A couple of nights ago, we were over at Milo and Anabelle’s house, where they were hosting a faculty couple who was in town to buy a house. Since the new couple didn’t know much about people in the department, the occasion was ripe for stories. At one point, Annabelle started to tell a story about the time that Milo and I flew to New Mexico, a story that went something like this:
I don’t know if you know, but Joyce is a pilot and she and Milo go flying on these “missions” all over the place. Well, one time, about three years ago they were flying to Alamogordo and Milo needed an air-sick bag. Joyce looked through his flight bag and rummaged around for a while and all he could come up with was a little water bottle. He also found his knife, so they cut the top off this bottle to improvise. I find that she’s quite resourceful — at least outside the department. (laugh)
At this point, Annabelle had a confused look on her face and asked, “when you tell a story about a woman who used to be a man, what pronouns do you use in the past? I’m feeling really weird about the way I was talking about you just now.”
We talked about how odd it is, from a narrative perspective, to have a character who is sometimes “he” and sometimes “she” in the story, and without a backstory, such an approach could be quite disruptive. (It could also provide the writer with playful and rich complexity, and these aspects has been fleshed out by Gayatri Spivak and others.)
On the other hand, changing the story so that the pronouns and characters are all consistent washes away the complexity of a real life. This concept is called erasure, and that’s the idea that during or after a transsexual transitions, s/he (and her friends, family, or colleagues) engage in a revision of history so that, in my case, Joyce flew that airplane, and she was always a woman, and there was never a man named George in that story. Call it a whitewash, if you will.
Erasure isn’t the same thing as “living in stealth,” as some transsexuals call creating a totally new life story with no trace of your transsexual past. Living under a condition of erasure, one may reveal that s/he is a transsexual and talk freely about it, but still revise all of their history. Living in stealth, one was never a transsexual, was always the sex s/he now appears to be, and has always had a history consistent with his/her current gender presentation. In other words, stealth always involves erasure, but erasure doesn’t necessarily imply stealth.
Near the end of her essay “The Empire Strikes Back: A Posttranssexual Manifesto,” (web or pdf), Sandy Stone cautions her readers on the harmful nature of erasure, harmful not only to individual transsexuals but also to the broader category of trans*people.
Why would tidying up your pronouns in stories be bad? What if it’s painful to remember the depression and crisis of gender that you fought so hard to correct? There’s no harm in that, is there? Well, yes, I think there *is* harm, but perhaps let’s call it “cost,” instead, and these costs are incurred by the individual and by society in general.
At the personal level, erasure makes it seem as if you haven’t had a rich, complex life, that you didn’t struggle with your identity for years, that you didn’t achieve good things in your career and family. If every version of me in my stories is Joyce, then what happened to George’s deeds, intellectual development, and personal quests?
What about those stories that only make sense with George, like the times Will or Slade hauled me to a topless dance joint to cheer me up (no cheer, I’m afraid, but they seemed to enjoy the visits)? Or the stories about being in situations that women with common sense would avoid, like walking around alone in Paris at 3:00 a.m., or sleeping under my car while driving to college on the west coast. I think those stories have a very different sense of adventure, danger, and meaning if the character is a female Joyce than if they’re a male George.
Or what about the rich and complex stories that detail George’s transformation into Joyce, beginning with early memories and adolescent experiments, and ending with real exploration of gender and sex? The only possible way of telling those stories is to not only acknowledge George’s existence, but to foreground it in the story. He’s the protagonist, after all, and the narrative tension of this type of gender story involves gender dysphoria. Erasure would prevent me from telling these stories.
At the social level, widespread erasure does two things. First, it robs transgendered people who are grappling with their identity of role models — examples of people who have gone through Gender Identity Disorder and survived. Young trans* people are especially vulnerable to feeling as if they’re the only one of their kind in the world, and that’s a very lonely position, let me tell you. Second, erasure makes it seem to society in general that transsexuality and transsexuals (or more generally, transgenderism and transgendered people) don’t exist. They must be something that Oprah’s producers dig up from time to time for ratings, or something radical gender activists write about to sell books, rather than a phenomenon that you can see in any city in the world.
In other words, the costs of erasure are invisibility and abnormality.
To be fair, we ought to balance costs with the benefits of erasure, and they are not to be trifled with. On a personal level, erasure helps create a consistent self, helps one avoid talking about very painful matters, and helps transsexuals avoid discrimination and danger. After all, not everyone is cool with transgender people, and if telling a story where you once were a “he” but now are a “she” is going to get you beaten up, then I’m all in favor of erasure. Socially, erasure prevents people from having to think about gender or sexual fluidity, which makes some people nervous. Ambiguity is frightening when morality is so black-and-white, and erasure helps lessen ambiguity. In other words, the benefits of erasure are fitting in, not making waves, and invisibility.
It’s telling that “invisibility” comes up as both a cost and a benefit of the policy of erasure, personal or social. Why? The positive side of invisibility is the camouflage that gives its wearers control over their environment and personal safety. On the negative side, invisibility constitutes a weak political position — when you’re invisible, you don’t count (literally, because when pollsters count demographics and healthcare researchers try to establish baseline data, invisible people aren’t counted). When you’re invisible and you aren’t counted, you don’t matter. And this invisibility, this not-mattering, is not necessarily related to bigotry or fear or bias (although invisible people are usually easy victims of that sort), but is a state imposed on the erased themselves.
Erasure is the process of making the visible invisible, actively and deliberately, as an artist would remove a defective part of a pencil drawing. The opposite of erasure is actively creating — drawing or sketching, to use our art metaphor — something that can be seen by others, bringing something that doesn’t exist into being on the page. This type of creativity doesn’t require anyone to march in the street or to sign petitions or to get in anyone’s face. However, this sort of identity creativity does require you to have an authentic history and to claim this odd history as your own. More broadly, mass identity creativity requires society to recognize trans* as a legitimate category of human-hood — whether it’s a good category or a bad category depends on our deeds and our participation in society, but “good-and-bad” is a different kind of question than “existence-and-nonexistence.”
Whether it’s better to be visible or invisible, drawn or erased, depends on whether you think it’s worth following a more complex path than you’d like in exchange for providing young transsexuals with role models and society with a viable category of citizen, or whether you think personal safety and narrative consistency achieved through erasure are worth not being counted and not mattering for young transsexuals and the broader society.
The strategy is not as clear as you might think. Everyone must choose the path that’s right for them, and that path is always more complicated than theory would suggest. What is important to remember is that the act of changing yourself doesn’t necessarily have to lead to erasure. The question of whether to erase or not is a completely separate question from the agonizing question of whether to change or not, and a transitioning transsexual shouldn’t combine the two.
Change is difficult, frightening, and generally weird for transitioners and their friends and family, and while these changes may ultimately give rise to a process of erasure, they may also give rise to a creative process of drawing a fully-developed and complex character for family, friends, and society to count, understand, and appreciate.