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Regrets and Joys: The Temporality of Transgender Experience
The following article first appeared in print in Salvage #10: The Disorder of the Future, our Spring/Summer 2021 issue. Our back issues are available to buy individually here. Our poetry, fiction and art remains exclusive to the print edition, and our subscribers have exclusive access to some online content, including PDF versions of all issues, and all audio content. New subscriptions can be taken out here. They begin with the next print issue, and give instant access to all subscriber-exclusive content.
Why so much attention to transgender children from people who are not transgender? The experience of being transgender in anglophone countries has, since at least 1 December 2020 (the delivery of the Bell v. Tavistock decision by the High Court of England and Wales) been an extremely alienating one of hearing powerful people continually say things about your life that are not only false, but the polar opposite of truth. The decision of 1 December marks an inflection point in a discursive shift that was underway before then – for example, with the prior publication of Abigail Shrier’s Irreversible Damage – away from a medical representation of transgender childhood as a solution to a longstanding problem (adult gender dysphoria), to a more explicitly political one, in which the transgender child is a novel problem in need of forcible resolution. The first discursive register has paved the way for the latter, but the latter has created a state of emergency for transgender people of all ages, impossible to ignore. While the worst effects of Bell v. Tavistock have been lightened on appeal – children with supportive parents can access care with parental consent – it has served already as a template for legislation in US states that is even more repressive. Arkansas has banned transgender healthcare entirely for all persons under eighteen. And in Texas, as of this writing (late-April 2021), they are considering the extension of criminal sanction from doctors to parents themselves, with affirming parents of transgender children charged with child abuse, and the children removed from their homes, ‘in their own best interests.’
The institutional liberalism of anglophone academia and publication institutions is incapable of addressing this or any other state of emergency, tied as they are to an ethic of nuance and the ontology of ‘two sides’, in which there are always and only two sides to any question, whose only possible mediation is compromise. If we say, however, with Walter Benjamin, that ‘the tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the “state of emergency” in which we live is not the exception but the rule’, then writing in this tradition may enable readers who have not experienced the pain of dysphoria – let us begin by stipulating that it is pain – an understanding of why those who have are responding with such urgency.
This is not to say that all transgender and gender nonconforming individuals feel quite the same urgency, or write in the tradition of the oppressed. An earlier draft of this essay took as its starting point a polemic against Masha Gessen’s online essay at The New Yorker, entitled ‘We Need to Change the Terms of the Debate on Trans Kids’. This strange document quotes only a single side of the titular debate, Shrier & Co. It was as if one were to write an essay on the Stalin-Trotsky debates in the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, using Stalin’s History of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (Bolsheviks): Short Course as the sole source for Trotsky’s arguments. The only person of transgender experience that Gessen quotes is Masha Gessen themself. Yet the first passage in which they attempt to make any independent contribution to the debate makes it clear that Gessen is hardly in a position to speak on behalf of a transgender teenager: ‘I began my own transition at fifty, long after experiencing the misery of pregnancy and the incomparable joy of breastfeeding. I have no regrets. Had I had the option of transitioning as a teenager, I would have chosen to do so – and I am almost certain that I would have had no regrets then, either, because I would have had a different life’. The ‘misery of pregnancy and incomparable joy of breastfeeding’, those touchstones of biological motherhood, are the pivot of their argument, such as it is.
