Exhuming Transgenre Ties

As with many of my pieces, this one has a story. The story begins in two places, with two different pieces of writing: 1) an essay I wrote for a Special Issue, of Michigan Feminist Studies and 2) prose I wrote for the Trans Genre Writing Conference, in Winnipeg, Canada, May 2014.

“Excavating Feminist Futures” was rejected. I’m sure it was largely because the form itself was experimental. In the essay, I break from any traditional use or understanding of the footnote. Rather than only using the footnote as a way to add ancillary information, I positioned this “space below” as a design element relevant to my argument, a place in which passages that not only add to, but in their own right become, the point of the essay. In the essay, I bring into conversation unrecognized histories of black feminists, and transgender activist, in the context of the death of Mary Daly, a well known radical feminist who was criticized for both her racism and her transphobia.

All in all the point of the work is to argue that some of these works–those of Daly as well as black feminists–need to be excavated, unearthed. In this unearthing, we may be able to differently see the past as a way to decolonize our feminist future–a future, I was proposing, in art activism. We excavate the bones of our ancestors, their words as bones, as we think about making bones in order to support the art activist project One Million Bones, one striving to eliminate genocide.

Yeah, that was a lot.

But all of this thinking, this remixing of texts, this repositioning of my perspective. It all allowed me to think about stories as bones, to consider my relationship with writers through their books as my bones. What did it mean for me to identify as transgender/genderqueer? Could I trace my experience to particular readings? Why was I invested in excavating the writings of black feminist activists? Could I do so without appropriating or colonizing their language and ideas?

In the interim, I began thinking about my identity as a writer–as a queer writer–as perhaps the most relevant to me. I started to identify as a transgenre writer, as one who is never specifically faithful to or within any one form. So, when I saw the call for the conference in Winnipeg, I was all about it. I connected with past collaborator K. Bradford and she and I worked to organize a panel called, “Fucking Gender, Fucking Form.” Our panel focused on two questions:

Given the discourse of invisibility surrounding transgender life and experience, how might we begin a search for a history of transgenre literary figures? If we’re able to identify these figures and writings, how might we engage with them in order to imagine for ourselves a different relationship with and in visibility in the future?

In considering these questions, I identified a prepubescent fixation/fascination with both the story Harriet Tubman and the poetry of Shel Silverstein. I realized that I wanted and needed to dig into the spaces and places where experience has been dismissed, not by hegemonic forces, but by feminist literature and theory itself. Here, I desired resurfaced (with) figures like Mary Daly, both Braiding and Braving her words with and within transgender theory and black feminist/feminist of color writings so often ignored by dominant feminist discourse. Unearthing and Rebirthing the words of writers such as Gayle Solomon, Audre Lorde, Matt Kailey, Cherie Moraga, and Leslie Feinberg, I endeavored to transform our relationship to transgenre writing through their/her/his and our collective relationship(s) bodies multiply, celestially designed.

So I wrote and then read my answers to these questions in Winnipeg, but then I started to think about the fact that I wanted this exhuming to be visible. I wanted a readership/audience to see my body in relationship to a body of literature–my chosen books. Books that I would there, on the beach–in my native space–unearth by digging and place them together, in community with each other, on the shelf.

I began with some of the text I wrote for the conference, revised it, added some ideas and created kind of script for myself that I then recorded.I created a kind of plan–a rough treatment–and asked a Ryan Trauman, Katelyn Carlson and my son, Charles Hawkins, to help me film.

On the first Saturday in October 2014, we went down to Ostermann Beach (what used to be known as the Hollywood, or ‘Gay ‘ Beach), on the shore of Lake Michigan, in Chicago, Illinois, hauled out a bookshelf, and a large pile of books, and shot the film. Charles then edited the piece.

The film premiered on October 30, 2014, at the first Cultural Rhetorics Conference, at Michigan State University. Actually, I did more than just show the film. As a way of layering the piece, I read aloud the audio parts, and removed and replaced my shirts and ties, as the film played behind me. The point was to literally remediate the performance–to illustrate that the repetition of which I speak regarding the tying of a tie, the reading of a book. These are the ways I moved work and write myself both into the world and onto the page.

Following the conference, some revision and the inclusion of a letter to the reader positioning the work with respect to the larger field of Cultural Rhetoric, the piece was published in the April 20, 2006 Special Issue of Enculturation: A Journal of Rhetoric, Writing, and Culture.