to someone else. Why not talk about it? Is it so humiliating to entertain that need?

It is for James, who, in contrast to Maria’s constant chatter, can barely speak. Binnie narrates conversation between the two largely by way of what James doesn’t say but wants to: “He’s kind of like, well fuck you then, but he still can’t bring himself to just be like, fuck you, and never talk to her again. . . . So he sits and sulks and glares at the cactuses.” In its second half, Nevada becomes an experiment in misrecognition. Every exchange between the two—speculatively, I’ll say the two trans women—misfires, despite or, more likely, because of the unfulfillable desires they have for each other. Maria is projecting onto James and posing him questions in desperation to solve her own problems; James recognizes the projection immediately, in fact feels tempted at the possibility of a trans life, and wants Maria to offer a kind of comfort, assurance, stability, and chill that she’s totally, totally incapable of. The one easy conversation between the two women is their first, in the Walmart, where James sells Maria a Miranda Lambert album and they joke about the Brad Paisley song “I’m Still a Guy.” This minor ironic exchange points up the novel’s larger irony: their shared relationship to gender brings them together before repelling them totally. It’s sort of excruciating and also pretty familiar. In a very precise sense, it fits (forgive me) Lacan’s definition of love: giving something you don’t have to someone who doesn’t want it.

Nevada is a remarkable achievement, though not a standalone one: it couldn’t be. It emerged from a fruitful, even optimistic, moment of trans cultural production during which people both buoyed each other through adverse conditions and broke through to larger arenas of circulation, readership, distribution, and discussion. Binnie’s novel overlaps with other trans literature of its period in avoiding catharsis in favor of something more meaningful. Her narrative device—taking as the novel’s engine the behavior of a woman spinning out of control without ever presenting her as a moral example—appears with some frequency in the work of other trans writers of the late 2000s and early 2010s, especially those, like Binnie, who were close to the Topside Press scene at the time, like Plett, Jeanne Thornton, Torrey Peters, Ryka Aoki, and Bryn Kelly.

Realism purports to be a neutral form of unstylized representation, even as it actively, and sometimes perniciously, shapes what people are able to see.

Consider Kelly’s 2014 short story “Other Balms, Other Gileads,” presented in the journal We Who Feel Differently. Kelly’s story follows an unnamed HIV+ protagonist through her evening: she spends through her food stamps, sends a money order to pay for a stash of downers, and returns to a Brooklyn apartment where she lives with her younger lover for whom she feels a mix of desire and contempt. We gather that both she and her boyfriend are trans, but this mostly seems to offer her grounds to resent him, as he moves with what she perceives as ease through structures that close in on her. In comparison with Binnie’s Maria, Kelly’s protagonist shows more passive spite than active self-sabotage: “She wonders if he knows she could grate his skin off with this thing,” she thinks to herself while zesting a lime for dinner as her lover feels her up. But the device is the same as Binnie’s: the woman at the center of “Other Balms” tempts a reader’s dislike. She harbors grudges, gives latitude to her pettiest thoughts, enlarges suspicion, diminishes trust, fantasizes about unleashing rage, retreats into silence, plays up cruelty, and lingers, finally, on the ideal love she might have (“She would marry a tall guy, a public defender or firefighter”) instead of the compromised one she does. It’s as if, for the character, being mean takes the place of agency.

Kelly’s character in “Other Balms” is a trans woman whose serostatus and profound poverty lock her into place: “She begs off [sex], saying that she has an early doctor's appointment in the morning. And a social security appointment after that. And a welfare office appointment after that. And then therapy.” In someone else’s hands, an honest accounting of this situation might read like trauma porn, but Kelly avoids that outcome. As Binnie does with Maria, Kelly steers past spectacularized descriptions of violence suffered or abjection endured and instead uses her character’s unforgiving thoughts and off-putting habits to make perceptible how grinding her conditions are, how undignified. Compare this pattern of storytelling to the catharsis of the gender novel: only one of these narrative patterns makes it possible to see characters as authors of their choices, people with their hands on the steering wheels of their lives, even if their feet aren’t touching the brakes.