Falsely generalising from their own experience, Gessen finds the regret that is a shared experience of so many transgender adults – regret that we did not recognise or claim ourselves sooner, that we spent so many years pretending to be otherwise than we are – to be unthinkable, and therefore ignores it. This helps explain why they can so blithely claim that ‘[i]f you think about it, a fifty-year-old who has experienced life in a particular gender is in a much better position to make a decision about transition than is a twenty-year-old. But at that point, it’s too late to decide to be a young person in the other gender, and this, too, is irreversible’. What vanishes in the legerdemain of these two sentences is nothing less than thirty years of suffering. Even if Gessen themself did not experience such suffering, countless trans people who were told in childhood that their desired changes were impossible or unthinkable have experienced it. Let us try to regard that fact with the understanding it deserves. Nor is regret the worst possible outcome of transition delayed or forestalled: social acceptance of gender identity, first of all by parents and other close relatives, has been shown to significantly decrease the high rates of suicide among transgender adolescents and adults. When social acceptance is coupled with medical assistance, the rates come down to levels comparable to cisgendered members of their age cohorts. Fretting over regret ought not lead us to lose sight of those who, foreseeing no possible remit of suffering, end up never being able to experience any form of regret.
I find myself recurring to the idea developed by Ludwig Wittgenstein, in his late-career Philosophical Investigations, of chains of ‘family resemblances’, rather than singular essences, being what hold concepts together under a single name. Gender dysphoria bears a family resemblance to pain. The phrase is a clinical construct. It is only in the recent DSM-V that the psychiatric community came around to recognising this construct as not universal among all trans people. (Gessen’s lack of regret suggests that they are among those for whom dysphoria is not characteristic of their trans identity, to which I say, good for them.) If not all trans people report dysphoria, then there is no ethical justification for the clinical gatekeeping that, until recently, has characterised transgender health care, limiting care to those whose dysphoria was extreme enough to make the withholding of care untenable. All jurisdictions, therefore, should default to the informed consent model, in which, after full disclosure and consideration of all potential risks, one is provided with the treatment desired in order to simply be who one says one is. In this case, medical treatment serves not as a means toward the construction of an identity but as a supplement to an identity that has already been asserted and constructed through performative utterance.
My use of the word ‘performative’ marks my thought on the language of gender transition as having been influenced by Judith Butler. The meaning of this word is summarised well by Butler themself in their 1999 preface to Gender Trouble, counteracting several recurrent misreadings: ‘Performativity is not a singular act, but a repetition and a ritual, which achieves its effects through its naturalisation in the context of a body, understood, in part, as a culturally sustained temporal duration’. However, Butler is a bête noire for the so-called ‘gender critical’ movement, somehow simultaneously utterly incomprehensible yet irresistibly seductive to countless ‘daughters’ being taken in by the ‘transgender craze’. Moreover, since Butler is, like myself and Gessen, a nonbinary person late to come out, they are irredeemably tainted as ‘not disinterested’. (Negating the negation leaves us with ‘interested’. How dismal the world would be if the mere fact of being ‘interested’ in a topic rendered it impossible for a person to speak about it! An endless dialogue of the bored and boring!)
Let me return, then, to Wittgenstein, a thinker on the philosophy of language whom no one has yet thought to accuse of being too interested in gender. We have stipulated that gender dysphoria is a type of pain. Or rather, various types of pain – physical, psychophysical, and sociopsychological – which have a family resemblance, inasmuch as these types of pain are experienced in situations where the appearance of one’s gender presentation is at variance with one’s felt gender identity. There is not a common essence to these situations: gender dysphoria can hit in a social situation, say at the deli counter when a worker calls one ‘Sir’ or ‘Ma’am’, or in the privacy of one’s own bathroom, as one catches a glimpse of oneself in the mirror. But even the mirror can be a social situation of a sort. While the body itself, and its various parts, may be a source of dysphoria, often dysphoria arises based upon the meanings that others have imputed to our bodies and their various parts. This should not be surprising: We are social organisms, and thus our bodies exist socially.
Pain, as it happens, is one of the major topics of Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations. The book is known for its ‘private language argument’, in which he argues precisely that there is no such thing as a private language. So, for example,
It can’t be said of me at all (except perhaps as a joke) that I know I am in pain. What is it supposed to mean, except that I am in pain?
Other people cannot be said to learn of my sensations only from my behaviour – for I cannot be said to learn of them. I have them.
