Kit Eginton

The Weight of Breasts That Aren’t There


ISSUE 97 | PROPHECIES II | APR 2021


Detail from “Sweet Masha” by Elena Atnagulova

If you can fill the unforgiving minute
     With sixty seconds worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
     And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!
            — Victorian colonial apologist Rudyard Kipling, “If—”

In the New York City Trans Oral History Project archives the keyword “dysphoria” appears in many of the interview transcripts. But when you actually look at the texts, you find that few people talk much about what dysphoria actually feels like. Maybe this is because of an assumed shared understanding between speaker and listener, or maybe it’s because of a sort of politeness between trans people—I remember once I was sitting in a car with another trans woman and we started talking about how we felt about our stubble, and it sank us both—me especially—into a deep gloom. Dysphoria is one of those things where you think you can laugh about it with others who experience it, but to do so is a dangerous game. Still. The avoidance of description is odd, and it bears noting.

* * *

HEADCRAB.— Futurelessness probably always begins in an experience of losing something or of not being able to do something. Like, it is when you know something is true, but that thing can’t be true, it just can’t be. Like the core trauma of my life was moving down to Florida when I was eight, but that really wasn’t it. It was how my world was kind of split in two, like I would scream for an hour and a half in the morning in the car, and then I’d get to school, 45 minutes late, and the cold gray light would be pooling over the horizon, the crazy would be receding from my brain, like a crab was unclenching itself from the back of my neck. When you calm down after you’ve gone crazy and kicked the windshield out and then you’ve been dropped off at school and everyone is nice to you, like it didn’t happen, you feel this transition, this shift to another world. You know two contradictory things can be true at once.

* * *

The diagnosis of gender dysphoria, often just called “dysphoria” for short, was invented somewhat after the fact. The American public had been aware of the operations then known as a “sex change” at least two decades before the term “gender dysphoria” became widely used—since the very public operation of American GI Christine Jorgensen in Denmark. In the 1970’s, “gender dysphoric disorder” began being used to classify those who might be eligible for the procedures; indeed, in early medical definitions of the term, dysphoria was a diagnosis that could only be given to those in need of a sex change. Dysphoria was therefore a term intended to serve a specific function in the machinery of diagnosis—to distinguish true transsexuals from transvestites and “transgenderists.” Trans experience has been medicalized practically since it was legible as such, and the word became integral to the way many trans people, especially those interested in seeking medical transition, saw transness. Despite the fact that the term itself remained largely unknown to the general public until quite recently, the concept also significantly shaped the popular conception of what trans people experienced.

In the popular imagination, dysphoria is the discomfort that comes from being “trapped in the wrong body.” It may manifest as a persistent or occasional discomfort with the configuration of one’s body, or with gender roles, or with the way one is gendered by others. Gender dysphoria is often distinguished from body dysmorphia on the principle that dysmorphia involves a misperception of what one’s body is really like. In dysmorphia, you might think you’re fat, for example, when in fact you are not; dysphoria, on the other hand, is a conviction about what your body (and gendering) should be like, rather than a delusion about how it is. In reality, this distinction is not so clear cut, but this way of thinking about it acts to characterize dysphoria as a pain both agonizing and potentially remediable in one very specific way.

This combination of stick and carrot has been central to trans medical politics for many years. As it became accepted, through a combination of activism and experiment, that no amount of mental health care could make “true” transsexuals stop wanting to transition, the question became which seekers of medical transition fit the standards of true transsexuality. There has been substantial pushback from the trans community against this model of medical gatekeeping since the ’90s, and the early 2000’s saw the rise of the informed consent model of trans healthcare. Since the ’70s, when “gender dysphoria” was first codified as a diagnosis, its definition has been broadened to include those with social dysphoria as well as body dysphoria and no longer applies only to those who want genital reconstruction surgery. Simultaneously, many young trans people, especially, but not exclusively, those who don’t fit into either of the binary genders, say they don’t feel dysphoria—their transitions are motivated instead by the positive feelings they get from living as their chosen gender. The demands of the trans community have advanced from medical transition, to depathologization, to the institutional recognition of the possibility of trans happiness. But the question of what dysphoria actually is—a market preference, a neuroanatomical difference, an ontological mismatch between soul and body, a structure of desire—still lacks a satisfying answer.

* * *

HOW CHANGE HAPPENED.— I guess the thing I always tell people about futurelessness is that it’s something I grew out of. I imagine I grew out of it by imagining how change could be possible. I remember when I was in Russia at the European University I told a history professor once that I wanted to study history because I thought it would help me understand how change happened. He looked at me like I was crazy. But when I was a kid I didn’t really understand how stories worked, how cause and effect worked. I remember I loved all kinds of books, especially fantasy books, but I often totally missed the character’s motivations and why things happened the way and in the order they did. Plot and real events alike simply happened, one after another, because they were “supposed to.”

