Trans-Culture in the (White) City. Taking a Pass on a Queer Neighbourhood – Bobby Noble

par NMP

In memory of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick.

To say in the twenty-first century that culture, gender and space shape each other is to risk the banal. But what happens to such banalities when the genders are transed, the spaces white, and the culture, as a result, virtually incoherent? Many trans scholars working in a North American trans-studies context tend to agree that, more or less, the terms FtM, genderqueer, trannyfag, transsexual or even just trans have circulated over the last decade as politicized and contentious terms. Such contention – indeed, one might even describe the contention as a new border war – continue to be part of the Toronto gay and lesbian cultural infrastructure. One such border war occurred at a recent symposium programmed through the 2008 Inside-Out: The Toronto Lesbian and Gay Film and Video festival, when trans collided with a homonormativity that articulated whiteness all at exactly the same moment. These border wars, occurring inside a well-known, large urban gay and lesbian film festival, signal the simultaneity of the relations between gendered embodiment, sex play, and racialization inside homonormative communities, neighbourhoods and venues for cultural production. Such moments, along with others inside supposedly queer neighbourhood spaces in Toronto – for instance, the exclusions of and moral panic over queer FtMs from gay men’s bathhouses and sex parties – are evidence of what Rinaldo Walcott has called the “next queer wars,” battles against “gay and lesbian fundamentalism” that have built the limits of inclusion and, in some cases, respectability, through the measured articulation of bio-political and racialized discourses of belonging and membership. In his short piece/interview “The Next Queer Wars,” Walcott quite astutely anticipates these public controversies, outlining them as battles against such fundamentalisms (as I track them here through indices of fundamentalism: queer infrastructures such as film and video festivals, bathhouses, Pride activities, festivals, etc.), which have been built through a practice of heavily policed member inclusions/exclusions, of regulation grounded in a kind of siege mentality justified through a recourse of disenfranchisement. With Walcott, I want to chart a series of questions emerging from these civil wars over which bodies stay in spaces and which are evicted. Such evictions – accidental, deliberate or some combination of both – are telling of these strange tensions and convergences that tunnel under the surface of self-evident spaces, like a supposedly ‘queer’ neighbourhood and its cultural infrastructure.

On 18 May, 2008, I was a panelist on a symposium called Queer Here, Queer Now, programmed through Inside Out: Toronto’s Gay and Lesbian Film and Video Festival and designed to raise a series of questions about what, if anything, queer references in the current moment. As the only trans panelist invited to participate in this very important public forum, I will say that the goals of the symposium were indeed met, albeit in profoundly strange and troubling ways. I was on a panel called ‘The Fighters’ with two filmmakers, and I presented a short talk on a Morty Diamond docuporn film called Trans Entities: The Nasty Love of Papì and Wil (2007). Produced and directed by the same trans-filmmaker who produced TrannyFags (2003), Trans Entities details the sex politics and play of two of the most interesting transpeople to appear in recent film – Wil and Papì – two non-operative, FtM folks of colour from NYC. Morty Diamond’s previous film, TrannyFags, was an instant success and documents a growing sub-culture within the “T” of the really cumbersome LGBTTQI: FtM and genderqueer tranny fags, female to male transsexual and transgendered men who locate their desires “after” transition within the spectrum of gay masculinities. Diamond’s work is interesting not only for its depictions of social and sexual bodies, but also for the way those bodies are located in historical geographies that have been naturalized into contemporary social space. In many ways, then, it is the proximity of those bodies to these social mappings and organization of city spaces (infrastructures of communities and neighbourhoods like bathhouses, bars, dances, social events and so on) that queer both the sexual orientation and the genders of those trans bodies found inside of them, not the essentiality of those bodies themselves as identified by genitals.