So how does one ever learn how to say of oneself, ‘I am in pain’? Wittgenstein has already explained, ‘A child has hurt themself and they cry; and then adults talk to them and teach them new exclamations and later, sentences. They teach the child new pain-behaviour’My other quotes from Wittgenstein use G.E.M. Anscombe’s classic English translation, but in this quote I have restored the gender-neutrality of Wittgenstein’s German references to das Kind.. So how is it that we even communicate with one another about pain, if I do not know it, while others may doubt it? It comes back to our ‘family resemblance’ to one another: ‘“But doesn’t what you say come to this: that there is no pain, for example, without pain-behaviour?” – it comes to this: only of a living human being and what resembles (behaves like) a living human being can one say: they have sensations’. Thus statements about private sensations such as pain are not a description of a ‘mental state’ that one dispassionately observes, but a learned behaviour through which a human being communicates something about its experience of life to other human beings.
Let us see how Wittgenstein’s private language argument applies to the pain and pain-behaviour of trans people, especially trans children, and to others’ responses to it. A child has pain. They recognise it as pain because of its resemblance to other experiences that they have learned to regard as pain. They have learned, been taught, to regard such circumstances as pain because when the pain occurred – when the child tripped and skinned their knee, when their stomach gave them pangs of hunger, when they felt jealous of the time their mother spent with their younger sibling – the people around them acknowledged their pain by recognising their pain-behaviour. Perhaps they taught the child new pain-behaviours – to say ‘ow, it hurts!’, to fetch a snack rather than whine to a parent, or to sulk in a corner rather than attempt to kill the baby – but they taught them through recognising the pain. Now the child feels a pain when people say to them, ‘You are a boy.’ The child engages in a pain-behaviour that they have been taught to feel is appropriate. Perhaps they say, ‘It hurts me when you say that, because I am not a boy.’ ‘Nonsense’, replies an adult. ‘Of course you are a boy; you have a penis. The pain that you are describing cannot possibly exist.’
Now contrast this response to a child’s pain-behaviour with the responses the child has previously experienced, the responses described by Wittgenstein. What the child is told is, in effect, ‘This pain you are describing is totally invalid. Not only do I doubt it, I refuse to believe anything that you say about it. Your tears make about as much sense to me as a pot complaining about the heat when I put it on a lit stove.’ The child has, with reference to the gendered experience of their body, been dehumanised; the older people around them have communicated that, in this respect, they do not regard the child as ‘a living human being’ or something ‘that resembles (behaves like) a living human being’. The child has been made into an object or a monster.
This is what gender dysphoria is like; what is remarkable is not that trans people go to such lengths to end it, but that so many of us endure it for such prolonged spans. The discussion about trans children boils down to this: ‘A child has communicated their pain, and there are means available that will attenuate that pain, prevent it from getting worse, and may at some point alleviate it entirely. The child cannot access those means on their own, for they are still a child. Will you assist them?’
This essay speaks of trans childhoods in a phenomenological rather than historical manner, based on extrapolation not only from my own (suppressed) trans childhood, but conversations with other trans people, generalising where possible but carrying out those generalisations on the basis, I hope, not of projective egoism, but only when they are supportable with reference to a multiplicity of lived experiences. An historical account, such as that given by Jules Gill-Peterson in her groundbreaking Histories of the Transgender Child, will note that the very concept of ‘childhood’ already entails dehumanisation. For example, she writes ‘the child is a dehumanised social form … [O]ne of the most pernicious effects of the production of children through infantilisation is “a failure to recognise children as agents”, to render their lives politically informal – effectively unintelligible to adults’.
