Categories
Cultural Miasma

After Fang Si-Qi’s First Love Paradise

by Wenna Chen | Cultural Miasma | Spring 2018

Images by Brad Boboc

CONTENT WARNING: This piece involves content concerning sexual assault and suicide. please read with caution and care.


In high school, there was no merry celebration for the end of last period when the 5:00 PM bell rang and the teachers dropped their chalks. Mechanically stuffing books and question sets into their backpacks, two-thirds of my schoolmates proceeded to go to cram schools, where they paid private tutors to hammer knowledge into their brains. On top of the traditional high school curriculum, students in cram schools are expected to take intense courses that coach them to become nothing but test-taking machines. Cram schools blossomed first into a building, then two, then a whole block, and eventually settled down to an entire district. After ten hours of school, thousands of Taiwanese students crowded into the cramming districts, craving more force-fed knowledge that was somehow the golden ticket to attend top-notch universities.

Yi-Han Lin was one of the students whose backpack bore nothing but a dozen question set copies. She was the brightest among us all. With a perfect score on the college entrance exam, she was admitted to the best university in Taiwan for a Bachelor’s degree in pre-med. A few years later, her life took a detour when she decided to study Chinese literature. A few years after that, she stopped her life once and for all, leaving behind only an apologetic note. 

Lin’s life was once mine. We crossed the street in the same blue skirts that covered our knees and white uniforms that gave away the colors of our bras. We squeezed into buses with our packs of friends and giggled loudly, annoying the other passengers. And every night, we studied the mountains of books piled up in our rooms. But at some point, our lives started to stray. Lin took off before me and I’m left to wonder what went wrong. 

***

I can’t pull out what has been thrusted inside me.

Yi-Han Lin

***

Lin’s death would have been swallowed by the indifference of society had her beauty and rare talent failed to garner public admiration. With big brown eyes, round pink cheeks and a dimpled smile, she was the girl that made guys twist their necks when she walked by. Her life should have left its final footprint at a small column of the local newspaper and dissipated from public memory, but the only novel she managed to publish before the end changed everything. With Lin’s name on the cover, Fang Si-Qi’s First Love Paradise leaped to the top of the best-seller list in a heartbeat. Beneath its smooth pink cover lay a heartbreaking story tagged with Lin’s note: Based on a true story, for the girl who is still waiting for her angel and B. 

***

I don’t want people to read this book with the sentiment ‘Oh, thank god it’s not real.’ I don’t want them to leave their feelings behind and just move on with their lives.

Yi-Han Lin

***

Every drop of ink in the book was arranged with meticulous discretion. Lin wrote and tweaked until the exquisite metaphors, abandoning traditional syntax and grammatical governance, became something entirely her own. The story of Fang Si-Qi’s First Love Paradise centers around a girl named Fang Si-Qi whose life unraveled once the Li family moved into a lavish building in downtown Kaohsiung, the most flourishing city in southern Taiwan. When Guo-Hua Li, a renowned cram school teacher who specialized in Chinese literature, became thirteen-year-old Si-Qi’s new neighbor, he preyed on her innocence. Li was an experienced predator who knew how to exploit teenage girls under his care in the name of love. Si-Qi was thirteen the first time Li raped her, but she was eighteen the last time she woke up beside Li in a motel bed. During their last encounter, Li snapped a shot of Si-Qi’s nude body, which was the final tipping point for Si-Qi. In the end, she was left to spend the rest of her life in a psychiatric hospital.

Lin’s writing is compelling in the most repulsive way. She captivates her audience in the scenes of horror. She didn’t just want her audience to watch and register what happened, she wanted us to feel every scene and the pain that came with it. Because of that, this book was the most miserable reading experience in my life.

***

I am a malicious writer. My writing was never inspired by the noble hope to redeem anyone, not even to save myself. More than anything, I want every single one of you to feel Si-Qi’s pain, the pain that could destroy everyone on earth had they tasted a mere fraction of it.

Yi-Han Lin

***

Fiction or not, Fang Si-Qi’s First Love Paradise spoke for Lin when she gave up the chance to utter another word. The news of Lin’s suicide traveled at an unprecedented speed. Within a few hours, the whole of Taiwan woke up to talk about her death over breakfast. On the same day, Lin’s parents issued a statement through her publisher that sent the public over the edge: 

Dear friends,

Thank you for grieving with our loss. There are a few things we’d like to say:

The source of our daughter’s suffering, the nightmare that had haunted her for years, and the reason that her depression was never cured started with the sexual assault that took place in her life eight to nine years ago.

Fang Si-Qi’s First Love Paradise was the true and painful reflection of our daughter’s psyche after she was violated by a renowned cram school teacher.

What happened to the characters in the book—Si-Qi, Xiao-Qi, and Yi-Ting—all happened to our daughter. She structured the story that way to protect us and the family.

She wrote the book in hope of stopping similar tragedies from repeating themselves. We ask all parents, boys, girls, and men that know kindness, to protect the suffering Fang Si-Qis with tenderness and warmth.

Our daughter is gone. We would never be able to hear her call for Daddy and Mommy again, but we hope people can remember her by her smile.

Lastly, if you really feel sorry, please pass this message to everyone in Taiwan. Please buy this book and pass it to the parents and children that are in dire need of help and comfort. 

