The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2021

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MAY 2021 Issue
Editor's Message

On trans | fem | endurance

“One of the arts of enduring is to pay attention to what you can do as well as what you can’t.”

Portrait of McKenzie Wark, pencil on paper by Phong H. Bui
Portrait of McKenzie Wark, pencil on paper by Phong H. Bui

The year before COVID-19 arrived in New York, I felt like I was finally getting to live my life. I’d come out as a transsexual woman, gone on hormones, made a few other changes, big and small. I was enjoying being out in the world.

All that stopped. My world shrank down to the apartment. Living in northern Queens, the sirens rang out constantly, day and night, on the way to Elmhurst Hospital. I longed to be back in the world I had only just started to make for myself. The bittersweet world of prickly pleasures and arcane dramas of transsexual New York.

The material conditions that made my transition relatively painless also made living with COVID relatively safe. I came out of a white middle class family and made another one. I don’t want to complain about transition, either. I have health insurance. Sure, I’ve been threatened and harassed out in the world, but being an older woman I’m mostly ignored. Being white, whether I like it or not, is protection.

Allow me just one complaint: coming out in my 50s means that only a very short part of my life will be lived as a woman. This woman I became—she’s going to die young. Because she let someone else live in her place for so long.

When I was about 18, I met what I recognized as trans women for the first time. I recognized something in them that was in me, dormant, the germ of something. Whatever that thing was, I fled from it. I fled into ambition, and into periodic bouts of extreme living, of intense sensation. Into obliterating myself from having to be in the world. Through writing, or getting as high as fuck and dancing ’til dawn, or other intensities that lets one not be.

My desire for non-existence was for temporary relief from the world only. I wanted to live because of a third vector of escape: into the future. The dream that another world is possible kept me alive. Queer shoulder to the wheel, but not as an organizer. I’m just way too disorganized for that.

Sometimes I think about those trans women I met when I was 18. It is very likely that they are dead now. The world very clearly wanted them dead. I was selfish about life. I was not going to let the world kill me. I would endure by hiding whatever would mark me too much to get on with it.

The cops and psychiatrists—those other cops—get a hard-on for finding ways to classify us. But I think there are only two kinds of trans people: those who can hide it and those who can’t. I could, and did, even from myself. It’s an art.

And then finally I was done hiding, and was out, and in the world. Then COVID took that world away. Took away one of very few precious years I was going to get to be in the world as a woman. Which, as a thing to lose, is nothing compared to losing your life.

I had far less to endure but I still had to find a way to endure it. What helped me endure was art. The art of other trans women. I had found myself as a trans woman through art, and I’d get through the pandemic with art too. Art about being, about enduring.

It’s not as if there’s a singular trans | fem | aesthetic. To me this is sort of how art works. It’s about making singular things in the world. You can group those singular things together, if you like, but if they are art, they stay pretty different from each other. What’s interesting is their differences.

When I was asked to edit the Critics Page for the Brooklyn Rail, I wanted to ask about trans | fem | endurance. Which is also to ask about art. The art of living in a world that is not ours.

It’s a given that I would think about what “trans” could be and what “fem” could be in very broad and inclusive ways. Trans politics is often about coming up with a consensus definition to advance a common cause. Trans aesthetics, while hardly innocent of politics, is different. It can be a space to think and feel otherwise. It’s less “us versus them” and more “this and that.”

I wanted to put Black trans women and trans women of color at the center of these pages, and show what a range of forms and expressions there might be when that’s most of the work on display, not just a margin to it. I wanted writing from trans women working in forms that are already valued as high art, like the novel, but also artists who don’t. Whose materials and forms might be marginalized by what we think art is supposed to be—a marginalization that is also racialized. I wanted to include scholarship as one of those arts, because to me that’s what it is.

Mostly, I wanted an excuse to reach out to trans women I only knew through their work and through social media and offer a little space (and a little money) to write. To write about enduring, in whatever way they chose. Whether that be by talking about their own circumstances, as we head for what is hopefully a slightly better summer than the last. Or through offering a piece of the work that is itself what endures.

