The notion of women engaging with and documenting the physical and sexual realities of their own bodies as a distinct style of writing was first articulated by French theorist Hélène Cixous in 1975. In her essay ‘The Laugh of the Medusa’ (‘La Rire de la Méduse’), she argued that this kind of ‘women’s writing’ – what she termed écriture féminine – would enable women to enter public discourse in new ways and liberate themselves from a patriarchal stranglehold over art and culture. An intoxicating blend of poetic prose, postmodern theory and feminist activism that combined the Surrealists’ interest in political (Marxist) and libidinal (Freudian) challenges to traditional power structures with the opposition to conventional literary styles adopted by French nouveau roman authors, Cixous’s essay called for women to engage with their designated ‘otherness’ in the established patriarchal order.
Underpinning ‘The Laugh of the Medusa’ was a strong focus on the cisgender (non-trans) female body: it advocated the discussion of menstruation, lactation, pregnancy and clitoral pleasure. This was, in part, a reaction against linear texts that reproduced the structure of phallocentric climax, countered with a celebration of women’s sexual and intellectual power. Cixous told readers not to be put off by the idea that writing was for ‘great men’, nor to be held back by ‘the imbecilic capitalist machinery’ of the publishing industry. She was aware that her essay was initiating, not concluding a process: ‘Since these reflections are taking shape in an area just on the point of being discovered,’ Cixous wrote, ‘they necessarily bear the mark of our time’. (That time being the mid-1970s: the height of the US second wave feminist movement, left-wing insurrections in Italy and West Germany, and the unleashing of radical energies in France that followed May 1968.) Certainly, Cixous opened doors for writers to reconsider ideas of femaleness, femininity and womanhood, offering them a readily adaptable set of tactics. Without ‘The Laugh of the Medusa’, it is hard to imagine the foundational texts of transgender studies, especially The ‘Empire’ Strikes Back: A Post-Transsexual Manifesto. First published by trans artist, media theorist and activist Sandy Stone in 1987, the manifesto had a similar power and poetry to Cixous’ essay, and made a similar call for people to explore their bodies as part of a literary and political project. However, it was not a direct response to Cixous, but to radical feminist Janice G. Raymond, whose anti-trans diatribe The Transsexual Empire: The Making of the Modern She-Male (1979) cast male-to-female transsexuality as a plot to infiltrate the second-wave feminist movement. Arguing that transsexual women appropriated female bodies to exercise male dominance, Raymond qualified it as an act tantamount to rape. Stone’s response began, however, not with dismantling Raymond’s trans-exclusionary arguments but with the conventions of the transsexual memoir. Having established itself as a distinct genre in the fifty years since Lili Elbe wrote the first specimen, Man into Woman (1933), the memoir form defined the first wave of trans writing. Focusing on Elbe and Jan Morris’ Conundrum (1974) – for years the most read book of its kind in the United Kingdom – Stone challenged these writers’ conflation of received gender roles with physical sex, noting that: ‘Each of these adventurers passes directly from one pole of sexual experience to the other. If there is any intervening space in the continuum of sexuality, it is invisible.’ Stone concluded: ‘No wonder feminist theorists have been suspicious. Hell, I’m suspicious!’
One reason for these authors’ elision of this transitional sexual space, suggested Stone, was the binary imperative propagated by the Gender Identity Clinics, which handled transsexual patients in the United States and the United Kingdom. They insisted that service users do their best to ‘pass’ in their chosen genders and live in ‘stealth’, not disclosing their transsexual histories on either side of transition. This made it impossible for them to publicly discuss terrain beyond the male/female binary, or the ways in which the Clinic forced them to adhere to traditional ideas of masculine or feminine behaviour as a condition of treatment – a protocol designed, perhaps, to protect cisgender people from exposure to transitioners. This also formed the basis of radical feminist claims that transsexual people (especially transsexual women) were dupes of the patriarchy who willingly conformed to outdated stereotypes.
Stone called for a ‘post-transsexual’ breaking of this silence by ‘constituting transsexuals not as a class or problematic ‘third gender,’ but rather as a genre – a set of embodied texts whose potential for productive disruption of structured sexualities and spectra of desire has yet to be explored.’ This demand inspired a generation of trans artists, activists and academics throughout the 1990s and 2000s – such as novelist and activist Leslie Feinberg, playwright and performance artist Kate Bornstein, and genderqueer artist Greer Lankton – who in turn influenced the trans voices who broke into the mainstream media during the 2010s.