This precise set of anxieties – what kinds of genitals one has, what one likes to do with such complex bodies, with whom, and in what configuration of attraction, gender, sex acts and contexts – had already exploded at least once in the previous summer in Toronto around FtM bodies and gay men’s bathhouses. Such gay spaces in Toronto have moved in more fundamentalist and gender panicked directions when trying to navigate the challenges posed by transed bodies. Equally true is this: if community infrastructures organized around a logic of gender segregation – spaces like bathhouses, film festivals and other socio-political sites – are central to the development and mobilization of identity-based politics, then what happens to such self-evident constructions of identity when they are challenged by transed bodies? Are such civil wars the inevitable outcome? What do these civil wars tell us about the fundamentalist logics underwriting politics, especially when those logics become panicked? Recent queer media in Toronto have given a bit of coverage to what can be identified as these new border wars. The incommensurateness of trans bodies and gender-specific sex spaces first emerges in controversies surrounding Toronto’s ‘Pussy Palace,’ the women and trans people’s bathhouse. But border wars over trans bodies in gay men’s spaces are even more recent. In Toronto, FtM’s and gay men’s sex spaces emerge in queer media through a story written by Toronto-based tranny-fag-activist J. Wallace. In his Xtra! column, “Sizing him up. On Sacred Ground. Trans men stake their place at the baths,” Wallace details both his experiences already passing inside gay bathhouses and the larger, community-based response to such presences (2002). Like those earlier pieces detailing the incoherence of the Pussy Palace, Wallace similarly notes complex tensions in his subject position inside the club, as viewed from the vantage point of an FtM trans person. In the absence of a conventionally defined penis, FtMs might well pass as the men they are in every other capacity including in many sexual capacities. Wallace details the way that he is able to pass through the door, able to pass even at the end of ‘slurp ramp’ while giving an anonymous blow job. But knowledge of the complexities of Wallace’s subject position puts him at risk within fundamentalist gender economies that can materialize only binarized notions of sex, and might react through the violence of a gender-panic to complex forms of embodiment.

Entrance policies over admission into such spaces, in 2002, were triangulated through a very ironic version of “don’t ask, don’t tell.” At a community session between bio-gay men and trans men about the inclusion of trans men into gay spaces, the owner of the bath maps out a non-negotiated agreement whereby FtMs who can pass will be allowed through the door. But once inside, a genital-panicked policy is set into place: “He also tells us that we’d be thrown out if we were to have man-on-man sex with our tits and front hole exposed to other patrons.” In this recounting, it is hard not to hear Walcott’s earlier acknowledgement that “There was no way that middle-class white folk were gonna keep their kids outside the doors forever. There’s no way. The rights movement is a way of bringing them back in, especially at a time when capitalism is in crisis.” So, on the one hand, in this 2002 moment that saw trans men partially welcomed into queer space, we see, on the other hand, evidence of a profound failure. Even though the inclusion of trans men signaled an equally partial transformation of queer neighbourhood space, trans men still cannot access queer men’s sex cultures as transsexual men. Access is granted as long as the embodied hegemonic fiction of phallic masculinity is preserved.

By the summer of 2007, fundamentalist entrenchments around space in Toronto seemed to have set in quite deeply. The local queer press continued to track these conflicts in part thanks to the work accomplished by guys like Wallace. Controversies continued to brew over the presence of gay FtM tranny guys in gay sex and BDSM cultural space; only now, what was previously a gender/genital panic has transformed into panicked policy. Many of the same spaces enforce entrance at the door with a more aggressive policy than “don’t ask, don’t tell.” Where the presence of trans men was previously an open secret, by 2007 the policy governing entrance into the play space is “show your dick at the door,” even in cases where government-issued legal identification marks the subject as male. In short, no dick, no party (Xtra! July 2007). Even more troubling is the unasked question lurking throughout such imperatives of self-policing around ‘safety’ in same-sex space: security at what cost? There may well have been a time when it was significant to build imagined communities around a rhetoric of shared coherence. But if we are paying attention not only to queer communities and neighbourhoods, but also to waves of fundamentalism occurring nationally and internationally, we should know by now that sameness, coherence and security require the quite aggressive minimalization and eradication of differences within a category like masculinity – as Wallace has indicated – in the name of ensuring the right to have ‘safe space’ in the first place. Wallace has detailed some of these questions and how they might well have shaped an imagined queer nation: how big does a dick need to be to count as a dick? Do guys with smaller dicks avoid such spaces because of the harm done by such a policy? Are such practices producing and then normalizing standards of sameness (the hottest guys are the guys with the biggest dicks?) that are no different than heteronormative beliefs about masculinity, which such spaces are supposedly built against? Where is queer desire in that equation? Where are queer bodies?

