Lesbian Velocity: A Chat With Grace Lavery

Recently Grace and I had a casual sort of fireside chat about lesbian velocity and why we’re mad at Eddie Izzard and Cobie Smulders, respectively. Not mad so much as a little worn out. And it wasn’t that casual; I cried twice. The first half can be found right here in your local Shatner Chatner, while the second half is running in Grace’s Stage Mirror – the latter is a subscriber-only post, but have no fear, we’re not going to cut it off in the middle of a sentence or anything. (Transsexuals have an intuitive knack for when’s the right time to cut something off.)

GRACE ELISABETH LAVERY: So I want to talk about lesbian velocity, which is a phrase I've had in my head for a while now, and I'm still not sure what it means. It was a phrase that my mind adapted from something you said when we were first dating, when my queer women friends turned their shoulder to you - politely, but quite decisively - and made it quite clear that you were not a lesbian, or perhaps no longer a lesbian, and that you were removing me from the girl gang that I was in. It was a moment of some ambivalence for me, because I was so excited to be dating you and I wanted them to be too - and of course they were, and are - but I also loved (and feared losing) the feeling of being claimed by queer women, after many pre-transition years when I couldn't have been, and wasn’t, at least not in any straightforward way. I think your feeling was more simple, and more euphoric: by being figured as a non-lesbian, that is as a man, you were confirmed in your new sense of yourself as a male person. You referred to the moment as one in which you had achieved “lesbian escape velocity.” I don't want to overstate the feeling - but I think this was a good thing for you, yes?

DANIEL ALEXANDER MALLORY ORTBERG: Hi, darling! Oh yes, “lesbian escape velocity” is a phrase I've used often in my own transition. I remember that day well! It wasn't that I was hoping to be thrown to the curb like Top Cat (“And stay out”), but I found (and find!) it so difficult not to be mistaken for a lesbian, by all types of people, in both good and bad faith, that when I am recognized as not-a-lesbian it feels like a miracle and a relief. And while I’m all for trans and cis solidarity, sometimes there's a sort of “well, of course you're still welcome – not just welcome but basically the same” sentiment that lumps trans men in with queer women in a way that’s really demoralizing. And sometimes trans men play that sentiment to the hilt, I think; a la Aydian Dowling trying to land the cover of Men’s Health and advertise on behalf of HER in the same year. I don't think “lesbian escape velocity” is something lesbians created, and I don't think they're responsible for addressing it. Sometimes when people talk about the problems they encounter in queer establishments/social circles/organizations it can feel like everyone wants lesbians to fix everything. 

I think what I loved about that particular day was the sense of proportion: that those girls knew intuitively and instinctively that you shared girlness with them that I didn't. Not that they wanted to treat me as some monstrous male interloper (that's certainly not what I hope to gain in my own transition), but that I hadn’t been extended this eternal invitation to reclaim lesbianism that came at the expense of recognizing your womanhood. 

GEL: I didn’t mean to suggest that lesbian escape velocity was a problem, still less that lesbians had a responsibility to solve it. It’s funny, I sometimes think the most straightforwardly lesbian thing about my life is that I walk around worrying that having a trans boyfriend makes me straight. 

In any case, it’s not the only thing that I've been thinking about as the phrase “lesbian velocity” has been echoing around my head - I've been thinking about the various figures of speed (U-Hauling, and the various forms of quick response that it signals) and slowness (lesbian bed death, and the various forms of gradualness that it signals) that attach to lesbians, or that are figure as lesbian. Within certain frameworks – let’s say, within that of The Price of Salt - we could understand these speed-images as modulating different modes of lesbian periodicity, different times and rhythms of lesbian intimacy, or other forms of identity and intensity. I want to raise that possibility at the start of this conversation because, on the one hand, it might be nice to talk about Highsmith, but on the other because in one sense our sex is decisively lesbian - there are no erect penises, and no male orgasms. We go back and forth (back and forth) on the question of how to describe the physical sensations that you and I experience as climactic, or orgasmic, but... nobody ejaculates, and so the narrative sequencing of our intimacy is, to that extent, felt by both of us as a kind of lesbian velocity. I wonder what you think of this strange phrase.

DAMO: Tracy Chapman's Fast Car travels at the speed of lesbian velocity. Or, when I think of lesbians and velocity, of figures of speed and slowness, I think of Bart Simpson in the episode “Bart Sells His Soul.” You know the dream sequence, where all the other kids are playing games and eventually hopping into rowboats with their souls, but Bart has to try to row across the lake by himself and can't get anywhere? In this dream, I’m surrounded by lesbians who are all happy as clams, sedately cruising about their corner of the lagoon, and I'm rowing as hard as I can to get to a different side, but I’m just spinning around.  Obviously not all lesbians are happy as clams. And I have wonderful, meaningful relationships with other trans people; I’m not being forced against my will into lesbian house parties. But that's how I picture it. I want to be Thor, friend to lesbians. (Certainly a better friend than Highsmith.) 

GEL: Could hardly be worse.

DAMO: The other thing that’s been hard for me lately, as you know, is that I’ve been coming to terms with the fact that I really thought I'd be gendered correctly more at this point in my transition. I don't want to list everything I've done in my transition as a sort of laundry list as to why I ought to be getting the reaction from the world that I want, but I’d heard so much about how powerful and fast-acting (like Tinactin) testosterone is that a big part of me just assumed it was only a matter of time. And I've been on hormones for eighteen months, and I get ma’amed and she’d everywhere I go, pretty much 100% of the time. Maybe 99%. I'm not even getting read as “visibly trans.” (Which comes with its own challenges too, I really don't want to imply that I have it worse than other trans people.) I really hate to indulge in Bathroom Discourse but the other day we were at one of those downtown quick-lunch places where you have to ask for the bathroom key, and the woman working there handed me the key to the women’s room without even a pause or a double-take or anything approaching uncertainty. And she seemed like a really lovely, thoughtful woman; there was absolutely no malice in it. That's just what she saw when she looked at me. And coming to terms with the fact that other people see us in ways we might not choose is part of being a person, not just being trans, and I certainly have worse problems than that one, but it just killed me, and I started sobbing. And nothing makes me feel more like a girl than crying in the women's bathroom!!!!

