Love is Personal; we create it. Violence is Cultural; we’re vectors.

Elle and Lauren

This is a story about people doing their best. Like we all are.

Elle and Lauren

Elloise (Elle) is a drummer in a band and has been messing with gender presentation on stage for years. She and her girlfriend (Lauren) generously allow us into their journey from the point at which Elle realises that she’s not a genderqueer boy at all, but a transgender woman. A film crew follow them for six years and a rare documentary results.

As Elle peels her mask away, she considers the realities of social, medical, and legal transition. After two years of vacillating, she grabs the reins and begins. Lauren supports her emotionally and financially — a thankless role. Elle’s mother loves her like only a mother can, and her bandmates show immense patience. Well, this is one version. It’s a neat bunch of tropes with only one problem. They don’t add up.

A Trans window

I am a trans woman and, watching Elle absorb everybody’s discomfort, I feel anger. The people around her are twitching like fleas and “The trans woman is being weird/depressed/self-involved” doesn’t account for their discomfort. In addition to Elle’s distress, I notice a cluster of unconscious cultural assumptions wreaking cruel havoc on loving relationships and particularly upon Elloise. I see characters unaware of the gender myths living in their psyches and angry with their loved one in an unutterable way — Elle is holding a up a mirror to those myths.

Elle’s loved ones can’t seem to separate their own gender-nonsense from the transitioning person in front of them. It’s hard to love someone who’s very appearance calls out your culture. Elle’s loved ones display a deep, moving desire to do so. This documentary’s surface tension is Elloise’s struggle with transition, and others’ struggle with her journey. Beneath that, subliminal, this is a struggle to love through violence. The “violence” is of a kind we refuse to name. I hope I can give it a name here.

We all have a mask or two. If you took yours off, what would it cost you? Family? Friends? Employment? Medical care? Housing? Having worn four elaborate ones for most of my life, and removed them all rapidly, I can attest that the one made of gender is a doozy. When I took it off, people properly glitched: Their language malfunctioned. They grimaced a lot. People find socially acceptable ways to glitch, so unless you’re actually trans (and particularly trans-feminine) and you get to watch the show from there, much of this will pass under your radar. Here are a few examples of how people’s programs fall apart when a loved one transitions:

Grief

Although grief is complex it is sometimes imagined as five linear stages. Loved ones performed all five of these, sometimes right at me.

  • They employed denial, sometimes for years: “Oh {deadname}, he’s a woman now”.
  • They bargained about my body: “Oh but you won’t have that surgery will you?”. Nobody with lived experience of misogyny is unacquainted with this particular softening of the patriarchal brain.
  • It’s no longer chic to bash and incarcerate us trannies, so their anger and legislative violence comes out sideways; “For the children’s sake can’t we keep trans identities away from schools?” or, as a friend assayed early in my transition, “we have to retain assignments at birth on changed birth certificates for the sake of the sociologists — their research would be hampered without that information.” (…on a birth certificate!?) Nope. I’m not kidding.
  • Eventually glitchers who were close to us before transition achieve depression, wherein they mourn our prison — our former identity — right at us. They expect us to mop their tears while they perform lyrical nostalgia about our most miserable years. (That’s hard for us trannies because we’re so self-centered)
  • I’m yet to find out how they behave when they reach acceptance. I yeeted all those who did this stuff at me, so I may never know.
Really tho

When our cultural assumptions are unconscious, and someone is silently challenging them, an unconscious battle ensues. Our cultural selves fight with the weirdo and we don’t even know it’s going on. We’re just jolted this way and that, distressed, looking for someone to blame. Guess who cops it. A most curious phenomenon of this type is when the griever blames the transitioner for the murder of their friend. This notion’s absurdity renders it inadmissible and unspeakable. So the anger comes out, as I mentioned, sideways.

An alternative to grief

Of course, when someone fundamentally understands that the mask was just that — a costume — they skip grief entirely. They see the liberated person before them with delight, with gratitude. An incredible ride ensues; celebration and a share in the riches discovered by their very own gendernaut. I’m purposely a bit glib about how easy this is. Something more is needed, beyond just noticing the mask. This documentary poignantly demonstrates what the extra requirement is.

