“a history thrumming with life"

May 2021

This is one is puttering around the idea of trans history, but is mainly about Callum Angus' A Natural History of Transition. Here's the link to the original on patreon.

Ah, May, what a beautiful month! Teeming, messy with blossom and fruiting! Is this how it always was? Trying to think back, I’m not sure if it’s last May I can’t remember or every May I’ve ever lived through… Regardless, I’m happy to be here, happy to be living through time and having experiences. Thanks as always to you wonderful folks reading this, it means the world! Let’s dive in :^)

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At the bridge between the months I was ravenously reading Zagria’s “A Gender Variance Who’s Who,” a blogspot that has been operating since 2007. As far as I know it's the most wide reaching archive of trans or trans-adjacent people in existence. I started with the oldest post and am slowly clicking my way forward chronologically. There are still new posts being made, and after a whole month of on-and-off reading I’m only barely through with February 2008… It’s such a joy to read, Zagria’s research is so clearheaded and to the point. She’s obviously dedicated to digging up as much dirt as she can, but has a sharp sensitivity to imaging each person as full and complicated. Plus, each post has all its sources at the bottom if you really wanted to spin out. The subjects are so far-reaching too, each new page is a surprise! Some folks are still alive, with comments down at the bottom saying things like “Woah! I’d always heard stories about old uncle Gerald and his overseas crossdressing, but had no idea how far he’d gone! Thanks for the resource…” Often the comments are a bit spicier, some old friend denying the person had ever been trans, or ever would’ve done the things the post claims, only to be refuted with a source and a curt response. The most recent post I read was Cataractonium Gallus (4th century). It’s a tiny post about the remains of one of the Galli of ancient Rome being dug up in North Yorkshire.

I first heard about the Galli in an aside in a piece of writing from Morgan M. Page (host of the wonderful trans historical podcast One From the Vaults). The piece is about trans girl vocoder music and transsexual cyberpunk flesh-transcendance, but she steps aside to mention that we’ve been getting surgeries for several thousand years. The Galli were rowdy priestesses dedicated to the mother of the gods, Cybelle. Self-castration was included in the rituals they carried out on their temple steps during frenzied celebrations. Isn’t there something exciting about imagining being a person not so different from me, born a few thousand years ago, struggling to fit in with the fellow men laying stones for a road until one day you hear tales of a cult of self-castrated gal pals and decide to pack up and head out?

Obviously this problem of historical classification is a messy one. In the same Galli Wikipedia dive I ran into this statue of the Sleeping Hermaphroditus. As far as I’m concerned, that’s just a beautifully sculpted trans girl reclining on a beautifully sculpted mattress. But I can’t say how the mythic figure Hermaphroditus might’ve identified, or how a hermaphrodite from the period might’ve felt about their situation. I do know that the folks on Wikipedia say that Hermaphroditus and the Galli were primarily referred to with male pronouns in the historic sources, but I don’t think I care all that much. It’s not like language could ever fully capture the experiences of theirs or mine, especially not through the white surpremacist colonial lens of the historical record. The takeaway here is that this thing I’m doing isn’t anywhere close to new, that I’m part of a long tradition.

So anyway, I started thinking the theme for this month might be something like “trans history”, and lo and behold in my early-month twittering, I saw that Torrey Peters, author of Detransition, Baby (which I talked at length about last month), was doing a talk with someone named Callum Angus, promoting his new book A Natural History of Transition. It seemed to be a collection of stories. Earlier in the week was another talk, this one with Andrea Lawlor, author of Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl. I signed up for both of them.

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The first talk was very charming, and I was totally drawn in. (As an aside, it was on crowdcast instead of zoom, which was new to me and considerably less sterile feeling, which helped. Also it has an easily accessible recording if you just register, here’s the link.) The talk kicked off with Callum reading “Rock Jenny”.

(Another aside: From here on I’ll be severely spoiling the book, so if you don’t want that go buy it and come back later! Seriously!! Here's the link again.)

It’s hard to sum up the story, because it’s the kind of thing where every little detail feels enormously important. The rough shape is that Jenny chooses to be a boy when she’s 11, but she changes her mind after high school. She meets Zef, who also reneged on his gender decision, and they start dating. Jenny starts growing in size, feeling a burgeoning kinship with stones. She towers over their small rural town, then curls up next to the mountains and becomes a part of them. Zef and Jenny’s parents set up a combo diner/gift shop next to her rocky form. Several years later, Jenny wakes up. She asks for some coffee, then informs everyone she’s decided she’d rather be the moon. She crouches down, then leaps into the sky, leaving behind a huge crater that outlives them all.

