My gender is tender

The complexities of gender identity are considered in relation to the film performances of Jackie Curtis and Jonathan Caouette

By Adrienne Harris, PhD

Jackie Curtis said this, half ironic, half provocative, in a filmed interview made by Andy Warhol. Thirty years ago, Curtis was an early, quite incandescent transgender figure: Warhol's star, a liminal beauty, a poet, an artist, a gifted playwright. And as he himself wryly observed, he was on his way to the inevitable signature Warholian superstar manifestation early death from drugs. He died at 38 in 1985. Curtis also appears in an experimental film on the work of Wilhelm Reich called Mysteries of the Organism, and he walks through that film manifesting, indeed insisting on, enigma and uncodability.

He had an interesting lineage, growing up in his grandmother's saloon. A famous bar in the 1950s, Slugger Ann's was one of those icons of a now long lost bohemian New York world. Curtis was always at home on the edge. A girl and a boy, a girl in a boy, a boy in a girl. "I'm not a boy, not a girl," Curtis maintained. "I am not gay, I am not straight, I am not a drag queen, I am not a transvestite." In 1976, the year of the interview, his gender may be tender, but it is also defiantly set against intelligibility.

In the mid-1980s, eerily and perhaps ironically as Jackie Curtis is destroyed by heroin and perhaps also by outsiderness mixed with celebrity, a young 11-year-old in Tarnation, Texas, turns on a camcorder in his bedroom, and, wearing a kerchief and blouse, looks into the camera and in a strong southern drawl begins a monolog in which he, as a young girl, recounts rape, assault, and finally vengeance.

We know this because that 11-year-old grows up to be a filmmaker and, at 25, Jonathan Caouette puts this childhood memory/ artifact in his autobiographical documentary Tarnation, made in 2005. Tarnation is a memoir, an experimental documentary film drawing from home movies, still photos, and personal video cam filming done over the filmmaker's childhood.

I will return to a discussion of this potent film text and the young Jonathan's use of trans and drag in a moment of self-regulation and creativity, but first take a brief look at the sharp, intense arc of work on transgender since the mid-1980s. From Jackie Curtis to contemporary trans-pos and trans experience there has been both a steady evolution and, in the past decade, a revolution. When John D'Emilio (1992) wrote about the move in gay collective experience from subculture to community, he was tracking more than a half century of political, social, and personal movement. Recently, Joanne Meyerowitz's (2002) history of mid-20th century transgender/ transsexual life and its medical and cultural management began to fill in the details of this past century for transgendering. Perhaps as an unintended aspect of her work, one sees how sparse and impoverished the sources of this history are, how scant the information and recording of transgender lives were once one goes beyond the high-publicity cases. Yet Susan Stryker (Stryker & Whittle, 2006) would question this blank space. In her collection The Transgender Studies Reader, she finds trans in many cultures and settings and historical epochs. Hidden in plain sight.

Since the 1990s, transgender life and transgender communities have moved very rapidly. From isolate to icon, from objectifying pathology to resignification and voicedness, from outlaw to in-law, the social/personal transformations are practically overnight. Judith Halberstam (2005), in creating and imagining a "queer time and place" opens a terrain for unruliness, for a less rationalized relation to time and space, for resistance from the edge. She wants to think of transgender as sited between "embodiment, place and practice." Local matters of gender and sexuality and identity need to be in conversation with other practices of postmodern analysis, she argues. To me, her book carries some fascinating tensions: the demanding libratory political call for transgressive relations to time and space sits next to the mournful work of what she terms "the Brandon archives," where the iconic and sudden visibility of the transgender body ends with death and murder, a murder which brings to the surface the powerful phobic hatreds of difference and of gender variance and sexual difference.

This tension between in-law and outlaw pertains to psychoanalysis as well. Psychoanalysis comes in utopian and dystopian forms. This is the complexity of clinical practice as well as work with theory. There will always be, one hopes, a radical edge of psychoanalysis, a spot from which to listen to the inaudible, the less visible presences in psychic and cultural life. Joel Kovel (1981) speaks of the unquenchable revolutionary potential in psychoanalysis, a potential always guaranteed by virtue of psychoanalysis's commitment to a theory of the unconscious and to the impossibility of full possession of oneself or another. But he was writing in a moment of high hopes in the 1960s and we are, in 2008, now sober Foucauldians and Butlerians, and the infestation of regulatory tools into analytic theory and practice is an idea we are trying to live with.

