On Noise, Richard O’Brien and Transphobia

Two thousand years ago, as he sat in a room above a public bathhouse in Rome, a Stoic philosopher decided that noise wasn’t so bad for his writing after all.”‘I cannot for the life of me,” Seneca the Younger writes in his short proto-essay on noise — aptly titled On Noise — “see that quiet is as necessary to a person who has shut himself away to do some studying as it is usually thought to be.” For Seneca, although intermittent noises could still be disturbing, it was possible to train yourself to become so absorbed with your work that the noise would fade away into a kind of mysterious surrounding silence. Enter the door of yourself, and, if you close it just right, you may be able to keep out the outside.

This is easier said than done, as Seneca himself says. After paragraphs extolling the virtues of learning to ignore background noise, Seneca suddenly admits that all of this was a ‘test’ and that he “shall shortly be moving somewhere else.” Even a Stoic, the lesson seems to go, can only endure so much.

I think of Seneca’s essay, which I first read a few weeks ago, when a new piece of aggravation floats into my view today. It’s yet another article about a famous figure who’s decided to inform the world, with the grim satisfaction of a contrarian, that trans women are not women. This time, it is Richard O’Brien. I like contrarianism when it makes sense — but then again, Donald Trump believes himself to be a contrarian of sorts by saying the things he claims are true but that no one else would dare admit. And when it comes to simple transphobia, I can as easily imagine this coming from Trump’s mouth as from O’Brien’s.

O’Brien had been asked by Metro magazine for his views on the trans-exclusionary radical feminist views of people like Germaine Greer and Barry Humphries, both of whom have recently made statements that argue that transgender women are men rather than women. (Trans men are often left out of these conversations altogether, as well as non-binary persons, but O’Brien will take the unique route of excluding everyone but non-binary individuals.) “I agree with Germaine Greer and Barry Humphries,” O’Brien told the magazine. “You can’t be a woman. You can be an idea of a woman. You’re in the middle and,” he finished with a kind of naïve condescension, “there’s nothing wrong with that.”

As a trans woman from the Commonwealth of Dominica, I am accustomed to the din of transphobia in the brief instances that transgender people are given a platform to speak. On social media, this din is particularly difficult for me to block out, as it is not uncommon for men to casually post that they want to gun down trans women on sight or that we should murder all LGBT people altogether. But I have learnt how to breathe deeper and better, like a scuba diver, and let other things fill the world in front me instead. And when people make such comments, I have learnt not to argue back, even though I sometimes can’t help myself. The last time I did, I was called an “abomination,” a “lost soul,” “not a woman,” and other such endearing things, and was advised to change my lifestyle because God had created men and women. The Garden of Eden is too small and ghostly for me, really, but I have given up saying that. I try to drown out the noise. And sometimes the noise and the music are so blurred together that they become one thing. “Noise-sound,” the composer Luigi Rossolo called music that strove to imitate harsh noise in 1913, and I feel it in my head when I let such comments resonate too deeply, like a terrible metallic echo through a cave. So I try to focus on other things, try to play other songs.

Then I saw O’Brien’s comments, and I felt stung. Here was a person who, incredibly, has been vocal about not being a member of the gender binary, a feeling that O’Brien suppressed for over fifty years. In 2013, O’Brien, who appears to mainly use male pronouns, described himself to the BBC as “probably…about 70% male, 30% female.” He said that he ticks the “M” box when asked about gender but would prefer that there be an “Other” option — and, indeed, we should not have a gender binary on forms but should allow everyone, binary and non-binary alike, to identify, even if that just meant a box marked “non-binary” on forms. I was surprised that O’Brien, who seemed enlightened about the nuances of gender identity, of how you can explore the caverns of yourself and find two mirrors side by side, each showing you a different person who is unquestionably you, seemed so crassly dismissive.

