Trans people are in a constant state of being discovered. We have been found for the first time again and again in modern history - in the gleam of the white-white teeth of an ex-GI as she graciously took questions from the press on the tarmac at New York’s Idyllwild Airport in an event the NY Daily News misreported as “the world’s first sex change;” in between the legs of Raquel Welch’s sadistic and psychedelic turn as a gay man’s fantasy of who and what a trans woman could be; in the shared gaze of desire between gender outlaws Kate Bornstein and David Harrison on the Joan Rivers Show; in the slight shyness behind the eyes of Janet Mock sitting on a stoop as she outs herself in the pages of Marie Claire; in the elegant cross of Laverne Cox’s legs on the cover of TIME Magazine; and, indeed, in the landslide of reactions to Torrey Peters’ debut novel Detransition, Baby.
Each time, people - trans and cis alike - rush to plant the flag of the very first, to mark the significance of the moment as being unlike anything that has ever occurred before. After all, it feels good to be part of history, to be able to say “I remember where I was when…” It’s historical narcissism as intoxicant, dropping into our collective bellies like parachuting molly in the clubs we can presently only dream about, one that brings a rush of hair-tingling excitement and media fanfare, but whose unfortunate side affect is a sort of cultural amnesia. In order for trans people to be constantly discovered, we must be always and immediately cast off, forgotten.
“Ames, having explained the condition of juvenile elephants, drew this metaphor: Trans women are juvenile elephants,” Peters writes in Detransition, Baby. A “lost generation,” white trans women move through the world in a sometimes destructive haze of trauma. “We have no elders, no stable groups, no one to teach us to countenance pain.” Peters eloquently ascribes this situation as an aftereffect of the first two decades of the ongoing AIDS Crisis, as well as to a medical industrial complex that encouraged ‘post-transition’ trans people to blend into the scenery of cis society. I remember when I was transitioning nearly twenty years ago, reading contemporaneous accounts of trans people who discussed burning all of their old photos, moving to new towns, getting stealth partners, disappearing into the fabric, into the woodwork as the boys used to put it. If you were lucky enough.
No small part of my work as a public historian - alongside the similar work of artists and thinkers like Tourmaline, Zackary Drucker, and Rhys Ernst to name but a handful - has been centred around trying to reintroduce an oral history tradition back into trans communities. The constant turn over in trans communities prior to the 2010s - as prisons, HIV, suicide, neglect, and the broad spectrum of stealth life paths syphoned us away from each other - created a situation in which, fifteen years ago, few trans people outside New York could’ve told you who Sylvia Rivera was, fewer still Marsha P. Johnson. These saints’ hagiographies have now become keystones of trans conversation - you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who hadn’t at least heard of them.
Cut off from their lineage, with no one to teach the baby elephants where they came from, is it any surprise that everything must be discovered for the first time? Slowly, slowly we reconnect the threads that connect me typing at my laptop in 2021 CE London backwards in time to the cross-gender priestess of Cybele circa 420 BCE whose initiatory castration clamps were pulled from the filthy banks of the River Thames, and farther back still, winding and tumbling down thousands of years to the dawn of the written word in the fertile crescent, when the gala priestesses of Inanna, who spoke only in the women’s tongue, sang in praise of her, “To turn a man into a woman and a woman into a man are yours, Inana” nearly four thousand years ago.
Our reaction to each new time we are discovered, to the flashlight of cis society shining down under its bed, across the dust bunnies to briefly caress our plastic faces, is to shout. Half of us shout in pride, “that’s me!” A more contrarian or disappointed half, “that could never be me, the light didn’t reach far enough.” The cis hands holding the flashlight thrill at their once and forever new discarded dolls.
“Reese knows a lot of talented people,” Peters writes. “half the trans women in Brooklyn live in a state of perpetual pre-celebrity, awaiting a well-deserved recognition that will never come.”
To call Torrey’s brilliant novel the first trans novel is plainly wrong as we can see, though people have said it. We must be more specific then. The first novel by a trans person published by a major publisher? Well, that doesn’t quite work either. Indeed, the very same published put out Jordy Rosenberg’s Confessions of the Fox in 2018, and nearly anyone who is anyone read Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl by Andrea Lawlor (republished by Penguin Random House in 2019). Janet Mock’s memoir Redefining Realness debuted at #19 on the New York Times best seller list. For a year, I could hardly make it through the tube here in London without encountering at least two billboard ads for Charlie Jane Anders’ novel The City in the Middle of the Night, back when I was able to take the tube.
Spending all of this energy trying to parse whose novel came first, and thus is of most historical significance, is a sleight of hand that causes us all to forget that there are ways to critically engage literature beyond firsts. It’s fabulous marketing, but in mere months a fog will descend on our collective memory, priming the way for the next very first time to catch us in perpetual surprise. Ultimately, cis society’s obsession with trans novelty keeps us in this loop, a disservice to the work itself.
We are Sleeping Beauty, waiting for a prince whose kiss will stick this time.
Of course, the real danger of the historical narcissism of the trans first is that everything becomes a cause for celebration. It’s all well and good to celebrate the first trans TV show, the first trans mainstream American pop star, the first trans pregnant man. But then we get a taste for it. We want more. We want everything. Why stop there? Why not the first trans racist police chief? The first trans drone bomb pilot? The first trans person to singlehandedly cause ecological collapse?
It is a strong and heady substance, being the first. We chase it - for the vicarious thrill of seeing others achieve it, and for ourselves.
But there is a greater power in the tug of the lineage that connects us back through centuries. One that, if tapped, could fundamentally change the not only the artistic conditions of transness but its social condition. To realize, on a broad cultural scale, that people we call trans in this moment have existed through thousands of iterations across the world and back to before time, would make our liberation unstoppable. And perhaps, make for stronger, smarter art.