Trans Performance as Sanity: Embodiment as Memory

The very current and evolving work on trans drew me back to that sequence in Tarnation. The film weaves together the filmmaker's boyhood life and his inspired use of self-recording and highly performative drag scenes from mid-childhood on, in tandem with the heartbreaking visua tracking of his mother's decline into schizophrenia. Among many other feelings one has in watching this strong and formally adventurous film is that self-recording and performance, including highly creative gender performance, was part of what kept the filmmaker sane and functional. A psychoanalytic tracing of the interplay between gender construction and the complex task of loyalty and preservation of his mother appears and reappears throughout the film. Gender madness and madness connect in heartbreaking ways.

It is a film literally made from the most prosaic domestic apparatus, from the shards of lives, the detritus of homemade movies, cultural artifacts, and disturbed family reminiscence. These disparate forms are wound into a highly creative production that goes well beyond evocative pastiche. The story is always simultaneously about catastrophe and, against all odds, and mysteriously, always about survival. The unfolding account of the period when Renee (Jonathan's mother) and Jonathan's lives overlap and explode is as much a meditation about what can scaffold fragile lives as it is an account of the contagiousness of madness and dysfunction.

Against the visual track (about 5 minutes in length) of Jonathan's monologue as a damaged but defiant southern girl, the soundtrack records the mournful ballad "Wichita Lineman," a song about loss, a song about holding on in the face of abandonment, a song about electricity. The boy begins, wearing a kerchief, blond hair falling across his face, dressed in a skirt and blouse and talking in a strong southern accent. "My name is Laura Lee." It is playful, draggy, like the testimony of some soap opera character he must have heard many times on the TV. He begins to recount a tale of abuse and violence. He turns intensely from play to deeply lived traumatic repetition. He is crying. He is lost in the experience. The camera goes on recording. Jonathan is alone in the room as we hear voices in the background. The story turns dramatically to revenge and violence. The abuser is killed. "Laura Lee" confesses, proud and defiant. "I shot the son of a bitch." From the surrounding material in the film, we understand that he is repairing, identifying, struggling to remember a mother fragmented and in pieces and to build his own memory, also so fractured and in pieces.

I want to make three points about this material. First, I want to examine how much gender (and indeed many forms of identity) can offer coherence, intelligibility, and thus psychic safety (Butler, 2004, 2005). We can see transgendering as reality and performance, bewigged testimonial as a made-up woman recounting her own devastation, Jonathan playing Renee, or rather a version of Renee. He is 11, the age she was at the beginning of her fall (from rooftops and life). It is a riveting performance. The 11-year-old onscreen is witnessing more than is metabolizable and yet somehow creating material that much later can enter a new and transformed account of Jonathan and Renee's lives. At 11, the son has the glimmering sense of Renee as victim. He enacts her and we might see that later this enactment is transformed. He becomes her caretaker, the transformation foreshadowed in the unexpected moment in the monologue when the young boy in character becomes the avenger.

This powerful performance made me return again to the work of Susan Coates (1991, 1995) on gender dysphoria. One of her key insights is that transgendering in the young boys she studied seemed linked to the boy's experience of the endangered state of his mother. Identification becomes a mode of holding and containing, propping up the dissolving experience of the parent whose depression or absence in some way is keenly felt but unrepresentable as loss. Melancholy is thus seen both in its intrapsychic and its intersubjective forms, it holds another who may be lost and a self-state that is endangered alongside a love that may have to be repudiated, but cannot. There is tension here between an identification that saves you and one that dooms you.

I add to that conceptualizing of introjection and internalization current ideas about embodiment as a form of memory and registration of history. Salamon (2010), drawing on Merleau Ponty, would speak of the body as a site of perception and reactivation. The scene is an attempt to rewrite history, to carry Renee forward, to defy the murderous men/doctors/fathers who, in his view, destroy her. But being is also holding and remembering, phantasy, in the Kleinian sense perhaps and certainly in the current intersubjective sense, carries unconscious (implicit) knowing. Certainly, we are also in the world identified by Green as the dead mother complex, where identifications are neither lost nor found but "absent" in a way that entombs the subject.

My second point is this: I want to attend to the power of the camera's gaze not solely as interpellative but also as regulatory. Containment comes through the filmmaker's virtually lifelong preoccupation with creative work, and, I would propose, from the prosthetics of performance and cultural appropriation, over several generations. The testimonials of gender, enacted scenes of girls/women in distress, telling their stories, perform intrapsychic internal structural work. Jonathan lived in and through the movies, soap operas, TV, narratizing himself and keeping almost an archive of his identity and life. Gender and narration are his self-realized, creative forms of coherence and intelligibility. A brilliant form of journaling, I would say. Lacan's seminar on James Joyce addresses this matter as he explores Joyce's complex, ambiguous relation to symbolization as a strategy to defend against psychosis and "lack" both in himself and his child, Lucia. In the seminar, one sees/feels Lacan straining against and with the structures of language, defying narration and needing it, enacting the problem he sets up in Joyce. More contemporaneously, Bruner has written on the power of narrative to process trauma.

