Wednesday, 12 February 2014


Having a deep love of operatic dark indie electro pop with bonus points if it's made by queers I instantly fell in love with the Canadian band Austra when I saw them supporting a terrible band (I'm way too nice to name names) in a half empty show at Brixton Windmill four years ago. Understandably they have gone on to be relatively huge since then whilst still being sickeningly young and talented and attractive, the kind of people who make me go oh shit my youth is over and I've achieved NOTHING. But I forgive them because their music is so good and my life would be worse without it. They also make amazing videos such as the lo fi dirtiness of the Beat and Pulse video and their latest one for Hurt Me Now which is like a david lynch inspired acid trip complete with a monster beheading.  One I have been watching over and over again recently is their video for 'Forgive Me'.

I generally love anything that's shot in the woods in the middle of the night but particularly when combined with cruising, public sex, FEELINGS, neon and forgiveness. I like anything that has a dirty surface and hints at something more tender going on underneath although the video makes sex seem anything but dirty. I particularly liked that the starring role was given to a trans woman, Judy Virago, and it apparently shows a story of a sex worker who isn't being judged (although the director, Claire Edmonson, insists she's actually a bored housewife). When the band released the video they quoted Judy Virago's comments on it which really struck a chord with me:
"As a trans woman, the story of this video resonates pretty strongly with me. Society expects trans people and sex workers to apologize for their deviation from the norm and to explain themselves. Being cisgender is meant to be the default. So when a trans person is dating someone there are a lot of questions asked "does that mean your boyfriend is gay?" "how do you have sex?" ...the kinds of questions that most women don't get asked. This video asks no questions about the transgender woman featured and asks for no apology. She is loved, and she forgives."
I've identified as trans for a long time, since before I had the language or world around me where people like me would say 'I identify as trans'. I'm in a pretty privileged position in the queer/trans communities of which I am a part being masculine/ftm-ish, white, middle class. I actually get really bored going to trans or queer events and listening to people in a similar boat as me going on and on about their gender as though nothing and no one else in the world ever dealt with any shit. I find myself rolling my eyes and thinking can't we talk about something else for once? The thing is I'm also used to being referred to as 'he' etc in those environments which is completely right for me but when I get outside of there and try to address the rest of the world they invariably decide I'm female at least once I start talking and they hear my voice which grates on me and I find that I myself end up going on and on about being trans. At the same time I completely understand how people outside of a certain context only understand transgender in terms of hormones and operations because they've never heard of anything different but it's still annoying.
I study Creative Writing which has been a life saver for me in many ways. It keeps me focused on something I'm pretty good at and determined to improve upon. My course mates are really awesome and supportive but when you are writing about something based on your personal experience as a trans person or as a sex worker you instantly come up against a wall trying to explain stuff that you just know to those that aren't trans or sex workers.
Let's first deal with the trans stuff. If you want to write from the point of view of a trans person who hasn't taken hormones or had surgery and you want it to be understood in a mostly cis/straight environment you have to constantly reiterate that that person is trans. This is a little easier than being a trans person who hasn't done those things in such an environment because at least you get to write from inside the head of the trans person with them viewing themselves as whatever gender they are rather than whatever everyone else decides they are. You can't use words like 'cis' and 'genderqueer' if you want to write something that will be understood outside particular trans/queer communities because most cis/straight people won't understand them but actually a lot of trans and gender variant people don't use those words either; when I talk to trans people outside the very particular trans/queer vaguely lefty/activisty/anarcho community Ive known in the UK and US that becomes all the more apparent. Similarly the word 'queer' doesn't resonate with a lot of people who are in no way straight and this of course doesn't mean they are less politically enlightened. I don't think it's entirely fair to say these words are elitist, because although the queer scene can be very dominated by white, middle class, transmasculine types, people from all backgrounds/identities use words like queer/genderqueer/etc not just the super privileged, but we should still not start to assume this language is universal even amongst trans people. Anyway, when I write I want it to be understandable even by people who are so cis and straight they don't even know they're cis and straight because they've never had to think about those things. Or at least I want to aim for that, but I don't want to write specifically for them either, certainly not moreso than other trans people who I also don't write for specifically because my experience will invariably betray someone else's. Everytime you write something about being trans someone else is pissed off because now all the cis people think you have told the definitive story because they want to know the answer to what your particular brand of oddness means without understanding that there is no single answer just as there's no definitive experience of being cis or black or white or working class or gay or straight but everyone whether under-represented/willfully misrepresented/wiped off the fucking map by mainstream culture should be just as entitled to their own subjectivity in creative writing as cis straight white guys who never have to worry about representation. 
