Tuesday, September 30, 2014

A Queer Confessor to the Masses: On Matthew 19:12


"For there are eunuchs 
who were born that way from their mother's womb; 
and there are eunuchs who were made eunuchs by men; 
and there are also eunuchs who made themselves eunuchs 
for the sake of the kingdom of heaven"

Gospel of Matthew 19:12 

*************************************
In a previous post, Eunuchs for the Kingdom,
I examined how Matthew 19:12 opens up the ontology of transgender bodies
from a medical and social trans identities to an instrumental use.
Here, I examine how the same passage may be redeployed
for the purposes of a critical trans politics 
that reaches across difference and periodization.

*************************************
Queer Confessor to the Masses

To be marked as Transgender is to become a storyteller. Stories and histories are inscribed on our bodies from all directions. It is a common occurrence, seemingly about a 50/50 chance, when I am traveling in public, that someone will come up to me and begin telling me a story from their life. Whether I am on a bus, train, or airplane, the scene seems to replay itself in strikingly similar ways. Often I am reading a book or listening to music, when I notice that a person is standing very close to me and looking in my direction. Usually they appear to be a cis-gendered, able-bodied, heterosexual male and they have a look in their eyes like they have something they crave to tell me.

"What?" I ask, leaning in after they say something almost inaudible. They speak up a little louder but not enough to be readily heard by others around. "I just wanted to say," they begin, "I've seen you around." That's probably true. While as a trans-woman I am fairly passable as a cis-woman, to the passenger looking for something interesting I often seem to provide a puzzle on their ride to wherever they are going. I am tall, strong bodied, a deep voice, and with a queer butch edge to my otherwise femme demeanor. It's hard not to notice when I've been noticed. The frequency with which people don't merely sneak glances, but boldly stare was shocking when I first transitioned. In any case, I am used to people noticing me, for better or for worse.

What follows in these interviews is perhaps surprising: without even telling me their name or asking for mine, the unexpected traveling companion proceeds unprompted to tell me a story from their life. At first this trend confused me. If they had been staring at me, interested, puzzled, one would suppose they would come at with prying questions. Instead, what I end up receiving from nominally my cis-gendered, straight visitor is a tale of their queer escapades: the halloween they cross-dressed, their secret fetish for women's underwear, the party at which they kissed another man for the first time. Sometimes I follow up with questions: how did that make you feel? What style cut do you like to wear? Would you do it again? After a short-while, having shared their story, they leave. In the end, the encounter was more about them than about me.

"I'm like a queer confessor to the masses," I tell my friends afterwards. Like a priest, I am approached by strangers who tell me their queer/trans transgressions against the hetero-normate ideal around which they orient their lives.  In a sense, simply by listening, I am handing out pardons for their heterosexuality and masculinity. They approach my body as though it is some relic or confessional where they can whisper their secrets in safety then walk away back into their straight world, unburdened by a past that is no longer locked inside them. I become a figure of that abject past, a dark hole where they can safely dispose of the parts of them that they don't want to be seen in the light of the present day. Psychoanalysts, like Slavoj Zizek, Lee Edelman, and Will Stockton, argue that the desire and disgust of the queer body derives from their symbolic representation of the nothingness, the lack, the death-drive at the heart of all desire. God and the soul are likewise read as signs of the Lack par excellence. In this way, being queer and being a confessor (a stand-in for the big Nothing) are overlapping positions in the social imagination. 

Yet approaching the transgender body through the hermeneutics of psychoanalysis covers over lived bodies. The desire, lack and nothingness in concern is not the trans body in question, but the person who marks us, turns us into metaphors for their own subject formation. I think of Alison Kafer's encounters with devotees, summarized in her essay "Desire and Disgust," where nominally cis-gender able-bodied heterosexual men look on her as a fetish for their own desire about amputation. Despite holding her up as something holy, a sacred relic to be devoted to, their desire runs on and turns into disgust. Her body becomes a symbol of the lack and the nothingness inside the devotees, as my body does for those who come to confess their queer sins. The history of her life and mine is an interruption in the story that appropriates the body of the other. This is the body-sized hole in the devotees' and psychoanalysts' narratives: our lives either don't matter or are unspeakable. We are conscripted to serve as sites of devotion and confession for the public's stories, histories, and formations but we are denied the ability to claim our own.



*************************************
*************************************
The Castration of a Salesman

Every so often, however, the screen between the person sharing their story and me comes up, as the projection of nothingness or restoration begins to fade away and we are able to encounter each other as two vulnerable bodies with our own scars and histories. One instance where this moment of contact erupted occurred as I was on a train from Chicago to Washington D.C. in the winter a few years ago. At first, the scene resembled the usual script point for point. I was sitting in the observation car reading a book on the history of castration when an elderly gentleman was suddenly looming over me. "I've seen you around," he began. I put down my book, leaving my forefinger on the page, and nodded, wondering if this would be a long exposition. He looked me up and down, then looked at my book, with the title "CASTRATION" in bold print on the side and pointed. "I saw what you were reading," he said, "and I have a story for you." Once again I nodded and tried to wait patiently as a pregnant pause filled the space between his slow words. "Is it alight with you if I tell you later?" he asked, hesitantly. "Sure," I told him, "I'll be here all morning." He shuffled off and I returned to my book, expecting not to see him again. He seemed to have lost his nerve.

