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What Does Embodied Liberation Look Like? A Trans Activist Shares Thoughts.

Trans author and activist Florence Ashley discusses the “pleasure and politics of living in a gendered body.”

Florence Ashley is an assistant professor at the University of Alberta Faculty of Law and author of Gender/Fucking: The Pleasures and Politics of Living in a Gendered Body.

Florence Ashley’s Gender/Fucking: The Pleasures and Politics of Living in a Gendered Body, is an erotic-academic mashup that draws from the author’s own lived experience as a sex-positive transfeminine activist and scholar. In their provocative collection, they delve into the complexities of inhabiting a gendered body within a world that oscillates between harshness and fleeting moments of tenderness. With candid personal reflections on topics such as the objectification of transgender bodies, the challenges and excitement of postoperative recovery, and navigating moments of despair and trauma, Ashley’s collection celebrates the beautifully chaotic intersection of sexuality and identity.

Ashley spoke with Truthout’s Zane McNeill about their book, the ongoing political assaults targeting LGBTQ communities and the importance of embracing the erotic as a tool to imagine what embodied liberation can look like.

Zane McNeill: In the preface to your book, you say that the “erotic is embodiment, feeling.” Can you explain what “bodily epistemologies” are and how you see the relationship between sexuality and liberation?

Florence Ashley: Our bodies aren’t just vessels for our mind. Our bodies are sources and sites of knowledge in and of themselves. When I have butterflies or pits in my stomach, when I tremble, ache, hunger, when I am aroused, when I lose breath at the touch of a lover — these things all teach me something about myself and the world I live in. It’s so mundane yet we often forget to think about knowledge in terms of bodily sensations, rather than thinking, seeing or hearing.

Nowhere is this truer than for arousal, I have found. We’re taught that arousal is something that distorts, perverts and corrupts knowledge. We’re rarely taught that it’s something we can learn from. Without selling the punch too much, I suspect that this is a form of social control. If we’re ashamed of our sexualities, of having bodies with needs and desires, we’re easier to control and exploit. By focusing on arousal, my hope was to help us — readers and myself alike — feel our way and reconnect with the erotic as a site of knowledge. And, in so doing, perhaps recognize and demand what we are owed.

There has been a tendency for queer and transgender studies scholars to desexualize trans and queer bodies. At the same time, you mention in your book that “one of the primary vectors of trans people’s oppression” is the oversexualization of queer and trans bodies. Can you talk about why it is important to center transgender people’s stories about the erotic and the embodied?

Precisely because we have been sexualized, so many trans people carry a deep shame of having sexual desires or being sexual beings. I know I do — it’s hard not to. When you’re trans, you’re bombarded by people calling you a pervert, deviant, predator or groomer for little more than daring to exist in the world. And you’re simultaneously taught that it’s all you’re good for. You’re a fetish category on the black and orange website.

Distancing yourself from your own sexuality can be a way to respond to that, to cope with that. But I don’t think it’s healthy for everyone, because many of us continue having sex and continue having to deal with the shame attached to it. I prefer tackling it head-on. Centering the erotics of transitude is a way of capturing the messiness of trans existence in the hopes that it will humanize us.

Foremost, I wanted transfeminine people to feel seen, and it’s why I’ve been so happy that the most consistent feedback I’ve received about the book is that it made readers cry in a healing way. But beyond that, I wanted people who don’t share these experiences to not only glimpse at the depth of our feelings but see echoes of their own messiness in them. Because this is a book about transitude but it’s also not. What it is, is a book about the messiness of human life through the lens of my own experiences with transitude. The messiness of my transitude is but a microcosm of the kaleidoscopic messiness of being a human living in a body.

If we’re ashamed of our sexualities, of having bodies with needs and desires, we’re easier to control and exploit.

As you mentioned, so much of anti-trans rhetoric relies on the falsehoods that transgender people are perverts, groomers, sex deviants etc. to pass anti-trans laws and endanger the safety of transgender people. The Heritage Foundation in the U.S. has even gone so far as labeling transness itself as obscene in an attempt to erase trans individuals from public life completely. In what ways does your work counter and confront these oppressive misconceptions?

