“It’s All About Desire”: hannah baer and Erica Dawn Lyle Talk Trans Freedom and Joy

hannah baer. Courtesy the artist.

Within the flood of new trans memoirs and books offering their definitive takes on trans theory in the past few years, I gratefully found hannah baer’s book, Trans Girl Suicide Museum (Hesse Press, 2019), to be something of a life raft. In TGSM, baer—who is also the operator of the widely-read Instagram meme account, @malefragility—puts the somatic experience of her own transition under the microscope. In doing so, she teases out the implications of the larger thought experiments and challenges that gender transition poses to consensus reality and identity politics. Always raising questions rather than trying to answer them definitively, baer has written a funny and poignant coming-of-age trans girl memoir with an anti-capitalist analysis, a work that refreshingly treats trans as an open-ended question, something always in motion.

In early 2020, after reading TGSM, I sought out baer to do an interview. The pandemic intervened and instead we began a correspondence that, in 2022, has became a real life friendship. This past October we planned, promoted, and performed together at a successful guerilla improv show and dance party at the amphitheater in East River Park on New York City’s Lower East Side. The next day we finally sat down to have this conversation and to compare notes on our mutual obsessions with illegal street parties, improv noise music, and the radical political possibility of gender transition.

A towel transforms the lighting at a renegade rave at Prospect Park. Summer 2020. Courtesy hannah baer.

Erica Dawn Lyle: It occurred to me today that when we first met in real life back in May, we both admitted that we’d been secretly working in our rooms on making noise music and were wondering if or when we would start to perform it publicly. I love that now it’s October, at the end of summer, and last night we not only put on an illegal generator show together at the amphitheater in East River Park, but we both performed our improv noise sets. 

hannah baer: I think at the time you said to me, “Why is it so much harder to come out as a noise musician than it was to come out as trans?!?” [laughs]

All of the performers at our show yesterday were doing improv or noise of some kind. We’ve talked about this before, but obviously there is in the subculture a phenomena where improvisational music and noise music has started to be trans dominated! ([laughs]) Why do you think so many trans women are making noise music? 

I love talking about this! I was recently watching this video that is so beautiful of Suzanne Ciani’s appearance on Late Night With David Letterman in the early ‘80s. She’s not trans but she was a pioneer of synthesizer music. She shows him this massive synthesizer she built. He starts doing his Letterman thing—you know, being really skeptical but corny, like, Hmmm, well, what does this gizmo here do? So, Cianni gets him to talk into a microphone and then she uses a vocoder to make him sound like a woman. The audience goes nuts, and it’s hilarious. Letterman gets so visibly uncomfortable. Then, she vocodes her own voice and makes herself sound like a man.

Watching this, I realized the thing is that the synthesizer as an instrument is not cisgender. Like, a violin or guitar makes the sound of its body shape, but a synthesizer’s shape is not in any way where the sound comes from, and there’s something so free and trans in that. You have no idea what sound is going to come out of this thing. And maybe I don’t either!

hannah baer sets up to perform at East River Park October 4, 2021. Courtesy Erica Dawn Lyle.

I think there is, too, a way that this kind of music rhymes in spirit with the necessity of improvisation that is at the very heart of my embodied experience of gender transition. Transition and improv music can both be so thrilling to make, right? Ideally, I’m trying to get to playing something that feels to me like I fell off a cliff and I have to find myself on the way down. When I was preparing for my performance last night, I realized I’ve been working in a very specific, strange tuning and guitar tone for many months now, and, lately, I have been feeling kind of stuck. Like it’s been more difficult to surprise myself. I saw maybe I was overthinking it. So I made a formal constraint for myself for the show that I would simply play the whole twenty-minute set without stopping so there would not be any thinking. Whatever the first note happened to be would determine everything and I’d follow it for a while to see where it wanted to go.

