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Notes on Nevada: Trans Literature and the Early Internet


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Imogen Binnie at Camp Trans in 2008. Photo courtesy of the author.

Almost ten years ago, I published a novel called Nevada with a small press called Topside that doesn’t exist anymore. You may or may not have heard of it, but if there are trans people in your life who are readers, they probably have. It became a subcultural Thing. It’s been out of print for a few years, but in June, Farrar, Straus and Giroux will bring it back into print.

People have called Nevada “ground zero for modern trans literature,” and while I get that—before it was published, I don’t think I’d read a novel with a trans character who I didn’t at least sort of hate—I don’t really feel like a genius visionary who invented literature centering marginalized experiences. At the very least, this idea occludes the work other people had done that made Nevada possible. So instead of celebrating myself, I want to use this opportunity to say thanks, and to think through some of the influences and experiences that shaped the novel.

FICTIONMANIA

At one point in Nevada, Maria mentions the “stupid 2002 internet.” At a Q&A following a reading on the 2013 book release tour, I was asked what that meant. I struggled to come up with a decent answer. We are so steeped in for-profit social media today that it’s hard to remember anything else. It wasn’t until the night after that reading, lying awake and beating myself up for not having a good answer, that I thought of a pretty good one. It is a website called Fictionmania. It’s still online. And if you’re hungry for that post-post-vaporwave retro “2002 internet” aesthetic, great news: it hasn’t updated its design since it came online in 1998.

Fictionmania is a free archive of user-contributed stories on the theme of gender change. If you were trying to figure out what was going on with your gender in the late nineties and early aughts, you tended to end up there. Its stories, on the whole, are not politically or stylistically progressive, but it’s accumulated, like, forty thousand stories over the last twenty-five years, so it’s definitely doing something that’s compelling for a lot of people. I mean, how many websites have been around since the late nineties?

Fictionmania is the first place I was published, unless you count a short story in a high school lit mag that was about 40 percent unattributed Tori Amos lyrics. You’d just send FM a story you’d furtively made up instead of sleeping, and then they would publish it—publicly, on the internet!—and then strangers would tell you that they hated it. In the late nineties, for an English major who Wanted to Be a Writer, that was a serious thrill. 

As a praxisless but punk-identifying teen with good intentions, no analysis, and no idea how to exist in a body, anonymously contributing stories with cuss words in them to FM was an empowering way to say, “I have no idea what’s going on with me or my gender, but I do not care for it.” I lost interest pretty quickly and moved on to my own zines and in-person writing groups, but because those things involved identifying information, I put away the What Is Gender stuff for a few years. 

CAMP TRANS

As I processed the fact that I was trans, mostly on LiveJournal, I started connecting with a like-minded community of trans people who also were unhappy with the options for living we saw available as trans people. Brynn Kelly was one. Sybil Lamb was there. A lot of other people. And the smartest, funniest, and most intimidating people on LiveJournal were usually also on the strap-on.org message board.

Strap-on was terrifying.

When you’ve spent the first couple decades of your life trying your best to be a straight white cis guy, you generally end up with some shit to unlearn, and the way you unlearn it is often by having strangers on the internet yell at you about it. The people at strap-on were more than happy to do that for you. You either learned to talk (and think) in a way that at least tried to take marginalized people’s experiences into account, or you got flamed off the internet. It was exhilarating.

There used to be a music festival called the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival. It started in the seventies. In 1991, a trans woman named Nancy Burkholder was kicked out of Michfest for being trans, and it became the official Michfest Policy that trans women were not Womyn. So some people started holding a week-long protest called Camp Trans outside the Michfest gate, which grew into its own thing, with music and food and camping and queer stuff in the woods. Sometime around 2005, its leadership fell apart and some people from strap-on stepped up to take the Camp Trans wheel.

Camp Trans was a field in the woods deep in rural Michigan. There was a kitchen tent that didn’t have access to refrigeration, a welcome tent where people hung out with acoustic guitars and dense zines of gender theory, more tents back in the woods, and a taped off area maybe thirty feet across dense with ground hornets. It was not impressive, but it was perfect. Camp Trans, for me, was where strap-on stopped being a place to post and became a thing to embody. I leaned into being a humorless dirtbag.

Well, I’m bad at being humorless. Trans people are very often very funny. Jokes can be a defense mechanism, a trauma response: if you can make someone laugh before they remember that they hate people like you, you might get out of a 7-Eleven before they can hurt you. But I was good at being a dirtbag. I started wearing bandanas around my neck and romanticizing train-hopping without ever actually doing it. It would be impossible for me to overstate how valuable meatspace trans community is. Can I tell you something? We have bodies. All of us. Trans people maybe more than anyone else. And like it or not, the body keeps the score. (You should read Bessel van der Kolk’s The Body Keeps the Score. It made me ugly cry on an airplane.) To put it reductively, trauma impacts our ability to exist in our bodies, which feels bad.

