Maggie Nelson on Explaining the Spectrum of Transgender Identity

Earlier this week, for National Coming Out Day, comic actor Julie Novak performed her “one-person show,” “America’s Next Top: One Top’s Take on Life, Love, Tools and Boxes,” off-Broadway at the United Solo Festival. The show offers a funny, eye-opening take on something that has been a source of pain and discomfort, mostly in her early life: her identity as a “gender variant.” Neither all woman nor all man, Novak sometimes jokes that she is a “Sir? Ma’am? Sir?” as one confused dude at Ponderosa Steak House addressed her one evening when she was in her twenties. Novak’s piece brought to mind Maggie Nelson’s meditation on the spectrum of “trans” gender identities, her partner Harry Dodge’s included, in her excellent memoir, The Argonauts:

How to explain—“trans” may work well enough as shorthand, but the quickly developing mainstream narrative it evokes (“born in the wrong body,” necessitating an orthopedic pilgrimage between two fixed destinations) is useless for some—but partially or even profoundly useful for others? That for some, “transitioning” may mean leaving one gender entirely behind, while for others—like Harry, who is happy to identify as a butch on T—it doesn’t? How to explain, in a culture frantic for resolution, that sometimes the shit stays messy?…

…How to explain that for some, or for some at some times, this irresolution is OK—desirable, even (e.g., “gender hackers”)—whereas for others, or for others at some times, it stays a source of conflict or grief. How does one get across the fact that the best way to find out how people feel about their gender or their sexuality—or anything else, really—is to listen to what they tell you, and to treat them accordingly, without shellacking over their version of reality with yours.

You can also read a full excerpt from Nelson’s book here on Longreads.

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