Assigned one gender at birth, we’d felt like the other since childhood. That feeling—which had nothing to do with sexual desire—grew until life in the wrong gender seemed not worth living. So we came out as trans women or trans men to loved ones and health-care providers, who gave us the courage, the hormones, and maybe the surgery to live as who we always were, and then we were fine.
That story describes many transgender lives; parts of it describe mine. It’s also a relatively easy narrative for cisgender (non-transgender) people to follow, and it’s the only one that popular culture supplied until recently. Many health-care providers required an even narrower story. Until 2011, widely accepted medical standards mandated that we prove we were really trans by living in our genuine gender for three months or more without hormones. They also stipulated that we try to look conventionally masculine or feminine, and that we not identify as gay.
Such stories exclude people whose experience of being trans has shifted over their lives. (Some regret or reverse their transitions; many more do not.) They exclude people with more complicated experiences of gender and sexuality. And they exclude nonbinary people, who live as both genders, or neither, often taking the pronouns they/them. We can hear more stories now—not only life stories, but fiction, poems, comics, films, essays, both about trans people and by us. Some of those stories may reassure trans readers, or help cis readers accept us. Other stories aim to disrupt and unsettle the narratives we already know.
Andrea Long Chu is one of the disrupters. A doctoral candidate in comparative literature at NYU, she’s a writer and critic whose work has appeared in n+1, Bookforum, and The New York Times. In early 2018, she published an essay called “On Liking Women” that lit up trans Twitter: The piece championed the 1960s playwright and provocateur Valerie Solanas, the author of the SCUM Manifesto (SCUM = Society for Cutting Up Men) and the would-be assassin of Andy Warhol (she shot him in 1968). Chu hit back hard against the unitary, easy-to-understand trans story I sketched at the start of this article. She also took aim at a subset of radical feminist activists who regard trans women as interloping men.
“I have never been able to differentiate liking women from wanting to be like them,” Chu confessed. She described her young self not as a child who was already a girl, but as “the scared, straight boy whose life I will never not have lived.” As for the SCUM Manifesto, it implies—according to Chu—that trans women transition “not to ‘confirm’ some kind of innate gender identity, but because being a man is stupid and boring.”
Coming out, announcing her womanhood, was—for her and for trans women like her (and, to be honest, like me)—an exhilarating, empowering choice, not an act of simple survival. That perspective wasn’t a breath of fresh air so much as a mountaintop’s worth. “Some of us … might opt to transition,” she concluded, to climb out of the cage that radical feminists take “heterosexuality to be.”
How did Chu come to such views? What is it like for her to live with them? You won’t find clear answers in her first book, Females, a short, exasperating volume that is nothing like a memoir and not much like a manifesto. It’s more like a provocation, thick with what Chu herself labels “indefensible claims.” “Everyone is female,” Chu writes, “and everyone hates it”: We are all female in this special, philosophical sense because we all “make room for the desires of another.” You, too, let “someone else do your desiring for you.”
Males, in Chu’s terms—that is, men who behave “like men”; men who fit archetypes of masculinity—know what they want and how to get it for themselves. But expanding on what she takes to be Solanas’s view, Chu argues that no one is totally independent, totally dominant, totally satisfied—which means that anyone trying to be “male” has signed up for continual failure. If femaleness means vulnerability and dependence, then we are all female, and “the patriarchal system of sexual oppression” works “to conceal” that universal truth. Men feel they have to be male, but they cannot be. They find relief from this double bind in porn, where passive, humiliated, masturbating viewers may find permission “not to have power, but to give it up.”
The logical question, if you see maleness this way, is not “What makes some people trans?” but “Why would anyone want, or try, to be male?” One answer is that guys have no choice. Another answer is that masculinity feels that painful and that limiting only if you don’t want it—if, like me, you’d rather be a girl. (“I hated being a man,” Chu remembers, “but I thought that was just how feminism felt.”) A third is to say that we might try to redefine maleness, to tell other stories about it. Trans guys might lead the way.
Cyrus Grace Dunham—the younger sibling of Lena—has written a coming-out memoir, and a celebrity memoir, and a well-off young writer’s memoir of a quarter-life crisis. It’s also an anti-memoir, set against the idea that Cyrus, or you, or I, must believe one consistent story about our life. After months of flailing and drinking and fighting depression, Dunham has come out as nonbinary and as transmasculine. They take they/them pronouns in professional contexts, and do not exactly feel like a man but take he/him pronouns among friends: “I am appalled by how much I love it.” They have also had top surgery (a double mastectomy).
A Year Without a Name can come off as recovery literature, addressing the tough row they feel they had to hoe—their sister’s fame (“a toxic substance”), as well as their adventures with “alcohol, ketamine, cocaine.” But we have other memoirs that work that terrain. This one’s much better read as an account of generational and intellectual good fortune. Dunham can build on terms they have inherited from earlier trans people, and can also talk and write about the vicissitudes of erotic desire, about how desire affects what gender means.