* * *

Unprefixed by “gender,” dysphoria is one of the common symptoms of depression and is defined by Wikipedia as “a profound state of unease or dissatisfaction.” So dysphoria, according to this definition, is something you want to move away from, a place of unrest, a burden you cannot stand. Actually, the etymology of dysphoria fits well here: dysphoria is what is hard to carry, bad to bear. Anyone who knows a depressive, or who has been one, will tell you that the unbearableness that is dysphoria is as disabling as it is repulsive; to be dysphoric is to be in a place you have to get out of, but it is also to be so burdened that you can’t move. It is what you have to escape and what holds you in place.

Gender dysphoria shares some of these characteristics. Though the experience of “gender unbearableness” is meaningfully different from that of depression—for example, it lacks the psychomotor retardation, the “heavy-limbed” feeling that makes the phrase “so burdened that you can’t move” so literal in the case of major depressive disorder—gender dysphoria can be similarly, if metaphorically, paralytic in effect. Research on depressive dysphorics has found that they quite literally have a harder time imagining the future. Gender dysphorics, too, are hardly idealized economic subjects, able to enumerate their desires and confident of their continued existence. For one thing, hegemonic ideas about trans people have, until very recently, made transition seem impossible or tragic in character. And in the absence of a possible transition—or in the presence of its indefinite delay due to economic or social roadblocks—it is difficult to imagine yourself in the future, or to build any libidinal attachment to that future, since it contains the wrong “you.” This sense of futurelessness is compounded by the queer futurelessness identified by Edelman and others—the seeming impossibility of social reproduction within a trans body and the social directive that any bodies which cannot reproduce must be broken and malformed. And when hopelessness interferes with libidinal attachment to the future, it becomes difficult to take the steps needed to build something better, whether by changing your body or escaping economic or familial precarity. The well-known comorbidity of gender dysphoria and major depression, then, should be seen not as a unidirectional causal link but as a feedback loop. If we were looking for ways to characterize dysphoria beyond simply describing it as a “discomfort,” we could do worse than by saying that gender dysphoria is a special kind of psychic futurelessness. This is not an etiology, but it is a revealing symptom.

* * *

DRINK AND OVERSHARE.— Before I first transitioned, I remember I was at a party for nerds over winter break and we were playing a game called “Drink and Overshare.” The secret that I shared was something I’d been thinking about for a few weeks, which was that when I was a kid I wanted to be a girl. So a few weeks later I sat down to write about it, when I got back to college. I remember sitting at my desk and feeling all the pain of those years rushing out. Or, that’s not quite right: it was a pain in my chest, or maybe it was a pain I invented, like the weight of breasts that weren’t there. And imagining what it would be like to wear a skirt, the desire to expand from the bottom out and the fear that if the skirt spread out my dick would get hard and poke through it. And I did get hard, thinking about it, sitting at my desk, I started to get hard imagining having breasts and a skirt…but it was also a pain, it was an agony to take pleasure in it. It felt like an open wound, except I didn’t really know what an open wound felt like. It felt like an ache of something that should have been. When I tried to write about it back then the language exploded out of the language. It was cliché and overwritten and all caps, it was trying to convey a force that didn’t work outside of my own body.

* * *

In the Trans Oral History Project transcripts, the language around dysphoria centers mostly around what dysphoria makes people do and what triggers its onset. I had to do X because of my dysphoria, or Y made my dysphoria worse. Here, dysphoria is imagined as a sort of black box that takes in information about how we’re performing gender and how others are receiving that performance and metes out punishment or reward in accordance with some capricious set of rules. Clearly, dysphoria’s roles as exculpation for the crime of crossing genders, as key presenting symptom, and as guide for the surgeon’s knife and the endocrinologist’s intervention have made a clear impact on the way we talk about it. One of the odd things about this way of talking is that, if dysphoria is a Skinner box, it makes no sense to talk about gender dysphoria without mentioning its positive-reinforcement counterpart, gender euphoria, the feeling trans people get when our gender “works” the way we want it to. Actually, I wonder why we don’t simply talk about “gender phoria” (etymologically, the way we “bear” gender—the bear here is the phor of metaphor, which bears meanings across a bridge between words, and the pher of Christopher, who bore Christ across a river according to medieval legend). Dysphoria and euphoria seem like two sides of the same coin, two aspects of the same situation. Another word for gender phoria might be jouissance.

One reason we don’t talk about it in this way is that the experience of “bearing” gender seems like it must be universal—surely everyone has to bear their gender, whether happily, impatiently, or painfully—and cis people are sometimes loathe to admit they too might feel dysphoria. (This is one reason I am not entirely convinced of the belief that prevails among those who are not actively bigoted towards nonbinary people, namely, that not all trans people feel dysphoria—not because I think trans people who claim not to feel dysphoria aren’t trans but because I suspect that everyone feels dysphoria.) Another reason for the lesser popularity of “gender euphoria” as a political motivator is that the word “euphoria” suggests a false, druggy high—it’s easier to convince society that something must be done about terrible suffering than that someone deserves to be truly and ridiculously happy. In the past, transgender activists have had to conjure up truly horrific images of trans suicides to convince cis people to give us hormones the human body produces for free. For “euphoria” to be considered essential to the experience of transness, cisgender society would have to admit that there is a positive good in transition, and, in much the same way as Sara Ahmed tracks in with respect to “Unhappy Queers” in The Promise of Happiness, cisgender authorities have historically refused to imagine the transexual happy.