Moreover, at what point do policies and practices like dick at the door or the lesbian version – dick slammed in the door – or the national version – produce the right paperwork at the proverbial national doors or leave – begin to enforce normalizing coherence and sameness? The Women’s bathhouse in Toronto has been dealing with these issues since their very first bathhouse. Despite well-documented limitations, many lesbian communities have been challenged and have been challenging themselves about the presence of trans men and women inside lesbian, queer, and butch-femme communities for so long now that these border wars almost seem cliché, even as there still remains work to be done to combat transphobia (as many “women-only” Pride parties and rhetoric continue to demonstrate). As Walcott has already indicated, such homonormative fundamentalisms are another way of talking about community-building based on heavily policed and normative boundaries of belonging, inclusion and membership. If he is right that, “ … the real movement of queer radicalism in the next five years or so will be when we can all close our eyes and the queers that we imagine are queers of colour, are trans people, and so forth,” on what terms can a queer politic and space be imagined if not the essentialized body? Can we imagine trans dick outside of the context of fundamentalist and essentializing ways of conceptualizing space and the bodies that such spaces signify?

There can be no better way to map the effects of such panicked homonormativities than by describing one recent skirmish in the border wars that occurred in the summer of 2007, when yet another group of trans men and friends attempted to enter a Toronto gay bathhouse. The venue in question was the site of a trans inclusive bathhouse party, hosted by Toronto’s queer-art-performance-filmmaking-activist-artist troupe called Kids on TV. Like all of their events, the Kids on TV show/performance on June 14, 2007 was trans-inclusive/all genders welcome, even though it was being held in – and so staffed – by the nontrans-inclusive venue. (In other words, the regular practice of the space is that it is not one that trans men can access as trans men; they can access the space if they pass and play as biological men only.) According to one FtM who attempted to enter the space, staff working the door distributed locker keys and information differently depending upon how literate their reading practices were and how well subjects at the door passed as conventional-looking men. While several FtM’s were given access keys to the men’s locker room and play spaces, another FtM was given a key to the designated “women’s locker room” and blocked access by staff to “men only” play spaces. When the practice was challenged that night, staff stumbled through incoherent responses, calling the FtMs “ladies,” indicating that they did not know what to do with “you people” and questioning self-identifications with hostile statements like “Are you sure you are not a lady?”. The FtM subject to these comments in particular told me that after leaving these and other battles at the door, he sat outside on the street crying in frustration from the entire experience. He then indicated: “This was the same night of the Pussy Palace. In fact, the [men’s bathhouse] is on the same block as the one Pussy Palace was in that night and I could see it from where I was sitting. I sat on the curb, crying after such an awful night, during Pride, looking back and forth between [the men’s bathhouse] and the Pussy Palace, completely cut out of both.”