In many ways I don’t — at least not with this book. I don’t believe… well, I’m just not talking to them. I’m not talking to people who hate me or who think they might. I’m talking to those who want to carve out a shelter from the world and find temporary reprieve from its hatred. People who want to stop and look inward rather than outward. Not ignore the hatred, but take pause and process. You know that feeling when you’ve had a real hard few days, so you make a blanket fort, brew a cup of your favorite tea, lie on the floor and look at the ceiling, letting all the feelings and thoughts flow through you like cars flying by on a highway in the middle of nowhere? That’s the atmosphere that best suits my book. And far be it from me to tell readers how and when to read — all I mean to say is that I am not here to talk about the haters, even when I’m talking about them by name. To the extent that I counter and confront misconceptions, it’s by happy accident on the way to a feeling.

In your book, you talk about how queer and trans people often find each other, even before they are out. For example, the word trans people call people who haven’t realized they’re trans yet are “eggs.” There’s that joke where everyone is waiting for the one cisgender heterosexual guy in a group of transgender women to realize she’s trans and “crack.” In my life, my ex used to poke fun at me because everyone I dated thought they were cis before meeting me, but then after dating me realized they were trans. She used to call me the Easter Bunny because I found, and broke, so many eggs. Yet, critics of transgender identities appear to perceive this phenomenon not as transgender individuals finding community and empowerment through mutual connection, but as a “social contagion.”

What was that saying? We flock together like penguins huddling for warmth in a cold, cisheteronormative world. That was the answer of a now-deleted Tumblr to someone asking what the chances are that everyone in a group of friends is queer. I actually tried to include the quote in my academic paper on rapid onset gender dysphoria but had to remove it during revisions.

When you find your people, it’s something magical. It’s probably the closest to magic that I believe in, anyway. It’s those people who apprehend desires you didn’t even realize you had. People who hear hidden truths humming all the way from your bones and envelop them, using their resonance to make your bones sing. Is there any surprise that so many trans folks come out after finding their people? Even if they didn’t know they were trans before? And maybe that’s contagion, but is there anything that is worth cherishing more than a contagion of esteem, intimacy and authenticity? If that’s bad, then I’m bad all the way.

Building off that, in your book you talk about the messiness, and rewards, of being t4t (a trans person who looks for other trans people to date). In what ways can relationships between two trans people be liberatory and in what ways can they be challenging?

Perhaps the simplest reason trans people enjoy dating each other, besides the fact that we’re sexy and awesome, is that you don’t have to be as afraid and hyperaware of transphobia. It’s a huge load off your brain.

But I also think we do it as a way of loving ourselves, and loving yourself through another is fraught. When you struggle with self-love, the promise of loving yourself through another is delightful. If I love those things in her, maybe I can learn to love them about myself too. If I hate my voice but hers is like mine, perhaps I’ll be able to learn to love voices like ours, learn to love it in me.

At the same time, that can be a recipe for disaster. If I hate myself and she is like me, who’s to say I’ll learn to love myself rather than learn to hate her? If I love her because she is like me, who’s to say that I won’t try to project my own desires onto her, act as though what I want is what she also wants without realizing it? To the extent that the significance of t4t comes from that self-similarity, we’ve concocted a perfect space for codependency, projection and transference. That can be dangerous… and that’s not even mentioning secondhand dysphoria!

Don’t get me wrong. All relationships have their troubles, and I much prefer dating another trans person, all other things being equal — though of course, all other things are never equal in matters of the heart. My point is not that t4t relationships are uniquely fraught. It’s that we shouldn’t forget that all relationships are fraught. All relationships are messy. It’s not that t4t is any different. On the contrary, my point is precisely that it is no exception.

In contrast to t4t relationships, what are so-called “transamorous” men, or chasers? In what ways does the excessive sexualization of transgender women negatively impact and marginalize the transgender community? How does anti-trans sentiment manifest not only as hostility in laws, policies and media, but also as the objectification of transgender bodies? For example, in your book you emphasize the juxtaposition between feeling isolated and simultaneously commodified. “Like meat, we are disposable. At least, that’s what I was taught,” you write.

One of the many great open secrets of this world is that oppressors sexualize those they hate and hate those they sexualize. By sexualizing a group and describing them as sexual deviants, your violence and discrimination becomes “justified.” It’s not a new thing, and it’s not remotely specific to trans people; just look at the history of anti-Blackness and settler colonialism.

