Two Transsexuals Talk Nonbinary
Kadji Amin joins Jules to talk the category nonbinary, the asymmetry of trans masculinity and trans femininity, and a shared love of f*gottry.
Kadji Amin (queer theorist and trans studies scholar, professor of women’s studies, boyfriend to Jules, and author of the brilliant book Disturbing Attachments) joins your resident Sad Brown Girl to talk about the category nonbinary, the asymmetries of trans masculinity and trans femininity, and a shared love of faggotry.
This interview has been lightly edited for your reading pleasure.
Jules Gill-Peterson: So, let’s get one thing straight right off the bat: neither you or I are nonbinary, we’re just a couple of old fogie transsexuals.
Kadji Amin: That’s right and we’ve got questions!
Jules: These are questions that we, as transsexuals but also as trans scholars and critics, want to pose to contemporary gender and sexual taxonomies, or what you’ve called “queer taxonomies” that are increasingly in vogue in English speaking, American, white-dominated queer and trans culture, with interesting reverberations in other geographic and racialized locations.
What were your first impressions of the category nonbinary as someone who transitioned before it existed?
Kadji: Whenever I would think of genderqueer (the term in vogue in my twenties) and nonbinary as positions, I would imagine them as truly heroic. As naming people who are able to exist in a space where others don’t see who you know yourself to be, but you just don’t care. Your sense of yourself is so strong you don’t need to change your body to get other people to see you in a certain way; you just know that other people are wrong and that you’re right and that’s okay. And I thought I could never be strong enough to do that. In my life I had associated it with the most unbearable dysphoria, the most unbearable gap between how I was seeing myself and how other people were seeing me, especially once I had taken on the pronouns he/him but was trying to transition without testosterone.
So, I thought of nonbinary as this heroic position for a long time and then, more recently, I’ve begun to have doubts and think, well, maybe that’s not how it feels.
I thought of nonbinary as this heroic position for a long time and then, more recently, I’ve begun to have doubts and think, well, maybe that’s not how it feels.
Jules: That’s part of the riddle that’s so interesting to me. There’s the perhaps gauche or politically inappropriate hypothesis that nonbinary people—femmes in particular—are just on their way to becoming trans women, whether because of the pressures of transphobia and misogyny, or, in the more phobic rendering, because there is no ontological reality to nonbinary femmeness. And that’s largely an unfair point of view generated by cisnormativty and by people who do go on to transition in a more conventional way, like I did.
Nonbinary Jules was a complete disaster. I was constantly misgendered, I had never felt more dysphoric in my life, and I could barely bring myself to wear the clothes I wanted to because I thought I looked so ugly in them and no one ever knew what gender I was trying to be.
And so, maybe it’s just true that for some people like me, we really do care enough to transition, while other people don’t care, they are capable, bravely, of being consistently misgendered and harassed all the time. Especially nonbinary trans femmes. I have a hard enough time walking down the street as a transsexual, I don’t know how they survive the onslaught, but maybe they don’t care, or it’s not their central concern? Or, maybe there’s something else that this entire discursive framing is missing, which I’m more led to believe, about the relationship between gender presentation and reception. But this is the problem because we don’t have an operative, positive account of what’s at stake in nonbinary trans femininity, so it gets filtered through these really superficial lenses. Like, “well, they get treated like shit all the time, but they’re really resolute, plus it’s empowering to have facial hair and wear lipstick,” and I’m like, yes, okay, but tell me more! I want to know.
Kadji: Maybe my major question is why there isn’t more of a discourse about all of this? Even an intra-community discourse where questioning people could go online and hear “this is what it means to identify with this as opposed to that, this is what you do.” I don’t know if I should read that as a refusal or—
Jules: Or just the impossibility of speaking outside a discourse of gender? Which in some ways, nonbinary is trying to do in a really sophisticated way, but which remains very hard. How can you simultaneously dissent from a system but still maintain its central presumption, which is that gender is a fundamentally important facet of the self? That seems like a really complex tangle that, technically, is not unique to being nonbinary. Even cis women have this problem to some extent, but there’s something really interesting in the nobinary case that is not being unleashed.
How can we understand the phenomenologies attached to different trans identities of this moment and what their claims are on the relationship between the self and the social? It seems like the contemporary taxonomy of gender identity and expression suggests that every identity position is valid so long as it is articulated and can therefore be respected, and in that sense it becomes devoid of content. How do you give an account of yourself in this situation?