Originally published in 1994, Kate Bornstein’s Gender Outlaw: On Men, Women and the Rest of Us followed Stone’s imperative to ‘mix genres’, both in its author’s refusal to identify as male or female and in the book’s hybrid structure. Combining personal reflections and political commentary, including some of her plays and transcripts from chat room interactions, Bornstein hoped to pin down ‘a transgendered writing style’ that would consequently ‘produce an identification with a transgendered experience.’ She listed antecedents and contemporaries whose work could offer ideas as to how this might look: essayist Jamison Green, who discussed the visibility of trans men in a culture more interested in male-to-female people; activist Riki Ann Wilchins, who said trans people needed to reclaim the definitions placed upon by sexologists and medics, and define their own terminology; and photographer Loren Cameron, whose use of portraiture to familiarise (or even confront) the viewer with bodies that did not fit into conventional models of ‘male’ or ‘female’ became a familiar tactic, subsequently borrowed by Amos Mac, Zachary Drucker, Rhys Ernst and numerous other artists – not all of whom called themselves trans or non-binary.
I should add here that given the infinitude of gender expressions, and the extent to which they have sometimes conflicted with each other, we cannot speak of a homogenous ‘trans’ group. These positions grew, in part, out of what has become known as a second wave of écriture trans: writers discussing their gender dysphoria – the sense of their identity not matching the one assigned at birth – and how it could be conveyed. The leading lights of this second wave, which began with Stone’s manifesto, wrote theory (Bornstein and Judith/Jack Halberstam, noted for their books on Female Masculinity and The Queer Art of Failure), political manifestos, novels and histories (Leslie Feinberg, who called for a trans liberation movement that was part of a wider revolutionary programme), or assessments of the limitations of this line of writing (Viviane K. Namaste, whose Invisible Lives aimed to shift the conversation away from artistic or academic circles towards the discrimination and violence that trans people faced in the ‘real world’). The main thing they had in common was that they all rejected the linear memoir form, which led a generation of trans people who turned to their writing to share Stone’s suspicions about that genre.
This second wave turned into a third, which had a strong focus on media representation, and on bridging a gap that had developed between trans activism and the wider world sometime during the late 2000s. (It also included more British and European voices, in contrast to the overwhelmingly North American second wave. Three key texts were Julia Serano’s Whipping Girl (2007), with its influential critique of mainstream media portrayals of trans people, and how they lagged behind academic and activist discourses; Susan Stryker’s Transgender History (2008), which placed the second wave into a far wider context, showing how it evolved out of a long process of legal discrimination, the emergence of sexology and sex reassignment surgeries, and sensationalist media coverage of transsexual people, who then wrote autobiographies to counter it; and Testo Junkie by Beatriz/Paul Preciado (2008), which combined ecstatic recollections of using testosterone with reflections on how society, industry and pharmaceutical technology manipulates human bodies. This led to the emergence of ‘non-binary’ as a prominent gender identity, defining a presence as important to this third wave as ‘transgender’ had been to the second, and ‘transsexual’ to the first.
There was a recognition that trans theory – now as recognisable a genre as transsexual memoir – incorporated plenty of autobiographical material to reinforce its arguments. Earlier writers had used their life stories to undermine transphobic stereotyping in activist and academic circles, a tactic outlined by sociologist Carol Riddell in her essay Divided Sisterhood (1980), which also responded to Janice Raymond. During the 2000s, their successors saw these stereotypes perpetuated by radical feminist journalists in liberal media outlets and took a similar approach to that advocated by Riddell. They infused their autobiographical writings with lessons from trans theory, but with a crucial difference in their target audience.
While second wave trans writing had aimed largely to build a community, with trans people talking to each other in an unprecedented way, and in reaction to a first wave of trans authors who had spent most of their energy justifying their existences to outsiders, the third wave sought to bridge these two approaches. Having formed their identities not just by reading the second wave authors but also through extensive online interaction, they entered the mainstream media, where they went into established literary, artistic and political discourses and tried to change them, armed with and emboldened by ideas developed in preceding theoretical and political works. Consequently, they became more prominent in fiction (with trans-only publisher Topside Press issuing novels and short stories by Imogen Binnie, Casey Platt and others, which presented transition and other trans-specific experiences as part of the tapestry of their narratives, rather than narrowly focusing on them), poetry (varying from neo-Classical poet Roz Kaveney to left-wing avant-gardists such as Nat Raha or Verity Spott), pop music (ranging from Laura Jane Grace of punk band Against Me! to electro-pop artist Sophie) and other cultural areas, expressing themselves across an unprecedented variety of genres and forms.