You know what else can make it hard to exist in a body?

Being trans.

It feels bad not to be able to be in your body.

The internet is great, but it is not a substitute for being in physical space with other trans people who care about at least some of the same shit that you do, smelling and seeing and hearing one another, nervous systems engaging directly. You might not realize how important that is if you’ve never had it. I had never had it before Camp Trans. I mean, I’d had meatspace trans friends beforehand, but I never got to spend a week with them. In the woods. With ground hornets. Experimenting with what it might feel like to legitimately trust another person in real time.

When you’ve learned to dissociate defensively around cis people, and you spend all of your time among them, and when they frequently make it clear that you are right not to feel safe around them, you can forget that it is even possible to let your guard down. That you don’t necessarily have to be alone to feel safe. That it is even possible to feel safe.

Even with all the complicated things about it—all the ways it probably was not safe—Camp Trans was a space that centered trans bodies. Even, by the time I got there, trans women’s bodies specifically. Camp Trans taught me that it is possible to feel safe in my body.

Fuck Michfest. Camp Trans saved my life.

Hey, on the topic of Michfest and other regressive, transphobic things, can I give you a tip? If you find yourself interacting with someone who is “critical” of “the transgender movement” or whatever, ask them what they think trans people should do. If the only thing they can come up with is “not be trans,” point out that the vast majority of trans people have already tried that, and it tends to make us suicidal. If they can’t come up with anything better than “don’t be trans,” please understand that they very literally want me and at least 1.4 million other Americans—not to mention way, way more people outside the US—to die.

Don’t let them equivocate. “What should trans people do?”

All they’ve got is “die.” 

It’s kind of intense.

OTHER AUGHTIES QUEERS

A lot of Nevada is me processing my 2007 move from New York to Oakland. Oakland fucked me up. When I moved there, I found myself spending a lot of time in a queer demimonde full of people who had graduated from Smith, which I understand was lousy with trans mascs at the time but which would not admit an out trans woman for another seven or eight years.

It’s not like all the queers in Oakland were mean or anything. There was a lot of trans-inclusive language, and there were a lot of trans people. It’s just that there were almost no trans women who weren’t me. Which is not to say that there were no other trans women in Oakland, obviously. Or other queers. Just that I lived and dated and socialized in this tight community and nobody else in it was a trans woman.

I blamed myself for feeling out of place. I mean, I had found a queer community! I was a queer woman, these were (mostly) queer women! They were explicitly okay with trans people! So why did I keep leaving parties and potlucks and performance nights crying?

Long story short, the queer community just wasn’t there yet. Y’know? Plenty of good intentions, no idea what to do with them. It was like, one moment I’m exhilarated, talking to trans women friends about this new book called Whipping Girl, and the next I’m going to Dyke March where cisgender radical cheerleaders are yelling the word “tranny” at me.

It was exhausting to be outside my house as someone who was read as trans. In retrospect, of course, it’s clear that I was doing everything I could not to admit that it was also exhausting to be inside my house when the queers were there, too.

It was lonely.

Nevada is dead set on treating one trans woman’s experience with honesty because I was so fucking exhausted and sad that my own was never treated that way.

I felt invisible to the world at large and also invisible to the demimonde, so it was kind of a shout that I—and therefore we—exist.

Around this time, I printed up some copies of a zine in which I reprinted three essays by trans writers explaining why we wanted cis people to stop calling us “trannies.” I made them to keep in my purse and give them to people when they used that word, so that I could hand them a zine instead of having an emotionally draining and most likely pointless conversation. In a sense, Nevada was an extension of that zine.

THIS BRIDGE CALLED MY BACK

When I first moved to Oakland, it was into a big collective house called the Fork in the Rode. There were, like, eleven of us in a four-bedroom house on North Sixty-First Street. Somebody lived in the garage. Somebody else lived in a plywood shack in the backyard for a while. Two people lived in the driveway in a van that didn’t start. At one point we had a rat problem, but to make it feel like less of a problem, we called them bunnies. I was a fucked-up mess. It was a great fit. And at some point during the year or so that I lived at the Fork, my friend Fischer loaned me their copy of an anthology called This Bridge Called My Back, edited by Cherríe Moraga and Gloria E. Anzaldúa. 