Thus with respect to the dehumanisation experienced by many trans children in the response of adults – the State, parents, medical professionals, educators – to the pains that are given the name of dysphoria, it is all too easy to imagine this also being done to a child with reference to many other pains. These things happen all the time. There are authority figures – teachers, police – who will similarly deny the pain a Black child feels from being treated in a racist manner. There are parents, and politicians, who will deny a hungry child food. There are parents who will beat a child bloody and then insist that their tears must stop, because the beating was a necessity. To be regarded as a child is, historiographically, to be dehumanised, to have your pain rendered ‘effectively unintelligible’, or only selectively intelligible. We can imagine these things, but I, at least, cannot imagine them without also imagining wanting to put an end to such suffering, and even to reach back into past generations to signify that its end is in sight. It is in this respect that Walter Benjamin distinguished the historical materialist from other historiographers, as the one who knows about the ‘secret conspiracy between past generations and the present ones’ in which each possesses ‘a weak messianic force’. ‘We have been awaited on this Earth’My translations from ‘Über den Begriff der Geschichte’. The standard German word for generation used by Benjamin is Geschlecht, which in other contexts can be translated as ‘sex’ or … Continue reading. The transgender child in want of redemption includes not only the children who are alive as children today, but the former child inside every trans adult, and every trans person in history whose future was cut off by violence, suicide, disease, or neglect.
The present turn in the discourse around trans childhood depends largely on misrepresenting what it means for a child to be recognised as transgender, so correction is one tiresomely necessary task. Let us return to our Wittgensteinian example, and suppose that the child who is not-a-boy finds from their first interlocutors a sympathetic ear rather than dehumanisation. Instead of proclaiming ‘Nonsense!’, they ask, ‘If you are not a boy, does that mean you are a girl?’ Both for simplicity’s sake, and to remain true to the experiences of those most impacted by current legislation, let us suppose that the child says ‘yes’. The adult says, ‘Very well, then. We shall call you a girl, and buy you girl’s clothing so that other people know to treat you like the girl you are. Is there a new name that you would like to be called, or would you like our help in choosing one for you?’ This is called social transition, and if the child is fairly young, too young for puberty blockers to be relevant, this is all that is needed.
But what happens as the child becomes twelve, thirteen, fourteen, and her natal gonads begin producing new hormones? If the child is in a jurisdiction like my home state of New York, her supportive parents now have the chore of finding pediatric psychologists and endocrinologists who not only provide trans affirmative care, but take their health insurance. (We assume, again for simplicity’s sake, that they have health insurance with reasonably decent coverage. International readers may have discerned, from the US’s shambolic response to the Covid-19 pandemic, how far from a certainty this is for working-class people, especially Black, Indigenous, and Latinx working people, in this country.) In Arkansas today, and too many more places perhaps in the near future, no such recourse is available. Suddenly, the boy-who-is-not-a-girl gains three cup sizes on his chest, the girl-who-is-not-a-boy gains thirty centimetres in height and a deepening voice. People who have taken the child’s social transition for granted and called them by their proper name and pronouns may now begin to express cruel doubt, based on the meanings assigned to portions of people’s bodies when those bodies are regarded as objects rather than as bearers of subjectivity. The boy-who-is-not-a-girl might be able to hide out by wearing a binder (though binders, worn every day for prolonged spans, can cause health problems); the girl-who-is-not-a-boy is more likely to be, as we New Yorkers like to say, ‘shit out of luck’.
Puberty blockers function, not as a substitute for social transition, but as a supplement that helps it stick. If they are denied, then the child has no choice but to experience that which most older transitioners take for granted – regret, the loss of former potentialities, which in this case refers to the potentiality that they might have been allowed to grow into a body which would be readily recognised as their own, as belonging to their proper gender.
Counter to the cisgender writers cited in Gessen’s essay, the only way in which the tag of ‘irreversibility’ is medically accurate for affirmative treatment of transgender adolescents is in regard to fertility, and even then, not stricto sensu. (There are some indications of possible impacts on bone crystallisation that can have long-term health impacts, but the risks of this have yet to be longitudinally measured in significant cohorts. Rarely is that what is actually meant by those who fret over the ‘irreversible’.) The loss of fertility function can be counteracted through measures, such as the freezing of gametes, IVF, and surrogacy at which most in our society hardly bat an eye when they are practiced by affluent, white, cisgendered heterosexuals. All claims of irreversibility privilege biological fertility ‘the old-fashioned way’ above all other attributes of a human being.