Kadji: When I was a boy and a faggot in my early twenties it was fairly legible in my small community in Durham, North Carolina, because everybody knew me, so it felt phenomenologically real. It was something I lived in relation to other people and it was also about my relation to other mascs, who were more butch than I was. That differential in our masculinities was legible. But I also came across as somebody who was very boy. I didn’t have a woman’s body, I dressed in very androgynous or in masc clothes, but with a gay Asian flair—I didn’t dress like the butches. I had carved out a space for that particular gender expression, but it was one that wasn’t understandable to a larger community outside of my small queer community, and that was what was difficult and frustrating for me. If we had lived in some fantasy world where I could have been legible to everyone, who knows, maybe I would never have transitioned.
I think that transition is often a practical decision and I think what puzzles me in contemporary discourse is that it does away with that phenomenology of what it means to be in the world with other people by replacing it with a notion of the sovereign self: I decide who I am, I know who I am inside and then I tell people. I say I’m nonbinary, or trans, and I go by they/them, and that’s supposed to be the final word. People call me they/them and that’s the end, as far as the public story goes. Maybe that’s a political way of disturbing the gender binary, or of changing people’s minds about the inevitability of binary sex and gender, but it’s unclear to me what that means on a phenomenological level.
At my university there are plenty of older professors who respect the they/them pronouns of our students, but few of them have any idea what they mean. One of them, in particular, still goes about thinking of nonbinary trans femmes as gay men—she frequently proclaims that she loves gay men—but tries to call them they/them because they ask for it. If I were in the position of that student, trying to convey some other gendered position than being a gay man to her, I would be very frustrated by that. Even if people are calling me the right pronouns, they don’t understand this other position that I’m trying to occupy.
I think that transition is often a practical decision and I think what puzzles me in contemporary discourse is that it does away with that phenomenology of what it means to be in the world with other people by replacing it with a notion of the sovereign self
The internet has really transformed discourses of the self. When I was coming up in the early 2000s, it was the age of Tumblr and other online spaces where all kinds of queer people and people who thought they might be trans were endlessly reflecting on their genders. It was partly through the couple of transsexuals I knew in North Carolina and also reading this writing online that I started to map out my gender. Some of these Tumblr posts made distinctions between bodily dysphoria and social dysphoria and then there were some butches saying “here is how I conceive of my butch gender that remaps the female body but is not trans—here’s why I’m not male.” There was a large body of phenomenological discourse about what it meant to occupy a differently gendered social position, and what it meant to decide to transition for somebody who was already living a life that was not female in my case. It was understood at the time that there were multiple ways to live that were not female or feminine. What it meant to take one path and not the other was very important.
I was shocked to hear from you that this isn’t really how gender is talked about online today, say on Twitter. Could you say more about that?
Jules: Sure. And just to contextualize, part of what we’re interested in is de-exceptionalizing the distinction between nonbinary and transsexual, or nonbinary and binary, because what we’re approaching here is the difficulty of giving an account of oneself as differently gendered regardless of the particular configuration of your transness. For the transsexual like you or I, it may be just as uncertain as it is for a nonbinary person, but the truth status accorded to different gendered positions is unequal and the social possibility for legible trans masculinity is very different than for trans femininity.
Historically, masculinity affords so many more waypoints or pit stops between tomboys and trans men. You can drift over years or decades, you can transition for a lot more reasons than trans femmes can, who are much more policed and for whom there isn’t that widely recognized intermediary category. One of the questions I’m most interested in is how commonplace it has become to take individual declarations of identity to have truth value with little to no context—and that’s what I find confusing, not just as a historian but as a femme and a faggot.
We’ve talked a lot about the faggot-femme historical friendship. The way that gay men and trans femmes share a special comradery that I might even call a sorority. All the critiques of nonbinary’s mainstream uptake as overly aesthetic, as a category largely consumed around white androgynous, masculine images are great, but then look also at trans femmes and see how hard it is to give that positive account of the self and desire, too. Transsexual womanhood is so powerful and reviled not just because it involves proclaiming a real desire to be a woman—and who the fuck in this world is allowed to desire to be a woman?—but because it also brings up the incredible abjection of trying to get from a body read as male to a body read as a woman when there is no permissible cultural intermediary.