But another issue with the idea of dysphoria as a black box that shocks you when you don’t behave is that it makes the workings of dysphoria happen fully “inside.” Dysphoria here is a symptom of an individual—not even the makeup of a whole individual but some irresistible facet of their neuroanatomy, some arbitrary goad inside them, driving them onward. Dysphoria is reduced to a personal preference within a market, an unusual add-on to the standard human package. Which is especially odd when we consider dysphoria as one manifestation of gender phoria, since the way we bear our own genders seems inextricable from the way gender works to structure the whole mass of human life. Dysphoria, in other words, has an inescapable inside/outsideness to it; it is a relational condition and cannot be fully explained without an account of the social process of gendering. The inside/outside binary shows up throughout dysphoria talk—the right soul in the wrong body, the way I am versus the way they see me, externality (coming out of the closet) as the making possible of the true self. When you’re trans, transphobic people ask you why you can’t “just be yourself” without also asking others to treat you differently, as though what must happen outside could be accomplished inside instead. The inside/outsideness of dysphoria demands that dysphoria, like disability, be approached through a social, rather than a medical, model.

* * *

POLITICALLY COMMITTED.— I don’t know whether this is dysphoria exactly, but I remember a sinking feeling when women didn’t include me. Often this happened around women’s literary spaces, and often the exclusion was a soft exclusion, an uncertainty or a gentle disbelief that I belonged with them. I remember one woman saying to me, “Yes to recognizing your femininity, but maybe not through a prize meant for women?” As a masculine woman, I have never quite known what to do with the framework of “recognizing my femininity.” But at the time I was publicly nonbinary, not female, and it seemed reasonable to exclude me. I think other exclusions were part and parcel of a general aura I exuded at the time of someone who didn’t know quite what they wanted or what they were committed to. I think I wanted to be part of a politically committed organization, but I didn’t know what my politics were. When I would go to women’s spaces, it wasn’t just that the women there knew much more than me about how to be women, it was also that they seemed to know more about how to navigate institutions that were not politically committed for their own personal or political ends. It is hard for me to separate the inexpressibility of the self under dysphoria from these other, also gendered mutenesses.

And at the same time, for all of these little exclusions, it’s also hard ever to identify them as violences. How can people accept you as something you don’t identify yourself as? But the work of recognizing the reasonableness of these actions that crowd out your space to feel like yourself is exhausting.

I remember when I was at the artist’s commune I went to a meditation practice in which a queer woman was passing her hands over me. It was in one of the studios on the second floor, the sun was pouring in. I lay down on the floor and closed my eyes while she hovered her hands a few inches from my skin, and I was supposed to feel the energy in my second body, in my spiritual body. As I became focused on my spiritual body I started to flinch from her hands, as though I’d been beaten recently, and I realized that my spiritual body was covered with bruises. Later she and I talked about it, and I articulated something I hadn’t been aware of—that I was exhausted from constantly identifying people’s cluelessness about the difference between trans women and queer men as reasonable. I realized that I was tired of constantly internalizing what felt like violence because its reasons were “understandable.” This astral body shit was a kind of evidence I wasn’t used to admitting to a discussion about justice and injustice. But every time I identified these misgenderings as “reasonable,” I identified my own body as reasonably misgenderable.

* * *

Because dysphoria is irreducibly social, then, it is not an example of what some philosophers call qualia—an inexpressible, untranslateable, subjective experience, like the redness of red or the pearness of a juicy slice of pear. Or rather, whether or not dysphoria as a subjective experience can be conveyed, its status as a quale is not the source of the difficulty in talking about it, describing it, writing it down. The problem is not that we can’t see inside the black box: the black box is an illusion. The black box of dysphoria is more like an event horizon, which, when crossed, inverts, revealing that it cloaked a mirror of our own universe, or our own universe seen differently, populated by a host of unseemly things—the ungrievable, mortal losses of puberty; the chaos of sexual, emotional, and social impotencies that transness imposes; the inexpressible futurelessness of queer embodiment. Dysphoria is full of the why didn’t I transition earlier, full of the how do they really see me, full of the will I ever be happy. The “inside” of the black box is actually the “outside” of the subject seen through a different normative lens, one in which the social body “should” be different. The subject’s outside suddenly appears not as a neutral field of possibilities and choices but as a densely connected network of events, meanings, and structures that extend backwards into the personal and civilizational past and that is all but impossible to serialize or make linear in writing. When the pandora’s box of dysphoria stays closed, the network seems to collapse down to a single point, and life seems ordinary, factual, if a bit gray and hopeless. When it explodes open, it is a labyrinth of unacceptable meaning and ungrievable loss, to which there are many entry points, and from which no exits have yet been found. To describe dysphoria is to describe trans existence before transition: dysphoria is a desire inexpressible in public language, struggling to be expressed.

