Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Be Me When I'm Gone: Gravestones & the Game of You

"You can be me when I'm gone"

Sandman: the Kindly Ones
Neil Gaiman

A Game of You by Neil Gaiman tells the story of Barbie, a single twenty something living in a house of queer women: two lesbians, a witch, and a transwoman. Lately Barbie's dreams have become weird and creep into her waking life. Suddenly Barbie is dragged into the Dreaming and three of her friends follow in pursuit - with the notable exception of Barbie's best friend Wanda, who is refused passage into the Dreaming on the Moon's Road when her womanhood is not recognized by the Goddess (i.e. Diana/Hecate). 

A result of the Moon's intervention, a storm consumes New York, killing Wanda in the process. Upon Barbie's return to the Waking World, she discovers her friend's death and the epilogue follows Wanda's funeral, an event that erases all signs of her trans life. The final scenes show Barbie writing "Wanda" on her friend's gravestone, muttering "It's the least I could do." On the bus ride home, Barbie dreams of Wanda with Dream's sister, Death, now a "perfect" princess "nothing camp about her, nothing artificial."
Standing in line for a book signing is not something I usually budget into my time at an academic conference, but for a chance to have a brief conversation with Neil Gaiman about his work I will gladly take a break from the day's panels. The International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts is a bit off the beaten path, offering a low-key mix of scholars and fans discussing a range of speculative literature. In 2013, the whole conference felt a shift as security became tightened, the attendance sky-rocket, and schedules rearranged in reaction to Gaiman's presence. 

Looking down the line of people, I saw many people juggling leather-bound sets of Sandman, copies of DVDs, hard-covers of Neverwhere and American Gods, deciding how many and which objects would be be offered up to be signed. Personally, I just had one thing I wanted to pass between Gaiman and me that day: Sandman Vol. 5, A Game of You (1993).

As I came up to the table, I watched as Gaiman turned aside for a picture with the person in front of me. By this point I understood the rhythm of the exchange: I step up, say hello, he says hello, I hand over whatever I wanted signed, we talk for a minute as he writes a brief note (usually long enough to ask for a picture), and then I step aside - with the potential of an extra few seconds for a friend with a readied camera to document the moment. All in all, about a minute and a half to two minutes.

When my turn came, I followed the script, said hello and he took my copy of A Game of You. In place of a photo request, I used the minute to tell him that I really appreciated the way he ended the book. "Oh?" he asked, looking up at me. "Yes. Maybe it's funny to say, but I'm grateful that you concluded it with the death of Wanda (the trans character). Especially that, in the end, she was buried as a man and that it took the act of a friend to scribble over her tombstone - with red lipstick no less. It's a very real story and one that needed to be told." At this point Gaiman stopped signing my book, signaling me to continue. 

"After all," I added, "Sandman is about forgotten stories and dreams, right? And that includes nightmares. I have to say, personally, that the potential and even likelihood that my gender and life could be rewritten at my death is a part of the collective fears of being trans."

I believe that he could tell that I was serious in my thanks but I think talking to a trans woman about how he killed off a trans woman (the most likable character) in the book was a decision that still weighed on him. For a few minutes he shared with me the origin story of that narrative and how he had often been called out on it by queer readers. He was never sure if his care for the character had gotten across, especially given the other denials of her gender by various characters throughout the story, including a denouncement by the Moon/the Hecate herself. Having Wanda die and her history covered over was not something he wrote lightly. 

That caps off what I remember of the conversation. It went by so quickly and yet when Gaiman returned to himself and finished signing the book, and I took it and walked away it was clear that many minutes had passed. In the end I had gotten a longer turn with Gaiman than had been planned and while I don't want to put it all down in text here, he had said a lot of things to me about the story and his thoughts beyond it that I carry with me. Likewise, while I'm sure I was just one face among many, I hope he heard my thanks. It takes a special person to give life to our nightmares and to do it with generosity and compassion.