I feel like what you’re describing connects to my conception of how transness itself is not at all linear. Or it doesn’t have to be. As transness gets medicalized, it becomes more codified. There’s this idea that in the beginning of transition you don’t know what’s going on for a couple years, but then you decide finally on your gender expression and that’s what you settle into for life. I think all this anxiety in society about detransition is really about cis peoples’ fears of nonlinear, improvisational gender—fears of gender as noise. 

I have been reading lately about Grand Union, the downtown New York City improvised dance troop from the 70’s. Steve Paxton, who was in that group, wrote this manifesto about performance in which he talks about the value of making performance even whenor even specifically whenaudiences don’t understand it. For Paxton, the priority of improvising these performances collectively in a group night after night together was developing the integrity of the performance and the group’s inner relationships and trust with each other, and not necessarily how legible what they made was to others.  That really resonated with me as a way to think about transness, too. Our visibility to ourselves and each other creates something new that can possibly warp and bend the undergirding of reality around us.

Totally. I really do feel like there’s something with transness that is really dismantling some basic shit and it’s really freaky for a lot of people. Ten years ago, people were fighting about whether a man and a man or a woman and a woman could get married and, it’s like, well, now you don’t even have to be either one. I think young people growing up with that set of instincts are going to have really different assumptions about the world.

Erica Dawn Lyle. Courtesy the artist.

With the weather turning cold, last night’s show felt like a logical time for reflection, for me. Back in May, I remember we were speculating on what was to come in the post-vaccinated summer in New York City after last year’s summer uprising in New York. This summer, it felt like dancing was the only thing that worked for me. You know?  Like it was the only thing that always made sense and was always there. How do you feel things turned out?

During the quarantine in 2020, raving really did become this really clandestine thing. There were all these outdoor shows that were kind of utopian—like really, free, public, wild, illegal shows. They would go on all night, like until the generator ran out of gas, and anyone who could hear the sound was invited. Then this spring—before the clubs opened but after everyone got vaccinated—there was this period around a month long where random people started throwing parties for money indoors again. It got so barbaric, so fast. You’d see door prices like at $60 and the scenes were super cutthroat and money grubbing. Then the major clubs with real promoters opened and suddenly, like, the bouncers were trained in deescalation again and all the clubs have Narcan. It was safe again. But I would rather go to a show when I don’t really know where it is or how to get to it than I would want to be at a corporate club with like a $200,000 sound system.

I remember, when you and I started talking, what was going on in Palestine was really popping off. There was this recent memory of outrage that people could feel still echoing from a year ago when we were all on the street and it was so normal to just be talking about white supremacy and capitalism all the time. Then at the same time, there was this really clear sense that it wasn’t the same. I remember people being like, “Are you going to go to this protest tonight? Or “are you going to go to this gallery opening?” That feeling of searing urgency had evacuated. We were left with, like, a food pyramid of different activities, one of which was like protest, and another of which was just ordinary consumption.

At the end of this summer, I was here in the city and it did feel, well… normal. But only in the saddest possible way. Like only the very worst of the past’s idea of “normal” had reasserted itself and it felt like nobody was into it. For many people I talked to there was such a sadness about returning to what seemed like these things they once had maybe felt like they enjoyed but that now, after all that had happened, no longer quite had the same nutritional value. 

In the early days of quarantine there was this widespread hope that the destabilizing shock of the pandemic might be enough to fully shut down capitalism for good. But there’s this idea in dynamic systems modeling about how all these forces are pulling in different directions within complex systems, so systems have an internal coherence that pulls them always towards the way that they are. It’s like if someone goes to rehab: they might come out and just want to start drinking again, because all the stuff in their life is pulling them back towards the way they were before. The rehab of the pandemic didn’t get us sober from capitalism.

I think your choice of addiction is a really apt metaphor. One thing that the pandemic and the various stages of collective response to its challenges have overwhelmingly confirmed for me is that capitalism is somatic fact in our society. It’s like earlier today when Instagram and Facebook were down. Like, “normal” has been down for almost two years now and, sure, we were all so disgusted by our participation in it, but here we are, still continually trying to refresh the page to see if it magically comes back!

