Trans bodies are caught in many weird, unsolvable tangles. We’re both hyper-analyzed and poorly understood, occluded from the census and other documentation but the subject of immense reams of public policy, highly visible on the streets but reduced to awful fetishes and stereotypes. A trans body is something many cis people simply can’t make up their minds about, which has a number of disturbing implications. But I don’t want to just focus on these often traumatizing knots. I want express the bright side of being a trans body.
Though people love obsessing over trans people’s genitals, I want to start by saying that, yes, I have a penis and, yes, I use it responsibly once in awhile. The strangest part of the whole matter is that our genitals seem to pervade discussions of us, to the point where it’s truly a wonder how fixated cis people are on people’s nether realms. Our very presence is overwritten by a hyper-attention to genitalia, like when people on a desert island start to look like hot dogs and pizza to their ravenous companions. With that in mind, we usually have to insist on our asexuality or lack of eroticism to be considered appropriate for public discussion, despite the fact that straight male sexualization pervades mainstream media, even those marketed to children.
So a trans body is, by definition, outrageous to some. But I promised to attend to the benefits of trans embodiment. And one major one for me is the freedom to experiment with extravagant fashions that accentuate aspects of my body that I couldn’t before transitioning. Dressing well is certainly a pleasure in itself, but it also alleviates some of my deep-seated anxieties about looking wrong. Since I am beautifully tall, I have problems being perceived as unambiguously feminine even on my most “passable” days. My feet are large and my long arms and legs make some fits of clothing difficult to pull off. But to me there is no sense in not trying! And if I’m going to be judged inadequate no matter what I do, I might as well go all the way out there with bold colours and blatantly “artificial” colours in my makeup.
So my body is one that is sexual, that is oriented towards being flashy and attractive. At the same time, it’s important to emphasize that my body, although it’s implicated within a lot of different systems and environments, is my own. No matter what kind of body it is, it deserves respect and autonomy. And that’s probably the most valuable contribution that trans people have to make to all political tendencies that aim at liberation of people as a whole.
Human beings affiliate with each other for a variety of reasons, from building houses to playing sports. But when we talk about “relationships” we are usually talking about people who affiliate with each other for mutual pleasure, intimacy, and conversation. Sex, of course, is a focus of many of these relationships. Another subset of relationships get defined as “romantic,” which is a vague term I admit I don’t quite understand. For the purposes of this short post, though, “romantic” will refer to a relationship that is particularly intense, though it should not be located apart from friendship.
My personal approach to relationships and sexual affinity can be named as a practice of “relationship anarchy.” Though this is a somewhat broad and nettlesome word, it accurately describes the kinds of attitudes and practices I want to take in any given relationship as well as series of collective values that I want to see actualized on a general level. In other words, it’s a personal set of concerns and ethics while also being, I think, a loose norm towards which we should work in society as a whole. In any case, let’s see what this so-called “relationship anarchy” implies. (Keeping in mind that this is my own interpretation of a set of ideas that already existed)
At its most basic level, relationship anarchy recognizes that, while our time and space might be limited as people (and this will connect what I’m saying to broader social goals around the built environment and economic/ecological systems), our capacity to give and receive love is not. To me, it has a close cousin in the term “free love,” though the latter term has been somewhat compromised by notions of generalized promiscuity—even if that was not its original intent. Romantic and sexual love should be organized by mutual agreements and personal preference, with relationships being structures made to serve people rather than vice/versa. And every relationship is a structure that needs to be custom-built because every person at every time is a unique being. So relationship anarchy includes, depends on, an openness to change and flexibility, which makes it a challenge to implement in times where people have to work for a wage in order to survive. Our friendships and interactions with people often suffer because of worries over money and other basic subsistence concerns, complicated by the fact that we’re raised to see relationships as institutionalized, exclusive, and regulated by state bodies.
So here we have a set of basic principles: relationships are experimental, open to the future, value each member’s welfare rather than the relationship as such, and are negotiated from norms each person can assent to rather than abstractly imposed ones. I don’t say that relationship anarchy implies an absence of norms because the principles behind it are themselves norms, albeit ones that permit a more flexible idea of how people can interact with each other within a relationship of x people and those who are outside that x.