Bing-Huang Lin & Jia-Fang Lai, April 28, 2017 (Guerrilla Publishing)

Stunned by the revelation and poignant emotions in this message, thousands of Taiwanese people flocked to bookstores in search of Fang Si-Qi’s First Love Paradise. The book skyrocketed up the best-seller list until there weren’t any available copies left for sale. While most of us awaited our copies, those who had dedicated an all-nighter to devour it were all asking the same questions: “Who did this to Yi-Han Lin?” “Who is Guo-Hua Li in real life?” “I know a Chinese literature cram school teacher whose taste in antique collection matches Li’s.” The society would do anything to satisfy its morbid curiosity. As snowballing rumors electrified the public sphere, people were pointing fingers at every suspicious figure that allegedly fit the description of Guo-Hua Li. This unusually polished letter had earned Lin’s parents country-wide empathy and indignation on top of an exuberant sales boost. If the message was furnished with the intent to manipulate public predilection or commercialize Lin’s death, the Lins had overachieved their goals. 

Most of us are vigilantly aware that public rumors, when stirred, become imbued with destructive force. But this case was a rare exception. Infected with profuse indignation, the online community shouldered the burden to answer justice’s calling; people began to tear Lin’s story apart, searching for traces of evidence that would point them to the perpetrator. In the frenzy, Kaohsiung city councilmen Yong-Da Xiao made a blatant statement that rocked the boat. 

In graduate school, Xiao had been an enthusiastic activist who pledged for political democracy in Taiwan along with the 6,000 students marching in the Wild Lily student movement. He then worked as a faculty member in multiple schools around the Kaohsiung area before founding the Kaohsiung Teachers Association and successfully running for three consecutive terms of councilmenship. Seated in the center of a conference room, Xiao combed through his manuscripts as the press settled down. The only poster on the wall behind him plainly read: “Expose faculty predators—there shall not be another Fang Si-Qi.” Swiftly extending his arm to test the microphone, Xiao began the announcement in unwavering composure and confidence: “According to my investigation, the offender is a Chinese literature teacher currently employed by Tong Xin cram school. His name is Kuo-Xing Chen.” In a split second, the room droning with frizzy movements withered into a graveyard of dead silence. Xiao refused to reveal the source of his investigation due to protective confidentiality, but he did not shy from further revealing himself. “I swear on my political career to expose this corrupted teacher. And I will not back off until he admits to what he has done.” 

Immediately, cram schools associated with the accused severed ties with Chen, cancelling all his classes and expelling him from employment. Kuo-Xing Chen’s daughter, an amateur model, was the next to pay the price while her father remained unresponsive to the accusation. Swarming to Tiffany Chen’s modeling fan page, people rained a gruesome attack on her and her family. Tiffany was forced to shut down the page full of hateful comments and lost her career to the gravity of collective speculation. 

At the heat of this rippling havoc, Readmoo, a virtual ebookstore, released a series of videos that documented their interview with Lin prior to her death. In a thin pink blouse that draped loosely over her chest, Lin rested her hands on her criss-crossed knees. She was alive. Light shimmered in her eyes as she unscrolled a note on her lap—this was the closest I could ever get to her. 

Chewing on every word carefully before spitting them out, Lin pieced her first sentence with meticulous precision: “After reading my book, many would conclude that this is a story about how a girl was exploited and raped. But that’s not entirely accurate. This story is about how a girl fell in love with her abuser.”

However, Lin had no intention to delve into sexual exploitation or rape. Instead, she gave the audience a literature review of her book. While the majority of her peers wandered into literature studies with anything but heartfelt passion, she enrolled because she was obsessed with it. “In high school, I was crazy about Eileen Chang’s work,” she said. “I could recite the whole set, from the very first word to the last, exactly as they are. My fixation scared me so much that I put Chang’s books away and started reading a bunch of translated literature to dilute her voice in my head.” 

After Lin was diagnosed with depression, she spent most of her time at home. During this time, she read hundreds of books that ranged from Tender Is The Night to A Personal Matter. At one point, her obsession for literature inadvertently blossomed into an admiration for writers. Enticed by their pen and talent, Lin trusted the masters behind those exquisite literary miracles to be equally astonishing in character. As a romantic, Lin fell the hardest when reality betrayed the trust she endowed in literary aesthetic and humanity. “For me, the most painful thing to watch in Fang Si-Qi’s First Love Paradise is how easily Li, as a person who knew literature, exploited its aesthetic power and defied its legacy. He spoke love in so many ways, each of which mesmerizing, but he never meant any of them,” said Lin during the interview.

***

After his two-week silence in this scorching controversy, Chen finally launched a statement. In the belated letter, he painted a picture of himself that the public did not recognize. 

Dear friends, 

My name is Kuo-Xing Chen, not Kuo-Hua Li. I want to apologize to my family and everyone who has been following this incident. … With regard to Mr. and Mrs. Lin’s loss and grievance, I declined to come forward in the first place. However, as the situation grew out of control, I had to make my statement:

First of all, I did not go off the grid or attempt escape. I did not, as rumored, spend the time of my silence destroying evidence. I have been in Taipei the whole time, trying to cope with the gravity of public rumors. …

Second, I first met Ms. Lin when she became my student in February 2009. Our interaction was limited to class time. It wasn’t until August 2009—when she became a rising college freshman—that we engaged in a two-month relationship. During the affair, we were no longer faculty-student bound. Mr. and Mrs. Lin broke up the relationship upon notice. And my wife’s forgiveness marked the end of this affair. 