* * *

FUCKING.— Sometimes dysphoria felt similar to being rejected by someone you were attracted to. The valuelessness of being rejected after you had invested yourself in someone was liquid, it spread through your body literally like a seepage, like you were a sponge. But at the same time it was like your body was booby trapped. I remember after two people I’d been invested in rejected me, when I would go to masturbate, it was like my body was not my own. I would break down crying. I wrote poems that figured my body as just so much fat, like the glistening yellow lumps they show you in health class to scare you off eating too much. I couldn’t stop eating in college. It was not pleasurable: maybe that was because the food was bad, maybe that was because I couldn’t feel pleasure, I don’t know. I put on weight, but the fat went to the wrong places. It was like dysphoria was a series of curving roads in a suburban housing development and I would never end up where I wanted to be. The fat was never on my hips, the tits didn’t look like tits, the ass was big and fun but not round in the right ways. There was that horrible gut. The hairs started to creep up my body.

The summer after junior year I shaved my head and started doing exercises in my room. I had a pullup bar. I also bought more skirts and dresses. I liked having muscles, it helped a little. I liked the way the shaved head helped my ugly fatness seem more like a blunt political statement. I liked the way it gave me a science fictional edge. I spent the summer in that beautiful overpriced Cambridge apartment reading feminist science fiction, Butler and Leckie and Le Guin mostly but also Hopkinson and Karen Lord. That was the summer when I read Parable of the Sower and saw what way things might be going in the world. But there was still this longing. I finally made out with someone, and the experience of being near tits, of putting skin on skin, of kissing parts of the body was amazing. She grabbed the hair on the back of my head, really hard, and bit my lips. It was angry and kind of anonymous; I don’t think she thought it was going to go anywhere, and I guess it didn’t. But I felt more confident, less totally worthless. I must have hurt so many people while I was in that hole.

When I started to transition in a serious way is when I finally started fucking. When my partner shaved my head for me, when they painted my nails, when they gave me the fan skirt and I finally got to twirl, it was like being caught in a riptide, it was a pulling at the heart.

I remember when I first came home—in sophomore year—and told my mom I “crossdress sometimes,” she was very worried. She said it was because she’d seen so many men die of AIDS, so many lose their marriages. I told her that was ridiculous because I wasn’t going to have unsafe sex and I wasn’t going to get into a marriage with someone who would want me to be a normal straight man. I remember recently we were having a conversation about kink. She said, “I hope you’re not into anything too dangerous.” I said, “No, except in the sense that jouissance is always dangerous.” She said, “Well, it is!”

* * *

Describing transness not in terms of dysphoria but in terms of desire is not a new move; it is a turn most recently popularized by Andrea Long Chu in her 2018 n+1 essay “On Liking Women.” There she suggests, first, that trans women want to be women, and, second, that that desire is always in some sense frustrated. She writes, in a Lacanian mode, that

[N]ot getting what you want has very little to do with wanting it. Knowing better usually doesn’t make it better. You don’t want something because wanting it will lead to getting it. You want it because you want it. This is the zero-order disappointment that structures all desire and makes it possible. After all, if you could only want things you were guaranteed to get, you would never be able to want anything at all.

After all, she concludes, “The other name for disappointment [...] is love.” This line of impish provocation has led Chu to a deeply depressive view of transness. Later that same year, she published a now-infamous article in The New York Times, “My New Vagina Won’t Make Me Happy,” in which she claimed that each successive step in her transition had further damaged her mental health—but that that fact shouldn’t mean she should be barred from continuing with it. She gives roughly the same account in her Trans Oral History Project interview, detailing how her transition resulted in one month of wild bliss at its outset followed by a steadily deepening dysphoric depression. In the NYT article, she goes one step past the gender euphoria case for transition: Chu should be allowed to undergo genital reconstructive surgery not because it will make her happy, nor even because it will alleviate her pain (it will do neither), but simply because she wants to. Needs are abandoned as a mode of justification in favor of desires that are acknowledged as unfulfillable.

While most trans women do not cosign Chu’s tragic account, this “give a mouse a cookie” model of transition, wherein each step only leads to a more uncontrollable longing for further changes, is something trans women sometimes discuss amongst themselves. In particular, it is usually framed as a feature of early transition—once you admit to yourself that you want to live as another gender, the dysphoria you’ve been suppressing becomes impossible to ignore. One might almost imagine dysphoria as a sort of demon that comes, not when you speak its name, but when you accurately describe it, as in the case of my friend and me talking about our stubble in the car. In this version, to describe dysphoria evocatively is to invoke longing, to cause it to erupt from the earth. Once we begin to serialize the dysphoric network within public language, longing drives us to rebel against given categories, in a way that can pit us irrevocably against a transphobic world and its cisgender order of signification. This is a second reason why dysphoria is hard to describe directly: to speak of dysphoria makes us into the kind of subjects that are the mortal enemies of some and the natural allies of others.

Here I might say that dysphoria has two characters: one as longing, the other as futurelessness. Futurelessness presents itself as a fact, as a surrounding circumstance. When we are futureless, we are alienated from our bodies. We see them “objectively,” as though from the outside, noting their uglinesses and inadequacies. We cannot feel what they want; we assume that their desires exist, but the bodies themselves are not alive, not thrilling with desire; they are like wet, gray, crumbling paper towels. We might say that futurelessness is unconscious dysphoria; it is the first step in transition’s dialectic.

