by C. Bain
C. Bain is a gender liminal writer, performer, and artist. His work focuses on interstices of sex and violence, the queer body subjected to the extraction of knowledge. His plays have been presented at NYC venues, including the Tank and Dixon Place. He has a social work degree from Hunter College and an art MFA from CalArts. A Lambda Literary fellow, his first book, Debridement, was a finalist for the Publishing Triangle Awards.
C. Bain’s poetry collection, Sex Augury, releases September 26 from Red Hen Press. Pre-order your copy now!
i’m supposed to write something about the importance of nonbinary representation and i’m really not the one to ask. i’m a white masculine spectrum trans person, meaning that people who feel comfortable around me and proud of themselves for including me in their spaces are still, often, fine with the exclusion of trans women, nonbinary femmes, or any BIPOC person. The stakes of representation, which is to say the vulnerability to violence, shift radically across demographic markers.
Do i love the culture produced by trans people? Often, yes. Often, the additional thoughtfulness and compassion and mental acuity and tenacity that trans people have to develop in order to stay alive, navigating the low hum of hostility in the cis world, also makes us more interesting artists. i’m naming a few off the top of my head, knowing i’ll forget important people, probably even some who are close to me; i listen to Ah-Mer-Ah-Su and ANOHNI and Arca and Edge Slayer; i read An Duplan and Cameron Awkward Rich and Jos Charles and Paul Tran and Torrin A. Greathouse; i look at work by Tourmaline and Martine Guiterrez and Young Joon Kwak and Juliana Huxtable (i could have named Juliana in any category, the mixes and the poems also decimate.) i go to creative work by trans people because i love it — i don’t think that’s a question of “representation” exactly. i don’t feel represented by their work, i don’t think we have much in common, or that we have much to unify us, aesthetically. i go to these artists on some level because it’s nice to not need the cis world for anything, but to say that pushes aside the possibility that i go to them because they’re pretty much the best.
Representation is also a problem. A trap. The cops love representation. The technocapitalist system of surveillance that monetizes our attention, exploits our self-hatred, runs on representation. Representation, as a kind of catalyst for supposed allegiances, a way of grouping people within an identity politic, is just as easy to weaponize against the people it claims to empower. In other rights movements, (i’m thinking of gay rights and feminism,) we see in recent history how quickly solidarity dissolves once a certain level of mainstream social capital is achieved. Homonormativity, white feminism — ways that identity becomes a barrier rather than a point of connection, a way to avoid pulling anyone up after you. Another way of saying this is that i tend to love trans people because we tend to be radical, radicalized by our experience of a volatile and rejecting world. But we have that condition of radical, radicalizing vulnerability because it is forced onto us.
Here is a trajectory, in its broadest strokes: you don’t exist at all in the hegemonic narrative, and then you begin to appear as a joke or a target, and then there is a continued insistence on your humanity, and then you’re represented. But what if there’s a problem with the premise, here. A problem with representation, or with humanity as a category, itself.
i’m trans and i’m also a white man. Didn’t i start this by saying not to listen to me, when it comes to representation? i’m upstream of the real carnage, the real concerns. For years, in my creative work, i was very interested in locating trans bodies in history, in classical narratives. It felt transgressive and cheeky. At this point (whether i changed or the world changed, i don’t know) it feels dull. It feels matter-of-fact. Of course Aeschylus and Shakespeare and the Brothers Grimm are crawling with queer life. Of course i’m in that story, we’re in that story, we always have been.
While i am more interested in opacity, in non-representation, there are good arguments by thinkers i care about for trans people to have a turn; for trans people to hold the visibility of desire (the protagonist of Shola Von Reinhold’s Lote, for example. Obliquely, i think Legacy Russell is also arguing for this, as are many trans people who i know who work in entertainment.) The claiming, is also, of course, re-claiming, tracing the ligature between “straight” “cis” presentations of glamour that have always relied on the theft and cannibalism of the counterculture, the outside, queer and trans technicians of exquisite excess. When i think of a certain kind of cultural production by trans women, especially, that is what i respond to about it — a kind of richness and daring in focusing on beauty so intensely that it becomes strange again, a source of awe, something that can barely be endured.
i do not make work in order to “represent” myself, (although it is still important to me on some level that i be legible as trans, i’m not sure what that’s about.) i make things in order to complain, which i guess relates to representation in that i feel like every representation i see is wrong. i make things in order to give other people my bad time. i make things because inside the space of making is the sensation that it is possible to make something complete and perfect and alive, something that would get all the poison out. The completed work never achieves that, but the respite inside the moments of the work itself is sweet.
i started writing and performing my poems in the late 1990s, before youtube, before def jam. i started hormone replacement around 2011. Both those developments felt like moving into an uncharted space, an unknowable space. That i might get it wrong, that i needed an example or a justification, never occurred to me. i knew that there were poets and trans men out there, but the idea that their trajectory would apply to me as a 1:1 example seemed insane. As a non-digital native, i took it for granted that the archive would be incomplete, that there were ways of being that weren’t documented. i say that to say that my idea of representation may belong to another time. Going with vibes, gut feelings, i would rather representation be refused, (reading Césaire on opacity, Mbembe on the exit.) But maybe that’s impossible. With the density of content production, with the state of hyperconnectivity we live in, maybe representation isn’t a question, anymore. Maybe it’s too late for that.