I wrote a story for class recently which featured a guy (cis) who came up to the narrator (trans) and one of the first questions the cis guy asked the trans guy was 'have you had the surgery?' which is really typical, people ask that shit all the time after you tell them you're trans. The narrator responds by asking the cis guy what's in his pants and how his genital area has changed over the years which is the way I wish I'd responded whenever a complete stranger asked me that question, I mean apart from by a client because at least then it's relevant to the job. As Judy Virago says in her quote re the Austra video trans people are expected to explain themselves all the time. Some people in the class really liked the genital discussing bit but some also thought it signaled an over-reaction on the part of the narrator and evidently everyone whose ever asked me very casually as soon as I tell them I'm trans about surgery thinks it's an appropriate opening question when getting to know people. It's not enough for me to say I'm trans, they must work out WHY and identify the exact specimen and find out what I've got going on under my clothes because if it's not what they think it should be and it conflicts with the over-arching narrative in their head of the trans experience (usually they can understand a person only as medically transitioned transsexual) then it does not compute and surely I owe them an explanation.
With stories I write they only usually work if the narrator is very similar to myself (lack of imagination perhaps) so I've spent about a year and a half on my course finding different ways to explain how you can be trans even without medical treatment. I also emailed my class and asked them to refer to me with male pronouns because I want to insist on the same things outside of the trans community as I would within it even if people have trouble getting it and I also want people to know that hormones and surgery aren't the only way of being transgender. I want that to be common knowledge. But still I have to have really irritating conversations with the odd coursemate who tells me they don't see such and such as trans because 'she' (possibly the wrong pronoun) hasn't had hormones or surgery like it's the cis person's choice to say who's trans and who isn't. Like we have to have a medical seal of approval, like the only way to be a man or a woman if you were born otherwise is to pass as much as a cis person as possible. I'm not attacking those who choose hormones and surgery, I'm on the waiting list for hormones myself and I wouldn't rule out ever having surgery but I hate this idea that there is only one trans narrative and only one type of body which makes an authentically trans person. Justify why you have this body and if you're not going to change it justify how you can be trans. Someone from the course commented that the thing with questions about surgery was like people of colour getting pissed off by being asked 'where are you from?' They thought that in both cases people getting offended signified an over sensitivity (they were cis and white themselves if you hadn't already worked that out). In truth both these questions often mean something else. I remember a friend once pointing out, having been asked the question 'Where are you from?' a ridiculous number of times despite his English accent (and the asker wasn't referring to London or Manchester but where he was 'really' from), that when asked purely because someone's a person of colour that question is generally a code for 'Why aren't you white?' even if the person asking the question hasn't thought about it enough to realise that's what they're saying. 'Have you had surgery?' means something like 'Are you properly trans? Have you followed the correct procedures?' Of course if I knew someone well and it came up in conversation I wouldn't care about being asked about surgery/hormones, I've always been pretty open about that stuff, I mean I've just told the internet, it's on my OK Cupid profile, both of them, but what annoys me is that a person believes it's their god-given right to know.
Sex work is pretty hard to translate as well. I wrote a story based on a really bad experience I had with a client in very acute detail and I knew it would play into the whore-as-victim narrative no matter how much context I gave it. I understand people being freaked out by the story, it was pretty traumatic when it happened and I wanted to convey how it felt, also the people on my course aren't necessarily anti-sex work, but it didn't explain the whole story which was that overall sex work is the best option for me and I'm way happier now than when I was in full time work. Apart from the fact I sincerely doubt I can earn a sustainable living off it I would prefer to be doing this than any 9 to 5 stuff. I don't think under capitalism there's really such a thing as free choice, that we are obligated to work for synthetic currency in any capacity is ridiculous, if we're lucky we make the best of different options -where there are options- at a particular time. I spend a lot of time in environments where there are lots of other sex workers and it's self-evident sex work shouldn't be criminalised or abolished but that workers should be able to work as safely as possible and without stigma and be able to continue working or leave if they wish to but coercion either way is wrong. With that shared understanding it feels ok to talk about sex work, including bad experiences, without having to justify why be a sex worker. Writing about it for the rest of the world sometimes feels like a betrayal, as writing about trans sometimes feels like a betrayal. You have to spend so much time explaining yourself you are reduced to an identity and you reduce yourself to one because you are forever explaining. And you can't ever translate properly what you've been through, not even to other trans people or sex workers although you can try. 
A friend of mine who works as a translator told me that when translating across languages you often lose something from the original text because there are simply is no words for a particular concept in the language it's being translated into. Maybe here the act of translation can be the act of building something new but the full original meaning remains obscured. I'm tragically mono linguistic and yet I feel like I'm always trying to work out a way of translating experience into something someone else will understand and sometimes wonder why bother explaining anything at all? If the whole work of telling a story involves trying to translate rather than telling the actual story why not just leave the translation altogether and if whoever reads it is lost, let them be lost. But I don't know, maybe it's that thing where everyone dies alone but it doesn't stop us spending our entire lives reaching out for other people.