Third, as indicated in her interview, Ms. Lin had suffered from severe depression since the age of sixteen, the time in which we didn’t even know each other. …

Fourth, during her book primier conference, Ms. Lin clearly stated that she was not the main character in the book, disappointing everyone. […]

Chen expressed overt willingness to cooperate with the prosecution as this incident evolved from gossip to a criminal investigation. After pulling out communication records between involved parties and deciphering Lin’s encrypted online journal, the prosecution studied Lin’s past work while interrogating associated witnesses. Based off the evidence they managed to collect, the prosecution drew a conclusion that threw Taiwan into the height of inflammatory hysteria: Kuo-Xing Chen was acquitted from every charge. 

He walked free because the cram school record and witnesses indicated that Lin was over sixteen—the age to give legitimate consent—the first time they met. He walked free because two of Lin’s best friends testified that Lin had happily introduced Chen as her boyfriend on three separate occasions and had never mentioned being raped. He walked free because Lin had withdrawn from cram school in June and they had started texting the moment she ceased to be his student. He walked free because Lin was eighteen the first time they had sex on August 11, 2009. He walked free because hospital records showed that Lin had attempted her first suicide after her parents broke up. And even though Lin brought up “rape” and “being coerced” in her therapy session, he walked free because Lin also called this episode “a love affair.” The official verdict was a document that disassociated this case into a bundle of facts devoid of any emotion. At the end, it plainly recited, “Apart from the informer’s subjective speculation, there is a lack of conclusive evidence to establish that the accused was guilty of charge.” 

Chen did not walk away because the evidence wasn’t enough to prove him guilty in the realm of law: He walked free because he knew that modern justice left a grey area for those it failed to prove innocent. Rape is too narrowly defined by Taiwanese law; a man is labeled a rapist only if he violates a woman’s body against her will, but the authority couldn’t lay a finger on the man who played on a girl’s feelings just to get into her pants. Instead of leaving the case in an innocent man’s suit or a criminal’s jumper, Chen walked away as one who failed to qualify as either.

***

This case had haunted me for months since I shut Fang Si-Qi’s First Love Paradise in a cold sweat. Twenty pages into the story and the pain within was already tearing me apart. Lin’s words, infiltrating the defensive rationale and suspicion I had as a reader, destroyed the barrier of mental energy I was willing to invest in reading someone else’s story. Her pen peeled off my skin and shoved me into the sea of intimate horror. I do not doubt that this story originated, at least in part, from her personal experience. 

The interviews with Lin’s best friend and publisher confirmed my dreadful intuition. On February 26th, 2016, Lin’s best friend, May, received the first draft of Fang Si-Qi’s First Love Paradise. May recounted, “It was a 10,000-word manuscript. Yi-Han said she found her voice in writing and decided to start working on the piece she had been constructing for the past seven years.” Every week, Lin would send May another 10,000 words. May was Lin’s first audience and editor. “My reaction to the story was probably similar to the majority of others. It was an extremely uncomfortable reading experience and I was beyond disturbed by the pain packed within Yi-Han’s words. But at the same time, I felt strangely satisfied,” May continued. “As her friend, I was most worried about her mental state. She must have been suffering in conscious pain when she poured herself out on the paper. The way she wrote, she was self-inflicting at the same time.”

***

You couldn’t pull yourself to watch the nauseating details of rape in real life, but you are able to keep reading it in my book. Why? Because the pain satisfies the worst of your curiosity. It hurts, but at the same time, it brings you contentment. You know you shouldn’t watch, but you did it anyway.

Yi-Han Lin

***

Guerrilla Publishing was the least attractive among all the publishing companies that contacted Lin. They had a specific taste for topics excluded from the mainstream and were chronically understaffed. Even though many of their past publications received awards, Guerrilla Publishing remained a meaningless name to the majority of Taiwanese people. After the initial introduction to the manuscript, the head of Guerrilla Publishing, Pei-Yu Guo, declined to publish Lin’s book. “As a reader, I was impressed by her script. But as an editor and a publisher, I was afraid that I would cause Lin more harm when giving her feedback. My life experience was limited; I did not find it in myself the confidence to navigate what the characters in the book were experiencing.” 

An unofficial, part-time member of Guerrilla Publishing at that time, Nini Chang, was the only one who thought that it was a mistake to turn Lin down. Chang had never worked as an editor, but she had a strong feeling about Lin’s story. “I cried for two days when I looked up Yi-Han’s blog and read what’s on it. I was shocked to find out that her perspective on this world matched mine almost perfectly. It was as if she spoke for me. Our experience doesn’t necessarily overlap—I had never been that severely traumatized, nor had I actually been hospitalized—but I could take in the emotions in her story. And if I can, I want to protect her, or be her company in sailing through all this.”