Now we can move onto how the current, capitalist urban environment (since that’s the one I’m most familiar with) infringes on our ability to carry out these ethics. For example, say one of my partners came with me to a new city to work, while another partner met me later on and lives in a different part of the city. Even if we decide that it might be in our best interests to move into a shared space or to reduce the distance between us, rental markets and discriminatory practices put that kind of movement out of reach for many people. Lack of access to adequate food resources, time spent on commuting or in jobs that make us anxious, and the constant imposition of a built environment meant to facilitate life for people in heteronormative, monogamous consumer units (marriages, cohabitation, etc.) make realizing these ideas difficult. This is not to mention the difficulties incurred by people who fall in love or form relationships across national borders or who create relationships that are socially dangerous. I’ve attracted unfriendly stares and experienced a great deal of nervous tension when walking outside with a partner, for instance, and other people, especially those who are economically marginalized and racialized, experience far, far more heinous acts of violence.
The reality is that, although relationship anarchy could be considered by itself as an abstract blueprint for how to navigate personal affinities, its general realization depends on a social and political revolution as well as an overhaul of how economic goods are produced and distributed. Realizing this connection and working for it while also practicing good relationship ethics is vital because it will help those ethics from collapsing into a harsh moralization weaponized against anyone who doesn’t accept your standards. In the end, people’s flourishing is more important than any once conception or practice of loving and living together. None of us are complete units as individuals—to be complete is to be part of a healthy and freely chosen community, which starts at the most intimate level. But when you take a larger look, these principles lead to nothing less than the abolition of the current society and the construction of a better one.
Next three posts will be:
March 27: Politics and me. Basically about how I’ve grown through and into revolutionary politics and the kinds of projects I’d like to work on.
March 28: Femme-fatale, as I like to call it. Basically talking about what femme aesthetics and self-naming has to do with me, and why it matters on a broader scale (or doesn’t, wouldn’t want to spoil the surprise).
March 29: Third, I’ll be talking about body image issues and the ways I try to dress and trim my hair to look the way I want. How is this conditioned by coercion? We’ll find out!
Pleased to meet you. We all want to get out of the heat, so it’s no surprise that you turned up eventually. Not you in particular, but everyone looking for a little less sunshine. Everyone with too many scars on their eyes. Good news, there’s a lot less light in the closet, and it’s better that way. Each corner enclosed and signed over to the imagination. But if you lived in it for as long as I did, every perch and crevice is so familiar even those astronomical darknesses (the ones you can’t see without a telescope) can’t obscure them. Their outlines are enough to suggest all the familiar swords to fall on, all those invitations to suicide you slipped between the pages of your favourite book. Keeping your page, keeping time by the little numbers on the envelopes.
In Kafka there’s a man who turns into a monstrous insect. A true disaster, mostly because his job is in sales and his family is a knot of vipers. I sympathize with him: from his point of view, everything is the same. But his family lost everything they cared about: his steady job, his social status, his pasty normality. Insult to injury: they’re left with a bothersome insect who’s like their old stooge absent all the things they could exploit. It’s like he died but left a corpse with six legs and a tendency to skitter about the ceiling casting eerie shadows. No longer able to buy or sell anything––a true monster.
Meanwhile being in the closet and coming out is less like Gregor Samsa’s rude awakening and more like the slow, crushing gestation of the cicada. You spend years, even decades invisibly tucked under the dirt, waiting and twitching with the agony of expectations. As if your birth was stretched thin and flat, an event more tectonic than biological. You realize, maybe a long way into your entombed larval stage, that you have to say something quick when you finally emerge. But what? Many people’s first instinct will be to try to push you back in the ground, to bury you and be done with it. Best to brush up on flattery. No one wants a whiner, and any whiners are probably going to be nothing but a husk of skin sooner or later. No matter what, though, you sadly realize as you prod at the last film of dirt hiding you from the hateful sunlight, no matter what, you will be a fearful thing. So if you’re going to be a monster, you might as well be a real terror.
I suppose this will be considered “burying the lede,” but the reality is that I’ve been going through the process of coming out. Given my affection for and interest in monsters, dusty gods, demons, and all the haunted parts of the world, I consider the company of insects an honourable place to be. Plus, I have to admit, it’s hard to be dry and scholarly when discussing matters close to the heart. If I had to tell the doctor about the piece of grandma’s vase lodged in my aorta and needed a muse, I would probably reach for Blake before Spinoza or Lenin.