The flipside of that has always been that oppressors are frequently sexually aroused by those they hate. Whenever you see a rise in animosity toward trans people, you’ll also see trans categories breaking records on porn websites — not incidentally, but from the very same people who claim to despise us.

It would be a mistake to think that they enact hate and violence toward trans people because they’re sexually attracted to us and don’t know what to do with their attraction. It’s a common claim, one we see in the trope of the homophobic politician who’s actually a closet case. But I don’t think that’s what is happening here. Rather, we should think of the apocryphal quote: “Everything is about sex. Except sex, which is about power.”

Men’s favorite metaphors for sex are hunting and war. In our society, a lot of people understand and use sex as a form of domination. Just think of incels — they hate women and they desperately want to fuck them. Those are not independent facts; they want to fuck women because fucking them is a way to assert control, dominance, power. Is it any surprise, then, that those who hate trans people sexually objectify them? Is that not just a psychosexual outlet for the very same impulse for domination that fuels their cultural and legal crusade?

There is this tension in queer life where there is an assumption that the only correct body is the surgically altered one to conform with cisgender society — for example you mention surgeries on intersex babies. But at the same time, you mention how there is something so queer about the changing of bodies. There’s this great poem in your book that I would love you to expand on: “I find it peculiar / how we talk of hormones / and surgeries / as though they are conforming / our bodies / As I await my surgery / I am confronted with the undeniable queerness / of stitched-up bodies.” Politicians nationwide in the U.S. are aiming to restrict queer youth’s ability to access gender-affirming care and are seeking to create barriers for transgender adults to receive care too. Why is it important for trans people to have access to gender-affirming care and why does having the option to access certain care, whether or not people do, matter?

One of life’s most enduring quests is to define for ourselves the good and meaningful life, and shamelessly pursue it. People will accept tremendous pain and abandon prodigious pleasures to be able to say that they’ve lived life authentically, on their own terms. The ability to stay true to that quest is among the most important of all freedoms, because it gives meaning to so many others.

For many, gender is among the identities that give most meaning to their life. It’s not hard to understand why, given just how much importance society has given it. The ability to live out your gender on your own terms is, in many ways, the ability to be yourself. And gender-affirming care is a critical component of being able to live out your gender, influencing both how you see yourself and how others see you. And to be clear, it’s not about “being a man,” it’s about being yourself. Of course, being yourself could mean pursuing interventions that fit into society’s idea of manhood. But it doesn’t have to — just because you’re a trans man doesn’t mean the way you want to live out your manhood has to align with society’s.

That’s why I’ve always found it silly when people argue that gender-affirming care should be banned because it doesn’t improve our mental health. First of all, it does. But second of all, it doesn’t have to. Gender-affirming care isn’t about surface-level happiness. It’s about being true to your sense of self. Happiness is just a byproduct of that — and it’s a deeper form of happiness.

I can’t speak for anyone else, but I’d rather be miserable as myself than live through endless pleasures as someone else.

Lastly, in your book you talk about “palliative activism” as being “a bittersweet response to the cruel optimism of revolution.” Can you explain what that is and why you see love and community as the best way to create spaces of care and liberatory futures?

Palliative activism is for those of us who are no longer able to hope for a just future. It’s not meant for everyone — please keep on having hope if you can. But I know I’m not the only one with a little voice in their head asking: “What’s the point? Even if we could beat back the rise of fascism, the planet is on fire and that’ll be the end of us.” I needed an answer because I don’t want to give up the struggle. I want to resist.

Palliative activism is the answer I gave myself. Maybe I don’t have to think we’ll win the fight against oppression. Maybe it’s enough to see our work as analogous to palliative care, making ourselves as safe and comfortable as possible for the time we have left. And so we craft spaces of care where we can get some respite from the tempest. It’s not about liberal reformism, which sucks. Nor is it about being nicer or less demanding to those in power. After all, isn’t flipping off the powers that be half the fun left in life? Before anything else, palliative activism is a mindset — one that I intend to use as fuel when I run out of hope.

If you wanted to cut through the bullshit, you could probably say that palliative activism is a more melodramatic version of harm reduction. But since I love drama and I have a book to market, I call it palliative activism.

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