transition as destination; the climate catastrophe waiting room
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I once had a therapist who was listed on Psychology Today as treating trans patients. When I asked her to tell me about this experience, she explained hurriedly that all of her trans patients, at the time of working with her, were ‘done transitioning.’
We didn’t end up having a working relationship, in no small part because I was concerned about someone who recognized the marker of transness, but not the magnitude of transition. Certainly, some trans people consider, for example, the opposite cis gender their destination of sorts. Sometimes, being ‘done’ means you’ve had your surgery, or been on hormones long enough to plateau.
But transition can be its own destination. Five years ago, when I was an uncomfortable pretend-cis person, I still thought I was ‘myself,’ despite being on the cusp of a major shift in how I identified. I lived in a state of transition then, even though I didn’t know it. When I changed my pronouns, I thought I was done for awhile before it became clear I was not. Lots has happened since then, and I feel complete, now, but I have learned enough from watching myself to see that being done is not a helpful metric for me to measure against.
My mama, who so often has the words I’m grasping for, made me laugh last year when I was in the middle of an interstate move, a major job change, and getting my name and gender appropriately represented in the eyes of the state. I was worried about being questioned by any of the involved authorities because so many things about my personal documents were up in the air. She said: if anyone gives you trouble, just tell them you’re Very Trans!
This sweet and silly reassurance has stuck with me, particularly for how it acknowledges the danger—and collective fear—of having left one paradigm and not quite entered another. We have trans celebrities now, and have gained enough momentum for trans rights to also see major backlash. Transness is out of the dark, but we are not safe in most of the human world. It is likely that we will be in a transitional moment regarding the social acceptability of transness for awhile.
Just as we finally have some representation of trans people in mainstream American culture, we also finally have many broad visions for a world beyond extractive capitalism. There’s the Just Transition Framework and principles for transformative investment towards a solidarity economy. There are groups of people tapping into deep histories of mutual aid and cooperatives, adopting local currencies, and building community structures that affirm life rather than treat is as collateral.
So much work went into building these visions. We have no choice, as systems crumble around us, but to fight to realize these visions. There may be moments of catalyst, like 2020 movements for community support and against police violence. There will be backlash, as there always is, especially when Black people gain political power. We will have wins among the constant struggle.
More than anything, though, we will remain in transition, likely for the rest of our lives, no matter how old you are as you sit here and read these words. For the most part, this is not a strong muscle of ours, the muscle for sitting in the uncomfy part for years or decades.
I joked to a friend recently that it’s a good time to be trans. Once I got over hating myself for not being the way I was told to be, everything got easier. It became more possible for me to exist within my own constant state of transition with something resembling comfort, or at least familiarity.
In Burlington, much of our electricity comes from a biomass plant across the street from my office. At a city council meeting last week, someone used their 2 allotted minutes of public forum to read a list of all the chemicals that come out of the plant’s smokestacks. Someone else bashed the electric company for claiming that the plant is carbon neutral, when emissions haven’t been properly accounted for, and cutting down trees to burn them undoubtedly causes damage.
A representative from the electric company dodged a lot of the hardest-hitting questions, and asked one back: what are we supposed to do? The change we can make most quickly is run the plant on natural gas, rather than trees. Is that better?
Obviously, the fossil fuel industry’s decades of deception have left us with a hugely underdeveloped energy mix. The industry should definitely pay up for the uncountable damage it has caused. But in the moment, that’s almost besides the point: we have to keep existing in this transitional time from dinosaur juice to renewable power. People need to heat their homes as we approach a season of sub-zero temperatures. This is going to be really, really messy, but we have to move through it.
It is very, very normal to want clear, achievable solutions. We have a lot of these for the climate crisis, but we cannot just solve in a vacuum.
We got to this terrifying complicated place in part because of our collective allergy to nuance, to the queerness of ‘built’ and ‘natural’ worlds coexisting, to the tangled edge of where individuals and societies meet. You don’t have to be a trans or queer person to work on flexing this muscle. If you’re not, it might be useful to have some of us around to talk to—we have practice.
The Second Look
Half-baked cultural criticism from Gabriel Coleman.
This weekend I had the opportunity to go see the Crash Ensemble, Ireland’s premiere new-music ensemble, perform the climate catastrophe inspired piece Extinction Events and Dawn Chorus, composed by Liza Lim. The piece contains some incredibly evocative musical tableaus: In the first movement, Anthropogenic Debris, the ensemble spins around a series of buzzing cicada-like instruments which give way to the crinkling sounds of a huge plastic sheet passed from player to player. The fourth movement, Transmission, is a conversation between a violinist and a percussionist playing a cobbled-together banjo, a bowed string tied between a drumstick and the center of a snare. Dawn Chorus, the closing movement, starts with more whirring, croaking, buzzing, and chirping instruments whose players scatter through the audience leaving the low tones of a cello, bass, trombone, and a comically extended contrabassoon alone on stage.
John Walsh (aka SuperEyepatchWolf) put out a recent video essay on the internet’s fascination with liminal spaces, those haunting photos of familiar-looking, empty waiting rooms and highways. Walsh believes the attraction to these spaces is that they are equally unnerving and comforting. Hotels, especially their hallways, sit directly in the center of the uncanny valley, both domestic and impersonal, it’s the place where you sleep and shower and eat and yet no one there can tell you who you are, you don’t belong there. So do you wear shoes or slippers to the continental breakfast?
If you step into this blue elevator in a carpark in Dublin city center and hit the button for the fifth floor, you step out into a cocktail bar where there shouldn’t be one. Wait staff drop whiskey sours and palomas at the wooden tables and sheepskin covered benches scattered across the slanted floors. Tunes from a DJ booth echo off the concrete. Paintings on white gallery walls break up the space, one of which depicts the green painted columns of the empty parking ramp, without cars or chic furnishings.
Aside from their emptiness, the thing all these liminal space pictures have in common is that they are all anthropogenic. When we’re given pictures of empty “natural” landscapes, we see them as beautiful or peaceful, but an empty Fulton station is unnerving. Is it because we see rural places as “wild” or “unpeopled,” despite histories of occupation or removal? Is it because we feel less comfortable in the monocultural habitats we’ve built than when we are enveloped in biodiversity? Or is it because we are comforted by the world without us, but uncomfortable with the debris we leave behind?
We’re in the climate catastrophe waiting room, the uncanny valley that might flood, might catch fire, might yield a nourishing harvest. The dawn chorus and the moth snowstorm have thinned out considerably. Crab fisheries have been swallowed into it, cities have been swallowed into it. We’ve lost things without noticing they’re gone. If we knew, we wouldn’t know how to mourn them. Economies and governance structures could pull through/could collapse/are collapsing/have collapsed. Half of 2005 emissions might be enough/feasible/placating/suicide. We could be wiped out/we could survive/we could be alone in this waiting room for quite a long time.