This nightmare, pictured in A Game of You back in 1993 reflected a likely story for many trans folk. Even if in life you had successfully fought to transition and get recognized according to a certain gender, gathering around you a community of acceptance and advocacy, in death the chances were you could be sent back to a family that did not understand or approve. Granted you had your families support, their ability to get the name and gender you lived by translated onto your death certificate and gravestone was all the less likely. Walkng the gravestones at a cemetery, we may never know how many Wandas have been buried as Alvins and what other names and things they might have been called.

In 2014, over twenty years after Neil Gaiman wrote about the tragic death and erasure of Wanda, the story and nightmare remains a reality for many trans people. Legally, it is difficult and expensive to change your name, then difficult, expensive, and often impossible to change your official gender. Money, duplicity of State and Federal law, the haunting power of the birth certificate, and the ideological hip-check of judges still stand in the way of countless trans men and women from getting their gender legally changed. The possibility of any third gender category is right now outright unthinkable from a legal perspective. In the best circumstances, a funeral can still be over-written largely by the will of family members or funeral professionals. In life we fight to wrestle control over our own narrative, but in death, our name and story may last as long as red-lipstick on a gravestone.

Recently, California pushed forward a bill (AB 1577) called the Respect After Death Act. The bill, explains Speaker Elect Toni Atkins, offers "legal guidance" in helping to ensure that when a trans person dies "their death certificate accurately reflect who they are." The language of "guidance" reflects an official affirmation of trans gender identity from the state, but at best is a strong suggestion. Family, friends, and other professionals may still chose to commemorate the departed counter to the wishes of they might have had during life. A Last Will and Testament as well as a good Life Insurance Policy may help secure the wishes of the living at their death, but many trans folk continue to be left with the hope and fear of that their gender and stories will not be radically rewritten after they are gone. This is particularly the danger in States, including California, without specific legal direction or advocacy.

According to the Transgender Law Center, "Current law requires death certificates to list personal data such as name, sex, and race, and there is no legal guidance about how the official filling out the death certificate should determine a transgender person’s sex. The lack of guidance sometimes results in cases where the information on the death certificate is not consistent with the deceased’s lived gender. This can put funeral directors and coroners at risk of liability if the friends and family of the deceased believe that they listed the incorrect sex."

As much as the affirmation of friends and family can do during the life of a trans person, in death we become particularly vulnerable. State, social, and religious doctrines can be very self-enclosed systems which hardly budge to accommodate our gender transitions during our lifetime and after we pass away our fates may seem to them as good as fixed. Transitioning gender, including pronouns, names, prefixes, sex and gender designations, and public images require constant repetition to ingrain them in even the most nominally accepting community. 

Personally, I've had conferences print my birth-name on published material when I never provided them with anything other than my current name. I've had people who never knew me as anything other than a woman call me "he" or "Mr." by accident or impulse. These are usually easy fixes and usually committed with no ill-will, but they testify to the constant vigilance a trans person must have to continually press the work of transition. In life, we do a lot of labor to hold a gender change together. Even then, our exertions necessarily depend on the participation of our community to act on our behalf. In death, our corporate dependence becomes all but absolute.

All things considered, we can at best work with others to tell our stories while we are together, with the hope that they follow in our spirit in narrating our lives when we are departed. Control is impossible and so we must trust. Yet while our surrender over life authorship is compulsory, we may still work together as a community to listen and to speak, to tell our stories together so that when my voice becomes silent, "you can be me when I'm gone."


Friday, March 21, 2014

Tiny Corporealities: Perfumed Tears (Animacies)

"What are the 'affections' 
or socialities attributed to toxicity, 
and what is the 'affect' attaining between a toxin and its host?"

Following Mercurial Affect
Mel Y Chen

The Tiny Corporealities project is aimed at intense analysis of the body as matter entangled with meaning. Frequent observations will be journaled, tracing how "body," "thought," and "narrative" function as apparatuses by which corporealities emerge. Critical attention will be paid to how particular embodiments are formed and inform their social environment. 

