Time has a way of vanishing much as desire has a way of changing: almost never in the way expected.
Variations on the Pleasures of the Temporal Perhaps
Time has a way of vanishing much as desire has a way of changing: almost never in the way expected. The change can be sudden and irrevocable or ominously subtle. With each step, literal or temporal, change. Time is, after all, something you move through, marching away from the past and toward a perpetually out-of-reach future. Linear. We are a culmination of all that has passed and an anticipation of what is to come. In such a model, one would be forgiven for thinking the past reliable, static. But even remembrance of the past is not pure factual recall; remembrance is creation and fidelity is tricky.
Desire and the future have an obvious relationship: What you desire will shape how you approach the future, and therefore shape the future, even if the desire does not come to fruition. The relationship between desire and the past, however, is not so obvious. Desires of the past can provide clarity or narrative, and desires of the present can shape your perspective towards your own past. A clear past is for many a comforting past; but desires are not always clear, and people generally are not always at comfort with their desires. The temptation to bar desire from the past, in an attempt to discipline the past into some semblance of stability, forecloses more than clarifies. Applying the desirous “perhaps” to the past ruptures any appearance of stability. “Perhaps” as a tool can subvert, opening room for desire as an aspect of fact, for creative powers when scientific fact oppresses more than liberates. However, “perhaps” does recognize an instability in the past, therefore: If we are a culmination of all that has passed, but fact alone cannot furnish what has passed, then what are we? Our desires have their own histories, irrespective of temporal linearity. Perhaps therein lies a hint towards an answer.
Perhaps there is a play. Anne Bogart’s production of The Bacchae at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in fall of 2018. The Bacchae premiered in Athens 405 B.C., after the author Euripides’s death. Dionysus, the chaotic trickster god, convinces Pentheus, a rational young king, to infiltrate ceremonies happening at the edge of the town. Pentheus must wear the outfit of a woman (whatever that entails), despite spending a good portion of the play denouncing the concept. At the climax of Bogart’s production, Pentheus enters the stage, wearing a dress. He is undone. The audience chuckles. I freeze.
Despite Bogart’s serious framing of the scene and making a point of the dress-wearing chorus including a wide variety of people, the audience in that moment was in control. “This is humorous,” they decided, i.e.: a man wearing a dress, a man’s unravelling from wearing a dress, a man wearing a dress to infiltrate a woman-only space. Such a laugh generally comes from anxiety about gender, which often fuels violence. Bogart’s Bacchae pointedly did not want to answer to trans desires, did not want Pentheus’s robing scene to be seen as such, yet all that did was displace transness, assuming the scene had no transness worth consideration, creating the discomfort I felt while watching. Carefully, rationally not addressing a matter does not mean it will go unaddressed. Desires and anxieties about desires are powerful forces that often transcend rational facts. Realizing personal desires for trans people—or desires for a transition—can and has upset many, but the specifics get murky and difficult to pin without specific cases to look at.
A reading of transness into The Bacchae, or even recognizing the possible perpetuation of specific harmful transphobic tropes in performances of the Ancient Greek play, may raise claims of anachronism, or unfairness. (The long cry of “How can we hold those of the past to the moral standards of today?” I tentatively answer with “Whose comfort are we privileging here?”) To suggest Euripides had an understanding of the specific politics and social understanding of who trans people are today is laughable and also thoroughly misses the point. Ancient Greece did have a binary understanding of gender, and as with any social construct must have encountered gender deviance and instability (e.g. Dionysus), but it is more unhelpful than it is helpful to impress the social understandings today onto the past. However, the performance occurred in 2018. The play is not and was not a portal into the past, an antique sitting carefully in a temperature-controlled box with a giant sign that says DO NOT TOUCH, but exists as a collaboration with the future. The collaboration is without a legible goal: The precise moment of Athens in 405 BCE is lost, which is also to say incomplete, perpetually unfinished. Euripides will not come down from the heavens and instruct us on what counts as fair concerns and what his true intentions are (despite what certain scholars may want you to believe). Anachronistic desires, therefore, are maybe not as a rule so anachronistic. As a culmination of all that has passed, and an anticipation of what is to come, allowing present desire into that equation recognizes that every step of the past is not as self-evident as we would like to believe. To declare that any configuration of trans desire is anachronistic in conjunction with The Bacchae is to declare the past solid and separate from the present. Merely thinking of the past ruptures the illusion of such a separation, when we enter into the past full of our messy, desirious, sense-making “perhaps”es.
