About content: this post speaks openly (and in some detail) about trans oppression in queer communities (with a focus on the ways trans men are targeted), gender border wars, purging, and gender-based coercion and abuse in relationships. Most of that discussion is in the first section, so if you want to avoid it, skip to the section titled My Response to Grandmother-nai-Leylit’s Cloth of Winds.
My Own Context for Reading RB Lemberg’s Grandmother-nai-Leylit’s Cloth of Winds
I remember the hardness of the chairs in the auditorium. I remember the buzz of the fluorescent lights. I remember trembling in my seat, my stomach in knots. I remember the energy in the room feeling dangerous to me, like if I moved I might get noticed, get hit by the violent storm.
I don’t remember what exactly people said at that queer town hall meeting. I have tried, today, as I write this, to recall those kinds of details. But I can’t access them. I don’t know how I ended up in that room. I don’t know who I came with.
It was 1996, probably. I think. Twenty years ago. And it was the first time I heard queer cis women speaking openly about the reality that some of their partners, some folks in queer women’s community, were transitioning.
I say speaking openly, but that is too measured a description, and a bit too kind. Because what they actually were doing was debating. Debating whether to allow this. Whether to purge these men from their lives and their community. Whether they could possibly bring themselves to ever date someone trans. Articulating their feelings of betrayal. Naming the ways they felt hurt and victimized that lesbians were disappearing. Describing the ways they felt trans men were erasing their queer cis womanhood, making them even more invisible than they already were. The ways their identity and community felt so intensely threatened by the existence of trans men.
They told proud stories about how they tried to convince, manipulate, and coerce their partners into not transitioning. They offered advice to each other, describing the emotional blackmail that was most effective in preventing their partner from discussing transition. They had this intense righteousness in talking about dumping long-time partners who pursued medical transition options. They consistently named the trans men they talked about as women, as lesbians, using she/her pronouns the entire time.
I knew purges well. Knew how this could turn in an instant from venting to something even more ominous. Recognized the danger electric in the air. Held the clear knowledge in my body that my ability to dance carefully on the margins of queer women’s communities could twist into a brick wall in my face. That really it was just a matter of time before that happened. I held very very still, sick and trembling, and waited for it to be over.
It wasn’t over when I left that night. Instead, it got worse. These conversations were everywhere, and sparked like flash fires any time I was in queer women’s spaces. There was no escaping them. They didn’t stay in those spaces either. Groups of cis lesbians would show up at the tiny trickle of trans men’s events that began to happen, in order to stand up and demand the conversation center on them and the ways that trans men’s existence hurt them.
I quietly attended a trans men’s open support group (one that welcomed allies), month after month after month, not telling anyone in my life that I was going. I never said a word in the group. Continued to present as and be read as a femme cis dyke. The men in the group all thought I was an ally. They were confused why I kept going. No one else went that wasn’t openly trans, even though they were technically welcome. At least not after accompanying their trans partner the first time. I didn’t have a trans partner, had not begun talking about my own gender with anyone. At the time, I didn’t even really know why I was going. My experience of gender did not match the experiences described in that room. But it was urgent inside me. I needed to go. It hurt to miss a meeting.
That time, those memories, are intertwined with my first moments of recognition of my own transness. That feeling of being deeply afraid, stuck still and trembling, dreading being recognized. That feeling of sickness in my stomach and shards in my throat as I listened to people I thought were my community, and even people I thought were my friends and family, debate my welcome and the welcome of people like me. That certainty, yet again, that who I was meant that I would be rejected, would not find love or sex or wholeness in relationship.
I was a late queer (and trans) bloomer, was part of queer community and doing queer activism without dating pretty much at all (after one terrible disaster). I had never had a romantic relationship with anyone, had pretty much only had casual sex with cis straight men (and one queer man). I identified as bisexual, but hadn’t had sex in a few years at that point. I’d spent most of my out queer life having unrequited unspoken crushes on cis women friends and friends who were queer cis men. This realization that letting myself be trans meant accepting that I would lose community, lose friends, lose my queer family, be treated like an enemy, and never find a partner, was a central part of my sense of myself as a trans person, from pretty much the beginning.