And this is not to say that the intermediary trans masculine positions are always emancipatory. I cringe a lot at those straight cis women who infantilize trans masculine people as “not really men, just cute nonthreatening boys who are safe and smol and great for me”—that’s really fucked up!
But one of the things you and I have been trying to understand is what’s the historical trajectory here to nonbinary. For a long time, the line between a faggot—a really effeminate gay person, a queen, or even a drag queen—and a trans femme was blurry and there is a lot of cultural anxiety about that slide in Western culture. That you might go all the way, that it might be horrifying and abjecting, or it might be something like the total freedom of feminization or castration, or even bottomhood (to which I laugh, as a femme top). It’s this sort of construct of the gay imaginary. But it also leads to this question: since there’s so little space for nonbinary trans femmes today and there’s a lot of pressure on them to put out something legible, they have to use this taxonomy of “oh, I’m not a man or woman, but I’m definitely not a man”—and then what? I’m always searching for the positive account that comes after “here is what I’m not,” and I’d like to see more cultural space granted to that. If you’re a nobinary trans femme that has a largely aesthetic component to your transition—say, makeup, clothes, and pronouns—what is it that differentiates you positively from the faggot as a gay boy or feminine person who is not a man?
Transsexual womanhood is so powerful and reviled not just because it involves proclaiming a real desire to be a woman—and who the fuck in this world is allowed to desire to be a woman?—but because it also brings up the incredible abjection of trying to get from a body read as male to a body read as a woman when there is no permissible cultural intermediary.
I want to underline that there has been precious little oxygen accorded to that, so this is not a criticism of any of these people. Not enough has been granted to them to affirm their desires. And since there is so much pressure in our contemporary taxonomy to separate gender from sexuality, it seems to make the situation even more impossible.
Kadji: When I initially met nonbinary femmes, I was really delighted. I saw them, before hearing their own definitions, as an effort to fill the void between gay men and trans women. And I had always been very disappointed in gay male culture for its effeminophobia. There’s all kinds of cultural trans misogyny at large that makes it very difficult to occupy any trans feminine position. But there could have been a gay male culture that would have actively desired and even lionized trans femininity. What if the historical position that existed for butches, that perhaps once existed for fairies or something like that, had been nurtured? What if trans femmes had been seen as the centers of gay culture and the ones who absorbed a lot of the opprobrium and hatred of straight culture and therefore deserved to be lionized for that instead of being rejected as the worst image of yourself that you wouldn’t want the world to see?
I think that gay male culture in the West put up a barrier between itself and trans femmes and said “we are men, we deserve rights!”
I was very disappointed to become a faggot and to see that gay male culture was not that interested in faggots.
Kadji: “We are only different when it comes to our sexuality and it’s none of your business!” So, I think we could easily imagine an alternate history or an alternate world where there had been a central place for trans femininity within gay male culture and in which there could have been all these positions in between gay male and trans woman that people could occupy, that would have been legible and even desired or sexualized by gay men. I had longed for that position to exist and when I transitioned that was what I imagined myself transitioning into—the faggot, not the man. And then I was very disappointed to become a faggot and to see that gay male culture was not that interested in faggots.
So, I thought, okay, gay male culture has done its best to kill the possibility of faggotry, but here are nonbinary femmes bravely trying to resuscitate it as a living possibility rather than a site of abjection. But as time has gone by, I’ve started to wonder if maybe that’s not what they’re doing, and it’s still unclear to me because of the lack of a space for that kind of discourse, or a refusal to explain themselves in that kind of way. I’m quite surprised, given the amount of space that was devoted in the late 1990s to early 2000s to figuring out the butch/trans man proximity, that there’s still a vacuum for that kind of discourse on the other side. How do you know if you’re a gay man or a trans woman? How do you know if you’re a trans woman or a nonbinary femme? This contributes to my lack of understanding of what a phenomenological position for nonbinary femme might be.
Again, I don’t know if that’s what any nonbinary femmes are trying to do, but if that is what some are trying to do, I’m not sure it’s working. As in, I’m not sure that enough people know how to read or respond accordingly to a trans femininity that isn’t either gay effeminacy or trans womanhood. If you take the butch position, for instance, it’s very clear: they wear men’s clothing, they look like men and act like men from the point of view of straight culture, so they must want to be treated as some sort of masculine person. Obviously this signals that they want to date women… There was this cultural legibility that even straight people could understand, even if they then phobically denied it by treating some butches as women, they still understood what the butch was asking for from the world. But I think most people still don’t know what it means when nonbinary femmes assert that they are nonbinary.