This project arises from an engagement with a seminar 
“Alternative Materialisms led by Prof. David Mitchell at G.W.U.


I am in a old Congregationalist Church in New England, and I am crying in the pew. This place is very old: the church was organized in the 17th century, the building erected in the 18th. Yet despite its ancient frame and comfortable New England spirit, there is a new youthful voice preaching to the choir (which is, after all, how you get them to sing). My partner is being installed as Associate Pastor. This means that even after an extensive job search, interview, and hiring process, her position was not 'official' until the council of her denomination interrogated her on her faith, the current pastor charged her with a mission of service, and the community affirmed her as their own. All this bureaucracy and ritual might seem like a protracted labor, but it was quite a beautiful day when it all came together. As the Reverend stood before her congregation and called them hers, I was a mess of quiet, stinging tears.

Now, granted all the personal affect evidently surging through me, I have to admit: my eyes were watering as soon as I came into the building. This often happens to me in churches and not just because of any sensitivity to ritual or architectural beauty. Rather, I tear up because of a chemical sensitivity. Sitting in a pew, I am knocked out by the clouds of perfume wafting off of ladies (and probably a few men) as they take their seats in the poorly ventilated building. From my mother I inherited a certain chemical intolerance and sensitivity to alcohol. While her throat closes off as soon as a sip or sniff of alcohol drifts into her mouth and throat, my face, eyes and sinuses merely become red, puffy and irritated. So, as I breathed in the solemn air and choked up at the moving displays of affection being directed towards my girlfriend, my body was already raw and poised for tears. What is the relationship between the toxicity of perfume and my affect in the moment? How does one feel with all parts of one's material self?


In Mel Y Chen's Animacies: Biopolitics, Racial Mattering, and Queer Affect, the author examines the "synthesis and symbiosis" of toxins looking for the affective productions of life as an intoxicated subject (197). While chemicals can pass through tiny corporealities and do serious damage, especially to those sensitive to them, Chen remains critical of relational models which depend on a logic of social and ecological exclusion. The theory that a body's immune system as a fragile yet unimpeachable project of biological impermeability, Chen argues, reflects a cultural model that privileges the comfort of a homogenous community against the intrusion of racial, queered, crip others:

"This internalization, even privatization, of immunity helps to explain the particular indignation that toxicity evokes, since it is understood as an unnaturally external force that violates (rather than informs) an integral and bounded self" (Chen 194).

The inextricability of one's "body" and one's "identity" is evident in the very possessive grammar we tend to use to describe them. Reasons for insisting the self as a categorically "integral and bounded" property presumes a market where it might be sold, shared and denied to society. Without denying the dangerous affects and effects produced when boundaries are crossed by unkind agents, Chen discounts "the possibility of individual immunity" (195).

What might come from an open and shared conception of self? "Intoxication" (195). It means a life which is not wholly dictated by one's own self - everything is collaborative. This does not mean that desires and decisions are impossible, but all acts are contingent. That is, all actions occur as the result of many overlapping contacts that open up certain movements while inhibiting others. Living with chemical sensitivity demands that life take on the shape of one's inter-actions with the world:

"I am surviving moment to moment. Efficiency is far from my aim... I will never walk in a straight line. There are also lessons here, reminders of interdependency, of softness, of fluidity, of receptivity, of immunity's fictivity and attachment's impermanence, life sustains even - or especially - in this kind of silence, this kind of pause, this dis-ability" (202).

Whether or not you possess a diagnosis of Multiple Chemical Sensitive (MCS), or if the possession of such a definite state of being is possible as a totalizing property, Chen contends that a sensitivity to toxins opens one up to a greater number of possible ways of being. One may traverse the world differently and even feel a wider range of affects through a keener awareness of the precariousness of the body as potential avenue for a plethora of chemicals that every day flow and float through the environment. 