I want to be careful, because while one of the stated goals of This Bridge Called My Back was to educate middle-class white women like me, it is not a book about me. What I mean is, I hope I’ve been able to learn from its contributors. Anti-racist work is work white people need to be doing every day, and This Bridge Called My Back was a jolt—a wake-up call—in my own anti-racist work. Not to gush, but it remains an achievement that we’re all fortunate to have. I just picked up my copy to flip through a little as I write this, and while the range of pieces by contributors including Norma Alarcón, Barbara Smith, the Combahee River Collective, and Audre Lorde covers a lot of ground, the book remains as vital today as I imagine it was when it was first published in 1981. It’s an absolute classic. Full stop.

Picture me in Oakland in 2007. Six feet tall, only on hormones for a couple of years. My hair was part blond and part hot pink with dark roots. I remember a lot of hot-pink eye shadow. I was not subtle. But at the same time, I really wanted to be passing for cis. Or more specifically, I really wanted to be cis. It hurt that I was not. I got shit for being trans in public pretty regularly, and it shattered me every single time.

So why didn’t I learn to do less gaudy makeup and stop dying my hair? Why wasn’t I making more of an effort to pass for cis, if it hurt so much to be read as trans? 

A couple reasons. First, I didn’t know how, which would have been a scary kind of vulnerable to admit. Also, what if I worked really hard on passing and couldn’t? That felt like it would be even more heartbreaking. Further, I don’t think I was able yet to articulate the trap that is “I should be able to do whatever I want with my body, but I also shouldn’t have to face unfair consequences for it.” In other words, it was the transition thing of having a new, more vulnerable location under patriarchy, but not yet really having come to terms with the ramifications of that location.

Complicating this was the fact that for years I had been devouring narratives of queer liberation written by cis people. I’ve written elsewhere about how lots of ideas conceptualized by cis people to describe things experienced by cis people don’t map neatly onto trans experiences—like, for example, male privilege. (Do trans women have male privilege before transition? Kinda. Do trans guys have male privilege after transition? No matter what Maria Griffiths might tell you, the answer is probably also: kinda.) What I was learning—and what I could not find language for—was that the rules of liberation for cis queers are different from the rules for trans people.

This is why I felt so lonely in my queer Oakland community.

Now picture me reading the faded maroon cover of an anthology by a number of, at the time, woman-identifying writers talking about living at the impossible nexus of public vulnerability, as women of color under white supremacy, and private vulnerability, as women of color marginalized within predominantly white, lesbian, feminist, and other progressive/radical communities.

The way that paralleled what I was experiencing—of course, with different specifics—was a revelation. The pain of feeling marginalized wherever you were, and the corresponding power of sharing space with people who got it. Who got you.

This Bridge Called My Back wasn’t about me, but it was talking to me—on more than one level. Both deepening my own sense (and work) of solidarity and giving me a framework for better understanding my own positionality.

It led me to Audre Lorde, bell hooks, and other marginalized feminist/womanist thinkers. I still feel like, if I have anything intelligent to say about being trans, it can probably be traced directly back to their work. 

ALSO OTHER BOOKS

There were a lot of books that influenced Nevada, of course: Dennis Cooper and Junot Díaz were enormously important to me while I was writing it. But here I want to focus on another writer who made it possible to write this weird little novel: the singular Joanna Russ.  

I DuckDuckGo’d it to see if her essay “What Can a Heroine Do? or Why Women Can’t Write” was online anywhere, and it turns out that as of this writing there’s still a scan of it on the Topside Press Tumblr.

That essay, specifically, felt like it gave me permission to structure Nevada the way I did. In it, Russ systematically breaks down all the ways that the Western hero’s quest narrative fails women. It’s incisive and funny in a way that I wish I could write: “When critics do not find what they expect, they cannot imagine that the fault may lie in their expectations.”

She opens with a number of familiar premises with the genders flipped: “Two strong women battle for supremacy in the early West”; “A phosphorescently doomed poetess sponges off her husband and drinks herself to death, thus alienating the community of Philistines and businesswomen who would have continued to give her lecture dates”; “A beautiful, seductive boy whose narcissism and instinctive cunning hide the fact that he has no mind (and in fact, hardly any sentient consciousness) drives a succession of successful actresses, movie produceresses, cowgirls, and film directresses wild with desire.” She goes on to write about patriarchy and gender and to outline the ways that what is coded as success for men tends to be coded as failure for women.

Hold that thought.

