Queer Culture in the Age of Transgender Disruption
How the transgender community maintains the radical potential of queerness in an age of assimilation.
Illustration by Kelsey Wroten
A few days after last summer's shooting at Orlando's Pulse nightclub, I was at a nearby club called Southern Nights when a girl named Adriana—ample-cheeked, glowing in blacklight—sat next to me on an out-of-the-way couch and asked why I was alone. I told her I'd come from New York to write a story but didn't know anyone there. She said she was from Puerto Rico and knew friends of people who died. "They might try to kill us, but we won't let them take away our heart," she said with glossy eyes.
Grief and desire have a peculiar way of dovetailing, and I was overcome with a desire to kiss her as we continued talking. When she gave me her number with a mutual promise to keep in touch, I wondered what she would make of the fact that I've been queer forever, but that I began that journey as a gay man, then spent life post-transition as a straight woman before she found me. In that moment, we queered each other; she continued to expand my idea of who I could desire, and when she later came to discover I was trans, I imagine that I expanded hers in turn, rendering each of us queerer than before we'd met.
What does it mean to be queer at a time when trans people are throwing the concept of gender into revolt? The word was once associated with gays and lesbians—and sometimes bisexuals—but now encompasses nearly everyone who doesn't identify as straight and cisgender. Because the trans community is still in need of political recognition, some have insisted that our genders be read according to established definitions. But the deeper truth is that by the very nature of our lives, our genders are necessarily distinct from those of cis people. We may be men and women, though some of us are neither or both, but we are not the same men and women as our cisgender counterparts. In that difference, however, lies radical potential: our power to disrupt homonormativity, both within queer culture and the world at large.
That divide—between those who think trans people should be recognized within the traditional gender binary, and those who would dismiss that binary altogether—is not unlike the debate that surrounded the early gay marriage movement. Though the reaction to last year's Obergefell victory was celebratory, at the outset of that fight figures within the gay and lesbian community adamantly warned us that gay marriage represented a form of assimilation, maintaining that it counteracted the spirit of rebellion at the very heart of what it means to be queer. Others argued that gay marriage would change the core of the institution itself (and culture more broadly) for the better.
We may be men and women—though some of us are neither or both—but we are not the same men and women as our cisgender counterparts.
What the ability to marry has done for gay people is open for debate, but from the perspective of many trans people, including myself, it has certainly allowed a large number of gays and lesbians to distance themselves from the broader queer rights movement. With the right to wed came a belief among some that the battle for queer acceptability had been won, leaving many marginalized groups under the LGBTQ umbrella to continue the fight on their own. Put another way, many gay people—especially white gay people—have begun to live lives that are not dissimilar from their straight counterparts, interacting with and modeling themselves chiefly after their own kind with little regard for their former allies in the queer community.
In some ways, I get the desire to become "normal"—to cut the many-layered cake and be sanctified by one's church, to ascend to the pantheon of cultural images and associations one never thought they would have access to. It's not so different from my own realization one morning, a few months after medical transition, that I was no longer the scrawny, niche twink I had been a couple years prior, but a waif with long blonde hair and what guys in bars call "exotic" good looks. To complete that move, from rebellious queer to normalized ideal, I only had to begin to live and act as my gender, as I saw it and as others began to see it: a cisgender heterosexual woman, indistinguishable from other women.
Some trans people justify that sensation by saying they were never meant to be their birth gender to begin with, that one's pre-transition life is something to be forgotten. But for me, the power of being transgender lies not in the idea that I was always meant to be like everyone else, but precisely the ways in which I will never be like other people.
At a time when many queers have signaled their desire for mainstream acceptability, it has been trans people who have carried forth the mantle of radical queerness, both personally and politically. We queer those formerly "straight" people who desire us, something I am proud to say I've done to varying degrees with every straight, cis man I've dated. We queer them when we transition, too, as when a friend dating a trans man at the start of his transition recently looked at me with a quizzical expression and said "I guess I'm queer now." It was the moment he realized that soon others would assume he had a queer history he hasn't actually lived, or began living at the moment his partner came out.
Most importantly, we have queered gays and lesbians who might otherwise be queer in name only, those who subscribe to heteronormative values, by having them as friends and lovers. When they find themselves attracted to those of us who present as gender-nonbinary, it invites them to question the meaning of their sexuality. And we challenge their desires when we reveal to them that we once presented as the gender they're not "supposed" to be attracted to.
More than this, many trans people, through the process of questioning our own gender, end up also questioning both our sexuality and how we present our genders, recognizing that these too have been shaped by social forces. I wouldn't have known I could be attracted to people other than cisgender men had my gender transition not allowed me to realize the ways society has conditioned my desires. I wouldn't have realized how much of a trap embodying a feminine ideal can be until I moved through the world as a presumed cis woman, and have now found myself favoring a gender-neutral presentation.
...If we queer people look and act like straight people, maybe they won't notice we're different, or at least they'll leave us alone.
Yet somehow, the queer mainstream has been largely oblivious to these textured realities, because its political objectives have evolved over the past few decades from wanting nothing to do with straight people to increasingly looking and acting just like them. They're boring themselves in the process. The most visible queer and trans celebrities today—whether the white gay man, married with kids, or the trans woman you can't tell is trans, thereby rendering any man she dates absolutely straight—demonstrate that dominant queer culture is no longer driven by its rebellion from straight culture, but rather by its assimilation with it. What began as a celebration of our difference has, through the celebrities we elevate and the stories we tell, boiled down to the idea that if we queer people look and act like straight people, maybe they won't notice we're different, or at least they'll leave us alone.
But the election of Donald Trump has forcibly brought queer culture to a crossroads. Moving forward, those of us who have the privilege and stomach may allow themselves to further assimilate into a dominant culture that is increasingly unfriendly toward other queer people, many of whom are trans, people or color, or both. But they must also ask themselves if by doing so they sacrifice what I see as the heart of what it means to be queer: the sense that one's fundamental desires are not what the world expects or wants. My hope is that this soul searching will result in the rebirth of a queer culture with rebellion, fortitude, and uncompromised liberation that will test the boundaries of sexuality, freedom, and creativity.
That's where the party's at for me and my trans and nonbinary folks, along with those queer folks who respect and love us. If you haven't yet, come dance with us, and maybe find your old self in the process.
This article is part of the VICE series The New Queer. Read the rest of the package here.