GEL: I’m struck by the evocations of speed in your expressions of frustration at testosterone. Or perhaps the opposite of speed, which in this context, I guess, is drag. Speed, if it is present as a fantasy for the frustrated trans masc you're presenting, is so in two ways. First, there's the pace that has been disrupted, suspended, or thwarted - you want to have reached the cruising velocity where you are passing constantly, but you can’t put your foot down hard enough to get the speed up. This feels slightly Preciado-ish to me, which I don’t know whether you’ll be happy to hear, but it activates in me that cyberpunk lunkhead vibe he so evocatively conveys. The second kind is more unusual to me, and softer – it’s the speed with which the woman at Freshroll handed you the women’s bathroom key, as quick and as heartbreaking as a glance. The dream would be that your transition would have happened fast enough that she could have been just as fast, but correct, when choosing which key to hand you. But at least as I can represent this scene to myself - you running hyperfast at the world; the world directing you, quick as a flash, into one bathroom or the other - those two kinds of speed aren't necessarily in sync, and might even be in some kind of necessary arrhythmia. 

For my part, and notwithstanding that I see how often you are misgendered or misaddressed, I can’t understand it. Not, I think, that I'm especially good at this kind of thing in general, but my mind sorted you into the boy bathroom very quickly, even relative to other people I’ve known who’ve transitioned. I surprised myself, to be honest. 

DAMO: I also value lesbian escape velocity because, as you know, I was not a lesbian before I transitioned! So much of the transphobic concern-trolling one sees gets dressed up as “What's going to happen to all the butches” and “If only we could teach trans men that it's okay to be lesbians and gender non-conforming women” is so baffling to me because I was a bisexual lady who wore a lot of Diane von Furstenberg wrap dresses. Nice DVF wrap dresses, that suited my shape and complemented my coloring! So it feels like being misunderstood twice. 

And part of what’s hard is – I love lesbians. I love women. I think being either or both is such a wonderful thing, and every time I cringe at getting she’d there's a voice inside of me saying WHY DO YOU FEEL BAD ABOUT BEING MISTAKEN FOR A WOMAN? IS THERE SOMETHING WRONG WITH BEING A WOMAN? WOMEN ARE INCREDIBLE AND STRONG AND YOU'RE A JERK AND YOUR TRANSNESS IS EVIDENCE THAT YOUR FEMINISM WAS FLAWED TO BEGIN WITH. So I feel guilty for not wanting to be seen as a member of a legitimately fantastic group of people. 

GEL: But how do you respond to these angry all-caps questions that you ask yourself in such merciless terms? They must be so painful. How do you answer them? There’s something a little condescending - though doubtless also heartfelt - about your description of lesbians as “a legitimately fantastic group of people,” and that note makes me wonder whether the guilt you describe isn't still a little unresolved. I suppose Preciado's answer to those questions would be something more or less like, fuck feminism. And it’s difficult for me not to think of that as a libidinally invested position. Of course one wants to fuck feminism; isn’t that the main thing that one wants to do, to feminism? At least the kind of prissy, virtuous feminism that pretends that it can align desire with ethics using one weird trick. I’ve been thinking recently about the ways in which trans people position ourselves on the seam of feminism and queer theory, which obviously never need to be in conflict, but them sometimes are anyway…

DAMO: Let me think about that voice for a minute! It has something to do with the fact that when I get tearful over being mistaken for a woman, it feels very close to how it used to feel when I knew I was being a woman badly. It has something to do with the idea, in my mind, that my transition felt a bit like stumbling and falling from a position that felt fluid and easy and rewarding; that I wanted to be something embarrassing (a trans man) instead of something cool and rewarding that I was suited to (a lesbian), and I just want to apologize over and over, and I know that no one is asking me for that apology and would, in fact, be embarrassed and irritated to have to receive it. And I think of the last two dates I went on before I transitioned – both with women, and as a woman, and how I went to your house afterwards and just wept because both of them were really nice and really cute and it didn't make sense that it upset me so badly, especially when whatever vision of the future I was trying to cobble together didn't make more sense than what I was pushing away. And I'm crying as I write this now, and I cried a lot yesterday, and I think the guilt I describe is very much unresolved! I haven't read hardly anything by Preciado, as you know, and I also know I sometimes don't know when I’m angry because anger makes me uncomfortable and it's easier for me to access sadness or something else, but I’ve always had a certain fondness for prissiness, especially in feminists. I'm prissy, a lot of the times. 

GEL: I’m going to start calling you “Paul Prissyado.”

DAMO: I accept my new name. 

GEL: And you can call me “Pris,” whose femmebot transfemininity I didn't discover until a while later, in the context of a relationship that was retroactively lesbianified, in one of those moments when I was looked at with you’re a girl, aren't you, this isn’t very complicated at all, which was something that happened quite frequently to me. I, an intellectual, always tried to put complexity on the side of expression, rather than meaning. So I would come up with extremely complex ways of explaining who or what I wasn't, etc., but the meaning was very simple: I’m not there yet. At a certain point, it flipped, and the expression became way, way too simple – I’m a woman - and I still have only a very limited and hypothetical sense of what it means. I’m not trying to imply this is growth. In a number of fairly obvious ways it’s totally regressive.

Part II here.