Like Gessen, I am a nonbinary person who came out during the broad swathe of adulthood that in US culture is referred to as ‘middle age’. Likewise, I only began making pharmaceutical changes to my bodily chemistry after I had parented all the children I would ever want. Unlike many adult transgender people, particularly those whose transitional journey requires a binarised transformation from their gender assigned at birth to the ‘opposite’, I did not experience my puberty as ‘wrong’. I did begin to experience bodily dysphoria, but it focused on what medicine regards as ‘secondary’ rather than ‘primary sexual characteristics’. Whereas in childhood my behaviour, that is, my outward gender expression, often deviated from cultural norms of masculinity, it was only in adolescence that I began consciously to try to make changes to my outward appearance, in order to induce people to relate to me in ways that did not take masculinity as given. It proved to be more difficult than I hoped, and it did not take long for me to give up.
What I regret – what feels in retrospect to have been wrong – was not puberty specifically, but life in general. Gender seemed to be only one way in which life, in general, was simply wrong. It is well known that Theodor Adorno wrote in Minima Moralia, ‘Wrong life cannot be lived rightly’. When that sentence is abstracted from its original context and made into a maxim – as if Adorno were just a negativist La Rochefoucauld – it is forgotten that in the original text it concludes a proclamation on the impossibility of domesticity, hastily extrapolated from the bare facts of world war, modernist architecture, and the mass production of furniture and knick knacks. Embittered intellect obscures a woman’s domestic labor behind the grand sweep of a pitiless dialectic. What is thus hidden by way of being declared impossible is anything that might be associated with the feminine. Whatever Adorno’s reasons for this statement, my own reasons for adopting it as a watchword seem retrospectively all too obvious. For many years, I rejected any self-identification as transgender, mistakenly regarding it as an attempt to live the wrong life rightly, doomed therefore to failure, a rejection that I now recognise as an elaborate, superficial rationalisation of a deeper fear.
With regard to my minor children, to whom I have already alluded, I feel obliged to draw bright lines delineating what I will share, what is absolutely necessary to make my argument, and what I will withhold in protection of their privacy. Here are the necessities. There are two of them. The elder, A, is thirteen years old. They were assigned female at birth, but are now nonbinary and exclusively use they/them pronouns. They came out as such about a year and a half before I did, and I credit their bravery with much of my own belated self-recognition. The younger, H, is seven years old. He was assigned male at birth, and still seems mostly comfortable with that. An answer I have heard him give, with respect to his gender, is ‘sometimes a boy, sometimes nonbinary’. It is unclear as yet how much that reflects hero-worship of his older sibling. They still call each other ‘sister’ and ‘brother’, or ‘Sis’ and ‘Bro’ for short. Their lability with regard to naming one another was also inspirational to me, and serves as an example for the approach to naming phenomena which I use in this essay.
The reason these details are important is this: I spent almost thirty years trying, and failing, to be a man. I cannot regard this delay of recognising myself for who I am and asserting it without regret, because the pain was real. It is possible for me to imagine lives that I did not have, in which I came out earlier. From the ages of thirty-six to forty-two, it is possible for those earlier acts of coming out to coexist with both my children. Any earlier, and it is less and less likely that I would have had children, and it is mathematically implausible that I would have had these specific children. The earlier the date of theorised divergence from our present timeline, the less the duration of the pain, the less its integral sum, and thus, the less the regret, but also, the less remains of the joy that I derive from being the parent of these two particular, wondrous individuals. There is no solution to this system of equations in which regret and joy do not, somehow, coexist in positive values. And the joys themselves are multiple, measurable on orthogonal axes: there is the joy of observing and participating in the growth of a new individual, the joy of the parent, but there is also gender euphoria. There is no knowable optimisation of this set of equations other than the one into which I have stumbled at happenstance. All other solutions exist entirely as hypotheses of greater or lesser probability.