Coming out as a trans person combines all the terrors of showing your art in public and submitting yourself to a full-body scan at the airport. For someone to take that (sometimes literally) fatal step in today’s capitalist world, it must have some value, or else no one would ever do it. Even when I look at my own life, the closest and most comprehensible example I have, I still ask myself why I put a giant target on my back. Ultimately, like any human act, coming out is incomprehensible if considered as an individual act separate from the whole social reality of which it is a part.
Despite my failure to sort through these issues in the short time since I’ve come out, I’ve decided to write about the process of coming out and the place of trans people––at least this trans person––in class struggle. Not class struggle in the stereotyped sense, which recognizes the male white industrial working class while forgetting the ways in which class is shaped and placed by gender, nation, age, ability, and sexuality. I mean class struggle in the sense of how the increasing majority of humanity fights for our survival against: exploitation, repression, war, entropy, the systemic murder-suicide impulses of capitalism.
A Hundred Thousand Names will be an inward-looking essay, but looking inward is another way of seeing a single, reflective shard of the complex social whole. My aim is to try to make sense of my experiences and struggles as the experiences and struggles of an individual always caught up in the experiences and struggles of trans people (and in particular trans women) as a whole. We must all work tirelessly for trans liberation not as an abstract identity group but as a political, conscious force working for the destruction of all exploitation. How? Maybe I’ll be able to begin to sort that out in these pieces.
To come out is to come out into a burning world.
I’ll catch you next Saturday.
I have a hundred thousand names. One of them is “communist.”
Trans liberation is liberation of trans workers, nationally oppressed trans people, racialized trans people, trans people with disabilities, old and young trans people, trans people who come out and those who don’t. The freedom of each one is the freedom of all, and vice versa.
I was recently finishing up Lumpen: The Autobiography of Ed Mead and was impressed by the amount of time Mead dedicates to matters of love and partnership. Given how much of his life was spent in revolutionary activity, I found this somewhat unexpected. People would be picking up this book to learn about his militant exploits, not descriptions of his lovers and friendships, after all. Still, it led me to think more carefully about the topic of how to handle personal partnerships when you claim to pursue revolutionary politics. Given that I have more than three years of experience with my current partner (and comrade blogger!), I felt it fitting to record my reflections.
Relationships are Never Worth Preserving for Their Own Sake
This is a play on the idea that the Marxist party––or any political form or relation––is not worth valuing in itself. Rather, it’s a tool, an apparatus that has a particular purpose and needs to be embedded in its organic base. A partnership between two people is a means of providing mutual support, emotional and often sexual fulfillment, and an environment where all members can grow and change in a healthy way. Love is the point, not one exact form that needs to be protected like a sacred object. This can cause huge problems for people who stay together far longer than they should or see their partners in a fixed way and can’t accommodate personal evolution. Relationships should be treated seriously, just like political work, but always with the correct goal in mind: mutual support and fulfillment of each person. Fervent attachment to the idea of a relationship can lead to abuses and hurts far worse than mere separation. Not to say that separation isn’t also incredibly damaging in many cases, but even the latter is often made more arduous simply because each person was attached to one particular form of a relationship rather than, truly, to the loved ones in all their complexity.
The Ownership Model Produces Jealousy and Venom
The bourgeois nuclear family has countless ardent defenders. These suburban paladins will ascribe all kinds of magical fetishistic powers to the Victorian family, and to them I say humbug. Call me the Wedding Scrooge if you must, but the reality is that classical marriage is founded on a property relationship: the woman becomes the object of exchange, transferred from her father’s family to that of her husband. Western marriage rituals are all rooted in this financial reality, not to mention the fact that marriage usually happens within your own class and serves to solidify your economic position. Our white dresses and cakes and mirror balls conceal the slick tentacles of corruption and mixed motives. I don’t mean to demean marriage itself––I’m married and don’t mind it much––but it’s important to recognize that the entire legal apparatus around marriage is constructed because it is a property relationship, one built for lawyers, jewellers, and life insurance agents as much as the loving partners. Every love marriage in capitalism is afflicted by money relations, which saddens me profoundly.