Word circulated about the eviction of FtMs from the men’s bathhouse, and in response, a small group of local activists (none of whom actually attended the event) attempted to organize a “Dyke Day Action” against the bathhouse – an action unsolicited, unwelcomed and opposed by the FtMs in question. The protest was to follow immediately on the heels of the Dyke Day March where interested “allies” would end the Dyke March by descending on the bathhouse. This action was opposed by the FtMs in question, in part because of the dangerous connotations of “Dyke Day Action,” language that would, in the end, simply reinforce the transphobic argument that FtMs trying to enter the space were just “women pretending to be men.” The trans men involved in the incident asked the organizers of the protest not to move forward with their plans, a request that went unheeded. In the series of emails and notices advertising the “Dyke Day Action,” the protest organizers represented its intentions as a protest designed to “take over the space and throw a wrench in the gears of transviolent … ‘business as usual’ in the gayborhood.” In fact, nothing could better illustrate the binarized sex logic of homonormativity: here, the unsolicited ‘remedy’ for the transphobia of the men’s bathhouse seemed indistinguishable from the original eviction itself. Both remained bound by a singular homonormative logic which, in this case, folds trans back into ‘dyke’ as a protest against the folding of trans into either ‘women’ or ‘gay’. Such logics – operating through the language of disenfranchisement – must have looked very odd when experienced from the curb.

Again, similar civil wars playing out on the bodies of such sons of the movements occurred during the Inside Out/VTape symposium of May 2008 (Noble, 2006). The trans film under discussion that day – Trans Entities – sought to document those bodies virtually unimaginable inside of gay and lesbian visual economies and spaces. Located in a different urban landscape from Toronto – that of New York – Trans Entities is structured around three sex scenes, punctuated by interviews where Wil and Papì frame their lives, bodies, desires, and sex play. In addition to the three sex scenes, we watch as the camera follows Wil and Papì through another large urban city-scape on the subway, in second hand clothing stores shopping for ‘props’, in some performance spaces and so on. Both are people of colour; both are non-operative (that is, they identify as transgendered but have opted not to have surgeries or take hormones at the time the film was made); and both identify as transed although they do not take up the language of ‘trans’ sexuality or transgenderedness directly. They coin the term “trans entity” to materialize differently inscribed trans bodies, those which move through social and discursive territories outside of binary sexes; these bodies get flagged in the process of “self-making” as one way to refuse the overdetermined gender and clinical diagnoses of Gender Identity Disorder. Both characters detail the failure of language to materialize their bodies given that, as FtMs of colour, even the languages of transsexual/transgender as self-hailing descriptors fail because they are languages deeply encoded as white. These are bodies whose intelligibility requires nuance, complexity, sophistication, political tenacity and ultimately, a desire to trouble a passion for ignorance in the first place.

After setting-up and screening a carefully selected clip from the film and presenting a brief analysis, my fellow panelist, a white American lesbian filmmaker, immediately pre-empted any and all discussion with the following statement: “I don’t see anything other than two butch dykes when I look at this clip. To me, they are women. That’s all I see”. Needless to say, pandemonium broke out for the duration of the session, as trans-literate folks in the audience – again, tellingly, two dykes of colour – challenged the transphobia and were answered by an unbridled and violent racism: from an audience member they were told to “just shut up”. That such hostilities occurred so publicly could be explained as a failure of the chair who moderated. But such explanations all too easily circumvent the complex borderlands, bodies and political stakes predictably converging in these homonormative public spaces, even if the complexities are willfully disavowed. The entire symposium rightfully sought to complicate and repoliticize queer aesthetics, festivals and knowledges across an entire circuit of cultural production (that is, production itself, distribution, reception, etc.), but clearly did so with an audience not quite ready for the questions raised. That is, coming some twenty years after what is often hailed as the birth of queer theory and queer activism, the early 1990s, the panel and discussions which followed seemed to lament the unanticipated consequences of those very changes that the early 1990s queer politic set in motion. Throughout the symposium event and since then, I remain transfixed by a number of questions for which answers now seem quite self-evident: Is this the measure of success for the Queer Nation? Is this stabilized neighbourhood and infrastructure the very indicator of success that queer activists of the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s worked so hard to accomplish? In this current moment of the symposium, for example, made up of audience members and artists who were quite profoundly shaped by the queer 1990s, including myself: are we the future of our own queer past? And if so, why do we seem not to notice that so much time has gone by, bringing with it a very different social and political landscape? Are trans bodies to homonormativity what gayandlesbian bodies are to heteronormativity? Why did this gayandlesbian contingent at the symposium, under-representative as it might have been, seemed to be stunned to find itself on the other side of Other? At the same time, it refused to see anything other than what has always already been necessary for gayandlesbian movements and communities to do their work: a seemingly essentialized stabilization of sex as the ground of same-sex orientations, identities, politics, neighbourhoods, infrastructures and so on. Such a response marks the consolidation of a hegemonic homonormativity, unconsciously quite incredulous at its own unknowing reproduction and naturalization of a very unqueer sense of time and space. To frame this differently: What happens when an incoherently sexed, destabilized and indeed, trans sexed body finds itself in the midst of definitively gayandlesbian demarcated space, such as a “gay and lesbian” film and video festival? The answer: a hostile, violent and very ironic eviction of the strange, the queer, the irreducibly different. The white lesbian filmmaker’s assertion that she does not ‘see anything’ actually means that she ‘cannot see anything other than that which must always already be true’. Otherwise, how might it be possible to know the real queers (ie: gay and lesbian folks with stabilized sexes) from the not queer or not queer anymore and so worthy of eviction? Who gets to decide?