There are a few things that stuck out to me. Zef and Jenny are drawn together by their shared transness. During a moment where Jenny is running through the woods, feeling her heart become a “boulder erratically thumping”, Zef is at home trying on her strappy sandals. When she comes home, they don’t talk about the little signs of change in each other. “he sometimes longed for more options, too; and yet, he was afraid of losing the Jenny he knew to new changes. … he didn’t want to say he was afraid.” Coming up against such a visceral unknown, there is a comforting desperation in their dedication to each other.

The other thing that really tugged at me was how distinctly rural the whole thing felt. This is apparent in the setting and the sensibilities of the characters, but more than that, Jenny is gravitationally pulled toward the woods, toward becoming stone. It felt like it totally eschewed the idea of the metropolitan queer. And this is an important point! It’s an important project to be building stories that work against atomizing and isolating trans people from the natural world!

Another tiny sparkle, and then I’ll move on: In one of the moments where Jenny is getting bigger, it says, “Zef could almost fit entirely inside her ear.” It reminded me that “The entrance to Sea-Witch is the ear.” You know, from Never Angeline North’s Sea-Witch? Another distinctly rural and similarly mind blowing work of trans mythological world building. It’s hard not to string everything together...

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“Rock Jenny” is the second story in the book. The one that starts the book is “In Kind”, and this was the one Callum read at the end of his talk with Torrey Peters. The rough sketch here is that Nathan is a trans man who gets pregnant and gives birth to a cocoon. His formerly estranged mother, Dot, comes to help once he gets pregnant but dies of pancreatic cancer just before the birth.

’s a little moment that’s fascinating to me, picking up the earlier thread with the Galli. A nurse slips Nathan a card with info for a support group for other cocoon-parents. One of the other folks at the meeting says they heard that in Indonesia, folks like them are seen as prophets. Nathan cuts through it though, figuring anyone going through this must be just as confused and fucked up feeling as he is. There’s a kind of unity/kinship feeling that I think it gets at, even through the despair. It’s that same sense of seeing people as full and complicated, regardless of their place or time.

There’s a thread I see too to Detransition, Baby, in that they’re both ostensibly about trans-parenthood. The messiness of wanting to bring someone into the world, despite all the obstacles and reasons not to. At the end of the story, in the grief of Dot’s exit, Nathan reflects that “Having Dot around had sharpened for him the reasons he wanted to become a parent—to submit to another’s superior vision of the world, to one day seek forgiveness.” And isn’t that it? I think so often about that oscillation of power, the nourished growth of mutual respect between a child and a parent. In the moments before she’s gone, Dot imagines in her head what she’s too exhausted to say, “I can love you and not understand you, and that should be enough.” There are a lot of relationships with parents in the book, but this little piece from Dot is one of the sweetest, and hews closest to a hopefulness worth yearning towards. After, Nathan is in the kitchen when the cocoon starts shedding suddenly, like a flower. He imagines how disappointed and scared Dot would’ve been if she’d seen the monstrosity that Nathan brought into the world. But then, “what if she hadn’t? What if she’d looked at the cocoon with excitement instead of Nathan’s open-face fear? What if she could have pointed at it and said to him see, let’s watch, let’s see what’s at the end of all this, even though it’s probably just another beginning.”

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Before I go too much further, I’d like to mention that my copy of the book arrived as I was heading out for an evening bread shift. (Nathan was a baker too.) The mailman had his armful of parcels just as I wheeled my bike out. I was clutching a trash bag too, and we exchanged some little pleasant joke about piling even more things in my hands. I handed what wasn’t the book to Olivia, then zoomed off. I clutched the squishy yellow envelope close under my coat as it started to rain, adjusting my hold on it at the stoplights. I ripped it open on my first break. The rain had let up but the butt of my work pants still pulled damp cold out of the alleyway cinderblocks.

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The third story is called “Migration”. I don’t think it really hit me on my first read, I must’ve been rushed on those same cinderblocks, cramming it in during a stretched 10 minute break. I got some whiffs of revelry, something I’d felt before, but I think I’ll have to come back to it later.