A fetish for ownership and possession also rests at the root of a lot of jealousy and dishonesty within relationships. I personally struggle with feelings of professional envy, especially when my partner is able to take advantage of opportunities that I don’t have. At the same time, I recognize that jealousy and resentment are antithetical to a loving bond, not to mention the politically correct way to treat a fellow traveller with whom you are also in love. As Spinoza emphasized, feelings of resentment and schadenfreude are symptoms of minds that are sickened by what he called sad affects, products of our irrational imagination. Putting down your partner because you feel envious or distressed just diminishes yourself––it puts you at a distance from one of your greatest allies and probably hurts your health as much as your heart. Partners often stand hand in hand to flourish together, but at times their paths diverge and they have to allow their significant others to grow. This relates back to point 1. The central point is: you don’t own your partner, their time, or their other relationships. Honesty and open criticism are your friends, not secrecy and turning narc on one another.
Sharing Politics: Criticism, Struggle and Unity
Though I would never demand that my partner mirror my exact politics––that would be neither possible nor healthy––I do believe that it’s important for partnerships to rest on a foundation of shared values and interests. Because of that, it’s difficult to imagine myself in a relationship with a liberal or, god forbid, a reactionary. Desire works its designs in strange and ambiguous ways, but a lasting and healthy partnership is probably impossible across a cavernous political gap. A partnership, after all, has to be an environment that ensures that each member doesn’t have to waste their energy suppressing themselves or fighting with their significant other.
At the moment, my notion of an ideal relationship between two subjects who are just as political as they are amorous is that they are able to debate and struggle with each other without losing a common foundation of respect and principles. Engaging the other member of the partnership, criticizing them when necessary, and being willing to receive open criticism, are all crucial for staving off the spectre of secrecy, gossip, and backbiting. In political discussions with my partner, although I often take a teaching role because of my slightly more advanced comprehension of political ideology, I have to be aware that her own experiences and knowledge are likely to surpass mine in certain areas, and to be humble before her on such questions. Nothing ever works out perfectly, but the fact that we have a strong friendship and good communication in general enables our little talks to be more productive and meaningful than they otherwise might be.
I’m quite young and do not have the iron-tested experience of many people I know. Still, I think I’ve had a long enough time to reflect and am attentive enough to offer some insight into those reflections. Just as no political party or work of art will be pure, so the relationship is constantly incomplete and imperfect, always pushing its member s towards new heights of solidarity. I’m quite thankful to my partner for the time we’ve had together, and strongly believe we’ll have our best times in the future.
Revolution is a word often abused and mistreated. Imperial stewards like Bernie Sanders mobilize it against the stagnant American centre-left––the revolutionary equivalent of a dip in the kiddie pool. We’re exposed to a dozen revolutions every day, informed of the radical changes that our new phones, game consoles, headphones, and cars will bring to our lives. Even among honest partisans, who commit themselves to the transformation of society, the word can carry some inaccurate connotations. I’ll speak to my own history since the way I understand revolution today differs magnificently from how I grasped it a few years ago.
In particular, I used to see the revolution as a singular transformative event, which might have been the result of conscious planning and preparation but was nonetheless an explosion that would sweep away all the dross in society. After some experience in political work and a deeper investigation of Marxist theory, however, I’ve come to see that revolution, like all social phenomena, is a process of experimentation and refinement. Watershed moments, when fires spread and change happens like lightning, still exist, but to imagine that a single bolt of activity obliterates the history that led up to it is to neglect the social problems that will continue to exist after critical points. Nor is all persistence negative: if capitalism is to be thoroughly uprooted and human life made finally free of its corruption, organizations and institutions that persist through a revolution have to be established.
These are not just political parties, mass groups, or allied organizations with a purely political or economic focus. Indeed, the war against the capitalist state is not always or even mostly a direct confrontation of forces; revolutionaries would lose every time if it were. Rather, the most vital task of the revolutionary left is to build up its own capacities and institutions, to organize people to provide their own forms of social life free of state control. Unlike lobbies and NGOs, these institutions don’t/won’t simply “represent” a mystified constituency mediated by the money economy of donations. Instead, they are the result of the people’s own initiatives, coordinated and directed through organs that are their own instruments, built from their most advanced elements. They will cover every aspect of mass struggle, from media and art production to family care to agriculture. Revolution, often fetishized as a cathartic instant of destruction and festival––though that is certainly a valid aspect of the concept––has much more to do with building. Building people, building communities, building alliances, building institutions, building a new state, all in the shadow of the capitalist state. Such a state, I should mention, will likely not suffer any rivals, being a jealous sort.