At first, Lin was reluctant to review Chang’s offer from Guerrilla Publishing due to its trivial size and peculiar interest. But after several meetings, they agreed on a preliminary contract. Before entrusting her work to Guerrilla Publishing, Lin approached Chang with one lingering question. “If the press makes a fuss out of my work, would you, on behalf of Guerrilla Publishing, side with me?” The team promised to do so. A few months later, Fang Si-Qi’s First Love Paradise was printed and finely wrapped for sale. 

Prior to launching the first edition of their hard work, Lin and her publishing team sat down to map out a story for any press complications, such as: what if the media draws a parallel between the story and Lin’s private life? In the interview with Lin’s editors, Guo recounted that Lin did not mind people knowing that the book derived from her personal experience. In fact, saying this out loud would be relieving for her. Lin’s only concern lay with her family. After a futile attempt to deter Lin from publishing Fang Si-Qi’s First Love Paradise, Lin’s parents insisted against any confession to the press. Lin compromised. Guo said, “[Lin] was afraid that, once we went public about what happened to her, the consequent societal perception would cause her family more harm, so we had a consensus to tell everyone that the book was based on a friend’s experience.” People had their suspicions, but the story managed to contain public speculation until Lin’s suicide ignited the chaotic outbreak. 

Chang’s phone rang nonstop the morning Lin died. On the phone, Mr. Lin asked Chang to publish a statement on behalf of Guerrilla Publishing. “After an emergency meeting in the morning, we decided to issue an official statement through the company site. When Lin’s family, the people that she cared about the most, had asked for a voice, we wanted to help deliver a clear message and consolidate its credibility among rumors and aimless speculation,” Guo explained. But the weight of Lin’s life unsettled the team. In the days that followed, members of Guerrilla Publishing struggled in doubt as they interrogated themselves repeatedly: Have we kept our promise to side with her or did we do something wrong? 

They never knew the answers to those questions the same way I never found the answer to mine: How did things go so wrong so fast? 

***

Kuo-Xing Chen might not be made guilty by law, but public moral trial hung him relentlessly. He was reckless at best, cunningly corrupted at worst. And many, like me, found our moral compasses bent toward the abominable end of that spectrum. From the cell phone record, the prosecution uncovered that Chen had started texting Lin four days before she withdrew from cram school, four days before the legal boundary of faculty and student expired. Lin replied to his text two weeks later and they communicated extensively in the following months until the relationship halted. This suspicious timeline, coupled with other narratives entangled in the case, was more than enough to dismiss the convenient claim of coincidence. Instead of clumsy recklessness, Chen’s demeanor warranted questionable intention. 

***

The Kuo-Hua Li in my life is still alive and he won’t die anytime soon. I still walk on the street and see his name up on the billboards. There would always be another victim and the same thing keeps happening to those girls.

Yi-Han Lin

***

Chen might be the most conspicuous figure that drove Lin to take her own life, but he was not alone. When Lin’s parents talked about their daughter, the one thing they neglected to mention was how they may have contributed to this tragedy. Lin’s family had long indulged in the glorious privilege of being part of the high-class elite society: Mr. Lin was a doctor famous for his extraordinary accomplishments in medicine, and Lin was the beautiful daughter whose precocious talent made the front page before she graduated from high school. They were “the perfect family” in Taiwanese society, but wearing their pride came with great cost. According to Lin’s editors and close friend, Lin’s parents did not report the case when they discovered that an authoritative male was taking advantage of their daughter in a romantic relationship. Upon discovery, the Lins confronted the accused and his wife at a deluxe booth in Sheraton Grande Taipei Hotel. After Lin’s parents went into a lopsided verbal rampage for an hour, Chen’s wife threatened to sue Lin for adultery and exclaimed, “If I go to court and make the whole thing public, Lin is the one who would to pay the ultimate price.” 

In the days that followed, Lin’s parents kept their silence. They did not report the case after Lin calmed down from the rush of love and realized that she had been exploited. They did not report the case when Lin wanted to seek justice for the assault. And they held Lin back when she demanded to tell her story. 

I think that the pressure to maintain the glowing façade of perfect family denied Lin’s need for a voice and forced her to bury her feelings internally. I think that Lin’s parents rejected any means to publicize the incident at the expense of their daughter’s well-being because they were petrified of marring the family name. I think that Lin’s parents attributed the encounter to Chen’s corrupted character as much as to Lin’s senselessness. I think that, while Lin’s parents knew that their daughter was the victim, they still couldn’t help but render what happened as a disgrace. I think that Lin knew how the value of honor, face and feminine chastity fostered the culture of victim-blaming. And I think that she knew exactly where she stood: a victim who needed to convince everyone that she was a victim.

***

While she was packing for college, Si-Qi opened her mouth and let her words flow out with artificial innocence, “I heard that a student in my school got together with one of the teachers.

Who is it?” Her mom asked. 

I don’t know.’

‘Never too young to be a slut.’

Si-Qi sank into silence. At that moment, she decided that she was going to stay silent for the rest of her life.”

