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Photo by Charlie H. Stern (4)
Photography by Charlie H. Stern

Author Grace Lavery: ‘Being a trans woman is very strange’

The academic talks British transphobia, identity, and her raucous new memoir, Please Miss: A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Penis

What does it truly mean to transition? This is a question that is asked over and over in Professor Grace Lavery’s Please Miss: A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Penis.

Heralded as a “dance across genres”, Lavery’s memoir follows her journey towards a new trans identity, and her recovery from addiction through a kaleidoscopic mix of theory and pastiche, metafiction and memory. Lavery chronicles meditations on sex, gender, and pop culture with a bold vulgarity and dazzling wit. 

It’s hard to ignore Lavery’s behemoth presence as a trans academic online. To achieve the legacy of  “the most followed transgender scholar in the world on social media” is no easy feat. An Associate Professor of Critical Theory, and Gender & Women’s Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, Lavery’s work in trans feminist studies hurtles towards the conclusion “that it is truly possible to change sex”. With the undeniable rise of ‘gender critical’ academics shaping the discourse about not only trans identity, but their fundamental human rights, Lavery’s intervention into critical and literary interpretations of transness is an absolute necessity. 

Below, Lavery discusses the turbulent cultural crux that Please Miss finds itself nestled in as a work of trans literature, and evolving ideas about transitioning, narrative, and form.

As the British media landscape has been hijacked by a vast number of ‘gender critical’ academics and ‘activists’ (GCs), I wanted to start off by asking how your experience as a trans woman may differ between the US and the UK. What kind of attitudes about trans identity do you think are more prevalent in the States? 

Grace Lavery: Well I’m still fairly new to it in both places. I’ve only been to the UK once since transitioning, and that was in 2018. It wasn’t as bad as I feared. I got some sniffy looks, but I didn’t feel as conspicuous as I’d expected – though I’m aware that I tend to move exclusively in queer and/or arty spaces, where my transition wasn’t such a big deal. I’m more nervous about returning this year, for my book tour, and have had to have all kinds of conversations about security. Though that’s happened in the US too. I don’t know, being a trans woman kind of sucks sometimes. You’re often very visible, and some significant number of people just assume you’re a rapist or a paedophile. It’s just very, very strange. 

But there are lots of differences in the US. American cis lesbians mostly find TERFism bizarre and alienating, but in an almost salacious way: I’m often fielding questions from gay friends about why British lesbians are so hostile to trans women, like people are asking me to dish dirty family secrets. I think the prevailing attitude is that the issue of trans people doesn’t really matter, and that there’s something brittle and perhaps creepy about insisting on the self-evidence of categories relating to pleasure and desire. Which I think is just right, as it goes. The notion that one can reason oneself into or out of desire seems peculiarly British, perhaps – our essential prudishness making itself known even in apparently sex-affirming discourses.

My own experience of transition has been so much about finding new words, and I do find that phrases like “trans women are women,” whatever their merits as assessments of taxonomy, start to look less like statements of pride and more like flags of surrender. There’s no doubt that the GCs want us gone, eradicated – out of their bathrooms, schools, families, minds – so it makes sense that we would try to protect ourselves with statements of that kind. But that doesn’t mean that they’re the only way to explain the phenomenon of transition, or the best way.

“Being a trans woman kind of sucks sometimes. You’re often very visible, and a significant number of people just assume you’re a rapist or a paedophile. It’s very strange” – Grace Lavery

Following on from that, has the recent shift in the cultural conversation about trans identity changed your experience at all? 

Grace Lavery: It’s an interesting question. I’m reminded of [the term] “social contagion”, which Jesse Singal and others were trying to tell us was a completely neutral way to describe transition a couple of years ago. Nothing weird about describing people as a plague! And on some level, of course it’s unobjectionable: people learn that various forms of transition are possible and viable from each other, so there’s a kind of peer network that develops. But in terms of the specific question: it’s difficult not to feel that one’s transition is politicised from the start. Especially since I’m a post-2016 trans, which means that although I’d been thinking about and even planning for transition for a very long time – in some ways, decades – my coming out corresponded to a time when suddenly trans people began to occupy an enormous section of the cultural conversation. 