Jules: I was going to say that this speaks to the true persistence of misogyny as the ground of Western gendered culture and straight culture and what we’re poking at here is that our contemporary taxonomies of gender and sexuality, the ones that think there are these umbrella terms like trans under which we can make a series of subdivisions, miss the pervasiveness of misogyny. That femininity and masculinity—trans, nonbinary, other otherwise—are not symmetrical.
So, I was almost going to say “we have never been trans femme,” but I think a better way to say it would be that actually we have and we are, but we lack the vocabulary to speak that to the larger phobic culture in which we live, or even to ourselves, intramurally. And I’m thinking of that not as two nonbinary people sitting at my dining room table talking over coffee, nor as two transsexuals, but as two faggots who are in love, both of whom are gay in different ways. Our situation eclipses the taxonomies we are led to believe are both operative and describe reality in ways that are juicy and delicious between you and me, but lack wider legibility. One of the things we often joke about is that we would drop dead if a straight person thought we were straight too, since that’s not what it means for a masc and a femme to be together as two faggots.
I was almost going to say “we have never been trans femme”
There’s so much more we could say about this, but perhaps part of the issue at hand for us is not just the persistence of trans misogyny, not just the persistence of a sexological taxonomy that separates gender and sexuality, or even the hegemony of a certain American insistence on possessive individualism and self-sovereignty, but the serious lag between trans life, which is infinitely richer, and the weak concepts that for some reason we are told to accept as descriptively efficient. And a sort of beautiful call for a trans feminist future where the femme equivalent to the butch becomes a celebrated, lionized possibility.
Kadji: I think that’s really beautiful. We’ve been talking about how trans masculinity and trans femininity are utterly asymmetrical, and that’s something that a lot of our trans discourse denies by saying “we’re trans together,” or “we’re nonbinary together.” There’s actually a huge experiential and cultural division between mascs and femmes that goes unacknowledged. There’s so much more cultural space for mascs, including nonbinary, and there’s so much more history (for butches and non-binary mascs). There’s so little of this for nonbinary femmes and to me that means that femmes really occupy a different gender from nonbinary mascs that is not covered by the umbrella term nonbinary.
This is a hypothesis, but I do think today’s taxonomies seem more confusing than ever—though perhaps that doesn’t feel true to people who are coming into their genders today. But I believe that they are more confusing than they are helpful to actual queer and trans people. When I was coming up, it felt like there were more possibilities for me than had existed in the recent past. There were B-O-I-s—
Jules: What’s a B-O-I?
Kadji: A B-O-I, does that not exist anymore?
Jules: Ohhhh. Like, bwah.
Kadji: Yeah. Well, apparently, that’s how some people pronounce it…
Jules: Or boyeeee.
As far as I knew, it was pronounced exactly the same as “boy.”
Kadji: And there were genderqueers in some urban centers and there were trans men and there were butches. And so, I had to navigate all these possibilities. How do I know which one I am? I had to refer to what other people were online and try to fit myself into one of those categories. The way the categories were spoken of were as if there were ontological distinctions of personhood. Was my true self a transsexual? Who was I inside? Which is a ridiculous thing to make someone figure out.
And so, I imagine that today, when there is a huge proliferation of options and the options often overlap or are synonymous without substantial phenomenological accounts to differentiate them, and the pressure to come into a true self has never been greater than it used to be—it seems just flabbergasting and impossible.
the matter of gender is practical and relational. It’s not about who you are inside, it’s more about how you would feel most comfortable in the world. It’s not Who are you? but How do you want to live?
What I’ve realized is that I believe that the matter of gender is practical and relational. It’s not about who you are inside, it’s more about how you would feel most comfortable in the world. It’s not Who are you? but How do you want to live?
Had that been the discourse when I was coming up, I would have breathed a sigh of relief. I don’t have to figure out who I am on the inside, I just have to figure out how I want to live.
Jules: Thanks for chatting with the Sad Brown Girl, Kadji.
Kadji: My pleasure!