If desire will wreak havoc no matter whether it is invited in or not, then we might as well ask, whose desire are we privileging?
Perhaps there is an episode. “The Outcast.” Twelfth Night in space. Or perhaps a more tepid Left Hand of Darkness. The J’naii are a genderless alien species—any expression of gender is strictly verboten—but awkward dialogue establishes that the J’naii have a binary sex system. The genderlessness manifests in short hair, no discernible makeup, and formless clothes. Soren, a J’naii, has to spend many hours working closely with William Riker, the tall, strapping human man and a central character of the show. The two develop a rapport. Soren develops feelings for Riker, and confesses that she identifies as a woman. Eventually, Soren is discovered and carted away to conversion therapy for the perversity of identifying as a woman. Riker heartily defends Soren, saying the J’naii’s attitude and the ruling is inhumane. Unfortunately, his righteous pleas are not heard, and he is left distraught that such a society would stop two people in love.
Star Trek depicted one of the first—if not the first—interracial kiss on television in the original 1966 series, and every iteration since has attempted to follow the progressive legacy, taking varying degrees of controversial stances on progressive politics when imagining the future. In 1992, the Star Trek show of the time, The Next Generation, attempted to make sense of an almost omnipresent issue: the gays. What to do with them? According to the 1995 Captains’ Logs, which serves as an episode guide for several of the Star Trek series and includes interviews with the artistic and production teams, the episode was the result of receiving many letters from fans asking the show to take a step towards gay representation. You would be forgiven for thinking this episode was talking about trans desire and gender politics, but no discussion of trans representation shows up anywhere in early interviews. However, perhaps I should take a step back: Who is to say the episode isn’t about trans desire? Imaginations of the future, mediated in the present through the past, are also negotiations.
“The Outcast” has one part that is particularly charming in relation to my essay. While later Soren clarifies she has been living as a woman in secret for many years, our understanding of Soren the Woman is filtered through heterosexuality: because she desires Riker, and Riker is straight, Soren must be a woman. Desire is a funny thing, and such faith in desire to correspond with identity strikes me as naive. Just ask the number of gay trans men who identified as a lesbian prior to transition and have little qualms.
In a way, “The Outcast” spirals continually in on itself. Remembrance is creation, and desires always shift the compass. Star Trek means a lot to me as an individual, and I can project my own desires onto the characters and episodes and quirks. Watching from a future that Star Trek was too afraid or too ignorant to imagine, allowing my (queer, trans, gay, etc.) desires space where they were once denied feels reparative. In the year 2020, the 1992 episode set in the year 2368 has new pasts and presents to negotiate.
There is a special irony that in their reluctance to imagine a future with trans people (likely a concern never so much as discussed), almost thirty years into the future, the episode does precisely that. “The Outcast” misfires and stutters and flounders into something recognizable today, enough so that I can say “perhaps.” And that is fun! There is a perverse pleasure I feel in taking something out of the past, and, like an expensive antique locked away, stupidly playing with it. Star Trek has a tranny episode, I declare, and it is messy and funny! Art acts as a constant, shifting collaboration—what is art, if not meant to be shared?—and a site of constant recreation. While the episode leaves a lot to be desired, taking that common turn of phrase literally proves illuminating for my personal draw to the episode. Where The Bacchae ends in brutal dismemberment, and “The Outcast” ends in forced conversion therapy, the latter has moments where I can sneak in and, for awhile, let my desires run amok.
