My Gender is Tender

A model, a filmmaker and the psychological necessity of transgender

Posted May 01, 2012

Transgender model and actress, Jackie Curtis. Image: CBHighberger cc license

This blog curates the voices of the Division of Psychoanalysis (39) of the American Psychological Association. This post is by Adrienne Harris, PhD, who wrote a more involved article of the same name at the DIVISION/Review, Division 39's quarterly psychoanalytic forum.


This article's title is a quote from poet, playwright, and incandescent Andy Warhol transgender model, Jackie Curtis, who grew up in his grandmother's saloon – a famous bar in the long-lost bohemian world of New York known as Slugger Ann's. Curtis lived on the edge of everything. “I'm not a boy, not a girl,” Curtis maintained. “I am not gay, I am not straight, I am not a drag queen, I am not a transvestite.” In 1976. Curtis gave a film interview to Wilhelm Reich who used it as the centerpiece of an experimental documentary titled Mysteries of the Organism. And in 1985 at age 38, Curtis died of a heroin overdose. 

In the mid-1980s, another young would-be filmmaker turned on a camcorder in his bedroom. Wearing a skirt and blouse, his blond hair falling across his face, he adopts the persona of a Texas girl named "Laura Lee," looks into the camera and recounts a real story of rape and assault, and finally fictional vengeance. "I shot the son of a bitch," Laura Lee says to camera. This was Jonathan Caouette and in 2005, at age 25, he put this childhood artifact in his autobiographical documentary, Tarnation. In the background of Jonathan’s monologue plays the mournful ballad “Wichita Lineman” – a song about loss and holding on in the face of abandonment. We imagine the camera goes on recording long after the scene ends.

But it's the film's interweaving of Caouette's story with that of his mother’s decline into schizophrenia that makes the movie an especially rich psychoanalytic tableaux, in which the interplay between gender construction and the complex task of loyalty and preservation of his mother appears and reappears -- gender and madness connect in heartbreaking ways.

I want to make three points about this material. First, gender as a construct of identity can offer psychic safety. Second, in Caouette's case it seems the camera acted as a container for his developing self, in some ways taking the place of an absent parent. And finally, in the period between Curtis and Caouette, the transgender community has undergone a sea change, from hiding in plain sight to plainly seen.

We can see transgendering as both reality and performance – the young Jonathan recounting his own devastation (reality), and also playing a version of his mother, Renee (performance). At 11, Jonathan has the glimmering sense of Renee as victim. As "Laura Lee" he enacts a version of his victimized mother and then when his character transforms into the avenger (“I shot the son of a bitch”), he foreshadows his own transformation to being his mother's caretaker. This echoes the work of psychologist Susan Coates, who writes that many of the young transgendered boys she studies seem in part to experience the endangered states of their mothers. Thus, adopting a transgendered persona seems to offer an avenue of holding and containing for the transgendered youth, of augmenting the dissolving presence of a parent whose depression or trauma or illness makes her otherwise absent.

Seen in this light, Caouette's scene is an attempt to rewrite history, to carry his mother forward, to defy the murderous men/doctors/fathers who, in his view, destroy her. But try as he might, he cannot stop the march of Alzheimer’s and so he experiences the gradual loss of his mother. And so Caouette experiences what the psychologist André Green called the dead mother complex, in which identity and identification are neither lost nor found but “absent” in a way that entombs the subject in a stasis of longing for something not quite known.

Thus Caouette's need for additional holding and containment, and my second point: the power of the camera’s gaze is not solely as watcher but also as regulator. Containment comes through the filmmaker’s virtually lifelong preoccupation with creative work. Jonathan lived in and through the movies, soap operas, and TV, narratizing himself and keeping almost an archive of his identity and life. Gender and narration are his creative forms of coherence and intelligibility – a brilliant form of journaling. Could we say that it is the camera’s capacity to deliver evenly hovering attention, the camera’s capacity for receptivity (not necessarily gendered), that may have functioned to create a holding environment for Jonathan as child and as adult? As he puts together the film he is at various times boy, mother, girl, star, all multiply configured self-states “softly assembled” (Harris, 2005).

But just as the camera allows young Jonathan through playacting to prop up his fading sense of his mother, so too does the camera work to devour them both. The camera as patriarchy has been a staple of film studies since Laura Mulvey and we watch as Renee and Jonathan are surely objects of its patriarchic regulation. Rennee, when young, held a young woman's fetishized ideas of stars and stardom, and now we see that, like a shock therapy machine, the camera devours this girl. As the film progresses, her beauty is eaten and destroyed by this complex of patriarchal machinery, with its particular attunement to female beauty. Yet moth-like, Renee and Jonathan return again and again to the camera’s gaze and embrace, hoping each time both to triumph and to be recognized.

The camera’s look, its gaze and stare, scaffolds a fragile and yet tenacious psychic formation, where self and other are inextricably engaged.

Finally, though, from Jackie Curtis to the contemporary trans-pos and trans experience of Jonathan Caouette, there has been both a steady evolution and, in the past decade, a revolution. Past researchers including D'Emilio, Meyerowitz, and Stryker point out that in all but the most public cases, members of the transgender/transsexual community hid in plain sight, absent even while they were nominally present. Now transgender communities have moved from isolate to icon, outlaw to in-law, practically overnight.

Contemporaneously, Jackie Curtis and the young Jonathan in performance at age 11 occupy different generations of the spectra of gender and trans that does Caouette as the filmmaker at age 25. Instead of being “other” and necessarily on the edge, on the fringe, Jonathan explicitly identifies as gay. Curtis lived to live outside, one of of the bohemian souls pushing against time, space, and history. Caouette lives inside the constructs of a society willing to live the universality of the story of his struggle against parental loss. It used to be that even within the psychoanalytic literature, trans culture was seen as an aberrant other. Now (or, almost now), in 2011, Virginia Goldner and Melanie Suchet organized an issue of Psychoanalytic Dialogues on the issue. Trans theorizing has moved from margins to the center. Now gender is seen as a matter of fantasy, internal imago, and symbolization, and not of the concreteness of anatomy.

Certainly concepts of gender haven’t been completely dissociated from physiology, and certainly this dissociation remains a risk factor for Curtis’ heroin overdose at age 38. But Caouette’s transition in his movie from victim to aggressor mirrors the trajectory of the culture at large, from swept under to sweeping forth.

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