The conclusion thus arises that it is the intoxicated body, breathing in the perfumes of chemical animacy, that testify that the affects of the body cannot be defined as "integral and bounded" to the self, but are the collective social expression of an entire ecology.


Were my tears at my partner's installation sincere? Yes, but they were not my own. What Chen's examination of chemical sensitivity elucidates is that the experience of crying was not an affect that I alone possessed or produced. Rather, these perfumed tears were a communal response to the integration of a new Associate Pastor into an old Congregational church. These New Englanders had opened themselves up to accept this foreign body into their sense of self, one defined in the language of the Christian fellowship, as the Body of Christ. Likewise, as the Reverend's ritual (but sincere) acceptance of her new home articulated, the dangerous and potentially toxic "synthesis and symbiosis" flows both ways.

Whatever the apprehension and excitation of every body present, the perfume that adorned the church members in the pews were chemical signs of welcome. In the language of smells, alcohol-based scents signal welcome and sociability. One does not wish to offend but offer pleasant memories of wildflowers, fruit, and warm animal musks. In a metaphorical and material sense, perfume is designed to promote intimacy and exchange between bodies. One of the effects of this close interaction is that sensitive bodies such as my eyes, nose and sinus passages may tear up as they fill the with affects of this collective experience of community building.

As with alcohol that is drunk in chalices of wine or by moving choir music, the experience of intoxication lubricates and opens up affects yet does not produce them without our participation. The loss of complete control over our bodies and emotions may be disturbing, but as the perfumed tears ran down my face on this night I was more than willing to give myself over to the collective response. By surrendering ownership over my tears and tiny corporealities, I was able to be an instrument of greater love, wilder affects, and a radical openness that this night demanded and offered back in exchange.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Tiny Corporealities: Frozen Environments (Haddon)

"It is one of the quietest and darkest and most secret places on the surface of the earth. And I like imagining that I am there sometimes"

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night
Mark Haddon

The Tiny Corporealities project is aimed at intense analysis of the body as matter entangled with meaning. Frequent observations will be journaled, tracing how "body," "thought," and "narrative" function as apparatuses by which corporealities emerge. Critical attention will be paid to how particular embodiments are formed and inform their social environment. 

This project arises from an engagement with a seminar 
“Alternative Materialisms led by Prof. David Mitchell at G.W.U.


It is a dark and cold night here in York, Maine. My partner and I have just tucked her girls into bed. We were not expecting to have this extra time together. I had a flight back to Washington DC earlier today, but Winter Storm Titan (what a name!) froze the runways and the airlines cancelled my trip. After some time on the phone, I was able to re-schedule my return for tomorrow instead of later this week. Titan has spoken quietly but clearly: stay home and read.

This extra time in the solitary woods of south-eastern Maine was a nice respite. The cold weather has slowed things down here. Not least of which it slowed down the increase of pollen in the air that fill my sinus passages and cause me to double over in pain. The frozen environment has washed and sealed away many of these bothersome particles, allowing me to breath freely. In a sense, whether or not I possess Wallace Steven's "mind of winter," I may be said to have a head of winter - a head better suited to the snow-covered woods than the fluctuating damp of DC.

So, as I sit by the fire and open the pages of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night, by Mark Haddon, I find myself more aware of my tiny corporealities and the alternative (frozen) environments where they find themselves thriving. Even if I won't be able to make it to the seminar on Alternative Materialisms the next day, I can imagine with Christopher, the benefits of the quiet, dark and solitary for those with different kinds of social allergies.


The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night, by Mark Haddon, invites the reader to imagine with its central character, Christopher, alternative environments where crip embodiments wouldn't feel so out-of-place. Given all the qualities for the diagnosis of Autism, Christopher is a known entity in his community, prefigured, before he arrives as at the door, as a body in discord with normate relationships. By his corporeality and the society that structures his interaction, Christopher is marked as allergic to most types of human interaction.