It was in this context that I published Trans: A Memoir in 2015, a book that built on my Guardian blog A Transgender Journey (2010-12). I wanted to place that series’ narrow focus on the gender reassignment process within the wider context of my pre- and post-transitional relationship with my gender identity. It encompassed my discovery of the trans theory published during the 1990s, unknown to me at the time, and how I saw trans people represented in mainstream media, and the successes and failures of my attempts to work within that media to improve this representation.
In the five years between my first Guardian post and my book, much had changed. In May 2014, Time magazine put Orange is the New Black actor Laverne Cox – one of the first openly trans women to play a leading role in a popular film or series – on its cover, announcing a ‘Transgender Tipping Point’ for cultural visibility and civil rights. In the US, this was followed by a Vanity Fair special edition on Trans America in August 2015 (its title nodding back to the flawed but culturally significant film Transamerica, released a decade earlier with cisgender actor Felicity Huffmann playing a transsexual woman) and, in Britain, a landmark piece in the London Review of Books in May 2016 by Jacqueline Rose, a prominent writer known for her interests in psychoanalysis, feminism and literature
This new visibility proved to be a double-edged sword. Sweeping through several important legal decisions (from the decision to annul transsexual model/actor April Ashley’s marriage to Lord Arthur Corbett in 1970 to the passage of the Gender Recognition Act in 2004), numerous transition memoirs and theoretical texts, as well as government reports on transgender equality, Rose concluded that while trans people are ‘brilliant at telling their stories,’ their visibility was not sufficient to secure legal reforms or wider acceptance. Indeed, being more visible brought a different set of problems, as transphobes learned more about the people they hated, and how to hurt us.
For all the trans community’s lucid, frank self-narration, Rose identified one key elision: sex. Not the discussion of physical sex, or the exploration of the space between ‘one pole of sexual experience [and] the other,’ but sexual desire and intercourse. (I have many frustrations with how badly the English language copes with trans experiences but having just one word to cover those two things, with all the resultant confusion, is one of my largest.) One notable exception to this, argued Rose, was Kate Bornstein, both in Gender Outlaw and in her more recent memoir, A Queer and Pleasant Danger: The True Story of a Nice Jewish Boy Who Joins the Church of Scientology and Leaves Twelve Years Later to Become the Lovely Lady She is Today (2013). This felt like a transitional text between the second and third waves: written by one of the most prominent and provocative of the 1990s trans authors, it brought Bornstein’s personal exploration of gender issues into a wider narrative rather than making them the narrow focus of either a memoir or a theoretical work. Even more than her previous books, A Queer and Pleasant Danger also featured plenty of discussions of sex, including a long BDSM interlude that Bornstein invites readers to skip if it might prove too much for them, it cut against the consistent pressure on trans people not to talk about sex.
I have written, in Trans and elsewhere, about a particular double-bind for trans women who want to express, let alone explore, their sexual desires. Those who ‘pass’ for cisgender women can become fetish objects for heterosexual men, turned on by the idea of a woman who has, or used to have, a penis. Rose’s LRB piece opens with an anecdote about a man who ‘took pleasure in regaling us with stories of the male-to-female transsexual prostitutes’ he met in Berlin, ‘and how difficult it was to ‘complete’ the transaction since the transsexual body interprets the surgically created vagina as a wound which it tries to close.’ (Post-operative transsexual women must dilate, three times a day for the first months after their lower surgery and thereafter with decreasing frequency; it was after ten weeks of this that I realised I had a working clitoris, feeling stimulated by contact with the Perspex dilator.)
Those who don’t ‘pass’ are frequently ridiculed – often, as I found, on the street – with the idea that they could never be sexually attractive to anyone being a central plank of that derision. The most dangerous thing, in my experience, was an encounter during which I ceased to ‘pass’. One time, a man accosted me when I’d ill-advisedly walked down a dimly-lit alley at night, grabbed my face and kissed me, and then asked: ‘Are you a boy or a girl?’ I walked off, intensely relieved that all he did was yell, ‘Can I stick my dick inside you?’ It was only when I got home that I realised that, at that point, all bets about how he might react were off.
I want to say that we should refuse to be cowed by this prejudice, but I know how difficult it is to write openly about sex and sexuality, in a climate where, at least until very recently, any individual’s words or actions become burdened with the representation of the entire community. While I feel like this burden has now been shared across the sheer number of trans people who have broken into mainstream culture, this difficulty has long been intensified by the second wave feminist movement’s aspects not just of transphobia but also of opposition to BDSM, which casts people who want to transition, or otherwise move beyond the categories of ‘male’ and ‘female’, and people who want to engage in sadomasochistic practices as dupes of the patriarchy, reproducing internalised misogyny.