Longing, on the other hand, is like having a live wire drawn through your flesh. It is what Bataille, and Lacan after him, called a “limit experience,” an experience at the extreme edge of human existence, where normal patterns of living break down. During longing, the intolerability of your situation is undeniable; it makes itself known within the body. For the first time, it becomes possible to name the problem and begin the process of grief. It is important, when going through an experience like this, not to be alone. When you are not alone, you can start to construct a public language in which transition is possible.

* * *

LACY FRILLY UNDERWEAR.— While I was still nonbinary, I started to realize that transition could mean being rejected by society. I had a lot of hatred of trans bodies. It was like I wanted to be trans but be a perfect trans who was not addressable as perverted, a danger to children, a disgusting piece of rebellious hairy flesh. I didn’t think of it in that language, but those are the words people use to talk about how I felt. I remember when my partner gave me a pair of lacy frilly underwear for Christmas, and I saw my pubes spilling out of it down my thighs and up my stomach, I pretended I liked it, but she could see that I didn’t. I don’t remember how I got from there to the total meltdown but I remember sitting on the couch with my knees drawn up to my chest and her arms around me, crying about how children would be afraid of me and I didn’t know if I could take that. About how my hips would never be right, my shoulders would never be right. She said, gently, are you sure you’re not a woman?

* * *

The problem with Chu’s argument is not that desire doesn’t always come with a “zero-order” disappointment—it does. The problem is twofold: first, that the reality of zero-order disappointment is not actually a good grounds for treating transness as tragic, except in the sense that all human life is tragic, and second, that the actually tragic facets of trans experience stem as much from exploitation as Marxists understand it as from Lacanian lack.

When we are having an existentialist conversation—and we are always having an existentialist conversation when we talk about whether lives are tragic or comic—it is hard to ignore a demand that I think most people feel: the injunction to make your life count. A communist, which I think I am, might hope that one day there will be a world in which everyone feel that their life counts simply because it’s theirs and they’re living it, but that doesn’t mean communists don’t feel this pressure—perhaps they feel it more intensely, as the yawning gulf between that better world and the actually-existing one makes it clear how much work there is to be done. While it is easy enough to set the standard for “counting” as low as “breathing," it is substantially harder to avoid the question of whether one’s life has value entirely.

For a communist, making your life count might mean building communism, or at least empowering the working class as much as possible. For a transgender person, it probably involves living as the gender that works for you. Just as the two objections to Chu’s argument are not fully distinct, neither are these ways for lives to count extricable from one another. Lack exists, but if we focus first on lack, on zero-order disappointment, it’s a foregone conclusion that anything we have done to pursue our desires does not “count.” It becomes hard to see how anything could count. And, at this point, it’s worth asking who is most harmed by Chu’s refusal to imagine the transsexual happy: not the richest and whitest among the trans community. Yet there are several ways in which the pursuit of desire, while remaining fundamentally disappointing, can matter: it can lead to the realization that the desire in question is impossible to fulfill, and so the desire can be grieved; it can lead to the discovery of new meanings, which in turn can give rise to new desires; it can lead the individual to build structures in the world that help others by traumatizing them less and supporting their own explorations of desire. All of these require that the subject have power, have agency, and while this demand that the subject be able to move in the world as the gender they desire to be, it also requires time and money.

It has been said that transitioning with money is completely different from transitioning without money. As Zoe Belinsky has suggested in an essay in the upcoming Transgender Marxism, the “debility” that trans people experience might be best explained not through a social model, but through an economic one. Wealthy trans people have access to a host of highly developed surgical techniques, to psychotherapy, to gentrified forms of transition coaching that cater to the affluent trans person looking for as smooth a ride as possible. By contrast, if you’re not one, it’s worth imagining what it would be like to be a young trans woman with no money. The stress of rent leads to a feeling of malaise. You miss hormone doses. You don’t have money for facial feminization; every day, you look in the mirror, knowing that you might live out your twenties never quite experiencing the beauty of young womanhood. There’s hair on your face, but you’re saving up for a move to a big city, so you can’t get it removed. You want to move to a big city because you’re afraid of what will happen if you stay alone and isolated much longer. But the aloneness itself makes it harder to be consistent about saving. You spend too much money on fast food. Maybe you start doing sex work. You’re making money, but you’re also constantly risking your life. The experience of being a poor trans person is the experience of being a poor person, compounded with a special flavor of futurelessness: transness as mounting debt, as continuous catastrophe. By the time one problem is fixed, 12 others have sprung up.