Every genre named so far in this essay, including the ones I’ve beat up on, is a kind of realism: their sentences aim to belong recognizably to life as it’s currently lived. As a literary style, realism purports to be a neutral form of unstylized representation, even as it actively, and sometimes perniciously, shapes what people are able to see. Realism, in other words, has normative, not just descriptive, force, actively producing the world through readers who learn to perceive certain patterns and act on them. The stakes of realism are therefore to shape the sense of the kinds of change that people think possible, who it comes from, and in what directions it could tend. Realism demonstrates, tests, and sometimes pushes the limits of popular conceptions of the active possibility of social change. In a memory circle for Kelly, the writer Joss Barton invoked Sarah Schulman’s claim that realism is the “radical trajectory” of trans fiction. Barton and Schulman draw attention to the desperately felt need to challenge the conservative realisms that previously dictated such limited possibilities for trans lives.

Have Kelly, Binnie, and their peers won their fight over realism? That is, have they successfully supplanted the conservative forms of realism that they contested? Though it’s too early to tell, their interventions have traveled far, with and without citation. Torrey Peters’s 2021 bestseller Detransition, Baby plays up the “catty,” unsympathetic traits of its trans woman protagonist, Reese, in a way that feels reminiscent of Kelly in particular. (In an interview with Morgan M. Page, Peters expresses her debt to Topside’s interventions of a decade ago.) Meanwhile, Jackie Ess’s indie hit Darryl (also 2021) overlaps significantly with Nevada. Ess’s novel follows Darryl, a hapless middle-aged guy living off a modest trust fund in Eugene, Oregon, who gets off on watching other men fuck his wife. Told in journal entries, the novel follows Darryl’s sometimes cautious, sometimes senseless adventures in gender and sexuality. The novel features a tense relationship between Darryl and a trans woman, Oothoon, who Darryl meets in Reno and who, he senses, is trying to convince him he’s trans. After meeting Oothoon in a bar, the two start up an email correspondence, and Darryl eventually travels back to Nevada to visit her in a house overcrowded with aging trans punks. “How insecure can you be, to have to recruit like this,” he wonders. (You can imagine Nevada’s James H. thinking this about Maria, if he were a little more jaded and a little less stoned.)

In a sense, Darryl’s Oothoon subplot picks up where Nevada left off. It overlaps in geography—Reno, where James abandons Maria at the slot machines—and relationship dynamic, featuring one unhappy but successfully sex-changed trans woman introducing the possibility of transition to a similarly unhappy and currently cisgender schlemiel. (In fact, Darryl self-consciously alludes to a number of novels besides Binnie’s: one of its subplots is recognizably continuous with characters from Dennis Cooper’s 2004 novel The Sluts.) Darryl’s interactions with Oothoon produce a series of questions, impossible to answer but hard not to ask: Does Oothoon represent the future for James that Maria wanted, in which, ten years on, she’s a depressed 30-something trans punk with a dozen gross roommates instead of a depressed 30-something closeted retail clerk in a soulless apartment? If so, is that an improvement in her fate? Like, probably. Ess and Binnie are carrying on a single conversation across a tumultuous decade; each entertains the impossible, volatile fantasy that one person colliding into another’s life can solve both of their problems with one neat trick.

Like Binnie and Kelly, Ess enlivens a sense of trans social relations by documenting how people warp themselves around them.

That said, Ess’s narrative form makes it possible to revisit the resistance that one might express in the face of being offered the chance to transition. Binnie’s novel, pivoting from Maria’s narration to James’s and back again, clears a path for understanding both characters’ mutual forms of misrecognition: Maria’s definitely projecting, and James is probably trans. Ess’s narration is solidly fixed in Darryl’s diaristic account of his own life. Oothoon never speaks in her own voice, and in Darryl’s sense of what she wants from him, we get a sense that he feels a threat to his psychic integrity. “Somehow I’ve taken myself very far away, all the way, to Reno, to be taken under the wing of a transsexual poet who thinks she’s got the keys to my soul and she’s recruiting,” he says, and then: “I feel a fear as though Oothoon is going to eat me, and not from hunger.”