Fang Si-Qi’s First Love Paradise

***

A society that follows the conservative norm of gender roles and power dynamics inevitably buries victims of sexual assault. And the education that repels sex creates more victims. In elementary school, Taiwanese children began to realize that boys and girls have different reproductive organs. We were curious about the differences in our anatomy, but teachers at school were only willing to talk about numbers, Chinese characters, and English alphabets. In junior high school, we were introduced to the biological mechanism of reproduction through science courses, but that was far from enough to satisfy our blooming curiosity. We started to sneak readings and materials that would appall our parents and consulted them for sexual knowledge covertly. In high school, sex education could be summarized in one sentence: Do not have sex. The teacher would stand on the podium for the entire afternoon showing us cases of STDs, accidental pregnancy, and a million reasons not to trust any means of protection, but never once did they talk about sexual assault or the meaning of consent. Never once did anyone teach us how to protect ourselves. Taiwanese education is essentially sexphobic. It taught us reproduction, but we had to self-teach ourselves everything about sex. It painted sex with the color of embarrassment and hurdled many into the unbroken silence that emanated not subtlety, but negligence. This broken system produced 30,000 teenagers the year Lin graduated from high school, all of whom grew up to become potential victims or perpetrators. 

***

At the table, Si-Qi spoke in a way like she was putting butter on bread. “We seem to have everything in our family except sex education.

Her mom stared at her in dismay, “What sex education? Sex education is for people who need sex. Isn’t that how education works?

Si-Qi understood then, that her parents were forever absent in this story. They skipped class, yet they thought school hadn’t even started yet.

Fang Si-Qi’s First Love Paradise

***

Lin spent the last chapter of her life putting her story into Fang Si-Qi’s First Love Paradise. She hoped that her audience could read with her—which many of us did—but we didn’t necessarily take away the message intended for us. “I have no intention or hope for this book to change the world in any way. In fact, I don’t even want to connect with the big words or societal structures,” said Lin. Instead of tracing the broader stroke of a long-term system, Lin wanted us to remember every girl that shared Si-Qi’s story. “It scares me when the ‘smart, progressive, and politically correct’ people talk about structures. They are ambitious, but they are also conveniently oblivious. The structure is determined by thousands of cases, each one with a victim just like Si-Qi. Those are humans, not numbers.” 

Categories
The Bawdy Politic

Transgender Cartography

by Maxwell Van Cooper | The Bawdy Politic | Fall 2017

Images by Brad Boboc

“I just don’t understand why you have to box yourself into
these categories. I mean, aren’t we all just human? Why do
you have to label yourself like that?”
A family member at dinner, Christmas Eve, 2016.
Lasts approximately three hours.

Maxwell is a family name. My uncle has it, my grandmother has it, her father… I don’t know its origin story. My mother wanted to give it to me as a middle name, as tradition, but also so that if I ever wanted to be a writer, I would have a pen name at hand. Its origin story for me really began at age sixteen, when I went by Max for the first time. I wore baggy clothes until my then-boyfriend informed me tight clothes were sexier. I stopped immediately. I never thought I wanted to be a boy. I knew my favorite characters were Alanna from Tamora Pierce’s novels and Viola from She’s the Man. But I loved dresses, so none of this meant anything, of course.

I tried Sophie again in college because I felt so detached from and alienated by this mysterious concept of womanhood. I desperately wanted to be a girl. I had always been feminine, so it was fine. It was totally fine—and then it wasn’t. Dysphoria is like a slow burn, or a month-long itch that you can’t scratch—it’s there in your most vulnerable moment, constantly teetering at the periphery of your brain. But that’s not what made me trans. The queer and trans culture at Oberlin that I so desperately needed, that so openly embraced me and said it’s okay: That’s not what made me trans. I actually rejected the word transgender for the first two years after I came out as non-binary. Maybe it was too foreign, too assertive. Maybe because I still liked dresses, which I still connected with womanness. But it was also because in my head, I saw transgenderism as something painful, something that was etched into history with violence and oppression. It didn’t feel like my place, as a white upper-middle-class queer gallivanting around Oberlin calling themself a twink, to hold the weight of that word—or maybe I didn’t want it.

And yet there is something about the word transgender that is so enticing in its mysteriousness, so embracing and transgressive. I found myself questioning what the word meant, and what it meant for my own gender-straying. I found myself interpolated in the word by my own standards, my community, and institutions of cis/heteronormativity. A word bent on defiance.

But the limits of the word seemed to elude me and many people within my community. We all knew what it meant, and yet some people were using it as an umbrella term for anything outside of cisgender, whereas some of my non-binary and trans friends were saying that it made them uncomfortable to see it used in such broad definition, for people whose experiences they couldn’t relate to. Then there were people like me, who were scared to recognize the potential of the word.

It wasn’t that we were all confused. The word’s definition is elusive through its history. But through its conception, we can trace why radically different people are adopting the word transgender, and how this miscommunication occurs.

“So you want to be a man?”
“No, not quite.”
“So you want to be a woman?”
“No, not exactly.”
“So you’re trying to become a man?”
“Um.”
Encounter with Planned Parenthood doctor while trying to
get T, August 18, 2017.
Lasts approximately fifteen minutes.

***

The Transgender Dilemma

Transgender as a word and concept has swiftly ascended into contemporary popular terminology. As early as the ’60s, trans people coined the word to counter the medicalized term transsexual, and by the early ’90s, trans activists such as Leslie Feinberg helped popularize the word to describe people who did not identify as transsexual, but were not cisgender either. Transgender became an umbrella term for gender nonconforming individuals. Yet as the word transsexual became obsolete due to its problematic context and history, transgender came to replace transsexual in the everyday American’s vocabulary. For the general public, transgender individuals resided within a traditional binary of gender. Transgenderism was still considered to be a “crossing of borders,” from one end of the binary to the other: FTM or MTF.