I want to focus on the problems of agriculture and sexual liberation in particular, since they both make great examples of problems that cannot be solved in one stroke or with the decrees of a revolutionary tribunal.
Robert Biel, in his book The Entropy of Capitalism, insists that our current food production system is unsustainable in the long term. Future societies, of any political stripe, will have to tackle the challenge of feeding the world while eliminating the use of fossil fuel-driven fertilizers and other intensive inputs. He names food as “the area of greatest incompatibility in principle between capitalism and the natural system,” with nutrition being essential to human survival and also currently under the control of corporate entities with little regard for long-term human flourishing.¹ In this situation, forces on the left have to mobilize the innate human tendency to experiment with new solutions for the food problem (including urban farming and low-input methods) while in dialogue with traditional knowledge about agriculture that capitalism suppresses in favour of homogeneous industrial farming.
Though emphasizing that current attempts to recenter “local” and “organic” farming are insufficient without an overthrow of the capitalist world system, Biel notes that we can’t simply dismiss these efforts. “We need to make the initial steps towards a new mode of production right now…because converting a portion of land to a thoroughly low-input system requires a period of time, during which its productivity may drop.”² Present need and future need must, therefore, be balanced in building the components of a new and sustainable society that operates within the Earth’s tolerance levels. Every successful and failed experiment contribute to our arsenal of knowledge, with which we can creatively adapt to future issues as they arise. Flexibility and a degree of pragmatism, albeit guided by theory, are the essential characteristics of a successful revolutionary movement.
Sexual Liberation: Rebuilding Family and Friendship
Families are vital social spaces because they are the most important determining influences in almost every person’s life. From the CEO who inherited his company from his father to a trans person who is thrown out on the streets by their parents, one cannot entirely escape the web of family associations that helped form one’s personality. Nor is this purely ideological or important in terms of culture or desire: families are, as in the CEO example, one of the main conduits of wealth transfer and the consolidation of social classes. It’s not coincidence that marriage is almost always contained within social class and racial lines. Moreover, the bourgeois family structure that we have now, however embattled and decayed in its current state, is a major source of the oppression of women and LGBT people. It also traps children, who are often stuck with abusive families they are unable to escape, with many of those most vulnerable being queer and trans. Creating new forms of association is an urgent task for the revolutionary left, and the needs are urgent and present rather than simply speculative.
Those who are oppressed because of their sexual desires or for violating gender norms have been at the forefront of experimenting with new forms of living together. Necessity often dictates that this is the case, since LGBT people face harassment and, often, ostracism from religious and blood relation networks. One of the most important principles of queer associations is that they are communities of choice, not binding people to them out of obligation or kinship. We should not see these often transitory and unstable networks as full blueprints for future communities, but rather as proof that human beings can flourish in group forms that are not nuclear families.
Most vitally, the establishment of experimental living spaces has to be accompanied by a relentless struggle for the creation of a new social infrastructure that allows people to choose their own families. Collective childcare and housework, free education, and the social provision of every human need to each member of a society regardless of marriage status or any other factor, has to be achieved. Only then can human desire and sexual relations be liberated from hypocrisy and repression, with every relationship, as Alexandrea Kollontai would have it, free of “the elements of material calculation which cripple family life.”³ Passion and mutual love will replace material necessity, and the decisions over whether to have children, where to live, and how big or small the household might be, and what kind of sexual relationships occur within and outside those groups, would be left to each person’s best judgment. The law would play a smaller and decreasing role in regulating such relations, eventually withering away altogether.
But though we have to cherish these kinds of utopian visions, the main task at present is to experiment and find ways of building new structures now. Loneliness and isolation can be just as harmful as starvation and exposure in their own way, and one of the tasks of Marxists and the entire left is to pursue ways of living that will instruct us on how to foster the best human relations and to free sexual desire from its current commodified and fetishized forms. This does not mean uncritically endorsing all sexual practices or claiming them as liberating in their own right, but it does mean forming alliances with those who are equally determined to build a new family that can serve humanity much better than the one we have now.⁴
I cannot deny the power of the revolution as a sudden event, but the outcome of such a traumatic turn in history will be determined by the constitution of the forces that preexisted it. Our “mundane” years and decades of organizing and building our forces cannot be spent in pursuit of stereotyped goals and stale protest. The urgency of our work in present struggles does not excuse us from having a long-term strategy, and the support and discovery of new and progressive social forms of production, community, communication, etc. is vital for our own success.