For Dunham, exploring gender and sex means exploring embodiment and uncertainty. They live in—and have sexual feelings within—a body that won’t settle down, that does not seem to want to take clear form. It’s a body, Dunham discovers, that needs to be valued as a kind of chrysalis, ready “to turn into goo, and then re-form.” In bed, before transition, Dunham was “always more in tune with my partner’s desires than my own.” Crushing on a magnetic party girl, Dunham once “felt like a little girl, too self-conscious to get anything right.” Their current lover, by contrast, sees and accepts Dunham as a kind man, a real man, a hot man. Dunham found that experimenting with bondage and domination helped clarify how it felt to wield power, and to give it away—paving the way to seeing themselves as a man.
Maybe you, too, have had to embrace uncertainty before you could grow and change. I’m told many people, even cis people, do. Trans people like Dunham, or like me, have to work our way out of false certainties that insist we are now and forever the body our genes assigned us, the gender we were handed at birth. Some of us have to work our way out more than once. “My value,” Dunham concludes, “is not in my permanence, but in the resilience with which I recover, and re-recover, and re-form after the deluge.”
How do you know you’re trans and need to re-form? Can you be trans (the way you can be diabetic, or have perfect pitch) before you know it? Opponents of trans acceptance maintain that trans identities are new and trendy, that trans teens today are jumping on a bandwagon. The claim is in one sense obviously false—many cultures, from Samoa to South Asia, have gender-boundary-crossing identities—and in another sense irrelevant: Our right to acceptance shouldn’t depend on how long ago we showed up. We are here now.
Yet this question of origin has inspired useful history. Anne Lister (1791–1840) loved and had sex with women, and dressed and acted very much like a man. Her Yorkshire neighbors called her “Gentleman Jack,” though someone who behaved like her today could be an aristocratic butch lesbian, rather than a trans man. Dr. James Barry (1789–1865), by contrast, consistently presented himself as a man throughout his adult life, from his student days in Edinburgh to his decades as a military medical officer, improving sanitation in outposts of the British empire.
Like Lister, Sullivan kept extensive diaries. To read through them now—in the abridged edition We Both Laughed in Pleasure, prepared by Ellis Martin and Zach Ozma—is to find sentiments that trans readers might recognize. “I wanna look like what I am,” he muses early on, “but don’t know what someone like me looks like.” “I’ve spent my whole life dreaming I was someone else, but no one else would believe me.” Sullivan had the sense—as I did, for decades—that coming out as trans was both inevitable and impossible, right up until he decided to take the step. “It’s too good to be true,” he reflected. “It’s so nice to allow myself to say I am a man.” First he had to move to San Francisco, and leave his tender, difficult, long-term lover: “Had J not been around,” he mused, “I would definitely go towards being male.”
Once Sullivan chose the story he wanted to tell about himself, he could help others find their own. In California, he saw the well-known trans man Steve Dain “counseling an 18-yr-old female who says she feels like a gay man … so we do exist!” Not everybody agreed. “A reputable clinic” in the late 1970s “wouldn’t touch [Sullivan] with a 10-foot pole … Because I don’t have the typical transsexual story they want to hear.” Yet Sullivan was undeterred in his quest to “just ‘be there’ for new F➞M’s,” telling them they’re “NOT the only one.” As his death from HIV/AIDS approached, he wrote: “They told me … that I could not live as a gay man, but it looks like I will die as one.”
You could paint Sullivan’s life as a tragedy, but the diary feels full of joy, in part because it’s also full of sex—a manual of sorts from a time when trans people had to educate ourselves. “I made myself a good strap-on cock out of socks & wore it to sleep. Good masturbation.” “I want to have sex with a man as a man.” With the power of imagination, of socks stuffed in pants, of testosterone, and later of top surgery, he did. His most evocative writing conveys the desire at the core of his being. “In my search for the perfect male companion, I find myself. In my need for a man in my bed, I detach myself from my body and my body becomes his.”
Trans acceptance should not depend on our having to hide or lie about our sex lives. (Chu describes a trans woman whose therapist rejected her on the basis of her sexual tastes: “Real MTFs don’t do that.”) Nor should acceptance depend on whether we pass, whether we feel the same way every day, whether we match strict binary definitions of male or female. Our stories can change, and they interact with the stories that others tell us about ourselves.
In that sense Chu is right: Almost all of us in various ways try “to become what someone else wants.” We seek both the other people who can accept us (as Sullivan did in San Francisco, as Dunham does now) and the imagined future self that we want to, and try to, become. If that search feels like a problem, it’s also a solution, the one that Dunham’s quarter-life memoir, and Sullivan’s voluminous journals, record. “Is wanting enough?” Dunham asks. Can they be “a real man,” or will they always and only be “a girl obsessed with men”?
Am I a real woman? Was Sullivan a real man? Why do I care how other people answer that question? But I do care. So does Dunham, and so—I think—does Chu, and so did Sullivan, who made himself, even while dying, into the Bay Area’s proud transmasculine historian. “I can never be a man,” he wrote, “until my body is whole and I can use it freely and without shame.” Such a goal might be the kind you never quite reach. Still, so many of us try to get there, whether the effort looks like one great change or a string of smaller moments. We share our stories, and we make new ones if those we find don’t fit; and then we send the new stories out into the world to see whether what resonates for us, what might save us, could help others too.
This article appears in the November 2019 print edition with the headline “Bodies in Motion.”