picture of me~somasis/notes

transgender ghosts

sometimes your history is just one life haunting another

Recently I studied an exerpt from Dialectic of Enlightenment, by Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno in class, and recalled something from a past transgender history class. This is adapted from a writing for that class that I feel particularly good about.


I will draw some comparisons that may appear crude on the surface, because the comparison between someone’s transition and their death has always been a violent one, but that’s the point I’m getting at.

Unfortunately, I can’t at the moment find the exact sources which I first read about this, so I’ll be using a source that is not where I actually first read this. I’ll also draw on my own anecdotal experience.

a past life haunting the present

In "On The Theory of Ghosts", Sigmund Freud’s theory of the belief in ghosts is discussed:

At the stages of humanity’s development when death still appeared as a direct continuation of life, the abandonment of the living in death seemed necessarily like a betrayal, and even in enlightened times the old belief is not quite extinguished. […​]

[…​] It might almost be said that the concept of human life itself, as the unity of a person’s history, has become invalid: the individual’s life […​] has lost all continuity between conscious remembrance and involuntary memory […​] Individuals are reduced to a mere succession of instantaneous presents, which leave behind no trace, or rather, the trace of […​] something irrational, superfluous, utterly obsolete.

On The Theory of Ghosts, Dialectic of Enlightenment

The past is viewed with contempt and is liable to be suspect. As seen plenty with current online toxic transphobic discussions, with transphobes insisting they can always tell if someone’s trans by their appearance, their jawline, voice, what have you, this isn’t really something hard to draw connection between. There’s plenty of things to point to as examples of this, and I’m not really going to belabor an explanation of how people view trans people’s lives prior to transitioning with contempt and a discomfort, if not for sake of post length then for my own emotional sanctity.

This shows through in how, until maybe just the past six years or so, often a point of advice among cis people when it came to interacting with transgender people, there would often be advice to not ask about someone’s backstory, or to see baby pictures, or anything like that. Obviously, this is not something cis people think to ask often of other cis people, because they are questions which are grounded in an expectation that a trans person’s history is something which conflicts with their current appearance and current interpretation by the asker. The questions are marked with the expectation of a contradiction and following, a revealing of someone’s visible history; the expansion of the succession of presents with no trace into a contrast which demonstrates quite clearly, a progression.

I had to show my mom a few timelines of the appearances of trans women who took hormones to convince her I’d look "normal" at the "end" of all of her pain. The perceived gender of the past or the current (pre/non)-medical transition is viewed with truth, as is the past perceptions; the true gender of the present is liable to be suspect.

forget yourself, girl

The text continues…​

The threateningly well-meaning advice given to emigrants that they should forget the past because it cannot be transplanted, that they should write off their prehistory and start an entirely new life, merely inflicts verbally on the spectral intruders the violence they have long learned to do to themselves. They repress history in themselves and others, out of fear that it might remind them of the disintegration of their own lives, a disintegration which itself consists largely in the repression of history.

Here I’ll be citing a book chapter, Transgender History in the United States, by Genny Beemyn.

The fact that Adorno was writing this section during his time in California after escaping Nazi Germany is obviously not something I desire to co-opt or appropriate by comparison, but this "threateningly well-meaning advice" is not unique to people who have emigrated, which I don’t think is controversial to point out.

I say this because not too long ago (the 1960s-1980s), transsexual people were explicitly encouraged by physicians and medical professionals to hide and lie about their past. They were told to invent a childhood matching their post-transition gender, sever ties with old friends and make new friends with people who didn’t know them prior to transition, change jobs, even move to another city to avoid the possibility of being outed.

Given the extreme social stigma against transsexual people, many did not need much encouragement to 'disappear' if they could.

"The Post-Christine Era", page 18, Transgender History in the United States, Genny Beemyn

And I say not too long ago, but this is not a long ago thing. I will go back to the baby pictures and the questions about childhood: the way transphobia from the cis inquirer is avoided in lieu of their actual understanding and acceptance of a transgender person’s history, is through the trans person’s forgetting and a repression of their prehistory.

The comparison between the dead and the transgender person here is not simply that, because we also see it in terms like "deadname" (a transgender person’s former name, if they changed it), or in the way it’s not at all uncommon for parents to react to their child’s real gender identity with a sense their actual child is dying. Of course, even a term like deadname isn’t meant literally–one can easily reject the idea that because they’ve come out, the old them is dead, yet can still use the word "deadname" without having a problem with it.

I still get this sentiment on rare occasion in part because my own coming out coincided with moving off to college, and because I changed my name after moving up here; if your mom thinks you became much more argumentative when you moved away, imagine how curious it must be to be accused of being more argumentative because you’re no longer pretending to identify to her or anyone else as a man.

Even recounting that, I can see that I myself even did this: move to another city to avoid the possibility of being outed, developing new friendships, and so on, though no one told me to do that. A clean slate. The person who the past gender used to inhabit is viewed as a ghost, because society wishes not to interact with or give an accepted continuity to their life through a time of transition–they repress history in themselves in fear that disintegration will cause a new disintegration.