I never did think that my own conundrum was a matter either of science
or of social convention. I thought it was a matter of the spirit, a kind of
divine allegory, and that explanations of it were not very important anyway.
Jan Morris, Conundrum
Contemporary writing on gender knows to take mysticism seriously. Hannah Black, in a piece called “Press for Service” in her recent book Dark Pool Party (2016), has her hypothetical “character” refer to a “mystical tradition” that they “know very little about” in which “god is a thing that both is and is not itself, and is and is not nothing, and is and is not everything”; Maggie Nelson, in her celebrated The Argonauts (2015), talks of being introduced by Anne Carson to the concept of “leaving a space empty so that God could rush in”. Yet this gender apophaticism can come across as pussyfooting. What people often want are concrete answers, whether they are asking “what gender are you?”, “what is a woman?” or, and of course this becomes quickly very fraught, “who gets to decide?” This can be born of a cautious or pushy attempt at empathy: in a review, also from 2015, of a number of “gender novels” , the writer, Casey Plett, begins by noting the reaction of a “well-meaning classmate” to an autobiographical essay she was writing on being transgender:
[She] told me that she liked my pieces, but wished my work could help her understand what it feels like to be trans. In response, I privately sent her my most intimate piece yet, one I was still working on. The classmate wrote back the next day, saying that she enjoyed it but still didn’t understand what my experience felt like. Then she said, ‘Maybe I was asking you to explain something that is simply unexplainable.’
A desire for concrete answers can be born also of hostility: an answer, it is implied, that requires that level of qualification, of nuanced specificity by negation, or which suggests any limit to human knowledge, must surely be bullshit.
Black, like those in the tradition she alludes to, makes clear that even to talk in contradictions is to talk meaningfully and truthfully. Jan Morris, whose own memoir, Conundrum (1974) is admittedly not at all contemporary, denies that elusiveness to quantification implies lack of certainty: “Gender is a more nebulous entity [than sex], however you conceive it. It lives in cavities. It cannot be computerised or tabulated. It transcends the body as it defies the test-tube, yet the consciousness of it can be so powerful that it can drive someone like me relentlessly and unerringly through every stage of life.” Yes; and while we may think her own wording to veer towards oversimplification—as, for example, in the distinction between “science” and “social convention” in my epigraph, or that between “body” and “spirit”—her point is the inexhaustibility of what she refers to as her “enigma”.
Yet this seems to cause problems, often at precisely the point when people hope to inhabit, if only imaginatively, the sort of consciousness Morris describes, and Plett develops the anecdote given previously into a discussion of how when writers who are not trans write transgender characters they seem almost invariably lacking in depth, with “being trans” replacing any suggestion of “character”, that is, an inner life, moral complexity, and so on. This empathetic lacuna—the idea that gender, because it on some level defies exhaustive explanation, can only ever be other—is created first and foremost from the outside. Being trans, to cisgender writers, is unimaginable, and so need not be imagined in any rich way. We might compare this to Black’s description of forgetting that the character Jess, from Leslie Feinberg’s Stone Butch Blues, is fictional:
We were maybe one-third of the way through Stone Butch Blues before we realized it was a novel. In an interview Leslie Feinberg said, ‘I have had a much richer, fuller life than Jess.’ Moved to defend Jess against her creator, we cradle our image of Jess, which is also the back cover image of Feinberg, close to our heart. What could be a richer or fuller life than the fullness of longing, than the ruin of being a man/being a woman? Why write life as fiction?
