A Hundred Thousand Names: Talking Back to Our History
“There’s a story in an ancient play about birds called The Birds
And it’s a short story from before the world began…
From a time when there was no earth, no land. Only air and birds everywhere. But the thing was there was no place to land. Because there was no land. So they just circled around and around. Because this was before the world began.
And the sound was deafening. Songbirds were everywhere. Billions and billions and billions of birds.
And one of these birds was a lark and one day her father died. And this was a really big problem, because what should they do with the body? There was no place to put the body because there was no earth.
And finally the lark had a solution.
She decided to bury her father in the back of her own head. And this was the beginning of memory.
Because before this no one could remember a thing. They were just constantly flying in circles.
Constantly flying in huge circles.”
–Laurie Anderson, “The Beginning of Memory”
When I saw Bugs Bunny cross-dressing, when I saw Laurie Anderson in drag, dug into my mind and found stories about miraculous transformations, writing myself into stories about growing into a woman’s body lying down in a faraway place, I was making circles. Like brushing fingers around and around erogenous areas, like the frustration of samsara, I was stuck in a circle. And running in a circle brought me back to the same point: birth and rebirth of pain and guilt, self-loathing as a perpetual motion machine. It’s not that I’ve left that circle behind, but I’ve found that people like me have a name, have a history, have a unique form of life that is worth protecting and fostering. Trans people, and trans women like me, have lived before me and left me their memories. Without these collective memories, I was condemned to aimlessness.
I recently met the dearly departed Leslie Feinberg and asked hir what she thought about my career of choice. Hir answer, though an echo of her words my mind summoned from a book, was piercing:
“Which side are you on? The hunter or the hunted? Historians sitting on a pastoral fence…doesn’t exist in reality. The fences are barricades. And barricades are a dangerous and impossible place to perch on during a battle.”¹
I was used to this idea, but for the first time it truly sunk in that I was one of the runners, one of the people who ran from the cops and clung to each other because our families were absent or oppressive. Self-created people who had to build ourselves “on the fly,” and had no business perching on fences. Such is the brutality of the hunters that they keep us from burying our dead in the back of our heads, and we have to pass this vertiginous chasm separating us from our ancestors.
It’s a staggering responsibility, looming in the back of my mind. But I kept listening to Les talk, and an uncanny feeling springs up in my guts.
“Transgender people are not dismantling the categories of man and woman. We are opening up a world of possibilities in addition.”²
But if after we have done all we are called to do, gender as a system still exists, gender as a faceless cartographer who plots us all on a map, with most of us being where there “be monsters,” what is it all for? I should laugh at myself. After all, I stand before many accused of reinforcing the gender binary by identifying as a trans woman. To return to the map metaphor, what comrade Les is suggesting is that we are working to tear down the fences and open up new territories, recognizing all these gender positions and spaces as valid. I’m still left uncertain. Why not just throw out the map? Don’t repeat the mistakes of trying to build an androgynous “gender-neutral” society but don’t reaffirm gender as a positive! Maybe we’re simply talking past each other about the same thing.
Well, we live in a country where white gay fascists can sleep undisturbed. Where the capitalist-imperialist vampires can take our hard-won concessions and brandish them as a weapon against our kin in Palestine, Afghanistan, and a hundred thousand other kill zones. Land speculators and gentrifiers push our working-class and homeless youth out to pull in the champagne-and-Human Rights Campaign crowd. Perhaps I should take hir advice and put my petty suspicions of people I think have the “wrong” identity and put them where my internalized transphobia and guilt should go: oblivion.
“There are and will be lesbian, gay, bisexual, and trans people on both sides of these barricades. How do we recognize our enemies from our allies?”³
We can’t simply scan someone’s gender expression or self-identification to tell who our friends are and who our enemies are. First, we define our goal: liberation of all and of each from all forms of oppression. Then we ask ourselves: for whom will that be a dream, for whom will it be a nightmare? Our movement will be the most advanced, a vanguard capable of uniting all of the exploited and oppressed, or it will be useless. Sie looked at me and asked another question:
“But on what basis will we form such a movement? Around what forms of desire? The ache of hunger? The desperate need of poverty and homelessness? The yearning for freedom from oppression?”⁴
I couldn’t answer, and I had finished the book before long, so I left it unresolved. At the same time, I know that it won’t come from spite, schadenfreude, mockery, or even thin and watery hope. Hope, always paired with fear and anxiety, is nothing compared to what will emerge from within history itself. Our liberation will come from within our bodies, which we hardly know, and from a history we will ourselves make. Whatever weapons and forms of love, war, and life we need to forge, we will.
Which is not to say we are assured of victory. Our lives are imperilled by many grave dangers and crises. But these will sit unresolved as long as we are scattered and divided. What Leslie Feinberg’s words, spoken and printed 20 years ago remind us is that a movement built on either cheap unity or calcified divisions is doomed either to fail or succeed in making our lives all the more miserable. “Constantly flying in huge circles.” Yes. At least until we remember all the names, far more than 100,000, and learn what history, what their voices, are telling us so insistently.
I gently adapted Leslie Feinberg’s words to fit a more dialogic format without, I believe, twisting their meaning. All the references are here, though, for the curious.
- Leslie Feinberg, “Learning from Experience,” in Trans Liberation (Boston: Beacon Press, 1997), 119.
- Ibid, 58.
- Ibid, 128.
- Ibid, 127.