Curiosity

As Elle peels her mask away, she ushers Lauren to her psyche’s basement — Lauren’s basement that is, not Elle’s. Compulsory heterosexuality is living down there and has Lauren’s sapphic joy locked away in a dusty box. Elle opens the box and she and Lauren look around, safely, beautifully, magically. I mean, we don’t go to bed with them in the doco, but they both hint at what a liberation this is. They grow together. Compulsory monogamy is lurking too. They open the shutters on it together. Lauren’s romantic and sexual self expands. This looks like growth. And it’s portrayed as such by the documentarians. Lauren faces homophobia in the workplace, and this is hard for her. But she faces it down and grows again. This is going swimmingly, right?

Not so fast.

Growing pains and blame

A palpable element of Lauren’s growth is her resentment — not towards the bigots at her work, or towards the heteronormativity which imprisoned her, but towards her girlfriend. There’s a way in which it’s Elle’s fault that Lauren is copping homophobia (and transphobia by association) in the workplace. Lauren seems less angry with the bigot than she is with Elle. Lauren doesn’t yet have the power to squarely blame her colleagues. That power is generated by pride. And it’s hard to attain queer pride if you don’t identify as queer.

A colleague asks her why the cameras are following them around. She says “because my girlfriend is trans.” The colleague smirks and snorts and Lauren moves away from him, shaking her head. This is a terrible moment for anyone. Her colleague’s smirk is designed for plausible deniability. To call it out requires a steely resolve and utter confidence about what just happened. It’s impossible to get right unless you have been through it before, and rehearsed some strategies. Oh, or you can improvise with your immense pride and righteous indignation. But Lauren has none of these weapons yet. She just got here. She’s been wronged. And she needs to put her justifiable anger somewhere… guess where.

This is not Lauren’s fault. This is normal. This is culturally standard. This is victim blaming. This is kick-the-cat. The dynamic — the transfer of blame and the emotions involved — is subliminal: We can pretend it’s not happening. But it is. It’s not Lauren’s fault. On the contrary, Lauren is a rare angel in this space. Most partners of trans women drop the ball very early in transition, or beforehand. Lauren gives it everything.

We all possess and enact normative violence

Lauren insists that Elle be the one to propose marriage.

“Oh we’re just going to assume my gender and I’m going to do the man thing am I? Go fuck yourself.”

“Yep”

With that, the person who loves Elle enough to melt together is expecting that Elle hop back in the closet to begin their symbolic union. Lauren’s not being weird. Misgendering is everyday, default, for many transitioning people. Sometimes we even misgender ourselves. Lauren can’t simply “choose” not to enact this harm on Elle. But there’s an opportunity here, for Lauren to recognise Elle’s barely expressable boundary: Elle asks, in mock humour, “I’m going to do the man thing am I?”, but knowing her protest is forlorn, she concedes before getting an answer: “Fuck you”.

Note that the understanding of how painful this is is not shared, so Elle cannot scream, she can only feign a protest. And so Lauren follows the script, and refuses the amendment which was never really on the table. It can become, at best, exactly what it became — a joke. A major trauma, perhaps the major trauma, of Elle’s life — being misgendered — is a joke. And it’s ongoing. Here it comes from the place of greatest safety; from her fiancee. I wept. My friend watching with me is trans and they cried too. We cried together.

Interrogating the impulse to blame divergent people for our cultural demons is not just for personal growth. Resisting the practice costs divergent people their lives every day.

Cultural violence is a secret

“I’m still fulfilling a lot of the male roles and I don’t think she realises a lot of the time.”

When we are misgendered, we are reminded that we have not escaped the gender-prison that we suffered through. When we are explicitly misgendered (by deadnaming or using the wrong pronoun) we can address that. “I go by Elle now” or “my pronouns are she/her”. But when we are misgendered by inflection, by expectation, by role play, its the jangling of the warden’s keys as they walk. It’s not a “decision” by the jangler and we can’t ask for it to stop. They jangle incessantly, relentlessly. It becomes a hiss. An unaddressable hiss.

Us trans folk are often as unaware of this incessant noise as are the cis-gendered people. And back we go to the unconscious: we are burdened by this noise and so we hiss back. As is customary when we don’t know what our pain is, our anguish is expressed slowly, through a small hole, whining. And that’s hard to listen to. If we don’t find the support we need — a patient and curious ear — that pain can metastasize. Depression, self-harm, sometimes detransition. But this pain exists in a different form for loved ones too. Elle is holding a mirror, remember? The gender binary harms us all, even as we ignore it. But you can’t ignore it when your girlfriend, or daughter, or friend, is right there in your face, transitioning. Everyone needs support.