* * *

CHROME TORCHIERE.— I remember once before I really transitioned I was lying on my bed and I had this chrome torchiere next to my bed, and I could see myself reflected, distorted, in the scoop of its shade, and for some reason it looked like I had tits. Like real tits, big tits. I just stared and stared and it was like I had seen myself for the first time, and even now reliving this moment the pain is rushing back…the desire to have real breasts, big breasts, on the front of my body. I remember lying on that bed and thinking that I looked like a woman athlete in a sports bra—like I was tough and fit and hot, and it looked so much like the me I wanted to be that there was a mix of pleasure and pain, I wanted to be like that because that was me… As I write this I am feeling dysphoria in its acute form. It is flooding through my body. It is a wet feeling that sinks through my muscles. It is a little like soreness, like lactic acid… It is a little like wanting, like so-horny-you-have-to-fuck-or-you-feel-you-will-be-destroyed, it is a lacking and a driving forward, a wantingsomuch. I remember also feeling worried that if I did grow tits they would never look like that, they would always just look like huge pectorals atop my narrow hips. It was already too late for them to look right.

* * *

This image of trans poverty as accumulating disarray, as constantly compounded losses, recalls Benjamin’s angel of history. The angel watches the wreckage of history pile up as a giant storm rages. The force of the storm is so strong that it continually blows the angel backward into the future. And there are two issues with this wreckage. The first of them is that it is a vast accumulation of tragedies: Marx says, “The tradition of all the dead generations hangs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.” But it is also a tangle of parts, a cross- and multi-dimensional tangle that the present is partially stuck in, partially unextricated from. The labyrinth of dysphoria, the dense network inside the black box, is the wreckage of history under capitalism itself.

Compared to the multidimensionality of history, a human life seems one-dimensional, linear, even though the dimensionality required to represent human conscious embodiment is likely enormous. Still, there is a sense in which the most that a person can move forward is one day per day (or more precisely, one person-day per day)—even though trillions of “days” happen simultaneously across the web of existence. Every day, when you’re poor, you go through what you have to do to survive, and most days feel like net losses. You can’t imagine how you could keep up with the rush of experience, can’t imagine how you could ever choose where you go next.

The engine that drives our ability to guide our path, to move in some way not fully predetermined by the force of the storm of history, is desire. Specifically, it is the process of becoming aware of our desires, working to achieve them, and being sensitive to when desires fade and other desires replace them—in precisely the way Chu’s tragic account of trans desire misses. If we are able to live fully one day per day, without living the same day twice, our lives “count.”

This is not something you can choose to do all on your own. To be able to choose where to go next requires, above all, time and material security. You need to know you are not disposable. You need the time to stop and regroup when you have suffered a loss. You need time to grieve and figure out who you are in the aftermath. You need the time to stop work and pursue something pleasurable when an impulse seizes you. When you can’t figure out where your desire is leading you, you need time to sort of feel it out. It can be difficult to know where your feelings are coming from, especially when they are intense and unexpected and potentially catastrophic. So you need time and resources to surf the feelings a little bit, play around a little bit, try this song or that food, and when nothing seems to work, breathe through it until you can reframe it. You need the opportunity to spend continuous time with friends who genuinely care about you. Everyone needs these things, but trans people’s need for them is inflected differently.

* * *

WRITING FUTURELESSLY.— Of course it doesn’t help writing this that I feel futureless myself lately. I feel this is all so boring, depressing, boring, and gray, like eating cigarettes. It is all tangled through with guilt and obligation but also with boredom like thick oily deposits, like cysts.

Lately I’ve been frontloading more and more of my life into my imagination. As I do so, the standards for what would constitute success get higher and higher, and I feel like or think that I’m hopeful, but actually, I’m getting exhausted.

I think of it as a question of torque and traction, like the imagination is the engine car of the train and the cargo cars are action. Whenever I’m talking to someone who feels futureless and I try to help them imagine the future that is possible, they often become distant and disengaged, as if they're not really there with me. There is a separation that happens, like the front car of the train somehow pulls so hard it breaks off from the cargo cars and drives off ahead. I remember I watched a Japanese movie once where the plot turned on the idea that anything you repeat three times is a lie, so I think you have to be careful you don’t say “you have a future” three times, either to yourself or to someone else.

Futurelessness feels like debt, which feels like not owning your property—Chaya recently introduced me to the idea that “property is what is proper to you, what you are invested in, i.e., what you love”—but also, we owe debts to one another…we have responsibilities and at some point you have to pay the piper, you have to keep your promises. You want to be upstanding and honorable—“keep it tight and honorable and hot,” as Caroline said—but what you fear is that you won’t be able to fulfill any responsibilities, and the prospect of living your life in constant self-reinvention is unbearable.

Futurelessness for me involves spending a remarkable amount of time thinking, not about death exactly, because I do believe that a life well lived makes the prospect of death more bearable, but about middle age. I know I could never be a middle aged man and that's part of why I transitioned, but that doesn't mean I won't make middle aged art, which is almost as bad.

And what if I’m not part of the generation that figures the revolution out! Honestly I just feel so exhausted, it seems hard to dose myself with pleasure, it feels depressing, actually, that dosing myself with pleasure is what I know I am doing. I don’t look at the articles Kate posts about all the awful things happening. I can’t look, and this concept of going and doing organizing is starting to feel like a fake dream, like something I tell myself to absolve myself of responsibility. Like I write poems about it and I don’t know if I will ever be good enough to win a fight. I remember once in college I told a friend that I was planning on writing not just a thesis but a GREAT thesis. He looked at me and said, totally deadpan, that everyone tries to write a great thesis. What if this revolution stuff is just writing a great thesis all over again?