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The next story is sizable and butts up into the middle of the book. “Winter of Men” exits backwards out of what has been up to now a more-or-less contemporary moment, bringing us back to the early colonization of North America. Lydia Longley is stolen away from her poor and unpleasant family in Groton, Massachusetts by the Abenaki, then sold to the richest family in Ville-Marie, the Le Bers. Lydia acts as a servant and eventually a friend to the single Le Ber daughter, Jeanne. Jeanne is planning to seal herself away in the chapel currently being built for the Congregation, a convent established by the severe Marguerite Bourgeoys. Jeanne reveals to Lydia that she’s developed a condition that makes her change into a man every fall, then back into a woman in the spring. All of the Congregation is like this. After Jeanne is cloistered, Lydia excitedly joins too. It is spring, and she begrudgingly has to wait some time before her transformation. She befriends an indigenous sister, Marie-Barbier, who “accidentally” gets top surgery. Lydia is baptized in the new chapel, with Jeanne watching out of sight. Marguerite has to leave for France, and in her absence Barbier demands help from Lydia caring for the indigenous women held captive by Marguerite in two stone towers at the edge of town, forced to forget their language, “reeducated”. Lydia largely dissociates out of understanding, and channels her feelings into an anguished rage that makes her flee to Jeanne’s cloister. She uses all of her budding fall-time strength to break down the door, but can’t. The Bishop Saint-Vallier stops her, and misreading her as an altar boy, takes her into the confessional. She gets distracted, fixating on a huge tapestry embroidered by Jeanne. The longer she looks, the more detail she picks up, and eventually realizes that the tapestry is vividly depicting Jeanne’s life and beyond into the future. It shows Marguerite’s passing, the escape of the women in the towers, Barbier’s move into Maguerite’s role, her passing, and on up to the sounds of palisades being built around them.

The whole time I was reading this it made me think of the Universal Publick Friend, who played a similar role as a messily gendered religious leader who founded a group that was then instrumental in furthering the project of settler colonialism in the US. T. Fleischmann beautifully elucidates the whole thing in Time is the Thing a Body Moves Through. But!! After finishing the book I found the References page, which has four entries, all of them related to “Winter of Men.” It turns out the story is deeply researched and thoroughly rooted in the historical record! Lydia Longley was indeed a young girl taken by the Abenaki from Groton who went on to join Marguerite’s Congregation. Ville-Marie would go on to become Montreal, and the two stone towers that formerly housed Marguerite’s “Indian School” are still standing. Marie-Barbier did go on to lead the Congregation after Marguerite’s passing. Jeanne Le Ber was sealed away in a three-room apartment behind the chapel altar, where she worked her stitches. In order for her to be canonized as a saint, her remains had to be exhumed to verify their identity. Forensics revealed she had deep notches in her front teeth caused by the repeated biting of thread.

This explains many of the moments in the story where the narrator seems to have a greater knowledge of events than the characters. Lydia’s brother also survives the torching of their home in Groton, and goes on to live his own complicated life. The narration references this, but it’s made clear that Lydia never learns the end of his story. It’s especially striking in Lydia and Barbier’s relationship. When they first meet, Lydia asks if she’s Iroquois. “‘Yes,’ said Barbier. It wasn’t the word she used for her own people, but Lydia, who seethed with questions across from her, would never know that.” It becomes even more glaring when Barbier takes Lydia to the tower. “[Lydia] kept her eyes downcast and rushed through the ministration, but this is what she missed:” The narration describes how the women are operating a ramshackle printing press, distributing pamphlets of their own design. It says Barbier distributes writing materials and assists with learning how to use them, then they speak together in their own language. But, “Lydia would remember only that it had been shadowy and bone-chillingly damp, a cold she could never forget.” After Barbier describes the depth of Marguerite’s evils, the narration goes on to say that “Had she been able to really see the women in the tower, she may have found another path, bent in service to them in a tradition of penance and learning. But she’d looked away, and the resulting guilt was divided between self-pity and a sense of betrayal at having been so taken with freedom and Marguerite’s propaganda about good works as to have missed the cruel point of her being there.” It’s a strong reminder that self-flagellation isn’t a useful response to recognizing your active role in settler colonialism, but that there are ways to respond usefully; that it’s vital not to run and hide.

One more quote stood out to me, from when Lydia meets with Marguerite in the Le Ber kitchen and she first decides to join the Congregation: “the switch was flipped: deep in the woods outside Ville-Marie, the pale tip of a skunk cabbage pushed its way out of the frozen soil, and at the same moment a glitch, a mutation, a shimmer—just enough to push her body toward new territory.” Something here tickled me, the way that there doesn’t have to be a linearity or solidity to transition. The moment that a plant pushes through the ground is and isn’t a start. It was there before, but it wasn’t there like this. You don’t need to have always felt trans to transition, something might instead glitch, corrupting open your data to knew possibilities. Isn’t mutation the only way we keep life going through violently changing environmental conditions? And it’s also a magic, a glistening morsel found in the woods that bursts into light when you touch it, leaving you shimmering, altered.