Gender euphoria is more than the simple absence of the pain that is gender dysphoria. It is a positive feeling that, like dysphoria, can have physical, psychophysical, and socio-psychological elements. My first unmistakable sensation of gender euphoria came when I was about a month into hormone replacement therapy. My doctor had me tapering estradiol upward; at the thirty-day mark, my dose doubled. While I had experienced pleasant sensations at the lower dose, now, when the sublingual tab had fully dissolved and enough time had passed for it to absorb into my bloodstream, I felt what I can only describe as a shiver of delight. In the previous month, I had had several experiences of great joy, but each of those was open to other interpretations. Yet in the instant when the higher dose hit my brain stem, for the first time I knew with certainty, ‘this is right’. I felt this rightness for the first time in my life.
In that instant I discovered for myself an observation that trans people of various genders have made independently for decades. For example, Lou Sullivan, a gay trans man who died of AIDS in 1991, wrote in his diary shortly after beginning testosterone injections, ‘I feel so relaxed + self-satisfied. I never knew how fine it felt to feel attractive + worthy, to feel sexual + self-aware. My body tingles all day long. I feel electrified.’ His diary is published in We Both Laughed in Pleasure: The Selected Diaries of Lou Sullivan. The similiarity of Sullivan’s description to my own is uncanny, since I first drafted the preceding paragraph several months before reading his book. The only other commonality is that both our observations came in response to a pharmaceutically administered hormone. Yet from our distinct gender identities, and in response to two distinct compounds often associated with opposite poles of a binary opposition, we alighted on similar words. This suggests that the response is not solely a matter of biochemistry, but of how the compounds in question interact within the body to create an emergent sense of social belonging.
I do not mean to suggest that this euphoria requires some form of medical intervention to come about. On 21 February 1976, MH, a twenty-two-year-old working-class Parisian trans woman, found herself in session with the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan. Lacan’s approach bears all the hallmarks of the exercise in cynical brutality that is now known as conversion therapy, with his repeated insistence on the impossibility of MH’s desires – even though MH has done her homework. I refer to her as a trans woman, rather than a transvestite, even though she has yet to receive any medical support for transition, because she is aware of what is available in terms of hormones, gender confirmation surgeries, and even has heard tell of local plastic surgeons who will perform facial feminisation surgery – in the 1970s, not yet part of the standard of care for male-to-female transition. When she encounters Lacan, she has already chosen a new name for herself, and despite her training in industrial design, from which she used to have a well-paid factory job, she resorts instead to odd jobs that make it easier for her to dress as a woman as often as possible. Unfortunately for MH, when she was younger, in her desperation, she attempted a DIY castration, and since then has been in and out of mental institutions and must justify all her desires to skeptical clinicians. Despite these obstacles, and her own sense of educational inferiority to the authorities examining her, she comes out with an eloquent statement of how she feels when she is dressed en femme. ‘When I am dressed as a woman, my whole body feels satisfaction, happiness, in a different way. Truly, I regain my personality, my character, my sweetness, I regain it all. It shows, my gestures are different, my behaviour too. When I am dressed as a woman, I take an interest in everything.’
While she is clearly not satisfied solely with dressing, MH is able to find euphoria even in the midst of a difficult life through that means alone. Despite Lacan’s own authoritarian insistence on the unrevisable reality of MH’s phallus, her words help illustrate the accuracy of the reappropriation of Lacan’s theory by trans historian Susan Stryker (in her introduction to Lou Sullivan’s diaries).
Because our Imaginary identifications are different from what the Symbolic says our bodies are supposed to mean, we trans folks bring our identities into alignment with Real by (re)writing them into our flesh; in doing so we come to appear to others as … an ‘interpretation of our own happiness’ that makes our living feel worthwhile.
Restrained by medical practice from accessing the means of rewriting identity into flesh, MH ‘regains’, with the prosthetic aid of clothing, experiences of her own bodily satisfaction and happiness.