Is Darryl repulsed by the nagging possibility, in his case unrealized, that transition might provide a different answer to his unhappiness from getting into the cuck lifestyle? Or is he instead disgusted at the mess and drama he encounters among the trans women he meets, “fighting over scraps, over nothing”? It’s not clear that Darryl comes to disavow the possibility of transition through self-examination undertaken in good faith; it’s more like he wants to get the hell out of there. Like Binnie does with Maria, Ess’s narration keeps so close to Darryl’s view of things that you quickly get a sense of his fallibility, desperately wrong judgments, and intense projection onto the people around him who seem to him full of the energy and drive he lacks. So a reader could flip the script on him: Is it so bad to be offered the chance to transition? Is Darryl’s sense of self so unstable that some roommate drama, a casual hint at the option of taking hormones, and a crusty apartment make him feel like he’s, in psychoanalytic parlance, “falling forever”? If Binnie makes it possible to see the projection that goes into seeing someone else as a transsexual time bomb, Ess stages the intense repression of that desire and the instability it introduces. Darryl mediates all our access to Oothoon, so all we see is the double projection—what he suspects she wants from him—and the unhinged behavior it pushes him toward. Seeking to banish discomfort, Darryl indulges in an act of largesse to rinse off Oothoon’s problems and his own, financially ruining himself to pay for her vaginoplasty out of pocket.

Like Binnie and Kelly, Ess enlivens a sense of trans social relations by documenting how people warp themselves around them. Ess’s novel appeared eight years after Binnie’s, in a radically different cultural climate. Its use of the same device to set the narrative in motion testifies to how useful that device has become for a program of satiric, but not caricatural, trans realism in which most people are poor but not powerless and act out on the world in often foolish and immediately resonant ways.

The trans cultural production that has followed the so-called “transgender tipping point” is usually discussed in liberal terms: it brings with it increased representation, visibility, and sympathy while elevating a few creators to celebrity status. But the problems that trans cultural creators have been trying to resolve are not those problems. As the editors of Trap Door: Trans Cultural Production and the Politics of Visibility noted in 2017, visibility is neither the goal of liberatory political projects nor especially helpful toward achieving them. If daytime TV and commercial pornography count, trans people enjoyed plenty of representation before Time put Laverne Cox on its cover in 2014. Nor, given the popularity of trans memoir and the gender novel, did we lack for sympathetic renditions of challenging lives. Rather, what was missing was conceptual room for thinking about transition as a process that could touch on anybody’s life, rather than something that affected only some tragic, select individual. These books lacked ways of talking about the complicated, ambivalent, sometimes shitty, and constantly shifting patterns of thought and behavior that people take on when they live how we do. And they lacked the capacity to see trans people as authors of our lives and co-authors of our conditions.

In the past decade, the cultural front has shifted dramatically. The liberal hegemony that trans cultural creators challenged so forcefully has also crumbled on its right flank, as right-wing liberals in legacy publications raise doubts about whether young people should be able to access transition and far-right political actors in, for instance, the Greg Abbott and Ron DeSantis administrations criminalize trans care and work to eliminate social protections within their jurisdictions. Conditions have deteriorated, even as activists have become more adept at figuring out what to do about it. Realism does something; in the case of Nevada, whose first edition sold nearly ten thousand copies and by their own admission prompted people to transition, the work that realism does may wildly exceed simply representing the world in an inventive way. If that’s true, then who writes and what do they make possible to grasp are equally urgent questions. Displacing sentimental genres, the trans realism we’ve collectively developed—as readers, writers, and people who animate each other’s sense of the world in how we live our fuckup lives—transforms a whole way of seeing, at a moment when all kinds of people are trying to peer in.

Kay Gabriel is the author of Kissing Other People or the House of Fame (Rosa Press, 2021; Nightboat Books, 2023) and A Queen in Bucks County (Nightboat Books, 2022). With Andrea Abi-Karam, she co-edited We Want It All: An Anthology of Radical Trans Poetics (Nightboat Books, 2020).
Originally published:
November 14, 2022

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