Jack Halberstam writes in his essay, “Transgender Butch,” “A common metaphor for transsexualism is a crossing of national borders from one place to another, from one state to another, from one gender to another.” Halberstam is able to situate the polemic of the border-crossing mythology, but he also points to the dangers of using border-crossing as a metaphor, since immigration is a real and lived experience for many people. He cautions “against detaching the metaphors of travel and home and migration from the actual experience of immigration in a world full of borders.”

Especially in the age of “Deporter-In-Chief” Obama, and then Trump’s America, we have begun to normalize a world in which ICE unlawfully barges into homes, families are separated, and children are kept in detention centers. Now more than ever we must be wary of the idea of border-crossing as a metaphor for transgenderism, because the transitory nature of transgenderism does not parallel the reality of the dangers of crossing borders and immigration.

Furthermore, using the border-crossing analogy for transgender folk situates them on one side or the other, and neglects the people caught in between: “If the borderlands are uninhabitable for some transsexuals who imagine that home is just across the border, imagine what a challenge they present to those subjects who do not believe that such a home exists, either metaphorically or literally… Some bodies are never at home, some bodies cannot simply cross from A to B, some bodies recognize and live with the inherent instability of identity.”

The transgressive non-conforming people did find words specifically for these shared experiences caught in the borderlands. As words such as ‘gender-queer’ and ‘non-binary’ became prevalent in the early naughts, many queer individuals came to consider other words to describe the experience of gender outside a binary, and transgender became more and more equated with the border-crossing ideology. However, many trans and non-binary people still use transgender as a general term for gender deviance.

When I was writing “Dialogues on Gender” for Wilder Voice in 2015, I found a number of people with startlingly different conceptions of the word trans. But each use was so emotional, and so personal to their own experience, that they were difficult to reconcile. Because I didn’t identify as trans at the time, they were not mine to question. But I did start asking more trans friends if the umbrella term bothered them. The feedback I received, like our trans history, is controversial.

What isn’t controversial is a shared commonality in the formulation of gender identities that lay outside the norm. These genders are actualized first through self-recognition. However, in performing and identifying through non-conforming genders, some people are privileged with safety (through cis-passing), and others are not. Some experience body dysphoria, some will have to take on extensive financial burdens for hormones and surgeries, and others will not. The visibility of transness creates a hierarchy of whose voices we listen to, who we deem desirable, and who is accepted in cis or trans culture. We try to be critical of this, to consider which voices we privilege above others. But ultimately that hierarchy often shifts to white, ableist, and cis-normative standards and voices to take the space to be recognized, to be heard. Cis people are all aware of Caitlyn Jenner or Ruby Rose, but have never heard of Sylvia Rivera, Miss Major, Leslie Feinberg, Carlett Brown, Paul Preciado, or Marsha P. Johnson—all activists and theorists who fought for trans rights and recognition. Without these trans icons, many of us wouldn’t be able to live our truth today, and yet still, many trans people even do not know their names.

This problem of visibility, acceptance, and recognition has dominated the politics and ideology of the word trans. Ironically, Oberlin students reside within an epistemological binary of the word transgender. We remain divided between a structuralist binary (I am and you aren’t) or the invalidation of different experiences through hegemonic universalism (we are all the same by virtue of being transgressive). I aim to complicate these conceptions of the word transgender with a new framework, one of transgender cartography. By thinking of transgenderism as a fluid state of migration, we not only trouble the concept of border crossing, but also conceptualize how non-binary and transgender identities hold different places in challenging cis-normativity, while there is no real disunion between them.

“So you’re all lesbians?”
“Actually I’m transgender.”
“So you identify as… what?”
“A trans dude. Not a man exactly.”
“But what do you identify as?”
“What?”
Conversation with friendly TERF butch at the
International Gay Rodeo, October 21, 2017.
Lasts approximately twenty minutes.

***

Subverting the Homeland

Poetry, tea packaging, and yoga studios all like to tell us our body is our home. For transgender and non-binary individuals, this idea of the body as the center of the home is problematic. Both transgender and non-binary people share a similar origin story: They were born into a world with assigned genders that marked them as XX or XY. These centers of origin politically informed them with forms of habitus: cultural habits that inform our language, our posture, the way we sit, dress, interact with each other—all forms of gender embodiment we can find stem from this false origin story. For some people this narrative will always snugly fit, or they will find their own subtle subversions and defiances: the tomboy, the twink, etc. Others take a more direct approach in which they either subvert their origin story in its entirety or migrate away from the homeland.

Home must be problematized. Halberstam writes, “If home has represented the comfort of place and the politics of location and the stability of belonging within such a dialectic, the border has stood for the politics of displacement, the hybridity of identity, and the economics of undocumented labor. There is little to be gained theoretically or materially from identifying either home or border as the true place of resistance. […] Home is a mythic site, a place to anchor some racial and ethnic identities even as those identities are wrenched out of context or pressured into assimilation.”

