Poetics of Gender Self-Determination

Children are metaphors, Jules Gill-Peterson contends in Histories of the Transgender Child. In the nineteenth century, amid rapid transformations in medicine and the life sciences, the child became a metaphor for “sex’s plasticity as an abstract form of whiteness.” Endocrinology called upon the figure of the child as a “stabilizing metaphor” that gave a form of its own to the capacity to generate and receive imprints of form. Instead of projecting a progressive politics onto plasticity, Gill-Peterson underscores the concept’s disenfranchising effects. The self-knowledge of trans children of color has been dismissed, for instance, due to their alleged failure to meet standards of plasticity qua whiteness.

The child’s status as a metaphor for plasticity doesn’t make this child any less of a material reality. Gill-Peterson enlists Carolyn Steedman to get this point across. In her book Strange Dislocations, Steedman explains that nineteenth-century life sciences treated the child as a living “personification.” Science indeed used “living bodies as expressions” of abstract ideas. In this context, the child managed the tension between form and indeterminacy brought about by sex’s plasticity—a tension that has been kept alive, for more than a century, through the medicalization of actual children. Children, in particular intersex and trans children, became the palimpsests onto which gender’s origin story has been written and rewritten. To grow up, as the teleology goes, is to grow out of plasticity and into the gender binary.

In its second half, Histories of the Transgender Child devotes itself to case studies that display the use of people as living laboratories for the invention of gender. Gill-Peterson highlights passages in archival documents where individuals, in majority trans, demonstrate extensive knowledge of the medical system they navigate. I do not read these passages as efforts on the author’s part to restore agency to subordinated subjects from the past. Such a project would reproduce the instrumentalization of these subjects, in so far as its only measurable outcome would be to appease a contemporary conscience. In my view, Gill-Peterson draws attention to glitches that have been hidden in plain sight in medicine’s paternalistic treatment of patients as malleable beings incapable of self-reflection.

Of the psychologist and sexologist John Money’s assertion that “‘it is impossible to undo the work of nature,’” Gill Peterson writes: “Much of this characterization of transition and surgery was simply medically inaccurate, and it’s likely that many of the patients to whom Money sent this letter knew that.” Elsewhere, Gill-Peterson tells the story of a trans girl from San Diego who wrote to the endocrinologist and sexologist Harry Benjamin after the Gender Identity Clinic at Johns Hopkins instructed her to come back at age twenty-one: “‘This isn’t something I have thought up overnight,’” the girl contends. In yet another passage, which I quote at length, Gill-Peterson foregrounds the endocrinological literacy of two minors:

Puberty was often a trigger for seeking out a doctor’s opinion. One seventeen-year-old trans girl wrote Benjamin of a “further need for urgency in my case,” related to her rapidly increasing height. Already six feet one inch tall, she surmised that “I think it will be great [to be] that size as a girl,” but that “the problem is that I’m still growing” and “life as a 6’5” girl would be terrible.” Seemingly well versed in the logic of endocrine therapies, she added, “I understand that growth can be stopped with hormones. In that case, my treatment and growth can be controlled simultaneously. This can only be done if I start now.” A sixteen-year-old trans girl from upstate New York likewise explained to Benjamin that androgen was something like an alien presence within her body, that she had become “extremely frustrated and humiliated by the hair that’s getting thicker and darker on my body, by my voice that’s getting deeper with every word I say; with my rough, acned skin. With every new day that androgen runs through my veins, I get more miserable. It has to stop! Androgen just isn’t me; estrogen is!”

This last individual casts androgen as a monstrosity that depletes the body it occupies. She affirms her female identity by rejecting one synecdoche and adopting another. This case hints at a poetics of gender self-determination. The statement, “Androgen just isn’t me; estrogen is,” gives us an opportunity to consider both the capture and the release of bodies within the project of gender as largely figural processes.

Let’s turn to a case study of a different kind: CAConrad’s self-described “(soma)tic” rituals and poems. Conrad is a United States-based poet whose writing is associated with ecopoetics, the avant-gardes, and New Age. The poetry collections A Beautiful Marsupial Afternoon: New (Soma)tics (2012), Ecodeviance: (Soma)tics for the Future Wilderness (2014), and While Standing in Line for Death (2017) juxtapose protocols for rituals and their related poems. “(Soma)tic” rituals intensify sensation and perception. In a ritual, Conrad writes, “the many facets of what is around me wherever I am can come together through a sharper lens.” The objective of the rituals is to develop self-knowledge through the experience of brutal forces like capitalism, homophobia, transphobia, and misogyny. Conrad explains, “I cannot stress enough how much this mechanistic world, as it becomes more and more efficient, resulting in ever increasing brutality, has required me to find my body to find my planet in order to find my poetry.”