Enduring wasn’t so hard for me. But that’s not typical of trans experience. I lost someone during the pandemic. Someone who chose not to endure anymore. I know a lot of trans people who could endure before COVID because they found ways in which the grounding human needs for touch, for love, for sensual being with another, could be distributed, could be social. Could exist outside coupledom and family—ways of life from which many trans people are excluded. But even at the best of times, the solitude can be unbearable. The solace of art can be less than enough.

David Levi Strauss remarks in Between Dog and Wolf (1999) that in ancient times, before there were anesthetics for pain, there was just aesthetics. Art (aesthetics, form of sensation) could give form to pain, but not take the sensation away (an-esthetic, to not feel). It’s not hard in New York to score what sometimes seems like the trans anesthetic of choice, dissociation in powdered form—ketamine. But it doesn’t last. On the other side of the k-hole is still the world that doesn’t want us.

Which leaves us, like the ancients, with enduring through art. I couldn’t go to queer raves anymore, but I could play Jasmine Infiniti and dance in my kitchen. I couldn’t go to queer bars anymore, but I could play Torraine Futurum while talking to a sister on the phone. I couldn’t go to anyone’s openings, but there were auctions. I bought pictures by Jesse Pratt López and Lia Clay Miller. Art by trans women I’ve never met at least brought to my senses fragments of creative lives being lived somewhere, parallel to my own.

We have to talk about how segregated trans life is. And not just in the ways the rest of America is, not just in the ways the rest of the Atlantic world is, the world that slavery made. We have to talk about how trans women are sexualized, become objects of secret desires, and how race multiplies how disposable trans lives are when those who do the desiring find trans existence inconvenient. Race, as Ruth Gilmore puts it in Golden Gulag, is an uneven distribution of early death.

One of the arts of enduring is to pay attention to what you can do as well as what you can’t. I was depressed about the loss of being in community, but then there was mutual aid. It’s nothing new if you are trans. We’re used to showing up to support each other through surgery recoveries. The practice of it seemed to catch on, which is good, as we’ll need it as this civilization crumbles all around us.

There’s community with a function, like a culture, and there’s community without one, like an art. Like the para-social world of trans Twitter. That place is a hellsite, extorting rent out of our desire for social being, exploiting not our labor but our communism—what we give each other freely. Not everyone practices the art of it at all well. And for some of us it’s dangerous. Say one too-candid thing and the cis mob descends, screaming about how they want to fuck you or kill you—or both. And then there’s “The Discourse,” where trans people bicker at each other, with its nitpicking politics. But still, with some careful curation, there’s a simulacrum of community to be found there, particularly when our locked alt-accounts get talking to each other.

I’m witty enough for Twitter, but not pretty enough for Instagram, but I have “Close Friends” there too, with whom to share stories that the world need not always see. Big love for the social media artistry of trans girls! And sometimes that is the window into their other work: their writing, their music, their street actions. Everyone in this Critics Page I first knew or knew of through Twitter or Insta.

And for what it’s worth, the COVID year might have been trans Twitter’s Algonquin Round Table period. And with nowhere to go, the dolls had to share their hot looks on Insta—to entice you to their OnlyFans. There should be a Norton Anthology of Trans Twitter and an International Center of Photography show of trans Insta. Maybe those social media are the forms where our best work is, besides OnlyFans, of course, home of trans cinema.

In the past, and in some cultures to this day—we’re sacred. Different, yes, but where that difference isn’t regarded as a danger or a joke. We’ve been back to the matrix from whence form comes and come back as something else. We show what’s possible, with being, and being in the world. And sometimes our art has a little of that shape-shifting power. A world that’s burning and turning upside-down might need a little of that, to endure.


McKenzie Wark

McKenzie Wark is the author, among other things, of Reverse Cowgirl (Semiotext(e), 2019).


The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2021

All Issues