Jeanne Le Ber, Colombe du Saint-Espirit, ~1700, embroidered altar facing, preserved by la Fabrique de la Paroisse Notre-Dame de Montreal

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After “Winter of Men” is “Moon Snail”, comparatively quite short but strikingly beautiful. It follows a scientist named Gertrude. It felt the most like poetry, and following my habit of dealing with poetry, I’ll leave it to speak for itself.

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Next is “Archipelagos”, which left me full velocity sobbing on my lunch break, to be entirely honest. There was something familiar in it, an aching desire and an equally aching sorrow. Monty is a young boy who spends his summer collecting things for his dinky little museum in the woods. His objects are a bit more natural-historical than the things I piled up in the woods as a kid. (I’m just going to leave this link to my woods memory piece here.) Monty finds the weed the neighbors have been growing. I remember finding weed growing in the woods too, but I didn’t respond quite as inquisitively as Monty. This story transmitted the feeling of being a kid who can clearly see a world more expansive ahead but isn’t yet in the situation to go there. Monty finds a caterpillar, bully Randy calls it a cocksucker, Monty doesn’t know any better and thinks that must be the little creature’s name. Randy and the boys smash Monty’s elaborate displays. After they leave he’s able to find the cocksucker, scoop up it’s scattered milkweed greens, and carry it back home to the trailer park. His mom Violet is out, but her boyfriend Brian is there, and helps set up a little jar for the cocksucker.

Monty goes to the quarry and glimpses a tall ship out on the lake of collected rainwater. His friend Robyn sees it too. She’s brought some shells to help rebuild his collection. They head to the water tower for more milkweed, but run into Randy and his older brother Kurt, the grower of the aforementioned weed. They have a little altercation, involving Randy spotting Robyn and saying “Rob, you hang out with this faggot?” They all scatter. Back at the trailer park, Violet comes home angry with Monty that Kurt is demanding more weed money from her, even though she’s already paid him for the month. Brian gets violent, then gets kicked out. In his room, Monty finds the cocksucker has transformed into a cocoon.

A few days later, Monty heads to the quarry again and finds Robyn there too, along with the same ship sitting low in the water. It invites them on. They discover the quarry opens out to a sprawling ancient ocean they’d never noticed before, the one that once covered New England. Monty charts a course on a pamphlet Violet gave him for the new Rutland Visitor’s Center, then goes to check the ship’s hold. “‘It’s locked.’” Said Rob, tugging on the iron handle. The piles of animal parts and furs and other mysteries from the earth thrummed beneath their feet, and even though Monty couldn’t see or touch them, he knew that they were there, and they were bringing them along to somewhere new, or—perhaps—back to where they’d come from.”

Violet goes looking for Monty and finds him and Robyn perched on the edge of one of the quarry’s cliffs, but suddenly they vanish over the edge. They are never found. Quite a bit of time passes. The butterfly starts following Violet everywhere. She changes jobs. She’s on and off with Brian. One day she finds herself at the Rutland Visitor Center, lost in a clay diorama of that same ancient ocean. She recognizes where Monty and Robyn have gone but doesn’t have the energy or desire to go rescue them. When she comes home the butterfly is dead. She dries and displays it, “and when the sun hits its holey wings just right, she can make out a map of islands in miniature, full of possibility and through which her love pulses like blood.”

What is it that hit me so hard here? Something about Violet’s love, her acceptance of this grand fate. Something too about the vastness of their separation, but how close they still feel. When you lose someone that close, they never really leave you. “She felt an echo of that old ache like a sonar ping, ringing just as clearly as it had when the loss was fresh. The pain was an old bell, which didn’t mean it lost its resonance, but rather she had grown capable over time of discerning small variations in its tone. In some pockets, the pitch spoke of happiness. At the end of a long sustain, the silence could feel different, more full.” Nothing can ever be made to vanish. Absence is just a different kind of presence. There’s something too in how time can slip so suddenly, how quickly we might be swept somewhere unreachable, too far to comprehend. Something shimmered here too of Jordy Rosenberg’s Confessions of the Fox, the way that a history can feel so close that you could inhabit it, and that it spins a history personal enough that it falls over into fantasy. I felt certain that Monty and Robyn were sailing out to join the trans pirates distilling hormones by starlight, to join the rebel archivists reinserting what had been displaced and erased from the record. It’s the same thing with Zagria and the Galli and Hermaphroditus, the imagination of such a far reaching kinship, a history thrumming with life.