And probably I will win something, but honestly whenever Sandy and I talk about psychoanalysis I just feel so triggered after. I feel like the whole world is just fucked-up people who just hurt each other until they die. I spend so much time walking to the grocery store thinking about whether there are any good people, whether there’s any such thing, can you even ever say that you lived a good life, and what if we put all our energy—what if I put all my energy—into imagination and none into action, and I’m like a boat on a rocky gray sea, and I don’t think I’m depressed, but I feel so overwhelmed—because we have to kill it, we have to fix it, we have to make it better so that people can be free and do things, we have to we have to we have to but I’m just alone in my apartment writing this stupid article about dysphoria and dispossession and this is also so cliché and I’m sure I haven’t made anyone feel anything but I’m crying, it’s real, it’s real, it’s real, it’s real

* * *

That these freedoms are hard to come by under capitalism is not an accident—nor is their lack a transhistorical fact of human life. Working for money does very peculiar things to our ability to feel our desires.

A simple account of wage-work and desire might say that wage-work is pleasurable because, in Chu’s language, “someone else does your desiring for you” while you’re on the job. You know what you have to do in order to please the people you have to please; you feel useful, and capable of producing pleasure in the other. You are not responsible for interrogating your own desires. The problem arises when you start to consider what happens during the “night,” when you are off the job. While you are not at work, you are responsible for “reproducing yourself,” that is, producing your own ability to return to work the next day.

Capital has historically found it advantageous to force workers to work extraordinarily long hours. According to Marx, this is because the sole source of capitalist profit is surplus-value, that is, the gap between how much value a worker creates for their employer on a given day and how much time and money it costs that worker to reproduce themselves for another day. The latter is roughly constant, regardless of hours worked, so by demanding longer hours from their employees, capitalists are able to reap more profit from their workers. The labor movement fought to limit the working day, and was successful in many places. But even with more restricted hours—and it’s worth noting that for Americans working full-time, the effective working day has extended well past 6pm—the strange functioning of desire under wage-work can take all the pleasure out of the time allotted for social reproduction. This is because the purpose of social reproduction is not for its own sake but to produce labor-power for the employer—for a job that may be fundamentally bullshit—and because it is hard to reconnect with the desires of the body after spending eight hours a day eating cigarettes. You get home, settle down with a beer, determined to relax, but you’re never quite able to completely reset from the workday before you go back and have to do it again; the labor movement’s “eight hours for what you will” are never really for what you will. Quoth Marx: “If the worker consumes his disposable time for himself, he robs the capitalist.”

Even when there are no traditional hourly wages involved, no explicit measurement of labor time, work under capitalism disconnects us from our bodies and our desires. Take one dark, twisted version of making your life count, pervasive in 21st-century work: the hustle. The hustle demands that you take control of your life, that you become your own boss, that you set personal goals and work tirelessly towards them. (Its rise as ideology is clearly connected to the dominance of the gig economy as a way for employers to undo the gains of the labor movement.) This is a legitimately terrible and terrifying standard for contemporary work. The demand that you become your own boss is a demand to exploit yourself, to split yourself in two, so that one half of you does the desiring for the other half. Nothing could be more calculated to drain pleasure from life. When you are hustling, none of your time is your own because all of your time belongs to your boss. You can find yourself in a labor dispute with yourself. The hustle demands that you pursue your goals, which are not the same thing at all as your desires.

The fundamental problem is not merely that labor-time is measured, that our work lives are discretely divided into minutes, but that it is exchangeable with other labor-time. For products to be exchanged—a necessary precondition of a capitalist economy—the labor that gives them value must be exchangeable with other labor. Even for those of us not directly paid by the hour—we may be paid by the piece, or in salary—if we do not measure our own time and keep pace with the standard for our industry, we will either lose our job (in the case of salary) or starve (in the case of piecework). I have no right to fall in love with a piece I’m editing for money and spend an extra month on it—I couldn’t pay my rent. This is the underlying reason for the pressure to keep pace: the fact that our time spent working is exchangeable and therefore interchangeable with that of any other worker in our industry. It is this fungibility of labor-time that causes the trouble.

My experience of time when I edit or eat or fuck is not exchangeable for anyone else’s experience; it is not fungible. I don’t live by the minute, but by the moment. As Benjamin would put it, my time is not empty, not homogenous. Each moment has a texture to it, a taste and a smell and a rhythm all its own, and these things give my time a special value to me personally. But this value is not recognized publicly—the texture of my life is hidden behind the veil of what Marx would call abstract labor, the purely abstract and fungible version of labor that is exchanged for wages. It doesn’t matter what desires I feel. All that matters is what my life can be exchanged for. Because its personal, non-fungible quality is not valorized, to make my life count, I am forced to “fill the unforgiving minute / with sixty seconds worth of distance run,” as Kipling would have it. If I am not careful, in all my effort to make my life “count” in a public sense, I may end up becoming “a Man, my son.”

* * *

OFF HORMONES.— When I was in Russia in 2019 – 2020 I went off hormones for about six months, at first because I wanted to save some sperm and then because I sort of fell apart and couldn’t get my shit together to get back on them.