There is something about going back to doing stuff in the way from before pandemic that doesn’t quite feel the same anymore because now we have lived memory of this other way of being that we were doing last year that was way more radical and way more freaky. And I don’t think we know where that lives now, or where it goes from here.

Complex systems don’t always work with linear causality, though. One thing that I feel like I really learned in 2020, watching the uprising happen, was how all of these quote-unquote movement moments are talking to each other across time. And we don’t always know how it’s going to play out. Like all these people get radicalized, and the earth gets all torn up, and then it gets all pressed down again. But we never know what is going to emerge from the ground the next time around, and these moments do build on each other.

hannah baer at rave on a roof. Summer 2021. Courtesy hannah baer.

On my visits to the city in summer 2020 what I felt most in the street was this collapse of temporality. There were these pockets of the city which felt to me like the long ago past, like the city before gentrification. Analog time. People were actually just out on the streets, spontaneously running into each other there, and that’s how social things happened. There was a very strange and exhilarating new feeling of New York City not being on the clock. I remember when they first started opening restaurants again. At first, they were these jerry-rigged, ramshackle structures out on the sidewalks and in the streets. Every surface on the street was covered with ACAB graffiti and half the storefronts were vacant and you’d see a couple sitting at a table amidst these ruins being served a bottle of wine by someone wearing a surgical mask. There was this very real sense of two very opposed structures of feeling struggling for primacy. On the one hand, the street had such a palpable sense memory of something completely brand new that had opened there in the uprising. But there was also this very stubborn reimposition from abovebefore it was certain that it was even medically safeof what later came to be called, “normal.” 

What you’re describing is really beautiful. It’s also what makes the intense gentrification of the city so sad. Because part of what revolution would require is just enough time for people to be together all the time. One of the big things about last summer was that the economy shut down and huge numbers of people went on unemployment, so people were able to live without working all the time. It only took like two months of that and then there was a revolution!

I remember walking out of my house and there’d just be roving bands of people, coming by every few minutes, screaming and chanting. It was almost hallucinatory. I think especially for me as a white girl who has moved closer and then further away from antiracist organizing at different times in different points in my life, there was something so piercing and coherent about being like “in this moment when capitalism, consumerism, and work all seem transparently idiotic is also the moment when every single media channel in the country is openly wrestling with the irrefutability of white supremacy.”

I’ve lived through that with past social movements and the hangover from that kind of party is really hard. There is this explosive uprising that feels like it’s ripping reality wide open and then, when it’s over, society just doesn’t quite change. Or it changes in all kinds of tiny invisible ways that aren’t apparent right away, but it’s over and you’re spent, and you can’t quite recapture the energy that was just there. In some ways it feels like we’ve been battling that feeling all summer. I think it’s also particular both of us being and describing the uprising as a time of abundant freedom and openness when also, as you say, it was a time that was about collective reckoning with the reality of anti-Black violence.

Even within that tension though, or the gulf between people’s disparate experiences of oppression, my experience is that once you’ve felt the kind of freedom people lived together in 2020 that lives inside of your body forever. It’s so intangible, what ultimately will come of it, because so many young people had this experience last year for the first time and there’s no way to quantify that or know what it might lead to down the road.  

Erica Dawn Lyle performs at East River Park Bandshell, October 4, 2021. Courtesy Erica Dawn Lyle.

I was thinking about the common idea that there are these tipping points of revolution—that all these certain conditions must be met, and you never really know when it’s gonna happen, but when the tipping point arrives, the truth becomes so undeniable that the people will rise up, etc. Will there be a moment when society will have this lightning bolt of clarity of truth that would make it so that people say, I’m going to live entirely differently than the way I was before? Lately I have been thinking about gender transition as a metaphor for that. I’ve watched friends over the years go through these processes where they’re saying, I was thinking about this one thing, but this other thing happened and then this other destabilizing shift happened, and then suddenly I realized I was trans. That is when they started decoupling all these links in the histories of their lives. I don’t know … is that too obvious a metaphor, or even too far a leap?