I think about the end – really the collapse – of the show Transparent. That occupied a moment when an older white trans woman like Maura Pfefferman could be a figure of sympathy, and could be (eventually, and not without mutual wariness) welcomed among the queer communities of colour and sex work communities of which trans sociability was taken to consist. But then it came out that Jeffrey Tambor was a predator, and maybe Joey Soloway was kind of an asshole, and maybe trans women weren’t treated well on set. I don’t think that changed anything – I mean nobody cared who didn’t already care – but I think the show sort of pointed towards a future that ended up not happening. The redemption of transsexual poignancy into civic belonging. Maybe that project will get back on its feet someday, but I’m not convinced. We have each other, and I think I didn’t realise when I started to transition how necessary that is.

One of the most striking details of Please Miss is the text’s refusal for linearity. Its avant-garde and often completely tangential narrative style underpins a lot of the discussions you have about transitioning; that there is no simple or clean route from A to B. I was wondering if you could talk more about your thoughts on transitioning as an ongoing process, and whether you think the cultural narratives surrounding it should change. 

Grace Lavery: I suppose it is avant-garde in some ways, but I kind of bristle at the term, because I associate it with douchey men whose interests and political commitments are purely notional. But I can’t deny it. I also think of Please Miss as kind of populist and crass – the non-linearity is sometimes modelled after the interweaving plots or themes of a comedy sketch show. And there are lots of dirty jokes, and parts of it are really supposed to feel hot more than anything else. I don’t know if this is avant-garde or not, I just want the term domesticated and bimboified – taking the serious men of modernism and force-femmeing them. Make them sit through trashy sitcoms or write schmaltzy love songs addressed to fruit.

It’s difficult to escape the notion that form and content are dialectically reproductive, each reconstituting the other. That leads us to suspect that a linear story about a person growing up imagines that a grown-up is a linear sort of person; and that, conversely, a winding story about a person transitioning suggests that a trans person is a winding type of person. That’s probably true of Please Miss but I didn’t plan it that way. I was thinking about pastiche as a kind of trans mode, and so that became a structural aspect of the work, but in some ways I think the narrative, once unfolded, is quite conventional – even conservative. It really is about someone changing sex, getting to know truths about herself that had hitherto been obscured, and the things that she learns are better and truer than the things she thought before. Nothing more normative than that!

The only thing I do maintain is that transition is something one does, not something one is. Andrea Long Chu and others have talked about this, of course. I think latency is fascinating, and it’s one of the main topics of my next scholarly book, but it isn’t the same as transness – and in fact, I tend to believe that the latent condition of transsexuality is broadly universal, and what we call “transition” is a particular set of strategies for managing certain presentations of that condition. This doesn’t mean that “everyone is trans,” just that some people can’t avoid transitioning, and some people can. I’ve grappled with these issues in my work on egg theory and elsewhere. 

I feel a pressure to share everything, pull everything inside out, contort every little mental or physical sensation into something pretty and strange”

Although we’ve seen an explosion in popularity for trans writers recently, (Torrey Peters, Shon Faye), tackling fiction and non-fiction is a very different feat to writing a memoir. Does writing so candidly about yourself come naturally? Or was it a style you’ve developed over time?    

Grace Lavery: Torrey knows how much I admire and respect her work, which I consider to be both theoretically astute and personally revelatory, as well as just gorgeously realised. So I hope she also feels the debt that Please Miss holds in her name. Shon’s work is obviously indispensable and consummately carried out. I do think, of course, that the kind of self-disclosure I’m trying to conduct in my book is distinctive, and perhaps a little less politically stable than Shon’s work and a lot less formally efficacious than Torrey’s. There has been a critique of disclosure in trans culture since Viviane Namaste, and it comes up again in Jay Proseer, Morgan Page, Emma Heaney… The consensus is that memoir falls into a specific kind of visibility trap, drawing attention to certain ways of normalising transition in order to dominate everyone whose transitions are different. I take that critique deadly seriously, not least because I know that (despite the death threats) I’m one of the safest trans women in history. 

And precisely for that reason, I also feel a converse pressure: to share everything, pull everything inside out, contort every little mental or physical sensation into something pretty and strange. I guess Please Miss is the result of the conflict between these desires: to disclose, and to protect. And I think the answer I basically settled on was to rethink my relation to genre.

Finally, what do you want readers to take away from Please Miss?

Grace Lavery: I hope people find parts of it funny, especially if they also don’t know whether it’s a part they’re supposed to laugh at. I love it when people don’t know if they’re laughing at me or with me – it’s always “at,” I think. “With” is what Bersani might call a pastoral fantasy. And I hope people find parts of it hot, especially if they’re not going expecting to do so. 

Please Miss: A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Penis is available now