Black is right to insist that yes, Jess is enough. But there is too often an enforcement of the division between the full, rich trans lives of autobiography and the ciphers of fiction. “Transsexual people” Jacqueline Rose wrote in a recent long essay in the LRB , “are brilliant at telling their stories. But it is one of the ironies of their situation that attention sought and gained is not always in their best interest, since the most engaged, enthusiastic audience may have a prurient, or brutal, agenda of its own.” The genre simultaneously frees and limits, also, in suggesting that gender, and particularly trans gender, can only belong to an individual life: that there is no ‘being trans’, only countless examples of trans lives. Because of this, or as a cause of this, it seems often too complex—that is, too unimaginable—to belong to a fictional life: it seems that there is something irreducibly other about gender—what, whatever its provenance, it feels like—to the extent that while it can be talked of, it finds its best expression only in its inexpressibility. It is perhaps not, then, surprising that Olivia Laing, in The Lonely City (2016), allies, if only in passing, her sense of not feeling at home in her assigned gender with her larger theme of loneliness.
That an experience of gender might be personal, and somehow irreducibly other, is an idea that perturbs many people, and certainly those already suspicious of the idea of being trans. A point that I have frequently seen made goes something like, “I had short hair/liked trucks/wanted to be a boy as a child/teenager/undergraduate and I’m not trans.” It’s hard, or I find it hard, to convince these people that they have missed something, because the argument seems to sound circular: the difference between you and a trans person is that they are trans and you are not, the difference is that there is a difference. The idea that you could draw up an infinitely detailed list of facts about a person, or make an infinitely lifelike representation of them, and still not have arrived at reproducing them seems obvious, but it is true, too, that certain ideas about what it is like to be trans, repeated also by trans people, are taken to add up to being trans, ideas such as “an x stuck in the body of a y” or “looking back, it is obvious that N was trans because as a child they insisted on wearing/playing with/acting as…”, even though we know these not to be sufficient for a person to be, or to call themself, trans (nor, indeed, necessary). To talk of people in this way seems to turn them into characters, substituting narrative progression for life. But the alternatives can seem glib—“are you a man or a woman? Yes, says the character, or, no, depending on the character’s mood” (Black); “My gender,” as a friend said to me recently, “is ‘no thank you’”—or else credulously and embarrassingly ‘mystical’. To go round insisting that you are such and such a gender (or none) is to bring up the indecent topic of your inner life, and moreover to make clear that it is inaccessible to others, something that seems—and I hope this is not an inane or crypto-conservative generalisation—anathema to a society bent on knowing and understanding and mapping everything. (The two coincide in the dizzying catalogue of gender sub-categories of which there are, as Hannah Black notes, “like seven thousand on Facebook”.)
Being trans consists in the discrepancy accounted for by adding ‘is trans’ to the list of facts about a person, which is itself a discrepancy between what is seen, by oneself as well as by others, and what is known (or “felt”, which is more or less the same thing). (Sometimes it might not be what is seen so much as what is read; Black’s description of her character sending a message, in which the character “notes that literally every word is misspelled but presses return anyway in the hope of being understood” can be read, I think, as a particularly poignant description of gender, or perhaps specifically trans gender.) “Investigators into trans-sexuality,” Jan Morris suggests, “often comment on the mystic trappings in which it is likely to be clothed.” “I interpreted my journey,” she writes later, “as a quest, sacramental or visionary.” At a recent talk I attended on the theology of transgender, a person in the audience, in posing a question, reached a point of performed frustration and bafflement at the tropes used to describe the experience of being trans: these people, he said, are saying their soul is at odds with their body, but how can this be, when their soul is their body. The problem lies, of course, not in what is described, but in the flatness of the sorts of stories and imagery allowed to trans people. Another angle of approach to the theology of (trans)gender could follow a sermon I heard given to children at their first communion, where the priest explained the mystery of transubstantiation in terms of its exact opposite: he asked the first communicants to imagine meeting him in twenty years’ time, and saying “Father, is that you?”. Transition could be thought of as only another case—like that of the aged priest—of a change of accidents (i.e. appearance to the senses; wrinkles, bulges, musculature) without a change of substance (the person, the individual life).