I’m going to use the word “transition,” but I’m going to put quotation marks around it, because I think it’s kind of a goofy framework: a cisnormative way of understanding what trans people do. I think a more accurate way to describe the process of being trans—or the journey or whatever—is as one that starts with a cisnormative framework for understanding what it is to be trans and moves to one that more realistically encompasses the complexities of the lived experiences of trans people. This means that “transition” doesn’t start with hormones or coming out. It starts way before, with the feeling a lot of us have pretty early on that something’s wrong. Or maybe it starts with the early, initial work of trying to figure out what, exactly, it is that’s wrong.

I don’t think we live in a culture in which that particular transition has an end point.

One of the things I wanted to confront in Nevada was this cisnormative idea that, for trans people, first you are one of The Two Genders, then you are in a fascinating in-between place while you transition, and then you are more or less uncomplicatedly the other of The Two Genders. And because the mysterious in-between phase is the most salaciously interesting thing to people who don’t have to go through it, I decided to cut it out. I wanted to look at the ways that the part “before transition” and the part “after transition” are not, actually, characterized by being a cisgender version of one or the other of The Two Genders. So I wrote a character who was “post-transition,” whatever that might mean, who was still living with the fallout from a lifetime of repression as well as the trauma of that transition phase, and I wrote a character who was “pre-transition,” whatever that might mean, because the head full of mixed-up shit that you can’t help but walk around with when you live in that state does not have a corresponding cisgender experience. Y’know? The cisnormative approach to honoring this difference would be to pay attention to the difference during that middle “transition” period; the approach that respects the complexity of trans people’s lived experience says, Well actually, no, trans people are trans before and after “transition.”

And I should be clear: even this model does not describe all or even, necessarily, most trans lives. Lots of nonbinary experiences don’t follow this model, and even trans people who identify within the gender binary still have very different experiences. It’s almost as if the white settler colonial construction of The Two Genders is violently inadequate.

But the question, then, was: how do you fit all that into a story with a call to adventure, a road of trials, a vision quest, et cetera?

Well, you don’t, says Joanna Russ. You don’t have to. The first half of Nevada is about a trans woman named Maria, and then the second half is mostly about a kid named James who’s trying to figure out whether he’s trans, because I wanted to interrogate both the “before transition” and “after transition” stories.

So why does Maria show up in James’s half? Well, it’s a separate thing, but it’s because one of the most common ways for trans women to self-flagellate is with a whip labeled “I should have come out sooner.” It’s unfair to ourselves. It takes as long as it takes to figure out what you need to figure out—and to figure out what you need to do about it. But we still do it. I thought it would be funny to make that explicit: what if, while you were still unaware / in denial about being trans, some trans woman fairy godmother had shown up and not only told you to your face that you were trans but tried to convince you.

Would that have made you come out sooner?

I won’t spoil the ending here, except to say that people have strong feelings about it. It’s unconventional. And Joanna Russ gave me permission to write it that way.

PRETTY QUEER

Prettyqueer.com was a smart-ass website started around 2011 by the people who went on to start Topside Press—Julie Blair, Red Durkin, Riley MacLeod, and Tom Léger.

At this point I’d given up on Nevada. I’d worked on it a lot, but the second half just wouldn’t come together. I knew what I wanted it to do, but I didn’t know how to make it do it. I’d sent it to Soft Skull, but they were not interested.

Fuck it, I thought. I’ll take what I learned from it and write another one. 

I don’t know how much of an impact it made on anyone else’s life, but to me, Pretty Queer was a very big deal. The editorial board was four cool trans people you wanted to hang out with. I knew Julie and Red from Camp Trans. They got it. We could write things that did not pander to cis people, and people actually read them. They published my friends. You would publish a thing and in the comments people would tell you they hated it, which meant they had read it! 

If I recall correctly—I’m afraid to DuckDuckGo it on the Wayback Machine—I mostly contributed fake interviews with trans celebrities in which they said the cool things I wished they would say, instead of the disappointing things they actually tended to say. And Pretty Queer paid me for that! In fact, in looking through old emails for this, I found one where I was like, “You guys I am working as many hours as I can get, but I can’t afford hormones or rent—can you front me money in advance for future articles?” They totally fronted me that money. I doubt I ever actually turned in those articles.

I don’t think I’d been paid for anything I’d written before.

The Pretty Queer era bled into the Topside Press era. I was in Portland, Maine, and they were in New York, so when Topside’s first book, The Collection: Short Fiction from the Transgender Vanguard, came out, it was an easy bus ride for me to get there for readings. Plus, they chose a story I’d written to open The Collection. I felt like a rock star.