It seemed inevitable, that I could not be trans and be loved or even welcomed by queer cis women. That they would see me as the enemy, if they thought of my transness as real. That if they did love me, or welcome me, it was because they didn’t actually think my gender was real. Those were my choices, my only options as far as it went with queer cis women. To be rejected as enemy or accepted and loved not as myself. I literally could not imagine anything else outside of that framework. It seemed like nobody could, that we were all stuck and spinning and hurting with no way out.
It took several years before I could step enough outside my own trans reality and pain to recognize the ways trans women were (and still are) erased in queer women’s community. The ways transmisogyny was operating in those conversations. The ways that as women, to be rejected and erased from women’s communities was (and still is) an intensely harmful act of cissexism and transmisogyny.
It took many more years before I considered pursuing any sort of medical transition options. At one point, I was asked by my primary partner to promise that I would never go on testosterone. And I agreed.
It took longer before I recognized that attempting to coerce, convince, or manipulate your partner into making particular decisions about their gender or attempting to limit your partner’s gender expression is abusive behavior.
From pretty much the beginning, I imagined not letting myself be trans. Hiding, so I could stay in dyke community, so I could keep relationships, so I might possibly be able to find a girlfriend someday. It took a long time for me to choose something else. It felt like such a huge risk to do so, a leap into a future I could barely imagine as anything but bleak and lonely.
My Personal Response to Grandmother nai-Leylit’s Cloth of Winds
Quite literally. After reading it, I relived the visceral memory of what it felt like to be in that room at that town hall meeting twenty years ago, lay in bed frozen and trembling. That feeling rolling round and round in my head, of stuckness, of being caught, of deep fear at being recognized. I saw myself, a future I could have lived, almost did live, in Bashri.
It hurt to read a story from the point of view of a cis woman who sounded so much like those women in that meeting, who struggled so much to hold the reality of her grandparent’s transness, and her sibling’s non binary identity.
It hurt, and it healed at the same time.
This story felt like such an emphatic clear answer to the framework that had taken me about a decade to think my way out of. Not an easy answer, not a simple answer, but such an insistent one.
My first cogent reaction to this story was: I wish I’d read this 20 years ago. I needed this story when I was first coming into my transness and trying to imagine my own future and what it could be.
This story, written by a trans writer, that centers two trans characters with very different genders. This story that works against a cis gaze even as it is told from the point of view of a cis woman. This story that broke open old wounds and helped them breathe. This story that insists on the reality that our transness cannot be muted without cost, and will need to be faced eventually. This story that offers a vision of queer family that cannot hold stubbornly tight to rejection of trans family, that instead needs to figure out how to hold us, perhaps a bit more loosely than before.
Considering Grandmother nai-Leylit’s Cloth of Winds as a Trans Writer
When trans authors write trans characters in a complex nuanced way, there are folks who won’t get it. Especially cis folks.
It won’t fit the prescribed form that cis people are told they need to follow in order not to be fucked up in their representation. It will be more complicated than that.
Because the prescribed form is written in a simplified way, that assumes that cis people have less nuanced analysis of and experience with trans oppression, transmisogyny, cissexism, dysphoria, and internalized trans oppression.
Because trans writers choosing to engage with trans oppression enacted by cis people that we know so intimately from having been targeted by it in so many ways and internalizing it in so many ways…we are going to engage with it differently. We bring a different lens, the complexity of our personal history, an on-the-ground analysis of oppression that comes from being targeted by it relentlessly. We tell different stories about it, because we are writing from deeper lived experience, because we have different reasons for telling them, and are often writing for different audiences.
Lemberg discusses this in their recent post about this story:
“The viewpoint of Aviya was difficult for me. It is a viewpoint that begins from a place of both love and at the same time rejection of our truest selves, which is so familiar and so incredibly hurtful for many of us with cis and/or straight family members. When I am writing a viewpoint of a cisgender family member who is loving, but only conditionally accepting I am both writing the other, and writing from a perspective which is excruciatingly and deeply familiar to me. Like many trans people, I have been pressured to learn this perspective, to internalize it, to center it before my own.”