Robert Biel, The Entropy of Capitalism (Chicago: Haymarket, 2012), 318.
Alexandra Kollontai, “Communism and the Family,” Komunistka, No. 2, 1920. https://www.marxists.org/archive/kollonta/1920/communism-family.htm
This whole section takes inspiration from Peter Drucker’s excellent Warped: Gay Normality and Queer Anti-Capitalism, which addresses questions of sexual liberation in much more detail.
Prince, the artist formerly known as The Artist Formerly Known as Prince, has for the last decade or so been a relatively quiet presence in the pop culture world. Before moving on, I should qualify that statement. He has been quiet compared to his striding, titanic status in the 1980s. He has never disappeared, never stopped putting out recordings–however difficult they might be to find–and always kept up his profile enough so that people can’t forget about him.
Lately, he has been pushing himself further into the spotlight, and I can only see that as a good thing. Whatever the quality of the recordings he puts out, Prince represents a certain breed of pop superstar that is rare in any age: a prodigious musician, master of spectacle, and sexual/quasi-religious icon all mixed into one man. Few others have bent gender conventions as skillfully, sung about sex so soulfully, or played live shows with as much gusto and raw charisma as Prince. But those are quantitative differences. Many pop stars, present and past are talented or have fascinating or enigmatic personal lives. What are the unique qualities that make Prince’s music and persona so fascinating to a feline such as me?
Sexuality is the default topic for pop music. Popular songs are laced with so many hormones I’m surprised neither the RIAA nor its captive radio audience hasn’t collapsed from pituitary shutdown at this point. NPR reported here on the strong correlation between “reproductive” messages in songs and their popularity on the Billboard charts. Music has this uncanny ability to align us with its rhythms, to take our bodies and turn them into dancing conduits. Our rational faculties often have no say in the matter–music strips us down to the hardware and starts pushing buttons and crossing wires, sometimes in pleasurable ways and sometimes in ways that leave us sore or discombobulated. Dance music has a particularly potent, sometimes I would say weaponized, form of this manipulation. Prince fits well into the pop music world, then. “Reproductive messages” abound in his work, and onstage the man has a notoriously glorious lack of hangups.
Back in the 1980s, I could say that Prince would have had a notably brazen approach to writing sexual lyrics. This is the artist responsible for giving us enough parental outcry to ruin hip-hop cover art forever with parental guidance stickers. And for what? Lyrics like this:
She had so many devices
Everything that money could buy
She said, “Sign your name on the dotted line”
The lights went out and Nikki started to grind
Wholesome family entertainment–basically Prince’s middle name. That’s from “Darling Nikki,” one of the greatest songs about mind-blowing sexual ecstasy ever written. Let’s look at our own time, however. Far more explicit lyrics have and will be written every day than His Purple Majesty could hope to match. At least in quantity. So the shock value is no longer there. What continues to draw me?
I would say that the most compelling part of Prince’s music is its constant, self-conscious wrestling with sexuality as a part of something larger. His songs are often shine like neon strip club sign and angelic halos at the same time. He is a Jehovah’s Witness. Intimacy to him is almost always connected to glory, to a spiritual connection found between people and between people and God. It is often bleak, always blunt, but in more cases than not is reaching for a kind of transcendence. Listening to “If I Was Your Girlfriend,” “Adore,” “Temptation,” and others is a more surreal and complicated experience than your standard edition pop fare. The first song on that list, especially, feels too close for comfort, inviting the listener into a warped but oddly pure world. Pure. What Prince has is a purity, perhaps a naïvety even. He is convinced the music can change the world and that love can be true, whatever other attendant messiness you might encounter. I am skeptical of this, being a tiger after all, but it’s an intriguing sentiment nonetheless.
It is this quality, this straight-faced, open and sincere investigation of sex in lyrics and stage presentation that sets Prince apart. Combined with the other qualities I listed above, it is absolutely clear to me that, despite wildly uneven output, we can consider Prince’s body of work one of the most (oddly) sensitive and poignant in the pop canon.