Thursday, January 22, 2009

I Love Your Liver; I Adore Your Pancreas

Jessica told me about riding in an elevator in Chicago with performance artist Orlan, back in her (Jessica’s) art-student days. Orlan’s hair was white and black, parted centrally, and at that time she was freshly sporting cheek implants on her forehead from experimenting with images of femininity and deformity.

I haven’t shaken that vision from my quirk-loving brains yet; it’s like an eternally long bright light after having been flashed by a camera. There’s something in the juxtaposition of the daily routine with the passing strange. Take your most mundane ritual – brushing your teeth perhaps – and put a monkey in it. Not just a monkey, but suddenly monkey! where none had ever been nor was expected. Make it a surgically altered monkey, while you’re at it – not that Orlan is a monkey; I think she’s quite remarkable and disturbing and I like to be disturbed by artists.*

It makes me wonder if any artists have changed their gender as performance. I don’t mean someone who’s trans: I mean someone who is not trans and is transitioning as performance, as art. If I can think a thing, and get my monkey to type it, then someone’s doing it.

If I was doing this transition 10 years ago, I’d be turning it into performance, because that’s what I did with everything. You are so lucky I’m compelled merely to write about shit now. Most of us artists who get sober at mid-life have to go through a delayed and extravagant adolescence, with all the self-absorption and fascination and acting out that involves, and none of the carefully constructed boundaries and gravitas one would think a middle-aged person might have acquired. My adult-onset immaturity stood out like the implants on Orlan’s face, only I didn’t really have a point to make: I just wanted some attention.

My friend Cole, in his beautifully articulated sketch for his play on the Trans-genre cd “Transfusions,” (SHAMELESS PLUG: I’m on it. Win yourself a free one. Check out the site on side here!), has his character sing “it sucks to be trans.”

Does it suck to be trans? Is it lonely to be trans?

Because that was the most poignant thing, to me, about that elevator scene. I saw this self-made freak, albeit a very very famous one, in her exaggerated monochrome, the hair, the multiple surgeries to craft her face into this or that iconographic moment of some equally iconographic painting, and I thought, “I wonder if Orlan feels lonely?”

Maybe not; the most unique personalities can be adept at drawing people to them, regardless of their looks or disturbing physicality. So who knows. Same with trans, I tell myself; confidence goes a loooong way here, Buddy.

I was having lunch with a transguy pal I met on a local listserve; we were talking about the occasionally whiney tone of some of the posts we read. “We’ve all been aculturized as women,” he notes, “and so are inclined to whine as men,” with only a soupcon of misogyny. A smidge. There’s a loneliness the freakshow tends to want to embrace, to isolate him/herself from the rest of yas. This gives us the option to say “this is why nobody likes me and the world is hard and I am lonely.” I have the Human Condition and I am doing it as performance for you.

Because that’s the performance, isn’t it? The Human Condition? Isn’t the subtext of body modification/performance, transitioning genders our way as a society in toto to use the artist, the tranny, as a human highlighter, to emphasize or alert ourselves to our commitment to things that ultimately will suffocate us? To elevate us to an understanding of the constrictions we clamp on our little human hearts by forcing ourselves to see this and only this as that and only that, you man, me woman, sickening pathologies bred from what was once the corset or girdle and is now liposuction? Lift me and suck me and stuff me with saline, or collagen; batten me with botox and dermabrade me so raw and sweet because I am nothing, nothing without outside approval and approbation. Which is the utter, ultimate loneliness: to be defined by everyone else.

The transitioning person’s loneliness is in reverse: we begin by being defined by everyone else. You told me I was a girl, and I didn’t believe you, at first; I suspected you were fooling me – particularly as those who didn’t know me thought I was a little boy.

Commitment to gender was killing me. For me it was slow and protracted, the way an upper-class Victorian woman’s identity as merely her husband’s wife might have choked her, like a creeper vine. I probably would’ve died of something else entirely, but upon autopsy my body would be found to be rotten with inarticulated longing.

It feels like Spring in here now. I hope I’m always trans. I hope I have the courage to keep challenging gender normativity. I pray transitioning means a deepening connection with who I really am, not male, not female, not even Sam, which are all mostly just ideas, albeit really sexy ones.

I stood behind the counter at Studio Supply, hawking tubes of paint, and in my mind I had a full, lumberjack beard and a handsomely flat chest. I was completely nonplussed as the customer kept referring to me as “she” and “her” – I almost left my body there for a second in bewilderment. But I didn’t love her any less for it, and I never felt alone.

*whereas I actually would not care to be disturbed by a monkey. I’m not a fan of the monkey, or more precisely, I’m not a fan of the human/monkey relationship. Putting diapers and a tie on a primate and making it polish the family silver is just wrong.

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