He had been on hormone therapy like many binary trans women, having taken oestrogen for over ten years. When he said to the BBC that “I was six-and-a-half and I said to my big brother that I wanted to be the fairy princess when I grew up,” I understood that feeling of societal contradiction based on appearances and gendered desires, whether or not — which shall remain undisclosed — I wanted to be a similar sort of princess. (Okay, more of a sci-fi princess, in a high-tech deep-sea submersible or on a starship near a Venusian planet, and perhaps I wanted to be one of the Fey, too.) Gender identity, for me, was never about my actions or roles but purely in terms of how I saw myself, how the map of my mind and body had been drawn up; I see myself as a woman not because of what I played with as a child or the clothes I wear or any other such things that have no relation to gender identity, but rather simply because the switch in my mind had been flipped to “woman,” and I felt confused and frustrated by my body, by the name of my birth, by everything. I understood the pain of suppressing who you are for so long, as I waited over twenty years to finally let myself begin to bloom, as me.

So why this new crudity from him?

But then I saw something I had missed earlier: that O’Brien, back in 2013, had rejected the idea of a gender binary altogether for the majority of people. “It’s my belief,” he declared, “that we are on a continuum between male and female. There are people who are hardwired male and there are people who are hardwired female, but most of us are on that continuum.” Suddenly, I began to wonder if O’Brien’s comments were a transphobic-sounding version of this belief about gender: that few people are binary at all, and to call trans women women and trans men men — though he left the latter out — would be to live in too binary a way. I wondered, for a moment, if I was being too hard on him, if what I had taken to be dissonance was really just poorly put-together sound.

Of course, this is a charitable interpretation. I didn’t really believe it. It is almost impossible to read the dehumanising statements of Germaine Greer in particular and say you agree with them without understanding what you are aligning yourself with. I believe O’Brien simultaneously dismisses trans women as women due to his (to me) too-absolutist beliefs about a continuum — and due to his genuine, if ironic and self-loathing, transphobia. He is not as bad, perhaps, as Milo Yiannopoulos, a sexist gay conservative who frequently makes the extraordinary claim that all gay people wish to be straight and that no one could want to be gay, but he is out there. And it’s binary trans people he wishes to erase.

I have no desire for their speech to be censored; I would prefer that people stand up to such rhetoric or protest it at a speech or simply ignore it rather than banning it, since the latter tends to only cause more problems. I would rather people know enough to say no to bigotry rather than have bigotry hidden away like a small forbidden treasure. But I worry when I imagine how many outlets will take O’Brien’s words and, once again, give people something to casually pass around on social media about how transgender people are delusional — and they will gain power because O’Brien himself doesn’t identify as cisgender. More noise, more din, more sound and fury.

I want us to keep speaking up about who we are, so that statements like O’Brien’s and Greer’s stop filling a void with hate. I am glad that this is already happening. And I want it to happen more. I’m tired of people lazily conflating genitalia with gender, with them binding us to the descriptions of our bodies we were assigned at birth. I’m as willing to accept  and respect anyone on a continuum or off a continuum as I am to accept and respect binary individuals like myself. And I’m tired of being told, over and over, that I will never be what I am. I am tired of how these arguments all lack nuance and empathy. I imagine telling O’Brien is it so hard to understand that my map of my mind, in terms of gender, was simply drawn differently from yours, that what is cognitive dissonance for you is the simplest of body-music for me? Are your arguments any different, I think, from the people who erase lesbians and gay men by saying that everyone is bisexual, or erase bisexuality by saying everyone is one or the other, or any other tortured, absolutist configuration?

But I will not move away from the din of these voices, like Seneca. The din is my life. I left some of the noise behind when I left my home in the Caribbean—the happy noises, like the sound of cricket balls being hit and the way the wind sounded like a river at night in the mountains where I lived, and the sad noises, and the neutral noises. I became accustomed to crying at night at my own decision not to return home—a new sound, then an old one. And transphobia, too, forms part of the background noise I will not avoid. Let us continue to speak against this lazy, yet widely shared and destructive argumentation like O’Brien’s, so we can finally, one day, perhaps have a bit more peace. There is better music to listen to, and to make.

Gabrielle Bellot grew up in the Commonwealth of Dominica. She has contributed work to or has work forthcoming in Slate, The New York Times, Guernica, Tin House, VIDA, Lambda Literary, The Toast, The Normal School, Harlot, and other places, and she was featured on The Butter's 'This Writer's On Fire' column. She is a doctoral candidate in Creative Writing at Florida State University and is working on her first novel.

Gabrielle has written 5 articles for us.

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