No, I don’t think that’s too far a leap at all. Lately I have started to feel like, whatever’s happening politically that we do through organizing, there’s been something missing, every step of the way, that’s about exactly this, the need for the kind of shift in consciousness you are describing. Because we all want to be outside of capitalism, but we are actually made out of capitalism. Our thoughts are formed by this arbitrary unreality we were born into but we’re trying to think our way out of it. For me, gender transition feels like a kind of practice for thinking about how to get capitalism out of my body

My transition has felt like a hole in that net, a move into the unknowna process for me that was so intuitive, so somatic, that I almost felt pulled into it spiritually, as my body started leading me there on its own without my conscious choice. It emerged from this very deep place of longing for freedom, that is not necessarily philosophical, or consciously political, but just so visceral. And I think there’s so much untapped energy inside of that. Maybe I am getting too far afield here, though? [laughs] I sometimes just like to talk about the considerable joys of being trans. 

No, I think what you are saying is so beautiful. I’m picturing a movie where there’s, like, a hole in the side of the spaceship that just sucks everything out, and you’re terrified because you’re going to get sucked out the hole and die. But then you get sucked out and you’re suddenly in outer space, weightless, thinking, Oh, this is way better.

[laughs] Actually, one of my earliest memories is being in bed at, like, age three, listening to the radio at night and hearing David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” playing in the dark and being riveted by it. Like, he’s stepping outside the door?!? What’s going to happen?!? 

After the last time we got on this thread in correspondence, I was taking a shower, and I was looking at my naked body and thinking, “I not only feel like I am a woman, but, also, I live in a culture where increasingly I can have the body that I have, and have the life that I have, and other people—whether they personally believe it or feel it’s morally reprehensible or not—will still vouch for me being a woman. And if it’s possible for people to learn to uncouple the concept of gender from sex organs than what other arbitrary constructs about, say, race or class or anything else that makes up our society, can they also unlearn?”

For example, I really feel intelligence is a fake, made-up construct like gender. There’s such a connection between people or animals being considered to have low intelligence and the permission to do violence to them and people with supposed high intelligence being allowed to do violence. I go to psychology school, and I’m around people all the time who deeply understand the world through this category and who think they can tell what the truth of someone is by evaluating them within this category. I’ve noticed this struggle in myself where I wonder, how do I conceptually let go of a category that not only is so important to almost everyone around me, but that I’ve also internalized as a young educated person? I think the trans moment we’re in offers a real clue about possibilities for ideological decolonization, that then will have material consequences for so many different kinds of marginalized beings.

In Black Utopias, Jayna Brown discusses the ways that the colonizers’ racist concept of intelligence has been used to categorize people of color as somehow not fully human to therefore justify violence against them. But then she uses that as a jumping-off point to ask the question, if this has been the case, in this moment in history when those categorized as human face the existential threat of extinction, why should black people remain invested in the category of human at all? And is there a way of living outside of this category of human that has an entirely different relationship with the natural world and with what it means to be alive on a dying planet? I definitely would not want to suggest a direct equivalency in any way between the experiences of being Black and being trans on planet Earth. But I do think there could be something really valuable for trans people in following that line of thinking to its logical extension. Starting with, of course, the question of what does it mean to gain full personhood or legal rights inside of this terribly destructive and utterly false society?

We live in a world where, twenty years ago, it was unimaginable that people could have any other gender marker on their ID other than M or F. Now in many countries in the world, you can get an X on your driver’s license. Trans has been brought under this broad liberal umbrella, yes, but for decades people have been asking these more rowdy questions about what the truly radical political possibilities of transness really are.

Dawn at the first rave of pandemic that hannah set up, undisclosed location, New Jersey woods. Summer 2020. Courtesy hannah baer.