How is it possible for a wrong life to be lived rightly? Maybe this: to inflict no greater suffering upon one’s self or others than is strictly necessary, and to welcome joy wherever and whenever it appears. If we think about transition as more than the mere avoidance or attenuation of a pain that is named ‘dysphoria’, but rather the attainment of a joy that comes from a novel experience of certainty, comfort, and belongingness, then we can also change how we think about the ethics of accessing the social and technological means of having that experience. We move from a debate about whether it is appropriate or necessary to prolong a person’s pain by denying its existence, to recognising a plenitude and asking, ‘How could we deny this to anyone?’ We move from the rationing of what is to the opening of what can becomeFlorence Ashley offers an example of thought along this line, in their ‘Thinking an ethics of gender exploration: Against delaying transition for transgender and gender creative youth’.. When this move takes place not only in thought but in action, and within a broader ensemble of social relationships, then it might go by the name of transition to communism.
‘When you were born, I was still confident in the communist future of humanity. By the time I agreed with your mother to try for a second child, your brother, I just wanted to know that there would be someone who would have your back no matter what, regardless of what is to come.’
This is something that I have said to A, whenever they have expressed anguish over the world that their generation will inherit from ours. Personally, I would like to experience at least thirty years of my present gender euphoria as compensation for the prior thirty years of suffering, and thus to live at least until the age of seventy-three. Previously, I had never experienced any sort of hopes or expectations for a lengthy lifespan. That means, I want to live at least until 2050. But in the science of climate modeling, the year 2050 serves as a synecdoche for, ‘when things begin to get so chaotically bad that our models lose precision’. And so I hope and expect that both my children will outlive me, into the worse times.
The challenges of radical parents seeking to raise radical children have been commented upon for more than a century. (Consider Emma Goldman’s 1906 essay, ‘The Child and Its Enemies’.) Nor is this the first generation in which radicals have had cause to doubt the inevitably of something that could be called ‘the final victory’. However, with worldwide average temperatures already nearing 1.5°C above the pre-industrial baseline, we are at a point where human flourishing and even survival are made more dubious with every year that capitalism survives. When A’s reproaches move from the general to the personal, I have also been known to say, because I am a radical, ‘you can’t say that I didn’t try. But you absolutely can say that whatever I and others tried has proven woefully inadequate’.
The responses of liberal and conservative members of older generations to the justified reproaches of their children are delimited by their own learned incapacity to imagine the ordering of human relations otherwise than they are, let alone to feel regret for their repeated failures to make things better. It is in this context that we can best understand a complex of psychological coping mechanisms that bear enough family resemblances to one another for me to give them a single name I have coined, ‘obligate natalism’. This boils down to the notion that each individual human organism has an obligation to at least attempt to replicate its genetic material through biological means. How else can we make sense of the fixation upon a child’s future reproductive capacity, in order to mischaracterise trans-affirmative care as ‘irreversible’ and an existential threat to society? Obligate natalism overrides the child’s efforts at self-determination with the categorical imperative, ‘Be fruitful and multiply’. (Genesis 1:28)
Voiced by conservative religious figures, obligate natalism is not surprising, whatever their denomination. Among persons who might otherwise define themselves as atheistic or agnostic, however, the timing of an obligate natalist moral panic over trans children is rather suspect. In a context of widespread and growing anxiety over the future survival of the human species, obligate natalism displaces the blame for potential extinction from those who are actually responsible – the political tendencies within older generations that secured and deployed power for the defense of wealth above all else – onto the new generations who are the victims of our past failures. This displacement does not apply to the younger generations as a whole, but in a cunning political maneuver, selects a small subset as a scapegoat – transgender children who seek gender affirmative care, and the parents who support them.