What interests me in regard to the camera's gaze in Tarnation is less the position of the gazer (the apparatus as patriarchy has been a staple of film studies since Laura Mulvey) than the function of regulation that the camera deploys. Jonathan uses and is used by forms of cinema that carry ideology, normativity, and patriarchy. Renee and Jonathan are surely objects of patriarchic regulation. If one thinks of the particular fate of the early beautiful Renee, of the fetishized ideas of star and stardom, ideas Renee herself gets caught up in, we might see that the camera, like the ECT machine, devours the girl. Her beauty is eaten and destroyed by this complex of patriarchal machinery, with its particular attunement to female beauty. Mothlike, Renee and Jonathan return again and again to the camera's gaze and embrace, hoping each time both to triumph and to be recognized.

But we need to see the regulatory function of the camera under certain circumstances as a container, as mind object, as organizer of story and gesture and self-characterization. We might also see Jonathan's use of the camera (in childhood and as the adult filmmaker) as subversive, as an attempt to repeat and undo the trauma to Renee, both in being seen by cameras in her youth and by the ensuing traumatic attacks in her life. The camera's look, its gaze and stare, scaffold a fragile and yet tenacious psychic formation, where self and other are inextricably engaged. Could we say that it is the camera's capacity to deliver evenly hovering attention, the camera's capacity for receptivity (not necessarily gendered), that may have functioned to create a holding environment for Jonathan as child and as adult? As he puts together the film he is at various times boy, mother, girl, star, all multiply configured selfstates "softly assembled" (Harris, 2005).

And third, this work evokes for me the of complex movement of history, the overlap and radical disjunction of ways of seeing and being trans or gender variant. Ken Corbett (2009), writing about gender and development, positions us/himself simultaneously trying to live/work/think in the tension between the wish to be intelligible and the wish to be free, to be unique. Following that line of thought, in 2005, Studies in Gender and Sexuality, under Muriel Dimen's editorship, published a series of discussions of transmasculine identity. In that series, Griffin Hansbury gave a generational account of trans men moving from what he termed Woodworkers to Transmen to Genderqueers. His is also an account where age, class, and access to power and resources and education interweave. In some ways, his account is the story of what happens when gender categories open and breathe, when multiplicity is less pathologized, when technology presents itself, and when our ideas about the materiality of the body meet up with technology, medicine, and also with postmodernism.

In 2011, Virginia Goldner and Melanie Suchet organized an issue of Psychoanalytic Dialogues on the complex phenomena of transgender. In the short time span of six years, trans theorizing moved from margins to center, breaking new ground in relation to embodiment, identities in many forms, and a set of clinical and theoretical encounter on what the term "phallus" might or might not signify. Intelligibility is put in question. As are coherence, trauma, pathology, analytic and analysand intersubjectivities, regulatory anxieties and shames, and above all how to think about materiality and bodies as dense sites of construction, reconstruction, and meaning. Gender is then a matter of fantasy, internal imago, and symbolization, not concreteness. This is in a certain way a triumph of resignification and I think also a deep challenge to conventional forms of understanding interpellation. At the very least a broad spectrum of feminine masculinities, masculine femininities, and bisexualities is opened up.

Jackie Curtis and the young Jonathan in performance at 11 and as filmmaker at 25 occupy different ends of the complex, multiply configured spectra of gender and trans. Jonathan is explicitly identified as gay and powerfully making use of constitutive identities for complex psychic and intersubjective business. Curtis lives to live outside, one of Halberstam's bohemian souls pushing against time, space, and history. The struggles and brilliant solutions these two figures contrive and live out suggest the complexity of identifications as constructs of the state, manifestations of unconscious phenomena, and tools of resistance.


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About the Author

Adrienne Harris, PhD is faculty and supervisor at NYU Postdoctoral Program in Psychotherapy and Psychoanalysis; faculty and a supervising analyst at the Psychoanalytic Institute of Northern California (PINC). She has been an associate editor of Psychoanalytic Dialogues since its inception and is a contributing editor of DIVISION/Review. Her book Gender as Soft Assembly was published in 2005.