Before we depart from home, as a non-binary trans person I hope to make clear that this does not negate a shared experience or the multitude of ways that trans and non-binary people develop their identities. We’re not in the business of working within binaries. However, distinctions and clarity within language are crucial to our ability to describe those intersections and gaps in their full weight and complexity.

The transgender individual migrates away from their falsely proclaimed “home.” But the non-binary individual, rather than engage in this performative spatial transit, subverts their origin story. It does not matter if they do not change their performance from their assigned gender through clothing, body language, or other codes of gender. To the cis eye, they may not externally be recognizable as trans: incognito transgressors. For non-binary people, the subversion of the home does not appear through external values, but internally. By defying the binary they are able to make “masculine” and “feminine” bodies, styles, and definitions meaningless.

For the transgender individual, a migration emerges when the subject begins transitioning and challenging their former home to conflate with new queer and trans habitus, language, and culture that they create or discover. They embark on a migration across space, ascending nationality and heteronormativity, to discover a new corporeal site that locates their gender embodiment. They reconstitute their subjecthood by reconstructing the first words they hear, Congratulations, it’s a

The transgender corporeal site is always moving, always transitioning, always humming. It is neither static nor structured, but a fluid evolving landscape that the trans subject roams through, in between spaces and nations, uninterrupted but for the heteronormative interference of American society. This new site’s impermanence is significant. While some transgender people may consider their gender static, many express movement and queerness as a dynamic destabilized ontology. Furthermore, this new site may incorporate many cultural phenomena of the former “home:” Trans people may operate or use many heteronormative behaviors or beliefs, and that doesn’t challenge their transness, because it is appropriated and subverted to fit their new ontological site of being.

“Why do you need to box yourself in? Why do you have to
announce yourself like that to the world?”
“For the same reason you do.”
Friendly TERF butch at the International Gay Rodeo,
October 21, 2017.
Lasts approximately twenty minutes.

***

Transgender Cartography

The prefix trans means across, beyond, on the far side of, on the other side of, or on the outside of. Even linguistically we see migration and movement. Transgender subjects move away from their origin or home to a new ontological site that is not mapped by traditional conceptions of gender or established borders and nationality. Transgender individuals leave their citizenship of XX and XY, and live beyond the confines of heteronormative society. Citizenship in America is constituted in a capitalist framework, the primary unit of capitalism being (re)production, which queer and many trans people inherently fail successfully participate in. Neoliberal philosophy in particular is centered to focus on the individual and around the nuclear family—crafted heteronormative roles and hierarchies that trans and queer individuals likewise subvert or reside outside of. If citizenship is constituted in heteronormative, nationalist, legally binding terms, then the transgender subject resides as an outlaw to the state and nationalism—that is to say, trans people are not confined by nationality or borders in their creation of cartography. By not recognizing colonial arbitrary lines in maps that act as violent borders in their own cartography, transgender people are able to attempt to subvert neocolonialism.

Furthermore, a fundamental aspect of colonialism was the exportation of Western gender roles to colonized countries. Even the word “transsexual” was imported to countries through the DSM, and constituted a form of gender deviance that erased many peaceful gender variances in non-Western countries. The weight of colonialist gender norms has informed our conceptions of the nuclear family and contemporary heteronormativity. Transness becomes an active, subversive departure: It is inherently anti-colonial to resist these gender norms, to resist colonial artifacts of borders and maps, to move through uncharted territory without claiming ownership.

Through their transitioning (which never really starts or ends in a linear sense, but rather erupts and shifts throughout their lives) transgender individuals go beyond figurative and literal borders to find their new corporeal sites. This may lead them physically to different countries, such as Thailand (the most popular destination for gender affirming surgeries). It may physically mean traveling across countries and states to access hormones, to find community, to find their own subjecthood. It also may mean staying physically exactly where they already are, but transcending figurative heteronormative and colonialist structures and borders. Shifting and twisting, reaching and growing, the transgender subject transitions to create their own melding of gendered habitus, externally or internally. In this way, each transgender person is their own cartographer, creating maps that do not rely on arbitrary violent lines of colonialism but travel across new networks and ontological sites.

In terms of navigation, we can use the work of two foundational queer theorists, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s framework of striated and smooth space, to consider the bordered land of nations and heteronormativity compared to the fluid space the transgender individual inhabits. Striated muscle presents tissue in semi-parallel lines, each with a clear and strict pathway and uninhabited spaces in between. Striated space can be seen as state-held space, formed through fixed landmarks and centers; it is marked with homogeneity through industrialization and globalization. Smooth space, on the other hand, is fluid, open, and allows for nomadic movement, organic pathways like those seen in nature. Cities and borders could be considered striated space, spaces that designate the area that people are able to pass through, spaces only accessible by state-sanctioned entry points, while smooth space is uninterrupted and fluctuating, such as a plain or a desert. There is no origin or point of entry allotted—it is open-ended and extensive. This methodology is useful for understanding the smooth space the transgender subject occupies, and the striated space that the state and heteronormativity represent as interference that transgender subjects must navigate around.