Generational displacement functions therefore as a defense of status. To acknowledge that someone younger, with a different experience, might have something to say worth listening to would undermine extant authority. The disdain for trans children is not unlike that directed at Greta Thunberg, even by those adults who claim one minute to support her, but then proceed to minimise the scale of changes needed to avert catastrophe. If we begin to acknowledge that a young person might be right to regard adults, not as respectable authorities, but as agents of their own current and future suffering, then adults at all points of the political spectrum would be obliged to reflect upon the actions that have brought such a state about. Might we find cause, somewhere in those reflections, for regret?
Regret is an affect that opens time into multiple dimensions. It seizes on moments of the past as nodal points at which different possibilities simultaneously branched off and were cut off. Every regret contains multiple impossible presents and futures, which multiply precisely by virtue of their impossibility. Since they are in principle unknowable, they can never be ruled out entirely from the domain of the might-have-been.
It is in the temporality of regret that we can find an inner connection between childrearing and radical militancy that is adequate to our moment. No longer is it simply a matter of redeeming the future. Perhaps it never should have been, since as Benjamin has pointed out, the orientation of Social Democracy toward a seemingly inevitable future allowed the working classes to ‘unlearn’ their ‘hatred and willingness to sacrifice’. Our regret should fasten upon the opportunities wasted. Every militant and every parent who is willing to be radically honest with themselves will recall plenty of both. The waste of the past may be localisable to an instant – that time when you should have called out a sexual harasser, or called in a transphobic comrade; or the time you put off attention to your child for a work task that in retrospect was as trivial as it seemed urgent – or it may have a much greater duration, in organisations, formations, and projects which served primarily to dissipate one’s energies and forestall liberation. Regret is the recognition not only that future generations have every right to call us to account for those wasted opportunities – the unmade transformations that could have forestalled future sufferings – but that they share this right with the past generations and oneself.
Therefore let us no longer fear regret. And above all, let us not impose it upon the young in the assurance that they will thank us for the opportunity to suffer as we have, for it is already likely that they will suffer in ways we have yet to imagine.
Society at large has an important thing to learn from transgender people, how to live joyfully with regret; the present moral panic against us, by targeting transgender youth, claims to speak against regret but can only succeed by destroying joy. I will not try to speak authoritatively about what it means and how it feels for regret to coexist with joy. For me, it has a historical materialist temporality: the inner elation of every former self at my belated realisation cannot be detangled from frustration at the very belatedness. It seems to me, based upon limited experience, a few conversations with other trans people, and the literature I have come across, that this is a structure of feeling that is shared by many, perhaps most, trans people. What is also true is that there are as many ways to be trans and make one’s way toward and through transition as there are persons who experience it; we enact the private language argument with one another every time we open our mouths to say ‘pain’. However it also seems to me that, if our species has any future worth living through, this structure of feeling will become familiar to people of all sorts of gender modalities. So much so, that we may even begin to develop a new name for it.
Joseph Tomaras is a writer and translator of short fiction, essays, and poetry, resident in the Hudson Valley region of New York State. Their current, prolonged project is a translation of short stories by the Yiddish author Der Nister. Their story ‘Ruins of a Future Empire’ appeared in Salvage #4 (2017). Their most recent publications of original fiction and Der Nister translations have appeared in Lackington’s, The Big Book of Classic Fantasy, and Geek Out! Queer Pop Lit, Art & Ideas.
|↑1||My other quotes from Wittgenstein use G.E.M. Anscombe’s classic English translation, but in this quote I have restored the gender-neutrality of Wittgenstein’s German references to das Kind.|
|↑2||My translations from ‘Über den Begriff der Geschichte’. The standard German word for generation used by Benjamin is Geschlecht, which in other contexts can be translated as ‘sex’ or ‘gender’. I cannot help but read this passage and smile to think that my gender has been ‘awaited on this Earth’ and even has a ‘weak messianic force’.|
|↑3||Florence Ashley offers an example of thought along this line, in their ‘Thinking an ethics of gender exploration: Against delaying transition for transgender and gender creative youth’.|