This is a story that lives in the tension of holding firm in trans perspective and reality, and engaging and connecting with the internality of a cis perspective that deeply struggles to honor and accept trans reality. Connecting with cis perspective is something that is a common experience for trans people, as Lemberg points out. To engage with it while holding firm on a trans lens for the story itself is a nuanced balancing act that trans writers are much better placed to do. We have a lot more practice.
If this story were written by a cis person, it wouldn’t work.
I would never advise a cis person to write a story about trans people and tell it from a cis character’s point of view. I would especially advise cis writers not to describe the ways cis characters struggle to accept and love and be decent to trans people in their lives. Those stories mean something really different when told by cis people. Those stories are told in really different ways when they are written by cis people.
In Cheryl Morgan’s article for cis writers, on “Writing Better Trans Characters,” she talks about the cis gaze:
“There is such a thing as “cis gaze”; that is, a book can be written because cis people are fascinated by trans people. They want to see us doing those weird trans things that they think we do. Or they want to see us as victims that they can feel sorry for and rescue.”
That is what cis gaze does in a story. It sets trans people up as Other, as objects, as “fascinating”, “interesting”, “strange”, sources of learning. It sets us up as objects of pity and rescue and study, far from the assumed cis readership. It does that in the structure of the story. This isn’t about the POV character’s gender, but about what the story does, how it frames the trans characters, what information it decides to share about the trans characters, what language it uses, what questions it grapples with.
It is important to distinguish the cis gaze in a story from the POV of the story. They are different things. You can write a story that is deeply entrenched in a cis gaze from the POV of a trans character. I’ve read a lot of those. You can also write a story from the POV of a cis character that is not written from a cis gaze.
Of course, it is possible for trans people to write stories from a cis gaze, because we can internalize it.
But it is also possible for trans writers (like Lemberg) to write stories from a cis character’s POV that do something else, something different. Stories that do not come from a cis gaze. In my read of this story, it does something different, and powerful. Something that felt deeply needed for me personally as a trans reader.
This story is told from the POV of a cis person mired in the same framework I described in the first section, a framework that can’t imagine how to do relationship with trans people, can’t conceive how she as a lesbian might grapple with a trans man partner, or how to hold the trans and non-binary realities of her family members. Aviya is stuck in that framework I knew so well twenty years ago, a framework that purges trans people from queer women’s lives because it cannot figure out how to hold onto relationship with them. She is stuck in her own ableism and cannot fathom honoring the non-binary identity of her autistic sibling.
But the story is told from a different framework. A trans and non-binary framework. A framework that holds trans and non-binary realities in their complexities. That insists that Aviya recognize her love for her family and partner is critically important and worth struggling to hold onto, even when she is freaking out and can’t figure out how. That textually challenges trans oppression and cissexism. That illuminates the ways language structures can be hugely important barriers for trans and non-binary people. That insists on honoring the trans reality of a non-verbal autistic character.
This story engages actively with internalized trans oppression, ableism and misogyny. It does that in a way I found quite deft and careful. These things are textually challenged, again and again. It doesn’t use unnecessary hurtful language. It works to slowly shift perspective over time. It’s not overly blatant or didactic. That’s part of what makes it work.
This story shows how stuck all these characters are in trans oppression, ableism and misogyny, both interpersonally and especially structurally. It shows the pain of trans oppression, from the POV of someone who realizes that she has been hurting her loved ones.
It’s a hard story.
And, I think, a critically important one.
“Grandmother nai-Leylit’s Cloth of Winds” has been nominated for a Nebula, and I find that to be a very good thing.
I am awed by the fact that a story centering a queer family, focused on queer love (both familial and romantic), is honored in this way. I am awed by the fact that a story grappling with the limitations of gender and language, told by a trans author, is honored in this way. I am awed by the fact that a story which insists that the reader hold the complex realities of trans and nonbinary characters is honored in this way. I am awed by the fact that a story by an autistic trans author centering an autistic trans character with powerful and beautiful magic is honored in this way.
“Grandmother-nai-Leylit’s Cloth of Winds” has so much in it that moves me, so much that feels important and necessary and full of the kind of respite that I ache for.
I urge you to read it. To let this story in. To hold it in its complexity and nuance. To consider what it has to say.
(cross posted on WordPress, Tumblr & LiveJournal)