The terrain of transgender topography may have ridges, valleys, and mountain ranges that create challenges in a transgender subject’s migration, but it is also marked with the smooth land, with no pathways in sight, no highways or intersections to be seen. The transgender subject moves through space in queer time, not marked linearly by birth, puberty, marriage, children, and death, but through rebirth, second puberties, finding communities, gender disruption and variance. Transgender people move through their own Foucaultian genealogical time framework—events disrupting linear time, repetition without origin, movement against a teleological narrative.

We don’t see our own cartography from the perspective of a person surveying a map; we are living, fucking, breathing, and shitting our own cartography, marking the map through the various realizations and performances of gender, etching our way through the intersections of our identities. Our cartography may overlap, we may share similar roads, but all diverge into their own locales. The geography of these maps is not broken up by borders but by natural pathways, and in this way transgender cartography subverts colonial barriers and arbitrary borders. Transgender individuals live in a diaspora of gender, having left their homeland and engaging in new and alien terrain, passing through striated space that they cannot assimilate into. They are dispelled by their place of origin and many cannot return, but transfer cultural identity codes to their ontological sites, and in this way, keep moving, keep growing.

Another way to think of these pathways is as a rhizome. A rhizome is a bulbous root plant, but Deleuze and Guattari use the rhizome as a metaphor with multiple chains, entrances, and branches connected to a center. It is the multiplicity of the rhizome’s branches that is key: “There are no points or positions in a rhizome, such as those found in a structure, tree, or root. There are only lines.” The smaller lines branching off can be seen as “lines of flight” that signify ruptures in multiplicity, “[extending] the line of flight to the point it becomes an abstract machine covering the entire plane of consistency.”

If we think of transgender space through cartography, we see pathways or rhizomatic branches and intersections emerge. The multiplicity of rhizomes lends itself to the various assemblages of trans movement across space. The rhizome is the rhythm that leaves etchings across the map as trans people journey and create their transgender cartography. While some branches or pathways may appear from a distance as highways, or shared experiences of performing transness, others digress into lines of flight, or their own individual paths. A trans person may meet another trans person and see the commonalities in their journey—perhaps two people begin taking estrogen at the same time—but ultimately individuals recognize one another. They move onward in their own voyage, finding unfamiliar landscapes that constitute their gender.

It is too simplistic to say transgender people cross borders. It also is a disservice to the stories of cis and trans people who must literally cross over these real and violent borders, who embark to new nations.

The border-crossing analogy echoes colonial exploration—who has the privilege to leave home and to return, versus those who remain trapped in the borderlands. Transgender people do not cross over borders; their gender resides outside of these borders, beyond colonial maps. Transgender people are their own cartographers, mapping their journey through lines of flight, weaving new smooth spaces in gendered terrain unseen to the cis eye.

am I hard
enough (???)
am I curved
or jagged am I
woman
enough (???)
                                                            will you burn me at the stake (???)
                        interjection
have you heard about the diaspora (???)

—Kai Joy, “diaspora (Have you heard ::: (???))”

Neither language nor space is apolitical. There is always the “who” at play: Who dictates what is correct or proper language? Who is anointed with the power to define others? Who creates lines across land and calls them borders? Who is allowed to cross these lines, and who is not? In both language and space, there are positions of power to be held, and privileged voices that attempt to segregate space and classify language. As the theorist Costica Bradatan says, “The power to give names to things, as those crushed by it know only too well, is among the greatest powers that there are: What you do, what you’ve been doing all your life—even the name of your calling—is something others who have that power can decide.”

The naming of the self is a crucial part of transgender and non-binary identities. It is recognition of the self as other that separates us from cisgender identities. We name our individual selves the moment we recognize this discursive identity. It is this power that we—the transgender community—hold, and must hold, for cisgender people will try to disparage and dismiss this power. They have attempted to strip us of it. They have used medicalized frameworks to tell us we are sick, they have used vulgar language to belittle and harm us. It is not up to cisgender people to name us.

The power of language coexists with space. Geography may inform our “mother” tongue, neocolonialism may force imperial languages down others’ throats. We have seen the resistance though, through multilingual diasporas, through the recordings and teaching of vanishing languages. Space and language are not isolated from one another, and I hope to challenge the institutionalized frameworks of neocolonialism through a new conception of what language can mean and what abolishing borders can look like.

This essay is not to designate the “right” framework of how to think of transgenderism versus non-binary identities, but rather to provide an alternative to the messy and confusing history of transgender language. We need to own our linguistic history, because it defines our contemporary reality. “All awareness is a linguistic affair” is a pragmatist slogan used by Wilfrid Sellars. If language constructs our awareness and augments our reality, then it is imperative that we understand the historical and political context of the word transgender, and that we are thoughtful about the hierarchical nature of whose voices are upheld as trans. We need to acknowledge our own hierarchies, of whose voice we privilege, of who we give the space to speak. We need to acknowledge that transgenderism is only one facet of identity our community members hold, and that race, class, nationality, citizenship, and disabilities also constitute how we interact with our gender and with others’. Most of all, we must be critical of the language we use, of the naming we give each other.

If history cannot define transgenderism for us, it is up to us, gender outlaws and incognito transgressors, to define it. 􏰆􏰇􏰄􏰉􏰑􏰇􏰆􏰀􏰉 􏰀􏰊􏰍􏰇􏰒􏰑􏰊􏰂􏰒􏰀􏰉