In an effort to find their body, Conrad sets out to reencounter themself and their gender identity under new terms. In a ritual designed for a poetry workshop held in New York City in 2008, deep breaths of fresh air and the smell of rosemary generate conditions for imagining embodiment otherwise. A paragraph titled “ROSEMARY BETWEEN THE GENDERS” reads,

Before sniffing the rosemary take some notes about your gender, or write about your feelings and ideas about gender in general. Take those initial notes to break open space in yourself for gender. Then take a few deep breaths of fresh air, then squeeze the leaves of the rosemary to release the oils and take a nice deep breath. Now, imagine yourself a different gender. What do you feel when you imagine this? What are your hands like? Your feet? How are you walking as this Other? What name would you like to have as this Other? Take another deep breath of your rosemary and say that name out loud to yourself. Really get inside this Other you.

In another ritual, “GENDER CONTINUUM,” Conrad pairs reflexology and craniosacral treatments with a meditation during which they mull over “seven possible genders for [their body], intersex intersecting day to day.” The poem that follows, titled “STARTING TO START HEALING,” induces difference within the speaker’s I, which in turn kick-starts a dialogue between the different personae accommodated by this I:

Yet another ritual, “M.I.A. ESCALATOR,” supplies a few tools for interpreting the liquid imagery of the poem excerpted above. In “M.I.A. ESCALATOR,” Conrad searches for a female self who “died” when at birth they were gendered as male. To reacquaint themself with a lost alter ego, they show a photograph of themself at either end of one of their favorite escalators in Philadelphia and ask strangers, “‘excuse me, have you seen this person?’ Sometimes there [is] confusion, ‘isn’t that you?’” Conrad responds, “‘No, many people think I look like her, but have you seen her?’” They walk us through the reasoning that inspired the ritual:

I feel very fortunate to have been born before the ultrasound machine. My generation was the last generation to have a male and female name waiting at the other end of the birth canal. My generation is the last to have our mothers touch their bellies talking to us as male and female. Pink or blue?

Both pink and blue, “Have you seen this person?”

Conrad’s privileged subject of gender self-determination is not the adult or the child, but the fetus. The poet conjures the womb prior to ultrasound technology—a miniature Atlantis—as a site of pleasurable gender incoherence. In the womb, various genders enter in relation with each other, deforming an external imposition of gender identity that at least, at that stage, entertains a pair of options.

The speaker of the phrase, “Androgen just isn’t me; estrogen is,” locates her identity in estrogen so as to narrate hormonal therapy as her chance to become-herself—to stabilize by incorporating a self from whom she has been separated. In Conrad’s poetry, by contrast, to determine one’s gender is to revel in indeterminacy. Smelling rosemary, a process through which they internalize external matter, ignites open-ended speculation about the differently gendered others who occupy a space they have broken open in their body. Likewise, Conrad’s fetal utopia imagines gender self-determination as a suspension of the teleological narrative in which to grow up is to grow into the gender binary.

In Gill-Peterson’s archive and in Conrad’s writings, poetic strategies are mobilized to induce difference in, or disrupt the self-identicality of, the I at the source of claims of gender self-determination. If I am to be androgen or estrogen or neither or both, then I am not entirely myself. Gender self-determination doesn’t designate an immediate self-access that cuts through the metaphors that medicine relentlessly piles on the bodies of children, trans folks, intersex folks, and other disenfranchised people. Put differently, gender self-determination doesn’t afford individuals a more immediate, or less mediated, access to their body than the metaphor of plasticity that has enlisted the child as its representative. Gender self-determination demands alternative practices of mediation. For better or for worse, it demands different figurations: more synecdoches, more metaphors.

Jean-Thomas Tremblay is Assistant Professor of English at New Mexico State University. They are completing Breathing Aesthetics, a study of the role of breathing in contemporary aesthetic responses to the uneven distribution of vitality and risk. An excerpt from this project, on the respiratory rituals of Black and Indigenous ecofeminisms, is forthcoming in differences.

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