With that inclusion under the umbrella has come increased pressure to codify trans experience into something legible and easily digestible. Like why have to choose a legal gender marker at all? What I really appreciated about Trans Girl Suicide Museum was the ways that the trans philosophy in the book moves away from that toward this spirit of seeking that foregrounds trans as an open-ended question, something always in motion. The book opens conversation around the possibilities within transition, raising questions rather than trying to answer them definitively. 

I do think it is political to frame it in certain ways rather than others but I don’t particularly want to take that away from other people and to tell them what it’s all supposed to mean. It connects to something you were saying to me yesterday about knowledge production on the Left – how if you’re describing something over and over again, and you already know everything you think about it, it’s really different than describing something because you’re actually learning it for the first time as you go. I think it is beautiful and really powerful for trans people to talk with each other about what transition is and how it works for them and how they understand it in the world. Because it’s a category that is still wide open and in formation in many ways.

To bring it back to the psychology world, in clinical spaces I am learning within, no one has any idea how to think about it or talk about trans. Basically, what we were taught in my program is that trans is just genetic aberration, that trans people have, like, a different wiring. They’re actually teaching us this old woman trapped in a man’s body shit, and I’m in class, just shaking my head, like, you don’t even know. Because the truth is so much weirder than that, and so much hotter than that and, like, so much more barbaric than that. It’s just way more fucked up.

[laughs] Oh yes it is! But they say it’s genetic to take away our agency within it, which is I think the most liberating part of it. For me, trans feels more like something about the power generated from the tension within this kind of triangle between the promise of liberatory transformation, the kind of intuitive improvisation that is summoned by necessity from deep within oneself during gender transitionand that was part of our performances last nightand a kind of muscle memory of freedom like that which people still have from the streets last summer. Though maybe describing this triangle is just another way of saying it’s all about desire. 

I have been thinking a lot about my own desire and the ways that transition pushed around what I thought was sexy, or the ways that I thought I could be sexy. I had so much fear before I transitioned that I wouldn’t be desirable anymore. As we approach the brink of climate collapse, there’s something about the magic of having seen my own self change, and having remapped my own sense of what’s desirable that makes me feel maybe more optimistic about being able to remap the experience of different discomforts and different moments of real dread and fear that I think will come up in the next ten to fifteen years as the abundance that we now have diminishes. We’re gonna have to learn to love and desire and somehow feel, like, excited to wake up in a world where there isn’t consistent running water, or where it’s way too fucking hot, or where a lot of the things we understood as comforts, or as desirable in consumerism, are just gone.

hannah baer. Courtesy the artist.

In a strange way, your trans optimism reminds me a lot of the optimism in the subculture when I was coming up in the ‘90s. Then, there was this exhilaration about exploring the old abandoned industrial spaces across the country. Hopping freights, doing graffiti. Just looking for freedom in the cuts. I wonder if the explosion of trans among young people today is in part a visceral reaction to how the literal physical spaces we once explored and inhabited have been gentrified, redeveloped, or otherwise come increasingly under the control of capital. The way that maybe the place of exploring freedom is now necessarily somewhere inside of us as well and that liberation might actually be about also remaking our perception of the world in some way together.

I think that it ping-pongs on the same axis, though. So much of my early experience of transition was just being in my room all the time, and meeting other girls online, because I didn’t want to go out in public. Now, so many of my close friends are trans girls who I met at raves or in nightclubs and we just saw each other out enough times that we were like, OK, I fuck with you. These friendships involved being in spaces and going out night after night together, going to bad techno sets and random hole in the wall clubs to just see who who wants to sit in a corner in spilled beer and talk and do drugs that we don’t even know what they are over and over and over again to try to instantiate this? So, when you’re talking about this interior experience, I think, yes, we need that. We have to change ideologically, emotionally, and spiritually what’s inside of us, because we all have these differently colonized interiorities. But we also have to change the material circumstances. For it to be revolution, we need it to be both.

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