In response to this discord between body and environment, Christopher narrates a wide range of extreme eco-systems from outer space to the deep sea where he and other uncommon bodies might live comfortably. Watching a documentary, Blue Planet, Christopher learns about organisms that thrive in poisonous underwater vents in the earth's crust.

"Scientists never expected there to be any living organisms there because it was so hot and so poisonous, but there are whole ecosystems there. I like this bit because it shows you that there is always something new that science can  discover, and all the facts that you take for granted can be completely wrong" (Haddon, 127).

While often at odds with normate modes of interaction, such as eye and body contact, Christopher is keenly aware of the expectations people have for bodies occupying different spaces. Scientists, like the doctors and teachers that watch over him, predict limits and capacities for organisms. Likewise, they deem certain environments and lives as unlivable. Looking at the gaps in the known world, Christopher relishes that the known, the expected and the normal are not all that there is. Bodies and places (like himself or like creatures at the bottom of the sea) are discovered, demanding that we diversify our world.

Diversity does not, however, mean universality. In fact, it can suggest the reverse. Alternative kinds of environments may be best suited to alternative kinds of bodies. Not every (or any) organism can thrive everywhere. Christopher is aware that these vents are extreme conditions where few things can live - an exclusive area of an open ecology.

Solitude appears to be one of the desirable characteristics of the ocean for Christopher: "it is one of the quietest and darkest and most secret places on the surface of the earth. And I like to imagine I am there sometimes." While Christopher admits that he would need some sort of special apparatus ("a spherical metal submersible with windows that are 50 cm thick to stop them  from imploding under the pressure") he nonetheless longs to live an exceptional life in an exceptional place (Haddon, 127). In place of human societies that cause him problems, Christopher would be in community with machine, fish, and uncharted waters.

This vision reframes social allergies from a problem in the body to a problem in the environment. Christopher takes the feeling of being a body out-of-place in society as an invitation to imagine other places, other societies and other kinds of bodies. Rather than reading himself as ill-adapted to one environment, he rejoices in the dreams of all the places he might excel, if only he could get access to the spherical metal submersible to take him there.


Christopher's reframing of social allergies from the body to the environment changes how we view my sinus passages. Instead of marking them as disordered for being ill at ease with the pollen of warmer climates, we might imagine them as better suited for the frozen woods of Maine. In this extremely cold environment, my tiny corporeality rejoices in the ability to freely breath, focus and relax.

The constant transition from rain, snow, and sun in places like Washington DC can incapacitate bodies sensitive to pollen. According to allergy specialist, Dr Warren Carr, MD, "During a rainstorm, the pollen in your environment gets saturated and fractures, releasing small particles into the air at a much higher concentration" (Weather.com). The result is that the damp weather before or after precipitation makes the area very inhospitable for those diagnosed with pollen allergies.

Alternatively, in places where the snow falls and stays on the ground, the environment can be delightfully pollen free. Rain and snow can "wash the pollen out of the air" explains Dr. Rohit Katial, MD (ABCNews). If the snow remains (instead of melts right away as in Washington DC), then the frozen sheet of ice and snow inhibits plants from releasing more pollen into the atmosphere. The result, explains science writer Remy Melina, is that "Many people get better once the weather turns colder and stops fluctuating from warm and cold" (LiveScience). In other words, despite the many flowering plants and trees, the frozen woods of York, Maine, might be an alternative environment for bodies that enjoy the cold air more than pollen saturated DC.

This analysis of frozen environments does not aim to equate Autism with pollen allergies, but to gesture to how the range of differences between various bodies and relations changes how we regard disability in the environment. Whether it is the quiet, dark and secret places in the bottom of the ocean or the quiet, dark and cold places in Maine, the discovery of impossible worlds can offer a home to otherwise out-of-place bodies. Sometimes we just need a winter storm to cause us to stay put and read a good book to spur us to imagine the alternative spaces all around us.