Perhaps there is a childhood photograph. A woman and two children stand on a massive Hasbro-esque pastel pink gazebo. (Perhaps taken on a trip to Disney World?) The woman’s face is blurred; what we can see of her face is passive, her stance wearied (strengthening the case of Disney World). A small child, maybe six years old, stands to her right and clutches the woman’s hand. With shaggy, chin-length brown hair, the child stands serene, wearing an oversized purple shirt erratically covered in yellow circles, paired with metallic gray pants and chunky sneakers. Another child—identical?—stands center, a few feet apart. This child has a furrowed brow, a pout a few degrees away from a temper tantrum (ah, Disney!), wearing a blue muscle-tank and baggy jeans. I am both children, I am neither—I have no clue which twin is me. Between the time the photo was taken and now, I have lost that information. Time, and the information once obvious at the time, such as which child I am/was, can go lost like losing a sock. Or like losing a loved one. Or losing a fight. But that does not mean that time serves as a subtractive force, constantly removing itself from the present. The past has a way of turning up everywhere you turn. Any document you read or see is, strictly speaking, a vessel from the past, such as that photograph from my childhood, but also perhaps less obviously the text you are reading here, or news labeled “current events.” The loss is not an inherently negative one. Every remembrance ruptures linearity, and the loss becomes potentiality. In leaving much to be desired, space exists for the desirous perhaps not just in the realm of art, but in how we imagine ourselves, which after all is inextricably bound with how we create art.
In her 2016 essay “An Affinity of Hammers,” Sara Ahmed discusses the formal and informal expectations from transphobic structures of power, the expectations that trans people must constantly and consistently justify their right to exist. She focuses on the entitlement cis people feel to supposedly reasonable questions and concerns, which she terms an affinity of hammers.1 In order to be granted access to surgery, hormones, name changes, the correct pronouns, trans people have to perform a certain consistency with their past desires that culminate in a stable understanding of the present. I walked out of the womb hating the color pink, attending monster truck derbies every year, never crying, and yes, fucking like a man. Now will you use “he/him” pronouns for me?
How can I exist today if I cannot read a continuous desire, a continuous existence in childhood photos of me? Labeling transness as a phase usually is paired with an insistence we should not take it seriously. Looking at the photo, it is not evident to me which one will grow up to be a boy and which one a girl. At the age of six I had not built a steady, irrefutable case for being a boy. To be honest, I am not sure I have one now, in the present which I walk through or the past with which I play. Perhaps I am and could have been the weird transsexual, wearing a funky purple shirt and astronaut pants. Perhaps I am and could have been the butch transsexual, arms about to cross as I wrinkle my forehead in defiance, like a baby Al Pacino or perhaps even a softly thoughtful Peter Falk.
Labeling transness a “phase” implies no future and a misguided past. However, are we not all going through phases every point of our life? Does the recognition of inevitable change strip desire of meaning?
Perhaps inevitable change means unpredictable meaning. The threat looms, the threat that the past will return and disrupt the present’s stability, the future’s predictability. We cannot trust desire to be stable or predictable, we can only trust it to be volatile. For me, allowing desire to run amok creates a multitude of reparative readings, and allows for a more anticipatory consciousness. To an extent, the turn toward identity politics is an attempt to clearly label all, locate any gaps, and label those too. Famously however, desires are more than a little messy, and recognizing your own desires is tricky and often paradoxically undesirable. An admission of desire can feel an awful lot like an admission of fallibility. And being embarrassed by your desires is so easy. For some, this turns to violence; for some, repression. Desires elude control, rationality. The past is not a truth waiting to be uncovered, nor is it a wholly fabricated fantasy. I read collaboratively through my present desires. (Not only my desires, but reason is not the whole picture of life.) I also read through remembrances, personal and collective. Desires have their own caprices, their own rules that they may not let you in on until years later. As our present desires shift and slide, so does our relationship to the past, and what we need from the past in order to look to the future. In the search for lost time, many surprises await, only if you remember to allow a little fun. Not all that is lost can be found, and so lies a virtue in “perhaps.”