About two hours later, I was shocked out of footnoting a page by the man's sudden reappearance in the seat across from me. He was in the process of unfolding a notebook and a mechanical pencil. I consolidated my workspace and tried not to seem too surprised as I welcome him back. "I needed to write things down," he explained. "You see, I have this *condition* that makes short-term memory quite difficult for me," he went on, emphasizing the word "condition" in a lower voice. "I've found I need to write down what I want to say or else I tend to wander off or repeat myself." As he told me this, he clicked the pencil and checked off the first item on his notebook. Glancing over at his notes, I surmised that I was in for long story and moved to get more comfortable in my seat. Recollecting the story the man shared with me is difficult both because of its content and the form in which it was told. The events he shared with me were fragmented and suggested an unspoken association rather than proceeding as a targeted and linear narrative. At first I tried to discern how one vignette unfolded into the next or what the point of it all was supposed to be, but soon I surrendered my internal editorializing. After all, he was not putting forth an argument but sharing his life with me. 

What can be articulated is that he was once a traveling salesman, peddling roofs with his partner around the southern United States for the decades after World War I. He had been raised mostly in various boarding schools and relished telling me about the various boyhood companions he had. How many of them went with him into the war, he never said, but admitted that after he returned from active service he missed many of them dearly. When he was back in the States, he married quickly and soon got into selling roofs on the recommendation of a friend. The sales-trips would last weeks at a time, as his partner and him drove from town to town, staying in hotels along the way. These were the best years of his life, he told me, taking a break from checking off points on his list and getting very quiet as he looked down at the table. These intermissions became more and more frequent as he elaborated on the flow of their sale's pitch, the types of roofs they sold to customers across the country, and the adventures they had traveling from place to place. Then suddenly his story broke off again. I wasn't sure how many years had past or where he was in the country (or how much time had passed or where we were in our train-ride either for that matter), but halting in the middle of describing how his partner and him were trying to fix their car during one of many breakdowns, he looked up at me with tears in his eyes and went quiet.

"I'm sorry," he said dabbing his eyes with an old and soiled handkerchief, "I can't say any more about that." Shifting the story again to another time, apparently some time much later in his life, he mentioned that his wife was very happy when he came off the road, after which time, he never saw his partner. What his life at home was like was even harder to discern, as his voice had become shaky and the pauses turned from interruptions or turns in the narrative to a part of the mode of his speech. Whatever happened, working close to home and his wife, seemed to feel like a long fallow period of his life. Something had been lost. Something he would not name, except to say, jumping back to the previous stage of his story without transition, "we never did anything, my partner and I. We couldn't." Looking over at my books on castration, he pointed with the knuckle of his forefinger and told me, "but after it was over, I thought of Matthew 19:12, and that's when I came so close to doing THAT." He put down the notebook again, put his hands folded upwards in his lap and stared down at them. "I couldn't do it," he stammered, making it even harder to understand what "it" was in this context. "I wanted, I wanted, but I couldn't," he continued, "and cutting it off seemed like the only answer."

This time the narrative broke apart and never returned. I offered a few soothing words with sympathetic eyes. The old salesman had fallen into pieces. We sat together for some time in relative quiet, him adjusting himself and me nodding in affirmation. "Sorry," he said, beginning to put away his notebook, "when I saw you and saw your books, I thought..." He looked out the window for a while, seemingly uncertain how to proceed. "It's okay," I told him, "thank you for sharing that with me." "Can I ask you for one last thing?" he concluded, "can we pray together?" This request, like much of what preceded it, caught me completely off guard. Hesitantly I probed what he meant by that. Extending out his hands, he took mine, and finished by asking for God to look over us and guide us on our way. "Amen," I uneasily echoed with him as he picked up his things and left the car. 


*************************************
*************************************
Children of the Knife

I call myself a queer confessor to the masses in circumstances such as these, but in this case, when parts of the exchange were the closest  I've ever come to performing a rite of Reconciliation, I did not feel like I had just undergone a ritual, sincere or farcical. It was, however, a return or a rebinding of a community brought together not by a feeling of wholeness or restoration, but of shared fragmentation of our bodies, stories, and pasts. It is a community defined not necessarily by any particular embodiment or identity. A reductive reading of the salesman's story would be to describe him as a gay man, even a repressed gay man. Yet he is not heterosexual either. In the end, he never confirmed or denied his castration. He never uttered the word eunuch or transsexual to describe either him or me. 

Yet on this journey he saw me as a sort of kindred with a shared association to the cutting off of body parts with whom he could share his story. What brought us together, across difference in time periods and modes of articulating ourselves was a shared relation to what Judith Butler calls "sharp technologies" (Doing Justice to Someone). Real or imagined, material or metaphorical, present or past, the power of edged devices has formed us. We are discursively children of the knife.

While the circumstances of becoming physical or metaphorical eunuchs may have pressed on us from outside, there is a sense through which we can "become eunuchs for the kingdom" in ways that continue to challenge the sharp divides between oppressor and oppressed. Instead of being complacent in the disinterested exchange between those who read us as marginalized others who can bear the weight of their queerness, we can challenge each other with a radical vulnerability. 

I had sat down and expected that this man would be yet another passer-by in my life and yet through his willingness to make his scars bare to me, I became implicated in his body. By sharing a history that was slowly (through the force of time and neurological change) becoming taken from him, I became implicated in his story. By receiving the desire and suffering of castration from him, I became implicated in his liberation.


*************************************
*************************************

No comments:

Post a Comment