I had been on spironolactone (a dangerous off-label testosterone blocker that remains the standard of care for most poor trans women in the US) and oral estrogen before my six-month hiatus. After I went off them cold turkey I experienced some pretty nasty side effects. The skin around my eyes and lips grew chapped and red and covered in little silver-white scales, like evaporated saltwater, that flaked off to the touch. It took several months of being ashamed to let anyone see me before I went to the doctor and found out it was a testosterone-triggered bout of seborrheic dermatitis. I also began to see hair on my chest for the first time and my hairline receded. Testosterone brought a different kind of libido and daily erections back into my life. The return of erections and a sexuality that I at least knew how to negotiate was a bit of a relief, because I had felt rather lost trying to have sex as a woman.

I had wanted to preserve the possibility of having biological children and I had wanted to be in the university the way my professors wanted me, as a man. But I couldn’t. Around my classmates I felt mute; I felt like no one could see me. Like a ghost.

Finally in the spring I quit school and walked into a pharmacy and bought some estrogen. It is easy to get estrogen in Russia because they sell it over the counter. It comes in blister packs of 28 under the brand name Progynova and is marketed to cisgender women. When I finally went back on estrogen I went through 28-packs at a rate of one a week, taking 8 mg of estrogen a day sublingually in order to suppress testosterone without spironolactone.

After I’d quit the schooling, that spring, a friend and I were walking in Tavrichesky Garden. They took a photo of me and I told them I felt ashamed because I’d realized my hair was starting to recede. It was like this moment of growing up. It felt like coins were falling from the sky, it was like everything in the world had the tang of tasting a copper penny, because I knew I’d paid a price for not staying true to who I was. So that time the dysphoria hadn’t just been like a longing or a seepage and it hadn’t been a trauma attack where I broke down sobbing. It had been a set of facts all around me, like that I was getting older and my body was ugly and my hair was ugly.

Against these facts, I set a memory of slow dancing the previous summer in my pretty April Cornell floral nightgown, in the old cafeteria at the artist’s commune. How my dance partner whispered a secret in my ear. How they made me feel like the most beautiful person in the room, said I was the soul of the party. How they had felt me get hard against their slim body and didn’t flinch back or consider me a freak. I had felt invested with a dangerous and fertile youth and beauty, a kind of not flammable but viral potentiality. I knew this could be me, but the facts were all around me that it could not, and what if it never could again.

* * *

A world in which we could choose where we go next is not a world in which we are guaranteed to achieve our goals, nor is it a world without entropy, in which intentions connect unproblematically to outcomes. Rather, it is a world in which we are to work through whether our desires are feasible or not and in which we are able to move on from desires that no longer do it for us. This enables us to develop as we figure out who we are; it keeps our souls moving through time rather than letting them get snagged irrevocably in one moment, unable to grieve. A world in which we live one day per day is not a post-dysphoric world, but a world in which transition is always, and completely, possible. But the real experience of many people is that they live one day per day only rarely. For example, a combination of material factors causes executive dysfunction; poverty makes the possibility of achieving desire seem remote; health issues interrupt circuits of pleasure; demands to return to work immediately after tragedy force us to lock emotions away, etc. This is why the double character of Benjamin’s wreckage is important—not just in its tragic character, but in its abject character, as that which we cannot fully alienate ourselves from. We are not able to order, and therefore cannot traverse, the paths of the past to collect ourselves to move into the future. Their multidimensional tangle, and our material poverty, trap us in this derangement.

But people do get free, if only partially. People transition. Futurelessness erupts occasionally into dysphoria in its florid state, longing, and this longing often drives motion towards desire. The dialectic of dysphoria, between futurelessness and the pain that works to make people transition, operates even when it is not acknowledged. It is important that we not deny that even in the state of futurelessness there is something in us that works towards the eruption of florid longing. The form of this dialectic is a flicker between inside and outside. Futurelessness is as a fact, something that exists all around—a fact that we can have feelings about but cannot resist. Then, by creeping sideways motions, we get to the point of being able to challenge that fact. This may be by the discovery of certain ways of playing with ourselves, such as the right food, the right binder, or the right sex act. Then the boundary between inside and outside dehisces, longing becomes internal and is recognized, and time is, momentarily, serialized.

The structure of this unconscious escape, this opening of the possibility of self-actualization without self-recognition, is so similar to that of the classical Marxist concept of class consciousness that it seems not too absurd to say that the working class is dysphoric. From there it seems not too big of a leap to wonder whether helping individuals transition and helping the working class “transition” might be mutually reinforcing forms of political work. It is just possible that in order to successfully treat gender dysphoria, we have to give people a future.

It is frequently the case that an editor makes the difference between a good article and a bad one; in this case, however, without the editorial and intellectual labor of Cat Pierro, Sandow Sinai, and Piper Wheeler, and without many late-night conversations with Sandow and with Nastya Panichkina, this essay would simply not exist at all. Kate Doyle Griffiths, Erica Eisen, and Zoe Belinsky also made invaluable contributions, whether or not they knew it at the time.

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