And what of that racialized queer unconscious and its discontents? I chose my clip from Trans Entities very carefully. As indicated already, Trans Entities is a complexly layered text. It is a mixed genre film (combing both documentary with porn), which details the lives of trans peoples who already challenge trans culture and practice itself. The clip that I screen already maps complexity onto the argument that Wil and Papì make about the dominant practices of whiteness inside trans-spaces, and it does so through consensual BDSM play between Wil and Papì, and a third partner, Chris, a white deaf butch. BDSM can all too often be read as just “kink”, or as a kinky “alternative lifestyle”, without a critical or deconstructive edge. Theorists of BDSM disagree – and I think rightfully so – by suggesting instead that BDSM is what we might think of as an economy of conversion – not where non-practitioners are converted to the practice – but where the massive cultural and everyday social facts and geographies of power are converted, exchanged and inverted against their normative technologies. Instead, these massive social facts are played backward, outside of linear sequencing or normative narratives of progress: pain to pleasure, man to woman, adult to baby, unreason to delirium. Moreover, it certainly cannot be missed that BDSM borrows its scenes (bedrooms, kitchens, dungeons, convents, prisons and empire) and their décor, props, and costumery (bonds, chains, ropes, blindfolds) from the everyday cultures of power. Such forms of power play could thus be characterized as the sexual re-organization of social risk, not to a libertarian end but as a stubborn reiteration of what remains disavowed sexually in the everyday. These are named quite beautifully by Papì as consensual ‘race play’, evoking that ongoing, traumatic and ineradicable memory of empire and white supremacy that remains a ‘massive everyday fact’. Race play is analyzed in the build-up to the scene by Wil, Papì and Chris, as, at the very least, a-colonial – that is, not outside of but tenaciously about the non-disputable existence of the colonial and the racialized, and the way that these systems authorize the fetishized consumption of bodies of colour. Racialized forms of sexuality are certainly not new, and racialized sexual violence – or sexualized racisms – have long been part of the technologies of white supremacy and colonialism. Significantly, such ‘play’ in Trans Entities, by Papì and Wil and Chris, functions a little differently in indexing the degree to which queer and trans symbolic spaces are still bound up in the economies of white supremacy, empire building and colonialism. What has emerged as a ‘queer’ space over the last 15 years is one that is locatable within the very precise coordinates revealed at the symposium, those of whiteness and the essentialized sexed body. Attempting to locate Wil, Papì and Chris on any maps of desire requires an entirely different logic of mapping. What the trans body does (and did in the symposium) – by the mere fact of its existence – is enact an unwitting discursive wound on the way that what passes as queer is, at the same time, as white as what passes as the cisexual and heteronormative.