Those three years were intoxicating. At first, Topside Manor was Tom and Julie’s apartment. I slept on their couch a lot. I remember many, many Bud Lite Lime-A-Ritas in what felt like an endless, endlessly hot and humid Brooklyn summer, talking shit all night about representation, literature, trans literature, how to be trans in the world, bodies, intersectionality, and what could be salvaged from transphobic seventies and eighties feminisms.

Riley was probably the only real punker. He had one of those chain necklaces with a lock on it and a dog-bone name tag, and at one point I think he had lived on a houseboat that sank. Tom was connected to what felt like this whole other gay world: he knew a lot about ACT UP and which gay men from the previous couple generations of activists were jerks. Also I think he’d done a literal MFA. Julie was a hilarious and brilliant weirdo with an encyclopedic knowledge of nineties garbage—“I only happen to enjoy typesetting because I’m perverted,” she told Lambda Literary—and Red is the funniest person you’ll ever meet. Also I’m pretty sure she said the If gender is a construct, so is a traffic light thing that gets quoted sometimes from Nevada, and I stole it.

There was a revolving door of other geniuses coming through all the time: wingnut San Francisco artist Annie Danger; Ryka Aoki, who publishes with Tor now; Brynn Kelly, again, a writer and genius who we all miss; a bunch of contributors to The Collection. Sometimes Sarah Schulman would just be hanging out. Casey Plett and Sybil Lamb were around. Loads of others.

Of course, within a few years, the wheels came off. Topside fell apart and became something else and then fell apart again. Some people made some bad decisions, some people got hurt, and some people disappeared. Topside doesn’t exist anymore, nor does Pretty Queer, but for a couple years, it was a legitimately beautiful thing.

When Topside first asked to see it, Nevada didn’t work. But Tom encouraged me to send it anyway. I did.

He agreed: yep, the second half doesn’t work.

But he shared it with Red, Julie, and Riley. They all saw something in it and worked hard with me to get it to do what I wanted it to.

I’d never been through such an intensive editing process. I pushed back pretty hard on what felt like MFA bullshit, which in retrospect probably was not (“This character doesn’t actually want anything”—Imogen Binnie, 2012). I think the editing process of your first novel is probably always a bit of a rude awakening, and I was fortunate to go through it with them.

NOW

Nevada opened a lot of doors for me. I sold a movie. People actually listened to a podcast I made, by myself, in a car. I toured the US, Canada, the UK, and Ireland, crashing on the couches and floors of strange queers—many of whom I had previously known as screen names from strap-on. I sleep in a bed now, instead of an old futon mattress on a series of Oakland collective house closet floors. That bed is in a house I share with my gay wife and two small, wild children. I’ve mostly kicked social media. When I’m not being a big-shot LA TV writer, I’m a social worker and therapist.

I’ve even had a few months here and there where money wasn’t stressful, if you can believe that.

Parenting kind of makes you a recluse, and trans women are prone to hermitism to begin with, and also our house is in rural Vermont, so I don’t really do stuff or see people the way I used to. It’s not like I’m a different person—but I might be less of a fucked-up mess. Which was all Maria wanted, too, wasn’t it? To be less fucked-up?

In the Topside Press era, we talked a lot of shit about the transgender memoir as a literary genre, because so often it felt like begging for validation from cis people: “Maybe you wouldn’t be so mean to me if you knew how much pain I’ve endured!” But it’s been a decade. Maybe we’ve opened some doors for the kinds of spaces that trans stories—fictional or otherwise—can occupy. Not to mention, Janet Mock basically turned the transgender memoir into something incisive, progressive, and cool all by herself. Twice. The cultural landscape has definitely opened up. Have you read Janet, Ryka, Torrey Peters, Casey Plett, Vivek Shraya, Jackie Ess, or Charlie Jane Anders? Have you seen Pose, or Euphoria, or listened to G.L.O.S.S. or 100 Gecs? I, personally, wrote on a TV show where Laverne Cox played a lawyer who had a season of ups and downs with a hot boyfriend, as well as trans friends with names and lines. There’s still a lot of work to do, but things look pretty different. I don’t know about Nevada being ground zero for modern trans literature, but I do feel fortunate that this funny little book was able to contribute to that.

 

Imogen Binnie is the author of Nevada, which won the Betty Berzon Emerging Writer Award and was a finalist for the 2014 Lambda Literary Award for Transgender Fiction. A writer for several television shows and a former columnist for Maximum Rocknroll, she lives in Vermont. This piece is adapted from the Afterword to Binnie’s Nevada, which will be reissued by MCD x FSG Originals, an imprint of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, in June.

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Michael Neff
Algonkian Producer
New York Pitch Director
Author, Development Exec, Editor

We are the makers of novels, and we are the dreamers of dreams.

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