In my memoir, I wrote of several occasions when I was sexually assaulted to show the level of transmisogyny (as Serano named it in Whipping Girl) that I faced, but I barely mentioned any consensual, pleasurable sex. I used an anecdote in my first draft about a trip to a fetish club in Brighton in 2006, where I switched from bottom to top, playing with cis and trans women, experimenting with flagellation and bondage, drawn almost verbatim from my diary. Trans had few scenes about sex and fewer about long-term relationships; inspired by Bornstein, I wanted to bring in my sexual desires, which had been marginalised and stigmatised as much as my gender identity, often by the same people. Immediately, my fears about publishing doubled, and I was relieved when my editor cut it as it didn’t fit my overarching narrative about retaining jobs, friendships and family ties after I came out as transsexual. The evenings of sexual experimentation did not lead to deeper relationships and so were deemed irrelevant. The taboo I broke instead was to talk about my lifelong depression. Avoiding the pressure to present myself as a happy, perfectly-adjusted person in the face of stereotypes that cast us as miserable and broken, I opted for placing my mental health issues, and my difficulty in sustaining a conventional relationship, within the context of late capitalist society.
The most loving sex scene in Trans: A Memoir is in the first half of the book, dealing with my pre-transitional life of presenting as a man. (I felt that transsexual life stories did not always make enough of how their authors managed their assigned genders, physically or psychologically, and I’d had no space for this in my Guardian series.) Aged 22, I was seeing a man in Brighton, who I’d met through an amateur theatre production. He noticed my chipped nail varnish and offered to fix it; then he put me in a black dress, false eyelashes and blonde wig, did my make-up, took some photos and then fucked me. I had not experienced such a visceral rush of energy – such a sensation of a fundamental part of me being unlocked, that I would never adequately be able to capture in language – since I first wore women’s clothes, aged ten. Then, I was floored by a huge rush of energy, undeniably sexual but, as I instinctively knew, significant of something beyond erotic desire and beyond language.
Excited, I would wear make-up and women’s underwear when I wanted to feel attractive – but soon found this was not attractive to him. We stopped seeing each other, and then I had a brief romance with another guy who dumped me during sex because he found my feminine self-presentation unappealing. At this point, I had to admit to myself that I was not a gay man – a label I’d adopted during my teens, hoping that for my family and friends, it would account for any behaviour that wasn’t ‘straight’ – and that I needed to think more seriously about my gender identity before I could be clear about my sexual orientation. This led me onto the ‘journey’ at the core of Trans: A Memoir, into publicly presenting as a woman, following the NHS gender reassignment pathway to hormones and surgery, and identifying as queer – someone who is sexually attracted to men, women and anything between or beyond those categories.
Thirty years after Stone’s manifesto was first published, and with nearly a century of writing by trans-identified authors behind us, I feel like the possibilities for écriture trans (and, from my perspective, écriture trans-féminine) are more open than ever before. It feels now like it is equally valid to aim our texts either at trans people, or at outsiders, or to search for some place in-between. (In interviews, I always said Trans: A Memoir was aimed at people who were just starting to work out their trans identities, and sympathetic outsiders who wanted to understand more about our lives, than for people who were already immersed in trans discourses.) The rise of so many trans and/or non-binary people working in so many forms surely means that we can build on the works not just of Bornstein, Califia or Feinberg, but also emerging authors such as Andrea Long Chu or Paris Lees, who have talked extensively about how sex and sexuality intersect with trans bodies and identities – and we now have our own publishers and journals to further conversations that cannot (or should not) yet be taken out of our community.
As the content and form of trans writing evolves, so the need to write in the theory/memoir dichotomy, or to have a ‘debate’ set by hostile outsiders should diminish. The current strategy has been to appeal to medical or media gatekeepers to prioritise trans/non-binary voices rather than keep us in an endless argument with people who feel we should not be allowed to exist. Instead, I think we can hope to see more of us writing poetry, plays and fiction, making music and radio or television programmes, art and films, or even creating new genres as readily as we have created new genders. To examine the ways in which being trans or non-binary complicates or changes a whole range of experiences means no longer excluding the reality of sex and sexuality from the picture; incorporating it into an expanded écriture trans may help us to overcome any fear of transphobic detractors, and take the creativity unleashed by Cixous, Stone and others into unprecedented places. Through this, we might even realise the French equivalent of the English ‘transgender’ and become truly trans-genre.
Juliet Jacques is a writer and filmmaker based in London. Her most recent book was Trans: A Memoir (Verso, 2015); her latest short film, You Will Be Free (2017), has screened in galleries and festival worldwide. Her short fiction, essays and journalism have appeared in Granta, Frieze, Wire, Sight & Sound, The Guardian, New York Times, London Review of Books and many other publications.