And this was precisely what I wanted to out through my choice of visuals at the symposium. The second scene of Trans Entities in particular depicts race play, and this was the scene I screened at the symposium. Race play in this scene is organized around the depiction of whiteness that frames Chris’s body as a consensually degraded and ‘used’ body. The productive perversions depicted in this scene position those degradations very carefully. But Chris is also hearing impaired, and this is not without significance. On the one hand, what Chris puts into play through discussion is the obviousness of white supremacy from the position of an insider-outsider. In an interview, which comes just before the sexplay scene, Chris clearly names white supremacy as a massive cultural fact that is obvious to anyone who wants to discern its operations. For Chris, such critical anti-racist articulations have occurred also as result of being outside of white hearing culture in the first place. But on the other hand, Chris interrupts the very ironic mutedness that whiteness depends upon by communicating such articulations in a language – sign-language – quite literally outside of the racist grammars of white talk. Chris signs during actual filming but the film also translates all text – post-production – through a voice-over narrative, in order to ensure that the meaning is clear to those who cannot read sign-language. The interruptions of business-as-usual here are layered and complex: Chris speaks through the white body what most white bodies cannot know or articulate in the languages available to such racialized (white) subjectivities in the first place. But at the same time, Chris occupies a critical white subject position that is not – and cannot be – exclusively self-defining. What’s at stake in these coordinates of whiteness is the way in which they are repositioned against the logic of the maps of white supremacy. To a certain extent, the subaltern does speak by rendering to whiteness a servicing/bottoming functionality not defined on its own terms, by returning a consensually debasing and perverse sexual gaze, one that traffics in the exchange of critical whiteness to hail the pleasures of a differently racialized viewing subject. For the players, and potentially for audience members, this moment is one where hegemonic whiteness is degraded, devalued, and converted into something else. The sexual ‘script’ is very telling: Chris bottoms for both Wil and Papì. Wil, who is running the sexual scene, asks Papì: “do you want to get sucked by nothingness?” When Papì answers “yes sir”, Wil then gives him permission to straddle Chris’s face. The ‘nothingness’ is not so much Chris directly but what Chris represents, that is, whiteness, rendered speechless, vacuous, degraded on terms not its own and taking pleasure in its own symbolic debasement. In a very limited sense of the term, ‘to degrade’ means to lower something in rank or grade; in a more complex sense, we have a consensual masochistic, self-effacing politic of race shame used as a sexual prop of race play. Such a practice of whiteness is very much unbecoming – that is, ‘unsuitable and/or very much not conforming with accepted attitudes or behavior’ – and certainly, inappropriate – that is, no longer appropriating and in fact, staged to be apropos, or ‘appropriate in a particular situation’. Such a strike on whiteness – indeed, of whiteness – can only be calibrated by its effect at the symposium. Recall the dismissal: “I don’t see anything other than two butch dykes …”, which is indicative of a reading practice equally troubled by race play and gender play simultaneously: there were three racialized bodies – not just two transgendered bodies – in the scene in the first place.

Looking back on the event now, the race play depicted in the video caused as much trouble to the supposed colour-blindness of the GLBTQ audience as did the trans bodies. These simultaneous articulations of trouble outed the white homonormativities of this queer neighbourhood, despite its own fantasies to the contrary. The lesson: whiteness is the currency with which such homonormativities pass through the culture of their own making. A shared fantasy of an “LGBTTIQ” community and subject, which not only transcends geography, time, place but also its own embeddedness in history is still, as demonstrated at the symposium and through the bathhouse wars, a fantasy bound within fundamentalist gender economies and power in very dangerous ways. What James Baldwin wrote in 1965 remains as true today as it did more than 50 years ago: white people remain “impaled on their history like a butterfly on a pin”.

Bobby Noble is white transman, teaching in gender and sexuality studies at York University (Toronto). He works through cultural studies approaches on twentieth century constructions of sex, sexuality, bodies, race, gender, especially masculinities, as well as transgender and transsexual identities in culture and social movements.