Hilary Mantel—whose memoir, Giving up the Ghost (2003), shares many topoi with the ‘trans autobiography’ genre (including a description of knowing, aged three, that when she was four she would be a boy)—is a writer who seems particularly interested in, and perhaps even interested in promoting, the idea of our opacity to one another. In Giving up the Ghost she begins by worrying with ironic lucidity about the problem of lucidity in autobiography: “Is my writing clear: or is it deceptively clear?”. Might there be times where a certain kind of murkiness or distortion is closer to the truth than clarity or transparency? (Black, too, worries about fiction and “lies about the truth”.) For Mantel, fiction—and the ghost of another gender—is made explicable through mystery.
I was brought up a Catholic and that’s a very hard thing to shake off. In an ideal world, all writers would have a Catholic childhood, or belong to some other religion which does the equivalent for you, because religion tells you that the world is not what you see; that in fact beyond appearances there is another reality, and it is a far more important reality. I was taught Catholic doctrine at an age when my imagination was still forming, and I think that the idea of transubstantiation—where you are told that one thing can change into another, all in a moment, whilst its appearance remains the same—is very powerful. It makes you fixate on the moment when the change takes place, and the nature of that change. It’s a very powerful and mysterious idea, that one thing can absolutely be another, that the world as you perceive it is a kind of mirage. (Interview with Sarah O’Reilly)
The doctrine of transubstantiation caused me no headache. I was not surprised to find that a round wafer was the body of Jesus Christ. I’d been saying for years that things like this occurred, if people would only notice. […] Girl could change to boy, though this had not happened to me, and I knew now it never would. (Giving up the Ghost)
At the beginning of her memoir, Mantel talks about seeing ghosts. We later discover that these ghosts belong to the aura symptoms of her migraines, migraines which are themselves caused by endometriosis—a narrative path that mirrors her own, in that she suffered for years with doctors misdiagnosing her condition as a sort of nervous disorder, an illness that was “all in the mind”. Only after her own research and a sympathetic (and less sexist) doctor is it confirmed that her symptoms have a specific cause, visible in the body, identifiable, the very opposite of the ghost-like hysteria her previous doctors had accused her of thinking into being. The book is, however, very interested in thinking about what it might be for something to be all in the mind. In some cases—the fasting of saints producing visions, the side-effects of anti-psychotic medication causing the outwards signs of, and inward experience of, madness—Mantel brings things back to the unambiguously material; minds are, for the most part, innocent dupes of hormones, or drugs, or other kinds of physical circumstance. And also other sorts of external realities, such as ghosts, and grace, and an unshakeable belief in what one is that is belied by physical circumstance. One example might be the idea of being a thin person who is seen to the world, and particularly the world of literary interviewers, as a fat person and described and treated accordingly (not that I or she suggests there is such a thing; but her inner fidget—i.e. “thin person”—is obscured by the cultural associations of fatness with placidness or even indolence). Another example is her childhood understanding that, aged four, she would become a boy; not that she wanted this, but that it would happen. It didn’t, but the mistake is the world’s, not hers, and the “ghostly, fading boy that [she] still carr[ies] inside” is, if secret, real.
We are at an interesting point now, which is one where such childhood beliefs do not need to fade away or be consciously turned against. Children who are sure that they will become a boy may not quite do so on their fourth birthday, but can at least be socially indistinguishable from the boys around them, and not get sent to girls’ schools, and go through the same sort of puberty as their (male) classmates if perhaps a little later than them, and live their life as the men they played at being as a child. This raises a question, perhaps even a dilemma, for those who live with that sort of ghost: would that, but for history, be me? (The poet and critic Steph Burt has written of this in, among other things, “On growing up between genders: an essay in propositions”.) It is this sort of worry that may well drive the reasoning of those who try to rubbish the claims of trans people through reference to their own experience (that is, of the sort “but I played with trucks as a child”). Sensationalist documentaries then give space to such worries in the name of “balance”, ignoring the fact that this is an issue which has, in the words of Philomena Cunk, “split the science community straight down the middle, 90/10”. For doctors involved with treating trans people, things are fairly clear: transition works. They say this not because they have drunk the kool-aid, but because they, like Mantel’s first sympathetic doctor, understand that “somehow, you have to live till you’re cured”; and trans people live, on the whole, less than non-trans people, as in, they die sooner and more often by their own doing.