Elle’s mum had some normative demons too:

Elle: I reckon it smacked the queer into me

Elle’s Mum: You’re not queer. You’re transgender

Elle: That’s queer

Mum: No its not. Anyway don’t use the word queer

Elle: I’m a lesbian

The blood drains from mum’s face. Having hoped that Elle’s degeneracy was one of the ok ones, she stares her own bigotry in the face. Elle gifts her mother this opportunity. And we’re allowed, if we so wish, to think of Elle as burdensome, confrontational, difficult. Everything was fine before and Elle’s the only thing that’s changed around here, so…

There’s so much in this brief scene. We can puzzle at the blindsight that allows someone’s mother to get their gender right but their romantic alignment, around which this entire documentary is spinning, completely wrong. Not for a few days. But for years. Perhaps the key takeaway, however, is that it is Elle who wears the burdens of education and blame. Education — for all about gender & sexuality at the same time as she’s learning, herself, to inhabit new forms of each. And blame — for everybody’s discomfort as they stare into the mirror of their own bigotries and normativities.

Trans people violate moral norms. Namely, the immutability of gender, it’s presentation, and the binaries of both gender and sexuality. Watch people glitch as these violations stumble into their reluctant consciousness.

Couldn’t be bothered

Elle’s band mates are serving brodude disinterest throughout. Their tiredness with Elloise’s newfound “egocentrism” is in character. They have a unicorn in their band teaching them about gender, the very thing which limits them to beige. The painter of their life has a shitty palette. Technicolour arrives. And they resent the manner in which it arrives: The easy-to-digest reading is that Elle is a problem. The vibe is “Elle is pretty self-obsessed and it’s boring for these poor guys”. The viewer can eat that up and call it a day if they want.

“it just puts pressure on your relationship. I mean, you wanna hang out. But I just can’t be bothered talking about trans stuff any more.”

In the same vein, I remember my own partner, only weeks after I noticed I was trans, mocking me about how many podcasts I was listening to on the topic. “The ocean is trans” she mimicked in New Yorkese to jeer the oceanographer who was vividly demonstrating that astonishing fact. It’s easy to mistake a trans person’s special interest in gender for self-infatuation. The arresting discovery is not about ourselves, however. It’s about the water in which we’re all drowning — cis and trans alike. It’s the binary, stupid. The cissexual ocean. The work trans people do to understand it is not academic or cognitive. It is drowning and resurrection. We die to be alive. Corporeal. That’s right, on the subject of gender we’ve been to the other side. The price of entry for the cis is mere curiosity when discomfort strikes.

At the end of this documentary, we get a bouncy montage. The band members, Mum, and Lauren, are all given a space to perform generous reconciliation. And then Elle speaks:

“When I was like at the beginning of all this, all I wanted to do was to get to zero, where everybody else starts. I do feel like I’m there.

I feel like going forward, there’s no limit to what my life could be”

Exhale. Elle’s gonna be ok. Hope.

This story is more than hope. These characters, the longitude of them, demonstrates how we can learn from divergent people, rather than punishing them for holding a mirror.

The clue is in this quote from Elloise:

“the better I got, the more close to my authentic self I got, the more unhappy Lauren became.”

When you know a trans person before transition, and you find yourself grieving for their old mask, instead of: this is so hard for me, try: why am I grieving somebody who is finally alive? Really, investigate that. You will learn so much about yourself. And about your relationship to gender.

When you find a transitioning person is talking too much about gender, instead of: they’re self obsessed — boring, try: why is my capacity for this topic limited? What is limiting me?

When someone transitioning seems tetchy, or fractious about your everyday language, instead of: they’re so demanding, try: what does this language keep me from seeing?

Unpacking our psyches, particularly the parts of them imprisoned by cultural norms, makes for discomfort. Lean in. Get curious. Which brings us back to naming the violence. The violence of cultural normativity lives inside all of us. We all execute it. That’s why it’s hard to name — naming it means naming ourselves as perpetrators.

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Autistic, transexual, survivor, abolitionist, proud. Healing on Ngunnawal land @friedkrill on Instagram and Twitter

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Emma Barnes

Emma Barnes

Autistic, transexual, survivor, abolitionist, proud. Healing on Ngunnawal land @friedkrill on Instagram and Twitter

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