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think it’s time to loop back to “Migration.” Looking again, it is in the thick of climate collapse. Nina drives, and “On the radio, archipelagos. I can’t see them from here, but the announcer says they’re out there, new islands being made by rising water, like kneecaps in a bath.” Jay has a job spraying quarantined tomato plants with thick foam to kill off the relentless white flies. “Out front the rhododendrons bloom the third time this spring like nothing’s wrong. The rain gauge is Seattle-full. Lawn moldy, worms drowned and decomposing. New England has lost its shit.” The color of the sky isn’t mentioned but I can’t help but imagine a choking burgundy. The energy is disgustingly ebullient, overwhelming, sexy as a swamp. There are several mentions of the geese migrating, but it isn’t until the last paragraph that it’s clear it’ll be the last time they do. “If geese can’t hack it here, good riddance. … I want nothing incapable of change. … I want plants that can withstand a flood, insects that won’t apologize for taking up space, things that shouldn’t thrive but do because conditions are finally ripe.”

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After Archipelagos is “The Swarm”, which is about a swarm of insects in place of a teenager. It’s bristling with that same swampy life and very funny, a quick one before we enter the final story: the titular “A Natural History of Transition”.

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This final story is easily the most unsettling. At first, after I’d finished, I was uncomfortable and confused by its clear horror elements. The narrator returns to his rural hometown, Catania, and his estranged family after an uncle dies and leaves him The Natural History Museum of Catania in his will. The story unfolds with the suspenseful beats of cosmic horror. Things seem a little strange, but it’s hard to tell if it’s just all the time that the narrator has been away. But sure enough, there seems to be a terrifying plague overtaking the townspeople.

The more I think about it, I’m realizing that all of the stories are a little scary. Looking back at the support group scene from “In Kind”, it clear that to anyone but Nathan his cocoon is horrifying. The person who mentions Indonesian prophethood says in the same phrase, “they kill us and predict the future by which way our blood runs down the hill.” Nathan’s response a bit later to himself and the cocoon is, “All I’m capable of making is more change.” From here he decides to defiantly bring the cocoon into the grocery store. He reflects on how worried he’d been about the optics of being seen as a single trans man with a baby in a public place, but “Now that old fear was gone completely, for it was clear to him that people would either run away in horror or have their worst thoughts confirmed that such a monstrosity came from him alone.” It’s a longstanding trope that monsters are regularly queer-coded, and conversely, queer people are often read as monsters. This is more than that though, it’s about how transition grapples with the unknown, intimately integrating the chaos of change. To me, the other transitions in the book seemed largely comforting, and I think some credit is due to my perspective. Identifying with someone who might be horrified didn’t even occur to me until after I’d finished the book. Of course, the telling deserves credit too. Callum clearly has crafted these stories with the intent to help nurture us as our new world unfolds.

The thing that makes the final story deeply chilling is that it depicts a change that seems not just out of our control, but against our existence. Hovering at the edge of the story is climate collapse and fascism. The narrator arrives in rural Catania only after leaving a Portland thick with forecast-breaking wildfire smoke and white-knuckled machine gun cops. It’s too real. The horror is that it becomes normal. I know I’ve talked about the Smoke here on the newsletter before but it’s hard to get over, already it’s looming large in our consciousness as we look toward the end of summer. Will Olivia and I get out before the smoke rolls in again? How will everyone else make it through? Collectively it feels like we’re all running from the horrors we’ve been through, and I haven’t got a remedy for that. I know we’ll have to deal but, that doesn’t make me want to.

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At the end of the last newsletter I said how it seemed spring might’ve already slipped by, but of course I wasn’t quite right. After the week or so of summer heat it dipped back down into the 50s and 40s, I donned all three layers on the way to work again. It’s rained a bit too, was violently windy for a while. Now it’s warming up again. It says above 90 this week. Austin tells us they’re afraid to put their plants in the ground. Sure it’s warming up, but the nights still flirt with frost. It’s scary if you think too hard about it. I wonder how the Congregation would be handling these shifting seasons. Would their beards wobble in and out of their chins? Those reliable grand transitions are getting messier. To quote Adrianne Lenker again, this time from “Gone”, on her first album, hours were the birds: “To know something’s near / Not the change of the seasons that scares me dear / It’s the sound in the distance I start to hear.”

All that said, I’m optimistic as always. We have plans pinning pleasure on the calendar for early August and in June we’re truly beginning the busywork of squaring ourselves away for a departure to Germany in September. I’ve told my manager in the bakery when I’ll be gone, finally. The undeniable hopefulness of summer is pecking its way in. We see friends at the over-crowded farmer’s market, and even if they look scared, it’s still nice to see them.

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P.S. I also read Jules Gil-Peterson's "Two Transsexuals talk Nonbinary" and Miller Oberman's The Unstill Ones. Both very relevant but I didn't find a way to put them in!