Transition is uncomfortable of course for the way that it makes unavoidable to the not-trans the idea that we are none of us neutral with regard to how we present ourselves, that a non-look is a look, that not needing to think about gender is gender. (“Nice gender,” a meme goes, “did your mum pick it out for you?”) Transition exposes not just the secrets of the person transitioning, but also those of others, who have to consider options they never thought were available to them. (As Rose writes, “However normalised, [transsexualism] unsettles the way most people prefer to think of themselves and pretty much everyone else.”) And it does this exposing by being frustratingly opaque: there are easily packageable conversion-type narratives of, say, a joke cross-dressing that became an epiphany, but such neat accounts are rarely the whole story, and it is often more the case that the trans person simply cannot or can no longer see any version of it in which they are not trans, where the thing that seems to be the case to all others simply isn’t, and that is the only certainty.
Nelson—who, by the time of reading The Argonauts is no longer convinced by silence or spaces—describes arguing with her partner over whether words are good enough: for Nelson, a writer, and a writer obsessed at the time with Wittgenstein, they are; for Harry, they are not, in part because they do too much: “not only not good enough, but corrosive to all that is good, all that is real, all that is flow.” “We argued and argued on this account,” Nelson continues, “full of fever, not malice. Once we name something, [Harry] said, we can never see it the same way again. All that is unnameable falls away, gets lost, is murdered.” Mantel’s earliest unsympathetic doctor names her “Little Miss Neverwell”. “I am angry. I don’t like being given a name. It’s too much like power over me.” But her stepfather never names her, referring to her rather—and not in the current, gender-avoiding way—as “they”. We want to be named; but we want that name to be ours. (What significance, at this point, do we allocate to the suspicion in those who ask “is that your real name”? What difference is there between a deliberate change of name and, say, a name chosen at confirmation?) Mantel ends the section with the word “Rumpelstiltskin”: yet many would much rather reject the curious sense of power that comes with keeping their name—their own, not necessarily assigned, name—secret.
Do secrets become more real when exposed, or do they become something else instead? Morris speaks fondly, with almost a sense of loss, of her secret, which she closely associates with the “consolations of Christian form” and her choir school: “An ancient holy building is conducive to secrets, and my secret became so intermingled with the shapes, sounds and patterns of the cathedral that to this day, when I go back there to evensong, I feel an air of complicity.” For Mantel, the big secret, the thing for which she can’t find words, is not gender but a sudden sense of loss of grace, an active seeping away of goodness and faith that takes place at a specific point in her childhood. She writes, as she says, “in order to take charge of the story of my childhood and my childlessness; and in order to locate myself, if not within a body, then in the narrow space between one letter and the next, between the lines where the ghosts of meaning are”; but the unnameable thing that is seen in the garden, and the insufficiently nameable thing that is lost thereafter, although neither of them “self”, are nonetheless important as ghosts, non-existent beings that exist by having been dismissed from existence—as are, too, the children one doesn’t or can’t have; the girl that is banished when the midwife says, “it’s a boy”; the bodies that illness has changed irrevocably. Laing has given one of her chapters the title “Render Ghosts”, after the images of real people that become the hypothetical inhabitants in digital mock-ups of as-yet unrealised buildings and urban spaces, people who don’t even have enough life to be fictional, people whose secret is that they do (in some sense) exist. There is sometimes a confusion attached to what “out” might mean when referring to trans people: if they have a secret, is it, we wonder, that—as in for instance the stories of early female saints who dressed as men to become monks—they once were another gender, or is it, as with Morris, and Mantel and Laing, that they could or will be one? And what, once out, might we do with these secrets: are these ghosts to be, in Morris’s distinction, promises or burdens? Will they ever have bodies? Should—and can—we name them?
Kaj Worth  lives in Berlin and Devon.
The cyanotypes accompanying this article were also made by the author.